CMEV’s election monitoring featured on Technology for Transparency Network

I was recently interviewed by the Technology for Transparency Network, an initiative of GlobalVoices, on the work I do with the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV). They were particularly interested in the pioneering manner in which CMEV uses the web and the Internet to aid its work, which I had written about in detail recently (see Election monitoring using new media: Notes from my experience in Sri Lanka) and the publication of an election monitoring SMS template we had developed.

As described on its site,

The Technology for Transparency Network is a three-month, participatory research mapping to gain a better understanding of the current state of online technology projects that increase transparency, government accountability, and civic engagement in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, China, and Central & Eastern Europe. The project is co-funded by Open Society Institute’s Information Program and Omidyar Network’s Media, Markets & Transparency initiative, and aims to inform both programs’ future investments toward transparency, accountability, and civic engagement technology projects.

CMEV is the first, and to date, the only example from Sri Lanka in a database of compelling examples from around the world where the web, Internet and mobiles have meaningfully helped keep the excesses of government and authoritarianism in check, opened out information to citizenry and allowed them to take participate more fully in processes of governance.

The great leveller: Mobile phones in India flag potential for m-gov elsewhere too

The NY Times has a great story on mobiles in India. From 1997 to 2000 I experienced as a student how the introduction of cybercafes in Delhi – at the time far more expensive then their Sri Lankan counterparts per hour – changed the way I communicated with family back home and Indians communicated with family out of Delhi and abroad.

There are aspects the NY Times article does not touch upon, more disturbing. India has repeatedly asked Blackberry to allow access to its secure network. There is also the need to critically look at the impact of mobiles on strengthening the participatory nature of democracy, especially at local government level. It is not clear for example in Sri Lanka that heady mobile growth has contributed meaningfully to better governance at the grassroots or national level.Evgeny Morozov’s Texting Toward Utopia: Does the Internet spread democracy? is key reading in this regard, and a useful flip side to the optimism of the NYT article.

Continue reading

Mobiles for Social Development

There’s a very interesting paper on the web I came across recently that deals with the pros and cons of using mobiles for social development and linked to the discussions on Lirneasia’s recent post on the future of telecentres and the role of mobiles in complementing and / or supplanting them. 

The paper seems to end on a note that is weighted towards the mobile web – the development of the web as we know it and use on PCs for mobile phones. The paper also says that SMS is not a viable option to provide services to millions of people in the developing world who may be illiterate. I don’t agree with either proposition and find a disconnect here – if illiteracy is a problem (it is and more specifically, the lack of vernacular services on mobile phones) then how will the development of the mobile web ensure that more citizens get access to and use services on the phone?

The paper also talks about IVR, but in my mind, it’s not a question of one or the other by complementarity between various tools, platforms and services – with SMS as the basic foundation and developing up from there – that will reach the greatest number of citizens and encourage them in turn to actually make use of what’s available. 

In Sri Lanka, some relatively low cost mobile phones already fully support Sinhala and Tamil interfaces and UNICODE text rendering. And yet, there’s absolutely no interest in creating m-gov services for mobile phones, even though there are more than around 11 million SIMS in a country with a population of 20 million.

The paper was also clearly written before the advent of the iPhone, which in the US at least has revolutionised the way people access the web using their mobile phone:

M:Metrics, which has been researching the mobile market since 2004, found that the iPhone is “the most popular device for accessing news and information on the mobile Web,” with 85 percent of iPhone users doing so in the month of January.

That contrasted with 58.2 percent of other smartphone owners, and 13.1 percent of the total mobile market.

“It’s creating buzz among consumers that it can be pleasant and useful accessing the Web from your mobile phone,” said Greg Sheppard, chief development officer of iSuppli Corp. market research firm.

The lesson here is that it may not be entirely necessary to develop a mobile specific version of the web, even though it’s now possible to do so very easily using services such as Mofuse and other plugins for blogging platforms like WordPress

With regards to the points made about the high costs of data access on mobiles, all signs indicate significant reductions in cost to the point where in the near future, mobile web browsing may even be free with some packages.

Other points regarding the use of mobiles for governance are those I’ve already tackled in a recent paper published in the i4D magazine’s June 2008 issue titled Governance and Mobile Phones.

Read the paper by S. Boyera. It may be a bit dated, but it is a tremendously useful anchor to tether the heady optimism of mobile phone advocates. 

Democratic governance and mobile phones

“Don’t get grandma hear it” was what US soldier Stephen Philips was reported in the Newsweek as saying when his cell phone redialled home during a fire-fight in Afghanistan and broadcast the chaos into his parent’s answering machine . Though it would have been traumatic for the parents of Stephen Philips, yet this is an example of how mobile phones connect us all to far-flung yet vital realities. From Zimbabwe and Kenya to China and Kuwait , from electoral processes and women’s suffrage to the voicing dissent against oppression, mobiles are already revolutionising our approach to and understanding of public participation in governance. Mobiles have already demonstrated in many countries around the world that in the hands of a vibrant civil society they are powerful tools that hold government and public institutions accountable, their interactions transparent and their transactions efficient. Conversations inspired, produced, stored and disseminated through mobiles are rapidly changing the manner in which we imagine the State, interact with government and participate in the mechanisms and institutions of democratic governance.

Read my full paper here

UPDATE – 13th June 2008

This essay is published in the i4D magazine June 2008 issue. Download and read the PDF as it appears in print and online here.

E-Petitions

There’s an interesting article in the politics.co.uk that debates the rise of e-petitions in England, as well as its pros and cons. As it notes,

The Hansard Society’s eDemocracy programme director, Andy Williamson, spoke passionately about their importance in Westminster last week. He talked of “closing the gap between citizens and parliament” and described e-petitions as “the start of the transformation of parliament into the digital age”. Tentative efforts from the Welsh Assembly and Scottish parliament, as with many devolution-related issues, are leading the way. According to its Audit of Political Engagement, people are more likely to sign a petition than engage in any other political act.

The e-petition site shows some interesting statistics. Till the end of October 2007:

 

  • Over 29,000 petitions have been submitted, of which over 8,500 are currently live and available for signing, over 6,000 have finished and 14,601 have been rejected outright.
  • There have been over 5.8 million signatures, originating from over 3.9 million different email addresses.

 

Read the politics.co.uk article in full here, which notes that despite these figures, there’s no real guarantee even in England that e-petitions will ultimately succeed in their essential goal of bringing government closer to citizens.

Sadly, as I noted in February 2007, “…I don’t believe that for all their hype and hoopla of e-government in Sri Lanka, ICTA is going to follow the Downing Street model anytime soon.”

New media and networked communications environments

I received advance notice of what looks like an interesting meeting organised by International Media Support in Denmark that will be held on 15 and 16 September 2008 on the opportunities and threats presented by new media and networked communications environments for press freedom and democratization.

As the IMS PR notes,

This event will bring together civil society groups and new media industry innovators, with panelists including Linus Thorvaldsen creator of Linux,  Jussi Impiö from Nokia Research and others.

The first day will be an ‘expo’ of new media and technological developments with relevance for press freedom and media development advocates, particularly those working in countries affected by conflict and press freedom repression – organized by the Kaospilots (www.kaospilots.dk).

This will include hands-on presentations on areas such as secure web-based and mobile communications‘guerilla’ broadcastinghidden audio-visual recordingsafeguarding and defending websites, and more.

The second day will be debate-style discussions based around three themes, these being:

  • Changing the way media operate
  • Building the capacity of press freedom and civil society groups
  • Deepening democracy

I’ve been associated with IMS since its establishment in 2001. In fact, one of their first projects was in Sri Lanka – a mapping exercise and comprehensive report of the media landscape in the North and East of Sri Lanka in 2003 and we’ve also done a Conflict Sensitive Journalism handbook, conducted a post-CFA media assessment and most recently, conducted citizen journalism work in Sri Lanka with their support.

The background document accompanying the conference announcement was clearly aimed at stimulating some discussion. There’s a yes / no format to key questions posed in the document that while serving well as an instigator of discussions, doesn’t mirror the realities of new media and traditional media landscapes. Traditional media isn’t going to die anytime soon. New media and citizen journalism have their own problems. What we consider media and the distinction(s) between the traditional and the new today will blur into insignificance tomorrow.

For example, the IMS conference background note avers that “the sheer amount of information available prompts many to look only at sites that support their own opinions, resulting tin the polarisation of public opinion and the fragmentation of the public sphere”. If you ask me, the public sphere is pretty fragmented in a country like Sri Lanka and new media and its long tail actually serves as a bridge between those who hitherto only had access to, or by choice only consumed, one side of the story.

The background note also mentions that “Communications technologies themselves do not have the capacity to make political systems more democratic or to change historically embedded formal and informal political institutions”. Of course they don’t per se. But the USE of communications technologies by citizens does. While it’s true that governments such as the UK are increasingly invasive and anal retentive in their approach to and understanding of new media use, it’s also the case that in many countries around the worldeven with repressive regimes – new media / citizen jouranlism and mobiles are changing the dynamics of polity and society.

These are vital discussions I hope the conference will encourage. There are no broad generalisations possible, but I hope the conference underscores that the potential of these new technologies to support and strengthen democracy and peace very much comes from the encouragement of their use by civil society committed to both.