Thursday, 18 June 2009

A healthy dose of technology makes the president go down, the president go down...

Last Tuesday, Patrick Meier came to the Khartoum Student Seminar to share his research on how IT can be used as a tool by activists in countries with repressive regimes (being very careful not to mention a particular regime). 

I picture his research as a bit of dystopic future-world spaghetti western in which the repressive regimes represent the proverbial cowboys (I am being PC here and suggesting that cowboys are baddies due to the whole “extermination of whole peoples groups” and all) while the activists are clearly the Indians- a.k.a. the goodies. This is kind of accurate, given that native Americans were battling against a repressive regime. They just used small pox instead of sms messages.

Patrick’s research question is who is going to win- who is going to master the technology first- the activists or the governments? Censorship or IT empowerment? 

I like the dramatic arc of his research. I clearly need to develop a movie metaphor for my own research.

Patrick shared a whole bunch of funny and interesting stories from around the world. Here are a couple of my favourites bits from his presentation (I am not sure if I am allowed to talk about one so I have left it out):

Zimbabwe goes analog

Ok, I will admit it. I am not entirely sure what analog means. Maybe it means 1010101010000010001 and I should just write the rest of this section 1’s and 0’s and the occasional flourish of spaces. Are they allowed? 1000111! (no!)

Anyhow, in my simpleton mind, analog means non-digital.

Governments can shut down the Internet. Governments can shut down mobile phone services and blame it on dogs chewing wires and bees attacking electrical engineers- apparently how the government explained why Darfur went offline in the past… but governments cannot shut down tape decks and they cannot easily shut down landlines (for how are they going to communicate themselves? Maybe Haboobs are failed smoke signals- duh duh dah!).

In Zimbabwe, people are getting around government censorship by recording news from outside of the country and bringing it on tapes. Patrick said they use the long distance road networks as radio stations, with bus drivers making excellent DJs. How clever! This suggests that bus drivers in Zimbabwe are sympathetic characters. I don’t think this would work in London, where bus drivers are recruited from shutdown mercenary companies.

But let's get back to Zimbabwe, land of friendly bus drivers! There is another very clever IT development going on there called Freedom Fone. 

Freedom Fone is a landline phone service in Zimbabwe that allows you to call up and request news. According to Patrick (and embellished by my imagination) it goes something like this:

Helloooo, and welcome to Freedom fone. If you know the name of the social problem you would like to hear about, please press one.

If you would like to hear a list of social problems, please press two.

Using your touchtone phone, please enter the first three letters of the social problem now.

You have selected civil rights abuses. If this is correct please hold the line.  

So cool!

(Patrick’s presentation invariably led to everyone in the room feeling like brothers and sisters in arms, resisting the great temptation to raise our fists in solidarity with people everywhere.)

Souktel- sms jobs in Palestine

Patrick didn’t actually talk about this during his presentation but told me about it afterwards and it is KOLKO INTERESNO (with capital letters, note!).

Souktel is a service in Palestine that allows people to send in their c.v.s and receive job posts using sms messages. Apparently it has been a huge success. You can check out their colourful website:

My friend and I got to thinking about how it could be used in Sudan. We are going to do some investigations...

But I wonder whether it would work. On the one hand, it seems that when it comes down to it, Sudan has too many job seekers and not enough jobs. Whether companies want MORE applications is dubious. At the same time, if they want the best candidates, surely they want to reach as many people as possible. A friend of mine said that when he applied for his job, there were 12,000 other applicants. They selected 52 from this huge number. Personally, I would not want to have to read 12,000 c.v.s. I would rather fight a bull in a china shop. But on the other hand, this company probably got the cream of the cream.

On their website, Souktel seems to suggest that there is some degree of filtering that goes on and that they “match” people with jobs. I wonder how many of those 12,000 applicants were completely irrelevant and how many were qualified people. The numbers depress me daily.

In some ways, I think souktel could be more useful for low-end jobs in Sudan. I promised (long ago) that I would share how plumbers and electricians get work in Sudan.

It is very simple, no phone book required. There are certain corners of the city, where plumbers, electricians and other handymen hang out. Usually tea ladies are on hand to supply them with constant tea. They prop their tools of the pavement, “advertising” their craft. When you need one, you simply drive up to the curb and they all come forward. You pick one and take him home with you. He does his job and returns to the corner. It is a simple process but also one which requires effort on behalf of the customer. After all, I do not have a car. The last time I needed a plumber, my lovely neighbour had to drive me all the way and back. Additionally, it can’t be fun for the plumbers to sit in the sun and dust all day.

If they could set up a system, by which customers, could text in and request a certain tradesmen, then they could spend their days how they wished. In this way, I do see potential for this kind of technology in Sudan. I just wonder at what levels. Do companies really want more applicants for those high-end jobs? I am not sure.

Paranoia gets the better of me: I will never buy an iPhone.

I say ha ha to you, my sister Loula! I say ha ha to you, my brother Gareth! The iPhone may be your Oracle. Sure, it can become a cow-bell at the flick of the switch and can tell you the location of the nearest sizzler on long distance drives. And perhaps it allows us to tell Derek to come to the Botanical Gardens in Pasadena when we have both forgotten our phone numbers…. But according to Patrick, they are also a tool of “the Man” (he didn't actually say that).

Apparently all cell phones made in the US must have a component that allows the government to use them as listening devices. That is bloody scary. Just a little bit scarier, iPhones can never be turned off. 

The government probably doesn’t care whether any of Derek's friends did or did not get our (ingenious) facebook message---- but whatever you do, don’t go gabbing in Arabic to your friends at Egyptian airline companies. And if you do, try not to make too many jokes. The CIA doesn’t laugh. And neither will you when you get your orange jumpsuit. All right, maybe it will be a bit funny on the first day- sort of like when you go paint-balling and everyone has a good old laugh about the ridiculous costumes, but that will wear off hasta pronto when you discover that you have to spend the rest of your life in a cage.

I have the world's most ineffective phone. It switches off at least five times a day and displays the message "emergency calls only" when it senses that I am in a particularly bad mood. But I will say this now to you my dear sweet phone, I will never trade you in for a younger model. Sure, she has legs up to here and hair down to there, but she is a spy. A spy, I tell you!!!!!! And I am no James Bond.

Maybe Patrick is conspiracy theorist and I shouldn’t believe anything he says, but he doesn’t seem like one to me. He seems very nice, very friendly and he used econometrics in his presentation. I don’t think conspiracy theorists can sit still long enough to engage in regression analysis. Nor do their eyes stay in one place when they talk to you. Patrick isn't paranoid. He is very calm. 

So beware fancy iPhone users, Washington is watching you!

So that pretty much sums up my post for today. In short, I hope the Indians will win. Let's all hope that creativity will trump control. I don't want to live in a police state.

So I bid thee "Tara" my brothers in digital arms! 

(But remember, arms are for hugging.)

If you would like to read to the same post in analog, please press three…

1 comment:

  1. Loved this post!!!

    On Souktel, yes, it's used for low-end jobs. Similar service by Mobile-4-Good uses same idea for job search/matching in Kibera.