The Revolution Will Be Geolocated, Part II

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Don’t I know you from somewhere?

Seems that the geolocation fun is not going to stop anytime soon. This morning I came across ClustrMaps (beta), ask a service which maps the visitors to your website. You get a little thumbnail map of world (like the one at right), case which clicks through to a bigger map on ClustrMaps’ servers; you can also zoom into continent level on the big map. At a glance, viagra you can see the geographical distribution of your readers. Neat-o. The problem right now, as you can see with the image at right, is that a site with frequent visitors from around the world quickly becomes a big red blob in the thumbnail. I’m sure they’re sort that out post-beta, though.

The reason I like this tool is because of its useful application to civil society networks. One of the advantages of using onling tools to organize advocacy campaigns is encouraging a sense of broad solidarity around an issue, be it land mine bans, tobacco control, or anti-corruption. More and more international advocacy movements are trying to find ways to demonstrate their reach to their existing constituency, to policy-makers, and to funders who support their work. Simple tools like ClustrMaps provide an un-scientific but still compelling visual for an advocacy site looking to demonstrate its global appeal.

ClustrMaps is free for sites with fewer than 1000 visitors a day, and the company provides a premium product for those with higher traffic.
I had a long chat with Ellen Reitmeyer of OpenUsabilty.org on Monday. Ellen’s a usability designer, order based in Berlin, abortion and was involved in founding OpenUsability because of her company’s usability design work on the KDE project. (KDE is a graphical desktop interface for Linux and Unix environments.)

What they noticed were that many open source projects could use the attention that they gave to KDE, but that there was little interaction between the two communities. So OpenUsability was set up as a matchmaker service for designers and open source projects to find each other. The problem that Ellen points to now is not the lack of interest of the open source community (more than 100 projects have signed up on OpenUsability, looking for help), but the too few usability designers. Currently, most of the designers listing themselves on the site are based in Germany (although the site is set up in English), as Ellen is. Most of them, she said, she knows personally.

Working on usabliity on open source projects is not easy, as I wrote about a couple of days ago. Ellen echoed several points, including, perhaps most importantly, the social engineering that goes into implementing usability suggestions from designers. “You need to have a personal relationship with a key person in the development group,” Ellen said, which of course means more time and effort on the part of scarce designers. She also emphasized the problem of finding developers in open source projects who are interested in revising design components, rather than adding new functionality to a project.

We ended up talking about ways to get more usability expertise involved in open source projects. After batting around the idea of raiding design schools during the summertime, or running competitions to encourage usablity experts to submit projects, Ellen made what sounded to me like a brilliant suggestion: why not run something like Google’s Summer of Code, but for usabliity/design students. The Summer of Code 2005 was a project I missed at the time, but which I love in retrospect:

The Summer of Code is a program in which student developers are provided with a stipend to create new open source programs or to help currently established projects. Google will be working with a variety of open source, free software and technology related groups to identify and fund up to 400 projects over a 3 month time span. Since Google couldn’t possibly mentor 400 people working on disparate projects, we felt it would be wise to spread the work out.

Essentially, Google wanted to mentor new open source developers, and it put up 5000 USD a head for the summer for students to work on established open source projects. Lovely. They’re planning to do it again in 2006.

Back to usability: Ellen posited that an incentivized summer program like Summer of Code (Summer of Usabliity doesn’t really have the same snappy ring, unfortunately) in which usability design students could be matched up with open source projects would do both sides a world of good. She suggested that open source projects could define part of projects that particularly need usability help, and attach a student designer to that part of the development team – thus fostering a relationship within the group, and producing specific improvements by the end of the summer.

I like this idea a lot. I wonder if Google wants to expand its Summer programs to other areas?
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Yesterday, online I wrote about Google’s Summer of Code 2005 as a darn fine way to connect young developers with open source projects and communities. And I still think so, although I have a suggestion for Google for Summer of Code 2006 (assuming they are, in fact, planning to run it again). To refresh, last year’s Summer of Code matched up young developers with open source projects that had volunteered to mentor an intern. Young developers applied to the project they were interested in from the list of available mentors, were selected, and then rewarded with a summer of work on the project they chose and 5000 USD from Google for their time (500 of which went to the mentoring organization). Google had committed to funding up to 400 developers, which works out to a heck of a lot of money (2 million USD).

Not suprisingly, the Summer of Code site has a nifty little Google Map geolocating both the mentor projects and the participating students (see the world view above). Notice anything strange? Could it really be that there aren’t any up-and-coming young open source developers in sub-saharan Africa, the Middle East/North Africa or Central Asia who would want to participate?

How odd.

(Actually, it appears from the map that two mentoring members of LispNYC, and one Google mentor are based in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Right. Strangely, they didn’t manage to rustle up any locals in either country for the project.)

Yes, I’m being snarky, but only because I know excellent open source developers in these regions, and it pains me to think that with a few well-placed emails to relevant listservs and some encouragement to truly internationalize from Google to the mentoring organizations, the map above might have looked different. 2 milion dollars is a lot of money to spend on encouraging open source developers, and it’s a lot more money in the regions I mention than it is in Europe or the US. 4500 USD to a computer science student in Accra or Almaty could be a year’s support — or several years’ school fees. Or it could allow the involvement of a number of students for a summer, instead of just one.

So my modest suggestion to Google is this: if you go ahead with Summer of Code 2006, reach out to the developer communities in less-developed regions, and encourage your mentoring organizations to view the world as flat. Building skills, confidence, and international ties between developer communities across the globe is a fabulous way to do no evil.
Wireless access to the internet makes a lot of sense for much of the developing world: where fiber is controlled by government monopoly, prescription or elderly infrastructure is simply incabaple of responding to the demands placed on it by new internet users, wireless hubs and mesh networking can greatly expand access to connectivity. This is because connectivity can be shared more easily through a wireless cloud than through cables, and can be expanded easily across signficant open distances or thorughout a building, city block, or even broader area.

Tomas Krag of wire.less.dk, along with a number of other organizations, has been looking at this problem for some time. His work, and the work of others, tackles the problem of creating appropriate wireless technology for the developing world, and seeding local expertise to deploy and maintain the technology — as well as innovate where necessary for the specific environment. A range of projects are trying different methods: wire.less.dk’s Wireless Roadshow works with local partners to set up test case wireless infrastructure to attract local policymakers’ interest, while at the same time training local partners on the ins and outs of setting up networks. The Association for Progressive Communication is spearheading a collaborative training effort in Africa to run “wireless workshops” in four corners of the continent; their project trains up-and-coming wireless experts, providing them with both hands-on skills and training materials to take back to their home countries and pass the knowledge on. Other organizations including CSIR’s Meraka Institute (South Africa), Inveneo (San Francicso), and Geekcorps(US/Canada/Mali) have worked on projects across the continent from setting up wireless mesh for community radio stations to helping to create wireless ISPs.

Tomas now writes of the release of “Wireless Networking in the Developing World: a practical guide to planning and building low-cost telecommunications infrastructure”. This is great news for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the book is sorely needed by communities wishing to build their own infrastructure. Second, the book was written collaboratively, with a group of experts who have worked on the issue for some time, both in hands-on set-up and training. Third, the book is released under a Creative Commons attribution share-alike license, which means that it’s free to download (via PDF), translate, improve, and redistribute (as long as you share any changes you make under the same license). Indeed, the authors have set up a wiki at the book’s website so that others can make editorial suggestions. The book can also be ordered via a print-on-demand option, available through the book’s website.

To all who were involved in this project, many thanks! It’s a great achievement.

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The Blue Heron

My father, unhealthy an engineer by training, page is a secret naturalist. Dad’s always-entertaining letters to me are filled with commentary on weather patterns, interesting foliage, and geological changes rendered by the tides washing just outside my parents’ summertime porch on Puget Sound. Dad’s favorite topics, though, are the sea birds that he spots, both in Southern California, where my parents live in the wintertime, and in Washington, where they spend the warmer months. Over the summer, I get updates on the ducks and seagulls that float and splash in the neighborhood, and occasionally reports from further afield when Dad goes walking at Fort Worden.

Southern California doesn’t usually yield quite such varied reports, but just recently Dad started seeing a blue heron on near the flood control channel that runs up from Seal Beach towards Long Beach. He managed to snap a picture of it perched on the peak of an aluminum-roofed building, and sent it on to me. Beautiful bird, isn’t it?
Our friends at Fahamu have recently launched the AU Monitor, cost a blog which aims to cover the activities of the African Union for an African civil society audience. Fahamu’s concern is that much of the African Union coverage is slanted towards the concerns of western donors and international NGOs, viagra approved and the AU Monitor will seek to provide a different take on their activities, find and on the interactions between African civil society and the AU.

Fahamu also publishes Pambazuka News, a well-written email newsletter on African social justice issues– just this month, it became available in French as well.
It’s difficult to read Thomas Hardy, buy more about that great chronicler of social injustice, without considering the modern path of social justice movements. Social justice is a concept that many rally around — activists, funders, polictical parties. Nevertheless, the idea of social justice is a bit slippery — in its broadest sense, it is about shaping societies to a basic moral structure, but how that gets interpreted obviously varies widely from culture to culture. The Center for Social Justice, a Canadian Jesuit organization that Googled first for “social justice”, argues for “narrowing the gap in income, wealth, and power”. For others, it may not be so explicitly about financial power, but more about social power — Fahamu, an organization that operates mainly in Africa, uses the tagline “networks for social justice”, and on their website explain their “…vision of the world where people organise to emancipate themselves from all forms of oppression, recognise their social responsibilities, respect each other’s differences, and realise their full potential.” In other words, it’s very much about personal responsibility and initaitive.

Back to Hardy and a world where personal responsibility and initiative are generally punished — not by the rule of law, but, indeed, socially. I’ve just finished Hardy’s “The Woodlanders”, which was apparently the author’s favorite of his own works; it’s easy to see why. Unlike the clearly doomed title characters in “Jude the Obscure” or “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”, “The Woodlanders”‘ Giles and Grace keep a Hardy-weary reader’s hope allive. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll overcome all the injustices heaped on them by 19th century England and see their way clear to a happy pastoral life of barking trees in the spring and pressing cider in the fall. However, since this is Hardy, it’s foolish to suppose that anyone will be well-rewarded for trying to wiggle their way clear of the social codes of the day.

Hardy spent a lot of his time thinking about social mobility, and wrote with a view on the increasing porousness of English society. “The Woodlanders” focuses on the after-effects of social elevation. Rather than being about the follies of trying, like the ever-obscure and always-failing Jude, to better oneself into a higher social status, “The Woodlanders” is about the follies of *actually* bettering oneself into a higher social status, and the ensuing social disintegration that one can assume will happen when classes willfully mix.

As always, love (or lust) is the driving force behind class-mixing. Marty, a lowly country girl, loves above her station, and covets Giles, a self-employed cider-presser. Giles doesn’t give Marty the time of day, but instead dedicates himself to Grace, the local timber-merchant’s daughter, who is one social step ahead of him by virtue of her expensive education; Grace, in turn, who should be of Giles’ stature but has been (foolishly?) sent away from village life for a high-class education and now returns to find Little Hintock (and Giles) too mean for her new tastes, is fascinated by a newly arrived young doctor of very good family; the young doctor, Fitzpiers, is the great democrat of the book, since he’s willing to sleep with everyone in town, but eventually marries beneath himself by choosing Grace – – who is, despite her newly refined tastes, still the daughter of Hintock’s timber merchant. Finally, Fitzpiers realizes he has unnecessarily lowered himself, and starts keening after Mrs. Chambers, the local aristocrat who actually owns the whole village. Mrs. Chambers clearly finds a professional man like Fitzpiers beneath her, but begins an affair with him anyway, thus ruining his marriage. However, since Grace, his wife, is essentially two tiers below Mrs. Chambers in social hierarchy, that doesn’t really bother her until Grace shows up and demands that Mrs. Chambers keep her hands off her (Grace’s) husband. Mrs. Chambers wavers when face to face with the angry young wife, but then takes Fitzpiers off with her to tour Europe anyway. It is, by her reckoning, her social right, after all.

As you’d expect from Hardy, it all ends in tears, early death, and unfortunate choices. The crucial point, however, is that all the book’s events are set in motion by the unusual decision by Grace’s father to attempt to better his daughter through education; he simply does not factor in how an educated woman will be reintegrated into village society at the other end of boarding school. She is welcome nowhere. Grace confesses at one point in the book that her schoolmates always looked down on her, knowing that she came from village life. However, her old friends (and her betrothed, the guileless Giles) assume her to be too finely wrought, post-schooling, to enjoy their company. Hence the social dystopia of Hardy’s vision: one may achieve some kind of personal betterment, but only at a cost to society as a whole. Grace is only reintegrated back into the village when she returns to “nature” (both her own “real” nature, and nature in opposition to cosmopolitanism), and becomes as she was before.

Hardy’s is a beautiful trick; as a romantic poet who clearly loved the rhythms of 19th century rural England, he writes a tactile and engaging story. But as a social crusader, he avoids Dickensian didactics, and still manages to impart a modern sense of social injustice in his narrative. I can’t help but wonder which element prevailed for his contemporary readers.
hajjairport.jpgI’ve just arrived in Istanbul for a meeting organized by OSI’s Public Health Program on different approaches to monitoring in public health advocacy work. My flight, see like everyone else’s, store was late because of a heavy snowfall; the lady who collected us at the airport told us that it snows perhaps three times a year in Istanbul. Stranger even than touching down in piles of snow at the warm edge of Europe was the scene that greeted us at the airport. I thought at first that a pop star or populist politician must be on my flight — the view from the immigration desks out past baggage claim to the waiting area revealed what looked like hundreds of people waiting eagerly for someone to appear.
Around the baggage claim area, thumb professional photographers snapped pictures of a few young men, but no one else waiting for their bags appeared to be excited. As I walked out with a group of other travelers, scattered groups applauded, and again, professional photographers and television cameras honed in on a few walking with me. The agent that picked us up at the airport explained that these were families waiting for their relatives to return from Mecca, following the Hajj. And indeed, I realized that we were surrounded by a sea of family groups, and that the hajji, dressed mostly in white and wearing sandals, had been in line with me at the immigration desks. Quite a turnout, considering that this must be tail end of Pilgrims (the Hajj ended at the end of January, according to the calendar I consulted) who stayed on a few extra days.

According to Wikipedia’s article on the Hajj, the Saudi Arabian government, which oversees the holy sites, has had to limit the number of pilgrims who come each year; each Muslim country is allowed 1000 people for every million. Turkey, with a population of 69 million, is then allowed to send 69,000 Hajji per year — which must keep the airport absolutely packed for most of the month, if the pilgrims’ families come to see them off, and wait for their return. It’s great to arrive at an airport full of excited people, waiting eagerly for someone’s return — as a constant traveler myself, I always look forward to the stops where someone is meeting me right off the plane. I imagine that the post-Hajj family reunion carries significant import — but I’m glad to have gotten the peripheral frivolity on my own arrival to Istanbul.
I spent the past week in Istanbul with public health advocates from around the globe. They’re a sharp and dedicated group of people who speak their own language: those of us from outside their world quickly learned to translate the alphabet soup of government agencies they regularly deal with, dosage as well as the acronyms for the life-extending treatments and facilities that are at the center of their work: ARV’s, information pills the main treatment for PLWA’s that are often acquired through CBO’swith support from by UNAIDS (translation: Anti-RetroVirals, People Living With AIDs, Community-Based Organizations, and UNAIDS: the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS). The group was not only focused on HIV/AIDS; representatives from public health groups focusing on Roma health, harm reduction, paliative care, marginalized populations, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis were all in evidence.

The topic for discussion during the three-day event was monitoring, something that donors and governments have increasingly thrown their weight behind. What became apparent to me, a newcomer to this field, is that monitoring is not a single activity, nor is there an agreed-upon definition of what monitoring groups actually do. The range of activities that are included under the heading “monitoring” include both quantitative and qualitative work. Human Rights Watch, for instance, for the most part produces work which is akin to top-quality investigative journalism; their reports are based on extensive interviews and are carefully fact-checked against a legal framework springing from the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, as well as the follow-up Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Human Rights Watch runs an HIV/AIDS and human rights program, which documents human rights abuses related to the epidemic, and is very much in keeping with their interview-based methodology.

Other public health groups present were working on more quantitative monitoring projects, involving government finances, distribution of drugs, and use of treatment programs. The multitude of approaches and topics was dizzying, for someone coming from outside the public health world; more dizzying still was obvious importance of these efforts. The range was also broad: some groups were setting their own monitoring goals and creating their own methodologies to meet them, like Global Health Watch, while others, like IDASA in South Africa are monitoring by using internationally recognized methodologies, like UNAIDS’ NASA (National AIDS Spending Assessment) framework.

Most interesting, though, were the questions that monitoring groups across the board wrestled with: when government is a partner in a monitoring project, do you trust their data? And how does a project managed by civil society maintain independence when the only way to crucial data sets is through a friendly government official? How to ensure quality data from partners working in disparate countries with, often, little in the way of communications technologies? Should monitoring projects only be undertaken by research universities, or can community-based monitoring be reliable? And a question that seemed to underride all the discussions I had: why monitor?

Without monitoring by external organizations, there’s simply no way to hold governments to their promises made at either the international level (i.e., being a signatory to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) or at the national level (i.e., that a certain percentage of a national budget will be spent on the acquisition and distribution of anti-retroviral drugs). Further, monitoring needs to take place in order to prove the efficacy of experimental health programs; the harm reduction movement, which advocates for, among other things, the provision of clean needles and methadone treatment for drug addict, inevitably runs up against resistance from governments who might act as implementors. Without the proof of a harm reduction program’s successes in holding down the rate of HIV transmission in a population, there is little argument to be made against skeptics.

However, the above arguments assume that monitoring is a *tactic* in a larger advocacy campaign; i.e., that the monitoring is simply a way to advance a broader goal. This is not always the case, it seems; some organizations monitor as a end in and of itself. In these cases, the monitoring projects tend to be more community-based, and are being undertaken as a way to both empower civil society, and to remind government that, in fact, they are accountable to their populations. This isn’t to say that these kinds of projects don’t also engage in advocacy, but rather that they see the monitoring itself as a crucial type of engagement.

As for me, I was interested in how these different projects were using online tools and forum to advocate, post-monitoring, both within their home countries, and on the international level. Several people told me that they considered monitoring “the easy part” (a serious assertion, given the complexity of the projects represented); the real challenge was taking the information and making a compelling argument gauged to the right people. As one participant said, “There’s a huge difference between dissemination and campaigning.” Indeed. Given the growing number of online projects aimed at supporting advocacy campaigns, the time seems ripe to bring the two populations together.
While my adopted home town of Budapest lies buried in snow, order I’m spending the next week at the original homestead in Seal Beach, pharmacy California — deep in the heart of what I am told is now referred to nationwide as “the O.C.” (“Orange County”, for those not in the know: it’s a TV show).

This week is following on the heels of a week spent in San Francisco with the Information Program sub-board and staff, during which we criss-crossed the Bay Area several times to attend a series of meetings with companies, foundations, and organizations. Ethan Zuckerman has written long accounts of two of them, one a meeting with Brewster Kahle and Rick Prelinger of the Internet Archive, and the other a dinner we were lucky enough to have with dissident Iranian journalist and blogger Omid Memarian.

I also had a chance to sit down with Ben Rigby of MobileVoter, a San Francisco-based organization whos tagline says it all: “Voter Registration and Mobilisation via Text Messaging!” MobileVoter is doing some very innovative projects with mobile phones in the United States; one of the things they’ve looked at which I think is most intereseting is the use of the mobile phone in a social context, i.e., where users are in physical proximity to each other — for instance, at rock concerts. They see the mobile phone as a way to capture the excitement and buzz of a live event — at the moment its occurring, rather than counting on users to remember later on to log onto a website.

Ben is one of the leaders of the MobileActive movement, a group jumpstarted by an international meeting of activists and developers interested in the use of mobile phones held last September in Toronto. The meeting was organized by Green Media Toolshed and Aspiration Tech. Currently, the group maintains an active blog, trades project ideas, and forms partnerships around those projects.

I’ll be writing more about mobile phones in the coming months, as this is a crucially important area for the developing and transitional countries that OSI works in. In the US, mobile phones are ubiquitous and highly personalized — hence offering a different and more direct path to users than internet for advocates trying to get their messages across — mobile phones in the developing world are useful for a different reason: often, they offer the only communications path in or out of a community. Further, with the help of tools like DialoguePalette, a soon-to-be released do-it-yourself Asterisk tool, voice navigation of information sources will be relatively simple; in regions where literacy is low, the ability to connect people with information via voice has become increasingly important, and increasingly viable.

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Artist’s rendition of me with my iPod

My relentlessly groovy travel companions (you know who you are) finally got to me, visit web and I’ve broken down on this trip to the United States and bought an iPod. And not just one. Anticipating Husband’s unrepentent thievery (and remembering that our CD player was long ago loaned out to a friend for a party and never came back), order I forked over even more cash to Apple: I got a 60GB iPod to use around the house as a default stereo system and a Shuffle for trips, page as well as A/V cables and a compact little dock to display the new acquisition appropriately. Hooray. I’ve spent the past few hours fiddling around with iTunes, ripping CDs from my parents’ classical collection (I’m now listening to Gloria of Beethoven’s Mass in C), familiarizing myself with the iPod logic, etc. Obviously, it’s just super. Er, right?

Actually, I’m thinking back to the trip I took to Uganda in January. As readers may remember, I traveled with my friend Stephanie, a woman who firmly occupies a place among the digirati, and one of the prime iPod influencers in my life. While we waited for our flight to leave from Schipol airport in Amsterdam, she bought a new camera — a film camera. When I expressed my surprise over her retro choice, she said she was sick of using digital cameras…the extra cords, the batteries running out, missing shots, etc. And, she said, she was already overwhlemed with digital detritus — cell phone and charger, laptop and charger, iPod and cords and earbuds, etc, etc.

Now, looking at the tangle of USB cords, lanyards, earbuds, and other small parts while I will now need to keep track of, I can’t help but think that Stephanie was on to something. I remember my first WalkMan, for instance, which didn’t need to be charged, and had no accompanying bits and pieces. Of course, one could point out, it’s a lot easier to haul around a few cords and an iPod than 100 tapes and a clunky box the size of a wireless router: true, true. But given the iPod flotsam spread across my floor, I don’t think that this problem has been solved just yet.
Declan Butler has written a great piece for Nature on the way scientists are starting to use Google Earth in place of far more complicated GIS software. Because Google Earth is easier to use than most GIS software (although doesn’t include GIS analysis tools), purchase scientists are finding they can “effortlessly” overlay mutliple data sets onto Google Earth, and use it as a visualization and live tracking tool. Butler writes that “increasing amounts of scientific data are becoming available, often in real time, in formats that can be displayed by virtual globes.”

The good news here is not just for scientists, but also for citizens seeking to inform themselves on issues that are more easily grasped through data visualizations. Geographical display of advocacy data is one of my main interests — from projects like Forward Track to Human Rights Watch use of maps to illustrate their study, ” Off Target: The Conduct of War and Civilian Casualties in Iraq“, I find the use of a geographical framework for data sets to be a powerful choice — and one not employed often enough by advocates seeking to make an impression beyond reams of print. With tools like Google Earth, and an apparently increasing number of researchers interested in using these tools to track and visualize their data, the availability of these kinds of visual arguments is on the rise.

Google Earth is of course not open source, nor are its data formats. Other virtual globes, notably ESRI’s coming free globe, will offer an open data format:

As part of the package, ESRI will also release a free visualization tool, ArcGis Explorer, which some GIS professionals are calling a Google-Earth killer. Data in Google Earth need to be in a specific format; ESRI’s tool will allow users to view not only data from ESRI’s own products, but also information in formats that are being increasingly standardized through the Open Geospatial Consortium. This international body is working to ensure that computers can understand descriptions of the spatial features of anything from highways and postcodes to icebergs.

And for those that are looking for open-source-only, Declan has highlighted (on his blog) a very useful and seemingly exhaustive list (in pdf format) of open source GIS and visualizations tools (this list spans the GRASS to GIMP — there’s a lot there).
If you’re an American who took the SAT (the test all American kids have to take to go to college), tadalafil you’ll be break out in hives at the title of this post, cheap which transliterates as: “Email is to blogpost as podcast it to what?”

write about the need for people to practice making podcsts, extended email practice towards blog posts, merlin connection
The European Union spends a lot of time sweating over its borders, ed notably that Turkey’s potential inclusion means neighboring unsavories like Iraq. However, site Europeans seem to easily forget that their borders now rub up again Belarus, land of Aleksander Lukashenka’s totalitarian dictatorship. This is a country that rarely makes it into the news, that has few bloggers to amplify its plight, and that is currently experiencing an election run-up should make Europe cringe in shame.

Briefly, a Belarussian primer: the country has been governed by the increasingly dictatorial Lukashenka since he was elected (in what are considered relatively fair elections) in 1994. Since then, the country has descended into an exaggerated version of the familiar horrors: disappeared (and presumably dead) opposition candidates and supporters, state harassment of all opposition political activity, three years imprisonment for organizing public meetings, a consitutional amendment to allow Lukashenka to hold office into eternity, a resurrection of the KGB with all best practices in place, and an army of un-uniformed government-supported thugs who attack and intimidate anyone working against Luka.

As the March elections close in, Luka is making sure that the opposition stands no chance. According last week’s article in the IHT by Steven Lee Meyers, Luka has made it clear through televised addresses that the police have orders to open fire on opposition protests. “Any attempt to destabilize the situation will be met with drastic action,” he is quoted as saying. “We will wring the necks of those who actually doing it, and those who are instigating these acts.”

One of the few Belarussian bloggers writing in English, br23 reported the following on Friday::

In the morning, an opposition presidential candidate Alexander Kazulin (Kozulin) came to register as a participant in the so called All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, a Soviet-style “party congress” staged by president Lukashenka (which he uses to show in front of the TV cameras “massive people’s support”, in a Soviet way). Lukashenka and all his gang was there.

Alexander Kazulin entered the building, requesting to be registered as a participant because his party (Hramada) has nominated him for this. Almost immediately, Lukashenka’s guards attacked him. They knocked him down to the ground and started kicking him with army boots.

Kazulin was apparently bundled off to the police station, and eventually released after being charged with damaging a picture of Lukashenka, and trying to hold a press conference. A journalist who left the scene to file a story (bearing pictures) was apparently shot at by police, and then later arrested (according to br23) for “resisting arrest”.

To be clear, this is happening in a country that shares a border with Poland.

Belarus’ invisibility to both Europe and western media is amazing, although in line with the invisibility of other post-Soviet states that continue to suffer under leftover totalitarian systems. Presumably, the picturesque color revolutions of Georgia and Ukraine sell more papers than the struggling opposition movements of Belarus, Turkemenistan and Uzbekistan. Further, these countries are legitimately hard to write about — interviews with relevant people are nearly impossible to arrange (and can endanger opposition leaders), in winter it’s difficult to travel in these countries, and, of course, their respective dictators tend to kick the news agencies out and deny visas to journalists, which means that much reporting has to be done with external experts. This is, of course, all the more reason to cover these countries, but it doesn’t make the job any easier for journalists. Which is why the bloggers like br23 and others blogging from inside these countries are invaluable. Let’s hope they manage to stay online through the election.
plakat.gifBecause I’m sitting in the Warsaw Airport waiting for a first-cancelled-now-scandalously-late Malev flight back home to Budapest, health I’m missing the “Solidarity with Belarus” concert that everyone I know in Warsaw is at right now. After complaining last week about the invisibility of Europe’s tragic child Belarus, viagra 40mg it’s been interesting to spend the last few days in Warsaw and discover how angry the Poles are about their neighbor to the east. My sample is, of course, biased; I’ve spent the last few days with Poles and varied expats in Poland who work for NGOs, and who care deeply about the spread of democracy in a region that hasn’t seen enough of it over the past fifty years. That said, I’ve been interested to see that the front pages of local papers are carrying stories about the upcoming Belarussian election, and that central Warsaw was plastered this afternoon with the poster at the right, a call to Poles to attend at “Solidarity with Belarus” concert being held this evening.

Incidentally, according to a Polish friend, the “Solidarity” of the title is no accident: several of the Poles central to the campaign and the organizing of the concert are children of Polish Solidarity leaders. They grew up in the 1990’s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the relaxation of martial law in Poland. As my friend noted, they “missed their revolution”. What their parents brought to Poland, they want to help bring to Belarus. Not a bad legacy for Solidarity — not only a democratic country, but also a population with a sense of the job still unfinished.

Furthrer reading: for a good review of Poland’s recent history, check out Timothy Garton Ash’s recent useful article in the New York Review of Books, The Twins’ New Poland.
Joi Ito notes that he’s just joined the board of Witness, find an organization that supports the use of video as a tool for human rights advocacy. This is great news: Witness is one of my favorite organizations, capsule and (full disclosure) one whose work the Open Society Institute supports. Witness is now looking to expand their work from traditional film-making (using video cameras) to including more participatory, try pedestrian tools and media — videos made on digital cameras and cellphones, for instance– which increasingly, these days, is the way activists and witnesses are able capture the dirtier work of repressive governments as it’s happening. (For a recent example of the power of handheld media, see these six cell-phone videos of Belarussian protests in Minsk over the repression of opposition parties in their upcoming election.)

Gillian Caldwell, the director of Witness, notes in a recent interview with David Pogue in the New York Times that “our primary intention is not to capture human rights abuses in action, although that has on occasion happened. Instead, most of our footage highlights the aftermath.” Capturing the aftermath of human rights abuses is vital and powerful, and Gillian absolutely right — it’s hard to get someone with a video camera to be in exactly the right place at the right time. However, it’s a lot more likely that you’ll get someone with a cell phone equipped with a camera at the right place at the right time, and I’m delighted that Witness is now thinking about how they can harness this kind of media to create change. Joi Ito is a great person to help move this part of their work forward.

The other good news is that a number of other organizations are also thinking about the power of participatory media in a human rights context. Three of them, EngageMedia of Australia, the Participatory Culture Foundation in Massachusetts, and OneWorld TV, are currently engaged in video platform projects that may actively complement Witness’ vision for a web-based community of human rights abuse documentation. I’m a big fan of organizations working towards similar goals exchanging information, creating shared standards, and developing joint projects. If synergies exist between Witness’ vision and some of the other work going on in this area, mores the better. I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes.
Finally, stuff one more thought on this. I’ve been surprised at the number of US-based organizations (i.e. those working with broadband, cheapest reliable electricity, drug and up-to-date computers — unlike many of the organizations OSI supports outside the west) who have asked me for help in figuring out how to use new media like podcasts or online video to advocate for their interests. They’re asking for help in thinking through strategy for this kind of thing (what’s compelling, successful, interesting)…but also in the nuts of bolts of how to do it. How do you make a podcast, or take a video from your phone and put it on YouTube? I often foget how deep the divide is between the netsavvy and the average user, who does exactly as much as they need to do with a computer, and not any more. This means that many, many computer users are hesitant — or afraid — to use new technologies that many of us consider, you know, pretty simple to get up and running. Most people aren’t experimenters with new media, and particularly in non-profit organizations where time is stretched and there is little freedom to play around. My question, then, is — where to send
Belarussians go to the polls tomorrow, clinic although all the information coming out of the country seems to suggest that no one is actually taking the election seriously. Nor should they; both br23 and the NY Times report that totalitarian dictator Lukashenka has choked off all independent publications, viagra 60mg closing the final window yesterday with the seizure of at least 200, here 000 copies of Narodnaya Volya (“People’s Will”) arriving from a publisher in Russia. Luka has also outlawed public demonstrations, threatening 25 years in jail or death. The opposition is planning exactly the kind of demonstration that the Belarussian government fears tomorrow night, after the polls close.

If the demonstration tomorrow goes forward, the government has essentially promised a bloodbath, blaming (in advance!) any government reaction, no matter how violent, on the opposition. The EU has counter-promised a “strong international reaction” if there is a crackdown on opposition rallies. I wonder if it will be as strong as the “international reaction” over the past ten years to the disappearances, murders, and crushing of political dissent under Lukashenka?
Speaking of the EU’s troubled boarders, sildenafil one of Hungary’s (many) neighbors is Ukraine. One of Ukraine’s more unfortunate distinctions is the rate at which HIV is being spread efficiently across its populace. Currently Ukraine has an exploding HIV-positive population, cost rivaled in Europe only by the Russian Federation. Human Rights Watch released a report at the beginning of this month called “Rhetoric and Risk: Human Rights Abuses Impeding Ukraine’s Fight Against HIV/AIDS”. The report argues that while Ukraine has passed some of the most progressive (and controversial) HIV policies around (supporting anti-retroviral treatments, needle exchange programs, and drug replacement therapies), in practice, abuse of drug addicts and sex workers by police — usually their first line of contact with the government — essentially renders those protections null and void:

It is a tragic and deadly irony that for most Ukrainians, these protections exist only on paper and are systematically undermined by chronic human rights abuse within the criminal justice and health systems.

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Now, I know very little about the HIV and Ukraine; it’s an issue that I’m aware of, but don’t really follow. I’m writing about it now not because I came across the Human Rights Watch report in the normal range of my online reading, but rather because I came across something far more arresting: the photography of Brent Stirton. Stirton is a South African photographer whose work shows up on the BBC, in international competitions, and so forth. His website is a collection of photojournalist projects he’s undertaken around the world. A recent addition is called “Ukraine: Sex, Drugs, Poverty, & HIV” (to find this and other photo essays, go to Stirton’s site, then choose “Projects”. Note, however, that a number of the images are gruesome, and nearly all of them are disturbing). The Ukranian collection includes both photographs and a short narrative explaining who each person pictured is. Stirton favors people; most of his photos are essentially portraits meant to establish not just a set of circumstances but an impression of the person existing in those circumstances. And the stories that unfold are in his sets of pictures are terrifying, largely because they are told not just visually, but extremely personally. Perhaps most arresting to me is the subset of images that tell a story of an older Ukrainan woman living with her two grown sons, both of whom are HIV-positive, and are dealing heroin out of her apartment. She is dependent on them, being elderly, and so cannot either throw them out or curtail their activities. The juxtaposition of the familiar Eastern European babushka in the flowered dress with youthful, damaged sons is deeply troubling, and illustrates powerfully why the cycle of drug addiction and HIV effects a populace across generations and far beyond the addict themselves.

The reason, more generally, why I find this interesting is from an information perspective. Because OSI and other international organizations support moniitoring and investigative work of the sort that Human Rights Watch does regularly, there is a tremendous amount of information — and high-quality information at that — generated. The vast majority of it ends up in reports, like the one I’ve linked to above; those reports are picked up by and quoted by more socially concious news agencies (the BBC, Radio Free Europe, and so on tend to quote HRW reports frequently). They’re printed up, filed in offices of intenational development workers, and that’s generally it. The information that has been so carefully dug up for these reports is simply not very persistant — it hits once, and sinks. Aligning the careful reporting that HRW and other monitoring organizations do with other media, easily distributed over the internet, seems like an excellent way to give that information a longer life and wider distribution. Images and visual representations of information are powerful, and cause people to “get” an issue in a way that they never will from skimming (or not, as the case may be) a lengthy report. HRW has done this in other reports — tying some of their work on Darfur to images drawn by childen in refugee camps, or creating maps to accompany their report on civilian casualties in Iraq (“Off Target“). Clearly, these kinds of combinations make human rights reporting and research much more accessible to the layman, and subsequently more persistant as an issue of concern.
Hello, buy more about is this the EU? It would be super-great if the kids over in Brussels would act on the public outrage over the fraudulent election that has just occurred on your borders. Yes, cost you told the press that you were very, dosage very, very angry indeed over how mean Lukashenka was to his populace, and that you might even do something really quite serious like banning visas to the EU for Belarussian officials. The only problem is, you guys already did that back in September 2004:

“In view of the apparent obstruction of justice and the absence of an investigation as requested, the European Union has decided today to restrict admission to its territory of those high officials who are considered primarily responsible for failing to initiate such an investigation and prosecution of the alleged crimes, as well as those who are considered by the Pourgourides report key actors in the disappearances and subsequent cover-up.”

“The EU calls once more on the Belarusian authorities, including on the President of the Republic of Belarus, to undertake the actions as requested by the EU.”

The EU reacted to the flawed elections and referendum by increasing visa restrictions (Council Common Position on Visa Ban – 6 December 2004):

“The scope of the restrictive measures imposed by Common Position 2004/661/CFSP should therefore be expanded to persons who are directly responsible for the fraudulent elections and referendum in Belarus on 17 October 2004 and those who are responsible for severe human rights violations in the repression of peaceful demonstrators in the aftermath of the elections and referendum in Belarus.”

It didn’t work so well, apparently. As it turns out, it’s easier to fly to Moscow anyway if a Belarussian official has a hankering for a Gucci handbag, and besides, it gives him the opportunity to pay loving tribute to the overlord in person.

So maybe it’s time to try something that hits a little closer to home, like banning bilateral trade with Belarus or figuring out serious ways to support the opposition through public inclusion in EU human rights/democracy activities.

Incidentally, the Vice-President of the European Parliament agrees with me, even more damningly referring to the EU’s relationship til now with Belarus as “friendly”. However, he sees Belarus as a security problem for the EU, which seems a little far-fetched. What Belarus is for the EU is a public relations problem; it’s darn embarassing to have a Soviet strongman sitting on the other side of Poland. And that, I think, is one of the main reasons why Belarus has been invisible until the last week or so — no one wants to talk about it. It also points to one of the major things that the EU can do in the coming months. Quite obviously, no one inside or outside of Belarus is going to care or remember if the Belarussian Deputy Minister of Agriculture can’t make it to Paris for the weekend; people will remember if the EU and the European Parliament keep the issue of Belarus alive through public shaming and public reminders of the situation just to the East. Maintain the outrage, or Belarus will go invisible again.
The EU and the US have agreed that Lukashenka and other Belarussian officials have to go to Moscow to buy their Prada handbags. The truly embarassing thing about this is Luka’s quite legitimate unflappability over the issue:

“If the United States and European Union countries respect the people of Belarus, site they should respect their choice, pilule ” Andrei Popov, a ministry spokesman, said on national television. “The Republic of Belarus retains the right to take retaliatory measures.’

The threat seemed to expand on a remark earlier in the week by Mr. Lukashenko, who said Europe would hardly be able to restrict its trade with Belarus, a main transit route to the West for Russian gas and oil.

Oh, right.
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This is cool. Soyapi Mumba, prostate a software developer from Malawi, visit this site has created SearchWith, recipe a plugin for the Mozilla family (Firefox, Flock, and Thunderbird). What SearchWith does is allow users to highlight a word on a web page you’re reading, and then search for/look up that word in a range of online sources (dictionaries, encyclopedias, the web itself, etc.) For those of us who read widely about technology, this is a great little tool, since new terms come up so often. For the rest of the world, it’s pretty darn useful as well.

To use this tool, go to SearchWith website, download the plugin, and install. Easy-peasy.

Thanks, Soyapi! I’m your new biggest fan.
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I’ve been in Istanbul for the past week (again!), clinic this time at an OSI information program coordinator’s meeting. My colleagues from Soros foundations across the former Soviet Union and Africa joined the international staff for several days of discussions. And as the meeting wound down at two this afternoon, cost a total eclipse of the sun crossed Turkey. Istanbul was not in the one hundred percent path of the eclipse. What we got, at about 87% eclipsed, were a good fifteen minutes of the sort of watery, pale sunlight I associate with swimming along the bottom of the pool holding my breath, or dawn in the middle of Nebraska.

I and a number of my colleagues stood on the roof terrace of the Hotel Armada in Sultanahmet to watch the eclipse. Not a bad spot: looking in one direction we could see the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia; in the other direction, the Bosphorus. We were joined on the roof by a crowd of Turkish hotel guests and staff, some of whom got very excited that the shadow cast by the sun during the height of the eclipse looked remarkably like the image on the Turkish flag (right). More enthusiastic observers starting pulling out pens and pencils to add a drawn star next to the sun’s shadow, which was being projected onto a piece of paper in the center of the crowd. Soon enough, several stars had been added to the paper, and by reflecting the sun’s shadow just right, the image stopped being just an eclipse, and also became a naturally appearing Turkish flag. It’s not just beauty that’s in the eye of the beholder, after all.
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Favorite Husband and I spent the last week swanning around Andalusia, help admiring the remains of Moorish Spain’s clash of civilizations. It’s a trip well worth taking, particularly if you’re interested in the historical long view. As it happened, I was in Istanbul (not Constantinople) for work the week before the trip to Spain. The odd juxtaposition of visits to the Hagia Sophia and Seville’s Alcazar or Grenada’s Alhambra within a few days of each other is something that, I’m guessing, not many people have been lucky enough to do. Given the luxury, as I was, it’s fascinating to consider these monuments side-by-side, in the context of both historical and modern Europe.

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At one end of Europe is Justinian’s tremendous Eastern Orthodox cathedral-cum-mosque, where tourists can still visit bits of the glorious mosaics of Chistendom. At the other end of the continent is Sophia’s inverse: Spain’s spectacular Islamic fortresses, where Christian kings vanquished Muslim tribes and then continued to reign, leaving the intricate Moorish design intact and adding the odd crucifix or Baroque ballroom just to remind everyone who was boss — exactly as the Muslim conquerers did in the Hagia Sofia, on the other side of Europe. I’ve wondered on previous visits to Istanbul why this was: seems like it would be worth the trouble to take down the largest Christian church in the world, if you were the Muslim conquerer of a Christian city. But in fact, it seems that the Christian kings on the other side of the continent made the same calculation — just make a few modifications, and move right in. Both sets of conquerers also celebrated their victory (eventually) by erecting tremendous monuments within site of the vanquished foes’ structures: the Blue Mosque stands directly across from the Hagia Sophia, and Seville’s massive cathedral next to the Alcazar, while you could throw a rock from the walls of the Alhambra and hit Grenada’s central church.

The Hagia Sophia, the Alhambra, and the Alcazar are museums now, but I found it impossible to see any of them as the neutral space that museums usually are. A visitor cannot help but imagine the bitterness, rage, and thirst for vengence that each civilization must have experienced on being forced to abandon the physical spaces which embodied their beliefs, art, and culture. On visiting the Alhambra, we were told that the city’s last Arabic defender, Baobil, wept as he fled the beloved palace while his mother offered him this advice: “Do not weep like a woman for what you could not defend as a man.” Ouch. But indeed, the sense of victor and vanquished is still palpable at all three sites; perhaps more interesting, though, is the sense of history’s ebb and flow. The battles that are being fought today, both ideologically and with terrible violence, are of course nothing new — and we all know that. However, to be reminded so clearly, so physically, of Europe’s endless expansions and contractions over the centuries is more than worth a trip to any of Europe’s hazy borders.
Setting aside all the deeply, cure deeply serious clash-of-civilizations rumblings in my other post on last week’s trip to fabulous Andalusia, troche Favorite Husband and I also had a truly excellent time. The week included two of my absolute favorite things: food that I don’t usually eat and public celebrations that I don’t really understand.

On the food side of things, salve Andalusia is the land of tapas. Although I haven’t lived in the United States for many years, I get the impression that tapas bars were cool once, but have now gone the way of the Squirrel Nut Zippers (or have been replaced by the more urbane-sounding “small plate restaurant”.) Anyway, woe is to you if you’re not sitting in a tapas bar in Jerez right now, eating a plate of oily artichoke hearts, or a chickpea-and-chorizo-and-cabbage stew or a still-sizzling platter of calamari frito. Southern Spanish tapas is unrepentantly meaty, deep fried, fat-laden, salty, glorious. And it’s cheap. And it’s almost always accompanied by plates of gorgeous local olives (the endless varities of which baffle and delight an olive-lover like myself — personally, I always tried to find places that served “gordo”, the fat green olive approximately the size of large duck egg) and elegant small glasses of icy beer or the Manzanilla sherry of the region. It is joyful eating, where the plates keep coming, and everyone around you looks excited at the prospect of what might emerge from the kitchen, and the tab is chalked by the bartender on the bar in front of you (which he also uses as a tablet for his ponderous addition when you ask for the check.) Needless to say, I spent the week in a state of distracted delirium.

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Tapas in Grenada

There was only one problem with the whole tapas deal for FH and me: we’re just not good tapas people. When we ordered, we waited impatiently for the plate’s arrival, then ate whatever was on it, then started looking up for the next plate to arrive. Around us, professional Spanish tapas eaters stretched small plates of cheese and jamon and olives out over hours of leisurely conversation. FH and I tried, we really did. We talked about our flawed approach to tapas; we attempted different techniques (general distraction, word games, bountiful drinking) to stretch it out. As it turned out, it was impossible for us to overcome our cultural training of prompt and dutiful plate-cleaning at every meal. Over and over again, we failed, looking up from our clamshells, our cheese rinds, our sausage casings guiltily as the waiter tsk-tsked and swept the empty plate away. Not that this put us off the tapas, mind you. Just a note to others who grew up in families with a clearly delineated dinner time that this form of consumption takes (not unpleasant) practice.

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Semana Santa float in Triana, Seville

On the public celebration side of things, we managed to overlap with the first days of Semana Santa, Catholic Spain’s Holy Week. Seville was in a daily uproar during our four days there, with public works crews setting up road barriers and bleacher seating for thousands. When we visited Seville’s famous cathedral, we shared the space with a good-sized truck that was moving giant candelbras around and making lots of irritating echoey truck noises under the tremendous ceiling. It all seemed remote and semi-invasive until Friday night when we ran into one of the first Semana Santa processions in Triana, a neighborhood across the river from the main tourist area in Seville. And then it suddenly became clear why all the bustle, and why tourists come from around the world to see the Spanish Holy Week in person.

What happens is this: every church has a procession, and since there are so many churches, they have to double up, or more. So there are multiple processions every night, and it seems that they all follow different routes, meaning that you can wander the streets after dark and cut across the paths of competing parades. Also, there seem to be some Keystone Cops moments of processions running into each other, with lots of priestly glaring and dueling of incense, followed by miffed resolution, but that may have been part of plan; hard to tell not speaking Spanish. The processions themselves include some combination of elements: gigantic candles carried by kids in suits, priests in full gear, sticks of incense taller than me. The one constant, though, in each procession is the big float. The float seemed to be either Mary, Queen of Heaven or Jesus, at some familiar point in the Easter story (crucifixion, resurrection, Son of God, etc). They are so over the top, so glittery, so be-candled, so shiny and big and heavy that you cannot believe it’s been pulled together by a little parish church. Earlier in the week, I observed to Favorite Husband that the Spanish, in terms of fashion, were obviously not afraid of sequins; as it turned out, this translates to Semana Santa floats as well. It was all sparkle; this event is not about understatement. The floats, despite their obvious weight, are also entirely man-powered; rows of men covered with the velvet skirts heave the float through the city streets on their shoulders, moving at a stately pace. Corners present problems, and so each float is surrounded by a second phalanx of dark-suited older men who look like Secret Service, but are instead the guides to the blind float-bearers.

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It’s not what you think: Semana Santa procession in Jerez

We spent our last night in Jerez, a dusty sherry-making town between Seville and Cadiz. Jerez sees day-tripping tour bus visitors who come in to tour the giant sherry factories and then quickly skip town, which is described in both the guidebooks I had as a pointless and ugly overnight stop. Happily for us, Saveur Magazine, one of my food-related spiritual guides, advised that Jerez had one of the best tapas bars around (the Bar Juanito in the Pescadoria Viejo, and they were right), so I decided that we’d buck the trend and stay on for the night.

On arrival, it became clear that foolish decisions had been made. All the sherry-makers were closed for Semana Santa, Jerez did indeed seem like an abandoned cow-town after the excitement and bustle of Seville, and the police appeared to be capriciously towing all the cars parked near our hotel. FH and I safely stowed our car in a garage, checked in to our surprisingly charming hotel (the Belles Artes: don’t stay anywhere else in Jerez if you want to wake up to the cathedral’s dome), and agreed to take a quick walk through the presumably decrepit downtown before admitting defeat and spending the rest of the day napping.

Duh. Jerez’s jewel-box downtown is gorgeous, and it being Sunday, Holy Week processions were about to begin in earnest. As we walked through the late afternoon sunshine, we were joined by a flood of families walking towards the center to establish their places for the coming processions, by several different marching bands polishing their instruments, people rushing by with eight foot high incense sticks, a truck laden with life-size crucifixes (!), etc. Perhaps most, er, surprising for FH and me was the attire worn by the Semana Santa crowd; in Jerez, most of the processants were dressed in some variety of a loose flowing robe, topped with a very tall pointy head covering with eyeholes cut in it. Some of them were white, some dark blue, and a number were black. In other words, as non-Spanish-Catholics, FH and I had to keep reminding ourselves over the next few hours that we were taking part in a celebration of Jesus Christ’s resurrection, not a Klan rally.

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Pietà float in Jerez

Four chruches staged processions that night in Jerez; each procession wound its way through the narrow stone streets and ended up at the main cathedral, where the float was dropped off. All the floats were in by midnight, but the street party continued long into the night; tapas bars stayed open, street stands sold sausages and beer and fried everything, and quite obviously, no one was planning to go to work the next day.
The South East Asia Press Alliance (SEAPA) and the Philippines Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) have been holiding a meeting this week in Manilla on how new technologies assist free expression, pill both of the press and of individuals. Free Expression in Asian Cyberspace: A Conference of Asian Bloggers, more about Podcasters and Online Media is being chronicled on a number of blogs, visit this site including the conference’s own where Alecks Pabico of PCIJ is keeping track of what’s going on, and on Ethan Zuckerman’s. Ethan and Nart Villeneuve of the Citizen Lab in Toronto are giving a day-long talk today on beating blocking, filtering, and monitoring in cyberspace, a topic that deserves far more attention than it gets given the efforts repressive governments are making around the world to interfere with their citizens’ access to online information.

One of the many great things about this conference is that it’s run by a bunch of people who are familiar — even comfortable — with new technologies like blogging, podcasting, posting video, etc. The blog mentioned above provides a window into the conference in nearly real time — not just “what happened?” as reported by Alecks and other blogger, but straightforwardly: you’re there. You can listen to most of the presentations and watch many of them, follow links to the bloggers who are covering the event live, read background materials on the issue. I’m hoping that most of the presenters, like Ethan and Nart, will be posting their slide decks under a Creative Commons license here and elsewhere in the near future.

I’ve recently talked with several other groups planning networking meetings about using communications technologies at their meetings — what can the technology do to help connect the participants after the event, as well as make the proceedings more transparent for those who couldn’t attend? The SEAPA/PCIJ conference is a good example to work from. I’m extremely sorry that I couldn’t make it to this one, but in terms of following the content of the discussions, I haven’t missed much.
Many more of us are able to create videos these days than just a few years ago. You don’t even need to haul around the digicam; your phone, drug your digital camera, your PDA can make a movie. This turns out to be a very useful thing in social justice movements. Visual documentation means that governments or other repressive factions can’t dismiss what they might otherwise like to.

One problem with the deluge of video emerging from social justice movements around the world is: where to put it all? How do people distribute it, find it, share it, and use it to make the difference that it could? A number of organizations around the world have been asking this question, and developing video distribution platforms for advocacy communities. Led by Engage Media of Australia, representatives from these projects will be getting together in Rome from June 7-10 for “Transmission” to compare projects, talk collaboration, and investigate the possibility for sharing resources.

This is the kind of event that I’m very happy to see because it means less replication and more shared resources and standards in open source development communities. Cross-pollination between software projects with similar goals is crucial — there are a lot of niches out there to fill, and open collaboration between a network of like-minded projects seems to me the best way to reach all of them.
I happened across the Serious Games Initiative today, pilule a project which appears to be parked at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in DC. Despite the Monty Python-ish name, information pills the SGI has outlined a challenging (and real) mission for itself:

The Serious Games Initiative is focused on uses for games in exploring management and leadership challenges facing the public sector. Part of its overall charter is to help forge productive links between the electronic game industry and projects involving the use of games in education, stuff training, health, and public policy.

As Wired advised us last month, gaming is the new black: versitile, slimming, and goes anywhere, be it to college, to war, or to the boardroom. Given that, taking games seriously as a force for social change seems worthwhile — at least in parts of the world where processor speed and connectivity make it a realistic avenue for online interaction. I’ll be curious to see whether the third annual Games for Change conference in New York next month addresses any of the “internationalization” issues that shadow much of our work at OSI: language, bandwidth, appropriate hardware and software. The obvious answer is that “games for change” follow games for fun; wherever fun games work, social change games can probably be played. But would they be, outside of a specific training situation? A gaming novice like myself assumes that games are escapist, first and foremost, and educational or empowering much further down the line.

Two areas where it looks like “serious games” have made inroads are heath and education. One example is Pump Expeditions, a game created for kids and teenagers living with diabetes; the game’s activities teach the importance of monitoring insulin levels and keeping track of overall health. Another popular game in the serious category, funded by the Sloan Foundation, is Virtual U, a game that lets the player pretend to be a university executive, deciding how to grow an educational instituation. Again, I wonder how possible it is to mix the viral popularity of non-serious games with serious topics. Virtual U looks to be a very useful template for learning about the difficulties of running an educational instituation, and yet the gaming scenarios outlined on the FAQ don’t exactly make one want to give up on Grand Theft Auto just yet:

Scenario 1 Pay Faculty Better
Scenario 2 Allocate New Money
Scenario 3 Teach Better
Scenario 4 Improve Research Performance
Scenario 5 Win Games
Scenario 6 Reduce Tuition
Scenario 7 Respond to Enrollment Shifts
Scenario 8 Enroll More Minority Students
Scenario 9 Hire More Minority Faculty Members
Scenario 10 Balance the Budget

Well, it’s probably more fun to approach it as a virtual world than it is to read a handbook by your human resources department about those topics, right?

So my question about these kinds of products is whether they work as *games*, in the sense of something that people do of their own free will, that engages creativity and releases the kind of “fun” endorphins that Tomb Raider clearly does — or do they only work as simulated learning tools, which seems like a related but somewhat different category than “serious games”. Perhaps my definition of games is simply too narrow, and games, in the computer sense, are any kind of graphical, digital interaction where decision-making takes place (which was, essentially, Wired’s argument last month about the broader social value of games: their prevalence has created a generation of quick, good decision-makers). “Games for social good” is surely not a new concept, but it will be interesting to see at the meeting next month and beyond if a corner has been turned that puts these kinds of tools both in reach and in interest range of broader social movements.

UPDATE: A good example of a joint fun game/teaching game is A Force More Powerful, a joint venture of The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), York Zimmerman Inc., and game designers BreakAway Ltd. From the website:

A Force More Powerful is the first and only game to teach the waging of conflict using nonviolent methods. Destined for use by activists and leaders of nonviolent resistance and opposition movements, the game will also educate the media and general public on the potential of nonviolent action and serve as a simulation tool for academic studies of nonviolent resistance.

I’m very happy to see the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Media and Democracy launch Congresspedia, viagra the “citizen’s encyclopedia on Congress that anyone can edit”. The happy news is that Congresspedia is easy to use (based on the Wikipedia model), ailment encourages citizen participation, and clearly isn’t a joke. Anyone (US citizen or not) can go into any of the hundreds of pages already on Congresspedia and edit information about America’s lawmakers…all 535 of them from the House and the Senate. The claim is that the site is non-partisan and encourages the beloved Wikipedian neutral point of view (or n-pov, for those in the know); most likely the major challenge will be whether they’ll be able to maintain that. Given the squirmy battles in the regular Wikipedia over politicians’ pages, one can’t help but wonder.

But this raises a larger question about the offspring of Wikipedia; Congresspedia is essentially a sub-set of Wikipedia, hived off and put under its own name. But there’s a bit of a problem of replication here. Richard Burr, the junior Republican senator from North Carolina, has a page on Wikipedia with one set of information. Richard Burr also has a page with a slightly differnt set of information on Congresspedia (and more fleshed out information, by the way, as it’s a specialty Wikipedia child). Which one is definitive? Presumably, given that specialization is presumed to be better, Congresspedia’s entry on Richard Burr is going to be definitive. But where does that leave the original Wikipedia? My guess is that over time, specialized Wikipedia child sites will become more popular: I’ve had half a dozen conversations over the past year with organizations about the utility and feasibility of a Wikipedia installation focused on a specific issue: NGOs, public health, and so on. I’m sure there are already others out there. I don’t think this necessarily dilutes the utility of Wikipedia as a whole, but I’m wondering whether there will be any effort to synchronize content between Wikipedia children and the main site…either on a volunteer basis (as Wikipedia itself is written) or through some kind of Wikimedia automation. It’s also a social question; will Wikipedia contributors get the same satisfaction and sense of community out of working on Wikipedia children, or will the main site continue to be the community draw? As always, the brave new world of wikipedia is worth keeping an eye on. The problems they have to solve now seem pretty clearly to be forerunners of those that a wide range of media will face in the coming years as the participatory becomes the default.
I’ve written on this blog several times about how mapping and GIS technologies — particularly those that are usable by non-experts — can help to make a stronger case when advocating a cause. These tools have been used to great effect by the environmental movement, more about as well as by groups with interests as diverse as natural resource plundering iin the developing world and using chemical weapons against civilians. As tools like Google Maps put the possibility of mapping data into the hands of many, story we’re also seeing that collaborative projects can be undertaken with mapping as a focal point for tracking and clarifying information coming in from a range of sources. In other words, maps are being used to do, rather than simply to explain an end result.

Just recently, OSI’s Information Program (where I work), released a set of case studies on this topic. Researched and written by Stephanie Lindenbuam, the set of documents includes a useful overview from the layman’s perspective on what mapping means in an advocacy context. This is followed by a nine short papers (each 3-4 pages) that detail individual stories of how mapping is being used within an organization or campaign. The papers can be downloaded individually in pdf format. Take a look if this is something you’re thinking about in your work.

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