Apps 4 Africa contest launched

Apps 4 Africa is a contest to find the best technology applications to community challenges in health, education, government transparency etc coming out of East Africa. It runs July 1 to August 31 and submissions can be made on the website, Facebook, Twitter (#apps4africa) and through SMS in Kenya (text 3002 w/ keyword ‘apps’ anywhere in the message).

The contest is open to citizens based in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania. Others can participate by voting good ideas to the top of the site, where technologists can build tools based on these submissions. Regardless of the final results, these ideas will be accessible to the public long after the contest ends.

The contest is an initiative of the State Department in collaboration with Kenya's iHub incubator, Appfrica, and SODNET. It builds on the success of other apps contest such as Apps for Democracy and USAID Development 2.0

Reporters Without Borders opens "Anti-Censorship Shelter"

Reporters Without Borders has opened a shelter in Paris that will be used by journalists, bloggers and dissidents as a place to learn how to circumvent censorship, protect their online communications and maintain their anonymity. From the press release:

“At a time when online filtering and surveillance is becoming more and more widespread, we are making an active commitment to an Internet that is unrestricted and accessible to all by providing the victims of censorship with the means of protecting their online information,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Never before have there been so many netizens in prison in countries such as China, Vietnam and Iran for expressing their views freely online,” the press freedom organisation added. “Anonymity is becoming more and more important for those who handle sensitive data.”

Reporters Without Borders and the communications security firm XeroBank have formed a partnership in order to make high-speed anonymity services, including encrypted email and web access, available free of charge to those who user the Shelter. By connecting to XeroBank through a Virtual Private Network (VPN), their traffic is routed across its gigabit backbone network and passes from country to country mixed with tens of thousands of other users, creating a virtually untraceable high-speed anonymity network.

DataDyne project empowers Chilean farmers

Ashoka Tech writes about a pilot project providing SMS information to farmers in Chile about weather, news updates and crop prices:

COOPEUMO, a grassroots farmer’s cooperative with more than 350 small scale farmers as members provides a number of services to farmers such as technical assistance, credit and training. Last year COOPEUMO started a pilot project called DatAgro to provide SMS based information to farmers. The service started in April, 2009 has been supported by DataDyne, Federation of Agrarian Innovation, UNESCO, Entel PCS and two Chilean newspapers- El Mostrador and El Mercurio.

By providing information related to supply and product prices, climate conditions, and international markets; the initiative allows small scale farmers to align with the market needs. Thanks to the proliferation of mobile phones, farmers today have access to such information. ‘Last week I received one (message) about the weather so I didn’t plant anything because of the information I received and I planted yesterday, after the rain had stopped’ says Hugo Tobar, a farmer. Ninety percent of adults in rural areas of Chile have mobile phones. Farmers today consider mobile phones as a necessity and not a luxury.

At the heart of this initiative is the Mobile Information Platform (MIP), a technology developed by DataDyne. MIP is a platform to broadcast SMS based information to mobile phones. MIP works on the most basic mobile phones and on less-than-GPRS networks. The added advantage of MIP is that farmers can also subscribe to RSS feeds from interesting and useful internet sources by sending simple SMS text commands.

Read the full post here.

Technology and Transparency: How VicTEAMS is using the web to fight crime in Venezuela

Patricia Ortiz Keme writes about how her organization VicTEAMS is planning to revolutionize the way the issue of violence is being addressed in Venezuela.

In my country, violence is sky- high. With a crime rate of 16.047 homicides as for last year, insecurity has been persistently considered the number one problem by Venezuelans in the last 8 years. There are various detriments to the problem: bad public policies and government neglect, with both chavistas and opposition supporters considering not enough is being done to solve the problem; soaring impunity rates, with 91% of cases never making it to a conviction; internal corruption with an ever rising number of operating bands dismantled including some sort of law-enforcement officials among its members; and last but not least, the huge lack of accountability: the officers in charge keep rotating from one position to another as means to calm the public without there being any real change or person held responsible for the before mentioned problems.

The consequences: mistrust in law-enforcement authorities, only about 40% of victims denounce the crime; community leaders and citizens are intimidated into not publicly speaking about the situation by the ruling gang members; and the loss of public spaces and social structure created by violence leaves citizens even more marginalized, unorganized and vulnerable. Even more so, self-censorship from the media is increasing due to fear of being accused of calling for public disobedience or instigation of violence.

Despite all this, one window of opportunity seems to open up. The use of Internet in Venezuela is a fast growing trend, with one third of the country as users. There are almost 7 million Venezuelans using Facebook , and many more with cell phones.

Syria Could Use Net Freedom Too

Jullian York, writing in the Guardian today, welcomes relaxing of US trade exports controls related to technology, but argues that Syria continues to suffer from lack of access to crucial technology tools:

"Although there are no office of foreign assets control (OFAC) restrictions placed on Syria, the US department of commerce's 2004 Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act prohibits the export of most goods containing more than 10% US-manufactured component parts to the country. The act also includes a provision on items deemed imports, including technology or source code controlled on the Commerce Control List, though licences are available for software providers through the bureau of industry and security.

"Syrian netizens have long been aware of the effects of export controls on their lives. They are prevented from downloading popular software such as Java and Adobe Acrobat, and browsers such as Google's Chrome. Microsoft products are available, but in pirated form, or smuggled in illegally. What is surprising to many, however, is when a new ban suddenly emerges; each year, a number of software providers seemingly crack down on Syrian users, often blocking access to entire websites for fear of non-compliance with the act.

"...[I]n Syria, just as in Iran, the internet serves as an important communications and organising tool for dissidents and average users alike. And when you consider the fact that the Syrian government filters the internet internally as well (blocking sites such as Facebook and Blogspot, among many others), you realise that users are left with very little wiggle room.

Evgeny Morozov reviews Clay Shirky's new book

Writing in the Boston Review, Evgeny Morozov provides a thoughtful review of "internet guru" Clay Shirky's latest offering, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.

The central argument of the book is that the internet is enabling us to use more constructively the free time we now have in abundance in modern economies. The internet is hugely preferable to traditional media because while television watching is passive and solitary, the Internet pushes us towards creativity, and is instrinsically about sharing.

While he notes Shirky's ability to find and deploy clever anecdotes, Morozov has two kinds of criticisms of the book's argument. The first is about Shirky's use of evidence. Morozov calls into question Shirky's intepretation of the South Korean protests in 2008 over American beef, suggesting that he ignores the key role of traditional media in creating the protest movement. Just as he took issue with Shirky's use of Belarus flash mobs as an example in Here Comes Everybody, here again he argues that Shirky is liberal with facts and dodges complexity in order to suit his case.

Calling All Students: Contribute to New Digital Activism Blog

Susannah Vila writes about an opportunity to contribute to a new network for young digital activists:

The Alliance for Youth Movements (AYM) is a non-profit organization dedicated to identifying, connecting, and supporting digital activists from around the world. AYM’s website, Movements.org , will serve as a hub for discussion, resources, and news about digital activism around the world.

The website features a series of case studies. AYM case studies tell the stories of people or organizations that have identified and used new technologies to successfully address societal problems—particularly those who have bolstered their efforts with new technologies. In each case study, we present the challenge faced and describe the course of action taken to address it. We paint a picture of the activists or social entrepreneurs involved, describe the pitfalls and advantages of the steps they took to address the initial challenge, and evaluate the current state of their projects, discussing goals met, goals for the future, and unresolved issues. The broad goal of AYM's case studies is to identify tactics and lessons learned that will be helpful to other activists and social entrepreneurs around the world.

Below are some examples of social change projects that we have already written cases about:

Internet and democratization: do we need a theory of change?

We've already noted some of the great material that came out of last week's Personal Democracy Forum, but there's another panel discussion that is well worth mentioning. Co-founder of PDF Micah Sifry facilitated a discussion between Evgeny Morozov, Ethan Zuckerman, Cheryl Contee and Ory Okolloh on the topic: In Search of a Theory of Change - the Internet and Democratization.

Ethan Zuckerman outlined a couple of potential theories of change that might be implicit behind some of the current activity of the US government:

The North Korea theory: if people just get information from the outside world, and how much better things are there, dictators will fall. North Korea is perhaps the only place where this kind of theory might have any relevance, given that everywhere else in the world has information coming in and out all the time. The other problem with this theory is that it puts too much weight on the power of information as a catalyst in the overthrowing of governments; in reality it's just one among many factors.

The Twitter revolution: Citizens in closed societies can use the new tools provided by the internet to organize and overthrow authoritarian governments. In reality, a tool such as Twitter is wholly unsuited to organizing protest movements, not least because it is so open and information can be monitored by anyone.

Social Isolation Amongst Older People: Can ICTs Make a Difference?

While there seems to be a lot of excitement and activity around the ICT4D movement just now, we tend to hear less noise about applications of technology to meet the needs of vulnerable communities in developed countries. It was good then, to read recently about Emota, a Silicon Valley start-up that has just launched a product that aims to tackle the issue of social isolation amongst older people.

EmotaMe is an application that runs on tablet style computers such as the iPad. The platform combines social networking with games and a "social screensaver" to help facilitate interaction among different generations. Friends, care givers and family are displayed on the screen in a cartoon-like format. They can send flowers or a message, or a nudge, which displays as a shaking flower. There are also functions designed to help remind an older person about medications or appointments.

The program has been especially designed to be subtle and non-intrusive. The idea is for the program to have a similar feel to an object like a photo frame, creating a background of connectedness that the team calls “emotional networking”. Emota CEO Paul To explains:

From Slashdot: China simultaneously praises and censors Internet while Chinese Internet addicts escape; Turkey bans Google

A few stories on Slashdot.org today yesterday on China. eldavojohn writes that,
"in a new whitepaper, China has declared the Internet to be 'the crystallization of human wisdom' and officially issued what appears to be a defense of its policies on Web censorship, while at the same time making contradicting statements like 'Chinese citizens fully enjoy freedom of speech on the Internet' and (in the same paper) 'Laws and regulations clearly prohibit the spread of information that contains content subverting state power, undermining national unity, [or] infringing upon national honor and interests.' The paper also claims some questionable superlatives such as 'China is one of the countries suffering most from hacking.' On the positive side, this 31-page document might be offered as an operating guide for businesses, like Google, looking to understand exactly what the law is surrounding the Internet in China. The document is a rare glimpse of transparency in China's regulations."
Meanwhile, talk about Internet freedom! UgLyPuNk writes that Chinese Internet addicts attempted a prison break:
"A group of inmates at the Huai'an Internet Addiction Treatment Centre decided they'd had enough of the 'monotonous work and intensive training.' Working together, they tied their duty supervisor to his bed and made a run for it.