Global Mobile

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, 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.

Whither the Digital Divide?

Digital Divide?We can't say that the digital divide is gone, but it certainly is changing its shape, thanks to trends in mobile broadband adoption. NPR ran a story on Morning Edition today that reported on a Pew Hispanic Center study on the intersection of race and mobile use. I've written about this stuff before, and Simon covers it in his Dawn of a New Politics presentation-- really interesting.

The data show, as you can see in the chart at left, that blacks and Hispanics use broadband and other features on their mobile phones at consistently higher rates than whites. The report offers four explanations for this phenomenon:

  1. Cost. In our networked world, everyone who can have broadband access wants it.  Mobile broadband is cheaper than in-home broadband.  Blacks and Hispanics tend to be lower-income, and so gravitate toward mobile.
  2. Youth. Young people tend to be early adopters. Black and Hispanic populations skew young.  'Nuff said.
  3. Network Effects: As more people in these communities adopt the technology, the effects are compounded as they pull in their families and other social networks.
  4. Convenience: Particularly for Hispanics, who tend to be more itinerant  and more in touch with family and friends abroad, connecting to the network via mobile makes a lot more sense than in-home broadband.

Is this a good thing? Surely.  In-home broadband connections are prohibitively expensive for many Americans, and in a world where it's increasingly a necessity to be connected, it's hugely important that there is a lower-cost option for lower-income people. 

But is this the end of the digital divide? Surely not. Blacks, Hispanics, and lower-income Americans do still lag in computer use and in-home, fiber broadband connections.  While mobile broadband is helping to level the playing field, there is a degree of functionality that is lost on a cell phone.

No more than about 40% of black and Hispanic users access the internet on their phones-- reflective in part, no doubt, of the lower usability of mobile web-- and that remains a critical indicator.  Until every parent can view their child's grades online, and every student can learn to use the web for research, and every car buyer can search the internet for the best loan rates-- until then, the digital divide will remain a reality we need to challenge. We should be encouraged by this report, but not complacent.

(h/t JS)

Mobile Technology: Good, Bad, or Just a Tool?

Much is made of the power of mobile phones.  Indeed, much is made of them right here on this blog.  But, as with all seemingly magical tools of development/healthcare/education/whatever, there is a tendency to get swept up in the zeitgeist and to think of the mobile phone as a silver bullet. And as with all things, it's not. In fact, we can't think of the phone, or the internet, or any other technology as inherently good or bad. They're simply tools. New, powerful, disruptive tools-- but just tools.

Bear with me while I illustrate my point by weaving a thread through two articles published recently in faraway parts of the world:

  • Yesterday, a Sri Lankan newspaper covered a recent leak that the government intelligence services had been tapping the phones of an influential former general and his associates. The tapping was motivated not by any security concern, but by political concerns-- the general represented a powerful opposition group.
  • An opinion piece in the African Business Daily last week looked at the "pros and cons of increased access to mobile phones" in Uganda. The "pros" were the usual litany of access to information and services-- but it was just that: access. (The "cons" had mostly to do with Uganda's highly regressive taxation scheme, but that's a conversation for another day.)

Just a toolThe point here is twofold.  First, mobile technology, like any other technology, is subject to misuse and abuse by those in power. Part of NDN's big argument about new technology (and the reason that we got involved in this space in the first place) is that new technolgoies are changing society in a similar way to how radio changed the world in the 1920s and 30s. But just as FDR used the radio to speak directly to the American people, Hitler used radio to speak to Germans.

As we see in Sri Lanka, and as we saw in Iran, mobile technology can be used equally by those on either side of any struggle. This is by no means an argument against the technology itself-- as I said, it's neither inherently good nor inherently bad-- but simply a reminder that we must be watchful for the same evils as ever.

Second, in Uganda as everywhere, access to a phone and a network is never the end in itself. The power of the technology lies in the information you can access and the services you can take advantage of. That's why we see our mission at Global Mobile as greater than simply expanding access to mobile technology-- even moreso, we're thinking about how we can leverage this technology to improve lives and socities around the world. Technology and services-- one is useless without the other.

Happy Thanksgiving from Global Mobile

It's a quiet week here at NDN, as we wind down for Thanksgiving. We'll be back at it next week, refreshed, well-fed and full of our usual sharp analysis.

Reflecting on the bounty of this harvest season, I am thankful for you, dear reader, for making Global Mobile one of the hottest new products out of our humble think tank. I hope you've been enjoying the blog, and let me know what you think!

But even I am probably not as thankful as this guy, who, through to the power of mobile technology, is hearing the good news that his life will be spared this holiday season, thanks to a generous pardon issued by our president.

Turkey Cell Phone

Happy Thanksgiving!

You Say Netbook, I Say Outsized Cell Phone

While netbooks still comprise less than 10% of the PC market, their popularity is growing swiftly. Market reserach firm In-Stat came out with a report yesterday predicting that, three years from now, 31% of all notebooks will be sold through the mobile network operators. Essentially, they're predicting that we'll buy netbooks the same way we buy cell phones now-- at subsidized prices in exchange for multi-year service contracts.

NetbookI'm frankly surprised their estimate isn't higher. Within five years, I have to think the netbook/laptop distinction will be gone, and it will be effectively impossible to buy a new laptop that doesn't have mobile connectivity. These new devices will blur the line between smartphone and laptop, and the evolution of 4G data networks means that you won't have to compromise: portability and ubiquitous high-speed web access will meld seamlessly with the computing power we expect in today's personal computers. Can't. Wait. For. The. Future.

This is, as I've said before, particularly good news for people in the developing world. Just as cell networks have quickly leapfrogged landlines throughout most of Africa, Asia, and South America, 3G and 4G data networks are bound to arrive most places sooner than a fiber-optic cable connection to the global ICT network. As networks expand, more and more people will access the internet for the first time using netbook-type devices, and enjoy the same benefits of speed that I do, wired up in Washington, DC.

Syndicate content