Friday, 27 April 2012

Open Access or Silent Culture (part 1)

I gave a TEDxBradford talk to discuss another concept of openness, an alternative to the one which is intensifying in current rhetoric which focuses on barriers to access such as censorship and surveillance. Such as:

"...the Internet is at risk....threat comes from Iran, Syria, and other cyber-autocracies that use pretexts to deny their citizens their rights to express themselves, seek and receive information, and freely associate." (OECD representative K. Kornbluh, 2011)


“For nearly a decade, the United Nations quietly has been angling to become the epicenter of Internet governance, but now those efforts appear to be intensifying,” said Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) “It’s absolutely imperative for the United States to oppose this naked power grab led by Russia and China.” (from Politico) 


The juxtaposition of America vs. its anti-democratic rivals frames policy formulation in black and white ideological terms leaving no room to explore, to ask why and how.  Why will the U.S. benefit from influencing information monitoring or promoting the use of American software?  How will controlling information shape the digital battlefield?  

Here are is part 1 of my talk with (5) visuals (part 2 coming soon). Part 1 lays out the current concept of barriers/access and looks at how the ICT tools are being used to gather information in fragile conflict zones and some remaining challenges. Part 2 looks at why the system persists.

(1) The debate surrounding the use of ICT to empower democratization efforts and human rights work focuses on the idea of openness. As an extension of the concept of freedom of expression which is vital in democracy and protected in the UN charter (and something they would like to protect online), if individuals are free to convey and discuss events happening around them through online platforms then democracy will prevail.  Therefore, when developing policies aimed at promoting democracy, access to mobile and online information sharing is a focus and participation in the information sharing architecture is the goal.  Current policies encourage a definition of freedom that equates participation with open access and despotism with censorship and information barriers.  While the political rhetoric stays focused on preventing the expansion of Iranian, Chinese, or Russian controlled cyberspace, the platform of access, the gatekeeper managing information, and the format of your participation can be barriers as well.  ICT has evolved rapidly and emerged from primarily US and western EU cultures. However, the regions where it is applied for democratization efforts differ tremendously by language and culture.  Are there consequences for users when technology is used far from its place of origin?  How does the producing culture manage this distance? Is this a type of computer-based colonialism?

The potential for ICT to transform conflict is tremendous.  Here are 2 images of that potential.  When I spend time in these environments, what I hear from people is they are using these tools to tell stories.  They want to share the events happening around them, to have a voice, to coalesce a group, to cement an identity.  

My roof collapsed.  I have lost my parents.  My sister was wounded in the street.  My father was killed behind the house.  When these personal events are swept together with ICTs in conflict situations, the information conveyed takes on a political life.  That information motivates actions in the form of allegiance building, humanitarian aid funding, conflict management policy.

Here you see a scene from Rabat, Morocco dotted with satellite dishes.  No matter whether you live under corrugated tin without running water or in a penthouse, you have a satellite dish.  This translates to the expansion of mobile internet coverage.  Mobile web access tripled on the African continent last year—surpassing Asia (the continent that includes china) according to the ITU.  Partly because of infrastructure barriers to internet and partly because of cost structures, mobile devices are the target for development.

The cool blue code sweeping over the human is an image chosen by the web designers for ICT4Peace, a Swiss organization which partners with most major aid orgs including the UN. Along with the social media we are familiar with such as Twitter and Facebook, NGOs use situation specific technology to do needs assessments, election monitoring, government transparency programs, report human rights abuses, and so on, tools which collect, aggregate, and manage this information built from stories. The problem is, these tools were designed in one culture, designed to gather and organize information from the perspective of one culture, and deployed in another.

One group sees users in terms of tasks and tends to design in terms of a 'universal user in conflict or crisis.' The other group on the ground wants to communicate, but they don't see where the data they generate ends up.  Two different views of ICT users.

(3)ACCESS=PARTICPATION=FREEDOM, The essential equation
One barrier to access has been language. But innovation rose to the challenge. According to the National Media Museum’s Life Online, there are 270 languages participating across the web.

Here’s the Yoruba iphone keyboard.  And on the left, an award winning web and mobile app for Bangla from used by citizen journalists.  Even if you can’t read Bangla, you can see with the boxes and colors that it’s obviously an app. The image with the map is the result of a partnership with Ushahidi’s crowdmapping which brought together phones and the web when al Jazeera English gave phones to people on the ground in Somalia and asked them to reply with an SMS to the question ‘how has the conflicted affected you.’ The reply was translated by an open source webplatform by a crowd of volunteers in a process called crowdsourcing. The translated message was then categorized and plotted for readers of Al Jazeera English to interact with online. It seems that all the access barriers have been addressed. This is the antidote to autocracy.

But there remains an invisible barrier.  Each of these groups is trying to solve a problem and ignoring the variable of culture.