The end of paper, open gates to on-time democracy (not about journalism)

Kevin Macdonald’s State of Play is not a (good) film about the end of print newspapers and way not about democracy in the age of the Information Society. But watched under these points of view, it does (totally accidentally) provide some materials for reflection worth mentioning them.

A print paper story

The plot can be summarized as old-school investigative journalism star teams up with junior on-line journalist/blogger to uncover case of political corruption, murder, criminal lobbying, bribery and other US Congress political sphere related issues.

When the whole set of conspiracies are about to be discovered, some things happen (caution: simplifications, biases and spoilers ahead):

  • These news are too good to be published in a blog, they well deserve being printed on paper (approximate quote)
  • As some details lack to complete the news, rotary presses are hold on stand by for hours and the edition is not closed
  • In the meanwhile, some criminals die or almost die
  • In the meanwhile, some witnesses die or almost die
  • In the meanwhile, some reporters die or almost die, risking the loss of absolutely all the relevant information
  • At the end, the pieces of news are written, edited, prepared for printing
  • Newspapers are printed, cut, folded, packed and put on trucks to be distributed… the day after

On-time democracy

It is under the light of some recent news that we have to interpret the preceding list of events. For instance:

There are plenty of other examples, like mobilemonitors.org.

The end of paper, on-time democracy

This is not about news, this is about information. This is not about just being “notified” of happenings, but about being informed to debate, create oneself a state of opinion and act. This is not about journalism, this is about government and democracy and freedom.

In the age of the digital revolution, denouncing the Spanish Primer Minister’s lies or the presumably rigged Moldovan election cannot wait until the following day. And, most important indeed, these facts cannot risk not being made public at all because of lack or loss of intermediaries.

In matters of hours — especially in a Globalized and Network Society — governments change hands, people get imprisoned and executed, or citizens lose all their savings.

To me, the last sequence of Kevin Macdonald’s film — a trip through the whole process of printing a newspaper — is not the intended elegy to print newspapers, but a visit to the Jurassic Park of journalism. If newspapers are the guarantors of transparency and accountability, if newspapers do serve the citizenry, they have to do it at the pace of times, at the pace of that citizenry they claim to be pretending to serve.

To me, the first quotation — These news are too good to be published in a blog, they well deserve being printed on paper — should be understood in terms of comfort (paper for the couch and the weekend, online for the mobile Internet and immediacy) rather than in terms of importance (though time will tell what the evolution of e-ink/e-paper will bring).

In the age of crossmedia, McLuhan’s the medium is the message is over. There are no media. No more. As true that there are no Internet users (as an ontology), but people, sheer people that are increasingly adopting yet another device to do what the zoon politikon does best: to communicate and to engage in conversations.

Web2forDev 2007 (IX): Plenary Sessions: Web 2.0 for Development (IV)

Ethan Zuckerman
Web 2.0: Simple Tools & Smart People

It’s not about technology — which, by the way, is quite old —, it’s about people. People have always found ways to communicate through the Internet by using features of applications that were not designed to do so, e.g. chating by using an online chess game.

The mobile phone is the biggest revolution in telecommunications — not laptops, not handhelds… — because it changes all the rules of the game. e.g. in Kenya you can pay a taxi with your mobile phone… but you can’t in the United States.

Interactive Radio for Justice: radio + mobile phone project.

Mobilemonitors.org, to make elections more transparent thanks to mobile enhanced monitoring.

Manal and Alaa’s bit bucket, using blogs as a newsroom.

Blogs for advocacy: Free Alaa!

If you are an activist there’s a great benefit in using Web 2.0 tools. Ironically, the more crap there’s on the Internet, the better: noone will ban a site full of funny, boring, trivial things. Indeed, there’s no need to create a “development site”: you can be banned and you have to develop it and maintain it, so just use what’s out there, the tools that already exist. Forget the notion that you have to build everything from scratch.

Think on who do you want to reach. Second Life? Cool, shiny, but how many users?

Participation, engagement, add content.

The reason to blog: search engines love blogs, because they link and are linked, and search engines do rely a lot on linking.

When 100 million people speak, you need a filter. With 100 million people talking, it’s really hard to listen: Buzzmonitor.

Selection, translation, context: Global Voices

The best tools are those that amplify a message and do it very selective.

One of the problems of the web in general is that is written, so it needs some level of literacy: if we can develop applications for mobile phones, and apply voice recognition on them, you’d be able to talk to the phone — instead of having to type —, get the information you asked for (e.g. price of crops) and have it read for you on your phone by another application — instead of having to read it.

More info:

Thomas Metz
Open Collaboration in an Institutional Context

The Generation Challenge Programme was created to bridge the gap between health and hunger, by using advances in molecular biology and harnessing the rich global stocks of crop genetic resources to create and provide a new generation of plants that meet these farmers’ needs.

CropForge is a collaborative software development site, providing tools and a centralized workspace for developers to control and manage software development, the difference being with SourceForge is that it hosts all kind of information about projects and software related to development, food and food security, hunger, etc., including fora and communication spaces where collaboration, support takes place.

The site also uses mediawiki to run a the GCPWiki to gather information, notes, impressions on workshops, presentations, etc.

Some lessons learned:

  • At the institutional level, it is important to be careful with the intellectual property policy, the code of conduct; the publication and quality control procedures; the reward and recognition system.
  • It is important to preserve transparency and history (of edits, of changes). The sytem must be easy to join, meritocratic and based on a non anonymous use.
  • Concerning content scope and quality, you have to keep in mind that there’ll be uneven quality, coverage and maintenance. But it’s good to make world-wide visible your work-in-progress under a clear disclaimer, where you explain very clearly what this content is about, what’s its quality, what the procedures or content creation and quality monitoring are, the release policy.
  • The major barrier usually are institutional constraints, the (already existing) organizational design, which are not necessarily compatible with how the Web 2.0 works.

Kwami Ahiabenu
Empowering Journalists with Online Tools: Making a Case for Online Training

Journalists need constant training in online tools to ride the tide with the information revolution.

Online tools offer free to low cost options for training. So, set up an online course on Web 2.0 tools for journalists, based on real practice through weekly assignments.

Connectivity not really an issue as most journalists already have connexion to the Internet at their work places.

Learning by doing makes a difference in information and knowledge sharing experience, and skills transfer processes.

Tools used

  • e-mail
  • Yahoo Groups
  • DGroups
  • Google Groups, divided by subgroups (some students didn’t understand the difference between the main group and the subgroups)
  • Blogs, on a weekly basis: classroom blog and students’ blogs
  • Class wiki, as a newsroom where stories where created
  • Flickr, to “put faces to names”
  • Podcasts
  • del.icio.us
  • Skype, though it did not succeed

Challenges

  • Lack of access to affordable and reliable Internet: hence, focus on e-mail, keep it simple, no Moodle, e-Learning for dummies
  • Sometimes, high bandwidth demanding Web 2.0 applications
  • Time commitment issues
  • Challenge of change: develop an “online” mindset
  • Online collaboration and communication difficulties
  • Information overload issues
More info:

Web 2.0 for Development related posts (2007)

OII SDP 2007 (XXII): Democracy, Reconciliation, and Technology

Lead: Michael Best, Ethan Zuckerman

Mobile Telephony in Developing Countries, by Ethan Zuckerman

Ethan Zuckerman introduces TEDGlobal 2007, which was held in Africa.

African issues about ICTs can be tracked at Timbuktu Chronicles, by Emeka Okafor, or at Africa Open For Business. But TED just focused on Foreign Aid, mainly lead by Bono (see Bono, I Presume?, Africans to Bono: ‘For God’s sake please stop!’ and Bono versus Mwenda — all via Ethan Zuckerman’s blog).

The point should be to fix, before you pour into Foreign Aid, government/governance, so the money goes to the appropriate place/hands. More indeed, investment should go hand to hand with entrepreneurship and infrastructures.

Number of handsets is still increasing in Africa, but the difference (among many others) between blog analysis and mobile communications analysis is that these last ones they are so difficult to track. But it is an infrastructure that can be used for entrepreneurship, activism, or governance, etc.

Interactive Radio for Justice, for instance, allow users to send SMS questions to the radio, which can feature DRC deputy minister for defence, head of military operations for MONUC. This is a way to close the loop of media system.

mobilemonitors.org also represents another way of making elections more transparent, by calling to the radio and report abuse on voting places. And not just phone, but the pervasive of phone cameras is also a fact that is changing witnessing.

M-Pesa hire air (phone) time. But it is also being used for money transfer: I load the phone with money (say, air time) and a third party “downloads” the phone and gets the money back, with even a bank account intermediating.

Even activists upload speeches in the format of ringtones that can be downloaded and installed on your mobile phone.

Vodacom Congo is a compelling example on how strong is the demand for communications in Africa.

Success of incremental infrastructure in Africa

  • built on small (compared to huge projects) investments that quickly yield revenue
  • partially user financed and owned
  • replacement technology

Already incremental: mobile phones, internet. Possibly incremental: power grids, roads. Problems in the possibly incremental: inefficiency, coordination problems.

Answering a couple of Ralph Schroeder‘s questions, Ethan Zuckerman states that we see that there’s more voice traffic that text on mobile networks. Actually, low literacy is quite an issue for a lot of mobile users.

And concerning the role of the State, so far it seems that the mainstream is just to put some requirements on communication services, such as covering rural areas that otherwise (without State regulation) would remain uncovered. Surprisingly, telecoms end up by finding ways to actually make profit out of these requirements, by making up new business models that take into account those new clusters. But pricing regulation, etc. does not seem to be the most common answer.

Daithí Mac Síthigh expresses his concern that all the infrastructures are owned by the private sector, making it difficult to build upon them national strategies. Ethan Zuckerman’s concern is what happens with those infrastructures if they are owned by a government that you do not trust.

Incremental Infrastructure and the Democratization of Provision, by Mike Best

The question is not if we should give a poor a computer instead of e.g. food, but if there is a role for ICTs in providing the poor with food.

ICT4D – Africa – Innovation

  • Technological and engineering challenges
  • Supportive public policies and regulatory environment
  • Smart businesses, especially SMSs
  • Collaborative and socially aware interventions
  • Rigorous monitoring, evaluation, assessment

Post-conflict countries are being the ones with highest mobile phone use growth… but it might be because of replacement of fixed phones. So, is the indicator a good one?

A Knowledge-based Rwanda

  • Physical infrastructure
  • Human capacity
  • Peace, security and reconciliation
  • Good governance and supportive public policy
  • Grassroots opportunities
  • Spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship

Where fiber is not available (and not easy to build), wireless technologies come to the rescue: VSAT, GSM/GPRS, Wi-Max, Wi-Fi, UMTS, etc.

Readiness Assessment

  • Pervasiveness
  • Geographic Dispersion
  • Sectoral Absorption
  • Connectivity Infrastructure
  • Organizational Infrastructure
  • Sophistication of Use

Conclusions on the e-Readiness Assessment for Liberia

  • A strong independent regulator is critical to growth of the overall ICT sector
  • The lack of a fiber network in metropolitan Monrovia along with a national fiber backbone limits significantly domestic Internet capacity. A revitalized Liberian Telecommunications Corporation can serve naturally as a network service provider.
  • A connection to the submarine cable that travels from Portugal along the west coat of Africa (SAT3/WASC) can be realized perhaps with a link via neighboring Côte d’Ivoire

My reflections

  • We’ve seen many successes of mobile phone but… what are the limitations? is there a need to shift to the desktop anyway? or can we stick to mobile communications?

Readings

Sullivan, K. (2006). “In War-Torn Congo, Going Wireless to Reach Home”. In The Washington Post, Sunday, July 9, 2006; Page A01. Washington, DC: The Washington Post Company. Retrieved July 13, 2007 from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/07/08/AR2006070801063.html
Best, M. L., Jones, K., Kondo, I., Thakur, D., Wornyo, E. & Yu, C. (2007). “Post-Conflict Communications: The Case of Liberia”. In Communications of the ACM, [forthcoming]. New York: Association for Computing Machinery.
Best, M. L. (Ed.) (2006). Last Mile Initiative Innovations.. Atlanta: Georgia Institute of Technology. Retrieved July 24, 2007 from http://www.cc.gatech.edu/~mikeb/LMI_files/LMI.ebook.pdf
Birdsall, N. (2004). Underfunded Regionalism in the Developing World. Working Paper Number 49. Washington DC: Center for Global Development. Retrieved July 24, 2007 from http://www.cgdev.org/files/2739_file_WP_49_1.pdf

More info

SDP 2007 related posts (2007)