Is Ushahidi a Liberation Technology?

Professor Larry Diamond, one of my dissertation advisers, recently published a piece on “Liberation Technology” (PDF) in the Journal of Democracy in which he cites Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS amongst other tools. Is Ushahidi really a liberation technology?

Larry recently set up the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University together with colleagues Joshua Cohen and Terry Winograd to catalyze more rigorous, applied research on the role of technology in repressive environments—both in terms of liberation and repression. This explains why I’ll be joining the group as a Visiting Fellow this year. The program focuses on the core questions I’m exploring in my dissertation research and ties in technologies like Ushahidi which I’m directly working on.

What is Liberation Technology? Larry defines this technology as,

“… any form of information and communication technology (ICT) that can expand political, social, and economic freedom. In the contemporary era, it means essentially the modern, interrelated forms of digital ICT—the computer, the Internet, the mobile phone, and countless innovative applications for them, including “new social media” such as Facebook and Twitter.”

As is perfectly well known, however, technology can also be used to repress. This should not be breaking news. Liberation Technology vs Digital Repression. My dissertation describes this competition as an arms-race, a cyber game of cat-and-mouse. But the technology variable is not the most critical piece, as I argue in this recent Newsweek article:

“The technology variable doesn’t matter the most,” says Patrick Meier […] “It is the organizational structure that will matter the most. Rigid structures are unable to adapt as quickly to a rapidly changing environment as a decentralized system. Ultimately, it is a battle of organizational theory.”

As Larry writes,

“Democrats and autocrats now compete to master these technologies. Ultimately, however, not just technology but political organization and strategy and deep-rooted normative, social, and economic forces will determine who ‘wins’ the race.”

That is precisely the hypothesis I am testing in my dissertation research. As the Newsweek article put it,

“The only way to stay ahead in this cyberwar, though, is to play offense, not defense. ‘If it is a cat-and-mouse game,’ says Meier of Ushahidi, ‘by definition, the cat will adopt the mouse’s technology, and vice versa.’ His view is that activists will have to get better at adopting some of the same tactics states use. Just as authoritarian governments try to block Voice of America broadcasts, so protest movements could use newer technology to jam state propaganda on radio or TV.”

Larry rightly notes that,

“In the end, technology is merely a tool, open to both noble and nefarious purposes. Just as radio and TV could be vehicles of information pluralism and rational debate, so they could also be commandeered by totalitarian regimes for fanatical mobilization and total state control. Authoritarian states could commandeer digital ICT to a similar effect. Yet to the extent that innovative citizens can improve and better use these tools, they can bring authoritarianism down—as in several cases they have.”

A bold statement for sure. But as Larry recognizes, it is particularly challenging to disentangle political, social and technology factors. This is why more empirical research is needed in this space which is largely limited to qualitative case-studies. We need to bring mixed-methods research to the study of digital activism in repressive environments. This is why I’m part of the Meta-Activism Project (MAP) and why I’m particularly excited to be collaborating on the development of a Global Digital Activism Dataset (GDADS).

Larry writes that Liberation Technology is also “Accountability Technology” in that “it provides efficient and powerful tools for transparency and monitoring.” This is where he describes the FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi platforms. In some respects, these tools have already served as liberation technologies. The question is, will innovative citizens improve these tools and use them more effectively to be able to bring down dictators? I’d love to know your thoughts.

Patrick Philippe Meier

11 responses to “Is Ushahidi a Liberation Technology?

  1. Nice post, i really enjoyed reading this, keep up the good work

  2. That’s for the GDADS mention – does this post imply that you are now at Stanford?

  3. Awesome news re your Visiting Fellowship at Stanford, Patrick! Congrats!

    I’m looking forward to lots more face-to-face conversations now. =)

    My research team will be launching an instance of Ushahidi to track events and trends in gang violence, so we will have no shortage of things to collaborate on.

  4. Man is this a can of worms I’d like to open with my bare teeth! So many things to bite off I’m a bit befuddled with where to start? … deep breath…

    Well in my humble observation dictatorships seem to come about in several familiar – if not historically predictable – ways, but ultimately all take on pretty much the same basic format; maintaining power by controlling physical resources, information silos, “laws,” infrastructure, etc. etc. on down the rabbit hole.

    Looking forward, however, I suspect that so-termed ‘liberation technologies’ (I get excited just saying that term) will have at least two significant effects; one, they will make existing authoritarian regimes more vulnerable to opposition – perhaps topple a few in the process, but two, they will have the effect of mitigating, or outright preventing in certain circumstances, the power grab of would-be dictators.

    One way I’m currently thinking about the effect of liberation technologies on oppressive regimes is as a sort of ‘selective pressure’ that will favor certain types of behaviors and conversely act as a drag force against other types of behaviors. I mean you can let your imagination go a little as to the details but basically my thought is that cell phones, mobile devices, internet, email, social networking, electronic banking, electronic commerce, electronic fraud, etc. are all a double edged sword for the current model of the oppressive regime.

    On the one hand they are the necessary tools to participate in the information economy (or knowledge economy if you prefer) and represent a significant means to economic prosperity for those that embrace them – dictators and democracies alike. Indeed, as the ‘third wave’ information economy accelerates its pace it will be increasingly painful for current and would-be dictatorial regimes to not find their citizens of and amongst the participants of the knowledge based economy. But on the other hand these tools mean that the bar for lightweight spontaneous social organizing, reporting, communicating and potential civic resistance is appreciably lowered. And within the cat and mouse part of the game methodologies like Ushahidi and their progeny (among other benefits) also have the very practical benefit of shielding their participants from a significant amount of personal risk, further lowering the bar for civic participation and resistance.

    However, as with all selective pressures applied to a population there is the opportunity for a better adapted version to rise. And for the most part it seems to have been assumed that these adaptations would take the form of a technology arms race – largely favoring, in my opinion, innovation by the people that need it most rather than the centralized regime, which tends to be the anathema of innovation – but I think that it’s a least worth mentioning the possibility that we may see the emergence of a completely new type of dictatorial regime… a “Dictator 2.0” if you will. One that both embraces the information economy and its many tools, and seeks to centralize power by some new unforeseen mechanism. What might Dictator 2.0 look like- no idea?

    That said, at least for the foreseeable future, I’d agree that it’s very likely to continue to be a cat and mouse game of measure and counter-measure – with my money on the unwashed masses for maintaining the edge… one wrinkle in that might be the employment of external contractors whose social allegiances don’t play a role and whose technical skills can be purchased… but I guess even in that scenario I’d still give the innovative edge to the crowd e.g. The Candle Problem:

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  7. Is it a liberation technology? Only if you own the platform — laptop, smartphone, Kindle (books are dead, which leaves you with the conundrum that you have to learn to type on your $350 $100 laptop before you can learn to read) — that enables you to use it to that end.

    This demographic fact tends to reinforce the criticism that projects like this are more a liberation THEOLOGY for people who grew up with electric lights at home — a vocal minority, mostly vocalizing amongst themselves, of the teeming human species.

    Here in Brazil, you would be amazed at how much more relevant information arrives through bush telegraph, mouth to ear — we call it The Internet of Dogs, since our glocal meatnet is the park where everybody walks the dogs. POTS, though service is far from universal — is an amazing resource as well. Why I tend to think of smartphone social apps as liberation phrenology for the dictatorship of the digerati.

  8. I tend to think technological advancement is controlled by R&D which in turn is dictated by governments. Governments will always have the most advanced technologies. Why should the internet be an exception?

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