Global Mobile

Webinar: "Information & Communications Technology in Mexican Civil Society"

This Thursday, through the New Policy Institute, the Global Mobile Technology Initiative will be releasing a new paper: "Information and Communications Technology in Mexican Civil Society." Based on several weeks of research in Mexico City and Oaxaca, the paper analyzes how the people, movements and organizations that make up civil society in Mexico have adopted new technologies to facilitate and improve the effectiveness of their work, and includes a review of some of the most effective tech-based initiatives of the past several years. 

The author of this paper, Sam duPont will host a webinar this Friday, January 21 at 12:30pm EST to offer an overview of the paper's findings and answer questions. Please check the Global Mobile Blog on Thursday to preview the paper prior to the webinar. We will be releasing a Spanish translation of the paper as well.

I hope you will joins us on Friday. Please RSVP to receive webinar instructions.


The Mobile Revolution Surges Behind Bars

Mobile phones are popping up around the world in unprecedented numbers, but not everywhere is this technological revolution encouraged. In prisons throughout the United States, possessing a wireless device is a felony, thanks to a bill passed last year. Despite this deterrence, reported Kim Severson and Robbie Brown of NY Times earlier this month, cell phones are omnipresent in most U.S. prisons (in fact, between January and April 2010, workers confiscated tens of thousands of mobile phones throughout the country).

The authors highlighted the problem behind increased mobile usage behind bars:

Although prison officials have long battled illegal cellphones, smart phones have changed the game. With Internet access, a prisoner can call up phone directories, maps, and photographs for criminal purposes. Gang violence and drug trafficking... are increasingly being orchestrated online, allowing inmates to keep up criminal behavior even as they serve time.

Inmates can also access social media over their phones to organize and monitor strikes, as was the case recently in Georgia:

Under pseudonyms, [inmates] shared hour-by-hour updates with followers on Facebook and Twitter. They communicated with their advocates, conducted news media interviews, and monitored coverage of the strike.

For that particular strike, prisoners at ten facilities organized using cell phones as their main tool. “For months the prisoners had apparently used cell phones to get in touch with inmates from other prisons,” one online magazine explained, adding that participation reached the tens of thousands in what became the largest prison strike in U.S. history, enabled in no small part by mobile tech.

This sort of open communication makes the mobile phone a hot commodity among inmates. TIME called these devices the most valuable “underground currency” in prisons, running at $1,000 a piece in California and even going for about four times as much as heroin in one Texan prison. It’s also why prison officials are so concerned about cell phones in penitentiaries.

More worryingly for them, the fight against contraband cell phones is an uphill battle that they’re currently losing. Corruption within the system, reported NPR’s Laura Sullivan, plays a significant role, with some guards accepting as much as $500 to help smuggle phones through metal detectors and into cells. Illegal cell phone use is “often tied to correctional officers,” and this trend doesn’t look like fading anytime soon.

So, prisons have to fight back against the surge of mobile phones by jamming signals or detecting phones, and both methods face serious setbacks. The former can inadvertently jam officers’ radios, while the latter is expensive and cannot detect SMS transmissions. The situation is desperate, with some penitentiaries even turning to phone-sniffing dogs to help quell the mobile uprising.

What does all this mean? For one thing, the remarkable appeal of 21st-century technology isn’t limited to the free world. The access to information and connectivity provided by mobile phones is clearly as valuable to prison inmates as it is to farmers in Kenya, or to expectant mothers in India. This is an important indicator of the raw power of mobile tech and the challenges that come with it.

Looking more broadly, this case is just another iteration of what Alec Ross, Secretary Clinton’s Senior Advisor on Innovation, views as a major theme in our history: the battle over access to information. Ross explained that tech “can help information and ideas flow,” but ultimately it’s up to us as people to decide whether this flow is positive or negative. In the case of prisoners accessing mobile phones, there’s clearly a danger of uprising, or of orchestrating crimes remotely from the confines of a cell.

But can this technology be harnessed in prisons, rather than ostracized? Could iPads help inmates learn valuable skills, such as literacy or vocational training? Might we encourage prisoners to access (closely monitored) local wireless networks with their smart phones, allowing them to collaborate on classwork or trade e-books with each other? Utopian ideas, maybe, but ones worthy of consideration as mobile technology continues to saturate all dimensions of society.

No “Twitter Revolution,” But a Connected Revolution in Tunisia

When Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in front of a government building after being robbed and slapped around by the local police, his desperate and tragic act sparked a tinderbox of anger and resentment against the Tunisian state. As news of Bouazizi's self-immolation spread, so too did a nationwide wave of protests, and on Friday, longtime dictator Ben Ali fled the country.

Jasmine RevolutionWith most Western media looking elsewhere, and journalists in Tunisia sharply censored, Twitter became one of the only sources of information about what has come to be called the "Jasmine Revolution." Among the protesters, Facebook and YouTube allowed them to share stories, videos, and encouragement, while e-mail, text messaging, and other social media were among the ways that Tunisians communicated, rallied, and coordinated their movement.

To call this a "Twitter Revolution," as some have, is to grossly oversimplify the complex social factors that brought people into the streets to demand change. At first, Tunisians protested the state of the economy-despite years of strong economic growth, the country's wealth is unevenly distributed, with high unemployment and high food prices leaving many disaffected and hopeless-and as weeks passed the protests became overtly political, a reaction against decades of oppression, censorship, and brutality. Likewise, calling this a "Wikileaks Revolution" is to overestimate the impact that a few American diplomatic cables could have on Tunisians' understanding of their government's corruption-nobody knew better than they about the rotten core of their state.

But despite the hype, the events in Tunisia bear out the idea that social media, mobile phones, and the internet can be very useful tools for organizing a movement and sharing a story with the world. Could the Jasmine Revolution have taken place without these technologies?  Certainly.  Would it have? Perhaps, but without the benefit of new media, the uprising might have played out more slowly, giving the government more time to respond. It seems the Tunisian government was caught a little off-guard by the use of new technologies-particularly among youth-to organize the protests and share information.  Maybe not an essential element of the revolt, but mobile tech and social media gave the protesters an early leg up.

To be sure, the Tunisian government made an effort to use these same technologies to their own advantage. For years they have heavily censored the web, and used phishing schemes to gain control of the e-mail and social media accounts of activists.  During the protests, police arrested prominent internet activists, while the government tightened censorship and took advantage of new media to analyze the social networks and communications of activists. But in the end, it didn't matter; despite the government's best efforts to control cyberspace, they couldn't stop people in the streets using the online censorship and surveillance any more effectively than a mob could overthrow a dictator with a storm of Facebook updates.

Ultimately, the essential factors for democratic revolution are no different in the 21st century than they were in the 20th: an angry populace, a weakened government, and, in the end, a military unwilling to simply crush the uprising-think Iran in 2009, Tiananmen in 1989, or Hungary in 1956.  But as we've seen in Tunisia, the advent of social media and other new technologies can provide helpful tools to a movement, without necessarily giving repressive governments a trump card.

Speaking in Qatar this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn't mention Tunisia directly, but called out the autocratic governments of the Middle East and Maghreb on their "corrupt institutions" and "stagnant political order." A year after Secretary Clinton's address introducing "internet freedom" as an objective of U.S. foreign policy, the events in Tunisia help illustrate the ability of new communications technologies to give voice to oppressed peoples, and empower them to stand up to their stagnant, corrupt governments. So while a few Tweets won't topple any dictator, in the right circumstances, the right tools can help get the job done.

Cross-posted at

Violence in Tunisia as Protesters Demand President's Ouster

As I wrote yesterday, Tunisians have taken to the streets all over their country in protests that have evolved from a complaint about unemployment and food prices to a call for the ouster of longtime dictator Ben Ali. The President gave a conciliatory speech yesterday acknowledging the demands of the protestors and pledging to leave office in 2014, and while many Tunisians rejoiced initially, thousands marched in the capital city today to demand Ben Ali's resignation. What followed was captured in the Twitter feed of Angelique Chrisafis (@achrisafis), the Guardian's Paris correspondent, who is in Tunis. These tweets came in the past four hours:

- Vast crowds outside Interior Ministry shouting "Ben Ali out!" and "End the dictator's speeches".

- Pro-regime newspapers torn up by protestors. "Will we be able to see Le Monde on the stands tomorrow?" one asks #Tunisia

- Demo peaceful so far apart from minor skuffles with secret police. The middle-class crowd are now urging the police to join them#Tunisia

- Ben Ali, his second wife Leila, and the business empire his family has amassed are the main targets of protestors' anger #Tunisia

- Chaos here. Police attacking peaceful crowd outside Interior Ministry and beating them with clubs and truncheons #jasminrevolt#sidibouzid

- People who have fled into side streets being cornered and soaked with teargas while secret police pick them off and beat them#jasminrevolt

- Running battles amid extreme violence from police. Protestors being chased onto rooftops. This is turniing very, very bad

- Gunshots are now ringing around us and in the other sidestreets around Interior Ministry #jasminrevolt #tunisia #sidibouzid\

What is already being called the "Jasmine Revolt," after the national flower of Tunisia, is threatening to turn into a full-fledged revolution. President Ben Ali has already dismissed the Parliament, and pledged to hold elections within the next six months, but despite that, and despite the violence described above, protestors are still in the streets, peacefully demanding the President's resignation.  

It's still very unclear where this will lead-- perhaps peacefully to a more democratic Tunisia, and perhaps to brutal violence.  For up-to-the-minute news, I'd recommend following the Guardian, or, better yet, tune in to Al Jazeera English, which is providing great coverage. Here is a clip of one of their recent updates:

UPDATE (1:58pm): Ben Ali has fled the country:

Tunisia's long-standing president has left the country amid violent protests and the prime minister has taken over control of the government from him.

"Since the president [Zine El Abidine Ben Ali] is temporarily unable to exercise his duties, it has been decided that the prime minister will exercise temporarily the [presidential] duties," Mohammed Ghannouchi, the Tunisian prime minister, said on state television.

Ghannouchi is now the interim president.

Maltese air traffic controllers have told Al Jazeera that Ben Ali is bound for Paris.

This Week in Global Mobile | January 14, 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:

  • Mobile use among U.S. Hispanics rose 26% since 2006, compared to only 18% among the general public, reported Scarborough Research.
  • At last week’s CES convention in Las Vegas, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski stressed the need to unleash more spectrum to support mobile innovation.
  • By the end of 2011, mobile broadband users will surpass wired broadband consumers world-wide, reported GigaOm in an interesting analysis of global mobile numbers.
  • A team of researchers at University of Dar es Salaam reported that over half of all Tanzanians are hooked on mobile phones.
  • Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak collected questions from citizens via Twitter, promising to respond to some of them on the microblogging site.
  • The Philippines’ telecommunications authority announced controversial new rules for ISPs to follow, including the ability to impose daily data caps on Web users.
  • On Tuesday newly-elected Representative Justin Amash (R-MI) held a public forum hosted by Facebook discussing how congresspeople can better connect with their constituents using social media.
  • 107 trillion e-mail messages, or nearly 300 billion each day, were sent world-wide in 2010, reported Pingdom.
  • Facing intense opposition from its British public, T-Mobile backed down from its plan to limit all data users to 500MB, choosing instead to only impose the restriction on new customers.
  • Hiroko Tabuchi wrote an interesting article in NY Times about Facebook’s troubles gaining momentum in Japan, where less than 2% of the population uses Facebook.
  • The Korean Police Department is debating whether to formally charge Google against breaking the country’s privacy laws by collecting data on wi-fi networks via its Street View service.
  • Companies that employ a social media strategy gain greater market share and earn higher margins, reported McKinsey.
  • Nine major public hospitals in Russia switched to fully-digitized medical systems on  Monday using IBM’s Lotus Notes technology.
  • Canada-based BlackBerry manufacturer RIM conceded to India’s request to access encrypted messenger and e-mail content after months of negotiations.

Protests in Tunisia Threaten to Topple Dictatorship

You might not know it from the coverage of the American media, but there are protests going on in Tunisia right now that threaten to topple the authoritarian government that has ruled there for more than half a century. A bit less than a month ago, a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in protest over his mistreatment at the hands of Tunisia's brutally repressive police. His act awoke a latent anger among the Tunisian people over both the government's repression and economic prosperity that has not been widely shared-- despite 5% GDP growth in recent years, unemployment is well into the double-digits, and away from the prosperous coast, Tunisia's interior remains underdeveloped. 

Ben Ali, Tunisia's current leader, has cracked down on the protests, and shut down the state-controlled media, but the protests continue, confirmed by reports that have snuck past the country's censors via social media, while mobile phone videos illustrate the violence that has led to at least 35 deaths. The use of new media seemed to catch the government off-guard at first, they have caught on quickly. In a release yesterday, the Committee to Protect Journalists described Tunisia as the "undisputed leader" of online repression in the Maghreb:

According to CPJ's analysis, the country's state-owned Internet bandwidth provider, the Tunisian Internet Agency has been spying on and interfering with its customers' access to private e-mail and social networking sites, including Facebook, Gmail, and Yahoo. Individuals have reported that these sites' pages have either been blocked entirely, or been manipulated to include malicious code that collects private usernames and passwords and then relays them to the agency. The accounts of bloggers and journalists have subsequently been broken into using these stolen credentials, and content and accounts deleted, including Facebook pages administrated by local journalists as well as the account of local online video journalist Haythem El Mekki.

Bloggers and journalists have been detained and imprisoned, and while Facebook remains online and available as the only remianing tool for video sharing, it's likely that the government is watching online activitiy and taking advantage of Facebook's social graph to identify and surveil protestors. While new technologies are undoubdedly providing powerful new tools to protestors, Tunisia's government also finds itself with valuable new information and methods at its fingertips. The NY Times reports today that protestors have overwhelmed police in one coastal city near the capital. It's hard to imagine such a long-standing dictatorship falling so quickly, but it's becoming harder to ignore the extraordinary sacrifices of ordinary Tunisians in the streets.

Wireless Power in the Kitchen and Beyond

Last month, Sam responded to an NPR article about mobile tech in the kitchen, arguing that the well-intentioned piece may have undervalued the role of mobile technology in the kitchen of the 21st century. He concluded:

Within the next decade (if not sooner), you'll have a specialized device in your kitchen... that talks with your other devices (so the recipe you find on your smartphone on the way home appears on the screen in your kitchen), and runs an elegant piece of software integrating the recipe with video and a social layer that allows you to find recipes recommended by friends and share tips back with them.

Sam’s premonition was a timely one, because some innovative technology coming out of CES 2011, an international electronics convention that concluded on Sunday in Las Vegas, shows that this networked kitchen of the future isn’t too far away. I’m thinking specifically of Fulton Innovation’s eCoupled products, which are built upon a new technology that powers devices wirelessly. They’ve unveiled a slew of devices meant to make the kitchen a network of information and power, just as Sam explained earlier. From Fulton’s website:

Imagine cooking a pan that is heated with wireless power, making a safe heating surface. Even better, the pan communicates key stages of the cooking process to a smartphone or personal computer... The smartphone and P.C. are also getting information wirelessly that tells you how much orange juice is left or telling you that the crème brûlée is about to expire. That's an intelligent kitchen. 

This wireless eCoupled technology at the core of Fulton’s “intelligent kitchen” is fascinating stuff. One stunning example is the wireless-enabled Campbell’s soup can showcased by Fulton Innovation at CES. The can’s been printed with wireless charging technology on the packaging -- just plop the can down on an eCoupled-equipped kitchen countertop, and watch the soup heat up by itself.Technogorilla provided the best explanation for this tech I came across, explaining that, “A wireless coil is printed into the soup package that can be activated [using eCouple techology] to heat the soup, as well as choose the temperature, simply by tearing a tab.” Easy as pie.

This amazing wireless technology will help form the networked device-based kitchen that Sam envisioned in his blog post. For example, eCoupled-equipped cereal boxes could be placed on a counter, allowing nutritional information to pop up on your monitor. Or imagine if your phone’s alarm would sound off once the pan containing your spaghetti sends a wireless signal to your mobile device, telling it that it’s heated up enough. Meanwhile your iPad, where you’ve got your neighbor’s recipe displayed, recognizes that you’re ready to move on, reads aloud the next step, and activates your blender at the correct speed.

The result: A chef’s heaven, where food cooks to just the right level and mistakes are left in the cupboard with the cookbooks -- all thanks to mobile connectivity and technology that draws power without wires. And the best part is that this concept has applications far beyond the kitchen, allowing consumers to charge anything from iPods to electric cars. In the developing world, where eCoupled’s expensive technology probably isn’t accessible, Nokia is exploring ways to harvest radio waves to charge mobile phones. Regardless of how it’s applied, wireless power is an incredible technology that's as nascent as it is promising.

This Week in Global Mobile | January 7, 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:

  • Skype processed 45 billion minutes of international traffic in 2010 -- that’s more than twice the combined volume of all the world’s phone companies.
  • Luke Bozier, former e-campaigns manager for the British Labour party, called for the use of iPads and other tablet devices in Parliament to help MPs access information.
  • AT&T began offering a pill bottle cap that alerts patients’ family members when the bottle is opened, reminds users to take medicine, and automatically orders refills.
  • Yesterday eBay announced that global sales on mobile devices grew from $600 million to $2 billion in 2010, with its mobile apps were downloaded 30 million times in 190 countries.
  • Africa crossed the 500 million mobile subscription milestone, according to research by Informa.
  • The worldwide health-related mobile app market doubled in 2010 over the previous year,, reported Kalorama Information. The study also showed that over half of all U.S. physicians regularly used a smart phone.
  • At 12:04 a.m. on January 1st in Japan, Twitterers set an all-time traffic record of nearly 7,000 tweets per second -- more than double the record set last summer during Japan’s World Cup game against Denmark.
  • With 60 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population online, American Hispanics are more receptive to new technology than non-Hispanics, indicated research firm comScore.
  • Although they’re outlawed in American prisons, smart phones are “the most lethal weapon you can get inside a prison,” reported the NY Times.
  • On Monday the Hungarian government enacted a controversial media law which establishes a communications authority responsible for censoring “unbalanced” media outlets.
  • Google is developing a mobile payment service based on NFC technology (which I blogged about earlier) which allows consumers to swipe their phones near a receiver to complete payments.
  • On Monday the Californian Supreme Court ruled that police can seize and search a suspect’s phone, including e-mails and photos stored within, without a warrant.
  • Electronics companies Samsung, Mobi, and Withings all announced market-ready wireless baby monitors at CES, part of a strong showing of “mommy tech” at the convention.
  • On Wednesday Facebook streamed the opening of the 112th Congress for the first time in U.S. history, while C-SPAN promised to expand social media coverage of the Hill.
  • Via Twitter, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez praised the Internet as a key player in the growth of his country.
  • Winnie Hu at NY Times explained how a pilot program on Long Island administers iPads to high school students in order to “extend the classroom beyond these four walls.”
  • Mong Palatino at Global Voices reported about last month’s launch of Agromart, Vietnam’s first e-market featuring agricultural, forestry, and aquatic products.
  • Internet surpassed TV as the primary source of news for 18-29 year-olds in the United States, reported Pew Research Center in a new study.

The FCC's Open Internet Apps Challenge

Probably the great unheralded accomplishment of the Net Neturality Order passed by the FCC in December has to do with transparency requirements. The new rules require all network operators-- wired and wireless alike-- to be open about how they're managing traffic flow over their networks. Why didn't this rule get much credit? I can't say it better than CDT:

Since transparency seems to represent low-hanging fruit in this proceeding, in the sense that it doesn't generate nearly as much controversy as the other elements, neutrality supporters probably have a tendency to take it for granted. But that doesn't mean it won't be beneficial.

In some ways, the transparency rule is the lynchpin that allows the rules to stop where they do, and avoid overregulating. For example, the Order doesn't apply neutrality rules to wireless networks-- a move I consider wise, given technical constraints, the rapidly evolving nature of the mobile space, and high competition in the wireless marketplace. But in cases of anti-competitive, anti-consumer behavior by mobile networks operators, the FCC will have to step in. (My full writeup of the Order is here.)

By itself, though, the FCC has limited ability to keep an eye on the internet and ensure that network operators are fully forthcoming. So yesterday, the FCC called in support, announcing a competiton for developers to build apps that will help safeguard the open internet.  The "Open Internet Apps Challenge" seeks software tools that will allow you to see whether your network operator is blocking competitors' sites, slowing your downloads, or otherwise messing with the freedom of the network. From the FCC's press release:

The Open Internet Challenge seeks to encourage the development of innovative and functional applications that provide users with information about the extent to which their fixed or mobile broadband Internet services are consistent with the open Internet. These software tools could, for example, detect whether a broadband provider is interfering with DNS responses, application packet headers, or content.

If you're a developer, you have until June 1 to submit your app and and get a chance to win-- wait for it-- a free trip to Washington in August! But seriously, it would be great exposure for a young developer, and an opportunity to help safeguard the openness of the internet. And if you're less of a geek and more of a nerd, you can write a research paper that "analyzes relevant Internet openness measurement techniques, approaches, and data."  Info on both competitions is here.

Last Week in Global Mobile | December 31, 2010

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

  • In Baghdad the U.S. State Department launched Window into the U.S. Embassy, a YouTube channel dedicated to building relationships with Iraqi civilians.
  • The U.N., Google, Harvard, and other institutions launched the Satellite Sentinel Project which provides crowdsourced satellite anti-war surveillance in Sudan to deter violence.
  • More than seven trillion SMS messages will be sent by over 4 billion mobile subscriptions in 2011, reported ABI Research, while 500 million mobile phones will be sold worldwide.
  • MIT’s MediaLab launched Konbit, an employment service that uses mobile phones to and language translators to connect out-of-work Haitians with NGO’s looking for labor.
  • A new mobile money service called Square was launched, allowing smart phone users to swipe and accept credit card payments directly on their devices.
  • Trapped at the airport during this week’s East Coast storm, some travelers turned to Twitter for more efficient flight information and help getting seats on other flights.
  • Google Maps may be blocked in China next year if the the search company refuses to move its mapping server to China to obtain the appropriate licenses.
  • Iowa State University scholar Jacob Groshek explored how the Internet helped build democracy between 1999 and 2003 in 72 countries in a paper recently published in the International Journal of Communication.
  • Reflecting on mobile operating system Symbian’s dominance in Africa, Erik Hersman at White African emphasized that the key to tech success on the continent is providing ordinary, not revolutionary, services through innovative platforms.
  • A consortium of international investors announced plans to open a major data center in Accra next year, the first of its kind to improve ICT services throughout West Africa.
  • Hispanics in the United States own or plan to use new technology like tablet PCs more than non-Hispanics, reported Advertising Age.
  • To help residents deal with Christmas’ “Snowpocalypse,” Newark, N.J., mayor Cory Booker tweeted regular updates regarding the city’s emergency response status.
  • Several diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks reveal that the Cuban government is more concerned with digital activists and bloggers than with traditional dissenters.
  • iPads, iPhones, and other smart phones are set to be permitted on the House floor, thanks to new rules being implemented by the House Republicans.

Happy New Year from everyone at NDN and the New Policy Institute!

Syndicate content