Friday, March 31, 2006

Closing America's Digital Divide

The New York Times reports today that blacks and English-speaking hispanics are using the internet in greater and greater numbers. According to a Pew survey in 1998, 42% of white American adults said they used the internet while only 23% of black adults did so. A new Pew poll, completed last month, reports that 74% of whites, 61% of blacks, and 80% of English-speaking hispanic go online.

While it is note-worthy that English-speaking hispanics have surpassed the white population in internet use, this does not mean that hispanics in general have higher access. The Pew study did not measure the internet-use of non-English-speaking hispanics, which experts expect would be low. Also, English-speaking hispanics may be younger second-generation immigrants, thus making the sample of English-speaking hispanics younger overall than the sample of the white population, which would include whites of all generations. Because young people are more likely to be comfortable with the internet than older people, the English-speaking hispanic figure may be higher than the white figure because it includes a higher percentage of young tech-savvy hispanics. In order to assess the internet usage of the hispanic population in general, it will be necessary to measure the usage of non-English-speaking hispanics as well.

So, Americans are making progress in bridging the digital divide, which means marginalized citizens are gaining greater access to the communication and information tools. Lets hope we hear good news from other countries too.

categories: the digital divide_

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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Hamro Nepal: The World's First Digitial Democracy Organization

Hamro Nepal is ready to launch. Developed by a friend of mine, Paramendra Bhagat, Hamro is a revolutionary organization which aims to overthrow the authoritarian regime of King Gyanendra, through non-violent activism, and institute a democratic republic. No small ambition, eh?

Fortunately, Hamro has a practical plan for accomplishing this goal. The organization will operate through autonomous chapters in different countries and leadership positions will be determined by a particular member's ability to recruit more members. Fundraising will occur through membership fees, which will be higher in richer countries. Chapters in different countries will use the internet to communicate, particularly MSN Messenger and Google Talk (and why not Skype as well?).

However, Hamro's proposed use of the internet and digital technology to promote democracy is more innovative than simple chat. Hamro plans to bring members together in an online "virtual parliament" to discuss issues related to Hamro. Hamro will also use online polls for voting.

Today, all major non-profits and political movements use the internet. Most simply give their employees e-mail accounts, create an organization web site, and then call it a day. Hamro is different because digital technology is not incidental to it's existance. Rather, digital technology is an integral part of what the organization is and how it will operate.

This is a sign of things to come. In the next few years, digital organizations (organizations which exist only online or who rely heavily on the internet to carry out their mission) will increase substantially. The result? Because the internet allows for large-scale at low-cost, we will see grassroots organizations reaching international audiences previously only accessible to well-funded establishment NGO's like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. So, Hamro, blaze us a trail for others to follow.
(photo: United We Blog)

For more information about Hamro Nepal, contact Paramendra at: paramendra@yahoo.com

categories: the "developing world"_, digital organizations_, redefining democratization_

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Monday, March 27, 2006

Democracy Island: A World of Boat People?


Democracy Island is a group of islands in Second Life, a privately owned, virtual world created in 2003 by San Francisco-based Linden Lab. People enter Second Life (SL) using "avatars," digital representations of themselves that may or may not bear any resemblance to their real appearance. (Some avatars have antennae or wings). Although the graphics look like those of a sophisticated computer game, a spokesperson for Linden Labs noted that SL is not "a video game, we call ourselves a platform.... It's a creative tool to build and do whatever you want." Although access is free, people must pay to buy land in SL and there are certain hardware requirements and software downloads necessary to enter the virtual world.

Democracy Island was first opened to the public in 2005. It is a creation of the Do Tank, a program of the Institute for Information Law and Policy at New York Law School. Democracy Island seeks to overcome some of the difficulties of civic participation by offering an online space that can be conveniently accessed from home or work to create a virtual town hall or fair ground where civic groups, citizens, and government agencies can meet and discuss public issues.

However, who will Democracy Island's visitors actually be? Will visitors to Democracy Island be active real-world citizens who learn how to navigate SL because they are interested in the island as a civic tool or will visitors be high-tech enthusiasts already familiar with SL who are only mildly interested in democracy? More importantly, although system requirements for SL are now "more in line with new [personal] computers that are coming out," how many people who are not already immersed in high-tech will feel comfortable entering a virtual world?

This problem becomes more grave when one considers the developing world, arguably the place where innovative democracy-building tools are most needed. Current statistics tell us that outside Europe and North America, internet penetration rarely rises about 15% of any given population. However, anecdotal evidence indicates that, with the help of internet cafes, citizens of developing countries are ever increasing their acess to the internet. This is particularly true of young people in urban areas where, even in very poor countries, teenagers have e-mail accounts and use internet chat programs. Even if their access is much less frequent than in developing countries, they are still part of the internet generation.

In addition, most countries that are developing economically are also developing politically. It is in these countries, especially those with limited freedom of assembly, where a digital space for political meetings would be extremely useful. In countries like Iran or Cuba, which harrass opposition organizers, an anomymous digital space to hold meetings and meet with sympathizers and supporters from other countries would be invaluable.

However, to download the program and access SL it is necessary to own a new-model computer, no great feat for a citizen of the developed world, but a relative rarity among most of the world's citizens. What a great tragedy it will be if the revolutionary potential of Democracy Island remains inaccessible to the people who would benefit from it the most, if the few of the rich world are able to participate and the rest of the world's citizens are religated to the position of "boat people," kept far from the island's shores by the program's hardware and software requirements.

Certainly part of what makes Democracy Island exciting and innovative is the quality of the SL digital world, which necessarily has certain requirements for cache, RAM, etc. However, can the kernel of the Democracy Island idea be transferred to a more accessible space, a simple website, for example? The loss of image quality and animation complexity would correlate directly to an increase in accessiblity for the majority of the world's citizens, and then Democracy Island really could change the world.

Sources:
Do Tank's Democracy Island Homepage
Online Virtual World Is Part Fantasy, Part Civics Experiment in InternetWeek
Avatars Among Us in Wired
Second Life on Wikipedia
Internet Usage Statistics by Internet World Stats


categories: redefining democratization_, the "developing" world_

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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Democracy Blog: A Great Kenyan Rant

Ory Okolloh, the writer of Kenyan Pundit, is incredibly perceptive and also incredibly witty, which makes her blog great fun to read. Take a look at her curreent post on the Kenyan Parliament:

I’m not sure how else to characterize the current Parliament. No wonder we have such an escapist President…who would want to deal with such imbeciles? Oh gosh, I guess I was about due for a rant.

Here we go… So Parliament resumed yesterday. And it didn’t take long for the tragedy that is Kenyan politics to manifest itself in all its glory. Where do we start?

“Parliament got off to a stormy start that saw the Opposition pull out of the most important committee of the House at the end of a bitter dispute on Wednesday."

Which means we have to spend the rest of the year listening to the Opposition whining about being left out of the decision-making process and threatening to shut down government business. read more >

categories: general democracy blogging_, the "developing" world_

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Friday, March 24, 2006

Too Connected

In a previous entry I gleefully sang the praises of mobile telecommunication in the "developing" world. However, I think I might have spoken too soon.

Cell phones are annoying in the West: the businessman walking down the street apparently raving to himself but actually talking into his Bluetooth earpiece, the guy who forgets to turn off his phone in a movie theatre and then answers a call during the most suspenseful part of the film. The "developing" world - or at least my corner of it, Morocco - has these problems too.

The vacation I took this past week ended in Tata (see photo), an isolated provincial outpost in the far south. In order to get back to Rabat, I took a 10-hour overnight bus (believe it or not, the best way to go). This would have been unpleasant enough, had it not been for the cellphones. Everyone on the bus seemed to have one, including the driver and "first mate." The first mate was merely annoying. I wondered why people were calling him so freqently, if he was a drug dealer or a courrier of some kind. Unfortunately, he was speaking Berber, so I didn't understand what he was saying. The driver's talking was more of a problem, though: I was worried we might crash. When the women sitting next to me (who had a mounstache, incidentally) began chatting on her cell phone, I had really had enough.

Usually Moroccan phone calls are almost farcically short: "peace be upon you and your family - may God bless you; I'm coming on Friday - ok, God willing; bye-bye" because 20 cents a minute is prohibitively expensive. However, this general pattern was not in evidence on the bus. Maybe prices are going down.

So, to amend my previous glowing appraisal of telecommunication: the proverbial "silver bullet" can kill. Even solutions bring their own attendant problems. While the broad availability of cellphones in Morocco is certainly positive, it is not without its negative... RING RING... excuse me, I have to get that.

categories: the "developing" world_, Morocco_

Friday, March 17, 2006

Going on Democra-cation

I am going on vacation this coming week to Marrakech, Essaouira, Agadir, and Tata (a desert village too obscure for Flickr). I'll be back to Rabat and back to blogging on Friday the 24th. Until then I recommend you read Democracy Guy, a chronicle of democracy promotion in Armenia - funny and fascinating because it rings too true.

categories: general democracy blogging_, election blogging_

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Introducing the Demosphere Manifesto

Paramendra Bhagat and I have written a proposal for an international digital network to support democracy movements. Since we like neologisms, we are calling it the "demosphere," that is, an online network of democracy supporters and local activists. Local activists would become "bridge activists" (thanks for the bridge idea, Hoder), linking democracy activists in other countries and democracy supporters on the internet with activists on the ground in their particular country. (We see bloggers as being key bridge activists.) The demosphere would also connect democracy activists in different nations with one-another, creating peer-to-peer democracy networks.

I have included some highlights from our "manifesto" (we wanted to be dramatic) below. The entire document is on a wiki (this is a collaborative project) : http://demologue.wikispaces.com/Demosphere+Manifesto. A printable version is available here.

Preample

....we work to identify individuals and groups in and from those countries that are working towards establishing democracy.... After identifying these activists we use digital technology - websites, e-mail, chat rooms, online forums, blogs - to connect these activists with one another. One country group learns from another, there would be cross-pollination in terms of learning strategies,techniques. Greater knowledge will lead to more productive action and spead the pace of democratization around the world.

Article 1: Bridge Activists

...Bridge activists are a link between the knowledge and political experience available on the internet and local activists working on the ground. In this way, the leap can be made from the grassroot to an international digital democracy network in a single step, through a single type of activist.

Article 2: The Blogosphere

What is this international digital democracy network? It is the Demophere. It is an informal network of blogs, websites, and digital citizens who support democracy and want to empower local democracy activists. It is a digital ecosystem....

Article 3: The Role of Bloggers

Some of the most powerful bridge activists in this movement will be bloggers.... A blogalaxy has many individual and group blogs all interlinked to each other through blogrolls, RSS feeds, e-mail lists. These blogalaxies can be a foundation from which the demosphere will grow.

The demosphere will be in the background. Screen time will always be secondary to face time. The most difficult work will be done in the organizing among those that might not even be online....

Article 4: Access

...not everyone has to come online, not everyone has to blog. There might be language and financial barriers to going online. This is where bridge activists comes into play. People and groups who cannot or do not come online have access to bridge activists who are online and connected, inside and outside the country.

Article 5: Diasporas

Diasporas are also important because expatriates will be key bridge activists.... Expatriates have the money and the internet access that result from their membership in the diaspora, as well as an intimate knowledge of the local conditions in their home country.... "Brain drain" was a colonial term. We are all global citizens.

Article 6: The Boundary Concept

Another problem arises. There are countries, like China, that seem to be able to control even the internet. ....According to this concept, we organize from outside the boundary. In addition, local activists organize clandestinely from within the country. If that organizing is fierce enough, and the temperature is raised, ultimately the boundary will melt...

Article 7: Action

What will the actions of the demosphere be?.... Certainly, some fundraising will occur, channeling money from the diaspora and the democracies to effective, credible, and accountable grassroots activists on the ground....

The network may also act as an advocate...

We might also, through blogs, publically debate opponents of democracy....

We have to create organizations and umbrella organizations among the diaspora....

Article 1: The Goal

....The goal is the establishment of democratic governments throughout the world...

The message is peace and equality. The message is dignity and pride. You organize to achieve them when you do not have them. The demosphere supports this struggle....

categories: the demosphere_, redefining democratization_


Monday, March 13, 2006

Malaysia: The Agony and the Ecstasy of Citizen Journalism

Hat-tip to Jeff Ooi of Screenshots for his post on citizen journalism on Malaysia. In a way, this story epitomizes what I love about citizen journalism and what can be incredibly frustrating about it.

According to Jeff, Malaysian bloggers felt that a protest last Friday against a hike in fuel prices would not be covered by the MSM (mainstream media), so they decided to cover it themselves on their blogs. myAsylum does a particularly nice job. The post includes a description of what the blogger saw and some pictures. Paul Ooi also has a descriptive article and photos, including some nice scary ones of the riot police. However, the best photos are at Shagadelica. (They are truly artful; it is the source of the photo I published in this post.)

Citizens taking to the streets to cover what the MSM will not - sounds great, right? So, what am I complaining about? Well, there is some really important information missing from these accounts. Not because of any ill-will or intention to mislead, but simply because the the bloggers didn't know. First, why are the fuel prices being hiked? Was it a reaction to market forces, increases in the global price of oil simply being passed along to the consumer, or was this a voluntary action by the government, a means of collecting extra revenue? Also, it would have been nice to have some background. How frequently do these types of protests occur? What is the usual government reaction?

I realize that this type of contextual information is usually collected by professional journalists, people with the time and training necessary to make phone calls and do interviews to collect facts and with the credentials necessary to gain access to such information. However, when the very purpose of citizen journalism is to fill a gap in news coverage created by the MSM, the MSM is not available to provide this background.

I would like to see citizen journalists become a little more ambitious in their reporting. If the MSM isn't covering a story at all, then you need to go that extra mile to create the analysis and context that make a news story meaningful. The more professional citizen journalists become in their standards, the greater their audience they will become and the greater their influence will be on the MSM. The role of citizen journalists in countries with limited press freedom is not to take on the responsibilities of the MSM to inform the public. The job of citizen journalists is to force the MSM to do theirs.

categories: citizen journalism_

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Digital Democracy Mentoring

Last week, Beth of Beth's Blog wrote an interesting post on a virtual mentoring program that pairs experienced bloggers from around the world with would-be bloggers in Africa. Beth also posted some other articles about virtual mentoring (reproduced with additions at the end of this post).

Having the one-track-mind that I do, I immediately thought of the implications for democracy-building. I have started my own digital democracy program, Digital Democracy Mentors, aimed at linking democracy practioners with would-be activists around the world. However, the project never got off the ground.

I think it is because I don't know how to contact democracy practioners or would-be activists en masse. Unlike the Africa Blog Project, which targeted bloggers, democracy activists and practioners are not necessarily already online and may not be particularly comfortable with the internet.

Also, it is not quite clear who the participants would be or what skills would be transferred. What is a "democracy practioner"? Someone who works for an official democracy-building NGO like The National Democratic Institute, The International Republican Institute, or USAID? Maybe is just a civil society volunteer who may work at some unrelated job but in his or her free time works on political projects.

Also, what democracy skills would I be spreading and what is a "democracy skill" anyway? Organizing a political rally? Filling out a grant application to fund a civil society project? Organizing a public forum on a political issue? Probably these examples and others as well would qualify. This lack of clarity probably also prevented the program from successfully recruiting activists and practitioners.

Nevertheless, digitial democracy mentoring continues to appeal to me. It is a way to connect practitioners and activists from around the world, thus relaying an experience from Canada to the Ukraine or from Bolivia to Guatemala. Most importantly, this communication could be achieved at very low cost. Because low-cost is essential to the sustainability of a democracy project, the bottom line is key. In addition, the rather impersonal e-mails that have been the tissue of most virtual mentoring (or "telementoring") programs can be supplemented with instant messaging and voice chat, thus allowing a more personal connection to be made. I also like the idea of mentoring because it is decentralized and person-to-person rather than being institutionally-based. I am convinced that virtual mentoring can be used to spread democracy, I just need to figure out how.

Resources on Virtual Mentoring:
Digital Democracy Mentors (2006)
The Africa Mentoring Project (2006)
Young Caucasus Women Project (2006)
Virtual Mentoring: A Real-World Case Study from the University of Saskatchewan (2000)
American Pharmaceutical Association Academy of Students of Pharmacy Virtual Mentoring Program
The Internet Telementor Program (2002)

categories: redefining democratization_

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Citizen Journalism: It's Beginning in Morocco


Recently, I have been thinking about how citizen journalism (news reported and analyzed by ordinary citizens and amateur journalists rather than by formal news agencies) could have a positive effect on democratization processes in the "developing" world. In general, I believe that democratization must come from the citizens, from the grassroot. Top-down democratization, led half-heartedly by an authoritarian government, or democratization imposed by foreign country are not only illegitimate, they are ineffective.

Citizen journalism is a great way for citizens to get involved in politics. By recording events or just voicing their opinions, citizens engage actively and critically in public affairs. Web-based citizen journalism goes one step further. It brings instant, large-scale, low-cost access to citizen media. In the "developing" world, low cost is key. If a project is to be sustainable, it must be low-cost. If a project is to be independent from foreign or government funding, it must be low-cost. This is the beauty of the internet. With a couple of clicks, a blog post is published at almost no cost to the writer and at very low cost to the consumer. Low-cost means wide availability and wide availability means influence and influence translates into power. When the power of citizens increases, so does democracy.

I went to Marrakech (see photo) this past Monday to meet with Tarik Essaadi, the founder of EMarrakech, a news website, and Blog.ma, a blogging site. He and I decided to work together, along with his design team, to create a citizen media website by and for Moroccans. It will be called "e-mowatan." (In Arabic, "mowatan" means "citizen"). It will begin as a blog an then, if there is enough interest, it can be expanded into a full website. I am already thinking of ways we can use the website to cover the 2007 parliamentary elections... but I shouldn't get ahead of myself, let's just see how this plays out.

categories: the "developing" world_, morocco_, citizen journalism_, redefining democratization_

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Leapfrogging: A New Model For Development

Leapfrogging. It's a game. One person stands in front of the other. Then, the person behind springs forward, leaping over the person in front. All of a sudden the person behind is now ahead. The hierarchy has shifted.

As a game, this concept is only of moderate interest. In fact, you probably lost interest in the game of leapfrog when you were about ten years old.

However, as a model for economic and political development it is quite intriguing.

The current model for development is rather depressing. Poor countries are told that their goal is to attain the economic, cultural, and political standards of rich countries. Rich countries took centuries to raise the majority of their citizens out of poverty, to create stable political systems, and to secure human rights for their citizens (actually, it was the citizens, not the government, that did that last part). Poor countries are expected to achieve this same feat in a few decades.

It's as if poor countries are driving 15 mph on a highway and are asked to move along side a faster car that is not only moving at 60 mph, but is also already a few miles ahead! How discouraging! It's as if poor countries have lost even before they've begun.

There's another flaw in the reasoning behind the current development model. It assumes that rich countries have created a model worth immitating. This isn't necessarily the case. Rich countries have many problems - crime, income inequality, racism, environmental degradation. Who says that reaching the level of rich countries is even something poor countries should aspire to? Why not aspire to something different? Why not aspire to something better?

Why try to reach the same level when you can surpass it? Why play catch-up when you can play leapfrog?

Poor countries are still in the process of creating their societies: forming just political systems, debating gender relations, searching for new paths to economic development. They have an amazing opportunity that rich and stable countries don't: they can build news societies from the ground up.

And, since they are creating something new, why not create something better? Why not look at rich nations not as models to emulate but simply as case studies. What are rich nations doing well? What are they failing at? Adopt some elements and reject others. Maintain the native culture but evolve it. Create not a society equal to the societies of rich nations, create something better than rich nations. Leapfrog over them.

Of course, leapfrogging requires great ingenuity and creativity. It requires looking at problems in news ways. For example, in Morocco (where I live), there used to be a serious telecommunication gap. Very few people had land-lines in their homes. A traditional way to look at this problem would be to say: "We have a land-line problem. We need to borrow from the World Bank so we can afford to build land-lines all over the country and connect our people." But that's not what happened. Instead, the problem was solved by individuals, people who saw the problem not as one of land-lines but of as a problem of communication. The solution was cell-phones. Now many people have cell-phones, even very poor people, even people in small villages. In the realm of telecommunication, Morocco leapfrogged over the telecommunication systems of rich nations, which have doubtless spend billions of dollars laying land-lines. Morocco jumped straight from nothing to wide-spread cell-phone use. Although they doubtless still lag behind rich nations in terms of access to telecommunication tools, they made great progress simply by looking at their problem in a different way. And, significantly, this didn't come about through a structural adjustment plan or a four-year plan or a ten-year plan. It was a result of individuals making choices that made sense to them.

But why stop at telecommunication? You can leapfrog in any field. The political field presents great opportunities. Rich nations are mostly stable democracies, but they aren't perfect. The western model of democracy can be improved. And who better to improve it than poor countries, countries that are still in the creative stages of their political systems.

I expect to see new systems of government in my lifetime, systems than are more accountably, more just, and more efficient than current western democracies. Where will these governments be formed? In the poor world, in the developing world. Don't rise to the political level of the rich west. Surpass them. Leapfrog over them.

categories: leapfrogging_

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