Interview with Ory Okolloh on post-election violence in Kenya, cyber-activism and Ushahidi

Gregor Rohrig / Flickr

Pic: Gregor Rohrig

I met Ory Okolloh at the Global Knowledge Partnership GK III event in Malaysia late last year where I moderated a panel discussion on blogging human rights and democracy.

Ory’s idea, Ushahidi, became one of the most visited and commented on sites dealing with the post-election violence in Kenya. I’ve reviewed at Ushahidi a while ago on this blog and so have others, including this story by GlobalVoices Online that details the evolution of her idea and cyber-activism’s role in addressing the post-election violence in Kenya in general.

I emailed Ory a couple of questions to find out more what prompted her to create Ushahidi and what she now feels about it. Ory, I know, is tremendously busy and I appreciate the time she took to answer these questions.

SH: You’ve been a regular blogger on Kenyan politics and a significant thought-leader in new media, who by example, has made the Kenyan parliament more accountable to its peoples. Did you expect the degree of post-election violence? If so, could more have been done to prevent it?

OO: Thanks for the compliments. I did not expect the degree of post-election violence – I don’t think anyone did. Definitely a lot could have been done to prevent it, starting with an election process and result that had legitimacy with the voters; and a more humane response from the government forces in response to the riots that broke out.

SH: From your first post on your blog to the final website, could you tell me what the process entailed to set up Ushahidi? Who was involved? From where? What did they rally around?

OO: The process was very organic, several bloggers and techies responded to my post. Apollo, a U.S. based technology consultant was instrumental and getting the site registered and hosted. Erik, who blogs at www.whiteafrican.com, was instrumental in rounding up various people to help out, he also put together the initial template. The template was then further by David Kobia, who is also a U.S. based IT consultant and the founder Mashada (www.mashada.com). Other bloggers who helped with input are Daudi of www.mentalacrobatics.com and Afromusing www.afromusing.com. I think everyone rallied around the ongoing crisis and the sense of wanting to do something about it on an individual basis.
SH: What was the greatest challenge in setting up this site? How was it addressed?

OO: The greatest challenge has been spreading awareness about the site on the ground. We are still working on this.
SH: What’s the feedback you are getting on the site from those on the ground in Kenya as well as concerned civil society globally?

OO: The website has been received positively both locally and globally. We have also received valid critiques about the website from experts in the humanitarian field and we are working hard to address the issues raised e.g. on the verification process.

SH: What has resulted from the information presented and captured on this site? Is anybody using it to mitigate the violence?

OO: At the moment, we are not actively tracking how the website has been used. I think there has been greater awareness of certain events e.g. the peace efforts. I don’t think anyone is using it to mitigate the violence per se but more as an information-gathering tool.

SH: You’ve created a category called Peace Efforts, but there’s nothing on the map when it’s clicked to suggest active processes to mitigate and transform violence. Is this reflective of a dire need or are there things going on that simply aren’t, as yet, reflected on the site? If so, why do you think there’s a delay?

OO: If you filter the events using that category, information should pop up. It just doesn’t appear on the main site due to how the website was initially configured. This will be amended as we evolve.

SH: How do you see the site evolving and to what degree will you be involved in its evolution?

OO: We see the site evolving into a platform or plug-in that can be downloaded and applied to other humanitarian crises at a global, regional or local level. I will be closely involved in helping this evolution occur.

SH: The charge has been leveled against Ushahidi that it does not address the real needs of real people. How would you respond?

OO: Ushahidi was mainly intended to be a mapping tool and a repository of information about the post-election crisis as seen from the view point of people on the ground. We were trying to capture information that was not mainly being reported in the mainstream (there was a lot of self-censorship in the media) and also provide a timeline for information for both mainstream and citizen reported events. In the case of real time mapping Ushahidi could be used to track where the violence or the peace efforts were taking place. We hope to be able to provide those people who are “addressing the real needs to real people” with information that might help their efforts and to be part of the “testimony” as it were of what happened.

SH: Even a few years ago, Ushahidi would have been impossible to create. In what way do you see technology helping prevent, mitigate and transform violent conflict in the future?

OO: I’m not sure we are at the point where technology is preventing violence, but it can help mitigate violence e.g. by facilitating instant documentation via Youtube and Flickr and creating international awareness and also facilitating rapid organization by groups who want to mitigate the violence. It’s not all positive though, for instance in Kenya SMSs and emails were used to propagate hate speech.

SH: Related to the question above, how will bloggers and blogging contribute to both action on the ground and a greater awareness of the ground realities in places and contexts such as the post-election violence in Kenya often marginalised by traditional media?

OO: I can’t speak for other bloggers, but I hope people will keep documenting what is occurring in Kenya even now that the mediation agreements have been signed. It is important for us to keep an eye on the political class and ensure that the promises they have made are delivered, otherwise we will find ourselves in the same scenario in a few years. In other words we need to take on the role of the Fourth Estate, which traditional media in Kenya seems to have abdicated.

Interview with Dan Gillmor on Citizen Journalism at GK3

Interview with Dan Gillmor at GKP GK III in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 13th December 2007. I moderated a panel titled Pushing the envelop: New Media, Citizens Journalism, Human Rights and Development that had Dan on it at the Global Knowledge Partnership, GK III conference.

Interviewer: Ahmed Shifan from Young Asia Television

Clip 1 – What is Citizen Journalism?

Clip 2 – How did you become involved in Citizen Journalism?

Clip 3 – Citizen Journalism seems to be a growing trend in the world. So what now is the role of the professional media?

Clip 4 – What about the credibility of reports that are posted by Citizen Journalists?

Clip 5 – What is the future for Citizen Journalism?

Critique of “Virtual Diplomacy” workshop at GKP touches a raw nerve

My earlier post on the workshop on Virtual Diplomacy at GKP seems to have touched a raw nerve with, strangely yet tellingly, the folks from Diplo Foundation who moderated and organised the session far more than some of those in the panel itself.

Clearly, the prissy and defensive responses that are found in response to my post, which are markedly different from those I received (via email) from Joshua Fouts and Rita King from Dancing Ink Productions who were actually represented on the panel, reveal a desire to obfuscate facts surrounding the constitution and organisation of what I will maintain was not just the worst workshop I attended at GKP, but one of the worst I have attended in my life on ICTs and their application to augment real world processes such as public diplomacy.

A few salient points are worth noting. Diplo Foundation states that,

“The background on SL for the audience was available at the beginning of the session (the description for the GKP-publication was provided two months before the event). In order to properly address the audience, the session was moderated to provide basic information on Second Life and the list of main, mainly development-related, aspects of SL.”

Several questions arise in this regard. It would be fascinating to discover how the organisers were able to fathom the constitution and interests of the audience before the workshop in order to tailor the content of workshop for them. I certainly didn’t get any revised material before or after the workshop and neither did my Sri Lankan colleague who accompanied me to the worhsop. There was none at the entrance, none on the chairs, none circulated in print or electronic by the GKP secretariat or by the Diplo Foundation. Participants came to the sessions based on and with their GKP brochure, which irrespective of when it was printed, outlined what was to be the terrain covered by the workshop. That it was changed was only too painfully evident as time progressed. It was only upon visiting the Diplo Foundation’s site after I returned to Sri Lanka that I discovered how much the panel’s scope had dramatically changed from that which GKP’s brochure had us believe. “Properly addressing” the audience therefore would have been to first inform them of the changed agenda and scope of the discussions.

As I noted in my first post however, it wasn’t even the fact that the scope changed that was the issue, but that the panel’s submissions were most disappointing for those with significant experience in SL for public diplomacy and who expectations of this workshop was to learn more than what they already knew. The Diplo Foundation deliberately confuses basic with naive in this regard and my original post covers a range of issues that the panel did not even hint at.

Diplo Foundation’s monotonous refrain in its comment, that “This was not the theme of the session; see the above mentioned descriptions of the session” in reference to the points I bring up, ergo, has perhaps more to do with the dastardly organisation of the workshop, for which the GKP secretariat perhaps must take the greater share of blame.

Clearly however, better communication from and between GKP and the organisers of the workshop (given their penchant for spamming participant Inboxes) would have helped orient audience expectations better and alerted those of us like myself, with significant real world experience in the use of augmented and virtual reality, to stay away.

Diplo Foundation goes on to note, correctly, that the question I posed in my post on whether the Maldivian Embassy in SL would continue to exist if activists launched protests in it against the essential dictatorship of the Gayoom regime, was not asked in the workshop itself.

Mea culpa.

What I did point to in the session was the fact that governments and other institutions may initially take kindly to and look at with great interest the possibility of establishing a presence in virtual worlds without realising the potential for them to be embarrassed by avatars staging demonstrations against them. Elections in France and acts of virtual vandalism in Australia demonstrate what’s already been done in Second Life in this regard. Going further, my point at the workshop was that initial enthusiasm may in some cases give way to increasing levels of resistance to virtual worlds in light of the above.I fleshed out this submission further in an email I sent to the moderator of the workshop, Jovan Kubalija from Diplo Foundation, after my return to SL. I averred, inter alia, that

I enjoyed the panel on SL, but may I humbly submit that I thought some of what was proposed by the panel to be naive and a result of a limited experience with complex political emergencies (CPEs) and protracted ethno-political and intra-state conflict (which defines many regions in the world today).I have worked over 8 years in peace process design and ICT and my optimism is tempered to a large degree by the fact that I live and work in a country where, when I step out of my home, I don’t really know whether I will make it back home alive. There are worse situations and the challenge also is to get, for example, the SL Maldivian Embassy to welcome and regularly conduct open forums that challenge what is in South Asia the longest running dictatorship and a regime with an atrocious record of freedom of expression and assembly.

Jovan’s response was,

I agree that the personal experience is very important for grasping broader political concepts. it is especially important for understanding tacit, emotional and “non-recordable” aspects of conflicts. Unfortunately, like yourself, I and most of Diplo team have experienced “reality” of the conflict in the Balkans.

Eva Chan Tanner (who I assume is also from the Diplo Foundation, given the curmudgeonly tone) also makes some comments on my post.

The prospect of using the virtual environment to build communities, to promote actual constructive dialogue and, hopefully to lessen the social and physical barriers that so often overshadow any real efforts diplomatically and in our daily lives was what was actually said.

I agree – that’s precisely the problem. The potential for progressive communications and dialogue is there and is one I unequivocally recognise and support. The real potential for its anti-thesis – of the creation and / or exacerbation of real world differences through virtual environments, of which examples are many including outright murder – and the panel’s inability and unwillingness to address it, was where the central problem lay.

Eva goes on to note that “There was no place in this session to politicise or promote a cause”. Though from the tone and content of her submission and the one earlier I find it hard to imagine Diplo Foundation furthering significantly any political cause, the raison d’etre of public diplomacy is precisely that. To ignore (party) politics or shaft it aside as unnecessary and unimportant is what I referred to in my original post as the dangerously naive outlook of some in the panel.

Eva then avers that,

“More importantly, the session showed how different governments are using it as part of their way of reaching out to the world. Isn’t this better than nothing at all?”

This is, most politely put, a pedestrian argument. Doing something is not necessarily better than doing nothing. Certainly, the swank Swedish Embassy with streaming Swedish pop would be a cool place to hang out to find out more about a country many of us born to conflict wish we were citizens of. But the mere presence of Government’s on Second Life does not mean they are “reaching out” and does not mean they want any real participation that critiques official policies or questions their propaganda. A presence in SL may just simply mean that they see it as another way to promote their (parochial) interests through a different medium and in no way can it be assumed that a two-way, meaningful dialogue is engendered and sustained by the virtual creations and presence of real world governments and States in Second Life.

Another point is made in the defense of the panel’s submissions on Second Life’s low carbon footprint, which in my post I said was not a given. In an earlier post on Second Life and the environment I noted that,

If it means that in some way it’s use cuts down on carbon emissions through the reduction of air-travel, then I guess it’s all the more reason to promote it as a platform for serious work and collaboration.

The point however is that the jury’s out on the real benefits of using SL to save the environment, as Nicholas Carr’s post here fleshes out in some detail. The panel was unaware of this debate and simplistically said that using SL was more sustainable than real world interactions.

Sadly yet in a manner that colours our appreciation of her entire submission, Eva ends her comment on a rather juvenile note by saying that

“I highly recommend that you revisit your notes from the session. Perhaps for the next GKP event, it would be wise to submit a proposal to do a session on ‘the use of Blogs, the beauty of it and the beast within it’.”

Condescension is the last refuge of those unable to countenance anyone who challenges their established wisdom. Obstinately protecting the halo around their noses, the ivory towers that Eva and the rest of her ilk reside and revel in are too far removed from reality to acknowledge the significant work of those who, based on what was presented at this workshop, are a few years ahead of the Diplo Foundation in their use, understanding of and approach to virtual worlds and new media to facilitate and augment public diplomacy, understood by this author as dialogues, physical and virtual, in support of the reconciliation of difference, the transformation of violence and the celebration of diversity.

Virtual Diplomacy Workshop at GKP GK III: A missed opportunity

I attended Diplomacy Goes Virtual: Opportunities and Limitation of Virtual Diplomacy, a worshop at the recently held Global Knowledge Partnership GK III conference in the hope that I would learn more than I knew and had already done using tools, mechanisms and platforms such as blogs, Skype, mobile communications, the XO laptop and Second Life, to further inter-cultural understanding, reconciliation and peacebuilding.

I was very, very wrong.

The panel was, by far, not just the worst I attended at GK III, it was one of the worst and most ill-informed I have ever attended in my life.

Perhaps it was on account of the gross mismatch between what the audience expected from reading the description of the workshop in the official GK III brochure (as reflected here) and what the panel turned out to be, which as noted here concentrated exclusively on Second Life.

I could have even endured a discussion on Second Life if it was anchored in the socio-political and cultural dynamics of countries and regions outside of North America and Western Europe – for example, those with repressive regimes that clamp down on fundamental freedoms, or those that were embroiled in Complex Political Emergencies (CPEs) and protracted ethno-political conflict.It was not to be.

The panel, that did not have a single Asian on it or anyone with experience in using MMORPG‘s / virtual worlds / Second Life for real world complex political negotiations, focussed entirely on the simplistic uses of Second Life to bring people together for genetic research and other mundane and relatively uncomplicated tasks. The unique and extremely challenging demands of virtual diplomacy shaped by and responding to violent conflict or where not at all covered.

The panel repeatedly pointed to the existence of Embassies of countries such as the Maldives in Second Life as proof of the coming of age of virtual diplomacy. My challenge to the panel was to map out how long the Maldivian Embassy on Second Life would last if there was a concerted effort to demonstrate against the essential dictatorship of the Gayoom regime in its virtual space.

It was a question they could not answer.

Even with Second Life, they did not cover at all the potential of conflict within sims, real world conflict spilling over into virtual interactions (or vice versa), alternative dispute resolution mechanisms within Second Life (such as the E-Justice Centre in Second Life), evolving notions of justice and peace within Second Life, how media reporting within and on Second Life influence the manner in which avatars interact or how sims in Second Life could be used for future scenario model based simulations in support of conflict transformation processes.

Further, the panel did not address the challenges posed by new media, such as blogs, to diplomacy and diplomats, as brought out in my post Diplomacy and blogs (on Jan Pronk’s behaviour in Sudan) or critical discussions on how the United States State Department is now using blogs to further international relations.

The panel also scoffed at the environmental impact of using Second Life, even though there’s no agreement that using Second Life is as environmentally friendly as it is often made out to be.

In fact, the panel did not address even a single point on the potential and challenges of using Second Life for dispute resolution, collaboration and civic participation I had made earlier at the 5th International Forum on Online Dispute Resolution in Liverpool, England.

On the positive side, the panel did discuss the urgent need for and developments towards interoperability of virtual worlds and the need for open standards and open source based access to and development of various sims and MMORPG‘s. A representative of Linden Labs who connected virtually made the exciting announcement that Second Life would be connected to (and perhaps even accessible from) mobile devices.

Regrettably, the constitution of and terrain covered by this workshop was the anti-thesis of what was expected from a global knowledge exchange as envisioned by GK III. Not only was the knowledge imparted through this workshop US and Western Europe centric, dated, passe and extremely blinkered, it was also at at times, dangerously naive.

To say nothing, especially when speaking, is half the art of diplomacy said Will Durant, the American writer and historian. In light of the overwhelming insignificance of this workshop’s presentations, one can compliment them all on mastering half the art of diplomacy.

I sincerely wish however that GKP invites, the next time around, non-diplomats who would invariably make for more meaningful and interesting discussions!

UPDATED: Please read Critique of “Virtual Diplomacy” workshop at GKP touches a raw nerve