Sunday, April 3, 2011

Using new technology for development – Back from Berlin

This morning I came back from a two day workshop in Berlin – organized by the Center for “Governance in Areas of Limited Statehood” of the Free University of Berlin (here). It was a gathering of twelve people flown in from around the world to discuss the use of new technologies in areas of limited statehood. Day 1: The professors introduced the theoretical framework. Day 2: Three prominent projects were presented. Voix des Kivus was one of these three. The other two were Ushahidi and Helpmap Russia:

  • Ushahidi: Patrick discussed how the operating platform was used, for example, to coordinate relief efforts after Haiti's earthquake, the uprisings in Egypt, and currently in Libya.

  • Helpmap Russia: Gregory discussed how making use of new technology made it possible for people to organize and fight Russia's wildfires - something the government was unable to do.

It was impressive. There are three main things I took out of this workshop:

  1. It's incredible how new technology empowers people, and thereby makes it more difficult for authoritarian regimes to stay in power. If information is power, then it is now in the hands of the people. With increased access, freely available programs and contact to millions of people, it is impossible to stop information flows. In Egypt, for example, when the government decided to shot down the internet, a system was quickly set up that made it possible for people to leave a voicemail on an international phone that was then made a tweet (voice-2-tweet).

  2. New technologies decrease transactions costs and reduces the threshold problem for collective action ("I only go to protest if at least x others go as well, but I don't know the latter so I don't go to the street). Currently there are applications that make it possible to have maps that indicate in real-time who is where, with how many, etc.

  3. I am optimistic about the future. All this great work is done by hundreds of idealistic volunteers around the world with software that is available freely online. It is incredible to see how social networks are used, activited quickly, and how many people stand ready to help - wherever in the world. Moreover, in times of disaster we are less and less reliable upon big, slow moving and expensive government/international agencies. E.g. after the Japan disaster people want to know about radiation levels. An application was created (in minutes) where people could measure radation and send their information to a central phonenumber. Thousands of messages are being received that are uploaded unto a real-time maps exactly what levels are where at what time throughout Japan; informing the public to an extent no government agency would have been able to pull off.

Fig1: Uniquely Getting at Causality

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