An election monitoring SMS template

I was speaking with David Kobia from Ushahidi today and remembered that my post on election monitoring in Sri Lanka (Election monitoring using new media: Notes from my experience in Sri Lanka) had forgotten to mention the SMS template that I had developed for election monitoring in Sri Lanka.

The template can be seen here.

It only works if the election monitoring agency (I work with the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence) has a robust and well defined set of categories the monitoring is anchored to, and trained election monitors who are well versed in this framework. In other words, this is not a template designed for, or will work in a context that untrained citizens report in election violations via SMS.

The template can easily be adapted to a range of contexts, and is Twitter friendly as well. One can also envisage other uses for such a template, such as monitoring human rights violations or the delivery of aid to IDP camps.

I developed this two years ago, in 2008, when Sri Lanka was still at war. Vast swathes of the country’s north and east were very badly connected, and so mobiles didn’t really work for election monitoring at the time. This is changing rapidly post-war, and I’m looking forward to working with CMEV in the future to develop this template further and design more robust backend, SMS / mobile based frameworks for election monitoring.

Location based information in real time: Help or hindrance?

Looking at this Google Map created by Omar Chatriwala, a web journalist at Al Jazeera, and the plethora of location aware devices plus options to put up geo-referenced information and news on the web in real time, I wondered whether this was helpful or not in times of crisis?

Ushahidi’s leading the field in addressing this problem, and their application to the Knight News Challenge (disclaimer: I’m an Ashoka News and Knowledge Entrepreneur Fellow) is provocative reading in this regard, since it treats crowed sourced unfiltered information in real time as essentially helpful in understanding, assessing and reacting to a crisis. Could this work the other way I wonder, when information disseminated by individual for parochial reasons, or by groups for equally blinkered ends, may exacerbate the crisis?

For me, this is a problem that is both a technical issue (engineering / design / technology) as well as a sociological challenge (verifying information from untrusted / unknown sources as well as responding to actions generated on account of such information, a sort of domino effect of citizen to citizen, unmediated information dissemination).

What do you think?

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.

kiwanja.net launches the new FrontlineSMS

This is something I rarely do – plug a product. But my friend Ken Banks has something special with FrontlineSMS and I encourage you strongly to try it out. 

I’ve played with the beta and written about it (in sum, not a very positive experience) but Ken assures me that the feedback received from the beta testing stage has been incorporated into the final product. Importantly and excitingly, FrontlineSMS now runs natively on OS X and Linux, which means that I don’t have to use Bootcamp anymore to use this. 

For over a year now I’ve been following Ken’s work with FrontlineSMS and frankly, it’s been an inspiring story. In a conversation with Colin Rule in October last year, Ken Banks explains the raison d’etre of FrontlineSMS. Having already proven itself in Pakistan at the worst of times amongst many other places, the new avatar of FrontlineSMS with its multi-OS client will be a tool that drives SMS advocacy and strategic communications via mobiles, including that which I have written about earlier as the development of m-government services.

The Press Release of the new version of FrontlineSMS is here. Go to the FrontlineSMS website here

I’m looking forward to using the new version and will put a post in the coming months with my experiences of using it for my work in Sri Lanka. 

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. 

Sahana SMS Module – Thoughts and suggestions

I was invited by Lirneasia to a presentation on Sahana’s new SMS module yesterday. Lara’s live blogging of the event is available here. The module works well and looks nice and is particularly well suited for sending early warning messages to the disaster response network of Sarvodaya around Sri Lanka (there’s an acronym for this that I can’t remember). Scalability of the module to deal with a larger constituency (thousands of journalists and millions of citizens) is very suspect, but that’s not what it was designed for. As was explained to us, it’s also a problem of the sequential nature of sending SMSs out from the system.

But as was noted, no tests to date have been made on the actual performance of the system that for the moment runs on Dialog. My experience with SMS communications last year after a bombing close to home suggests that SMS is also prone to congestion that can last for hours, though a technical agreement with Dialog may possibly address this by prioritising message delivery for a specific set of numbers.

Cost was whatever the cost of sending an SMS within or through the Dialog network. It was clear that setting up this module needed to be done in consultation with (or at the very least, adequate notification given to) the mobile telecoms provider it used for message delivery. Else, as was pointed out, warning messages to hundreds could easily be shut down by automated SMS spam guards, which would defeat the purpose of the system.

One suggestion I had was to simplify their three character survey response code. My suggestion was to limit the characters to the first key press of a mobile keypad (a,d, g, j, m, p, t, w and *, 0 # if necessary) since multiple key presses to get to the other letters could lead to, particularly when also dealing with a chaotic context, high levels of stress and possibly sleep depravation, higher levels of error in input. 

The suggestion was also made to made the UI a bit more like Twitter, with notification of how many characters had been used in a message and how many there were left. 

It would also be necessary for Sahana to encourage the best practice of the most urgent numbers at the top of any group list, given the sequential nature of SMS delivery, ensuring that they got the message first. It would be useful then to also encourage the creation of groups based on geo-location – so that say in the case of a tsunami alert, disaster responders along the coastal belt most likely to be affected could be alerted as first and then others. Extrapolating key numbers from a group that contained a whole bunch of numbers at the time of sending the message out would be next to impossible. 

It would be interesting to see if the Government Information Dept. or National Disaster Management Centre takes this up as a means of communicating disaster early warning and subsequent information to journalists and other key actors. A key conversation in this regard was facilitated by an article of Chamath Ariyadasa from JNW news on Groundviews, well worth reading even today.

One feature I would like to see in the Sahana SMS module is an automated keyword response mechanism, akin to what FrontlineSMS already has. For example, someone in the field types “emc colombo” which could be a short-code understood by the system as a request for emergency contacts for that particular location / district / GN division. Those managing the module would be responsible for updating responses with current information. So in this example, “emc colombo” could result in as SMS like “N.D. Hettiarachchi, dndmc@sltnet.lk, +94112431590 T, +94112431593 F”.

It would be interesting if the system actually logged the delivery time of messages to the extent made possible by delivery receipts with Dialog and Mobitel (maybe with Tigo too). It would be interesting to get a a baseline on a normal day (a dry run of the system with Sarvodaya’s network) and another during an actual disaster warning / early response context to compare how the system deals with stress placed on it and on the larger mobile network. 

I wonder if Sahana can and will provide this module as a web service delinked from the larger Sahana system? I can see far broader applications for this than disaster early warning and a web services approach or at worst a thin client approach would allow it to be used by those who don’t necessarily want or need the full blown Sahana system. 

Papers and research on ICT in peacebuilding, Online Dispute Resolution, Conflict Early Warning, Disaster Mitigation and Response

A collection of papers I’ve written over the years on ICT4Peace, ODR and the use of technology in disaster warning, mitigation and response.

 

Daring to Dream: CSCW for Peacebuilding

This study will examine research around the areas of Computer Supported Cooperative Frameworks (CSCW) and in particular, the Locale Framework, to examine the possible use and design of ICT systems that can strengthen efforts at conflict transformation. In doing so, the study will examine in particular Groove Virtual Office® (used by Info Share) using the locale framework as an example of a CSCW system in a peace process.

Click Daring to Dream – CSCW, ICT and Peacebuilding for paper. Click Daring to Dream presentation for PowerPoint presentation.

 

After the deluge : InfoShare’s Response to the Tsunami

This document explores the use of technology in the tsunami relief efforts in Sri Lanka and addresses the need to create sustainable and culturally sensitive technology frameworks and systems for relief work and disaster management.

Click After the Deluge : InfoShare’s Response to the Tsunami for paper.

 

Online Dispute Resolution, Mobile Telephony and Internet Community Radios

This paper will submit that for the pervasive use of ODR in the Global South (as opposed to its increasingly entrenched acceptance in the Global North) a radical overhaul of its theories, conceptual underpinning and technologies needs to be undertaken. In doing so, it will propose wholly new ODR systems that new technologies that already exist in the Global South.

Click ODR, Peacebuilding and Mobile Phones for paper.

 

Computer Supported Collaborative Work (CSCW) in Sri Lanka

The central thesis of this paper will be to argue for CSCW systems that virtualise aspects of conflict transformation with a view to strengthening real world peacebuilding interventions over the long term. Such virtualisation and its possibilities will be set against the microcosm of the North-East region of Sri Lanka in order to rigorously test the hypothesis that ICT for peacebuilding can address gaps in communication within and between the multiple tiers of society and polity that are part of any peace process.

Click ICT and Mobiles for Conflict Prevention for paper.

 

Untying the Gordian Knot: ICT for Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding

This study will concentrate on the increasing confluence between ICT, conflict transformation and peacebuilding. The proposed study will examine Info Share, an ICT initiative in Sri Lanka that is involved in the peace process, as an on-going experiment in the use of these radical new technologies to augment traditional conflict transformation techniques on the ground to help strengthen an on-going peace process.

Click Using ICTs for Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding for paper.

 

The future of Online Dispute Resolution

This brief paper seeks to explore a few ideas related to ODR that seek to kindle, jar and even anger the imagination to engage with ideas that lie at the heart of ODR systems design and implementation in the years to come. These dialogues in support of shaping next-generation ODR systems is seen as essential to avoid the development of systems that cannot fully grasp and respond to the complexities of social, commercial and political transaction in real and online worlds.

Click Paper written for 4th UN ODR Symposium – Cairo, Egypt for full paper. Click here for the related presentation.

 

An Asian Perspective on Online Mediation

New information and communication technologies such as the internet offer new capabilities for mediators. Online dispute resolution (ODR) refers to dispute resolution processes such as mediation assisted by information technology, particularly the internet. At least 115 ODR sites and services have been launched to date, resolving more than 1.5 million disputes. A number of these online dispute resolution services have been launched in the Asia Pacific including examples from China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and Sri Lanka.

However this paper challenges the current paradigm being used for development of online dispute resolution and its application to the Asia Pacific region. Instead, it suggests that a more Asia-Pacific perspective needs to be taken that responds to the patterns of technology adoption in this region. In particular, the next generation of online dispute resolution systems will need to reflect the rich diversity of cultures in Asia and its unique socio-political textures. In doing so, these ODR systems will need to address peacebuilding and conflict transformation using technologies already prevalent in the region, like mobile telephony and community internet radio. Practical suggestions are made for future areas of development in ODR after a brief exploration of key challenges that influence the design of such systems.

I co-authored this paper with Melissa Conley-Tyler. Read the full version here.

 

Thoughts of technology in the wake of tragedy

The sensitive and creative use of technology can help nurture change processes that can lead to more peaceful and sustainable futures and avoid the pitfalls of partisan aid and relief operations. Providing for mobile telephony that give remote communities access to constantly updated weather and geological information and helping create endogenous early warning systems using local knowledge, using tele-centres to serve as repositories of information on emergency procedures and evacuation guidelines, coordinating the work of aid agencies on the ground ensuring the delivery of aid and relief to all communities, monitoring aid flows and evaluating delivery, creating effective mechanisms for the coordination of reconstruction and relief efforts, creating avenues for effective communication between field operations and warehouses based in urban centres, creating secure virtual collaboration workspaces that bring in individuals and organisations sans ethnic, geographic or religious boundaries, enabling centralised data collection centres that collect information from the field and distribute it to relevant stakeholders are just some of the immediate uses for technology.

Read full article here.

 

The PC is Dead ! Long live Mobiles !

Eschewing the tendency for PC based ODR systems to impose top-down hierarchies and sometimes exacerbate the digital-divide in the Global South, technologies that use mobile telephony and radio assume that communities are more comfortable using what is familiar as opposed to what is not, however sophisticated and powerful such systems might be. To this end, ICT for Peacebuilding systems must identify and develop existing local / grassroots capacities. In Sri Lanka for instance, this would involve using the very high literacy rate (91%), the ubiquity of radios, easy and low cost access to batteries, one of the most highly developed Alternative Dispute Resolution frameworks in the Global South with supporting legislation, thousands of trained mediators, multiple village level peace networks (very often with little or no communication within and between these social networks) and exponential growth of mobile subscribers and related services, with lower cost of access than PSTN telephones and coverage in conflict ravaged areas where traditional copper-wire infrastructure is still decades away.

Read full article here.

 

Mediation from the palm of your hand: Forgining the next generation ODR systems

In sum, this paper will submit that for the pervasive use of ODR in the Global South (as opposed to its increasingly entrenched acceptance in the Global North) a radical overhaul of its theories, conceptual underpinning and technologies needs to be undertaken. This paper will also develop ideas first discussed during discussions on ODR for an ADR course conducted by University of Massachusetts in March 2005 and further developed during Cyberweek 2005 in April 2005, in which the author was invited to present ideas of expanding the use of ODR through existing mobile telephony and radio (including internet radio) networks in the Global South. Certain ideas in this paper also stem from a presentation on ODR and conflict transformation given at the UN ODR Conference in July 2004. The author’s involvement in the on-going work of Info Share in Sri Lanka, an organisation that uses technology for peacebuilding, single text negotiations and the design of other conflict transformation processes, also under-gird the assumptions and arguments in this paper.

Read the full paper here.

 

The Internet and Conflict Transformation in Sri Lanka

At present, and even more so in the future, the importance of Information Communications Technology cannot be ignored by government, civil society and NGOs in Sri Lanka. ICT by itself is an impotent tool. What animates it is a culture in which stakeholders use ICT to buttress and build confidence between communities, engender discussion and help in the dissemination of information regarding state-of-the-art conflict resolution techniques and events. There are no easy solutions for the peaceful settlement of protracted ethnic, but a realisation of the power of ICT can help efforts on the ground to bring a negotiated, just solution to war in Sri Lanka.

Read the full paper here.

 

ODR sans PC said the mobile to the radio

Originally developed for Cyberweek 2005, this presentation on how Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) is evolving, particularly in Asia, beyond the Personal Computer and embracing mobile device such as mobile phones. I submit in this presentation a macro, meso and micro level strategy for ODR in developing nations.

View the full presentation Cyberweek_2005.ppt.

 

Presentation on Role of Technology and Media in Peacebuilding

As part of the World Press Freedom Day celebrations in Colombo, Sri Lanka, the BBC World Service Trust and the Swiss Development Agency (SDC) hosted a debate on the role (if any) of media and technology in conflict resolution. My presentation covered the many ways through which media could play a role, through public service values and professionalism in reporting, conflict transformation in a context such as Sri Lanka. My presentation, a brief one that lasted for 10 minutes, also touched upon the ways through which InfoShare had engineered several ICT for Peace (ICT4Peace) initiatives in Sri Lanka.

Download the full presentation here.

 

Thoughts on Democracy, New Media and the Internet – Working Draft

This paper, through the example of Sri Lanka, explores the larger challenges of new media and the internet in the promotion of democracy and peace in the Global South. A central contention of this paper is that internet and new media are inextricably entwined in larger social processes of peacebuilding and conflict transformation. This requires proponents of ICT to engage with the complex dynamics of politics, systems of governance, manifestations of conflict and the social capital in support of peacebuilding if they are to construct inclusive and sustainable frameworks and systems for the promotion of peace.

Read the full paper here.

This was first presented at a conference on Communication Technology and Social Policy in the Digital Age: Expanding Access, Redefining Control, organized by Annenberg Schools for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California on 10th March 2006 in Palm Springs, California.

 

10 ideas for Microsoft Humanitarian Systems Group

This brief paper seeks to examine ten key elements of change that will shape the next 25 years of software development for humanitarianism, peacebuilding and by extension, all collaborative team work that uses Information Communication Technology (ICT). Written into this fabric are applications such as Groove Virtual Office® and new Communications Servers from Microsoft as well as technologies in support of informational archival and retrieval, presence awareness and the mobile web – such as new Microsoft Live technologies, Vista and Groove 12.

Read the full paper here. More information of the Microsoft Humanitarian System Group can be found here.

 

Creating virtual One Text processes in Sri Lanka

As such, within the larger matrix of OCT for peacebuilding, the central thesis of this paper will be to argue for One Text processes, which fall under the broad rubric of transformative mediation, that virtualise real world processes in order to increase the efficiency, sustainability and success of such processes of conflict transformation and peacebuilding. The specific case of Info Share’s work in Sri Lanka will be explored and used to examine the specific challenges that face such systems in the real world. The object will be to briefly explore the creation of new iterations of such systems that will be better able to respond to the dynamic and unique challenges of peacebuilding in post-conflict contexts.

Read the full paper here.