ICT for Peacebuilding, ICTs in general

Technology in constitutional reform: Central or peripheral to substance and process?

Paper prepared at the invitation of Dr. Asanga Welikala for a preparatory advisory roundtable on a new constitution for Sri Lanka, hosted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), the Constitution Building Programme of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), and the Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law (ECCL) inn collaboration with the Government of Sri Lanka.

The backdrop

Media reports just before the Parliamentary Election held on 17th August 2015 indicated that the Government of Sri Lanka had entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with Google to bring around 14 high-altitude balloons above Sri Lanka to provide more seamless Internet access. Sri Lanka will be the first country in the world to employ these balloons, called Project Loon[1], commercially and at this scale. Though the MoU wasn’t made public and many questions around cost of access and coverage remain, one of Google’s avowed goals under Project Loon is to to connect people in rural and remote areas and help fill coverage gaps. Along with more traditional investments around telecommunications infrastructure and market imperatives, it can be expected that in under five years – the term of the new government – Sri Lanka will enjoy coast to coast wireless broadband coverage, with a population that is connected through at least one platform or one device, to the Internet, web and social media.

The trend is unmistakable.

Central Bank statistics reveal Sri Lanka has 107 phones for every 100 citizens[2]. Year on year, mobile based Internet subscriptions rose 85.8% and Internet penetration stands at around 16.4%, both according to the Central Bank which itself admits the actual numbers of those connected could be much higher[3]. Upwards of 2.7 million Sri Lankans are on Facebook alone. According to data by market research company TNS[4] Jaffna shows the highest per capita Internet penetration in Sri Lanka. Video (i.e. TV) consumption is already shifting online, from terrestrial broadcast (which means that citizens are watching content when they want, sometimes more than once, and socially sharing what they view, along with opinions on it). Information in the public domain increasingly suggests the 18-24 demographic in Sri Lanka, vital to engage with around transitional justice and reconciliation, don’t meaningfully engage with mainstream media (MSM) as newspapers, radio or TV. Wherever they are, they engage with MSM content primarily through smartphones, Facebook and chat apps and also produce content of their own, contesting and complementing mainstream media. Senior journalist and media critic Ranga Kalansuriya’s social survey based research in early 2015, notes that “The primary results shows that the internet, mainly the social media, is becoming game changer within the paradigm threatening the conventional media in a considerable way” and in particular that “almost half of the sample feels that the media content impacted on their decisions to some extent at the elections while, interestingly one thirds feel there had been no impact at all. The most impacted media was the television for almost 60 percent and then it was the internet for a group closer to 25 percent. The newspaper impact for less than 10 percent and radio impacted on only 5 percent”[5].

A poll done by Social Indicator (SI), the social polling arm of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) in late June and early July this year in the Western Province – as the most developed in the country – paints a picture of digital life other Provinces will mirror and may even leapfrog a few years hence. Asked if web usage if more content/sites were available in Sinhala or Tamil, 57.1% said yes. 79.1% accessed the Internet through their smartphone. Facebook was used by 73.3%. 60.2% said compared to a year ago, they spent more time online. 42.2% said Ministers in government should use social media to engage with the public. Along with this snapshot of access and use comes also insights into Sri Lanka’s discursive frameworks. 50% said that over the past year, they had decided to learn more about a political or social issue because they had read it online. Interestingly, 61.5% said the action they took was to create awareness amongst family and friends.

In the Western Province today and in a few years throughout the island, primarily through smartphones and tablets, citizens will produce, disseminate and discuss issues anchored to entertainment and gossip as well as news and current affairs via social media platforms and apps, increasingly in Tamil and Sinhala. The effects of these online conversations will also deeply resonate with social networks and communities that aren’t as well connected to online media.

Deliberative structures

Public engagement through these ubiquitous, multi-media and multi-lingual networks will for Government, and indeed, it’s vocal opponents, undergird new and hopefully innovative mechanisms for public confidence building, perceptions management and strengthening electoral support around policymaking, governance and constitutional reform. As importantly, tools, techniques and social networks to win votes around elections that go on to be under-utilised at best once elected to power is not a viable model. A government, out of enlightened self-interest at least, should seriously consider the importance of public engagement through technology after it is elected and especially when it is under siege. The central challenge here is not one of technology, it is one of political leadership.

Agility, responsiveness, transparency. Failing fast (not waiting until the final stages to acknowledge failure, but recognising it early on and addressing it) and failing forward (not being scared to admit failure and using it as a lesson to improve product and process in the future). Iterative design (learning to design better at every stage based on user feedback and interaction). These are some core principles of product development and design in the world of technology today. Though deeply relevant and replicable, they remain largely unknown as a basis for a government to think, operate, react or plan, or indeed, the blueprint of a constitutional reform process to be anchored to. This is especially relevant in a context where citizens think as consumers and expect levels of service delivery and engagements with government, and governmental services or processes, on par with that which they enjoy from trans-national corporations that manage (all social media operations on) the Internet. An obdurate, rude or unresponsive government risks irreparable reputational damage over a very short time and across geographies and communities. By not embracing participatory and responsive mechanisms to plan for and execute policy making as well as constitutional reform, governments risk the best of intentions to radically reform polity and society. The conversations over social media around the legislative drafting of the 19th Amendment – the delays in translation, the inability for the public to engage in structured debates or input, the multiple versions circulating in the public domain through non-official sources, the lack of direct, public engagement by government to demystify clauses – flag reservoirs of frustration, not all by spoilers, around the non-use of existing technology around a vital reform initiative.

Much more can and should be done. The examples that follow aren’t prescriptive. Each offers a way of thinking, seeing, or responding to a challenge that is integral to constitutional change or reform writ large. Each offers a template worthy of adoption and adaptation, given the innovation and skills that reside within Sri Lanka especially in the tech community and civil society. With strategic deployment and careful curation, each offers the promise of a public more aware of and by extension, responsive towards key issues around constitutional reform.

Technology platforms, apps and services

Democracy OS[6] is a citizen engagement platform for democracy at its most distilled – getting citizens to vote on an idea, and through this, getting them involved in processes of deliberation and debate around core issues. As noted on the Democracy OS website, with 4 million+ citizens, Buenos Aires became the first city to have a Digital Democracy in place with each of the 16 parties in Congress agreeing to present one bill to be debated along with every citizen of the city online. DemocracyOS has been used for, inter alia, policymaking, electoral reform, citizen participation and accountability in India, Chile, France, Mexico, Peru, Brazil and Colombia.

The usual example on deliberative democracy over digital platforms is to study President Obama’s campaigns and use of the media, including social media, as both candidate and incumbent. A Washington Post article from May this year[7] is an easy to access and understand blueprint on how Obama and his team strategically designed the message to fit the medium, and importantly saw engagement over media as inextricably entwined with and central to Obama’s political projects. Though important, of particular resonance here is not so much the use of social media but the imaginative mind-set behind the adaptation, adoption and appropriation of new and existing media for political ends. For example, after the debacle of Obama’s healthcare website[8], the President, instead of going on the defensive, acknowledged the problem and furthermore, appropriated comedy and comedians, including by spoofing himself, to push the same message. Millions engaged, and the project was ultimately – technically as well as politically – a success. The perception of issues is managed today not necessarily by those with the widest reach or largest readership, but by those able to generate the most viral content. To be shared and liked is a new social currency that extends well beyond elections and shapes public discourse, even offline. If interest in constitutional reform and its more substantive points are to reach the masses, along with imaginatively produced content, arguably the best way on Facebook alone would be by leveraging the reach of a popular female model and the near universal love for cricket![9]

This shift from the strongly didactic to a more deliberative and engaging approach, from constitutional reform as entirely exclusive to a process that engaged the public was most pronounced in the (failed) experiment in Iceland to create a “crowdsourced constitution”. As noted in Slate[10],

… 25 constitutional drafters [used] social media to open up the process to the rest of the citizenry and gather feedback on 12 successive drafts. Anyone interested in the process was able to comment on the text using social media like Facebook and Twitter, or using regular email and mail. In total, the crowdsourcing moment generated about 3,600 comments for a total of 360 suggestions. While the crowd did not ultimately “write” the constitution, it contributed valuable input. Among them was the Facebook proposal to entrench a constitutional right to the Internet, which resulted in Article 14 of the final proposal.

The failure to pass the new constitution wasn’t linked to the means of soliciting input from the general public. Lessons around the exercise in fact urge that in the future, more planning and consideration has to go into the process of constitutional reform, including more human and financial resources around the use of technology. In a much smaller way, but quite significant because of the violence surrounding discursive and critical spaces in Sri Lanka under the previous government, the growth of memes of Facebook is another instructive lesson in how popular culture over the Internet can strengthen (or seriously undermine) public appreciation of key issues. As noted by me three years ago[11],

The growth of the Sri Lankan meme on the web is a relatively recent phenomenon. It now has its own Facebook presence, with more fans than the Daily Mirror page (19,000+ vs. 16,000). There are historical antecedents. “Me kawuda? Monawada karanne?” (Who is he? What is he doing?) posters during Premedasa’s government was a meme – two sentences plastered on public spaces creating a questioning so subversive that it led to violent ends for producer and playwright… [Now] memes are shared on individual profiles, which are then ‘liked’ by others, downloaded, emailed, embedded on websites and flagged on Twitter. It reaches, quite literally, hundreds of thousands effortlessly… memes essentially critique the mainstream and change the story. In changing the story, memes can contribute to changing the status quo. Something for governments, including our own, to keep in mind the more censorious they get, and want to be.

The use of memes by a constitutional reform project can be seen as the modern day equivalent of, for example, South African cartoonist Zapiro’s interrogation of constitutional reform in the mid-90’s, albeit over social media and generated digitally, without confirmed authorship. With the focus of policymakers and constitutional reformers usually on mainstream media’s reach and effectiveness at shaping public opinion (which to date, in so far as metrics around the influence of TV talk shows in Sri Lanka go, is valid) the use of social media in particular, and Internet, web and mobile platforms in general around a reform process remains nascent, even as the diversity of content, its reach and spread grows.

Three technologies present themselves immediately in this regard – Facebook, Twitter and a platform that is not often talked of in the same breath as social media, WhatsApp. Facebook and Twitter growth in Sri Lanka is widespread and shows explosive growth. Groundviews recently archived tweets around the recently concluded Parliamentary Election[12]. The archive, spanning eight weeks and including two official hashtags used by the majority of users around the election (#SLGE15 and #GenElecSL), captured 174,663 tweets. Tweets using variations of these two hashtags, as well as not using either were also in the tens of thousands – far too much in fact to archive without industrial grade technical architectures. Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, a respected blogger and data wonk, published a study of Facebook around the election[13]. What was evident through this study was that the Mahinda Rajapaksa camp was the most strategic in their use of Facebook to engage, not just publish. Whereas one lesson is that in a less controlled, contained and censorious context, propaganda by any one camp has far less traction and unchallenged reach, this nuanced and strategic use of Facebook alone can and should be adapted to support wider deliberation and awareness raising around constitutional reform, amongst the same demographics. Examples from Libya[14] and Liberia[15] are also instructive in this regard.

Chat apps in general, and WhatsApp in particular lie outside the scope of many social media discussions and studies, and this is a pity. The hugely popular mobile instant messaging app, bought by Facebook for $22 billion in 2014, saw unprecedented use by the BBC in India’s 2014 General Election to engage voters around key issues[16]. In Sri Lanka, the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) used WhatsApp as a platform to publish, to hundreds of subscribers, information around election violence at both the Presidential and Parliamentary elections. The reason for doing so was to create a platform, in January particularly, largely impervious to censorship (WhatsApp is distributed and has no central server – shutting it down requires data across all mobile networks to be shut off). The BBC’s use is more instructive, and as noted on its website,

There are certainly valid editorial arguments about whether BBC News should really be treating news stories in this way, and whether [it was right] to test out emoticons… However, subscribers really seemed to like the item – it had by far the biggest engagement, in terms of responses, of any item we posted on WhatsApp, with hundreds of people sending back their emoticon faces.

How the BBC has now built on the experience of WhatsApp in India during the election to use chat apps more broadly[17] is a lesson in how these apps can also be employed to create targeted, interactive, engaging deliberative networks, across key demographics, to complement strategies to use content via other media targeted at an older demographic around constitutional reform. Another key example here is the possible use of Viber – an app described by the New York Times as one that helped install the current President in power[18] – to create public chats with select individuals in government around key policy issues. Again, it is the Rajapaksa camp that shows the way others must go[19], if public opinion is to be captured and support for reforms retained.

Technology for the drafters

Aside from all this, projects like Google Constitute[20] help those at the helm of drafting a (new) constitution access comparative examples and information from other countries. The use of data and data visualisation (dataviz) by the Comparative Constitutions Project[21] is also instructive in how specialist platforms, coding and information design can help constitution making. Legislation Lab[22] provides platforms for constitution making process that benefit citizens by making it easy to participate, and for drafters, provides a ‘dashboard’ of information around key policies or points that can help, in or close to real time, with course correction, editing, political buy in, negotiations and other strategic imperatives. A live example in this regard is how it is being used in Chile to discuss its constitution[23]. And if perusing information on that site is a problem (it’s all in Spanish) enter Google Translate. Constitution makers no longer need to rely on time consuming human translations to avail themselves of content or cutting-edge debates in another language – as of now, Google Translate covers 90 languages in total (for text translation). Merely copy a URL into Google Chrome, say yes to a prompt and a translation offering – depending on the complexity of the legal document – a gist of the original, opens instantly.

 

Conclusion

Why do any of this at all? Why does it matter? There is some comfort in the known and business as usual, especially around constitutional reform which has always been led by elites through exclusive, top-down processes that at best only episodically solicit public input, and that too with great suspicion. After over two centuries, the revered Encyclopaedia Britannica went out of print in 2012[24]. As of August 24, 2015 there are 4,951,563 articles on Wikipedia, with over 780 million edits across these articles, an average of around 21. 26 million users are registered with Wikipedia. 2.4 billion visited the site in July 2015 alone[25]. The demise of Encyclopaedia Britannica in our digital age and the astonishing rise and use of Wikipedia is a lesson for constitution making as well – a few experts no longer command complete authority, attention and agency. Recognition there are many experts in the commons, and embracing their feedback and input in a process of constitutional reform is the basic starting point for a process serious about engendering public support around key, contentious issues. Wikipedia is so successful because it is plugged into so many devices, platforms, apps and services seamlessly, and for free. It is accessible in many languages, including in Sinhala and Tamil, and encourages participatory approaches to content curation and creation. Wikipedia (and wikis as a web platform more generally) isn’t perfect, and no one technology is or will be. What information and communications technologies (ICTs) in general offer constitutional reform processes are a menu of adaptable, responsive, scalable, multi-lingual, creative and engaging tools to produce, discuss, disseminate, visualise and archive complex ideas.

The mere introduction of technology into a constitution reform process doesn’t guarantee its success. What is now evident though is that the non-introduction, in a strategic manner, of relevant ICTs in a reform process is almost a guarantee of its failure, or capture by spoilers who are (usually) more adept with new media. As noted by Christian Christensen at the Department of Informatics and Media, Uppsala University in Sweden[26],

… while techno-utopians overstate the affordances of new technologies (what these technologies can give us) and understate the material conditions of their use (e.g., how factors such as gender or economics can affect access), techno-dystopians do the reverse, misinterpreting a lack of results… with the impotence of technology; and, also, forgetting how shifts within the realm of mediated political communication can be incremental rather than seismic in nature.

Constitutional reformers cannot afford to be techno-dystopians, and those from the technology community and media sector, even in support of the most radical reform, cannot afford to be techno-utopians. Careful, measured and sober evaluations around embracing technology can undergird reform processes more resilient to spoiler dynamics, with greater traction in public consciousness, taking root in communities, giving a wider public a sense of ownership in the ultimate document and other benefits associated with deliberative, participatory mechanisms.

It is within Sri Lanka’s grasp. We should not let the opportunity go.

Sanjana Hattotuwa, 25 August 2015

[1] http://www.google.com/loon/

[2] https://twitter.com/gopiharan/status/624075215396433920

[3] http://www.news.lk/news/business/item/7557-sri-lanka-s-mobile-internet-usage-grows-85-8-pct-in-2014-cb

[4] Can be produced on request

[5] https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/polls-social-media-during-the-jan-8th-electioneering-process

[6] http://democracyos.org

[7] http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2015/05/26/heres-how-the-first-president-of-the-social-media-age-has-chosen-to-connect-with-americans/?tid=sm_tw

[8] http://edition.cnn.com/2013/10/22/politics/obamacare-website-problems/

[9] http://www.socialbakers.com/statistics/facebook/pages/total/sri-lanka/

[10] http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2014/07/five_lessons_from_iceland_s_failed_crowdsourced_constitution_experiment.html

[11] https://sanjanah.wordpress.com/2012/05/27/the-sri-lankan-meme/

[12] http://groundviews.org/2015/08/20/archives-of-general-election-2015-slge15-genelecsl/

[13] http://icaruswept.com/2015/08/19/mapping-election-influence-on-social-media-part-two-facebook/

[14] https://www.facebook.com/LibyanJustice?fref=ts

[15] https://www.facebook.com/LiberiaConstitutionReviewCommittee?fref=ts

[16] http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/collegeofjournalism/entries/b2b67bf8-13ce-3acb-9a29-c9680cc77c9e

[17] http://digiday.com/publishers/bbc-goes-global-chat-app-strategy/

[18] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/26/world/for-sri-lankan-president-renounced-by-aides-confidence-of-re-election-dims.html?_r=0

[19] https://twitter.com/RajapaksaNamal/status/634648727920078848

[20] https://www.constituteproject.org

[21] http://comparativeconstitutionsproject.org

[22] http://legislationlab.org/en/

[23] http://laconstituciondetodos.cl

[24] http://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/13/after-244-years-encyclopaedia-britannica-stops-the-presses/

[25] http://www.similarweb.com/website/wikipedia.org

 

[26] http://eclass.uoa.gr/modules/document/file.php/MEDIA118/political%20participation%20and%20online%20activism%20(βλ%20σχετικά%20με%20social%20media%20στους%20συνδέσμους)/discourses%20of%20technology%20and%20liberation_Twitter%20Revolutions_Communication%20Review2011.pdf

ICTs in general

Election monitoring in austere contexts using ICTs

The following note was penned to the co-ordinator of the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV), who asked me to go into some detail around the information security, gathering, archival and dissemination strategies I conceptualised and deployed around the historic Presidential Eleection in Sri Lanka, held on 8th January 2015.

CMEV’s information operations are a template for the monitoring of election violence similar austere circumstances, where the independent monitoring agencies, monitors and activists are at risk of violent pushback before, on the day of and after the elections.

Also read An election monitoring SMS template, from some years ago, where I designed a template through which election monitors could report violence in a structured manner to HQ over basic SMS.

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Screenshot_2014-12-22-16-32-25

CMEV’s operations during the lead up to the Presidential Election on 8th January 2015 included the first time use of mobile technologies as well as, anchored to usual practice, the use of web and social media apps, platforms and tools to monitor, record and disseminate election related violence. 

The context of CMEV operations leading up to election day was one of heightened anxiety, both around the violence in the lead up to the election and the overarching pervasive architecture of surveillance, coupled with the high risk of violent pushback if Mahinda Rajapaksa, the then incumbent, was re-elected against those he and his Govt perceived as somehow in opposition, or supporting Maithripala Sirisena, the leading opposition candidate. Whereas CMEV operations are geared to face physical threats and harm, the context of the Presidential Election, given the known capabilities of the State, also raised fears over disruptive operations in cyberspace, aimed at CMEV’s information gathering and dissemination. 

This led to an unprecedented level of planning around the information security (infosec) and information dissemination capabilities and capacities of CMEV. CMEV used Google Maps to record violence leading up to election day, and incidents of violence on election day. CMEV is the only election violence monitoring body in Sri Lanka that uses web based mapping to highlight key incidents. 

The domain CMEV.org was registered (moving away from the domain associated with WordPress.com), making it easier to access the main website of CMEV. A complete website revamp was anchored to making the entire site responsive (enabling the viewing of content over any smartphone or tablet) and making it easier to get to key content in Sinhala, Tamil and English. The backend continued to be WordPress and with the domain registration, added security (in the form of two step authentication) was enabled, in order to prevent unauthorised access as well as attempts to hack into the site and disrupt CMEV operations. 

Mailchimp.org was used to send out emails including situation reports, eye-witness accounts, vital background information and conduct voter awareness campaigns. 

The cross-platform secure messaging app and service Telegram was recommended for use within CMEV HQ and field staff as a secure means of communicating information. For the first time  a secure means through which to communicate with CMEV was also opened to anyone from the general public, in order to encourage whistleblowing around election irregularities, malpractices and violence. 

Also for the first time, CMEV used WhatsApp over a dedicated smartphone (and associated number) in order to push out vital updates in the form of text, audio and video. Around the 7th of January, there were two WhatsApp groups in operation, pushing out updates to around 350 individuals both in Sri Lanka and outside, from the media, diplomatic corps, civil society, academia and other sectors (to the extent that could be discerned from the numbers provided). The service was opt in, and widely publicised over social media and the web as a means of getting CMEV updates around the clock to one’s mobile. WhatsApp also leverage the fact that mobile phone penetration in the country is extremely high, with most phones sold today being smartphones.

In addition to the above, CMEV and Groundviews also launched an Instagram account, through which images around CMEV operations were pushed out. Instagram growth in Sri Lanka is skyrocketing, and was chosen as a platform to push visual updates from CMEV because of its wide reach within the country.

CMEV’s website featured dozens of updates in English, Tamil and Sinhala, including podcasts (recorded in the field as well as in the HQ over smartphones) and video. CMEV operations were also exhaustively covered over Twitter (via @CMEV), which currently features 674 followers. A number of tweets were retweeted over Groundviews (via @groundviews) and CPA’s institutional Twitter account (@CPASL), ensuring the widest possible reach for the most vital updates pushed out by CMEV. 

In addition to Twitter, CMEV was also on Facebook, which at the time of writing had over 2,000 fans. Facebook is the most used social media platform in the country, and the content featured on the site ensured that it reached a demographic that included first time voters, which was key.

CMEV also, in collaboration with Groundviews, featured and promoted the #IVotedSL social media campaign – an unprecedented attempt over social media, which went viral, to encourage voters to exercise their franchise. A range of compelling infographics (which also went viral across social media) was also produced by CPA and featured on CMEV’s website in order to raise voter awareness around the powers and functions of the Executive President. 

CMEV’s information operations on the backend was across three ISPs, ensuring that if it was blocked or barred from one ISP, we always had another channel to access the web and publish information. In preparation for election day, access to the key CMEV accounts (Twitter, Facebook and website) were also given to a trusted source based outside of Sri Lanka, in order to keep information operations active to the extent possible in the event of a complete internet and web blackout from Sri Lanka, aimed at CMEV and other similar institutions. We also hardened security over key social media accounts by enabling two-step authentication, minimising the risk of unauthorised access and hacking attempts. Staff were provided with the latest smartphones running Android, and with WhatsApp and Telegram as the default mode of information exchange over SMS and voice calls. HQ operations were meticulously planned to run backups of critical data, with offsite data storage as well as cloud based operations all geared to ensure business continuity in the event of arson, internet blackout or worse. 

ICTs in general

Media Innovation at the World Editors Forum 2013

Innovation and paywalls were the buzzwords at the  20th World Editors Forum (WEF) and the 65th World Newspaper Congress, held recently in Bangkok, Thailand. There was hardly any panel which didn’t address the ostensible merits of establishing a paywall, or how innovation – proposed and perceived mostly as mobile app development, responsive web design or changes in the newsroom culture to embrace new media and mobile first strategies – had changed the fortunes of media companies.

In my own submission at WEF, I flagged the innovations pioneered under Groundviews in using web based platforms and services to highlight stories otherwise marginal, or untold. Whereas WEF was agog with the potential profit making potential of paywalls, innovations through Groundviews focussed on content that would not otherwise be known to a wider audience, or recorded for posterity. Groundviews doesn’t have a multi-million dollar budget, any newsroom staff or a graphics department and yet launched an iPhone app to access site content, Twitter feeds and report from the field as far back as 2011. Optimised for the then freshly introduced Retina display on the iPhone 4, the app was the first of its kind in South Asia for a citizen journalism initiative.

While the innovations paraded at WEF by some of the world’s largest and best known media companies and news organisations where mostly rants about how one needed to embrace the mobile web or else face rapid obsolescence, Groundviews offered a different, and I hope, more compelling story – a meta-story if you will, about how it captures, archives and visualises content often no other media institution in Sri Lanka can or will feature. I spoke about the use of Google Earth in the visualisation of the bloody end of the war in Sri Lanka, as well as in the fate of mass graves in the North and East of the country. I flagged how the site archives tweets around significant events and processes in Sri Lanka. Data visualisation and open data journalism are alien concepts in Sri Lanka, and yet this is precisely what – without calling it such – Groundviews is providing examples of, and moreover, how to do it for free or little cost.

But beyond the technology, I spoke about how Sri Lanka is NOT a story in the global media today, after the end of the war and more precisely, how the feel good tourism coverage on the country glossed over real violence. Flagging, inter alia, the serious and growing violations of human rights, the systemic breakdown of democratic governance, the rapid rise of Islamophobia, the near total mockery of the Rule of Law and the continuing and the violent marginalisation of the Tamil community, my presentation was in effect how a platform as simple as WordPress could bear witness to that which no one else was recording, interrogating, archiving or investigating.

The most valuable innovation for me is not what you do with a multi-million dollar budget. It is what you do, and how you do it, using little or no resources – human or financial. It is how you showcase the best journalism under duress, and a violent content. It is how you report when you know what you focus on will invariably result in serious pushback – physically, virtually or both. It is strategically planning for this pushback. It is leveraging the power and potential of freely accessible web platforms and apps, which may have never been designed with journalism in mind, to capture stories that need to be told. It is the self-education that is necessary to keep subjects and contributors safe, and yet, get their stories produced and published. It is how a simple archive of tweets can be, over the years, the richest source of critiques over promises unkept or broken. It is to embrace arts, theatre, music, photography, dance, painting and data visualisation as forms of journalism and then see how digital media can augment physical production and performance.

All this and more, over seven years, Groundviews has pioneered. WEF was a rare honour to participate in and contribute to as well. Yet for me, it was substantively largely passé. Innovation in media blossoms not just with millions of readers subsidising its real cost, or for and in the developed world, but when there is no help, safety net, international media gaze, human resources or financial resources. It’s this innovation that also needs to be flagged, and models to support and sustain, created.

ICTs in general

The Sri Lankan President’s Twitter archive

Excerpt from a much longer piece I wrote for Groundviews (The Sri Lankan President’s Twitter archive and Propaganda 2.0: New challenges for online dissent), dealing with an archive I created that captures every single tweet published by the Sri Lankan President’s official Twitter account, and why this is so important.

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Screen-Shot-2013-02-12-at-3.11.56-PM

It is evident therefore that the President’s new media presence isn’t seen as a vehicle of engagement with society and polity, but rather, an extension of his government’s policy to pass off propaganda and partisan perspectives as news and official updates.

Complete archive
Because of what’s stated as well as the damning silences and evasion, Groundviews felt it imperative to record for posterity all the tweets published by @PresRajapaksa as well as all interactions referencing this official account, starting from Day One.

Groundviews is pleased to present a novel and easy to use front end to a comprehensive archive, constantly updated, of the President’s interactions and content generation on Twitter.

To see all the tweets (updated daily) access the full spreadsheet here.

There is also a data visualisation giving top-level information about @PresRajapaksa accessible here. Though the screenshot of the dashboard below is accurate at the time of publication, the link will always open a page with updated statistics.

Screen-Shot-2013-02-12-at-3.21.47-PM

ICT for Peacebuilding, ICTs in general

Panel Discussion: Women’s Engagement with New Media

The proverbial glass ceiling has long been in the way of women’s upward movement within the public sphere, including in media institutions. How have women overcome the limitations of access and opportunity of the conventional media structures by increasingly and innovatively engaging with online media platforms and spaces?

The Sri Lankan chapter of South Asian Women in Media Network (SAWM Sri Lanka) organised a panel discussion on women’s engagement with new media, which I was invited to moderate. In addition to Sachini Perera from Women and Media Collective speaking about women’s participation in new media in general, four distinguished women delivered presentations of around 15 minutes each,

  1. DushiYanthini Kanagasabapathipillai (Journalist, Photographer) http://passionparade.blogspot.com/
  2. Tehani Ariyaratna (CEPA, Blogger) http://www.cepa.lk/
  3. Rushda Mohinudeen (Reach Out) http://reachoutlk.wordpress.com/ 
  4. Sanjeewika Manohari (Boondi, Blogger) http://www.boondi.lk, http://lihinisara.blogspot.com/

The presentations were uniformly excellent, and I understand will be published online anon by WMC and/or SAWM. I requested the panellists to consider the following points when preparing their submissions,

  1. Why are you engaging with new media? What inspired you, or forced you to do so, and why have you continued to publish and engage?
  2. How has your engagement with new media changed from the time you first started? What topics do you focus on and why?
  3. How do you perceive your role when using and engaging through social media?
  4. Has self-expression as a woman/female journalist/female activist, in your perception, increased qualitatively because of your use of new media? What kinds of expression do you engage in today, that you couldn’t do without new media?
  5. Has new media taught you to communicate key messages in different ways (i.e. long FB post, short Tweet, photo caption and photo, audio clip, and short video – around same issue)? How difficult was this learning process?
  6. Just yesterday, Ceylon Today, ironically a newspaper that has two of the most senior women journalists in Sri Lanka at its helm, published an article that was outrageously sexist, documented by myself and others on this email, including Women and Media Collective, via Twitter. Does new media strengthen gendered critiques of old media practises, attitudes and content? If so, how? Conversely, what examples of sexism and misogyny have you experienced or seen in new media platforms?
You may also wish to consider,
  1. The security dimensions, as a female voice/activist on new media. Do you occasionally or always publish content anonymously, pseudonymously, and if so, why?
  2. What tools and techniques have you found helpful to minimise risk, and engage with difficult issues?
  3. How have you dealt with hate speech against self, institution, family and friends? What are some coping mechanisms in this regard?
  4. How do you assess risk online? What are your markers of safety? When and how do you determine, based on online interactions and content, there is fear of physical harm to self, family, friends or colleagues?

Some notes I took down as moderator, to stimulate discussion and also responding to the presentations by the panellists, follow.

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  • As women move from the margins to the centre, and their use of new media grows qualitatively as well as quantitatively, there will be new challenges around privacy, safety and security as well as redefinitions of identity, participation and engagement. This discussions will be both shaped by, and mediated through, new media – the media itself will shape the content, and the content will go on to shape how new media will be used and perceived.
  • The need to move away from blogs and blogging, and to more nuanced discussions of how new media ecosystems can support advocacy and activism.
  • While the frustration with more rights based, gendered and high quality content creation persists, it is also the case that the more people who create content for and publish on the likes of YouTube, Flickr and various blogs also, over time, make it that much harder for the government to censor or block these platforms. While WMC can and must strengthen more serious advocacy by and for women, it should also encourage more content creation of any kind – the more people are online and using new media, the more the impact of censorship is felt across multiple levels and segments of society.
  • Activists need to augment their technical knowledge to keep up with privacy concerns and increasing sophistication of surveillance. The online and virtual today has a direct and immediate impact on the physical and institutional. This connection isn’t made in the minds of many activists, who remain more concerned about physical safety and security and less interested in online security and secure communications.
  • There are attendant challenges of growing audiences online, on multiple fronts. At its simplest, its about growing a fan and following base on Facebook and Twitter, which can cost money, and requires strategic thinking and an understanding of online social network and audience dynamics. There is also the challenge of reaching beyond the converted. Following and engaging with difference – which can often be rudely and insultingly couched – is another challenge. The language of hate, hurt and harm overwhelms the negotiation of difference online, esp. when anonymity is a handy cloak. The nature of this venom is particularly virulent against women and women activists – who need to develop coping mechanisms using technology as well as human/institutional networks.
  • Understanding one’s network influencers can be done through Wolfram Alpha’s Facebook tool – http://www.wolframalpha.com/facebook/
  • The central challenge of activists in the digital age remain one of the imagination. Activists and institutions consider new media as promotional extensions of their old, street level activism (i.e. by posting videos and photos online of demonstrations around Lipton Circus). While this is in and of itself useful and on occasion, extremely powerful, few if any in Sri Lanka are thinking of the wholly new ways of using social and new media for activism and the captivation of new supporters and audiences. A number of compelling examples in this regard were provided by panellists, and one hopes there is a more robust documentation of what worked when, with whom and why, as a template for others to emulate.
  • The challenge of hyper-connectivity and over-sharing. The first fractures our attention – our brains are today, quite literally, wired differently, because we engage with media and information in a fundamentally different way to how our parents did. A Microsoft researcher called this a few years ago ‘continuous partial attention’ – being ensnared by multiple information nodes (e.g. checking FB on mobile whilst listening to a panel presentation, and quickly tweeting something a soundbite, and at the same time snapping a shot of the speaker and posting on Instagram). Over-sharing (esp. through apps like Foursquare) means that we now share where we have coffee, and with whom. While both can lead to interesting studies of human movement and behaviour, in a repressive regime, they also provide a lot of information that could be useful in censoring and harming activists. The other problem of course is how activists can address a generation and audiences whose attention span is so limited.
  • Photography today is not just limited to D-SLR cameras. Every single phone now has a camera, and most smartphones today have cameras many times better than even low end digital cameras. The power and potential of these cameras to bear witness need to be encouraged and explored, esp. on women’s issues.
  • More awareness about Creative Commons licensing of content needed – http://creativecommons.org.
  • The enduring challenge of attribution can in part be addressed by CC licensing, but also requires mainstream media to engage with new media collectives, perhaps convened by the likes of WMC in the case of women who are active on new media, and how they can properly attribute content and use these new voices in their own reporting. Producers of content need to also make their content open, for e.g. http://groundviews.org/2013/01/24/complete-twitter-archive-19000-tweets-from-2008-to-2012/ (the Twitter archive download feature is being progressively introduced to all Twitter accounts)
  • Engage with Charitha Herath’s / Media Ministry’s new media ethics framework, due to made public in the next week or so. For a government that usually kills, maims, forces into silence or exile, censors and defiles us, even though there is great scepticism about the framework’s raison d’etre, it’s still useful to engage with him and the Media Ministry about it, esp. from a gendered perspective.
  • The challenges of anonymity on a platform like Facebook needs to be fully understood – as it stands, creating a false id on the platform is contravenes usage guidelines and risks account deletion. With the introduction of FB’s new Social Graph feature in the coming months, content on the platform will be far more open to other users, which again raises concerns about how much activists on it know about privacy controls.
  • Know what you want to say and do before embracing tools and platforms. A panellist noted the introduction of Vine by Twitter (6 second looping videos) but rather than be guided by the latest and most hyped tech, it is fundamentally important to ascertain which audience one wants to speak to and engage with, on what issues, and how. Being guided by tech is a recipe for disaster. Being guided by the thrust of a core message helps one select what tools to use, when, and with whom.
  • Know thy network – who are the connectors, who are the influencers. Wolfram Alpha’s FB tool noted above can help a lot in this regard.
  • Institutionally, leverage multiple networks for the greatest dissemination of content – if there is a very popular person in office who has a social media network many times greater than the institution itself, but doesn’t use it for activism, and there is a more advocacy oriented person who updates social media platform more regularly with say rights based content, it is useful to see how the two networks can complement each other.
  • The use of SMS wasn’t discussed, but there are a number of examples from FrontlineSMS alone, incl. in Sri Lanka amongst women – WMC has details – where it has been used. More study and emulation needed.
ICT for Peacebuilding, ICTs in general

ICT without agency?

Cross-posted from my blog featuring my regular newspaper column.

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There is in Sri Lanka an Information and Communications Technology Agency. There are also Ministries of Science and Technology, Mass Media and Information, Telecommunication and Information Technology and incredibly, Technology and Research. In addition, we have the Department of Government Information. Finally, there is a National Science and Technology Commission.

The combined financial and human resources needed to maintain these institutions are significant – billions of rupees per annum. And yet, not a single one has any on-going or planned initiative, made public, around post-war reconciliation in general, or the curation of vital discussions around the final report and recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in particular. And while the LLRC has it’s own website, it is about as useful an archive as a bakery in Colombo during April’s long Avurudu break – there’s a clear structure, but nothing of any worth in it. As I noted in a longer article penned recently for a Sinhala publication, there are already over 18 million SIM registrations in a country of just over 20 million people according to the latest topline census data. 2.3 million smartphones were sold over 2011 alone. Mobile phone companies have an SMS code or service for a plethora of entertainment options, lifestyle choices, news updates, cashless mobile commerce, utility payments and even astrological updates. And yet, there’s no short-code or service yet to inform 18 million subscribers about the contents of the LLRC report, or broadly, host discussions around post-war reconciliation.

Sri Lanka could have set an example on how post-war ICTs can strengthen reconciliation. Sadly and perhaps unsurprisingly, it has not done so. Whether online, on the desktop, via mobiles, using a combination of mainstream print and terrestrial media with web platforms or strictly through SMS and online social networking platforms –technology that can be leveraged to strengthen and support meaningful reconciliation is either already present and used in the country, or can be without much effort and investment, introduced. Mainstream media can play a role. So can so-called ‘serious games’ – games that through small mobile downloads or through the desktop browser use rewards and social recognition to promote engagement with tough issues like reparation, accountability and transitional justice. From online memes – the growth and potential of which I have recently addressed in this column – to bearing witness through mobile phone photography, from citizen driven curation of audio-visual content online to audioscapes of ordinary life in different communities even within a single city, from how we can localise compelling examples like Videoletters that brought together displaced and dispersed families from the former Yugoslavia through video to powerful examples of memorialising violence like the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, literacy, age, socio-economic group, geographic location, topography, language or cost no longer impedes us from leveraging the full potential of ICTs for reconciliation. However, in Sri Lanka, the absence of political will remains a significant challenge. In our country, ICTs will be used for reconciliation despite government and, for the foreseeable future, without any subsidy or support from any major telecommunications company.

The galaxy of line ministries, departments and commissions dealing with information and technology alone, supported by public coffers, should be leading innovation around reconciliation. Clearly, they are not. It is unlikely they ever will. This can be turned around. Every published indicator unequivocally suggests Sri Lankans are more connected today than any other period in history. We call more. We text more. Young Sri Lankans use the Internet more. Mainstream media is on the web, on Twitter, on Facebook. Civic media online, in Sinhala and Tamil, is on the rise. This is a real opportunity through a historic intersection – the contents of a report on reconciliation published at a time when there are growing numbers producing information for and consuming information off online channels. And it’s not just for the Twitterati – information online, when available, debated and highlighted, has the potential to shape policies and practices that affect far larger numbers of citizens. We have the infrastructure, and both government and civil society have much to gain from thinking and using more ICTs for reconciliation.

Either we step up now, or deeply regret later.

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Published in The Nation print edition 1 July 2012.