Some thoughts on mobile phones and the digital divide

Nokia 1100. The best selling phone in the world. Image courtesy Wikipedia.    




Nokia 1100. The best selling phone in the world. Image courtesy Wikipedia.


Ken Banks has a super article up on PC World on using mobile phones to address the digital divide. In it Ken points to two aspects of mobile phones and their usage that not everyone even in developing countries quite understands. 

“They can make and receive calls, they have an address book, they can send and receive SMS, and the built-in alarm is very popular.”

“with many of the low-end handsets found in the markets and shops in developing countries, has no browser of any kind and doesn’t support GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) or any other form of data transmission. Accessing the Internet? Dream on.”

I don’t know anything about sub-saharan Africa, but in Sri Lanka, wireless internet access footprints are expanding year after year. Today it is possible to get 3G coverage in many urban areas and WiMax coverage even further out afield. GPRS coverage almost blankets most of the areas in Sri Lanka. Areas that don’t have any of this will only get smaller. Even in 2003, when I was often on the A9 to Jaffna, I used to check my email via my old and trusted Nokia 3410 on the road. Today, I can tether my mobile to my laptop and access the net at speeds close to the “broadband” I get from my ADSL at home.

However, the question is whether those at the Bottom of the Pyramid access the internet through their mobiles or have any interest in doing so. I would think not. At least, not yet. While voice telephony and SMS usage is high, the potential of (new) mobile and devices that can produce, access and disseminate web based content will take years to take root even in the areas that are covered with high-speed internet mobile access.

But is this really a problem? I note in a recent paper on mobile phones and governance that,

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.

I endorse Ken’s suggestion for the development of a subsidized, fully Internet-ready handset for developing markets, but his own work with FrontlineSMS suggests that for the millions who use the phones we discarded years ago at the bottom of the pyramid, replacing handsets is not really a priority even if they are subsidised. Value has to be seen and realised in being able to access mobile content via mobiles, and that value today is simply not there for most consumers particularly at the bottom of the pyramid. I submit that it will also not automatically come with a new device / handset.

Part of this value has to be created by imagining governance that is responsive through mobiles. Citizens who feel that using the web on their mobiles to access information, participate in local government, produce information for the benefit of their local community and use it as a device in much the same way we approach social networking (such as Facebook on PCs and our high-end handsets) may create value and buy-in to use web enabled mobiles and bear the total cost of ownership over time, which will include data charges. 

Telcos can play a role. Today, many data plans and much of the content that leverages high speed mobile internet are those linked to entertainment. There is ZERO emphasis on governance. The emphasis on the market and resulting applications help (agrarian) producers at the local level get a better deal, but doesn’t capture the interest of others at the grassroots. And without sufficient interest and subsequent benefit to self and community, there’s no motive to upgrade from the likes of the Nokia 1100.   

Civil society can play a role. By leveraging some of the new technologies that seamlessly merge the web on the PC and the web on the mobile to create social networks, it’s possible to create virtual communities that produce and exchange information on shared interests, goals and challenges. 

Telemedicine can also play a role as an incentive for mobile internet. 

The issue of cost that Ken points to is important. The mobile web has to work differently to the web on the PC. The devices don’t lend themselves to laborious Google searches. There is limited screen space to display information. There are issues of language, with some scripts such as Sinhala requiring a larger font size (and therefore more screen space or less information on smaller screens) than English / Romanic fonts. There are issues of literacy to boot.

I have always though of mobiles empowering communities as an eco-system of complementary technologies. The lowest common denominator and the most useful to date is SMS. Add to this vernacular IVR services (which requires limited literacy) and wholly SMS driven information retrieval (such as that which many banks have on mobiles in Sri Lanka with details of credit card special deals and offers) and you have a range of technologies that aren’t impeded by the lack of internet accessibility on existing mobile handsets in the hands of the majority of consumers.

Ken’s full sentence in one of the excerpts above is as follows,

The problem is that the Nokia 1100, as with many of the low-end handsets found in the markets and shops in developing countries, has no browser of any kind and doesn’t support GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) or any other form of data transmission.

Emphasis mine.

It’s a problem yes if you see it as providing everyone with web access.

However, the point I wish to make is that the internet isn’t just about the web or accessing it over a mobile web browser. SMS and IVR can hook into real time, live data sources on the internet (e.g. at its simplest, think of weather forecasting on-demand over voice or SMS for fisherfolk). Mobiles with just SMS can provide information to the web (think Twitter’esque services) that can in turn feed back into mobiles via SMS (think the erstwhile Rasasa). Think subsidised numbers that IDPs can call to access and listen to radio programmes with vital information. Think Government Information services that use IVR, are free calls, that enable all consumers to access information otherwise only available through the web. Think of cybercafes as stations to access printed documentation that is printed on demand through innovative SMS services.

Using Ken’s FrontlineSMS and a range of other tools and services, such as Sahana’s SMS modules, I will over the next three years work on some of these areas in Sri Lanka.

NAE report on ICT and Peacebuilding gets it right. And also very wrong.

The National Academy of Engineering organised a workshop on Technology and Peacebuilding on 14th December 2007, the report of which I was sent last week. Through a rather tedious rigmarole, it is possible to download this report from their website.

Do it. It’s worth it.

I joined the workshop over Skype Video and was introduced by none other than Vint Cerf. The workshop featured some big names and greats in the field, beginning with my friends Colin Rule from eBay and Nigel Snoad from Microsoft and extending to Steve Wozniak, Patrick Meier, Richard Solomon (President of the United States Institute of Peace) and Chris Spence (CTO and Director, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs). Kudos to NAE for having brought such an august gathering together.

Having read the report cover to cover, one of the most interesting pages for me is page 2, which enumerates the use of ICTs in peacemaking, peacekeeping and conflict prevention.

Examples of Peace Practitioner need of ICT
Examples of Peace Practitioner need of ICT

I think this is a brilliant categorisation, though missing from this is ICTs in peace negotiations and reconciliation. Designing and developing ICT systems for peace negotiations is something I’ve actually done and its use in reconciling, non-violently, differences between identity groups and warring parties, is also an important application.

I won’t go into detail about the plethora of stimulating arguments captured in this report on the use and potential of ICTs for conflict transformation and peacebuilding which for me is particularly heartening to note as someone who has actively promoted and pursued ICT4Peace for a number of years. The growing interest in this field from influential actors in the global policy making can only benefit the practice and application of ICTs in peacebuilding.

I will however, point to a few confusing aspects, beginning with the presentation of Prof. John Packer from the University of Essex. On page 22 of the report he notes,

“… peace negottions often fail because of poor communication and poor understanding. ICT can help provide better communications and understandings in terms of quality, quantity and timeliness.”

Agreed. But then he goes on to say,

“But ICTs cannot entirely replace relationship building and dialogue in establishing confidence and trust between parties”

This is a bizarre assertion which I can’t quite fathom the meaning of. I don’t think anybody would be foolish enough to say that ICTs can in fact take the place of relationships and dialogues in trust building between (warring) parties. The point however is that ICTs can help build trust, even when there is little or none to begin with. My paper on Creating virtual One Text processes in Sri Lanka explores this in great depth as well as the construction of transformative mediation techniques virtually using ICTs.

The Professor ends on an equally baffling note in saying that,

“.. communications technologies cannot respond to the new kinds of threats that have arisen, such as irrational or nihilistic parties, terrorists whose only goal is destruction of enemies and who reject all compromises out of hand. In the fact of those threats, Prof. Packer said, he is “not confident that technology can respond to the challenge”

I strongly disagree with this assertion. Two papers of mine – Untying the Gordian Knot: ICT for Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding and Daring to Dream: CSCW for Peacebuilding – completely debunk this through lived experience in violent ethno-political conflict (in Sri Lanka) and the use of ICTs to address the challenges posed by terrorism, which I’ve known all my life. Both papers are available for download in full here.

Subsequent explorations of this issue on this blog have developed some of the arguments in these papers. Negotiating extremism – How to talk with terrorists… and Terrorists also use Google: So what? are just two posts of many others.

But the most egregiously incorrect understanding of conflict dynamics comes, very surprisingly, from Dr. Richard Solomon from USIP who uses the following graphic to illustrate the “phases” of conflict management (page 4 of the report).

"Curve of conflict". Oh dear.
"Curve of conflict". Oh dear.

As an aside, I was invited to lecture on Stability, Security, Transition and Reconstruction at the Asia Pacific Centre for Security Studies in 2006 to a class of active military service personnel that included field commanders, officers, military intelligence and other faculty from APCSS. It was a challenging, to say the least, to talk about ICT for conflict transformation in front of a class that was in fact hugely invested in peacebuilding, just not through the means I was proposing!

The point is however that I addressed precisely this outdated notion of a “bell curve” for violent conflict transformation in my presentation, which resonated with everyone present who had witnessed the ebb and flow of violence on the ground during peacekeeping and peacemaking.

I noted first that this notion of a bell curve assumed a great deal, including that of rapidly diminishing levels of violence after a ceasefire or peace agreement.

Debunking the bell curve
Debunking the bell curve

As I see it, after living in the midst of violence for 30+ years in Sri Lanka and with a vested interest in its transformation, the blithe assumption of a reduction in violence after a ceasefire or peace agreement is signed is at significant odds with the failure of a majority of peace agreements. Empirical studies show that nearly half of post-conflict peace agreements revert to violent conflict withing 5 years, failing to engender sustainable and just peace (read page 83 of Breaking the Conflict Trap: Civil War and Development Policy co-published by the World Bank and Oxford University Press).

The myth of conflict genesis and resolution
The myth of conflict genesis and resolution
Neatly pigeon holed. Not.
Neatly pigeon holed. Not.

My full presentation, titled SSTR – Opportunities and Challenges, is available here.

Akin to Dr. Solomon’s bell curve, the traditional and wholly incorrect way of demarcating combat, stabilisation and reconstruction operations in SSTR is around a bell curve that assumes the reduction of violence after a peace / ceasefire agreement. This simply isn’t true. The bell curve is a myth that has, may I add, been debunked in most serious conflict resolution literature I have read for years.

My own visualisation of peace processes and the art of the possible using ICTs is akin to this graph (following studies on the peace processes of Sri Lanka and other countries). Any peace process shows, over time, an escalation and deescalation of violence and also a transformation of violence (from war to crime for example). Deescalation of one kind of violence (war) can lead to other forms of violence that are challenging for nascent or battered democracies to handle. This in turn means that socio-politically and economically, violent conflict ridden societies and polity take years if not generations to heal and negotiate differences non-violently. In this scheme of things, even significant agreements sighed at the higher political level may take decades to trickle down as perceived benefits to the all tiers of society. The lack of any perceived peace dividend is often ratcheted up by spoilers and extremists, leading to further militarisation of society even after a peace agreement.  

Peace process in the real world
Peace process in the real world (Click for larger image)

In this hypothetical mapping of a peace process conflict fatigue leads to a ceasefire agreement that leads to a deescalation of conflict. But the death of a key signatory (think of a Mandalesque figure) leads to diminished confidence and a sharp escalation of violence, until Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) are put into play. A military stalemate leads to a peace agreement, but a breakaway faction with its own agenda leads to another spike in violence. Parties resolve issues until social and political unrest on account of the perceived lack of any peace dividend leads to a rise in violence (think of crime and not just war) until a power sharing agreement restores some order.

And so on.

Process and not just events. (Click for larger image)
Process and not just events. (Click for larger image)

While media and most other actors (including donors and the international community) tends to latch on to key events (an agreement or the violent collapse of peace talks for example) a peace process is about peacebuilding at a variety of levels not necessarily pegged to the fortunes of the top-tier / Track 1 political negotiatons. Grassroots level peacebuilding, inter and intra-community dialogues and reconciliation, initiatives that address the fall out of conflict on women and children, various other development programmes for example take place even amidst war.

The point I wish to make is that ICTs help in peacebuilding at all stages and at all levels of a peace process, even in the midst of violent conflict. A bell curve diagram simply doesn’t do justice to the reality of any peace process, suggesting as it does that stages in violent conflict are linear, follow a logical progression and are quite distinct from each other and also that ICTs can only help in a post-conflict situation.

There is one final point I want to point out that in this report. And it’s a vital one. Bran Ferren, Co-Chairman and Chief Creative Officer of Applied Minds, notes that

“…meetings like this workshop always focus on the cheapest tools that can be used. At a certain point, he went on, the value equation has to be revised. Significant amounts of money, even $5 million, for a high-bandwidth technology in a troubled portion of the world, might cost much less, even if measured only in dollars, than a war, which could cost billions.”

I completely agree with this point and just wish that more donors would listen. Just on this though, Mr. Ferren also speaks about face to face meetings and why coming together in the real world / physical particiation is qualitatively different from virtual participation between on the non-verbal cues. I connect this with Mr Ferren’s earlier point of actually providing infrastructure to enable parties to avail themselves of tremendous advances in virtual conferencing, which I have written about in some detail here.

On balance, this is a report well worth reading. It’s emphasis on communications and mobile phones as a means of empowerment is vital to note, in a world where repressive regimes are viciously clamping down on the use of both. It’s emphasis on the use of ICTs in a culturally, politically and socially sensitive manner is rare to find and heartening to note exists amongst such an influential group of thinkers.

The report demands more exploration into some of the points raised in it and a more careful, focussed look at some of the examples noted.

ASEAN Ministers call for greater civ-mil coordination and information sharing in disasters but not for interoperability

The Chairman’s statement at the recently concluded 41st ASEAN Ministers Meeting notes quite strongly the need for greater civilian – military cooperation and information sharing in disaster preparedness and response. 

“The Ministers called for in greater civil-military coordination for major, multinational disaster responses through training, information sharing, and multinational exercises. They recognised that military assets and personnel, in full support and not in place of civilian responses, have played an increasingly important role in regional disaster responses.”

This is a timely and vital emphasis and complements processes such as the International Process for Crisis Management by the ICT4Peace Foundation that is facilitating a greater degree of information sharing and interoperability between and within agencies at the United Nations. 

Interestingly however, there is just one mention of “collaboration” in the statement and it’s not in relation to disasters or crisis management. It unsurprising to find the emphasis on coordination – which means that a single actor (most often a State) takes the responsibility for managing and preparing for disasters.

Collaboration involves relinquishing authority and inter alia, access to territory to international actors incl. foreign militaries and humanitarian agencies. Collaboration means access to infrastructure – physical and virtual – that shares information that agencies and States may be (at first) unwilling to disclose openly. Collaboration means grappling with agencies that come in and once embedded in the humanitarian effort, take the opportunity to critique the ability of State machinery to respond to the disaster, which opens up the regime to international scrutiny. Collaboration means that actors recognise that no one actor / agency / stakeholder has the power or ability in complex disasters to address all the needs of affected communities over the short, medium and long term.

Yet this understanding of collaboration versus coordination is fraught with very real political consequences. And ASEAN, being a ministerial level junket, is hugely conservative and Statist. Tellingly in this respect, although points 16 and 17 in the Chairman’s statement deal with Myanmar, there isn’t a word of condemnation for the junta’s monumental botch-up of the Cyclone Nargis relief efforts.

Since many countries in ASEAN are fixated with the exclusive understanding of and approach to territorial integrity, sovereignty and national security, it’s revealing that Point 9 states that:

In undertaking disaster relief cooperation, the Ministers agreed that several basic principles should continue to apply. These included the principle that the affected country has the primary responsibility to respond to the humanitarian needs of its people following natural disasters occurring within its territory in a prompt and effective manner; where needed, the affected country should facilitate humanitarian assistance from other countries and international organizations to achieve the overall objective of coordinated, timely and effective disaster management and relief based on identified needs; and that external assistance should be provided in response to a request from the affected country, and the disaster relief efforts should be under its overall coordination. 

While all this sounds great in principle, what this also means is that Myanmar’s brutal junta can do just as it pleases in response to another disaster, given that the mechanics of coordination lie with the State and that all external assistance is at its behest. 

On the other hand, the the UN’s R2P principles are also fraught with difficulties, as I’ve noted before on this blog in relation to a case like post-Nargis Myanmar.

What could help bridge these differences that are very real, impacts work on the ground and not just semantic?


A word that does not feature in the statement. Information sharing cannot and will not work without interoperable systems and information sharing architectures.

To read more and just why interoperability is centre and forward in crisis information management as well as disaster prevention, mitigation and response, read the ICT4Peace Foundation report on a roundtable discussion held recently in Mumbai.

ICT4Peace wiki featured in Communications Initiative’s ICT4D section

The ICT4Peace Foundation’s ICT4Peace wiki, that I manage, was featured in the Communications Initiative ICT4D section recently.

As noted on the wiki, the “inventorisation” process revolves around the use of an edit-able wiki to share information about how ICTs – e.g., personal computers, mobile phones, and the internet – are being used to facilitate effective and sustained communication between all stakeholders involved in crisis management, humanitarian aid, and peacebuilding.

For more details of the Foundation please visit it’s website.

Please also see this disclaimer reg. the opinions, ideas and content on this blog and my work with the Foundation. Though it’s a fact that I started to think about and actually put into action initiatives to promote and support peace through ICTs, the Foundation’s work with the UN and other national and international actors is breaking new ground on how multi-lateral agencies and governments see and use ICTs for peacebuilding, peacekeeping, conflict prevention, mitigation, transformation and post-conflict reconstruction. 

It’s a very nice fit for me, even though my interests and practice in ICT4Peace are larger than the specific foci of the Foundation at the moment. 

The future of Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) – Technologies to keep an eye on

I was asked to run the Crystal Ball session at the 2008 Online Dispute Resolution Forum and with Vint Cerf right in front of me, it was an interesting opportunity to go through some of the technologies I felt would change the manner in which ODR systems would be developed and used as well as, more generally, how awareness of ODR would be raised across the world. I called the presentation “Know the Technology” taking from a statement made by a panelist in one of the sessions earlier in the day.

The background to this presentation is encapsulated in a comment I made last year, in response to one by Graham Ross after the 2007 Online Dispute Resolution Forum in Liverpool, England. The points I raised in that comment are still valid.

Slide 2 – Google Maps / Google Earth
I suggested the use of free, web based map mash-ups for ODR, particularly for land / territorial disputes and those that are based on natural resources, demography and ethnic composition. It’s not a new idea, but one that many in the audience I don’t think knew just how is being used even today to transform disputes. As Paul Currion notes, “Geospatial technology will transform the way that people look at the world. Tools like Google Earth and Google Maps offer access to mapping technology for free.” Google Earth (the 3D version) hitherto available only as a standalone app is now on browsers. I’ve used maps to plot election violence and the existence of High Security Zones that contravene International Law in Sri Lanka. One of the most powerful examples of maps being used to save lives is Amnesty International’s Eyes on Darfur project.

Slide 4 – New media, Web 2.0, Twitter et al
The point of this slide was to give a snapshot of the myriad of technologies on the web, internet and also on mobiles – from AJAX to SMS, from blogs to instant messages, from VOIP to video, from emoticons to MMS that are changing the way in which we communicate via and on the web. The suggestion here was that the technologies, as much as ingrained cultures of the users, changed the manner in which interactions took place. Emoticons were, for example, not just seen as eye candy, but a tool that could aid in inter-cultural negotiations by communicating the intended meaning of the written word more accurately. These were all disruptive technologies that with each iteration took communications to an ever increasing user base with more or less equal access to the medium. Blogging platforms for example level the playing field for new voices, allowing those hitherto marginalised to (potentially, relatively easily and for free or very little cost) have as much impact on the web as State propaganda. What would this mean for ODR? Would it help or would it create more conflict? Are ODR tools and technology neutral? What features have been integrated into the current crop of ODR platforms? If not, why not?

Slide 5 – The TSA blog
I said that given that I am a terrorist until proven innocent every time I visit the US, the TSA blog (Transportation Security Administration) was an eye opener on how public input ostensibly makes its way into TSA policies. The content is written in a manner that’s friendly and open, the site itself has generated hundreds of comments as feedback, there is a sensible, open moderation rule set, the content itself is very useful and information, the site is regularly updated and comments responded to and overall a very interesting experiment in how one of the most reviled agencies from the perspective of a foreigner attempting to enter the US can engage in a public relations exercise that is really a conflict resolution / mitigation strategy. This to me is preventive diplomacy in the form of a blog.

Slide 6 – Mobile phone growth
4 years ago, in Melbourne, at the first ODR Forum I attended, I was the ONLY one who spoke about mobile phones and peacebuilding. In Victoria, virtually every single panel and Vint Cerf himself was talking about mobiles being the next platform for web and internet services to reach millions who would never be able to afford and never buy a PC.

Slide 7 – Smartphones
I asked the question, why wasn’t there a single ODR application that ran as a thin client on smartphones? I pictured the new iPhone 3G and the new Blackberry Bold, but I could have also easily said the Nokia N series and a plethora of new phones that really are mini-computers. Rather than treat the smaller form factor and screen size as a negative, when were the developers going to realise that these devices were assets for ODR?

Slide 8 – The iPhone revolutionises mobile web browsing
The stats are clear and incredible. Americans and other users of the iPhone in the DEVELOPED world are using it to browse the web in a manner that no other mobile device has engendered. Though many in the DEVELOPING world use their mobiles phones to send SMS and browse the web, it is only now that users in countries like the US are waking up to the possibilities of the mobile web. When will ODR solutions providers wake up to this new reality? (One solutions provider in fact told me that an iPhone app was in the works – I’m looking forward to that).

Slide 9 – New communities
Strangely, no one talked about Second Life in Victoria. I’ve dealt with Second Life and ODR exhaustively on this blog and suggested that with all the disputes occurring virtually amongst the millions of avatars in Second Life alone, esp. now that you could also access the platform thru your mobile (leave aside other MMORPGs) that virtual dispute resolution could be the next growth industry! After all, SL already has an International Justice Centre and an E-Justice centre!

See my presentation on Second Life below for more salient points:

Slide 10 – Facebook
Using the example of a pending Canadian case against Facebook’s sui generis understanding of and approach to issues related to privacy, I suggested that FB alone would redefine issues related to trust models, confidentiality frameworks and “common sense”.

Slide 11 – Broadband growth
I suggested that the global growth in wired and wireless broadband connectivity laid the foundation for more interactive, media rich ODR frameworks and mechanisms to take the place of / complement the existing crop of tools. Broadband allows for example video conference for free using tools like Skype that can be integrated into ODR tools.

Slide 12 – Telepresence
Cisco’s telepresence technology, though prohibitively expensive, nevertheless shows us the future of video conference. Cisco’s telepresence is the Bentley of video conferencing, but for many, the Volkswagen of the medium – Skype Video – proves adequate, with the new Skye beta version for Windows demonstrating this shift with a stronger emphasis on video.

Slide 13 – End of walled gardens and patents?
Some ODR providers today use patents to protect their ODR products like the incumbent US President George Bush uses the English language – in ways that are wholly nonsensical. I posed three new technologies – Google’s OpenSocial, and as ways that would challenge the walled gardens of the current crop of ODR solutions. Here’s the scenario – what if your user identity was remotely and securely managed and you could log into and try different ODR products with a single username / password, allowing each system to access your case details as you see fit and seeing which one gives the best solution? No data / user lock in, no giving out personal information to dozens of sites each with varying privacy regulations and security architectures. Simple, effective, neat.

Think not? Think that the best ODR products will always need and warrant patents? Think again. Just take a look at to who has put their names behind alone.

Free the user and everyone stands to benefit.

So what do YOU think the future of ODR will be, from a technological / technical perspective?

ICT Update article – Bringing peace to life

ICT Update

“Peacebuilders everywhere are convinced that a better world is possible. They are devoted to that dream and can imagine peace, unlike so many others around them. There is no single epiphany that shows them the way to peace, or what to do to strengthen and sustain it. Many peacebuilders are killed or, through fear for their own lives, are forced to leave their country. ICTs help address and transcend some of these limitations by generating, recording and amplifying ideas and actions regardless of their geographical location. Using technology, peacebuilders can write for posterity. They collect vital information using mobile phones. They create virtual communities to support and raise funds, and they appeal via the internet for help from governments and citizens of other countries to support their work.

ICTs will only become more integral to peacebuilding and conflict transformation in the years to come.”

Read my article, Bringing peace to life, in Issue 43 of ICT Update.