I’m grateful to the State Department for having invited me to attend Secretary Hillary Clinton’s recent speech in DC on Net Freedom. Little did I know before the event that Secretary Clinton was about to tie my main professional and scholarly interests in one speech. As my Fletcher colleague put it:
Before starting her important speech on Net Freedom (which is directly related to the topic of my dissertation), Clinton spoke about the disaster in Haiti. She specifically referred to the critical role that communication networks played in the immediate aftermath of the quake and also noted that,
“The technology community has set up interactive maps to help us identify needs and target resources. And on Monday, a seven-year-old girl and two women were pulled from the rubble of a collapsed supermarket by an American search-and-rescue team after they sent a text message calling for help.”
She was clearly referring to the interactive maps launched by Ushahidi, Open Street Map (OSM) and Sahana as well as the free “4636” SMS number that Ushahidi and partners set up with the support of the State Department. Haitians can send a text to 4636 to report their location and urgent needs. These SMS’s are translated into English and mapped in near real-time on Ushahidi-Haiti.
Secretary Clinton then transitioned to the topic of Net Freedom with the following comment,
“There are more ways to spread more ideas to more people than at any moment in history. And even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable.”
Towards the middle of her speech, Clinton emphasized the Obama Administration’s interest in placing new media and digital technologies “in the hands of people who will use them to advance democracy and human rights […].” The next steps articulated by Clinton:
“That’s why today I’m announcing that over the next year, we will work with partners in industry, academia, and nongovernmental organizations to establish a standing effort that will harness the power of connection technologies and apply them to our diplomatic goals. By relying on mobile phones, mapping applications, and other new tools, we can empower citizens and leverage our traditional diplomacy. We can address deficiencies in the current market for innovation.”
I was particularly pleased to hear more reference to mobile phones and mapping applications. In closing, Clinton wrapped up with the following comment:
“So let me close by asking you to remember the little girl who was pulled from the rubble on Monday in Port-au-Prince. She’s alive, she was reunited with her family, she will have the chance to grow up because these networks took a voice that was buried and spread it to the world. No nation, no group, no individual should stay buried in the rubble of oppression. We cannot stand by while people are separated from the human family by walls of censorship. And we cannot be silent about these issues simply because we cannot hear the cries.”
This is when my Fletcher colleague sent out that Tweet:
It would certainly appear that the answer to Brian’s question is “Yes!”
My dissertation focuses on the role of new media and digital technology in popular resistance against authoritarian rule. And I happen to be the Director of Crisis Mapping at Ushahidi, which is why I launched the Ushahidi-Haiti platform two hours after the earthquake. The more I work on crisis mapping, the more I experience firsthand the applications for digital activism. And the more I work on digital activism in non-permissive environments, the more I realize how important some of the tactics are for crisis mapping.
In sum, every day that passes provides more and more evidence that this is the space I currently belong in; the intersection between communication technology, interactive mapping, digital activism and nonviolent civil resistance.