Author Archives: kmurphy318

Thought Leader Profile: Patrick Meier

Patrick Meier is currently serving as the Director of Crisis Mapping at Ushahidi. He co-founded the Stand By Volunteer Task Force and was publicly recognized by Bill Clinton in 2010 for his leadership and contributions. He recently served as co-director at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s Program on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning.

Meier also has an incredible educational background. He holds a PhD from The Fletcher School at Tufts University where his dissertation research focused on the intersection between nonviolent civil resistance and digital activism in repressive environments. He also has a pre-doctoral Fellowship from Stanford University as well as an MA in International Relations from Columbia University. To top all of these, he was a Research Fellow at the Peace Research Institute, OSLO and holds advanced certificates from the Sante Fe Institute and the New England Complex Systems Institute. But wait, I almost forgot to mention that he was born in Africa, must help a little in terms of shutting down the white savior label!

 iRevolution is a blog designed to empower individuals through radical self-sufficiency, self-determination, independence survival and resilience. The blog features short thought pieces on how innovation and technology are revolutionizing this process of self-empowerment. Blog topics address civil resistance, crisis mapping, crowd sourcing, digital activism, early warning, humanitarian technology, satellite imagery and social media. The blog encourages information sharing, which has become a key feature to all areas of development, not just ICT4D. The website holds an incredible wealth of open source information that will undoubtedly be incredibly useful to many.

I was able to get in touch with Mr. Meier to ask for some of his input in this profile. When asked why he started iRevolution, Meier responded, “ some friend and I had just launched a group blog on technology, and I soon found myself hooked (while my friends did not blog as much). So I struck off on my own and have enjoyed blogging as way to collect my thoughts, bounce of ideas and get feedback”. I also asked him exactly what he was looking for in students coming out of ICT4D educational programs, and got a surprising response. Rather than suggesting that they receive a high degree of professional training, Meier replied, “students who are pro-active, reliable, creative and team players”. I was also curious about that Meier felt students should do to prepare themselves for the ICT4D field, and what university programs should be addressing. To this he suggested that students read up on ICT4D as much as they are able, to speak with as many professionals in the field as they can contact and to “blog blog blog”. As per university programs, Meier advocates more hands on experience both inside and outside of the classroom, and volunteering for groups such as the Standby Volunteer Task Force (I like how he slipped this little advertising ploy in here).

So, though Meier is quite the academic scholar himself, he seems to be more an advocate of self-education than university and post-graduate programs. I find it very interesting that he prefers this approach, and feels that it speaks to his confidence in the inherent capabilities of people to educate themselves to achieve their ends, whether in development or otherwise. His projects empower people to help themselves solve their own problems. This refreshing approach is most certainly the future of development; I hope more organizations will begin to follow his lead. He truly is an innovative and admirable thought leader in the field of ICT4D.

Please visit his blog, iRevolution.net, I promise you won’t be disappointed!


Gesture Based Computing “On the Cheap”

A very common obstacle we have encountered in looking at ICT4D programs is a general misunderstanding of certain symbols and icons that might be used on certain technologies. Gesture based computing helps offer a solution to this problem, as gestures tend to be much more natural and to some degree universal. Gesture based computing can use basic webcams to pick up on gestures given by hands that have been in some way colored. Older models employed neon tape on figure tips, but an MIT student has designed a new method. Robert Wang, an MIT graduate student, and Jovan Popavic an associate professor are responsible for the newly designed system that promises a cheap alternative to most high cost designs.

Their model uses multi-colored lycra gloves and a basic computer webcam. Their system is able to translate hand gestures to a 3D image on the computer’s screen with almost no lag time. The lycra glove can be manufactured for about US$1, making it very viable for use in ICT4D projects. The only other necessary tool is a computer with a functioning webcam, which could present a valid obstacle to the systems use in ICT4D. Though Wang recognizes that the most practical use for the program is in gaming, he hopes that its use can slowly be expanded, especially in engineering and design centered jobs.

The 2011 Horizons report lists gesture based computing as a developing technology with good potential for further development. Though there doesn’t seem to be a very practical application for gesture based computing in ICT4D as of yet, I feel that this is something that should be developed further. Gesture based computing has the ability to help alleviate a lot of cultural and language barriers in ICT4D programs, and the affordability of this particular design makes it especially relevant to ICT4D.

http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2011/gesture-computing-0520.html


Arab Spring: What We Learned About Tech and Revolution

The Arab Spring uprisings have been characterized by many as movements driven by social media interaction, and this observation is indisputable. But what we don’t know is the degree to which social media really played a role in the uprisings, and exactly what role these resources played. The Meta-Activism Project blog has recently posted an article that seeks to answer these questions.  “Arab Spring: What Did We Learn About Tech and Revolution” offers an in depth look at the role social media holds in the Arab uprisings, and offers a preliminary method for measuring its impact.

The article views social medias role in a series of progressive steps. The first step is providing people with a safer space to share their preferences. The internet presents opposition groups with a chance to easily foster collective action by sharing their preferences and gaining the capacity to communicate with others to share that preference. The internet provided greater access to information, increased freedom of speech, and increased access to others, all of which helped grow the uprisings. Now that a group has been created for collaborative action, the next step, collaborative planning, is breached. In this sense, the internet provides a vast number of tools for communication that are much safer than many other methods of organizing. Now, the group is ready to take action and will usually mobilize in a coordinated action to do so.

Once the first group has been spurred into action, information cascades come into play. This is when people observe the actions of others, and choose to follow their lead and join the cause. When these information cascades are networked using multiple types of media, a sort of contagion erupts as the public rushes to support and join the cause. Social media also meant that the leaders of the uprisings could write their own legacies in a sense, since they were able to directly communicate their accounts of the story to international media.

Now here is the real beauty of social media- it creates a kind of catch 22 for repressive regimes. Once a revolution is underway and powerful (such as those in Egypt and Tunisia) the government is powerless to stop it, however, censoring social media has been shown to foster political resistance, and thus feed a revolution of its own. So in this sense, it seems that perhaps the repressive regime, to some extent, is soon doomed to fail at the hands of social media. I bet you didn’t imagine then when you created your account of facebook or twitter…


Organization Profile: The Global Impact Study

Given the recent hype over public information sharing on the Internet, and the outrage over PIPA and SOPA, I feel that profiling “The Global Impact of Public Access to Information and Communication Technologies”. The Global Impact Study (for short) is a five year long project, from 2007-2012, that worked to gather evidence about the “scale, character, and impacts of public access to information and communication technologies” (Global Impact Study, 2012). The Global Impact Study was implemented in 2007 by the University of Washington’s “Technology and Social Change Group” (TASCHA) as part of a larger research project under Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). The IDRC’s project is focused on evaluating the social and economic impact of public access to communication and information technologies and supports both the Global Impact Study and “The Amy Mahan Research Fellowship Program” with CAD$7.9 million. Part of this funding was the result of a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Global Impact Study’s staff is divided into two separate working groups, a research working group, and a survey working group. Both groups have a range of members, but most are from the University of Washington. The research working group has ten active members, and is responsible for the research design and activities of the Study. The survey working group has four active members and is responsible for designing and implementing the Study’s surveys.

The Global Impact Study looks at libraries, telecenters and cybercafés to investigate the impact of technology sharing in a number of areas including communication and leisure, culture and language, education, employment and income, governance and health. The Study has identified 16 major topic areas that they would like to evaluate, however, due to capacity restraints, they have chosen eight of these points to publish in depth studies on. These eight include: infomediaries or brokers of public access sites, collaborative knowledge sharing at public access sites, the impact of non-instrumental use of ICTs on users’ ICT skills, mobile phones and public access ICTs, interpersonal communication, cost-benefit, sustainable livelihoods, as well as policy and regulation. An in depth reported has been published on each of these with the exception of policy and regulation, which is still an ongoing project. The other eight points are also listed on the Global Impact Study’s website, and the Study encourages others to step up and investigate these topics. They are: non-users, willingness to pay, institutional and stakeholder influence, the role of networks in the venue ecosystem, local content, venue architecture and design, IT skills, training and employment, life cycle of public access venues and community information ecology. In addition to the reports the Global Impact Study has published, their website contains a number of current articles regarding shared information, and all of the above discussed topics. It has become a great information sharing tool in of itself.

I feel that The Global Impact Study has undertaken a very warranted project in evaluating information sharing on the internet. We live in a time when facebook, Wikipedia, twitter, reddit and countless other user generated sites dominate the web. I don’t know what I would do without Wikipedia (which is now said to be about 78% as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica by the way) to help me answer almost every question I could ever have. PIPA and SOPA wanted to put an end to this information sharing in the interest of profit accumulation for the few… when will we learn that something’s value is not dependent on the profit it brings or the price tag it wears? The value of shared information on the internet cannot be quantified, and it shouldn’t have to be.


HCI4D

I know I know… more potentially controversial acronyms are not what we all want to see right now. However, Human Computer Interaction for Development seemed like too cool a concept to pass up, so here it is! HCI4D is unique, and awesome (in my opinion) because it focuses on the user above all other entities. Finally, a branch of ICT4D that puts the user before all other factors! This means that projects are designed and geared specifically toward the target population ensuring that they can get the most out of the project. All too often we have seen projects fail because the technology they are delivering is either not compatible with the infrastructure of the area, not in line with the cultural beliefs of the target population, not needed or wanted by the target population, not understood by the target population… and so on and so forth.

All of this in mind, “the question (for HCI4D) becomes how can ICT’s properly be designed with the customs of third world users in mind? How can ICT’s be properly designed that take into account local technical, economic, cultural and financial aspects and what other socio-technical constraints should be addressed?” (Edozie, 2011). For me, these aspects are incredibly essential and all too often ignored in a number of ICT4D projects. These projects are almost doomed to fail, upsetting and possibly deterring stakeholders and sponsors, and leaving ICT4D with a less favorable reputation.

HCI4D falls under the broader category of “user centered design” which places a much higher emphasis on putting the needs and capabilities of users above other aspects of the project. User centered design focuses on things such as:

“Interaction Metaphors: exploring beyond the Western-centric Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointers (WIMP) metaphor to other interaction metaphors that are more culturally and socially relevant to the intended user groups. User Analysis: Developing methods to most effectively understand the users and their context, practices, and wants, by understanding SocioCultural and Economic differences unique to them. Interaction Methods: Localization and customization / alternatives to traditional input output methods. Evaluation Methods: Thinking outside traditional methods by making evaluation more appropriate to the target user audience to elicit accurate and actionable feedback” (Edozie, 2011).

This fresh approach to ICT4D is a welcome reprieve from many of the usual projects, and I feel that it has enormous potential. Im a strong believer in human centered designs, since it only makes sense for the project to be centered around the people we are trying to help, right? HCI4D Article


The Intersection of Technology and Gender Based Violence

When discussing ICT4D (or ICTD/ICT4$/whatever your preferred term might be) we often evaluate the positives associated with the proliferations of ICT’s and sometimes overlook potentially negative side effects of this expansion in technology. An organization called Gender IT is working to bring attention to the drawbacks of technology, focusing on the threats that this expansion may pose to women. One of their reports, Mapping the Intersection of Technology and Gender Based Violence analyzes how the expansion of technology correlates with the instances of gender violence in the respective area. The organization has started a new campaign called “Take Back the Tech” that aims to empower users of technology to end violence against women.

The article sites a number of harassment cases, including one about a 16 year old Argentinian girl who was repeatedly harassed by a professor through mobile phone messages and calls. The campaign works by mapping stories, such as this one, and as of December 7, 2011 over 103 stories had been mapped. The campaign was launched in November. The interactive map   is actually run through Ushahidi and reports violence against women in 5 broad categories including: culturally justified violence against women, online harassment and cyberstalking, intimate partner violence, rape and sexual assault, and violence targeting communities. The article provides a breakdown of over 80 confirmed cases of violence against women, and this number has increased since December. Though not all of the assaults against women utilize technology, this mapping technology allows them to report the violence and start taking a stand against it. I think this organization has the potential to show women around the world that technology, more than just posing a threat to their safety, is an excellent opportunity for them to take  stand and defend themselves. The TBTT campaign is vital to safe ICT proliferation around the globe, and I hope that this organization can grow to have a much more powerful influence and presence in the ICT4D community.


DRC Citizen’s Getting Involved in Government Through Cell Phones

Africa’s Democratic Republic of Congo, is not a country known for its democratic practice or quality of governance, but a new project is working to improve this bleak reputation. The World Bank Institute’s (WBI) ICT4Gov team has implemented a new program that encourages citizen involvement in the government through cell phones. The World Bank estimates that approximately 47% of the population will be using cellular phones by the year 2013, and moved to take advantage of the mobile phone, which is currently one of the most reliable means of communication in the country.

The program uses mobile phones for four different purposes. First, they use geo-targeted SMS messaging to contact citizens with the date, time and location of participatory government budget meetings. The messages reach all phones receiving a signal from a particular tower. Second, at these meetings, citizens are able to vote on which proposed projects are most important to them, and they will submit their vote using their mobile device. Third, when a decision is reached, it is announced through mobile phones, allowing citizens to almost instantly see the results of the vote. Finally, mobile phones are being used to ask citizens how they feel about the projects being chosen.

This project clearly enables citizens to exercise greater involvement in the processes of the government, and makes the process more transparent and understandable to them. There is, however, one enormous looming concern with this project. What about those without a cell phone? More than 50% of the 70 million inhabitants of this country are without access to a mobile phone. They are left without a voice. This raises major concerns because it makes it more likely that the projects being chosen are not ones that will benefit those that are most in need, but rather those that are well enough off to afford access to a mobile phone in the first place. More must be done to engage those citizens that do not have mobile phones. How are they being included in this more “democratic” process of governance? How are their needs being addressed? This appears to be another well intended project with enormously detrimental hidden consequences, the process of democracy is moving forward with only a very small portion of the DRCs population.