Global Mobile

Reform in Burma: Opening for the U.S.

Cebu City, Philippines - In October I wrote about the halting, confusing, but encouraging political reforms in Burma (Myanmar) over the past year. It's been an exciting few weeks since then. At the ASEAN summit in Bali last month, President Obama announced that Secretary of State Clinton would go to Burma-- the first visit of a Secretary of State since John Foster Dulles went to Yangon in 1955. The decision to visit, advertised as a test of Burma's commitment to democratic reform, was understood widely as a small carrot to encourage further progress. Many, however, have criticized the Obama administration for rushing to reward one of the world's most despotic regimes for what have been mostly cosmetic, reversible changes.

The move was made possible largely thanks to the generous political cover of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's foremost opposition leader and President Obama's fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner. Ms. Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, which sat out last year's elections in protest, has decided to contest an upcoming election. Ms. Suu Kyi will herself run in the election, and is all but certain to be filling a seat in parliament. Though she has spent the better part of the past two decades under house arrest and has as good reason as anyone to suspect the motives of President Thein Sein's incipient reforms, Ms. Suu Kyi has been upfront in her readiness to meet the government's reforms in good faith.

Secretary Clinton sat down with Ms. Suu Kyi-- it was their first face-to-face meeting after much previous correspondence-- and met with President Thein Sein, addressing a number of issues that have kept the U.S. and Burma apart. Atop the agenda was Burma's collusion with North Korea on missile and (possibly) nuclear technology. Secretary Clinton also pushed Thein Sein to continue internal reforms by freeing political prisoners and resolving ongoing conflicts with ethnic minority groups.

Coming out of the visit, Secretary Clinton announced that the U.S. would relax some restrictions on economic development aid, allowing the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to work in Burma, and promising $1.2 million in health, education and humanitarian projects to be administered by the United Nations. She and Thein Sein also discussed the possibility of upgrading diplomatic relations and exchanging ambassadors-- a move that Ms. Suu Kyi has also advocated.

In the week since the Secretary's visit, some reciprocal progress has already been made in Burma: Public protest has been legalized, though protesters must register with the government five days in advance, and provide authorities with the substance of their protest. Additionally, the government signed a cease-fire with the Shan State Army, a rebel group in Eastern Burma, and has plans to open two border crossings to Thailand that have both been closed for over a year.

Of course, these are just the first stirrings of change, and it would be unwise to welcome Burma into the brotherhood of democracies just yet. Over 1,600 political prisoners, including many journalists, remain incarcerated, and the government has unresolved conflicts with Karen and Kachin minority groups. Given the way the government brutally suppressed an uprising of monks in 2007, it would be naive to think such violence lies safely in the past.

But President Thein Sein seems earnest in his desire to reform Burma. He has travelled around Southeast Asia more than most of his fellow Generals, and probably has a clear picture of just how far Burma lags behind its neighbors. While it's surely fun to have absolute power, it's probably less fun if you're ruling a poor and backwards country. The opaque government is believed to be sharply divided, with hardliners eager to undermine any attempt at change. Garnering small prizes like a visit from Secretary Clinton is likely to solidify the position of reformers and encourage more genuine progress. U.S. economic sanctions remain in place, as they should, and Burma's small steps toward democratic governance should be met equally with gestures such as those announced last week.

Of course, the U.S. has a strategic reason for promoting a more democratic Burma: seeking another ally to counterbalance growing Chinese power in the region. The major story of President Obama's appearance at the ASEAN Summit was how explicitly he delineated what has long been tacitly understood as the goal of U.S. policy in the region: just as China desires a "string of pearls"-- military bases and diplomatic alliances around the Indian Ocean-- the U.S. seeks strong bilateral relationships with the states surrounding China. In a recent FT op-ed National Security Advisor Tom Donilon made clear the "return" of the U.S. to Asia, forecasting "an intensified American role in this vital region."

At the Summit, President Obama waded into a long-standing dispute over the sea lanes and resources of the South China Sea, heading a group of ASEAN leaders in confronting Premier Wen Jiabao over China's sweeping and aggressive claim to the entire sea. While President Obama didn't take an explicit position in the dispute, Secretary Clinton, in a visit to Manila, recently referred to it as the "West Philippine Sea," which has delighted the media and government here. Premier Wen seemed surprised and somewhat unnerved, and Xinhua, the Chinese state-controlled media has fired back with headlines like "South China Sea matters not a whit to Philippines, U.S."

Since the arrival of the military junta in 1962, Burma has acted essentially as a Chinese vassal state, wholly dependent on its neighbor to the north for trade and investment. Among the more substantive changes of the recent months, however, President Thein Sein responded to a popular outcry against the construction of a dam, canceling the Chinese-led project and infuriating Beijing. While Burma and China are sure to remain closely allied, the recent tussle appears to signal Thein Sein's discomfort at depending exclusively on this alliance. The U.S. has exploited this opening to gain some influence with Burma and balance against Chinese regional hegemony.

The events of the past months have been good progress in Burma, but swift regression is possible, and a Burma that recedes to total authoritarianism is a Burma that drops right back into China's pocket. The U.S. is wise to meet their baby steps with baby steps, and continue to encourage reform, sluggish though it will surely be.

Curbs on Press Freedom Proposed in Thailand

While much of Thailand was underwater last month, the new administration under Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra furtively approved an amendment to the country's 2007 Printing Act that would have, if approved by the Parliament, constituted a major step back for freedom of expression in this country. Thailand already has serious limits on freedoms of speech and press, with draconian lèse majesté laws that severely punish public speech against the Thai monarchy.

This new amendment would have given the National Chief of Police unilateral power to shut down any publisher believed to violate lèse majesté laws, undermine national security, or subvert public order. Any publishers in violation of the Chief's decree would be subject to three years in prison, a fine of 100,000 baht (~$3,200 USD), or both.

The Council of State, a body that serves as the legal advisor to the leadership, recommended the withdrawal of the amendment, on the grounds that it was almost certainly prohibited by the current Thai consitution, which protects freedom of expression. Fortunately, the cabinet has obliged.  A good thing, too, because the law would almost certainly have been rubber stamped by the clear majority of Pheu Thai legislators in the parliament.

Hanging over these proceedings (and, really, hanging over all Thai politics) is the spectre of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai Prime Minister ousted by a 2006 coup, and older brother to Yingluck. Thaksin is still in exile, but keen to return and resume his leadership of this country. The proposed limits on freedoms of the press were seen by many as the beginning of a campaign to consolidate public opinion in support of Thaksin's return.

Part of the apparent impetus for the 2006 coup was Thaksin's harassment of the press during his brief second term, so to return to censorship as a tool of governance seems like a risky, and probably losing tactic. Despite the government's very quiet Oct. 18 approval of the amendment-- even the media didn't notice what was happening until a couple weeks later-- it came up against naturally harsh censure across the board. The Bangkok Post published this shameful map illustrating press freedom scores as compiled by Reporters Without Borders, showing democratic Thailand hardly standing out from neighbor Burma:

For a government that campaigned on a platform of civic liberties and freedom of opinion, this is a pretty poor start for Yingluck on freedom of expression. We can breathe a half-hearted sigh of relief that the Council of State intervened this time, but when these floods have passed and the government can return to its priorities in governing, we will now have to expect curbs on free expression to be on their agenda.

Fighting Water with Data

Here in Thailand, we're suffering the worst floods the country has seen in over 50 years. Most of the country has been hit at some point in the past 3 months, and right now, all that water is flushing out through Bangkok-- large swaths of the capital is currently underwater, and though downtown has thus far been spared, it may get worse yet.

Looking on the techno-optimistic bright side, a few interesting web-based tools have come out of the strife.  My favorite is, where Bangkok residents who have fled can enter their address and find out, well, if their house is flooded. The site's data is all crowdsourced-- meaning Bangkokers who have stayed behind can go online and let the world know how things look from where they sit. The site then aggregates that information, sorts it by zip code, and presents it in a user-friendly Java interface.

This is the best kind of crowdsourcing. After the Haiti earthquake last year, crowdsourcing got a bad rap, when citizens under duress exaggerated reports to expedite aid to their own communities. With strong incentive to stretch the truth, in some cases less than a third of reports were accurate. (This is to take nothing away from the successes of crowdsourcing in the aftermath of that earthquake-- for example "microtasking," a form of crowdsourcing, saved aid workers huge amounts of staff time by outsourcing and expediting simple tasks.)

Here in Thailand, there is no material incentive attached to making these reports, and so people are making them only to help out their neighbors. For this kind of goodwill-based community support, crowdsourcing can be an invaluabletool. Certainly, for my friends who have fled Bangkok and headed north, being able to remotely check out how their neighborhood is doing has saved a lot of stress and worry.

Another pretty cool tool is Google's crisismap for the floods. Pulling open source data from such disparate sources as the Thai Department of Highways, the UN and NASA, the map helps visualize what parts of the country are in the greatest danger, which roads are impassable, and where to find shelters or highwater parking spaces.

It may all be paltry consolation for a city underwater, but having information sure beats not having it!

Democratic Reform in Burma?

Much like Sarah Palin, I can see Burma (officially known as Myanmar) from my house! Though my excellent mountain view doesn't give me any particular insight into the political situation across the border, the internet does, and the story of incipient reform in Burma is one of the more interesting narratives in international politics right now, despite a relative paucity of mainstream media coverage.

This is one of the world's most closed states, with decades of military rule, thousands of political prisoners, and a history of brutal repression. Over the past year, however, and particularly over the past couple months, rumblings of change have rattled the flatware in my cupboard, and while it's still too soon to tell just how real these reforms are, there is an awful lot happening quite quickly.

Last November, in undeniably flawed and rigged elections, the junta that has ruled the country since the 1960s seemed to consolidate its power under a false banner of democracy, with the military-backed party winning an ostensible landslide. About a week later, Nobel Peace Prize-winning dissident Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from her house arrest, and over the past year has been exercising increasing freedom to travel around the country and speak publicly.

Outgoing President Than Shwe stepped aside in March after two-decades of one-man rule, and he was replaced by Thein Sein, a General in the Burmese military. Nobody is really sure whether or not Than Shwe is still pulling the strings from behind the curtain, but Thein Sein has been making real policy moves that lead even some of the regime's harshest critics to permit themselves a little optimism about the potential for real reform.

Late last month, President Thein Sein announced the suspension of the construction of a dam being built by a Chinese company. The dam had been the subject of protests within Burma, due to the environmental destruction it would cause. In cancelling the project, Thein Sein's message was loud and clear: he was ready to buck the wishes of China's government and cancel a pet project of his predecessor and fellow elites in response to the wishes of the Burmese people. Typically, China has been Burma's closest (only) ally, so as Murray Hiebert and Gregory Poling argue on the CSIS blog CogitAsia, the move against the dam deserves to be taken more seriously than any previous gestures at reform: the longer-term political and economic costs of angering China are very real.

What's more, Burma's head of censorship, Tint Swe, recently called for greater media freedom, and the government quickly made good on the promise, unblocking a number of websites, including YouTube, Voice of America, and the sites of several outlets run by exiles that specialize in criticizing the government. Very few people in the country have web access, and Tint Swe has made other, less encouraging remarks warning media outlets that they must accept the "responsibilities of freedom," but the move is a positive one, nonetheless.

Somewhat less encouraging news came earlier this month. After great anticipation following the government's announcement that they would be releasing over 6,000 prisoners in a general amnesty, including many political prisoners, most Burma-watchers were disappointed that only 220 political prisoners (out of a total of about 2,000, according to Amnesty International) were among the released. And as reported on Southeast Asia blog New Mandala, general amnesties have a long history in Burma, and shouldn't be taken as a very real sign of reform. Granted, 220 is better than nothing, but keeping 1,700 dissidents locked up isn't the mark of a democracy.

The U.S. State Department has, thus far, responded to the incipient reforms with cautious optimism, inviting Burma's Foreign Minister to the State Department-- a first since the junta took over in 1962-- and openly considering the relaxation of some sanctions and restrictions on economic assistance. This is presumably what Thein Sein is aming for-- it's hard to understand his moves toward reform without believing that he does have a real interest in ending Burma's isolation and in building an economy that isn't wholly dependent on China.

For her part, Aung San Suu Kyi has been supportive of the reforms in Burma, and has said she believes Thein Sein is "sincere" in his desire to change Burma. Still, she won't advocate for the U.S.'s  cessation of sanctions because of, first, the continued incarceration of 1,700 political prisoners and, second, the government's continued refusal to recognize the rights of minority groups, some of which remain locked in military struggle against the government. The United States is unlikely to make real moves toward rapprochement without her nod, and so the Thein Sein government continues to court her support. (An excellent article in the Wall Street Journal this week, linked above and here, explains Ms. Suu Kyi's role in this international political drama.)

Some argue the U.S. sanctions against Burma are moot-- as ineffectual as the sanctions against Cuba, with the additional factor of China: With trade across the northern border, Burma can (in theory, anyway) circumvent most suffering the sanctions aim to impose. But with Thein Sein and the Burmese government expressing interest in ending the sanctions and a willingness to undertake political reforms to make it happen, this is a carrot the U.S. should use. The State Department should continue walking slowly, encouraging further reform by the Burmese government, but waiting to cease sanctions until more real, permanent change can be demonstrated.

The reforms have been halting, and it's hard to know how real they are. And a dramatic reversal could come to pass: a counter-revolution by unhappy hardliners in the Burmese political elite is eminently possible. But the motions over the mountains in Burma seem to have real potential, and for the sake of the Burmese people, we must hope that true change is in the cards.

Barrier to Information: Barrier to Commerce

This week, the office of the U.S. Trade Representative went knocking on China's door, seeking information from Beijing about their government's censorship of the internet. The implication of this inquiry coming from USTR, of course, is that the Obama Administration is getting serious about internet freedom not just as a human rights issue, but as an issue of commerce.

Secretary Clinton's State Department has shown remarkable global leadership over the past two years, clearly defining the U.S.' position that freedoms of expression and assembly must be protected online just as they are offline. And last year, the Commerce Department's (then under the leadership of Gary Locke, who is now Ambassador to China) Internet Policy Task Force sought comment on treating barriers to the free flow of information as barriers to trade. NDN hosted a Commerce Department official last year for a discussion about the Department's approach to treating censorship as a trade barrier; you can watch a video of the event here.

Of course, the way China censors the internet really does hamper U.S. business interests. Twitter is blocked, Facebook is blocked, YouTube is blocked. Google shut down its operations in the mainland two years ago, ostensibly on account of not wanting to censor their search results anymore. Each of these sites deals with censorship in other countries-- Iran has a harsh censorship regime, so too do countries like Syria and North Korea, and even countries like Turkey and Thailand have in the past issued blanket bans on certain services. But in the case of China, we're talking about the world's biggest market, where blocking of sites like Twitter and Facebook allows homegrown alternatives to prosper. Sounds a lot like protectionism, no?

Specifically, the USTR is seeking "clarification" about what, exactly, China's censorship rules and policies are. The request seems almost tongue-in-cheek: China's rules (as is the case with most censoring governments) are notoriously, deliberately vague and ambiguous. Some sites are blocked sometimes, others are always blocked, still others are just partially blocked. By asking the Chinese government to share and explain its rules, the office of the USTR is asking a question without an answer. And they got a commensurately absurd response from the Chinese government spokesperson, who pointed out that Beijing "supports" the use of the internet (over 400 million users! how many have you got?!) and then segued into commentary about national sovereignty.

It's a tricky issue-- and a very new issue-- and, admittedly, among the myriad challenges in the U.S. relationship with China, the impact of internet censorship on U.S. business interests isn't paramount. Still, it's greatly encouraging to see the Obama Administration taking on the issue of internet freedom from another angle. For those who don't find human rights a compelling case to fight for policy change, perhaps the commercial argument will be more persuasive.

Political Protest and the Digital Message

An article published in the NY Times last week that has been garnering a good deal of chatter and attention pulls together disparate incidents of public protest and revolt from around the world, and paints a global picture of discontent with politics and democracy. Followers of NDN's work won't be surprised by the argument: the world is changing rapidly, and precious few governments, political parties or elected officials are adapting adequately to the evolving conditions. Today's youth make up the largest generation in history, and yet they feel woefully unrepresented by their governments. The world's middle class has been growing, and yet they have suffered and regressed since the 2008 financial crisis. From New York to New Delhi, Berlin to Tel Aviv, in Spain, Greece, Egypt and Tunisia, people are turning out to protest their respective governments.

All these protests seem targeted less at the principles of democracy than at the institutions we have-- the parties, unions, trade associations and other bodies that dominate politics in most democratic countries. In Berlin just a few weeks ago, the Pirate Party-- yes, that same party founded in Sweden on a platform of radical copyright reform-- surprised everyone (including themselves) by winning 15 seats in the city-state's parliament. While it was tempting to cite the results as an indication that an increasingly young and tech-savvy electorate put data privacy, copyright reform, and internet policy at the top of their personal agendas, that probably wasn't what was actually going on.  Rather, a vote for the Pirate Party was a protest vote, a ballot cast against Germany's traditionally dominant parties, and in support of a burgeoning if inchoate faction that voiced a shared discontent with politics as it has been.

The policy demands of this growing global cohort may not be tech-focused (the impetus for revolt is the same as ever: high unemployment, low wages, prohibitive costs for food, housing, education, and everything in between...), but the mindset of the protesters-- the way they think the world should be-- is deeply informed by our internet age. Societies are increasingly networked through mobile phones and the internet in ways that are non-hierarchical and user-defined, and as a result, people around the world increasingly expect their government, party, and other representative institutions to be equally responsive to their demands. Needless to say, the current situation is frustrating, whether you're a liberal in America, a working class family in Europe, or an activist in India.

Just as these would-be dissidents are informed by new media in the way they think, so are they making use of new technology to pursue their agenda. The instances of online fora providing a fertile bed for the growth of dissent in North Africa is well-documented. The Pirate Party of Berlin, unsurprisingly, conducted much of their campaign online. And as I wrote last week, Mexico's silent majority-- terrorized by violent drug cartels, and frustrated with a self-censoring media and largely impotent government-- is anything but silent on the web. Even as the drug cartels unleash their brutality on supposed online informants, everyday Mexican citizens continue to turn to blogs and social media to share and gather potentially life-saving information.

In the United States, new mobile- and internet-based tools were effectively leveraged to help elect President Obama in 2008, and we're likely to see innovative and effective technology deployments by both parties in this election cycle. But in the intervening years, these tools have been of little help to liberals who have struggled to successfully advocate for policy, more often than not getting run roughshod over by a radical fringe of the Republican party.

Writing over at the Meta-Activism Project, Mary Joyce attributes this seeming failure of digital activism to a surfeit of voices in the digital space: while the U.S. can boast more instances of digital activism, the upshot of that volume is it becomes harder for all but the largest, loudest voices to be heard. As a consequence, large groups with the cohesion and singularity of message to speak as one are most effective in the crowded digital space: Joyce cites the Tea Party and corporate industry associations as two telling examples. We Democrats pride ourselves on being a big tent party, but under that tent-- a circus tent, it often seems-- no single, unifying messages emerges from the cacophony. (Joyce also just published a presentation she gave recently that pulls together and illustrates instances of public protest from around the world this year.)

The online component of Egypt's youth movement has similarly suffered since their great success in ousting Hosni Mubarak earlier this year. When activists had a single, simple rallying point-- out with Mubarak-- it was easy to rally people to the streets. Now, faced with a crowded marketplace of ideas and proposed actions against a more complex but perhaps equally pernicious opponent in the current governing council, online organizers have struggled to mobilize the same level of activity. Likewise Democrats met with success when the message was singular and broadly supported: elect Obama. When cohesion and coherence was lost, so too was the efficacy of a networked, non-hierarchical movement.

#occupywallstreetIn the ongoing protests taking place on Wall Street, the lack of any coherent singular message has become one of the hallmarks of the protest. A very smart note from Martin Bourqui, a liberal organizer based in New York, laments that while a vast majority of Americans support the notions behind these protests-- opposition to corporate-dominated politics, a desire to see banks held accountable for their role in causing current economic strife, etc.-- the farrago of messages and images emerging from Wall Street make an uncompelling case to bring most mainstream liberals out into the street. The poster at right captures the confusion: if there's no one demand, then how can a substantial constituency be built?

In Germany, the Pirates are scrambling to make the transition from a constituency of opposition to a party that can work within the democratic process and positively respond to the frustrated demands of the citizens who gave them their votes. In Egypt, the April 6th Youth Movement, riding high on their historic successes in February, now needs to mobilize its progress-minded supporters against ongoing brutality by the government's secret policy and pursue a more democratic, more representative government. And across the U.S., liberals are struggling to make their government work toward goals that are supported by a vast majority of the country, but stymied by an entrenched elite and a radical fringe.

To achieve these goals, each of these groups can employ digital tools with the same efficacy that they have in the past. But for these tools to be effective, these groups must first unify behind a coherent message, and pursue their demands through the democratic process as well as protest. Without a clear message, without a hierarchy, and without a political strategy, the real impact these movements can hope to have is very limited, and our politics will continue to be dominated by those who can master these elements.

Mexico's Drug War, Online and Off

The drug war in Mexico isn't just happening on the streets, it's raging online, too. Last week, two bodies were hung from a pedestrian overpass in Nuevo Laredo, with notes attached, signed by the Zetas, threatening similar retribution against those who would use the internet to inform on the narcos. As the NY Times reported, these killings and threats come in response to a rising tide of information about the drug war transmitted on a collection of blogs and other sites that specialize in news about the drug war. 

When I was in Mexico last year researching the impact of new technology on civil society and social movements, these sites, particularly Blog del Narco, were mentioned frequently as valuable sources for news that the mainstream media wouldn't cover. Not surprisingly, the cartels have caught on.

Part of the value in these sites lies in the potential for informants, witnesses, and commentators to remain anonymous. And ironically, this latest incident may not mean that that anonymity has been compromised: the unfortunate individuals may or may not have been actual informants.  Regardless, a clear and gruesome message was sent, and the narcos will likely have their way.

Meanwhile, in Veracruz, an erroneous report on Twitter that narcos had taken hostages at an elementary school led to citywide terror a few weeks back. Four minutes after the initial Tweet, the state governor himself Tweeted, dismissing the claim as untrue, but his statement was lost amid the flurry of panicked activity, and it was too late to undo the damage. Those who wrote the initial Tweets have been arrested on charges of terrorism, which has in turn sparked blowback from Mexican defenders of free expression.

So, if the reliable online sources of news are silenced through violence, and unfiltered social media are liable to overflow with falsehood, how can we expect these and similar tools to have a positive impact in the drug war? Can we?

It's helpful to step back from assumptions that the internet, social media, mobile phones and other new technologies will play either an inherently positive or inherently negative role in taking on challenges. While technology based on a distributed network may tend to advantage distributed social networks, we can see here clear downsides to a fully democratic forum like Twitter, as well as the potential for powerful actors to undermine and compromise even the most diffuse networks.

As a point of reference and comparison, it may be useful to take a fresh look at how activists in North Africa leveraged new technologies in the years leading up to the "Arab Spring." As I wrote back in February, new media contributed to the uprising over the course of years, building the case against the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia and creating a constituency for revolution. An excellent piecen in the current Technology Review offers a lot of new information and analysis on this subject, and confirms the idea that, while tools like Facebook and SMS were instrumental in facilitating protests and bringing people into the streets, it took a very long time to build the online networks that made it possible.

What's needed in Mexico is really not so different from a revolution. In certain provinces, particularly in the border region, the narcos control, either directly or indirectly, just about everything-- nearly every aspect of the state and society. The threat is less overt but equally pernicious, if not more so. For the legitimate, untainted elements of the government and the millions of law-abiding citizens to take back control of their homeland will require a sustained campaign of coordinated action, and incredible courage. That coalition will have to be build slowly, anonymously, and with utmost confidence among members. It may take some symbolic event akin to Mohammed Bouazizi's self-immolation in Tunisia to spark the public movement for change in Mexico, but before that day comes, some organizing structure will have to be built to mobilize law abiding citizens to concerted action.

In the Middle East and North Africa, we've seen that online tools can be used for exactly that. Whether these same tactics can be effectively translated to combat an enemy without a president or a uniformed army, but composed instead of a lawless band of vicious thugs is an open question. And overcoming the terrorist tactics employed by the narcos is a tall order. But these recent events shouldn't cause us to lose sight of the potential for new technology to be used to fight for the good guys.

Apps for Your City

In a three-part series of posts recently, I took on the question of how new technologies could create and rebuild social capital in the U.S. One of the core ideas I tried to illustrate is that successful tools will bridge online experiences with the offline, "real" world. In the last post I argued that cities were in many ways ideal environments for these social-technology experiments, and that the potential particularly for mobile technologies to create stronger communities in urban environments is profound.

Today, I want to put a little meat on those bones of ideas. Here are three pretty cool new tools that you probably haven't heard of. In one way or another, each bridges the online with the offline, and can help bring real people together in real places.

- Second Glass is a company best known for their "wine riots"-- massive wine-tasting events that skew younger and, well, cooler than your usual wine tasting. They've developed a mobile app that will help you remember all the wines you try, which ones you liked,  which your friends liked, etc.... because, realistically, you're not going to remember. It's a pretty slick app, though it looks like it's iPhone-only at this point. Building social capital? Maybe that's a stretch, but it's an interesting case of mobile tech enhancing an offline shared experience. And it looks like there's a wine riot coming to New York in September, and DC in October, for east coasters interested in, er, putting the technology to work.

- Dropcapsule is a mobile app (also currently only on iPhone, it seems) that allows you to leave location-based notes for your friends (or yourself!) around your city. It meshes with Facebook to let you share messages with all your friends (though they also, of course, have to use the app to see the messages), or target a message at a select group or individual. I'm already imagining the messages I might leave for my friends in the neighborhood of my favorite deli ("Try the capicola!") for myself at the bus stop ("You picked up your drycleaning, didn't you?") or for my girlfriend to receive as she walks by the beer & wine shop ("I love you so much!").

- MyBlockNYC is a temporary project taking user-generated video and puts it in on the map-- literally, a map of New York City. Videos are portraits of individual blocks, and also tagged with some basic information about the film and the filmmaker. The problem with user-generated video, of course, is that it's usually terrible, and the video on this site is not really any different. But taken together, the videos paint a strikingly honest picture of the city, in all its weirdness, wackiness, good and bad.  It's a pretty cool project, and it seems like it could blossom into something more permanent, perhaps mobile based, and stretching beyond the confines of the five boroughs.

These three online tools each bridge the gap to offline life in interesting and different ways. Know of other cool ideas, apps, or companies that deserve more attention? Let me know...

Mobile Tech for Social Capital in American Cities

This is the third and final installment in a series of blog posts on technology and social capital in America. Read parts one and two.

Last week, I went in search of a few guidelines for using new network technologies-- web-based and mobile-based-- to help foster civic engagement and create social capital, and waded through a few pitfalls of these technologies as well. The two lessons I tried to distill out were: first, successful tools won't simply offer an online environment, they will bridge the online world with offline communities and actions. Second, these tools will cross some of the cultural, political, class-based and interest-based boundaries that so often keep us in narrow information silos on the web.

In seeking to build social capital and bring people together not just online but offline, proximity is, of course, key. I don't begrudge rural regions their elemental place in American society or question the importance of rebuilding social capital there, as well, but nowhere does new technology have greater potential to bring people together than in the city. Densely, diversely populated, well wired, and with a melange of public spaces, businesses and fora to bring people together-- the city is the ideal environment to pursue these goals.

By bringing people together in cities over common concerns, the same tools can help make those cities more livable and more attractive. Of course, that's good for people who already live there. What's more, if city life is more appealing and less stressful, it could lure people back to cities. A trend toward urbanization would directly counteract the "sprawl and suburbanization" that Robert Putnam identified as contributing a full 10% toward the decline in social capital since the 1950s. And if that's not enough for you, population density is, as David Roberts writes in a great series of blog posts over at Grist, "the sine qua non of sustainability." That is, cities have, contrary to their sometimes sooty appearance, a smaller carbon footprint per capita than any village or town: the denser, the better.

There are myriad ways mobile tech can and have made city living more appealing. In terms of transit, bicycle-sharing programs like those in DC and Denver, and car-sharing businesses like Zipcar and Car2go are made possible by the internet, and made convenient by mobile applications. Social review and check-in tools like Yelp and Foursquare, and online deals like those offered by Groupon and Living Social make it easier to discover and enjoy the city around you. "Digital 311" services-- online mechanisms to report and track civic complaints-- have taken flight in many places around the world. A great series of blog posts at Mashable-- their "Global Innovation Series"-- is covering an array of new and interesting tools and applications that are making cities more livable, more sustainable and more fun.

Going the next step-- building and strengthening actual, diverse communities of people, and carrying those connections offline as bonds that might be considered social capital, is a step more difficult. Last week the NY Times chronicled one such case in Morningside Heights in Manhattan. A shooting near a playground rallied parents (most of them middle-upper class and new to the neighborhood) to an online community forum and listserv, and they used the power of their network to petition local officials "not just for more police supervision in the park but for more opportunities for teenagers in the neighborhood." While their voices were heard, their efforts soon ran up against more systemic social causes-- poverty and low employment, racial and class divides-- that no technology could make disappear.

Part of the success in this particular case can be attributed to the fact that the community didn't just come together in response to a negative event: this online forum and listserv represented existing social capital in the community, and was a natural rallying point for a shared concern. "Digital 311" services, by contrast, while very useful tools, only solicit interaction around annoyances, and are unlikely to foster a positive community. But the effort in Morningside Heights ran into a wall for two reasons: first, when fighting violence and crime, there are simply not very many concrete actions a community, city or government can take. Second, the online forum was not representative of the local population, causing the underrepresented parts of the community to feel alienated and victimized by the petitioning and other activity. In web-based environments, there is an undeniable digital divide that separates socioeconomic classes, and was partially responsible for the division of the community in this case.

Interestingly, and hopefully, there is actually no measurable digital divide on mobile devices. As Pew has documented, traditionally underprivileged minority groups in the U.S. are, if anything, more active users of mobile devices and particularly mobile internet than whites. This doesn't make the digital divide disappear-- it's difficult to browse an online forum on a mobile device, and even harder to update a resume or apply for a job-- but with a relatively flat playing field in mobile, tools built specifically for these devices can have equalizing effects. It seems fair to point out that class-divided cities are older than Dickens' London, and communities genuinely integrated across class lines are a rare thing: trying to fix these challenges with or without new technologies is a tall order. But it's something to aim for, and something to keep in mind.

As you might have guessed, I'm not building toward the unveiling of a billion-dollar idea that will create stronger communities across America and around the world. I don't think there is a single such idea. But despite the challenges I've run through, mobile tech, social media, and other network technologies can act as an extension of the public sphere, bringing people together within cities, and rebuilding some of the social capital that has dissolved in recent decades. By providing a forum to explore and connect with the city around them-- the shops, parks, transit, services, etc.-- and the people in their neighborhood-- through the arts, the local environment, youth events, community gardens, crime prevention, and the other elements that hold a community together-- these tools can help reconstruct the social fabric of America that has frayed in the past half-century.

Challenges of Building Social Capital Online

This is the second installment in a series of blog posts on technology and social capital in America. Read parts one and three.

Last week, I opined on the decay and potential renewal of "social capital" in America. As chronicled by Robert D. Putnam, tectonic shifts in American culture, society and the economy led to decreased participation in civic organizations and dissipated communities, which in turn weakened the social fabric that holds together American life. In that introductory post, I proposed the online sphere as an alternate "public space" to strengthen (not replace) offline communities, and to put forward a few questions, the first of which I'll try to answer here: How can new technologies help foster civic engagement and create social capital, without detracting from the same?

I'm not blindly sanguine about the impact technology can and will have on human relationships and society. We can sit at a bus stop in New York and video chat with a friend in Morocco or Thailand-- a phenomenon that by historical standards might fairly be considered a miracle-- but that same act can make us blind to the world at our feet. A few months back, the New York times ran an article describing "parallel play" in the fully wired (er, wireless) American home. Perhaps you know the scene: a family is gathered together in the home for the evening, but the room is quiet, each individual gazing, grimacing, giggling at their respective device, headphones in. These scenes are creepy, and they should serve as a reminder that just as these tools have the potential to bring people together, so too can they divide us and make us distant from those right around us.

"Go online to get offline" is a catchy phrase (and has been adopted by sites like and dating site HowAboutWe to describe their approach), but it's perhaps the most concise summation of the social potential I see in network-- and especially mobile-- technologies. I'm not interested in online qua online. Purely online activities can have their value, but they're unlikely to build social capital. An online protest never threatened any existing power structure. An online church service isn't going to build a strong community. And I tend to find that even online conversation can only sustain a personal relationship, rarely build one. Rather, I see potential where online human networks intersect with offline, "real world" communities.

Kickstarter is crowd-sourced fundraising tool, giving small projects-- often in film and the arts-- a platform to raise a bit of money and, in the process, introduce people to their work. Of course, giving money doesn't necessitate any deeper engagement, but Kickstarter can tie together a group of interested people around a project or performance-- often with a social or local focus-- that might not have otherwise come about. Meetup, mentioned above, is an online space that allows people with shared interests to find each other and arrange offline meetups to pursue their shared interests together. These are two well-known examples of online platforms that successfully facilitate offline activity.

There is a different issue, however, with platforms like these: they tend to bring together a narrow slice of a given population-- groups of people who already have a great deal in common. Given the information flood that can overwhelm us online, most online spaces necessarily cater to very narrow segments of the population. There is certainly social value in convening all the dog-loving pescetarian chess players in a given town or city-- "bonding social capital," as defined by Putnam-- but our tendency to self-segregate online can have limiting impacts. Eli Pariser has done excellent critical analysis of the impacts of what he calls the "filter bubble"-- the internet's tendency to funnel us toward a limited selection of familiar media and information that tend to reaffirm our existing viewpoints and put us in information silos that are hard to escape. I'm describing a similar version of the same thing-- not about information and media, but about the same tendency of the internet to introduce us to people like us.

Bringing together a diverse community of people online is hard enough; bringing that into offline space is still harder. But, ultimately, that "bridging social capital" is where there is great potential to create social and civic good. Around what issues will diverse groups of people come together? What I will argue in my next post is that local issues-- particularly urban, local issues-- have the potential to engage and excite diverse groups and bring them together. And furthermore that mobile technology is uniquely suited to bridge the gap between groups, and between online and offline spaces.

As I said in my initial post, I don't think I'm breaking any new ground here-- in the tech venture capital world, "local," "mobile," "location-based" and "social" are the hot words that everybody wants to be right now. I'm just hoping to push a little further down this road, and find out whether social capital, community engagement and civic good can be built in this way. Check back here next week for my next installment in this series.

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