Citizen Participation

Silicon Valley Meets Net Freedom

Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference, October, 2011

The Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference in San Francisco this week sought to connect tech companies that build tools and services that are used in challenging political environments with the activists and human rights groups that use them. As is widely recognized, particularly since the Arab Spring uprisings, these technologies often cut both ways in that they can be used by the good guys in support of political freedom and democratic development, or by tyrants to supress speech, access to information and monitor or surveil citizens. We've blogged about these issues extensively here at NDITech. READ MORE »

Governments Should “Like” Social Media - But Stay Safe

Latin American Social Media

Last week the Senate Foreign Relations Committee published a report [PDF] on Latin American governments and their need to embrace social media and technology. As a avid follower of news from this region, I inhaled the 15-pager.

The report presents data on broadband, bandwidth, and mobile subscription in the region as well as information on how Latin American countries have used technology to engage with citizens - and what the United States' role should be in this process. While highlighting some examples, it finds that Latin American governments have been slow on the social media uptake.

In our own experience here at NDI, we've found real benefits to social media as a space for two-way communication to occur between citizens and governments in the region. Some of our blog readers might remember an earlier NDI's Mexico office uses Twitter to engage political party leaders engaged with their constituents.

Yet, the most interesting takeaway amid the wealth of data was the need for more digital literacy training to help ensure that citizens can use these social technologies and remain safe while doing so. The Foreign Relations report emphasized the "critical risks that come with connectivity and access to social media resources." READ MORE »

Upgrading the Airwaves

a broadcasting tower

Radio often seems like a lost art. Enthusiasm for mobile technologies and online resources overshadows more traditional, low-tech broadcasting methods. But by no means has radio been left behind. Community radio stations around the world are using new technologies to enhance their broadcasts so listeners can have more control over the programs, engage more fully with the content, and work towards fulfilling community information needs. Listener outreach and participation help radio broadcasting stay relevant, connect listeners to a broader information network, and provide a platform for community discourse.

After radio, mobile phones are one of the most prevalent technologies in the developing world. SMS provides radio stations a direct link with listeners, allowing for feedback and discussion. Frontline SMS has developed a tool to help community stations better facilitate dynamic interactions using text messaging. Kibera-based Pamoja FM is one example of the Frontline SMS tool in action. Pamoja FM promotes a peaceful society and empowers the youth of Nairobi’s slums by providing an outlet for discussion among a disenfranchised group. READ MORE »

Social Media for Collective Action

Zeynep Tufecki

Climbing aboard the social media train ... I’ve been thinking about the special role of social media and collective action under authoritarian regimes since I caught a talk by Zeynep Tufecki at the Berkman Center last week. Tufekci’s research considers the question: how does an unpopular regime stay in power for so long? and how does social media play a role in how these regimes fall? Part of the answer is by solving the collective action problem.

So what is a collective action problem, and how does one solve it? Collective action problems are situations that require wide participation to solve, have high participation costs, and high costs of failure. This triple-threat makes collective action problems especially tricky to organize and solve. Authoritarian regimes often pose collective action problems, as there are few ways of organizing and the cost of failing often results in torture or being thrown in jail. Whenever dissidence appears, governments quarantine and isolate the hubs to ensure that protests don’t spread.

Factor in the challenge of misinformation - as a measure of self-protection, citizens who might privately oppose the regime publicly claim to support it. This in turn creates a false perception (or pluralistic ignorance) that friends, neighbors, and other potential collaborators are content with the status quo, although their views are different in private. READ MORE »

So Who Are You Connected To?

Social network analysis (SNA) is a hot topic in academia these days; I picked it up in a class in my Master's program at Georgetown. The concept got a lot of attention after assisting in the capture Saddam Hussein in 2003. While we can’t all use SNA to find genocidal dictators, it can be very useful in ICT4D - I'll describe one example below.

So what is it? Social network analysis focuses on how networks are structured, looking at what ties exist between "nodes". Nodes can be just about anything: people, countries, topics, and so on; it all depends on the network that you’re looking to study. Once the connections have been mapped out, you can start to see how the network is connected. Depending on your focus, SNA can help uncover critical underlying structures: which nodes have the most ties? Do certain nodes act as bridges and connect groups that would otherwise be disconnected? Are certain nodes brokers of information because they link one group to information they would otherwise not have? READ MORE »

Hunting (Developers) in Kenya

Digital Kenya

I'm currently in Kenya working with NDI's Somalia program* spinning up a communications platform to better link Somalis split between various regions of their country, living as refugees in Kenya, or having traveled to join the diaspora around the world.** Being so fragmented creates a huge problem with silos; while Somalis are an incredibly communicative group with a very oral culture, they have few places where they can talk together or even see the same information. We hope to mitigate that a bit. It's very exciting to be here in Nairobi, hub of Africa's tech revolution - if someone hasn't yet coined the term Silicon Rift Valley, I'm trademarking it. I've spent the last few days working closely the NDI Somalia program officer behind this concept; one of the strengths of NDI is that you can pair one person who has deep knowledge of the local context together with another with deep knowledge of technology for development. (Unfortunately, she wasn't available, so they sent me instead.) For the last week we've been interviewing local Kenyan and international developers who might be able to take on a project like this. There have been a lot of impressive ones. It's really exciting to see so much local talent in the field of web application development. We're opening the process to big international firms, but I don't see how they can possibly be competitive on price - and the local skills are just as good. READ MORE »

This Weekend in Media Reform


While my colleagues Chris and Jared are in Nigeria, supporting the #biggestPVTever, I was up in Boston this weekend at the National Conference on Media Reform, an annual event dedicated to the convergence of trends in media, technology, and policy. This year brought roughly 2,500 attendees and a slew of prominent and interesting speakers.

I was on a panel called Mobile Democracy: Your Phone is Political, with Jed Alpert and Rachel LaBruyere from MobileCommons, a campaign strategy group, Josh Levy from Free Press, the organization behind NCMR, and our moderator Jamilah King from the racial justice action site ColorLines. READ MORE »

Technology For Peace : Strengthening Democracy

Flickr user “baggis” / Magazine cover art from Science 1985

ICT in the service of “peace” often refers to a broad range of activities encompassing conflict prevention and management, peace operations, humanitarian relief and disaster assistance, and post-conflict peace building and reconstruction.

For example, the ICT4Peace Foundation is committed to effective communication in “crisis management, humanitarian aid and peace building”.  A recent USIP collaboration, Blogs & Bullets examines how new media can change the politics of unrest, revolution, violence, and civil war.  Their work emphasizes five levels of analysis: individual transformation, intergroup relations, collective action, regime policies, and external attention.

NDI’s approach to ICT & Peace has focused on how key tools can help communities and stakeholders improve communication, facilitate negotiations, increase transparency, and build trust.

Democracy assistance is often seen as falling in the range of activities associated with peace building and conflict resolution, as democratic institutions help maintain peace by providing mechanisms for managing or resolving conflicts without resort to violence.  READ MORE »

A Data Revolution

Egyptians record the revolution for posterity with digital cameras and cameraphones.

This blog is cross-posted from the ONE blog, where I was a guest blogger on Monday.

What's happening in Egypt is unprecedented -– and not only politically. Despite extraordinary efforts on the part of the Egyptian regime to silence pro-democracy protesters, this may be the most communicated, documented and media-ready political upheaval in history. On January 25th, Egypt caught the world's attention when thousands poured into Tahrir Square, Cairo's biggest public plaza. Protests were organized on the social networking site Facebook, on pages of groups like "We Are All Khalid Saeed"; by anonymous administrators embodying generational frustrations. READ MORE »

You See Names, We See Data

The sign-in sheet at an IC. You see names, I see data.

A few months ago I visited Haiti to learn about opportunities for NDI partner organizations to use mobile phones in community organizing, and met with volunteers from groups around the country working for community empowerment.

Just before the election, I returned to Haiti to run trainings for Initiative Committee members on how to use mobile communications. This was more than just training them on FrontlineSMS, the application we had chosen for this instance, although that wasn’t clear to all parties when I arrived.

Often when an ICT team member arrives in a country, there’s an expectation that we’ll set up a computer, teach people what to click on, and head off our merry way. It’s a natural tendency the world over to think of technology as a silver bullet, and it's often a struggle to convey to people how much work needs to go into strategy, planning, training, and deployment from afar. READ MORE »

Tech Leapfrogs Citizen Engagement - but Weakens Democracy?


A couple weeks ago I accompanied our Governance Director, Scott Hubli, to the International Council for Information Technology in Government Administration (ICA) conference. Scott was facilitating a conversation with government IT leaders from around the world on the role of citizens in governance in a rapidly changing technology environment where social media, mobile and similar technologies play an increasing role. There were six or eight of us hashing out some of this stuff and an interesting framework emerged that I found worth sharing – and that provides an opportunity to pitch some of our thinking about the potential of technology in emerging democracies going forward.

The broad theory that emerged could be summarized as follows: the rise of social media and citizen tools are creating new ways for citizens to engage with policy makers and leaders that bypass and therefore weaken traditional structures of representative government. However, the policymakers have not effectively learned how to deal with the public input coming in these new channels and transform these interests into effective policy – making policy less representative while potentially frustrating citizens who don't see an impact of their engagement leading to disillusionment with the process and possibly with democracy itself. READ MORE »

Data Envy

National Voters' Register Online

The Uganda Election Commission recently launched their National Voters' Register Online system - with the assistance of our friends over at IFES - that allows citizens to confirm that their name appears on the voters roll in their polling place . This is a great step and important service - and something we don't see often enough in many countries around the world. IFES and the other international organizations should continue to focus on these kind of technology initiatives around election administration - and then take the next step by helping civil society groups and political parties use the data to hold electoral officials and governments accountable for good elections.

The data available through the Uganda tool allows citizens to look themselves up if they know where they are registered to vote, and voter lists are provided for each of thousands of polling centers. There are limits to what can be done with data in this format - but the system knows who is registered to vote where, and thus where polling stations are and how they map to all the political districts in the country. The election officials may also have geocode information for polling centers and map data. READ MORE »

On the Front Lines with FrontlineSMS


NDItech has recently been doing a lot with a slick piece of software called FrontlineSMS. It's not new, but it's been a powerful solution for us of late, so I thought I'd share.

Frontline is a tool to allow people to do basic two-way SMS communications via standard laptops and cellphones (or, preferably, GSM modems). Frontline was designed by Ken Banks to facilitate interactions within conservation groups in parts of Africa without internet access.

Given its heritage it's not surprising that Frontline really nails our mantra of "appropriate technology" in a number of ways.

  • It doesn't have a steep learning curve. Our partners in Eastern Europe downloaded and got it working on their own before I even got to show it to them.
  • It runs on very common technology
  • It communicates with people where they are: text messaging. Across Africa, as we've mentioned, mobile phones are far and away the best way to reach people.

In the vast swaths of the world where only elites are on the internet, this is a great way to build connections between organizations and their members, whether civil society groups, political parties, or other groups. READ MORE »

Blowing Up the Silos

Exploding Silo

I hit the World Bank today for "Mapping for Results." Putting results front and center is a great idea - as mapping has shot up the hype cycle, it's nice to focus on what it can do beyond putting up pretty pictures. However, I call False Advertising on the conference coordinators.

Maps are a particularly sexy current form of visualization, and there's a lot of great information that can be conveyed that way. (Shameless self-promotion: Like, oh,

The real star of the panels at the event today was not the maps: it was the data backing them. Like the puppeteer pulling the strings, the maps only do what the data tells them to. Panelists returned time and again to the importance of open data and easing access to it.

The World Bank's been a real leader in the Open Data movement; their site,, has thousands of data sets available for download. A lot of neat work has been build on top of their information already. But it's hard, cuz it's yet another data silo. All that info has to be pulled from their site and integrated into your own. READ MORE »

A Missing Link in the Rights Struggle: Political Process Monitoring

Phillipines - First Time Voters (FTV) Youth Dialogue

There is a lot of talk about political activism in the tech for development and democracy space. We often discuss capturing evidence or documenting abuses using cameras and phones; citizen journalism and citizen reporting using blogs, SMS or other social media; crowdsourcing reports on to web-based maps; or circumventing repressive regimes to gain access to the Internet - often to share the evidence or access the social platforms we use to share our experiences.

Lots of great technologies, lots of courageous activists and citizens, and lots of international support for these efforts.

However, it seems to me that a big piece of the puzzle isn't very clear - how are these technologies and political activities supposed to bring about the desired poltiical change? What process do these actions support? What is the theory of change?

This post attempts to fill in some of that gap by explaining a common approach that NDI coaches groups to use in combination with all these great technologies: political process monitoring. READ MORE »

Protecting Citizens in Political Movements

Iran Protests

I've blogged quite a bit lately on security matters related to working with groups in closed societies because it's an important subject and from my standpoint there are a few more topics that need to be covered. This post is about protecting citizens, as opposed to trained activists, in countries where popular movements lead to marches, protests or other forms of public engagement.

Risks for activists who are working in tough environments and using communication, circumvention and other technologies can at best be minimized - and requires a complex set of technologies and procedures that must be artfully designed for the specific political environment then diligently adhered to. Many activists are fully aware of and willing to take the risks required.

However, there are significant risks for average, untrained citizens involved in political movements as well. Many often use technology tools much less sophisticated than those used by activists, such as mobile phones, digital cameras, social network platforms and even Internet cafes. READ MORE »

'Till November: Haiti, Mobile, and the Coming Elections

An Information Center in Carrefour

Mobile phones are everywhere in Port-au-Prince. Digicel, with one of the tallest buildings in town, also seems to be among the biggest employers - Digicel credit stations, with matching red kettle-drum desks and umbrellas, populate the side of every road, and red-capped attendants hawk pre-paid cards in 'Rechaj' vests. One of the NDI Haiti staff members credited the company with 'changing the face of the country', although not without cost.

Following the January earthquake, mobile phones were also everywhere: the media seemed to want to give them credit for saving, rescuing, and rebuilding Haiti: the 4636 Emergency Information Service shortcode, the US$22m in donations to the Red Cross, the use of apps as a first responder. These were all savvy, even unprecedented uses of mobile, but in some ways only drove home a point - mobile is ubiquitous now (and here), and when we think about how to communicate, we need to include mobile as an infrastructure, a device, a platform, and a behavior. READ MORE »

NDItech is Hiring: Election Monitoring in Closed Political Space

We're looking for an online messaging guru to travel to the Middle East for a 3-week field assignment to work with NDI partners (local NGOs) who are monitoring and highlighting government conduct during an electoral period. This position is similar to the previous Thailand gig mentioned by Katherine.

We're looking for someone to work with our local partners to tell their stories about the election, and to use data collection and compelling visualization to further citizen understanding of the process. See full skills description here.

Talking "Liberation Technology" With Friends at Stanford

High- and low-tech security approaches

Last Friday I had an opportunity to talk to the Liberation Technology Seminar at Stanford University - led by democracy scholar Larry Diamond.

The talk, titled "Seize the Day, Seize the Data: Tech-Enabled Moments of Opportunity in Closed Societies," provided a great opportunity for our team here to shore up our thinking about working in what we call challenging environments or closed societies. You may think of them as authoritarian regimes.

Working in closed societies is a small percentage of NDI's work; the majority of our programs take place in established democracies of varying levels - from the most fragile to well established democratic countries. However, in response to the State Department's Internet Freedom initiative and other factors, we have seen additional interest in this topic (as I have mentioned) and it's a good opportunity to share how NDI approaches ICT work in these countries.

The text of our talk is attached below, and the video will be available soon.

Here is a summary of the four main points and the QA. READ MORE »

NDItech is Hiring: Data, Democracy, Burma

Burma Map

We are hiring. Will you work with us for three months in Thailand?

In November, Burma is preparing to hold its first elections in 20 years. By all measures, this should be a remarkable event, and yet observers don't expect these historic elections to meet basic international standards. The Burmese pro-democracy movements report that the government has fallen short of the minimum requirements needed for free and fair elections, and analyst consensus suggests that the outcome is designed to enshrine and legitimize military rule.

In preparation for these events, NDItech team members recently visited Thailand to consult with Burmese rights groups and learn more about their election-related plans. From our partners we heard caution and concern; many described plans to collect and share information about rights violations both before and during the election. Many organizations also expressed a desire for assistance on issues such as data collection and transmission, aggregation and analysis, secure communications, and information publishing and advocacy.  READ MORE »

Syndicate content