Wednesday, December 15, 2010

After inventing the WWW, where do you go next?

Sir Tim Berners-Lee is the keynote speaker at this ICTD conference happening here in London. The Michael Jackson in the computing world, Sir. Tim Berners-Lee has been credited for inventing the World Wide Web, launching the first basic communication via the Internet in 1989. So...he appears lost on stage, as if he walked into the wrong conference. A tech-geek at heart, it seems he is compelled to connect his general fabulous geekiness to starving children in Uganda. And sadly he tries. He brings up in some circular way this farmer in rural India who makes decisions on drilling the land and sowing the seeds and something about rainfall and if he just had a crash course on farming ..farming for Dummies 1.0. And just when you wonder where its heading, he miraculously ties this to accessing the Internet for empowerment, a point already beaten to death not just at this conference but for the last decade in the ICTD field.

Okay, so while he may not be the development guru (nor does he claim to be which is the redeeming aspect here), he becomes more engaging when he actually starts to talk about his toys, his nerdy state of being and more. He talks about the creative process, particularly on how scientists inhabit the fuzzy world of stories and inspiration: "I spend a lot of my time in an anecdotal world." While nothing new per se, it is nice to be reminded that data often does not inspire, it often's the after and not before of the creative process.

When asked (surprise surprise) as to what is the future of the www, a member of his www consortium reveals that voice technologies is where the www should be heading to. Seems so intuitively obvious given the high illiteracy rates around the world yet it is amazing how voice-based technologies has not taken off at an unprecedented scale; wish they talked more about this as to why this hasn't yet happened. Instead, questions concerning wikileaks seems to infuse the auditorium space, tying this to security, walled gardens, regulation and open vs proprietry software. Nothing too revealing in these discussions and predictive in terms of its place in this interdisciplinary conference.

So, post-keynote talk, I land up chatting with some Microsoft guys who are researching on search techniques. They tell me that they've heard Berners-Lee talk every year as a keynote speaker at the WWW consortium and apparently, he uses the same speech year after year after..year! Hard to beat the www idea huh? So just a tip here- if you're going to do something epic in life, just hope this happens later rather than earlier in your career. Of course, we often don't know a moment is epic until after the fact. This explains why often the initiation of epicness is marked by the mundane such as the testing of the telephone call by Bell saying "Mr. Watson come here, I want to see you" to Berners-Lee's first web address "" explaining the WWW project. So next time, you may be better prepared when you confront your own 5 minutes of fame...

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Geography for development: mapping for change

Who doesn't love a good idea! Here's one, aerial mapping of a community space in Palestine by attaching a regular camera to a kite. So picture this..."tampering" with a regular camera and attaching it to a kite that flies overhead your community allows for a aerial perspective of your local space; piloted by Palestinian youth make it even better. This stems from the Voices Beyond Walls organization, a collective of independent Palestinian and international media technologists, filmmakers, photographers, educators, and activists that hold digital storytelling workshops with the youth in the refugee camps in the West Bank.

Here's another kind of mapping: in Kibera, Nairobi, digital mapping of this "blank spot" on Google maps becomes richly detailed through the initiative of local information surveying and sharing to create a digital public map of their own community. And why should one care? Well, besides its invisibility online, it has more pragmatic purposes. Community maps allow for the planning of policy and practice initiatives. Kibera, in spite of its Hollywood fame, having been featured in Fernando Meirelles's film The Constant Gardener, is also a region which is one of the largest slums in Africa that is in dire need of attention. This project stems from the Map Kibera initiative, drawing from local participation through smsing on updates of their local space for planning, navigation, and community rejuvenation.

There are other kinds of mapping traffic mapping during earthquakes, mapping of the virtual economy flow to understand the scope of digital labor in developing countries to mapping of hotspots of artists in Poland as tourist online guides. In fact, mapping seems to have gained tremendous attention amongst development practitioners as they look at capturing spaces as a platform to addressing issues such as youth education, healthcare, urban planning, emergency relief and more.

That said, who is actually using such maps is a looming question still. While very powerful to gain grants from sponsors and funders and legitimacy amongst INGOs, the actual locals are often unaware of the entire lifelines of such projects...

Monday, December 13, 2010

The ICTD conference kicks off with marital discord between practitioners and academics

The ICTD conference for 2010 goes all Harry Potter on us, hosted by Royal Holloway, University of London. This university, started in 1886 and financially backboned substantively by Thomas Holloway who made his millions from patent medicine, is a fascinating site to hold the conference in. While we're immersed delightfully within the history of this educational space, we're confronted with the future of this relatively newly created ICTD conference space. Its a response to the persistent frustrations of the disconnect between academia and practice. It's about making "relevant" academia, to network these seemingly disparate groups in a fruitful manner and create sustainable thinking through interdisciplinary means.

So it is of little surprise that the conference launches with a panel of practitioners and moderated by Tim Unwin from Royal Holloway, University of London. In true academic self-flagellation, Tim remarks that only practitioners can truly "guide the next decade of academic research." Invited on the panel is Erik Hersman, co-founder and director of operations of Ushahidi, Anriette Esterhuysen, executive-director of the Association for Progressive Communications, Tony Salvador Senior Principal engineer, and Director of Research, Emerging Markets Platform Group, Intel Corporation, Anita Gurumurthy, IT for Change, Ken Banks, founder of and creator of FrontlineSMS, and Indrajit Banerjee, Director of the Information Society Division, UNESCO. They were invited to speak their mind on what they think should be researched on in the near future, look deeply into certain issues and question certain dominant assumptions in the field. Of course, as predicted, the debate starts of with the usual practitioner-academic debate, with an underlying bias of making the "practitioner" very current, reflexive, insightful and "close" to the beneficiaries. Academics however, need a new PR agent apparently as they're viewed as parasitical creatures, feeding off on the "brain food" of practitioners as Anriette states. Banerjee, an ex-academic fuels this further with his comment that "“academics are talking to themselves while development is out there." Of course, there is some noise on who is this "practitioner" anyway? Aren't all academics, if genuinely effective, are practitioners too ? - as such, all "good theory is good practice too," as Anita states. So is that really true?

While this ritual perhaps is essential, given the role of rituals in general as markers that indicate that we're all part of this community that shares common tensions that at once divide and unite at the same time, there were more interesting points that were brought up by this panel, namely from Erik, a technologist who astutely asks why do we pigeonhole technologies as tools for development? Its like saying Mozilla Firefox is for development just because it's being used by emerging market demographics! So why do we naturalize certain tools as “empowerment tools” and does this really have a particular advantage for the ICTD field or does it long term do more damage as we exoticise typical tools and thereby create barriers on intergrating "exotic" populations into the typical user-interfacing group?

fodder for thought for sure...

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Fokke n Sukke does a number on us Tedhead bloggers

Granted, my profound ignorance of Dutch cartoons mitigated a little only due to self-centrism. Having learnt that us TEDx bloggers from the TEDx Amsterdam event (that recently wrapped up on Nov 30th) was covered by two specimens that don't wear pants, it piqued my attention for sure. Fokke, a run-of-the-mill duck wearing a small sailor's cap is accompanied by Sukke, a canary bird that wears a baseball cap backwards but apparently rocks the boat with their supposed tails that coincidently resemble male genitalia. But thats not all that they rock. Their benign disguise is coupled with politically incorrect humor and barbed sarcasms targeted at posers such as us TEDheadders, a subculture of The Economist reading, Mac hugging, Jon Stewart loving type of groupies.

So, Fokke & Sukke is a Dutch comic strip created by writer and illustrator Jean-Marc van Tol, and writers John Reid and Bastiaan Geleijnse and is published in the daily broadsheet NRC Handelsblad. These guys even won the Stripschapprijs, the Netherlands’ premier cartoon award. So no doubt then it is flattering that our esteemed little creatures decided to focus (albeit mockingly) on us bloggers given the numerous distractions going on at the TEDx event.

So the translation for this goes something like this..based on my pigeon Dutch:
Sitting down in the press balcony with pen and paper

Sukke! Everyone uses an apple! (holding onto their pen and paper)
Shh! Careful or they'll realize that we don't know shit about nanotechnology!

I m sure its more acidic when translated correctly...but hey, nothing like getting immortalized by a bunch of furry creatures that are still not extinct.