NDN Blog

Festivus Tab Dump

Santa PhoneGlobal Mobile is scaling back to a holiday blogging schedule for the next week or so (which is to say, I'm going on vacation), but come back in January and we'll dive into another year of mHealth, ICTs for Development, digital diplomacy, 21st Century Statecraft, and all your other favorite subjects.

To send you on your way and keep your Global Mobile appetite sated in the coming days, I offer a few links:

- China bans individuals from registering domain names, and investigates personal websites. (h/t SR)

- Russians are suspicious that permitting Cyrillic letters in URLs will isolate them on the web, cut them off from the world, and facilitate governmental surveillance. (h/t JB)

- Glenn Fleishman writes on "the killer app of 1900" (electricity) and parallels between the electrification of this country, and the data-fication. (h/t WK)

- On Google's public policy blog, they report on new studies that see rising censorship around the world.

- Erik Hersman looks at 2009 ITU mobile and internet stats, and sees Africa growing faster than the rest of the world. But there's still a long way to go for that continent.

Happy Holidays!

Good Guys and Bad Guys with Powerful Tools

Alec Ross spoke at Brookings this morning on 21st Century Statecraft. His speech was good, and similar to the one he gave at PopTech earlier this year. If you want to get the gist, I'd encourage you to check out the video from that conference, or wade through my live-tweetery from today's event.

I do, however, want to delve into one particular aspect of the speech-- something he spent more time on with his DC audience than he did with the techies in Maine: the potential for new technology to be used by bad actors to nefarious ends. This is a subject that almost always seems to come up when I'm talking about technology and statecraft, particularly when I'm talking to folks schooled in low-tech ways of doing things (read: old people). 

Computer TerroristIn a few recent blog posts, I've written about ways social networks, mobile phones, and other technology can and have been used by authoritarian governments, terrorist elements, and other bad guys to do bad things.  My point, basically, is that these technologies are just tools-- neither inherently good, nor bad-- and they should never be the ends of any initiative in themselves.

A pretty unbelievable new case of the undesirable use of technology was reported in today's Wall Street Journal. Militants in Iraq and Afghanistan have been using inexpensive, off-the-shelf software to tap into the video feeds broadcasted by our drone aircraft.  They can't control the aircraft, but they can see what we see, and can remove the advantage of surprise we gain from having the drones in the air. Most unbelievably:

The U.S. government has known about the flaw since the U.S. campaign in Bosnia in the 1990s, current and former officials said. But the Pentagon assumed local adversaries wouldn't know how to exploit it, the officials said. (h/t HH)

As they say in Iraq, all the stupid insurgents are dead. Ten years ago, it might have been safe to assume that a militant hiding in a cave in the Hindu Kush wouldn't be able to hack into the video feed of an unmanned drone. Now it's foolish and dangerous to make that assumption.

In his response to questions about bad actors using new technology, Ross made one very good point, very clearly: The fact that al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah, and the Iranian government are using new technology is all the more reason to do the same ourselves. Indeed, if we fail to engage people using the increasingly ubiquitous tools that tie our world together, we immediately cede that battleground to our enemies.

Tomorrow: Alec Ross at Brookings on 21st Century Statecraft

At Brookings tomorrow, Alec Ross will be introducing the State Department's 21st Century Statecraft initiative to Washington.  He's given speeches on it in New York and Camden, Maine, so the assumption must be that DC is ready to handle it. The event is full, but I'll be there live-tweeting and post-blogging, so if you can't make it, tune in for updates.

Alec RossIt's still a somewhat vague, ill-defined concept, but 21st Century Statecraft is a hot topic for technology nerds and foreign policy wonks alike. (A big shout out if you also fall in both categories) Essentially, it's about leveraging new technology-- like SMS, social networking, online video, etc.-- to expand diplomacy beyond the traditional government-to-government relationships, and include everyday people around the world in the business of international relations.

I don't think it's too bold to say that NDN played a role in developing some of the ideas that underpin 21st Century Statecraft.  In particular, a 2007 paper co-authored by Ross and Simon Rosenberg argued that our world is increasingly tied together in a single, global information and communications network-- a change facilitated largely by the rapid adoption of mobile phones-- and that our government had to do a better job working in this changed world, and preparing its citizens to operate in this world.

This concept of a fully networked globe has been at the core of the new 21st Century Statecraft initiative that Ross will talk about tomorrow. If nearly every person on earth has access to the same information, and the same basic tools of communication, this opens radically new doors for American diplomacy, and can facilitate entirely new ways for our country to advance our interests and promote our values around the world.

Nobody said this technology wasn't disruptive. Like I've said before-- it's changing everything.

As Usual, Scandinavians are Laughing At You

Mobile network operator TeliaSonera has finished construction on 4G networks in Oslo and Stockholm, which means that, in addition to better health care and cleaner streets, many Scandinavians now enjoy wireless download speeds that are 10 times faster than yours. Burns a little bit, no?

4G NetworkThe network is based on the LTE standard, which has more or less solidified its position as the industry standard for 4G networks around the world.  Sprint Nextel (perhaps you heard their boasting) have launched the first 4G network in the U.S., but it's based on the soon-to-be obsolete WiMAX standard, and it's only available in a few second-tier markets (sorry, Las Vegas).

There's one catch to all the above-- none of the aforementioned networks actually have any phones that can operate on them yet.  In Scandinavia and in the U.S., the 4G networks are only accessible with a dongle and a laptop.  The first 4G-capable handsets are expected in mid-late 2010.  Nevertheless, this is all very exciting, and just a little infuriating. (Darn Swedes always beating us to the punch...)

Twoddling Toddlers

TwoddlerThanks to a pack (or is it a quorum?) of Belgian "researchers," children can now join the twitterati before they're even literate. Indeed, they don't even need to be able to form cogent thoughts.  All they need to do is mash the buttons of their new Twoddler, and the wireless-equipped hunk of plastic will send a pre-determined Tweet to all their devoted followers.

For example, if little Jakey spends a few minutes slapping the picture of his mother, the thing will send: "@mommy_jakey Jakey misses mommy and looks forward playing with her this evening." Or if he twirls the colored thing for long enough, it will presumably tweet something to the effect of "Jakey is twirling a colorful wheel!" Worst of all, poor little Jakey is broadcasting his mindless play to the world, without any real knowledge of what he's doing.

Ok, this is silly, but now it's got me thinking about the concept of single-button Tweeting, or single-button SMS. I wonder if there is some potential here, for illiterate people wanting to broadcast the location of water or firewood, or to send simple, oft-used messages to friends and family. Just thinking out loud, and trying to turn this inane invention into something worthwhile...

[via Gadget Lab]

Open Government Coming to a Government Near You

Back in January, the President announced his Open government Initiative, and for the first ten months of Obama's presidency, the OGI was more an abstract commitment to "Transparency, Participation, and Collaboration" than any real set of policies or orders.  But earlier this week, the White House released their Open Government Directive, a big step toward reality for the OGI. You can read the Directive here, or watch this intro video with Aneesh Chopra and Vivek Kundra:

The Directive lays out hard objectives (with deadlines) for all federal agencies-- to draft their own Open Government plans, to appoint a high-level official to oversee Open Government operations, and to release at least three new, high-value data sets. More broadly, the Directive is about trying to turn a bureaucracy with an inherent inclination toward the status-quo into a bureaucracy that operates with transparency and openness as the norm.

But the really Big Idea behind the OGI is that the government has something to learn from its people.  That, by giving the American people access to data and information about how their government operates, the American people, in their infinite wisdom, will be able to offer really useful feedback to their government, and engage in their democracy in a way that helps create a more effective, efficient state. That's radical thinking.

I think of the OGI as a kind of domestic version of the State Department's 21st Century Statecraft initiative. While 21st Century Statecraft is about opening dialogue with peoples around the world, the OGI is about improving communication between the American people and their government. Both are facilitated by new technologies, and both initiatives are reflections of a world in which, increasingly, everyone is tied into a single information network, and everyone wants to engage with their leaders through the tubes.

This Directive does a lot for the "Transparency" part of the OGI, but not much for the "Participation" or "Collaboration" portions. By just making this new data available, and creating structures for transparency, the government is helping to empower wonks-with-a-soapbox like Ezra Klein, who make good use of available data and have a big platform to pontificate from.  But to really get the full benefit of the wisdom of the crowd, the government's next step will have to ensure the dialogue is truly two-way, and to build the tools to let people tell the government what they think. Still, it's a good start.

Addressing Afghans

Missed this last week, but a portion of President Obama's speech on Afghanistan was directed at the Afghan people (speaking directly to foreign peoples-- a cornerstone of 21st Century Statecraft).  Obviously, not a lot of Afghans were watching the speech live, but the new media folks at the White House figured a way to make the President's words accessible to many everyday people in Afghanistan. From Katie Stanton (soon to be of the State Department):

Looking at data on Whitehouse.gov, we don’t have a lot of traffic coming from Afghanistan and Pakistan because Internet penetration in the region is relatively low at 2% and 11% respectively. However, mobile penetration is much higher. 52% of the 177 million people in Pakistan have at least 1 mobile device and 30% of the 28.4 million in Afghanistan.  Given this trend, we produced short video clips of the President’s segment to Afghans and had it dubbed in Arabic, Dari, Pashto, and Urdu in order for them to be distributed locally on mobile devices.

I do wonder how many people in Afghanistan have cell phones that are capable of playing video, but I think this is important regardless. Yet more evidence that our government is thinking seriously about engaging not jut governments, but peoples around the world.

Lessons from Iran: Using Facebook to Become A More Effective Autocracy

Six months after a fraudulent election threw Iran into spasms of violence and exposed to the world the true autocratic nature of the Islamic Republic, a new round of protests and suppression have arisen around National Student Day-- a holiday to mark the killings of three students by the Shah in 1953. Thousands of Iranian students gathered at Universities in Tehran and elsewhere today, where they chanted slogans against their government. As in June, the government sent in the paramilitary Basij militias, who used tear gas, electrical truncheons and stun guns to break up the protests. Robert Mackey at the Lede has been offering the most regular, comprehensive updates of the protests as they have unfolded.

Iran's oppression hasn't gotten much attention since the summer's protests concluded, but the government has continued their sinister crackdowns-- and they've gone global. The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday on a series of interviews conducted with Iranians living in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere. Many of the interviewees who had spoken out against the regime reported having received threatening messages via e-mail or Facebook, and some were intimidated with threats against their family members still living in Iran.

Five interviewees who traveled to Iran in recent months said they were forced by police at Tehran's airport to log in to their Facebook accounts. Several reported having their passports confiscated because of harsh criticism they had posted online about the way the Iranian government had handled its controversial elections earlier this year.


An Iranian engineer in his 30s who lives in a German-speaking area of Europe, and who attended protests there this year, described having his passport, cellphone and laptop confiscated when he later traveled to Tehran. He said he was called in for questioning several times, blindfolded, kicked and physically abused, and asked to hand over his email and Facebook passwords.

Iran ProtestersInterrogators showed him images of himself participating in protests in Europe, he said, and pressed him to identify other people in the images.

"I was very scared. My knees were trembling the whole time and I kept thinking, 'How did this happen to me?'" he said recently. "I only went to a few demonstrations, and I don't even live in Iran."

He said he was told he was guilty of charges including attending antiregime protests abroad, participating in online activities on Facebook and Twitter that harmed Iran's national security and leaving comments on opposition Web sites. He said he was given a choice: Face trial in Iran, or sign a document promising to act as an informant in Europe.

He says he signed the paper, took his passport and left Iran after a month. He says he has received follow-up emails and phone calls but hasn't responded to them.

As I wrote the other day, this kind of thing is a chilling reminder that these incredibly powerful technologies can be badly abused, and in the hands of a government with bad intentions, can be turned on their head in the service of oppression, rather than freedom. To take a historical perspective on this phenomenon-- much as I dislike Nazism/Hitler analogies, FDR wasn't the only one who mastered radio to his political advantage...

Thinking about 21st Century Statecraft

In recent months, I've been writing a lot about 21st Century Statecraft, the new initiative of the State Department that leverages the expanding global information network to communicate with and empower people around the world.  It's about expanding diplomacy and development beyond the traditional government-to-government rubric, and involving regular people in the conversation. It's about asking-- when there are more 3G networks in Goma, Congo than there are in Camden, Maine, what does this mean and how can we use this fact to empower everyday people around the world?

You can expect more thinking and writing on this subject from Global Mobile, but in the meanwhile, check out this video of Alec Ross-- the State Department's primary exponent of 21st Century Statecraft-- speaking at the PopTech conference back in October. This is, I'd say, the clearest exposition of what exactly 21st Century Statecraft is, and what it means. Enjoy:

PopTech 2009: Alec Ross from PopTech on Vimeo.


Positive Deviance and the Promise of Bottom-Up Development

Sunday's Boston Globe had an Ideas piece on "postitive deviance," a concept that has changed the way some in the global development field have been doing business.  What is positive deviance? I thought you'd never ask:

[Positive deviance is] an approach to behavioral and social change. Instead of imposing solutions from without, the method identifies outliers in a community who, despite having no special advantages, are doing exceptionally well. By respecting local ingenuity, proponents say, the approach galvanizes community members and is often more effective and sustainable than imported blueprints.

Got it? No? Ok, here's an example from the article:

In Vietnam, [Monique and Jerry Sternin of Save the Children] would identify children who had somehow managed to be well nourished. Then they would try to figure out what those families were doing right. During this process, which Monique Sternin refers to as a “treasure hunt,” the Sternins went to the families’ homes, looked closely for clues, and asked many questions. One home did not even have full walls, but it housed healthy children. Seeing a crab crawling out of a basket, Sternin said, as she recently recalled, “Oh! What about that? Do you by any chance feed your children crab?” Reluctantly, the father admitted that yes, he scavenged for shrimp and crabs while he was farming in the rice paddies.

Crab“These are protein bombs,” says Dirk Schroeder, a professor of global health at Emory University who later conducted a study showing the project’s effectiveness. “When parents were first asked, they were really embarrassed about it. It was considered a low-class food, rather than buying Nestle baby food in a jar. In fact, it was a perfect thing to do.” This Vietnamese father was one of the “positive deviants” identified by the Sternins.

Basically, "positive deviance" (a concept pioneered at my dear alma mater) is about identifying local, home-grown solutions to problems, and helping publicize and propagate those solutions among people facing similar challenges. This may seem like a total no-brainer, but the development/aid community has long been dominated by forces with a strong inclination toward flashy, top-down, imported solutions that, for any of a variety of reasons, don't end up working the way they're supposed to.

Now, despite a few examples given in the article, it's not abundantly clear to me how the agencies go about publicizing the deviance of the positive deviants. The whole concept of development agencies playing the role of local PR agents is a little weird, and seems as though it takes the agencies outside their wheelhouse. But any approach that emphasizes bottom-up solutions is an improvement.

Why am I writing about this here? Because the ideas and values behind positive deviance are similar to what, in my mind, makes mobile technology such a powerful tool for development. Much as people like Sternins were focused on finding ways that poor people could make their own lives better, the promise of a mobile phone lies in its ability to empower the user, to democratize information, and to facilitate a bottom-up style of development that relies not on imposed solutions but on homegrown initiative, innovation, and exchange.

Syndicate content