Global Mobile

This Week in Global Mobile | February 25, 2011

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:

  • An Egyptian man named his daughter “Facebook “in tribute to the role the social media service played in organizing the protests” that took place in late January.
  • Nancy Scola of MobileActive provided specific examples of how the cell phone camera was an essential tool in fomenting unrest in Tunisia, Iran, and Bahrain.
  • In Russia a new crowd-mapping service launched which ambitiously aims to “united all bloggers on one map” to help increase digital cohesion across the country.
  • The Communications Commission of Kenya released its latest quarterly mobile statistics, revealing that broadband subscriptions increased 450% over the previous quarter.
  • A recent study by Frost & Sullivan West African Broadband Market Tracker estimated that broadband providers’ revenues will increase over 100% to $1.9bn by 2016.
  • Chinese mobile operator Huawei finalized a deal to provide a free mobile network on the London Underground in time for the 2012 Olympics.
  • Authorities in Botswana slashed mobile phone and Internet charges, a move made possible by a direct link to the East Africa Submarine System (Eassy) fiberoptic cable.
  • Egyptian news portal Masrawy.com announced that it would host a social media Q&A between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Egyptian youth.
  • The Chinese government launched its own search engine, Panguso, to provide a “state-approved version of the Internet” to its people.
  • South Korea, which already has the world’s fastest average broadband speed, launched a pilot program to bring 1 gigabit-per-second connections to households by the end of 2012.
  • The President of the American University of Nigeria blamed declining educational standards on a weak technology infrastructure in the school system.
  • Al Jazeera explained how Tunisian protesters took to the streets with “a rock in one hand, a cell phone in the other,” using social media to break through a media blackout.
  • Hispanics trail other groups in Web usage in the United States, with 13% fewer Internet users accessing health information online than their white counterparts, reported Washington Post.
  • Global network specialist Cisco predicted an annual growth rate of 129% of mobile data traffic in the Middle East and Africa between 2010 and 2015.
  • In an attempt to “connect with the youth leaders of the January 25 Revolution,” the Egyptian military opened a Facebook page to promote its image among citizens.
  • A study of high school students suggested that “youth who pursue their interests online are more likely to be engaged in civic issues.”

Near Field Communications (NFC) Revisited

A few months back I shared some thoughts about Near Field Communications, a close-range technology that enables mobile devices to communicate directly with each other to exchange information, money, commands, and more. At the time of writing, mobile money was the clear beneficiary of this tech, allowing people to buy Cokes and transfer funds with the swipe of a phone. And NFC chips had yet to be included in any major (RIM, Apple, Nokia, and Android) mobile devices. Oh, how things have changed.

At last week’s Mobile World Congress, a high-profile showcase of mobile innovation in Barcelona, it became clear that NFC has evolved dramatically over the past three months. By all measures, it’s entered the mainstream. Some examples: all of Nokia’s phones released in 2011 will feature NFC compatibility, the next iPhone edition should feature the technology, a couple NFC apps are available on Android’s Market, and Google’s commercially-available Nexus S Android phone is NFC-friendly. Finally, NFC chip manufacturer NXP expects to ship 70 million phones equipped with the technology this year alone.

The biggest commitment yet to NFC technology came from GSMA, the mobile operators’ association which sponsored the Mobile World Congress. In a statement, the GSMA outlined a plan to launch global commercial NFC services by 2012, with the cooperation of dozens of mobile operators from around the world.

But what will these phones be doing with NFC? In this interview at last week's Mobile World Congress, BlackBerry manufacturer RIM’s VP Andrew Bocking emphasized the mobile payment possibilities of NFC. But when I wrote about NFC back in November, large-scale NFC mobile payment systems weren’t really out there.

That’s no longer the case. At the Mobile World Congress conference, electronic payments giant Verifone announced the launch of its PAYware NFC-enabled mobile transaction service in Canada, the U.K., and various Latin American and Asian markets throughout 2011. And last week, Business Week reported that Google and eBay might be building their own mobile payment services using NFC technology.

But if the Mobile World Congress taught us anything about near field communications, it’s that NFC isn’t limited to mobile money. Last week Jenna Wortham of the New York Times shared some ideas about NFC’s diverse applications:

NFC can also trigger an application to start. Say, for example, you waved your phone over a chip embedded in a wristwatch, or on a card next to a phone in your house that was programmed to call a particular contact. The NFC chip would prompt the phone to begin dialing that number automatically -- a feature that could be handy in a household with small children or older relatives.

As Wortham explains, NFC-enabled phones could also help unlock vehicles, exchange contact information, activate GPS and Pandora stations in your car, help retailers track inventory, and transfer coupons from a shop window to a consumer’s phone.

I don’t mean to harp too much about the wonderful world of NFC, but it’s hard not to get excited about a technology that’s so diverse, so scalable, and so rapidly entering the mainstream. Three months ago, NFC-enabled mobile payments were tangible but not widespread. Recent announcements by Verifone, Google, and eBay will change that landscape, quickly and dramatically.

Perhaps most impressively, the near field communications revolution won’t be leaving developing markets in Europe, Latin America, and Asia in the dust -- a concern I raised in my previous report about NFC. The GSMA’s statement includes a promise to focus on “global interoperability” to ensure standards and security measures are applied in all mobile markets, with major operators from India, China, and Latin America signed on (notably absent from the agreement, however, are any leading African telecoms).

In just three months, near field communications technology has entered the market and is already flexing its muscles in the world of mobile money. The Mobile World Congress showed that the NFC momentum will continue to grow beyond this application, and a few months from now I look forward to following up with the latest NFC features that will have entered the mainstream.

The Language(s) of the Internet

As the web of connectivity booms around the world, Internet cafes are reaching even the most secluded and developing regions of the planet. But how useful is the Web to a Nigerian farmer when over 80 percent of online content is dominated by only 10 major (predominantly Western) languages?

That’s the question raised by scholar Charles Kenny in an article I stumbled upon recently. Writing back in 2002, Kenny explains that only 5 websites on the open Internet existed natively in the Nigerian language of Igbo. None of these sites offered important information services such as news or weather, making it difficult for an Igbo-speaking Web user to engage meaningfully with the Internet.

His broader argument was that we needed to shift our thinking of the digital divide -- originally a question of access -- to concerns over usage. In other words, even if we hooked all of the 20-25 million Igbo-speaking Nigerians to the Web, would they have any Igbo-language information with which to engage? If not, argues Kenny, efforts to breach the digital divide would be futile. But as I read Kenny’s article, I began wondering how things might  have changed since 2002. Is the Web still a monolingual, English-dominated tool? What repercussions might this have on the digital divide?

Not too surprisingly, the language of the Internet has transformed greatly. Take Kenny’s example; back in 2002, he could only find 18 Igbo articles on the Web. Now, Wikipedia alone has over 600 articles written natively in Igbo, and Google offers (admittedly imperfect) translation services to/from local languages including Igbo.

Important services, such as social networking, news and weather, and e-mail, are regularly sprouting up in more obscure languages. Facebook offers its service in over 70 languages, while Google’s search function supports 40. Wikipedia, a potential source of valuable information for farmers, merchants, and schoolchildren in the developing world, is available in nearly 300 languages.

The Internet’s infrastructure  is even being designed to accommodate the non-English world. Back in 2000, ICANN (the global coordinator of domain names and I.P. addresses) introduced the Internationalized Domain Name standard. Starting in 2009, IDN has brought support to 22 international languages, bringing native characters to domains in developing countries like Morocco, Oman, Sri Lanka, Russia, Egypt, and India.

The increase in languages of the developing world on the Internet coincides with the diminishing presence of English on the Web. Back in 1997, 80% of all websites were in English. Now only 27% of all Web users are accessing English sites, while Chinese-language web pages have grown over 1,000% in the past decade to encompass 22% of all websites.

As the global Web turns multilingual, American tech giants “are spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year to build and develop foreign-language Web sites and services,” reported the New York Times in 2008. Micro-blogging giant Twitter, for example, recently launched the Twitter Translation Center, a tool which asks a corps of users to adapt the company’s site “to make it easier for people around the world to use.” Efforts like these, argues World Wide Web Foundation C.E.O. Steve Bratt, help to spur investment in telecoms in developing countries.

So it’s clear that the linguistic landscape of the Web has diversified immensely since Kenny expressed his concerns back in 2002. But perhaps most pertinently for the digital divide, what happens if your native tongue isn’t one of the 273 offered by Wikipedia? In a world where digital dependency is skyrocketing, are the other 6,000-plus world languages left to bite the dust?

I can’t help but be worried about how the digital divide might be exacerbated in those developing communities whose language won’t end up on the Internet. In a world where economic growth is increasingly linked with ICT usage, it’s more important than ever that important services be supported in native languages. Bridging the digital divide is a complex endeavor in which access and usage are intertwined, and as emphasis grows on the latter, the language(s) of the Internet will have massive repercussions on global development.

Invite: March 1, NYC - Great Panel Looks at a "A New Global Politics"

We've got a pretty cool event coming up in a couple weeks further exploring our idea that the world is witnessing the birth of a "new politics," spurred by changing demographics and evolving technology. The conversation will include Simon, Jose Vargas of the Huffington Post, and Oscar Salazar, a Mexican tech entrepreneur and activist. We'll be hosting it over breakfast at the Harvard Club in New York. Intrigued? Here's the pitch:  

More than half the world's population is under the age of 30, and these young people are increasingly wired together with new technologies - mobile phones, social media, satellite television - creating an unprecedented global community among the generation that will determine the direction of the world in the 21st century. In recent weeks, we have watched tech-savvy youth lead protests throughout the Middle East and North Africa, seeking the open, democratic future they've been able to see and imagine as globally connected citizens. Meanwhile, here in the U.S., we are engaging in a debate about our country's future using new tools and technologies, crafting fresh ideas and solutions to address the evolving challenges we face as a nation.

If you'd like to come, you should RSVP, ASAP.  The deets:

A New Global Politics

Tuesday, March 1st
Harvard Club NY: 35 W 44th St, New York
Breakfast will be served beginning at 8am, conversation will start at 8:15
Please RSVP

This Week in Global Mobile | February 18, 2011

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:

  • Yesterday Alec Ross, Senior Advisor on Innovation for Secretary Clinton, held an online discussion hosted by Facebook DC to discuss the role of social media and reflect on Secretary Clinton’s “Internet Rights and Wrongs” speech given earlier this week.
  • In support of the people of the soon-to-be-formed Southern Sudan, Google launched an initiative to build a better map of Sudan using Google Map Maker.
  • Working with U.C. Berkeley, the State Department launched Opinion Space 3.0, a social media technology that helps communities exchange viewpoints and ideas.
  • Today the Obama administration released the National Broadband Map, a useful tool to help Americans learn about their Internet options and check their connection speeds.
  • A Thai webmaster was charged for allowing an anonymous user to post anti-royal family comments on her independent forum in a case that will test the country’s Web censorship policies.
  • Cyber crime in the U.K. costs the economy £27bn each year, reported the Cabinet Office yesterday.
  • At the Mobile World Congress, a high-profile showcase of the mobile industry’s progress and innovation, Google C.E.O. Eric Schmidt hailed mobile phones as “the new PC.”
  • To increase public transparency, the Government of Chile posted to YouTube a series of presentations by the president and other ministers outlining their goals for 2011.
  • Social networking accounts for 1 in every 5 minutes spent online in Australia, reported ComScore, representing an increase of over 5 percent from 2009.
  • Mobile banking subscribers in South Africa rose 17 percent in 2010 to 44%, with the 26-34 age group dominating usage, explained IT News Africa.
  • Two Zimbabwean telecom companies connected to an undersea fiber-optic cable in an effort to boost broadband connectivity and improve the country’s infrastructure.
  • In an attempt to reduce crime and identity theft, the mobile regulator of Nigeria banned all new unregistered SIM cards as it attempts to register 80 million active lines in the country.
  • Facing increased anti-government protests, the Algerian authorities blocked access to various websites including Facebook for the second time this month.
  • A French tech company announced a SIM card with built-in Facebook access, which could play a major role in connecting low-income users around the world to the social network using only basic features like SMS.
  • Nokia C.E.O. Stephen Elop announced his company’s intentions of bringing 3 billion more people online through Internet-connected mobile phones.
  • A new undersea telecommunications cable reached Cuba this week, enabling the country to increase its Internet capacity by a factor of 3,000.

State's Approach to Internet Freedom

As I wrote last week, "OMG Twitter Revolution!" has been one of the major narratives-- if not THE major narrative-- in the American media since the popular revolts Tunisia and Egypt. As I also wrote, while social media, mobile phones, and the internet undoubtably played a role in helping civil society in those countries coalesce around ideas and bring people into the streets, it's very tempting to overstate the role of technology in all of this. Rebecca MacKinnon reminds the tech-happy among us that while the tools were vital, the courageous people of Egypt and Tunisia are the ones who deserve the credit for toppling their regimes.

A year ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a major speech arguing that the ability to connect to the internet-- and the ability to exercise free expression, assembly and commerce on the web-- should be considered an essential freedom in the 21st century, and essential to supporting other basic freedoms. Since her groundbreaking speech, the State Department has made gradual progress putting those very big ideas into practice. While State policy on internet freedom didn't have much to do with the insurrections in North Africa, recent events can help us understand how, exactly, the internet can bring about freer societies (this was the subject of my essay last week), and help inform State's efforts.  The agency has been wise to tread slowly in such uncharted territory.

Continuing to establish State's approach to these issues, Secretary Clinton will speak tomorrow at George Washington University, giving an address called "Internet Rights and Wrongs: Choices and Challenges in a Networked World." Not much indication of what she'll be saying, but it should certainly be an interesting talk. The speech will be live webcast, starting at 12:30; you can tune in here

President Obama on Egypt

It has been a captivating day, watching history unfold in Egypt. Speaking this afternoon, President Obama congratulated the Egyptian people on making their voices heard, and continued to call for a peaceful transition to democracy.

A video of his remarks is here, and the full text is here.  This was my favorite passage:

Above all, we saw a new generation emerge, a generation that uses their own creativity and talent and technology to call for a government that represented their hopes and not their fears. A government that is responsive to their boundless aspirations. One Egyptian put it simply -- most people have discovered in the last few days that they are worth something, and this cannot be taken away from them anymore. Ever.

This Week in Global Mobile | February 11, 2011

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:

  • Ushahidi founder Patrick Meier released a draft chapter correlating the impact of ICT access in anti-government protests between 1990 and 2007.
  • A Nigerian start-up launched Traffic.com.ng, a “complete Web, Mobile Web, SMS, and mobile application” that aggregates and reports updated traffic information from across the country.
  • The NY Times heralded Egypt’s largest dissident Facebook page as a catalyst which spurred the massive protests in the country.
  • PBS released a report on media and technology use in the classroom indicating that 75% of teachers downloaded video content in 2010, compared with 55% in 2007.
  • The U.S. has the tools to bring Internet access to blacked-out regions of the world using specially equipped airplanes in times of distress, reported Wired.
  • Sryian announced plans to lift its five-year ban on websites like Facebook and Youtube, with the latter already being reported as unblocked on some I.S.P.’s.
  • Tex4Baby, a maternal information network that sends tips to pregnant women via SMS, announced its intentions to register one million users by next year.
  • The FDA approved the first remote diagnostics mobile app, which allows doctors to make medical diagnoses based on images transmitted to their iPhones or iPads.
  • One forecast by a screen glass-making company expected 180 million tablet devices to enter the market by 2014, versus just 20 million in 2010.
  • Nigerian telecom giant Bharti Airtel launched a new initiative to build six “ultra-modern” classrooms in a downtown school in order to improve education in the region.
  • Morocco reached 100% mobile penetration in 2010, rising 20 points from the year before, reported telecommunications regulator ANRT.
  • Guinea-based Global Voice Group committed to building five cyber centers in the Conakry district to help bridge the digital divide and increase cyber literacy.
  • Major UK mobile operator O2 announced plans to launch a commercial wireless-based payment service by the second half of 2011.
  • 1.6 billion mobile devices were shipped world-wide in 2010, while smart phone sales grew 72 percent, reported Gartner.
  • Smart phones outsold PCs for the first time ever last quarter, rising  87% from the year before, according to IDC.
  • The Chinese government announced plans to convert all its unused telephone booths into wi-fi hotspots.
  • The U.S. State Department launched a Twitter feed in Arabic to “support the formal interface between the U.S. and Arab media.”
  • At a speech in Michigan, President Obama called for installation of “the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans.”
  • Nokia, the world’s largest mobile phone manufacturer, partnered with Microsoft’s operating system to compete with Android and iPhone smart phones.

Social Media in Egypt: A Second Public Sphere

I've been mostly silent on the "social media revolution in Egypt" meme because, frankly, I didn't want to join an already crowded chorus until enough information had emerged for the beginning of an actual analysis.  Justly or not, the idea of the uprising in Egypt being a "Twitter revolution" or "Facebook revolt" has become one of the major narratives in the American media.  This shouldn't be surprising, given the way the same narrative caught on during Iran's uprising in 2009. And, as Luke Allnutt argued well, there's an element of the "Twitter revolution" story that's appealing to Americans because, in some vaguely imperialistic yet satisfyingly altruistic way, it gives us a bit of the credit for the empowerment of the disenfranchised people of Egypt, Tunisia and wherever else.

But it's becoming more and more clear that in Tunisia and especially in Egypt, social media really have played pivotal roles in driving the uprising. "We are All Khaled Said," the Facebook group originally created to commemorate the brutal death of a young businessman at the hands of the Egyptian policy, was created last June by Wael Ghonim, the Google executive and activist blogger who has become a reluctant face of the movement since his release from prison and an emotional interview on Egyptian television this week. The group is widely credited with helping catalyze the initial protests last month. The "April 6 Youth Movement," another Facebook-based, youth-led democracy movement, also helped turn people out to protest, while Twitter has been a constant source of Egypt news for people around the world. 

Drilling down on this, it seems to me that social media could have contributed to the cause of the protesters in three distinct ways: as a tool for organizing, as a news source, and as a public sphere to build a community of like-minded activists. Let me assess the importance and potential each of those in turn...

Organizing Tool: In this construction, social media was an essential ingredient in mobilizing protesters to the streets and coordinating demonstrations. This is probably the most readily and widely understood theory of social-media-for-social-change, and in Egypt it seems to have held true. Massive Facebook groups like "Khaled Said" and "April 6" did play a significant role in organizing the initial protests and movtivating their users to demonstrate. Likewise, in Tunisia, Twitter appears to have been valuable for coordinating protests simultaneously in many cities across the country.

But it didn't take much for the Egyptian government to turn off the internet, and once access is denied, online tools aren't very useful for organizing a movement. Ethan Zuckerman, of the Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, described this dynamic last year: "The communications channels opened online tend to be compromised quickly, used for disinformation and for monitoring activists. And when protests get out of hand, governments of closed societies don’t hesitate to pull the plug on networks – China has blocked internet access in Xinjiang for months, and Ethiopia turned off SMS on mobile phone networks for years after they were used to organize street protests." 

These problems with Facebook and Twitter as organizing tools-- propaganda, surveillance and censorship of social media networks-- are comprehensively covered by Evgeny Morozov in his new book The Net Delusion. As we've seen in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, social media certainly can be used as tools for organizing and mobilization of would-be protesters.  But it's awfully easy for nasty governments to take advantage of the same networks for ill-- or just shut them down. As I wrote about Tunisia, social media have certainly been useful tools for protesters, but once the Egyptian government did shut down the internet, the protests only gained steam, suggesting that these tools are not essential, at least once the protests have begun.

News Source: Of these three, the idea of social media as a global source for news is the most suspect, and the most easily subject to media hyperbole. It has certainly been captivating to follow the developments in Tahrir Square via Twitter, reading firsthand accounts as they stream in second-by-second. But if you really want to know what's going on, Al Jazeera has been the place to turn, almost no matter where you are on earth. Their coverage has been extraordinary, and a reminder of the power of "traditional" media. If these protests continue to spread across the Middle East, it will more likely be thanks to Al Jazeera than to Facebook.

In Tunisia, we saw a somewhat different phenomenon, where the mainstream media completely failed to notice the development of nationwide protests until the whole shebang was almost over. This was at least in part because the suppression of free press within the country prevented any major news outlets from even reporting the story. But Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other, local social media sites were all essential in getting news out of the country, and Al Jazeera, among other news outlets, eventually came to depend on this citizen reporting for their own coverage.

Now, we can ask if this sort of Twitter-for-global-awareness phenomenon is essential-- or even helpful-- to a revolutionary movement. I recall watching Meet the Press on the morning of Jan. 31, as Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institution and David Gregory looked at streams of Tweets about Egypt flowing into Tweetdeck. "You are witnessing here a 21st century revolution," said Indyk.  The trouble was, the internet and mobile networks were entirely shut down in Egypt.  Indyk is a brilliant guy, and the rest of his interview was very insightful, but that remark was pure hype and total nonsense.  In fact, what we were witnessing was so much chatter about Egypt coming from just about everyone except the revolutionaries themselves.

The protesters in Tunisia succeeded in ousting their president almost before the rest of the world knew what was going on. And in Egypt, the protests carried on and intensified even as the internet shutdown prevented protesters from Tweeting to the world. At a certain point, global awareness may help protect protesters from their own government-- international scrutiny does have a chilling effect on horrid humanitarian abuses-- but social media's role as a news source is probably not terribly important to the success of a revolt.

Public Sphere: This is the long-term theory-- the idea that, over time, activists can use social media and the broader online public space to discuss ideas, establish a shared perspective, and connect with like-minded individuals. Quoting Zuckerman again: "Communication tools may not lead to revolution immediately, but they provide a new rhetorical space where a new generation of leaders can think and speak freely. In the long run, this ability to create a new public sphere, parallel to the one controlled by the state, will empower a new generation of social actors, though perhaps not for many years." 

Without a doubt, the new generation of social actors in Egypt found their voice and built their movement in significant part on Facebook. Before using Facebook to bring people into the streets, the activsists used it to articulate their political critique and build a constituency around those ideas. A colleague of Zuckerman's at Berkman, Jillian York, was quoted in the New York Times describing the impact of the "We Are All Khaled Said" Facebook group: "Prior to the murder of Khaled Said, there were blogs and YouTube videos that existed about police torture, but there wasn’t a strong community around them. This case changed that."

This community has grown up over years.  A great new essay by Charles Hirschkind of Berkeley delves into the evolution of Egyptian blogosphere and social media-sphere, explaining how they "Have played a key role in transforming the conditions of political possibility in Egypt during the last decade, and of paving the way to Tahrir Square today." Building on offline social movements that began in the '90s, the growth of the Egyptian blogosphere starting in 2004-05, and eventually the Facebook-driven that has emerged in the past couple years.

In all three of these ways, social media played a role in Egypt. We must avoid overestimating the replicability of Facebook's use as an organizing tool and the impact of Twitter as a global news source. But we can be greatly encouraged by the ways social media acted as a public space for more free speech and assembly. Even while opposition political parties were significantly curtailed and civil society crushed at every turn, social media offered another place for discussion and dissent. Eventually, the dissent moved offline, and became real.

Echoing an analogy used by Secretary of State Clinton in her speech on Internet Freedom last year, Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors Walter Isaacson compared social media in Egypt to Samizdat in the Soviet Union. Just as the underground literature circulated among Soviet dissidents helped establish a shared language of dissent and eventually subvert a wretched authoritarian regime, social media helped Egyptian activists establish their political position, build a community, and eventually bring people into the streets. The events in Egypt could still go in any number of directions-- it sounds like we'll know more tonight-- and we have to hope it works out well for the brave Egyptians who are just asking for a better life.

An Idea to Reshape Google.org

A Times article last Saturday gave a pretty harsh critique of Google.org, the search giant's philanthropic wing. Begun in 2004 with grand dreams of reinventing philanthropy and revolutionizing the non-profit world by leveraging Google's powerful technological assets and unconventional approach to problems, DotOrg has foundered. Today, it operates not unlike a "conventional corporate philanthropy," doling out cash to big nonprofits, with occasional cool, innovative projects like Flu Trends and Earth Engine. The article blames this on shifting, sometimes undependable leadership, and a disconnect between the social types of DotOrg and engineers of the DotCom.

The more core problem with Google.org, it seems, is their engineering-centric approach to social change. This is a widely-known, and yet very common mistake in the tech-for-development world. People get a powerful tool in their hands, and start looking for problems it can solve, rather than the other way around: addressing a specific problem, and thinking about how to solve it. To be sure, mobile phones and other new technologies have proven valuable tools for solving certain types of social problems, but only by taking a problem-centric, rather than solution-centric approach is any progress likely to be made. Google.org has been a consistent offender of this rule; after their brilliant algorithm solved the problem of search, it was easy to think that Google engineers could tackle any problem, provided they coded hard enough. But in the words of Professor Laurence Simon, quoted in the article: "there isn't any algorithm that's going to eradicate guinea worm."

To put it another way, Google's approach to philanthropy and global development was top-down. They thought that by creating super tools and technologies while sitting in Mountain View, lives in Haiti, Liberia, and India would be transformed. But solving vexing global problems doesn't usually work that way.  Usually, development is successful when it happens bottom-up: when communities or countries identify problems, imagine solutions, and implement their ideas. The does not describe the DotOrg approach to date. From the article:

Some DotOrg staff members with traditional nonprofit backgrounds proposed a system to track drugs for diseases like malaria and tuberculosis through the supply chain...

The plan never went anywhere, however, because text-messaging was not sophisticated enough to challenge Google's engineers.

In other words, the approach was too bottom-up to appeal to Google's tech-centric sensibilities.

But the good and well-meaning Googlers shouldn't be discouraged. Provided they are willing to re-think their approach to development, Google.org can offer, at once, a bottom-up, problem-centric approach to global challenges, while at the same time leverage Google's formidable monetary and technological assets in unconventional ways. What follows is one idea for how DotOrg can do this.

iHubAbout a year ago, a group of Kenyan technologists got together and founded the iHub, a place for techies to come together in Nairobi, share workspace, collaborate, learn, and find investment for their ideas.  With initial funding from the Omidyar Network, and riding high on the growing success and global recognition of Ushahidi, the successful SMS-based mapping application developed in Kenya in 2007, the iHub has helped knock down the perception of Africa as strictly a consumer-but not producer-of technology.  Since its founding, the concept of the iHub has been mimicked across sub-Saharan Africa, with similar collaboration spaces established in Uganda, Nigeria, Cameroon, and elsewhere, all helping promote and encourage African technologists and connecting them with capital.

Last summer, in partnership with the iHub and Appfrica Labs, a Ugandan technology and innovation space, the U.S. State Department ran an app contest called Apps<4>Africa, in which they challenged African software developers to write mobile phone apps that would benefit the people of Africa. The winning app, written by a member of the iHub, was called iCow, and is a voice-based mobile app that "helps farmers track the estrus stages of their cows," with the hopes of allowing them to better manage breeding in their herd. Other apps took on problems of governmental corruption, maternal health, small-scale finance and banking, among a wide array of very real challenges in everyday life for African citizens.

These tech hubs are remarkable not just as technology institutions, but as institutions of civil society and entrepreneurial vibrancy as well. For any developing country to overcome poverty and emerge as a successful middle-income state, a strong civil society and a robust economy are two essential ingredients.  By serving as places for tech-savvy citizens to come together and vectors for investment to reach entrepreneurs and the iHub and its followers are incubators for both of these things. If Google.org wants to create a meaningful impact on global development while leveraging their position as one of the world's premier tech companies, these technology hubs are one very unconventional way to go about it.  Here's how:

- Building Hubs: Right now, the iHub is supported financially by Ushahidi. Not every developing country has such a successful project so well positioned to be the convener and financier of a technology hub. DotOrg could help finance existing hubs, while creating and building new hubs throughout the developing world, bringing together local developers, business interests and social actors to innovate and collaborate.

- App Contests & More: An app contest is a cheap and easy project to run, but can serve as a valuable incentive for inexperienced developers to try their hand at entrepreneurship, while also making for great publicity-both for the sponsor and the winning developers. Small scale projects like app contests can help put technology hubs on the map, identify the most promising engineers, and launch a few useful new technologies, to boot.  

- Talent Sharing: From the inception of DotOrg, Google has sought to leverage the power of their staff: a collection of some of the best software developers in the world. But sitting in Mountain View, the developers themselves have had little connection to the challenges of people in the developing world. Why not create fellowships for their talented engineers to spend time in a foreign technology hub, teaching young developers and helping build and improve nascent projects.

- Venture Capital: Rather than seeking to build their own world-saving tools or pouring money into "conventional" philanthropic projects, DotOrg should invest in the best of the innumerable homegrown ideas for technology development. Active tech hubs are gold mines of entrepreneurs and ideas, and as a foundation, DotOrg can make more investments and accept a higher degree of risk than a strictly for-profit VC investor. If the successful projects are explicitly focused on improving social conditions, so much the better, but either way, investment capital is a key to economic development anywhere.

By engaging with the burgeoning technology hubs in Africa, helping to create new ones throughout the developing world, and using the hubs as platforms for sharing their technological and monetary assets, Google.org could have a very real impact in helping poor countries develop from the bottom up.  Supporting the private sector-whether tech-based social enterprises or straight-up for-profit technology companies-and helping strengthen civil society are two somewhat unconventional yet crucially important elements of global development. And DotOrg has a unique comparative advantage in doing so through technology.

What's more, Google can see this endeavor as beneficial to their bottom line. Robust technology hubs around the world will eventually yield products that the company may want to acquire for itself-so that it can build its own business in the developing world. Additionally, technology hubs will provide a valuable talent pool for future hiring. Google recently brought on Ory Okolloh as their policy manager for Africa; before joining Google, Ory was one of the founders of Ushahidi and involved with the iHub in Nairobi.  With a robust network of technology hubs around the world, Google will have early access to the best ideas and people, and DotOrg will live up to its promise of operating in part as a for-profit entity.

For many in the development world, Google.org has been a bit of a disappointment after the great hopes surrounding its launch. A few scattered projects have made an impact, and the company deserves applause for the level of its philanthropy alone-Google donated $184 million last year-but DotOrg has greater potential.  The iHub is already on the company's radar: Google is hosting a "mapping party" there next week for women working in tech and social development.  If the foundation can overcome its tech-centric, solution-oriented approach to global change, and instead leverage its advantages in ways that facilitate bottom-up development, Google.org could become a real leader in the field.

Cross-posted at swdupont.com

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