Tag Archives: Revolution

How Drone Natives are Decolonizing Robotics

In 2015, Cyclone Pam devastated the islands of Vanuatu in the South Pacific. In response to the Category 5 Cyclone, I was asked by the World Bank to coordinate a humanitarian drone mission to speed up the damage assessments. But I couldn’t find any local drone pilots at the time, so had to recruit two foreign drone companies from Australia and New Zealand instead. Their drone pilots did a great job under challenging conditions over the course of several weeks. I continue to be in touch with them and continue to learn from them. They’re top notch professionals.

I’m just really tired of seeing videos like the one above. Foreigners with the technology; locals as passive observers. It should of course be the other way around: Locals with the technology and foreigners as passive observers; foreigners holding umbrellas for local drone pilots. Seriously. Why can’t it be the other way around?

Fast forward to 2018. The South Pacific has been battered by an onslaught of major cyclones, no fewer than 4 in almost as many months. Unlike 2015, one local drone pilot deployed to the affected areas to support the relief efforts. Her name is Amrita Lal (pictured below) and she serves as the Coordinator of South Pacific Flying Labs based in Fiji. In deploying with the Red Cross following Cyclone Keni, Amrita became the first local drone pilot to deploy with a National Red Cross Society in the region.

Our mission at WeRobotics is to localize opportunity. We create local opportunities to participate in problem solving, to take the lead in problem solving, to be a real part of the solution, to have meaningful and sustainable impact. By localizing expertise in robotics, we create new opportunities to scale humanitarian aid, sustainable development, public health or nature conservation efforts locally. In so doing, we create local opportunities for professional development and upward mobility. How do we create and sustain these new opportunities? By localizing emerging technologies through our Flying Labs. (We like to call them Wakanda Flying Labs).

Demand for the skills that Amrita and her Flying Labs have is growing. This is the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (4IR) after all: the rise of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence is reshaping the global labor market, shutting down some job opportunities entirely while creating new ones. This is a disruptive time in human history. And we know from previous industrial revolutions that they create divides between the “have’s” and “have nots”; between the included and the excluded; between those who have access to new opportunities and those who don’t. The First Industrial revolution was powered by the steam engine along with the iron and textile industries. The second was powered by steel, oil and electricity. Digital technologies unleashed the Third Industrial Revolution. Each these revolutions created new opportunities for some (usually in high-income countries), and obliterated existing opportunities for others (usually in low-income countries).

The Digital Divide of the Third Industrial Revolution has created profound inequalities, and the Robotics Divide of the 4IR is already exacerbating these inequalities. (What’s that? You don’t have 3G in your village? Oh. Well sorry, we can’t fly our medical delivery drones to your village without 3G. Can we have our umbrella back?). As my new colleague from Cameroon, Marco Enoh, recently tweeted,

“We forcefully enabled the First Industrial Revolution, were sidelined during the Second Industrial Revolution, we developed dependency in the Third Industrial Revolution… Now the Fourth Industrial Revolution! What are we going to do? Either shape technologies for collective prosperity or forever remain at the lowest levels of global value chains.”

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is creating new jobs in lower-income countries. But these jobs are almost always taken by foreign companies from higher-income countries. Why? Either because the local talent doesn’t exist, or because said local talent is not visible or connected to these new job opportunities. Our Flying Labs serve to overcome these unjust hurdles. Fact is, foreign companies are more expensive to hire. Foreign drone pilots need more time to deploy. They need international flights and hotels. They often don’t know the countries that they’re sent to and rarely know the local languages or customs. This creates an exciting business opportunity for Amrita and Marco, and their colleagues at other Flying Labs in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Robotics enables new business opportunities because robots enable an entirely new form of mobility—autonomous mobility. Autonomous mobility in the air (flying drones), in the oceans (swimming drones) and on land (driving drones). Mobility gives freedom, which creates new opportunities (think of the automotive revolution). This explains why we are committed to helping our Flying Labs and their partners use autonomous robotics to overcome the challenge of mobility in humanitarian aid, sustainable development, nature conservation and public health. We’ve borrowed some of this language from our new friends at World Bicycle Relief because their approach is similar to ours: It isn’t about the technology—bicycle or drone—it’s about localizing this technology sustainably and respectfully to create new opportunities.

So yes, we localize robotics. But that’s hardly the point. Robotics is simply a means to an end. We localize opportunities to scale local solutions. We localize opportunities to enable direct and local participation in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This explains why our Flying Labs are directly connected to each other; why Amrita from Pacific Flying Labs recently trained Leka and Team from Tanzania Flying Labs on how to use underwater drones; why Dania, Oscar and Humberto from Panama Flying Labs are working with us to create engineering solutions with Pacific Flying Labs; why Tanzania Flying Labs is helping to incubate Kenya Flying Labs and why Nepal Flying Labs is learning about cargo drones from Flying Labs in Peru and the Dominican Republic. Each of these connections in the Flying Labs network create new opportunities to participate in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Amrita was presented with an important opportunity to become the first local, female drone pilot in her region to deploy with a National Red Cross Society. She grabbed it and ran with it. This experience has opened up new opportunities for her and her Flying Labs team in the Pacific. This includes incubating a new hub of Pacific Flying Labs in Vanuatu in coming months. So the next time Vanuatu has to deal with a major tropical cyclone or other consequences of climate change, the World Bank must not hire me or hire any foreign drone pilots to accelerate their damage assessments. No, they should instead hire Amrita and her team of drone natives from Pacific Flying Labs.

Building Egypt 2.0: When Institutions Fail, Crowdsourcing Surges

I recently presented at Where 2.0 and had the chance to catch Adel Youssef’s excellent talk on “How Location Based Services is Used to Build Egypt 2.0.” He shared some important gems on digital activism. For example, while Facebook allowed Egyptians to “like” a protest event or say they were headed to the streets, check-in’s were a more powerful way to recruit others because they let your friends know that you were actively in the location and actually protesting. In other words, activists were not checking into a place per se, but rather creating an event and checking into that to encourage people to participate in said event.

Adel also shared some interesting insights on how location-aware mobile tech-nologies are being used to build a new Egypt. “After the revolution, the police force just disappeared, there is no police; and there is no traffic control. But this drove more crowdsourced traffic control, crowdsourced police, crowdsourced services. And this has been happening in the last year alone. Crowdsourcing revolution. But not a revolution to overthrow a tyrant but a revolution to build a developed country. […] People going to clean the streets, planting trees, repainting the streets. And they are feeling ownership of their campaign.”

Adel shared several other crowdsourcing initiatives in his talk, from OneYad (matching volunteers) and Zabatak (monitoring corruption) to EntaFeen (check-in’s for good), Bey2Ollak and Wasalny (both addressing the problem of road traffic). I’m excited by all this innovation happening elsewhere than Silicon Valley and hope these platforms will go mainstream beyond the region in the near future. Indeed, I just signed up for the OneYad beta because I really think this kind of tool could be used in the West.

Adel: “We see a lot of crowdsourced networks built after the revolution because we need to build the country and we want to do this bottom-up, want to do it by the people, you want to empower the people.” The point, for Adel, is to go “from social networking to social working” and thus fill the gaps in services that institutions are failing to provide. This reminded me of Tunisian Ambassador Mohamed Salah Tekaya’s remarks last year: “During the Arab Spring, we have seen the power of Twitter and Facebook… Now we need to use the power of LinkedIn.”

Does the Humanitarian Industry Have a Future in The Digital Age?

I recently had the distinct honor of being on the opening plenary of the 2012 Skoll World Forum in Oxford. The panel, “Innovation in Times of Flux: Opportunities on the Heels of Crisis” was moderated by Judith Rodin, CEO of the Rockefeller Foundation. I’ve spent the past six years creating linkages between the humanitarian space and technology community, so the conversations we began during the panel prompted me to think more deeply about innovation in the humanitarian industry. Clearly, humanitarian crises have catalyzed a number of important innovations in recent years. At the same time, however, these crises extend the cracks that ultimately reveal the inadequacies of existing organiza-tions, particularly those resistant to change; and “any organization that is not changing is a battle-field monument” (While 1992).

These cracks, or gaps, are increasingly filled by disaster-affected communities themselves thanks in part to the rapid commercialization of communication technology. Question is: will the multi-billion dollar humanitarian industry change rapidly enough to avoid being left in the dustbin of history?

Crises often reveal that “existing routines are inadequate or even counter-productive [since] response will necessarily operate beyond the boundary of planned and resourced capabilities” (Leonard and Howitt 2007). More formally, “the ‘symmetry-breaking’ effects of disasters undermine linearly designed and centralized administrative activities” (Corbacioglu 2006). This may explain why “increasing attention is now paid to the capacity of disaster-affected communities to ‘bounce back’ or to recover with little or no external assistance following a disaster” (Manyena 2006).

But disaster-affected populations have always self-organized in times of crisis. Indeed, first responders are by definition those very communities affected by disasters. So local communities—rather than humanitarian professionals—save the most lives following a disaster (Gilbert 1998). Many of the needs arising after a disaster can often be met and responded to locally. One doesn’t need 10 years of work experience with the UN in Darfur or a Masters degree to know basic first aid or to pull a neighbor out of the rubble, for example. In fact, estimates suggest that “no more than 10% of survival in emergencies can be attributed to external sources of relief aid” (Hilhorst 2004).

This figure may be higher today since disaster-affected communities now benefit from radically wider access to information and communication technologies (ICTs). After all, a “disaster is first of all seen as a crisis in communicating within a community—that is as a difficulty for someone to get informed and to inform other people” (Gilbert 1998). This communication challenge is far less acute today because disaster-affected communities are increasingly digital, and thus more and more the primary source of information communicated following a crisis. Of course, these communities were always sources of information but being a source in an analog world is fundamentally different than being a source of information in the digital age. The difference between “read-only” versus “read-write” comes to mind as an analogy. And so, while humanitarian organiza-tions typically faced a vacuum of information following sudden onset disasters—limited situational awareness that could only be filled by humanitarians on the ground or via established news organizations—one of the major challenges today is the Big Data produced by disaster-affected communities themselves.

Indeed, vacuums are not empty and local communities are not invisible. One could say that disaster-affected communities are joining the quantified self (QS) movement given that they are increasingly quantifying themselves. If inform-ation is power, then the shift of information sourcing and sharing from the select few—the humanitarian professionals—to the masses must also engender a shift in power. Indeed, humanitarians rarely have access to exclusive information any longer. And even though affected populations are increasingly digital, some groups believe that humanitarian organizations have largely failed at commu–nicating with disaster-affected communities. (Naturally, there are important and noteworthy exceptions).

So “Will Twitter Put the UN Out of Business?” (Reuters), or will humanitarian organizations cope with these radical changes by changing themselves and reshaping their role as institutions before it’s too late? Indeed, “a business that doesn’t communicate with its customers won’t stay in business very long—it’ll soon lose track of what its clients want, and clients won’t know what products or services are on offer,” whilst other actors fill the gaps (Reuters). “In the multi-billion dollar humanitarian aid industry, relief agencies are businesses and their beneficiaries are customers. Yet many agencies have muddled along for decades with scarcely a nod towards communicating with the folks they’re supposed to be serving” (Reuters).

The music and news industries were muddling along as well for decades. Today, however, they are facing tremendous pressures and are undergoing radical structural changes—none of them by choice. Of course, it would be different if affected communities were paying for humanitarian services but how much longer do humanitarian organizations have until they feel similar pressures?

Whether humanitarian organizations like it or not, disaster affected communities will increasingly communicate their needs publicly and many will expect a response from the humanitarian industry. This survey carried out by the American Red Cross two years ago already revealed that during a crisis the majority of the public expect a response to needs they communicate via social media. Moreover, they expect this response to materialize within an hour. Humanitarian organizations simply don’t have the capacity to deal with this surge in requests for help, nor are they organizationally structured to do so. But the fact of the matter is that humanitarian organizations have never been capable of dealing with this volume of requests in the first place. So “What Good is Crowd-sourcing When Everyone Needs Help?” (Reuters). Perhaps “crowdsourcing” is finally revealing all the cracks in the system, which may not be a bad thing. Surely by now it is no longer a surprise that many people may be in need of help after a disaster, hence the importance of disaster risk reduction and preparedness.

Naturally, humanitarian organizations could very well chose to continue ignoring calls for help and decide that communicating with disaster affected communities is simply not tenable. In the analog world of the past, the humanitarian industry was protected by the fact that their “clients” did not have a voice because they could not speak out digitally. So the cracks didn’t show. Today, “many traditional humanitarian players see crowdsourcing as an unwelcome distraction at a time when they are already overwhelmed. They worry that the noise-to-signal ration is just too high” (Reuters). I think there’s an important disconnect here worth emphasizing. Crowdsourced information is simply user-generated content. If humanitarians are to ignore user-generated content, then they can forget about two-way communications with disaster-affected communities and drop all the rhetoric. On the other hand, “if aid agencies are to invest time and resources in handling torrents of crowdsourced information in disaster zones, they should be confident it’s worth their while” (Reuters).

This last comment is … rather problematic for several reasons (how’s that for being diplomatic?). First of all, this kind of statement continues to propel the myth that we the West are the rescuers and aid does not start until we arrive (Barrs 2006). Unfortunately, we rarely arrive: how many “neglected crises” and so-called “forgotten emergencies” have we failed to intervene in? This kind of mindset may explain why humanitarian interventions often have the “propensity to follow a paternalistic mode that can lead to a skewing of activities towards supply rather than demand” and towards informing at the expense of listening (Manyena 2006).

Secondly, the assumption that crowdsourced data would be for the exclusive purpose of the humanitarian cavalry is somewhat arrogant and ignores the reality that local communities are by definition the first responders in a crisis. Disaster-affected communities (and Diasporas) are already collecting (and yes crowdsourcing) information to create their own crisis maps in times of need as a forthcoming report shows. And they’ll keep doing this whether or not humanita-rian organizations approve or leverage that information. As my colleague Tim McNamara has noted “Crisis mapping is not simply a technological shift, it is also a process of rapid decentralization of power. With extremely low barriers to entry, many new entrants are appearing in the fields of emergency and disaster response. They are ignoring the traditional hierarchies, because the new entrants perceive that there is something that they can do which benefits others.”

Thirdly, humanitarian organizations are far more open to using free and open source software than they were just two years ago. So the resources required to monitor and map crowdsourced information need not break the bank. Indeed, the Syria Crisis Map uses a free and open source data-mining platform called HealthMap, which has been monitoring some 2,000 English-based sources on a daily basis for months. The technology powering the map itself, Ushahidi, is also free and open source. Moreover, the team behind the project is comprised of just a handful of volunteers doing this in their own free time (for almost an entire year now). And as a result of this initiative, I am collaborating with a colleague from UNDP to pilot HealthMap’s data mining feature for conflict monitoring and peacebuilding purposes.

Fourth, other than UN Global Pulse, humanitarian agencies are not investing time and resources to manage Big (Crisis) Data. Why? Because they have neither the time nor the know-how. To this end, they are starting to “outsource” and indeed “crowdsource” these tasks—just as private sector businesses have been doing for years in order to extend their reach. Anyone actually familiar with this space and developments since Haiti already knows this. The CrisisMappers Network, Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), Humanitarian OpenStreetMap (HOT) and Crisis Commons (CC) are four volunteer/technical networks that have already collaborated actively with a number of humanitarian organizations since Haiti to provide the “surge capacity” requested by the latter; this includes UN OCHA in Libya and Colombia, UNHCR in Somalia and WHO in Libya, to name a few. In fact, these groups even have their own acronym: Volunteer & Technical Communities (V&TCs).

As the former head of OCHA’s Information Services Section (ISS) noted after the SBTF launched the Libya Crisis Map, “Your efforts at tackling a difficult problem have definitely reduced the information overload; sorting through the multitude of signals on the crisis is not easy task” (March 8, 2011). Furthermore, the crowdsourced social media information mapped on the Libya Crisis Map was integrated into official UN OCHA information products. I dare say activating the SBTF was worth OCHA’s while. And it cost the UN a grand total of $0 to benefit from this support.

Credit: Chris Bow

The rapid rise of V&TC’s has catalyzed the launch of the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN), formerly called the Humanitarian Standby Task Force (H-SBTF). Digital Humanitarians is a network-of-network catalyzed by the UN and comprising some of the most active members of the volunteer & technical co-mmunity. The purpose of the Digital Humanitarian platform (powered by Ning) is to provide a dedicated interface for traditional humanitarian organizations to outsource and crowdsource important information management tasks during and in-between crises. OCHA has also launched the Communities of Interest (COIs) platform to further leverage volunteer engagement in other areas of humanitarian response.

These are not isolated efforts. During the massive Russian fires of 2010, volunteers launched their own citizen-based disaster response agency that was seen by many as more visible and effective than the Kremlin’s response. Back in Egypt, volunteers used IntaFeen.com to crowdsource and coordinate their own humanitarian convoys to Libya, for example. The company LinkedIn has also taken innovative steps to enable the matching of volunteers with various needs. They recently added a “Volunteer and Causes” field to its member profile page, which is now available to 150 million LinkedIn users worldwide. Sparked.com is yet another group engaged in matching volunteers with needs. The company is the world’s first micro-volunteering network, sending challenges to registered volunteers that are targeted to their skill set and the causes that they are most passionate about.

It is not farfetched to envisage how these technologies could be repurposed or simply applied to facilitate and streamline volunteer management following a disaster. Indeed, researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia have already developed a new smart phone app to help mobilize and coordinate volunteer efforts during and following major disasters. The app not only provides information on preparedness but also gives real-time updates on volunteering opportunities by local area. For example, volunteers can register for a variety of tasks including community response to extreme weather events.

Meanwhile, the American Red Cross just launched a Digital Operations Center in partnership with Dell Labs, which allows them to leverage digital volunteers and Dell’s social media monitoring platforms to reduce the noise-to-signal ratio. This is a novel “social media-based operation devoted to humanitarian relief, demonstrating the growing importance of social media in emergency situations.” As part of this center, the Red Cross also “announced a Digital Volunteer program to help respond to question from and provide information to the public during disasters.”

While important challenges do exist, there are many positive externalities to leveraging digital volunteers. As deputy high commissioner of UNHCR noted about this UNHCR-volunteer project in Somalia, these types of projects create more citizen-engagement and raises awareness of humanitarian organizations and projects. This in part explains why UNHCR wants more, not less, engage-ment with digital volunteers. Indeed, these volunteers also develop important skills that will be increasingly sought after by humanitarian organizations recruit-ing for junior full-time positions. Humanitarian organizations are likely to be come smarter and more up to speed on humanitarian technologies and digital humanitarian skills as a result. This change should be embraced.

So given the rise of “self-quantified” disaster-affected communities and digitally empowered volunteer communities, is there a future for traditional humani-tarian organizations? Of course, anyone who suggests otherwise is seriously misguided and out of touch with innovation in the humanitarian space. Twitter will not put the UN out of business. Humanitarian organizations will continue to play some very important roles, especially those relating to logistics and coor-dination. These organizations will continue outsourcing some roles but will also take on some new roles. The issue here is simply one of comparative advantage. Humanitarian organizations used to have a comparative advantage in some areas, but this has shifted for all the reasons described above. So outsourcing in some cases makes perfect sense.

Interestingly, organizations like UN OCHA are also changing some of their own internal information management processes as a result of their collaboration with volunteer networks like the SBTF, which they expect will lead to a number of efficiency gains. Furthermore, OCHA is behind the Digital Humanitarians initiative and has also been developing a check-in app for humanitarian pro-fessionals to use in disaster response—clear signs of innovation and change. Meanwhile, the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) has just launched a $75+ million fund to leverage new technologies in support of humani-tarian response; this includes mobile phones, satellite imagery, Twitter as well as other social media technologies, digital mapping and gaming technologies. Given that crisis mapping integrates these new technologies and has been at the cutting edge of innovation in the humanitarian space, I’ve invited DfID to participate in this year’s International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2012).

In conclusion, and as argued two years ago, the humanitarian industry is shifting towards a more multi-polar system. The rise of new actors, from digitally empowered disaster-affected communities to digital volunteer networks, has been driven by the rapid commercialization of communication technology—particularly the mobile phone and social networking platforms. These trends are unlikely to change soon and crises will continue to spur innovations in this space. This does not mean that traditional humanitarian organizations are becoming obsolete. Their roles are simply changing and this change is proof that they are not battlefield monuments. Of course, only time will tell whether they change fast enough.

Crowdsourcing Humanitarian Convoys in Libya

Many activists in Egypt donated food and medical supplies to support the Libyan revolution in early 2011. As a result, volunteers set up and coordinated humanitarian convoys from major Egyptian cities to Tripoli. But these convoys faced two major problems. First, volunteers needed to know where the convoys were in order to communicate this to Libyan revolutionists so they could wait for the fleet at the border and escort them to Tripoli. Second, because these volunteers were headed into a war zone, their friends and family wanted to keep track of them to make sure they were safe. The solution? IntaFeen.com.

Inta feen? means “where are you?” in Arabic and IntaFeen.com is a mobile check-in service like Foursquare but localized for the Arab World. Convoy drivers used IntaFeen to check-in at different stops along the way to Tripoli to provide regular updates on the situation. This is how volunteers back in Egypt who coordinated the convoy kept track of their progress and communicated updates in real-time to their Libyan counterparts. Volunteers who went along with the convoys also used IntaFeen and their check-in’s would also get posted on Twitter and Facebook, allowing families and friends in Egypt to track their whereabouts.

Al Amain Road is a highway between Alexandria and Tripoli. These tweets and check-in’s acted as a DIY fleet management system for volunteers and activists.

The use of IntaFeen combined with Facebook and Twitter also created an interesting side-effect in terms of social media marketing to promote activism. The sharing of these updates within and across various social networks galvanized more Egyptians to volunteer their time and resulted in more convoys.

I wonder whether these activists knew about another crowdsourced volunteer project taking place at exactly the same time in support of the UN’s humanitarian relief operations: Libya Crisis Map. Much of the content added to the map was sourced from social media. Could the #LibyaConvoy project have benefited from the real-time situational awareness provided by the Libya Crisis Map?

Will we see more convergence between volunteer-run crisis maps and volunteer-run humanitarian response in the near future?

Big thanks to Adel Youssef from IntaFeen.com who spoke about this fascinating project (and Ushahidi) at Where 2.0 this week. More information on #Libya Convoy is available here. See also my earlier blog posts on the use of check-in’s for activism and disaster response.

The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy

I defended my dissertation proposal in early 2008 but the majority of the literature most relevant and helpful to my doctoral research surfaced in 2009 and 2010. So I’m rather grateful to the PhD program at The Fletcher School for letting me run with my chosen dissertation topic given the limited empirical literature to draw on back then.

The best new book I’ve come across since my proposal is Philip Howard’s “The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam,” which was published just a few months ago. Howard seeks to answer the following question: “What is the causal recipe for democratization, and are information technologies an important ingredient?” More specifically, “The goal of this book is to analyze the ways in which new information technologies have contributed to democratic entrenchment or transition in countries with large Muslim communities.”

Howard demonstrates that “technology diffusion has had a crucial causal role in improvements in democratic institutions” and “that technology diffusion has become, in combination with other factors, both a necessary and sufficient cause of democratic transition or entrenchment.” Howard concludes: “Clearly the Internet and cell phones have not on their own caused a single democratic transition, but it is safe to conclude that today, no democratic transition is possible without information technologies.”

The book is getting superb reviews, and that is absolutely no surprise. This is truly the best book I’ve read on the topic of my dissertation thus far. Why? Howard’s research design and mixed-methods approach is by far the most rigorous one in the literature to date. I therefore plan to dedicate a few blog posts to summarize Howard’s approach and findings, starting here with the book’s prologue: “The Revolution in the Middle East will be Digitized,” which focuses on the Green Revolution in Iran. Below are some excerpts and commentary that reflect some of the key arguments from this first section of the book.

One of the main roles that information and communication technologies (ICTs) played in Iran was dissemination, which had a second-order effect on increasing levels of participation both in the streets and online.

“Opposition campaign managers in Iran consistently say that such Internet applications allow them to get messages out as never before and thereby organize bigger and bigger campaign rallies. Without access to broadcast media, savvy opposition campaigners turned social media applications like Facebook from minor pop culture fads into a major tool of political communication.”

“During the protests, even the most apolitical bloggers covered the demonstrations, and traffic at the dominant blogs swelled [and] social networking applications […] allowed even small enclaves to create content and reconnect with friends and family in Iran.”

“It does not matter that the number of bloggers, twitterers, or internet users may seem small, because in a networked social moment only a few ‘brokers’ need to be using these tools to keep everyone up to date.”

“These are the communication tools for the wealthy, urban, educated elites whose loyalties or defection will make or break authoritarian rule. Indeed, it is probably more useful to evaluate applications such as Twitter through the communities they support, rather than through tool features. […] Social movement scholars write that elite defection usually marks the end of an authoritarian regime.”

“In some ways the regime’s response was decidedly old media: expelling foreign correspondents, blocking phone lines, preventing the publication of daily newspapers, and accusing enemy governments of spreading misinformation.”

“They did not count on the large number of Iranians eager to submit their own content to international news agencies, and, perhaps more important, they did not realize that large numbers of Iranians would use social media to share their own personal stories of beatings, tear gas inhalation, and protest euphoria with each other.”

“Cyberactivism is no longer the unique provenance of isolated, politically motivated hackers. It is instead deeply integrated with contemporary social movement strategy and accessible to computer and mobile phone users with only basic skills: it is a distinguishing feature of modern political communication and a means of creating the élan that marks social change.”

Like Malcom Gladwell, Howard also addresses the role of strong and weak-ties in digital activism. To learn more about Gladwell’s point of view (and mine) regarding the question of social ties, please see my previous blog post here.

“Millions of people took to the streets in the week after the election results were announced and certainly not all were using Twitter. The majority of them, however, were responding to both strong and weak network ties and to the digital technologies designed to maintain those ties.”

“The unprecedented activation of weak social ties brought the concerns of disaffected youth, cheated voters, and beaten protesters to the attention of the mullahs. The result was a split within the ruling establishment on how to deal with the insurgency, how to proceed with counting ballots, and how to credibly authorize Ahmadinejad to take power.”

Howard’s balanced approach to the impact of ICTs on democracy is one of the main strengths of his book.

“So the country has one of the world’s most vibrant social media communities and the most concentrated broadcast media system in the Muslim world. Why, then, has the digital revolution in Iran not had the type of clear political outcomes or institutional consequences seen in other authoritarian regimes?”

“The answer, in part, is that while such information technologies have become a fundamental infrastructure for journalists and civil society groups, they are a necessary but not sufficient causal condition for contemporary regime change. So based on real-world experience, what is the causal recipe for democratization, and are information technologies an important ingredient?”

“In the language of fuzzy sets ways, Iran’s postelection insurgency was almost an example of a digital revolution. In is unlikely that protests would have lasted as long, raised so much international support, and had such an impact on domestic politics had it not been for mobile phones and the internet. The internet did not cause the insurgency, and it is probably a truism to say that no contemporary democratic revolution in the Middle East will happen without the internet. In times of political crisis, banal tools for wasting time, like Twitter and YouTube, become the supporting infrastructure of social movements. As one ethnic Azeri blogger told me, the regime has learned that the Internet makes collective action possible.”

“Technology alone does not cause political change—it did not in Iran’s case. But it does provide new capacities and impose new constraints on political actors. New information technologies do not topple dictators; they are used to catch dictators off-guard.”

That last paragraph resonates with me and relates to this idea of information cascades that Dan Drezner has written about here. The momentary window of opportunity that reversals information cascades offer can be used to catch dictators off-guard. This explains why preparedness and training is important.

So what ultimately was the actual impact of the 2009 protests? According to Howard,

“Digital media sustained protests well beyond what pundits expected. Indeed, this new information infrastructure gave social movement leaders the capacity not only to reach out to sympathetic audiences overseas but also to reach two important domestic constituencies: rural, conservative voters who had few connections to the urban chaos; and the clerical establishment.”

“Most important, the Internet gave the social movement access to the clerical establishment through weak ties of social networks that connected mullahs to Iranians on the street.”

“Iran’s street protests failed to topple their government. But just as important, the world’s most technologically advanced censors failed to manage the government’s election crisis. And the region’s dictators have a new concern: their own tech-savvy, disaffected youth.”

“The world has seen interest in change expressed from within Iran, and this may prove to be the most destabilizing outcome of the protests. The regime’s brutalities streamed around the globe. The world saw the dissent; the regime knows the world saw the dissent.”

This idea of shared awareness appeals to me a lot, not least because of my work on the Ushahidi platform since the tool—when used correctly—can generate shared awareness. But why is shared awareness even important in this context?

As Shirky recently noted here, “social media tools provides participants with ’shared awareness,’ the ability of each member of a group to not only understand the situation at hand but also understand that everyone else does, too.” Dan Drezner takes it one step further, arguing here that, “the ability of the state to repress can evaporate […] at moments when a critical mass off citizens recognizes their mutual dissatisfaction with their government.”

For me, one of the most salient points that Howard makes in the prologue to this book is this: “The initial conditions for social movement organizing are very different from those of the pre-internet era.” Here are some other key take-aways:

“In contemporary systems of political communication, citizens turn to the Internet as a source of news and information in times of political crisis. It is not only that online social networking services are influential as a communications media; rather, they are now also a fundamental infrastructure for social movements. And the Internet globalizes local struggles.”

“Information and communication technologies are the infrastructure for transposing democratic ideals from community to community. They support the process of learning new approaches to political representation, of testing new organizational strategies, and of cognitively extending the possibilities and prospects for political transformation from one context to another.”

“But it would be a mistake to tie any theory of social change to a particular piece of software. In the summer of 2009 the Iranian insurgency was very much shaped by several digital communication tools, which allowed social movements within the country to organize protests and exchange information and made it possible for those groups to maintain contact with the rest of the world.”

“Traditional radio and televised appeals did not figure in the mobilization, and they are not very important to understanding what happened in Iran last summer.”

“If new information technologies such as mobile phones and the Internet provided the communications infrastructure for mobiliza- tion, was the lack of democratic transition a technological or social failing?”

This last question is spot on and for me the correct way to phrase the debate on digital activism in repressive environments. The question can also be applied to deployments of the Ushahidi platform, i.e., is the lack of impact of an Ushahidi deployment a technological or social failing?

Howard makes a number of points in his prologue that made me think about the Ushahidi and SwiftRiver platforms. For example,

“Authoritarian regimes always conduct propaganda battles over broadcast media. But what is the regime countermeasure for the chilling effects of a plea from someone in your social network who has been a victim of police brutality?”

“Rafsanjani developed a plan for ad hoc exit polling by mobile phones. Deliberative democracy theorists argue that independent exit polling is a key logistical feature of healthy election practices. This probably explains why disabling mobile phone services is so important for discouraging any organized measurement of how rigged a contemporary election may be.”

“Specialty Persian news channels in Los Angeles received hundreds of digital videos daily, and YouTube became the repository for the digitally captured, lived experiences of the chaotic streets of Tehran. On June 20, Neda Agha-Soltan was shot dead at a demonstration, and her death was caught on several mobile phone cameras.”