UAE bans Blackberry services

The UAE announced yesterday that it will suspend BlackBerry Services to clients starting October 11th, citing security concerns. This includes BlackBerry messenger, e-mail, and web browsing services; there are an estimated 500,000 Blackberry users in UAE.

BlackBerry phones have very secure encryption technology. This presents a challenge for the UAE government, which cannot access information on remote servers. John Palfrey of Harvard Law School, commenting in a piece on the announcement in the Washington Post explains: “The long-range goal is to ensure they can control the information environment that their citizens are living in. This is a very simple story on one level: If you use a certain device, where some information is not stored locally, the worry is that they don’t know what is in that information and how they can get control of it.”

As Sarah Hamdi, writing for the OpenNet Initiative blog explains, this latest news follows a series of crackdowns on Blackberry users in UAE:

Hackers join the British PM in India

Founder of visualization site Information is Beautiful, David McCandless travelled with David Cameron on his first trip to India as British Prime Minister this week. He was part of a small group of politically active programmers aiming to "explore links between tech, transparency and community-based democracy in India" he explains.

Reporting back on his trip in the Guardian today, David admitted to "a slight colonial attitude going into the meet. Thinking of the UK as a great hacking nation and leading data port, I was expecting to be helping the collected Indian IT professionals and activists improve their skills and give them fresh ideas on how to bootstrap their democracy". But he found great examples of powerful data projects going on amongst his Indian counterparts. These included:

  • A bus mapping project to make the system easier to understand for passengers and to identify which areas od Chennai are poorly services
  • A tool to monitor school performance in Karnataka, similar to the UK's SchooloScope website
  • A project to track information on all Indian politicians including their financial, criminal and educational background
  • A phone service to enable India's many mobile phone users to get information about their local area from the internet.

Read fuller descriptions of each of the projects he identified in his article.

Video roundup of latest m4d research from MobileActive

MobileActive has begun a new series of research "screencasts" to share learnings from the latest papers and pilot projects in mobile technology for development.

The first installment of Research Ignite covers three papers that were presented at the 28th ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. The first two papers look a mobile games for literacy in India and China, and the third examines the experience of mobile only internet users in South Africa.

mGames for Literacy and Mobile Internet - Research Ignite #1 from MobileActive.org on Vimeo.

Full citations and links to the papers discussed can be found here.

Promise of a $35 tablet from India meets skepticism

Reactions to the Indian government’s announcement last week of a $35 Linux-based tablet have been lukewarm at best. The tablet will use a memory card rather than a hard drive, and will include a solar powered option. It will enable video-conferencing and wireless connectivity. The announcement included plans to reduce the price as low as $20 or even $10.

But there is a lack of clarity about how such price points can be achieved. Writing in the Guardian, Suhasini Sakhare points out that the cost of the components alone runs to $47, and that is before any labor or supply chain costs, or profit have been accounted for. The details of the prototype released last week also did not state who would be manufacturing the device.

Sakhare also argues that provision of cheap devices is not the right place to start. The mobile phone explosion in India was driven by huge demand; cheap handsets had to be created to meet this. With a poor broadband infrastructure in India, demand remains low - new broadband subscriptions are at a rate of 100,000 to 200,000 a month compared to 18 million for mobile connections. Demand for such cheap devices will only come with much greater awareness and computer literacy, she believes: "Unless it channels and meets the demand for usable, accessible knowledge, the $35 tablet will remain an interesting oddity, a shortsighted solution and a fledgling power's fist-waving response."

Quant meets Qual at ICTD 2010

Ken Banks of Frontline SMS highlights in his blog a new workshop to be added to the ICTD 2010 conference, held in London this December. Quant meets Qual aims to bridge the gap between technical and social researchers to help drive development through ICT, and in particular, mobile platforms. The program committee features familiar faces including Nathan Eagle, Jenna Burrell and Kentaro Toyama.

Here's the description:

The increasing ubiquity of mobile phones in developing economies has enabled the capture, for the first time in history, of massive amounts of behavioral human data in areas of interest to international development. Proper analysis of such data could provide important insight into areas from health and education to microfinance and agriculture. Unfortunately, much of the research related to mobile phones and development has been done in methodological silos: technical researchers focus on quantitative analysis; ethnographers perform in-depth qualitative research; and policy makers extrapolate policies from published research.

Julian Assange and Ethan Zuckerman at TED 2010

UPDATE: Ed Bice of Meedan - a community for Arabic-English dialogue and translated current affairs - has remixed some of the ideas in Ethan's talk in a presentation to John Hopkins University. Watch it on Slideshare here.

A number of talks from TED Global 2010, held in Oxford last week, have now been posted online. Here are two interesting ones:

Ethan Zuckerman: How to listen to global voices

Ethan explores why the web doesn't necessarily lead to more varied, globalized media, laments the fact that it is still easier to buy water from Fiji than to read news from there, and challenges his audiences to become part of the solution by seeking out and cultivating "xenophiles" - people who can act as bridges to allow us to access content from worlds very different from our own.

Julian Assange: Why the World Needs WikiLeaks

In discussion with TED curator Chris Anderson, Julian defends the role of WikLeaks in using information to expose corruption and create movements for change.

The Mobile Phone Gender Gap

New research on mobile phone ownership finds a 300 million gender gap in low and middle income countries. The report, sponsored by the GSMA Development Fundand the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, finds that despite the rapid growth of the industry, women are still 21% less likely to own a phone than men. This figure increases to 23% in Africa, 24% in the Middle East and 37% in South Asia.

Over the next 5 years the report predicts, two out of every 3 new potential subscribers will be women. By connecting these women, mobile operators have a potential to add 600 million subscribers and to boost their collective annual revenues by $29 billion. Household income and whether a women lives in a rural or urban area are the currently most important factors influencing mobile phone ownership.

Closing this gap, the report argues, would have major development benefits through increased access to educational, health, business and employment opportunities. The report was the focus for discussion of Technology Salon- the network for development and technology professionals. During this, the author argued:

We all know that equipping women in low-income countries with productivity tools earns tremendous returns for development - it's not just good for them, it's good for their families, villages, societies, countries.

We know that women spend up to 90% of their income on their families and are responsible for up to 80% of food production in many low and middle-income countries. These women run families and businesses.

Mapping technology projects for transparency

Technology for Transparency Network is a Rising Voices project to gain a better understanding of current online technology projects that increase transparency, government accountability. The research initiative studies Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, China, and Central & Eastern Europe. It is co-funded Open Society Institute's Information Program and Omidyar Network's Media, Markets & Transparency initiative.

The network has developed a series of five minute podcast interviews with leaders of some of the most interesting technology for transparency projects. These include:

Mobiles and community radio: report from MobileActive.org

With many developing countries lacking reliable internet access, radio remains a popular tool for distribution of information. MobileActive.org has a new report on the way that mobile technology is being integrated into community radio.

The report identifies four roles for mobiles in enhancing community radio:

  • As a recording tool - mobiles enable people to report on what is going on around them and contribute that to stations
  • As a listening device - many phones now include FM radio transmitters and some phone companies are producing integrated circuit devices that combine WiFi, Bluetooth and an FM receiver
  • As revenue stream - money from premium SMS for dedications and messages can help community radio stations support themselves
  • As a catalyst for dialogue - listeners can take part in the conversation quickly and cheaply using SMS. Where radio is a critical service for providing information about community health, education and water distribution, SMS participation ensures broadcasts are current

While at the moment, integration of mobile technology into radio is "ad hoc and highly individual", the report concludes that it is at a "nascent yet promising stage, ripe for proper documentation and development of global tools and processes". Read the full document here.

Decoding Digital Activism at the New America Foundation

Update: you can watch a video of Thursday's event here.

This Thursday evening, the New America Foundation will hold an event looking at digital activism and the implication for political freedom. Here's their description:

We have been asking the same questions about digital activism for several years now, but do not seem any closer to the answers: Does digital technology give activists or repressive governments the advantage? What are the implications of the changing tools and technologies that underpin it? If cyber-utopians and cyber-pessimists are both overstating their cases, where does the truth lie? What don't we know about digital activism?

What do we need to do to better understand it and get beyond debates based on anecdote and messy comparisons across starkly different contexts? The web, the devices that we use to access it, and our practices change year on year. Though our understanding can be only partial, it seems we know less than we should. At this event we will dissect the current problems in the way digital activism is discussed and debated and suggest ways to frame the issue for policy makers and move the field forward.