Global Mobile

A Tale of Two Twitters

Ok, two stories from Mexico City.

In July, four Mexican journalists were kidnapped in Durango.  The kidnappers, connected to a drug cartel, sought to force the TV news media to air segments sending the message that Los Zetas, a rival drug gang, was doing business with corrupt officials.  The journalists' respective employers-- most notably Televisa, the biggest media company in Latin America-- negotiated for their freedom, but walked away from the table.

losqueremosvivosFor many Mexican journalists, the situation was too familiar-- caught between vicious thugs who have killed 64 journalists in the past decade, a complicit government that fails to protect the freedoms of press and information, and media companies that fail to protect their reporters. And so a group of them took to Twitter, uniting around the hashtag #losqueremosvivos (we want them alive).

Within a week, the journalists' simple demand had spread like wildfire on Twitter, migrated to Facebook, and morphed into a full-fledged movement. The reporters planned a march in Mexico City for August 7, invited journalists from around Mexico to join in the capital or host their own marches, and introduced colleagues around the world to their grievances.  Over 2,000 journalists showed up to march in Mexico City, and 14 other groups held their own rallies around the country.

The journalists were beaten, starved, and threatened, but were ultimately freed shortly after the rally, and the kidnappers arrested.  Nonetheless, all four reporters are seeking asylum in the U.S., on the grounds that, as journalists, they are persecuted by a government that "can't and won't protect them."

In February, Mexico City was shaken by news of a double murder.  Twitter user @atorreta and her boyfriend were both shot walking home from dinner, and her brother reported the whole episode from the hospital with tweet after tragic tweet.  The Mexico City Twitter community erupted in a fury of rage, angst, and calls for justice.  Online news sources published the story on their front pages.  And hours later, everyone learned that the entire story was false, made up.

It's not clear who made it up.  What is clear is that Mexican cartels have grown ever more sophisticated in their own use of social media, executing a well-thought through media strategy, using all the tools in their toolbox. This episode is characteristic of the sort of manipulation and misinformation that bad actors can use to their advantage on a frenzied network like Twitter.

So what do we have here? A case study in how social media can be used for organizing and sharing ideas, and a cautionary tale against taking Twitter at its word. Beyond that, two arguments for the necessity of good reporters, and good journalism.

If we take seriously the right to information, we must also take seriously the right to inform. Even in this technology-dense world-- perhaps even more so than before-- we rely on good journalism to give us a platform for intelligent debate. Here in Mexico, where journalists are shot dead for reporting on corruption, or threatened and silenced for calling out the cartels, there is a dearth of good information about these issues, and not enough informed debate. New media and technologies will be a part of bridging that gap. And so will good reporters.

Mexico's Mobile Monopoly

I'm in Mexico right now, investigating the use of mobile phones and other new technologies by nonprofits, NGOs, and small civil society organizations in this country.  My research is only just begun, but I've already encountered one major barrier to small groups leveraging the expansive mobile network and innovating tools and platforms using mobile services.

Telcel is Mexico's largest mobile phone operator, and for many in the country, the only option. Around 75% of all mobile subscriptions in the country are with Telcel-- a bit like if Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile were one company in the U.S., but instead of Sprint as an alternative, you had three or four smaller companies. A formerly government-owned company, Telcel was sold into private hands just a few years ago, and while some users I've talked to report that coverage and service has gotten a little better, prices have gone way, way up.

As Samhir wrote on Thursday, part of what has driven sky-high adoption rates in many developing countries is vigorous competition between mobile operators, driving down prices.  In India, a 1-minute call costs about 7 cents (adjusted for PPP), and a text message costs the same. In Indonesia, voice is expensive (as much as 32 cents/minute), but sending an SMS costs only 3 cents. In Ghana, a text costs 7 cents, and in nearby Panama, where three robust mobile operators compete aggressively, it's only 4 cents.

In Mexico, sending a text message with Telcel costs as much as 14 cents (again, adjusted for PPP), and for pre-paid subscribers (a group that includes most poorer people) the rates can be higher. Voice, meanwhile, can cost close to 50 cents per minute. Clearly, this is a serious barrier for adoption among poorer people, and a barrier for groups that may benefit from the network's reach.

What's more, when Carlos Slim and his América Móvil corporation took over Telcel from the government, they did so on the agreement that they would expand the network to cover all the many rural villages around Mexico, including those here in mountainous Oaxaca.  Progress has been halting at best.  Despite this, it's not uncommon to meet people who have no mobile coverage where they live, and yet own a mobile phone.  They have one, they say, for when they travel into the city, or for the phone's entertainment features. In fact, over 70% of Mexicans own a mobile phone. But the use of the platform has been limited.

While mobile has been tricky here in Mexico, internet growth has been very strong, with 19% year-on-year growth in the number of users, helping make Latin America the fastest growing region in the world for internet usage. Social networking, communication, and online entertainment are all big here, and e-commerce is beginning to make an impact.  As long as Telcel's monopoly on mobile persists, we'll likely continue to see internet as a stronger force in society.

This Week in Global Mobile | October 1, 2010

At times it's difficult to keep pace with the latest global mobile developments. I hope this selection of news stories from the past week will help you navigate the growing global network of connectivity:

  • On Tuesday night, Congress passed a bill which strives to make the Internet and smartphone usage more accessible for blind and deaf citizens.
  • The number of Europeans viewing video on mobile devices increased 66% in the past year, ComScore reports.
  • To increase access to emergency medical care in remote areas of Native American tribal lands, the Indian Health Services are sending 2,000 satellite phones to the Southwest.
  • London’s Underground will feature full mobile coverage in time for the 2012 Olympics, after London’s mayor intervened to force Vodafone and O2 -- the UK’s largest mobile operators -- to split the spiralling costs.
  • A new study indicates that “the quality and availability of health and education services improved thanks to access to mobile connectivity” in four African countries.
  •, South Africa’s largest online retail store, introduced its own eBook reader for Windows and Mac capable of accessing its growing database of 180,000 digital books.
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the winning entrants of the Apps For Healthy Kids competition, which challenged the public to create innovative software and digital tools to encourage healthy lifestyles among American youth.


Mobile Youth in the Developing World

A recent series of studies by mobileYouth reveals that mobile penetration among youth aged 20-29 has surpassed 100% in various developing regions. Across the planet, youth will spend $350bn on mobile technology this year -- ten times the size of the global recorded music industry. This growth is spearheaded by the developing world, where the mobile youth market will grow 25 times faster than that of the United States and Europe by 2012.

A look at specific developing countries helps break down this enormous market:

In Pakistan penetration reached 100% in 2008 among people aged 25-29, with the 20-24 demographic following suit a year later. One mobileYouth study predicts that, with current mobile penetration rates, phone and service revenues from Pakistani youth will reach $1.6bn by next year, with youth consuming $533 million of data in 2012 alone. In nearby China, 250 million youth own mobile phones, leading analysts to expect $14.6bn of data usage by young Chinese citizens in 2012.

But among all the Asian developing countries, India is emerging as the mobile youth superpower, with total mobile activations surpassing China’s by the end of this year. By 2011 one in five of the world’s young mobile users will be Indian -- roughly equal to the entire U.S. population. Leading the mobile adoption charge are young Indians in rural areas, a 100 million-strong group valued at two billion dollars.

In Kenya, some ten million mobile youth owners will create $800 million in revenue in 2010. Mobile penetration surpassed 100% within the 25-29 age group in 2009, with 20-24 year-olds expected to cross that milestone in 2011. Two-thirds of all mobile users in the country fall within the 20-25 age group.

It’s clear that young people are driving the mobile revolution in the developing world, but what’s driving these astounding adoption rates? One reason worth mentioning (by no means is it the only one) is the ever-increasing price war waged by mobile operators in developing countries. In an endless battle to combat “youth churn” (30% of young mobile users across the world switch providers every year), mobile operators compete viciously to lower prices and keep clients.

A perfect example of this phenomenon is found in the mobile youth market of Indonesia, a country which surpassed 100% penetration last year among 20-24 year-olds. A brutal price war began in 2007 when a new mobile operator, Hutchison, introduced lost-cost plans into a relatively stagnant market.

Indonesia’s established operators responded by slashing prices in a bid to win over a young and fickle base. As mobileYouth reports, this competition directly resulted in a rise in dual ownership, where young consumers found it economically viable to own multiple SIM cards from two or more operators. Indeed, when the price wars were at their worst in 2008, penetration among 25-29 year-olds jumped from 70% to 120%.

Studies in India and Kenya (where mobile customers are enjoying a government-enforced 50-75% drop in rates) also reveal how youth adoption rates in developing countries are being helped along by price wars among mobile operators in their eternal fight against youth churn.

The long-term affect of these price wars on developing countries’ economies may be unclear for now (although Kenya’s inflation rates were directly impacted last month by slashes in mobile rates). What’s apparent is the price wars’ massive effect on youth adoption rates throughout the developing world. It’s clear that young people are the future of mobile technology, and despite their fickle mobile operator preferences, there’s no doubting their long-term commitment to going mobile in unprecedented numbers.

For a terrific review of mobile youth data across the globe, check out 50 Key Mobile Youth Facts from Youth Trends Report online here.

President Obama at the UN on Open Civil Society

President Obama addressed the UN General Assembly yesterday, and focused his speech around three ideas: nonproliferation, the new peace process in the Middle East, and human rights.  In the third part came this excerpt on the importance of open civil societies:

The arc of human progress has been shaped by individuals with the freedom to assemble and by organizations outside of government that insisted upon democratic change and by free media that held the powerful accountable. We have seen that from the South Africans who stood up to apartheid, to the Poles of Solidarity, to the mothers of the disappeared who spoke out against the Dirty War, to Americans who marched for the rights of all races, including my own.


Civil society is the conscience of our communities and America will always extend our engagement abroad with citizens beyond the halls of government. And we will call out those who suppress ideas and serve as a voice for those who are voiceless. We will promote new tools of communication so people are empowered to connect with one another and, in repressive societies, to do so with security. We will support a free and open Internet, so individuals have the information to make up their own minds. And it is time to embrace and effectively monitor norms that advance the rights of civil society and guarantee its expansion within and across borders.

Open society supports open government, but it cannot substitute for it. There is no right more fundamental than the ability to choose your leaders and determine your destiny. Now, make no mistake: The ultimate success of democracy in the world won’t come because the United States dictates it; it will come because individual citizens demand a say in how they are governed.

It's great to see this kind of strong human rights language coming from the President.  It's also nice to hear the President mention the potential of new technologies in the context of facilitating stronger, more open societies around the world. Here, why don't you just read the whole thing.

The 21st-Century Mobile Military

Last month, the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) teamed up with the National Institute for Standards and Technology to announce a new Android-based smartphone which helps members of the military conduct real-time translation on the ground in Afghanistan. TRANSTAC (TRANSlation system for TACtical use) is equipped with sophisticated voice recognition software capable of translating between English, Pashto, Dari, and Iraqi Arabic, so it promises to provide far-reaching and valuable assistance to troops in the battlefield.

TRANSTAC presents just one example of the rapid adoption of mobile technology in the military. Several other applications have emerged over the years, and it’s worth taking a look at what’s out there -- and what’s to come:

This month at Fort Bliss in Texas, soldiers have been allocated Kindle e-reader books to serve as electronic user manuals. Currently, reports Bob Brewin of NextGov, the U.S. Army administers bulky paper copies of operations manuals through an inefficient process which is made redundant every time a new version of the equipment is released. Through a mobile network, says Brewin, updated e-manuals can be delivered in the battlefield cheaply and more efficiently through the adoption of Kindles.

Late last year, defense contractor Raytheon released the Raytheon Android Tactical System (RATS) to provide real-time intelligence to soldiers in the battlefield. Equipped with the software, soldiers can view satellite feeds of their terrain, interface between various forms of communication, transmit intelligence data and photos, and track up to twenty of their compatriots using GPS.

Michael Bostic at Police Magazine illustrates RATS’ implications:

Imagine a 10-officer team staking out a group of suspects from several locations simultaneously. Now, imagine the supervisor and team can observe each others' movements, simultaneously communicate via text message and call up a map of an entire building that suspects are about to to enter... you can be a part of the force from wherever you are, with your phone receiving all the same real-time information as your team in the field.

Continuing with this trend, DARPA just recently announced the winners of its Apps for Army contest (A4A), which challenged servicemembers to create 21st-century mobile solutions to aid U.S. troops abroad. The winning submissions include a rigorous military-specific iPhone physical training app and an Android-based utility to help the military coordinate humanitarian and disaster relief programs using Google Earth.

TRANSTAC, RATS, and A4A demonstrate how mobile technology is rapidly integrating with military processes. Earlier this year, for example, the U.S. Army released its first official iPhone app which provides links to the Army’s blogs, games for users to test their military skills, and a comprehensive military facts database. The app, dubbed U.S. Army News and Information, reveals how mobile technology is transforming military recruitment efforts at home just as it is changing the landscape in the battlefield.

Incorporating mobile phones into the military brings with it a particularly unique set of challenges.
First, network strength and reliability become life-or-death issues in the battlefield, since soldiers in action can’t afford to lose signal in rugged terrain or rural areas. A brand-new technology developed by Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), set to hit the ground in Afghanistan later this year, addresses the network reliability issue by providing portable, secure, 3G wireless network “nodes” to combat units spread throughout the country. Lockheed and xG Technology are also pursuing military-grade wireless network solutions.

Another critical challenge is finding a power source for these mobile technologies in areas where reliable access to juice is few and far between. To keep batteries charged, some companies are exploring “solar backpacks” equipped with lightweight solar cells to efficiently and reliably keep their mobile technology charged and ready-to-go.

As the world begins to reckon with modern technology and devices, military forces have witnessed the power of mobile tech to transform the way they mold their strategy abroad and within our borders. As innovation in the space continues, the “mobile military” of the 21st-century reminds us that global mobile technology’s applications and potential to improve daily life are widespread and ever-growing.

This Week in Global Mobile | September 24, 2010

At times it's difficult to keep pace with the latest global mobile developments. I hope this selection of news stories from the past week will help you navigate the growing global network of connectivity:

  • IBM announced plans to back a Kenyan initiative to provide rural areas with computer services by providing support for the Digital Villages program created in 2008.
  • Google released the Transparency Report, an interactive map which tracks requests from governments around the world who request that Google take down or censor content.
  • Internet at Liberty 2010, an event sponsored by Google and the Central European University in Budapest, gathered this week to address the boundaries of online free expression. Our very own Sam DuPont is at the conference and reports back here.
  • Hossein Derakhshan, a Canadian-Iranian blogger who rose to fame for his arrest in Iran after translating to Persian, is now facing the death sentence for “collaborating with enemy states” through various online outlets.
  • Speaking before the UN General Assembly yesterday, President Obama promised to continue to “promote new tools of communication...and a free and open Internet.”
  • Patrick Meier at iRevolution reviews a recent study released by Yahoo which validates the veracity of Tweets following Chile’s earthquake, conluding that the Twitter community “works like a collaborative filter of information.”
  • Dataix reports that the mobile subscriber base in Egypt soared past 60 million last month, representing a 25% year-on-year increase in a country with 80 million people.
  • Gearing up for the midterm elections, Google introduced a high-powered digital tool which tracks daily changes in red and blue states across the country.
  • Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan has turned to Facebook and YouTube videos as part of his campaign for re-election -- just days after using the social network to announce his candidacy.
  • A new Android app created by scientists at the University of California School of Engineering asks users to take photographs of the air around them, which are scanned by the app in order to analyze and map air pollution levels.
  • Finnish analytics companies Zokem examined usage of 6.5 million smartphones around the world, concluding that smartphone users spend 300 minutes a month browsing the mobile Web -- a number that’s comparable to traditional voice usage.
  • While Internet-enabled mobile devices in Africa remain few and far between, Yu telecom company just released a new platform which allows subscribers without smartphones to access e-mail over the Internet.


Choosing Evils

I'm in Budapest this week for a conference co-hosted by Google and Central European University-- "Internet at Liberty 2010." The highlight of this morning's sessions was a "very short history of the internet and free expression" offered by Rob Faris of Harvard's Berkman Center; I'd commend you to read Jillian York's liveblog of that session if you're curious. The highlight of the afternoon, and what I'll reflect on, was a conversation looking at the challenges for the internet industry in dealing with the issues surrounding freedom of expression on the internet. In these questions of corporate policy lie much of the current struggle to ensure the free flow of information and freedom of expresion on the internet. And tension between these values and concerns of privacy, security and decency are driving much of the debate.

As Leslie Harris of Center for Democracy and Technology aptly put it in a comment, content hosts like Facebook are, in many ways, the "arbiters of free speech" in our technology-dense world. With the network becoming increasingly global, they often find themselves caught between protecting the value of free speech and obeying the rule of law-- what's free speech in one place might be libelous, or obscene, or just downright felonious somewhere else. So when one country comes to Facebook with a request that they remove some piece of content, Facebook has to make a choice. A choice that Lord Richard Allan, Facebook's head of European Privacy, describes as choosing the lesser of two evils.

Illustrating one of the evils Facebook has chosen was the scandal earlier this year around the Facebook group "Draw Mohammed Day." Despite the Pakistani government's demands to eliminate the group, Facebok deemed it a legitimate expression of free speech. As the inevitable consequence, Pakistan blocked access to all of Facebook for a period of days. In the end, Facebook and the Pakistani government both earned the ire of different groups.

But there have been other instances in which Facebook has chosen to censor content-- the conversation today took a zany turn today for a case study on breastfeeding. In the United States, it turns out, breastfeeding in public is against the law. And in compliance with the law, Facebook has taken down thousands of photos of women breastfeeding-- including many photos taken outside the U.S., and submitted by users living outside the U.S. But because they're accessible in the U.S., Facebook won't host the photos; they could be sued if they did.

It's certainly a curious position for a company to be in, making decisions about what constitutes free speech and what's over the line. And it can surely become an uncomfortable position when they make a controversial call. But what's the altnerative?  The role of the intermediary-- Facebook, in this case-- is one of the toughest questions for people working on these issues, and incorporates huge concerns about privacy and security. I'm looking forward to more of this discussion tomorrow.  Check back here for more in-depth recap and analysis...

(Unrelated, I was on the radio today-- AM 1500 in DC-- talking about digital diplomacy. Enjoy.)

This Week in Global Mobile | September 17, 2010

At times it's difficult to keep pace with the latest global mobile developments. I hope this selection of news stories from the past week will help you navigate the growing global network of connectivity:

  • Nokia awarded a million dollar investment to a Nairobi based start-up which provides a comprehensive application for food and retail distributors to manage their companies through their mobile phones.
  • A new South African business allows registered users to send and receive unlimited free SMS messages, generating profit from short advertisements appended to the end of each text.
  • A lieutenant colonel in the British army plans to be the first commanding officer to tweet his daily life from the front lines of Afghanistan, despite security concerns by military officials. The U.S. military only recently reversed a general ban on social media services.
  • The government of Sierra Leone is cracking down on vendors of unregistered SIM cards, calling them a threat to national security. [via Mobile Active]
  • Haystack, a much-heralded anti-censorship tool utilized by Iranian web users to circumvent strict government restrictions, was withdrawn by its developer after it was discovered that Iranian officials may be able to trace citizens through it.
  • Although social media can be used to cross cultural barriers, Global Chaos reminds us that, as is the case with the Armenia-Azerbaijan ethnic conflict, 21st-century peace-building efforts are still susceptible to hackers and cyber-attacks.
  • On Wednesday Dell announced that its electronic medical database system will be fully integrated into its new Android-based Streak tablet in a bid to bring health care into the mobile world.
  • Demonstrating the rapid growth of mobile technology across the world, ComScore revealed that the European smartphone market grew by nearly 50% in the last year alone.
  • At its World 2010 conference, Nokia announced a partnership with Intuit to pioneer a location-based advertising service to help small business owners succeed worldwide through mobile phone marketing.
  • Google’s Chief Legal Officer called for increased pressure against web-censoring governments, whose actions violate human rights and damage U.S. trade interests.
  • Although Internet penetration hovers at low levels throughout Africa, a survey released this week indicates that over 90% of business owners across the continent expect an “Internet revolution” of higher adoption, increased competition, and lower prices in the near future.


Connecting Refugees with Mobile Phones

Earlier this month, Denmark-based NGO Refugees United launched a pilot program in Uganda to help refugees locate lost relatives using their mobile phones. Supported by the UN High Commission for Refugees, phone manufacturer Ericsson, and Africa's largest mobile operator MTN, the project allows refugees to post and access a digital database in order to track loved ones. 

The process is free, secure, and anonymous. According to MTN, registering for the service is as simple as texting "REG" to a shortcode, which prompts refugees to choose a username and password. They are then able to fill out their profile or search for missing family from their mobile phones. As GenevaLaunch reports, "Users decide just how much information they wish to share. Typically, traces are made based on nicknames, birthmarks, or other distinguishing features that only a family member would recognize." Family and friends are then able to search the database of users, and find their lost loved ones.

Within four days of its September 3 launch, the project registered 500 users -- a number which has grown eightfold in the past twelve days. Refugees United founder Christopher Mikkelsen explains why mobile phones hold the key to this project's success:

Mobile phones are extremely interesting in terms of refugee family tracing because the vast majority of refugees have access to one... While it can be tremendously difficult to reach refugees via the web, it is much simpler and much more efficient to go via mobile phones that furthermore is a process they are familiar with.

Mikkelsen estimates that that up to 78 percent of refugees in East Africa have mobile phones, meaning that this project holds tremendous potential for the six million internally displaced persons on the continent. And although the program already connects 80 different nationalities within Uganda alone, Mikkelsen intends on scaling the project into Sudan and Kenya once the pilot concludes in December, with a goal of expanding across the continent to reach three million refugees.

Refugees United isn't the first attempt to harness modern technology to re-connect refugees. The Red Cross' Central Tracing Agency, arguably the most established contact restoration organization, posted over 83,000 names of lost loved ones on its website in 2009, enabling displaced persons all over the world to find their relatives. Unlike the CTA, however, Refugees United harnesses the power of an increasingly ubiquitous medium to ensure that more Africans can access the service. While Internet access remains scarce across the continent, mobile phone penetration is skyrocketing above 100% in some African countries -- meaning millions of refugees will have easy (or at least easier) access to this service.

Another program based in the Middle East also uses mobile technology to improve the lives of refugees. Sponsored by the World Food Programme, the project allows Iraqi refugees in Syria to receive food vouchers via their mobile phones. Instead of traveling long distances to food distribution sites, users can redeem their vouchers in local government-run shops. Like Refugees United, the pilot program was met with huge success, due once again to the high level of mobile phone accessibility among members of the program.

Refugees United's formula for success is simple: It provides an essential service using an easily accessible platform. Its reliance on the mobile phone reveals the growing power of 21st-century technology, and it suggests that, as long as mobile penetration continues to grow, similar innovative programs like Refugees United will emerge to improve lives around the world in new ways.

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