Thursday, November 30, 2006

Unintentional Irony Award

The words "development" and "Ritz-Carlton" should never appear so close to each other. That doesn't exactly show concern for the lives of the impoverished. Folks, it's just tacky. Here's the link.

Gates Project 22: Mobile Activism Networks


Another section of the report, this one on network-centric activism:

According to Howard Rheingold's book Smart Mobs, network-centric techniques allow people to act in concert even if they do not know each other. Unlike the CRM wheel, where all communication is initiated by the central NGO hub, network-centric models connect the spokes to one another, allowing information to flow freely without any central arbitration necessary. In the diagram above, an organization (represented by a purple circle) has begun the networked flow of information, although initiation could also be accomplished by an individual activist (the orange circles). The communication arrows are both mono-directional and bi-directional, indicating the sometimes members of a network exchange data in a dialogue while at other times a message is simply transferred from one person to the other.

Although computers can be used to communicate within a network, mobile phones offer exciting new possiblilities for the model. The value of a network increases as the number of its members increases, making cell phones a more valuable networking tool in the developing world due to their higher penetration. The mobility of the cell phone increases its value as well, enabling mobile networked action. The result of high penetration and mobility is light-speed mobilization, the political application of "flash mobbing." An excellent example of this technique was the mass protest that led to the downfall of Filipino President Joseph Estrada in 2001. Using text messages such as "Other students are already marching. Where are you?" and "wear red, bring banners" Filipino students organized a mass march that successfully demonstrated the unpopularity of the regime. President Estrada himself called it a "coup de text." Kifaya, a pro-democracy movement in Egypt, also uses texting to organize protests as did students in Chile who were striking for improvements to the education system.

Network-centric mobile activism is seductively simple. Massive events can be created with little or no effort or cost. It will all happen "virally." However, in the context-free world of the SMS message this is not the case. Network-centric activism is merely a digital representation of the zeitgeist. People all have to have the same frame of reference in order for network-centric activism to work. If the recipient or the message "wear red, bring banners" did not already know that a rally to force the ouster of president Estrada was in the works for that day, the message would have been meaningless. For this reason, network-centric activism works best within pre-existing communities. The pre-existing knowledge and shared values of the community ensures that an SMS call to action will be understood and heeded, while the network of relationships within the community ensure that the message will spread. Once again, it is less a question of technology than the human power behind it.
categories: internet activism_, gates project_, the "developing world"_,

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Gates Project 21: CRM in the GS


Enough acronyms! This post is a section of my report that looks at the possiblities of Client Relationship Management (like MoveOn) in the Global South.
CRM, or client relationship management, was born in the private sector as a means for businesses to track their relationships with customers and solicit feedback. The model supposes a central NGO (the hub) which communicates directly with its members/constituents (the spokes), usually through e-mail. IN the diagram above, the orange circles represent participant members and the large purple circle represents the NGO. The arrows show the direction of communication, with the outward arrows drawn larger than the inward arrows to indicate that the volume of information pushed out to the members is greater than the amount of feedback pulled in to the organization.


One example of CRM for e-advocacy is MoveOn, which records member information, such as geographic location, in a database and then uses this information to recruit members for campaigns and events in their area. MoveOn also solicits feedback from its members through e-mail surveys in an effort to keep the actions of the organization in line with the interests of its members. CRM is most appropriate for an organization who has the budget to pay one or more developers to create content for their system and plans to launch multiple campaigns. If an organization does not plan to take part in e-advocacy frequently, setting up a CRM system may be a waste of time and money.

The principal challenge of using CRM in that most people in the global south do not use e-mail, the most effective method of communication between in the NGO and its members. While a NGO may find sufficient internet penetration in urban areas, it is unlikely that it will be able to launch a nation-wide campaign in most countries for this reason. In addition, even where people do have internet access, it is usually not through a computer that they access every day, but through a shared computer in a telecenter. If members rarely check their e-mail little more than once a week, the internet may not be the best way to keep in touch with them.

One possible solution to this problem is to use cellular phone-based SMS in place of computer-based e-mail. Cell phone penetration in most countries is sufficiently high to merit this type of model to work. If a cell phone is used in place of a computer, two modes of communication are possible: SMS and voice. SMS is an excellent way to contact members after the person has given their phone number to the NGO either through a website or by texting a particular phone number that records the users phone number in a database. The challenge of SMS is that the message is limited in most cases to 160 characters. For this reason SMS is best used for a campaign action is clear and concise so it can be expressed in the given amount of space. The positive aspect of this method is that SMS may actually draw young people to a campaign becuse of its cool factor. Automated robo-calling may also be used to communicate with an illiterate or minimally literate audience. Callers could respond by voice or by sending a simple numeric SMS. SMS has been successfully used as an e-advocacy tool in the global south by Fahamu of South Africa, which asked supporters to sign a petition supporting women's rights in Africa by sending an SMS message and a free mass SMS client, FrontlineSMS, is available for NGOs to use. However, the ongoing interaction characteristic of CRM has not yet been realized in the field using cell phones.

Implementers of CRM may also face difficulty in authoritarian political environments. CRM necessitates that a person give their contact information to a NGO so that organization may contact them on an ongoing basis to solicit their participation in the organization's campaigns. In countries where political activism is discouraged, individuals may be unwilling to give their contact information to a NGO for fear that these records may become public and will get them in trouble with the authorities. For this reason, CRM implementers is such environments must create iron-clad security systems, most likely involving encryption and overseas servers in order to guarantee the confidentiality of their members' personal information.


categories: internet activism_, gates project_, the "developing world"_,

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Monday, November 27, 2006

Gates Project 20: First Paragraph

This week I begin writing the final report. I'll putting tid-bits on the blog as I go. Here's my first paragraph:

Why fund social change technology in the global south? The needs in the region are so acute - civil conflict, illiteracy, poverty, food and water insecurity, the ravages of disease - why fund ICTs when one could buy vaccines or provide emergency food aid? Funding e-advocacy in the global south takes a long view. It asks us to take our eyes from the crises of today and ask how crises will be solved tomorrow. The only way that the many challenges of the global south will be solved in the longterm is if the citizens of the global south are empowered to solve their own problems. E-advocacy is a means of this empowerment. Funding e-advocacy means not only attacking current crises in the global south but building a structure through which future global south crises will be addressed from within, empowering local civil society to better address the world's many challenges. The mass accessiblity of ICT is changing the way we work, consume, inform ourselves, and socialize. Because ICT allows citizens to watch their governments, discuss their political views, and organize around issues that concern them, it is an equally powerful political tool. E-advocacy is the future of social change.


categories: internet activism_,gates project_

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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

RootsCampNYC

Last Sunday I went to RootsCampNYC, a election debriefing and Democrat unconference for digital activists in New York. I went there to meet Zack Exley, whose New Organizing Institute co-organized the event, and also to get out of the office and see some e-advocates in the real work. It was also my first unconference. I must admit, I was suspicious of this model, according to which you bring a group of people together under a determined theme but without a determined schedule of events. The themes and facilitators of the workshops are determined by the interest of the people who attend. At RootsCampNYV there was a large corkboard timetable in the main meeting room (see photo below) and people put scraps of paper on the board with the titles of workshop that they would lead.
I decided to lead a session on e-advocacy in the developing world (big surprise there) which was a bit of a failure because I didn't have anything prepared. However, I attended workshops by better-prepared people on such topics as the netroots and the Connecticut Senate race and a website called the Spotlight Project that allows people to send blog posts to members of the media. While there are some downsides to the unconference format (there were more sessions in the afternoon than the morning as people became inspired to add a session) the strength of the format is that it is very engaging. Because sessions are ad hoc they are more seminar than lecture and there is tons of discussion (see below).
The unconference model is most useful when you have a lot of smart people with something to share, because it amps participation. Without attendee participation there are no workshops, and not much said within them. Fortunately, the attendees at Sunday's event were very smart and talkative. There were other RootsCamps in San Francisco, Indiana, and Ohio and hopefully I will be attending the capstone event in DC on December 1 & 2.

categories: internet activism_,

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Friday, November 17, 2006

Armchair Activism - ironic no more

I just recieved an e-mail from Marty Kearns of Network-Centric Advocacy, asking me to write about a program that chops mammoth data tasks into 12-minute chunks in the hopes that everyone will contrinute a bit of their time and get the job done. It's the barn-raising principle, except you can do it from your armchair.

www.mediavolunteer.org is a portal created by Marty's Green Media Toolshed to help produce an accurate media database for advocacy groups so they can promote their causes. The Media Volunteer project asks people to take twelve minutes to log onto the Media Volunteer website and call a reporter or media outlet and confirm that the information in the Shared Media Database is correct.

I think the challenge in getting people to adopt this project will be making it personal and social. Even though the project is easy enough, volunteers might not see the direct benefit to themselves or their causes. The site is set up geographically, so people are calling reporters in their own area, which is great. (The user interface is also super). However, I think the project will need to create a community vibe in order to be successful.

A good model to look to here are the immensely successful MoveOn Phone Parties which preceded the election. MoveOn did not ask people to access a call list on a website and call undecided voters from the comfort of their own homes. They organized Phone Parties, which created a community vibe around the not-so-pleasant task of making cold calls to perfect strangers. The parties were completely unnecessary from a technical perspective. People could have received the names and phone numbers of voters by accessing a website. In fact, Phone Parties made the process of making calls more time-consuming since people were asked to travel to another person's house to do the calling. However, community became the draw that inspired people to get involved. It worked - spectacularly. According to MoveOn:
* Jon Tester's margin of victory in MT: 2,644
* MoveOn member turnout calls to MT: 73,843

* Jim Webb's margin of victory in VA: 7,236
* MoveOn member turnout calls to VA: 345,289
If the Media Volunteer project is going to work, I think it will also need a community aspect, either in the form or meet-ups or, even better, groups of NGO's that need the information organizing their own volunteers into Phone Parties. This model usies pre-existing organization networks to "get out the call." It's a good project and I hope it succeeds.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Gates Project 19: Considering e-Government

I don't think I'm going to include e-government in my e-advocacy report. This is because e-government is not e-advocacy. e-Advocacy is the actions of citizens and citizen groups using ICTs to realize social change. Government is often the focus of these efforts, as government controls rule making (ie, makes laws). However, government itself does not push for change; it responds to pressure from advocates and lobbyists. Although government can serve as an advocate, due to its role as protector of civil rights, e-government rarely takes on this role.

e-Government is government using ICT's to function more efficiently. This is an important improvement over the inefficiency and corruption that are a part of many human bureaucratic systems. However, but it does not imply social change. A country might have a unnecessarily difficult divorce law that might require meetings with a judge, a court hearing, and lots of paperwork before a couple is allowed to divorce. The e-advocacy approach to this might be to rally citizen support to change the law through an e-petition, e-mail your representative campaign, or even the collecting video or audio testimonials of people trying to get divorced and created a multimedia gallery. The e-government response to this situation would be to allow people to download the large amounts of paperwork from a website and sign up for their court date online. More efficient, sure, but it doesn't mean that the law itself is disfunctional.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that government rarely gives its citizens opportunities to influence legislating. e-Government often engages citizens at the lowest level of governance - bureaucratic paperwork. In this way even a repressive government like Saudi Arabia can have a e-government initiative. According to i4donline, the Council of Ministers allocated $800 million for an e-government project that will bring 150 government service and 1,000 "subsidiary services" under an e-government system. I doubt this new system will allow citizens to take any part in the higher functions of govern like law-making and oversight in the famously opaque monarchical system.

Most e-government systems tightly define the way citizens can use the system to interact with their government (ie, fill in this form, sign-up for this time). I welcome e-government efforts that allow citizens to express themselves in a less structured way, to advocate. This more open form of e-government would need to include procedures to ensure that citizen input would actually influence decision-making processes, rather than just being pro-forma. Still, I welcome this kind of e-government, which would engage citizens in the most important work of government: making the rules that govern citizens' lives.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Gates Project 18: eRiders + network = supercharged

Ever since I read Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly's New Rules for the New Economy in August I have been fascinated by the power of networks. To wit:
1. In a network, every node is potentially equidistant from every other node (immediate direct communication is possible)

2. In a network, the more nodes are connected, the more powerful the network is as a whole (more knowledge, money, etc. can be shared)

3. The multitude of relationships and the vast amount of knowledge-sharing possible in a network promotes innovative thinking and practice

However, for some reason unbeknownst to myself I had never applied my fascination with networks to the proposals I was writing for the Gates Foundation. Fortunately, today I spoke with Paul Maassen, who works at the innovative Dutch development foundation Hivos. Paul is the Program Manager for Hivos' ICT, Media, and Knowledge-Sharing program. I went through my funding proposals with Paul and he added network elements at each level, strengthening all three.

However, the section that was most improved was the implementation section, which focuses on funding eRider consultants. My original idea was to expand eRiding to different countries, but I hadn't particularly thought of connecting these programs. Paul pushed me think more ambitiously, not only to fund eRiders on a global scale but to connect them, creating a worldwide network of NGO tech consultants.

This network would have multiple benefits, for instance in disseminating and receiving information. One of the weaknesses of the e-advocacy sector is the lack of awareness of what tools are out there and how to use them. A global network would make spreading this information quite easy. In fact, there would be only one step between the tech conference in Delhi and the grassroots NGO is Ecuador - an e-mail to the Ecuador eRider program.

The second benefit of the network would be receiving information. If someone wanted to create software for the developing world, eRiders would be a great source of information as to what organizations really need.

However, the true strength of a network is not central information dissemination and collection, but decentralized node-to-node communication. Face-to-face convenings would foster a global eRider community that would create personal relationships between eRiders in different countries. So when an eRider in South Africa had a problem, he might e-mail his eRider friend in India. In this way, expertise would travel spontaneously, without the need for central coordination.

A global network of NGO tech experts sharing expertise and speeding e-advocacy implementation and innovation - I like it!

categories: internet activism_, gates project_, the "developing world"_,

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Gates Project 17: Is it elegant yet?

I have come up with a provisional structure for our funding proposals to the Gates Foundation. I want our final proposal to be far-reaching, holistic, and elegant, appreciating the complexity of e-advocacy while at the same time proposing solutions in a simple structure. My goal is a proposal that is not just judicious and well-researched, but also well-designed. I currently plan to suggest funding at three levels that represent the foundation, function, and future of e-advocacy:

1. Access: In the global south, access to internet is quite low, rarely rising about a 15% penetration rate and often dipping below 5%. While high cellphone penetration rates, which are often several times as high internet rates, can make up for this loss in connectivity, internet access is extremely important because it is a platform for a much wider array of e-advocacy applications. There are multiple funding opportunities for access, and Iwill most likely focus on Africa, where internet acces is lowest. I am currently leaning towards solar-powered wireless solutions.

2. Implementation: It does not matter what technologies are available for non-profits in the global south if they are unaware of them or unable to implement them. In order to increase NGO e-advocacy capacity, a broad program of personalized support is needed. I will most likely propose an eRider program. eRiders are technology and strategy consultants that work with multiple organizations, thus allowing each organization that they work for the benefit of a technology expert without the cost of hiring a new staff person. The eRider model has been successfully implemented in South Africa and many other developing and transitional countries throughout the world.

3. Innovation: A funding structure that stops at the implementation of existing tools is incomplete. The field of e-advocacy in the global south is quite new and the greatest innovations are yet to come. In addition, it is very important that innovations are shared so that others may benefit from them. The final proposal is for a program to nurture innovation in the area of e-advocacy in the global south. The program would be run by a coalition of global south organizations and would carry out many activities such as: a fellows program to develop e-advocacy leaders in the region, conferences and convenings to allow innovators from different countries and fields to meet and share ideas face-to-face, cataloguing and pointing to the different advocacy tools already available in order to raise awareness of e-advocacy options, prizes for innovation in various e-advocacy fields both to encourage and reward innovators.

Is it elegant yet? If not, why?

categories: internet activism_, gates project_, the "developing world"_,

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Gates Project 16: We Are All "Developing"

At the beginning of this week I took a break from my non-stop interviewing to read two important reports, InfoDev's Open Access Models, about connectivity solutions in Africa, and dotOrganize's Online Technology for Social Change.

The Open Access report was an informational bootcamp that gave me a good sense of the technological, political, and market-based reasons for Africa's digital poverty. It looked not only at infrastructural problems (Africa has only one major fiber optic cable linking it to the rest of the world) but also the historic government-supported telecom monopolies that prevent market competition from working effectively to bring down prices and improve services.

The dotOrganize Report was very useful, not to mention surprising. I found that the global south and global north are not so different when it comes to e-advocacy - all regions of the world are struggling to use technology strategically in their advocacy. According to a survey of US and Canadian organizations, many organizations surveyed did not use basic e-advocacy tools:

-39% do not use e-newsletter
-47% do not accept donations online

In addition, a majority of organizations have not integrated cutting-edge technologies into their activism

-only 3% use podcasting
-only 4% use public wikis
-only 9% use SMS

In addition, organizations in the US and Canada identify lack of time, money, and trained staff as the top reasons for this not adopting technology, problems that would also resonate in the global north. Also, the majority of US and Canadian organizations that do use technology in their advocacy use e-mail or have a basic website, which is the same case in the global south.

This is not to say that the civil societies of the global north and global south face precisely the same technology problems. Clearly civil societies in the global south must contend with very limited budgets, low internet penetration among supporters, inadequate connectivity infrastructure, and even political contrainsts on freedom of expression.

Rather than claiming a parallel sitution, I am pointing out that the global south will not be playing "catch up" to the global north in integrating e-advocacy strategies into their work. No country in the world has a "developed" e-advocacy environment. In this field we are all "developing."

Moreover, the global south has the opportunity to innovate and leapfrog, by-passing the global north by creating low-cost new advocacy methods and solutions. This capacity is clearest in the field of mobile phones, which have been used for major political organizing in the global south as early as 2001, when SMS was used to rally a protest that helped toppled President Joseph Estrada. (President Estrada himself called it a "coup de text.") Because a relatively high penetration rates for mobile phones, as compared to low penetration rates for internet, the mobile phone is a tool whose potential as a tools for e-advocacy in the global south is just beginning. It could be a defining tool for resource-poor NGO's looking for a way to organize on a mass level.

Or not. That's the great thing about innovation, you just don't know where it's leading. And I see no reason why the global south can't lead this revolution.

categories: internet activism_, gates project_, the "developing world"_, leapfrogging_

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Gates Project 15: "E-Mail Your MP" where MP's have no e-mail

"E-mail Your MP/Congressperson" is a standard tool in the e-advocacy toolkit. Some organizations, like the American Civil Liberties Union, ask their supporters to e-mail a pre-written letter to their representative which lobbies for a particular ACLU cause. Other organizations, like Britain's WritetoThem.com provide politicians' contact info and allow citizens to write a letter to their representative on any topic they'd like.

This e-advocacy method is not without its critics. In particular, mass e-mail campaigns are often blocked or ignored by representatives. Such campaigns are seen as spam which overload e-mail clients and do not necessarily reflect deep concern on the part of the sender. These point-and-click campaigns allow a constituent to send a pre-written letter to their representative in a few minutes, with little or no pre-meditation.

Nevertheless, a constituent's ability to communicate with his representative and receive a response is a basic tenet of an accountable governmental system. E-mail can facilitate this communication by greatly increasing its speed and convenience while decreasing its cost.

However, are these methods appropriate for the global south? In most of the developing world, internet penetration is very low and many people do not use e-mail. In addition, representatives themselves may not use e-mail or, because government structures lack transparency and accountability, may not make their e-mail addresses public.

Today I spoke with Tom Steinberg, founder of mySociety.org, a UK group that develops websites that help citizens communicate with government and with eachother to in order to realize tanglible improvements in their everyday lives. After looking at WritetoThem.com, which is one of Tom's projects, I asked him how it could work in a developing country where representatives did not have public e-mail addresses. Tom's answer was simple and brilliant: use paper to provide last mile connectivity between constituent and representative. Constituents could send an e-mail to their representative by accessing a website on a shared computer in an internet cafe. All e-mails would be sent to a central address and printed out periodically (say, once a week). The paper copies would then be delivered to the Parliament building where they could be distributed to MP's.

According to Tom, such a "E-mail Your MP" campaigns are a great way to highlight a lack of accountability by members of government. Two weeks after a constituent e-mails their representative through the site, the site would e-mail the constituent and ask if the representative ever responded to their e-mail. The responses to these follow-up e-mails are used to create statistics on the percentage of e-mails a respresentative responds to.
When the ranking of the differing responsiveness rates of different politicians (called a "league table") is then published it has been shown (in the UK context) to encourage some politicians to get better at responding to their mail. How? Quite simply, nobody likes appearing at the bottom of a list of their peers.

categories: internet activism_, gates project_, the "developing world"_,

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Gates Project 14: Global Map of Digital Inclusion (& Exclusion)

Today I found a very cool map created by the World Economic Forum that shows global digital access in the form of a nifty color-coded map. The accompanying text explains how the map was created and includes links to the latest statistics on internet and mobile phone penetration all over the world. A very handy public resource.

categories: internet activism_, gates project_, the "developing world"_, the digital divide_

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