“You can try to avoid that’s why its pointless
but you can never avoid the voice of the voiceless” – Lowkey
“The voice of the Voiceless… that voice is social imbalance” – Immortal Technique
A conference titled New Media and Governance: Tools and Trends was held on the 14th to 15th of May 2012 (three days ago) organized by the partnership of Yaradua Center, EnoughIsEnough and Galaxy Backbone PLC (there are a ton of non-major partners).
New Media is a large concept and should not be subsumed in to social media, which is a part of New Media. New Media as a concept could involve the apparently primitive media tools insofar as information cost is lowered whereas social media is almost inseparable with electronic devices. If a town-crier best suit your purpose of disseminating information, there is no need for a whole village to subscribe a Blackberry plan. However due to demand of interactivity our discussions dwell on those tools that offer a two-way information traffic. And judging by the number of iPads at the conference, it would ve been disappointing not to talk about online tools.
Gidi Traffic alerts you of traffic congestion via twitter. When NYSC Corp members were not paid allowance, Ministry of Youth Dev did not find out through its bureaucratic channel but via social media updates. This could be the future of Nigerian governance. New Media may be extended to monitoring corruption by transparency (as in Ekiti State later on) and by citizen engagement (client engagement in terms of contract).
“Many World Bank projects have failed because citizens don’t engage in accountability” – Caroline Sage of World Bank
The essential ingredient of New Media is low cost, cost of information and cost of collaboration, which are significantly lowered by New Media; E.g information on budget can easily be disseminated via SMS and protests can be organized over facebook. There were so many real world examples given during the conference but for the sake of brevity, I’ll skip them.
A New Media organization is the big-guy that can stand up for the voiceless by relying on two major supports: Anonymity and Partnership. Such organizations/platforms can receive information anonymously (then perform necessary verification) and relay this information to their partners (or not as when mySociety flooded traffic authorities in the UK with complaint-emails without seeking permission first which would have been denied).
The style of this post is issue-focused. I noted some of the issue I thought were interesting and I’ll attempt to indulge in some. The reader may wish to jump to which sub headings they find interesting. The content of the conference was vast and quite detailed at times so here is a link to the presentations made for any who would ve wanted to attend (available for download). A few factual information in this post are taken straight from their presenters and not verified; also subject to my memory. I intended a section on technical details of the new media tools but that may make this post too long; a different blog perhaps on request. I will append a section at the end with a list (and links) to some of these tools.
INEC Situation Room
First, it was interesting to find out that Civil Societies love Prof Jega (Head of INEC); he is a kind of a celebrity. I got a different impression from internet comments but you know what, he seemed like a cool chap after many references to his participation in some endeavors… enough on Him. Cooler stuff await.
Did you know that INEC had a situation room? Neither did I. Perhaps my imagination is getting the best of me but I imagined it to be like 24’s CTU. There are large screens with major news channels (one was wasted on NTA), arrays of phones (landlines and mobile), and loads of people. An interesting sight is that the civil society ReclaimNaija had a section for itself in the situation room monitoring election in realtime. ReclaimNaija was using the Ushahidi Platform to monitor elections (more on that later).
#OccupyNaija and #FuelSubsidy Protests: Success or Failure
I won’t prolong the suspense. The consensus at the conference is that the protests were successful. It must be viewed from two perspectives to appreciate this answer.
First, by viewing the protests as battles and social activism as the war. As highlighted, the lack of a unified/operational youth body made it easier for NLC to hijack the campaign which led to them settling for “half” of the demand. What matters is that the demand of citizens was listened to and the government’s callous decision was “half” reversed.
I think international media is to blame for perception of others that this was a failure. For the cost of creating a spectacle, international mainstream media labeled the “Arab Spring” a facebook revolution. Many candid Nigerians believed it and thought that simply facebook/twitter were enough to cause change. What they were not aware of is the prolonged struggle and sustained organization that were the foundations of the entire revolutions. Many Nigerians that came out to the street felt betrayed (by NLC) and are disheartened because it seems what they understood to happened in other countries has not happened in theirs. Simply because of misinformation. I guess New Media can exaggerate aspects of a cause. Critical reading of news becomes a priority.
The second perspective to understand this success is from the point of view of Civil Societies. These are people who do the behind-the-curtains jobs in addition to the on-stage actions like the boisterous protests. For example the FOI act recently passed was a result of sustained attempts for 12 years. Now the Civil Societies are feeling the change in response of the government to issues they were once aloof about. More publically, the recent senate probe on fuel subsidy that was reported was prompted by this change in dynamics: Now that is success.
Equal under God… Except if You Know More
Chidi Odinkalu made an interesting claim: that Nigeria is a nation of discrimination based on information. We are constantly reminded that we live in an information age, the truth of which may be contested. The Nigerian context, although may be far from the typical economic implication of “information age” but may be socially/politically in information age. The question is that why are civil servants the richest class of people in the country? or why does any rich person have to depend much on civil servants? The answer relevant here is that because civil servants have information, others don’t.
In this sense, Freedom Of Information act is supposed to bridge this gap (of course not focused on economic investments). Freedom Of Information is then Freedom in Information or Freedom through Information. In most cases government organizations are not willing to share their secrets so FOI requests likely end up in court. But even Chidi (I think) mentioned how the will of Justice is easily swayed in Nigeria. In cases where FOI requests succeed, it means only a few people (the requesters) have their hands on it. New Media comes to the rescue.
For other government agencies that publish documents on their websites, that is New Media and potentially accessible to anyone. The few that win court cases on FOI requests could publish it on the Internet or any other New Media. Discrimination then may not be based on information bust based on effort to access the information (which is technically not discrimination).
Revenue from Transparency
It was pay day in Afghanistan and many police officers were excited. They had gotten a raise. Perhaps this raise comes with their new payment method which was electronic (notification on phones). What they found out later was that there was no raise and it was no mistake. It was simply that their commissioners used to carve out chunks of their salaries before paying them… for years. This was a story shared at the conference by Steven Livingston.
More relevant is the case of Ekiti state which was narrated by the Governor at the Conference. Tax Revenue from Ekiti before adopting New Media (electronic payment) was about N150 Million. Tax Revenue after adopting New Media immediately jumped to more than N600 Million. This means that only about 15% of the taxes get to government treasury, the rest was “lost” along the way in the hands of bureaucrats.
It seems the answer to transparency (and citizen participation) can be provided by New Media. But why have many government agencies not embraced it? The Minister of ICT mentioned at the conference that by 2014 about 50% of government information will be published online and that 15 to 20 services (in addition to tax and immigration) will be added to New Media payment. However it seems government agencies are resistant to these services so far because the prefer yahoo and hotmail to their .gov.ng domains. The MD of Galaxy Backbone Plc (who provide the service) confirmed that only 6% of this .gov.ng services are being utilized. This reluctance may become resistance to “intrusion” of New Media. I hope the reluctance is not because of unreliable service… that is another issue then.
Did you know that a recent study showed that people are more truthful on emails than on phones? Emails implicitly mean documented, thus accountability. I’m just saying…
Transparency’s Scourge Proved Wrong
Caroline Sage, from World Bank, talked about the information revolution in the World Bank. The default stand of the World Bank (as with most authorities) is that all information is private unless there is a need to make it public; which may not unrelated to court cases. However the revolution flipped the scripts: now World Bank information is public by default unless there is a reason to make it private.
The fear of World Bank (as many other authorities) was mainly that exposing such information might leave them vulnerable to attacks and criticism. However World Bank has recorded less complaints/criticism since the information revolution. This is probably due to the availability of clear information which formerly may not have been clear and so easily misconstrued.
Another interesting finding which will douse the fear of exposing New Media to rural areas is the case of rural farmers which Caroline Sage worked with. Keep in mind that New Media includes monitoring via SMS. Potentially anyone that uses a mobile phone can be a New Media agent. This is what Caroline Sage had to say about the rural farmers:
“I don’t know about literacy but Nigerians (farmers) have grabbed ICT with a vengeance.” – Caroline Sage
Preventing Rigging by Participation
There was a discussion on the techniques of rigging election in the recent context where voters are registered before voting. This point came from an unexpected source. It was not a detective, forensics or sociologist; it was a musician BankyW. The logic is outlined in what follows. Bear in mind that youths (18yrs to 35yrs) account for over 60% of Nigeria’s population.
Assuming there are 100 Nigerians and two political parties; let us hypothetically call them HP (Honest Party) and PDP (Power for Darkness Party). PDP is the evil party seeking to rig election to their favor. 70 Nigerians register to vote, 40 came out to vote. Of the 40, 30 vote of HP and 10 for PDP. Now PDP is smart enough to know that it will be difficult to rig the elections since the number of voters can be accounted for. PDP then prints ballot-papers and cast 30 votes in favor of PDP. The election commission sees the result for HP as 30 votes and for PDP as 10+30 votes. And so PDP wins.
Of course it is not all this simple in reality as one may ask questions like: why isn’t biometrics used to confirm identity of voters, was the registration protected enough because PDP could have inflated the number of registrants in anticipation of the future… and so many other questions. The message is that by coming out to vote, you are also preventing rigging.
On the second day three artists were invited for one of the sessions titled “Naija Generation and New Media”: they are Efe Paul, a poet; Darey, a musician; BankyW, a musician. All three entertained us well the night before during a dinner sponsored by the conference organizers. During the session however, there was more preaching and less performing. BankyW was the exception; he seemed to be doing both. The three gave inspiring and contemplative short speeches but I highlight the question of whether celebrities should meddle with politics; this point was emphasized by Darey.
Darey threw in the rhetorical questions and BankyW attempted to answer some. This has always been one of the fallacies of media especially in advertisements where a celebrity endorses a product with statements that his/her artistic qualifications don’t give him/her authority; e.g. what might D’Banj know about toothpastes to give him authority to say it is the best. Darey asked if celebrities shouldn’t be careful before jumping into politics and if they must, shouldn’t they require understanding of policy making? BankyW on the other hand has been partisan in many civil movements and so justified his stand on doing what seems right (I think according to constitution). This type of involvement is different from that of say D’banj who sang for the present president as endorsement. D’banj’s producer apologized to Nigeria after the president callously (and stupidly I add) withdrew fuel subsidy without approval of relevant stakeholders.
Something interesting happened: the Ohimaya (SA to the Minister of Youths) was also in the panel. In his passionate speech he accused BankyW for indecisiveness for not endorsing a presidential candidate and even praised D’Banj. He, in his activist days, had endorsed a presidential candidate different from the present administration which he works for. BankyW responded that he endorsed the Governor of Lagos publically but would keep to himself who he voted for president because none of the candidates impressed him. With crowd support for BankyW’s response (thus Boo to the SA), the SA chipped in that BankyW should then run for president someday. BankyW (who wouldn’t let it go) in a smirk reply insinuated that the SA has a better chance after all he has come from activist to SA to minister in such a short time. Enough of this! beginning to sound like a gossip…
Darey articulated his decision not to endorse anyone because he feels its every citizen’s responsibility to decide for themselves, without his imposition. I guess Darey has forgotten about “manufacturing consent”. My advice for artists is not to endorse any politician but to promote causes. I guess that is what BankyW does and what D’Banj didn’t do. As far as I’m concerned, I can’t listen to D’Banj’s advice on social matters because his actions indicate that he can be bought whereas BankyW has my ears. Not because celebrities like BankyW are experts, but because they have not corrupted themselves by association and have not given me a reason to doubt their motives.
Youth Poverty Alleviation
The minister of youth affairs was at one of the sessions. Today university graduates are selling phone recharge cards on a small scale. About 70% are unemployable because they lack skills needed by employers but these people could thrive in entrepreneurship. The ministry of youth affairs needs to launch programs on Youth Development.
Given the current situation, Youth Development is not possible because the ministry spends over 90% of its budget on Youth Management. Actually about 90% of the budget is spent on NYSC. The youths in NYSC hardly make up 5% (my guess) of the Nigerian youths which the ministry is set for. The implication of this is that New Media projects are not likely to be launched for youth development (or youth participation in governance).
This couldn’t have come at a worse time because many are optimistic that youth development can be achieved through New Media. A project currently running in India is providing cheap/free internet connection on android tablets via satellite. This exposes youths to a variety of free skills acquisition resources online.
Non-Tool Focused Campaigns
I feel the need to touch on this point again because it received a lot of attention during the conference. Simply put, it is that New Media is not synonymous with Social Media even though Social Media is New Media. This point was explained in the introduction of this post.
Therefore when planning for a campaign for which you hope to find a solution in New Media, don’t immediately think about Facebook or Twitter. Make your purpose clear and define your constituency then make a decision on the variety of social media platforms available. Anyone trained in software engineering sees this as intuitive but it is worth mentioning.
Don’t Reinvent the Wheel, Make a Mercedes Benz
For the techy’s it is very tempting to want to create your own New Media platform from scratch especially after hearing about how do-able they are and after identifying some of the weaknesses. If you are a techy and that is your end aspiration, then by all means. However if your end is to achieve a social cause, your energy may be better utilized using existing platforms and customizing to your taste. You can then focus on the social cause not the tool. An effect of this approach is that if you can come up with a better version of the platform, others can benefit and improve on your platform since it is open source; the evolution begins.
An example of this approach was illustrated during the conference. Michael Best used the Ushahidi platform initially but found that it crashes when rate of incoming signals exceed 50 SMS/second (I think). They created their software based on Ushahidi and were able to achieve about 150 SMS/second.
The analogy in the above title is also to show the organic importance of New Media. If New Media is the wheel, the entire cause is the car and destination is the cause’s goal.
African Software Engineering
I am particularly interested in this issue not because I am from computer science background but because I live in a third world country where we tend to borrow “international best practices” and attempt applying them to our situations with scarcely any adaptive changes. But it gets better, Africa now has its own superstar software platform called Ushahidi.(being open source means that it may contain contributions by non-Africans but it is important that it was born in Africa and managed in Africa).
Ushahidi was developed in Kenya as a way to archive information and make it publically available for access. Ushahidi is a web platform that allows the gathering of messages via SMS, email, tweets and direct posting on the website. It has since been built upon to monitor disasters in Haiti, in Japan and other places. It has also brought about what Mike Best (at the conference) called the African Software Engineering. I didn’t get the opportunity to ask him further what the term involves but it suffice to say it implies a form of customization of software for African context. It might interest you to know that the ReclaimNaija election monitoring site is based on Ushahidi but had to be customized for the Nigerian context.
This for me is a revolution in New Media (or ICT) but hopefully will extend to other fields for both large scale (like free market capitalism) and small scale (like world bank funded) projects, when it comes to application in Africa.
Big Brother for Politicians
If you are excited about the title, bring it low because there are no surveillance cameras and drama among housemates (as in the Big Brother reality show). But I will encourage you to raise your expectations.
New Media provides opportunities to monitor what your elected officials are up to. MySociety is a UK-based organization that provides just that solution. MySociety basically facilitates citizen engagement and governance transparency by building websites. 55% of visitors to one of their sites “TheyWorkForYou” think better of their MPs after visiting the site (TheyWorkForYou monitors Members of Parliaments each with their pages). More recently MySociety worked with Mzalendo to monitor Kenyan MPs, which was re-launched in February 2012. IF you thought NTA’s live coverage of legislature proceedings is cool try any of the two mentioned above.
In a previous post, someone proposed that government contracts should be monitored during a symposium (on the report on fuel subsidy probe). Perhaps New Media in the form of MySociety could help in this regard; it’s the concept that is important. Contracts could be monitored through their lifecycles like MPs are. As such, budgets could be monitored online.
Denial of Justice Attack (DoJ)
In computer networking, there is a form of attack which can be targeted on servers called DoS attacks (Denial of Service Attack) The trick is to overload the server with requests which is beyond its capacity (usually by automating the requests and never terminating sessions). The result is that the server crashes/hooks because it cannot respond; thus made nonoperational.
The head of INEC Prof Jega explained their situation in regards to the minimal prosecution of electoral crimes. It turns out that his tenure has prosecuted the most electoral offences since the commission was established. A problem he pointed out is that the definition of electoral offences is so wide that they have a record of about a Million offenses but were able to prosecute only 250 cases. This I call the DoJ Attack (Denial of Justice Attack).
Prof Jega says the solution lies in the outcome of the Uwais Committee Report.
The solution I propose lies in acknowledging that humans are not computers. Generally, especially in the case of a simple DoS attack, a server is unable to prioritize between requests partly because most of the time they are the same high-priority requests. Humans on the other hand can single out the offenses that will pass the message the most e.g. high profile personalities for media coverage, strategically located culprits to serve as examples for anyone.
Internet Censorship… Say WHAAAT?!
It was interesting that many contributors favored content censorship or some form of enforcement and Internet legislation. When I first heard a comment to that effect my reaction was: Say WHAAAT?! Haven’t you heard about SOPA and PIPA and Wikileaks and aren’t you aware that this conference is for online techies?! then I remembered its not really for techies but more for activists. But that makes it worse when you have techies that are activists!
First Prof Jega called for a form of legislation recalling that INEC has been a victim of unfounded rumors and that INEC has reacted to wrong signals (perhaps as planned diversions). Then Minister of Youth Dev shared similar concerns; following his encouragement of some ministers to embrace online presence, they have been subject to insults and a Senator was issued death threats. I also remember a discussant passionately calling for prosecution of online-content “offenses”. Many others either contributed in favor or passionately applauded. There were three responses I remember.
Prof Steven Livingston called for “self correction of rumors” in social space; adding that truth outweighs lies. If there are a significant number of reporters of incidents, then mathematically, truth will kick out the rumors (assuming probability of truth is high). Gbenga Sesan pointed out that threats on twitter are probably by people who “can’t hold a knife properly” and that real threats are not advertised on social media. Y.Z. Yau made a presentation on a systematic approach to curbing rumors using a four-step approach. Unfortunately the Y.Z.Yau’s slides are not available among the downloadable documents.
Summary: rumors that can require action should be subject to a confirmation mechanism (a number of methods have been suggested); insults and slurs, if you are a politician live with it; threats/inspiring threats, most are empty but if eventually leads to action and can be proved then the culprit should be prosecuted. Government is allergic to New Media. Social Media Etiquette might be more reliable (next to common morality). Using force/legislation is simply the lazy/expedient option like it’s easier to wage a war than to struggle for peace.
Monitoring Bribes and the Bribe Market
Since we are on the issue of transparency, what if you could monitor bribes? The gigantic bribes are left to simple mathematics (addition, subtraction etc) to discover that corruption has taken place but hardly able to decipher how much of that was spent of bribe. But the most rampant type of bribe are those that happen outside of contracts: with the police man, with the gate man, with the security officer etc. Now it is possible to monitor petty bribes… to an extent.
An online mechanism that achieves this provides users with a form in which users/volunteers fill to report the bribes they have given. This method doesn’t seek to stop bribe directly but in the spirit of transparency it seeks to make the bribe information known and archived. Of course we then totally rely on the honesty of the reporters (on which many online tools count upon).
The first of these tools is ipaidabribe setup to monitor bribes in India. This is an excellent site because it has an informative visual display that gives you all sorts of information like number of reports and from which cities; As at the time of writing this post over 440 Million Rupees have been reported in petty bribes. A Nigerian version of the tool is bribenigeria.com which also offers similar services as the one for India. Bribenigeria.com might do well to make its graphical analytics on the home page. Bribenigeria.com seems underused with just about a total of 42 reports (Lagos topping the ranks).
It is also important to note that these tools also allow reporting cases where a bribe was expected but was not paid. I like to do this exercise quite a lot as in a previous post.
Perhaps bribenigeria.com needs to expose it’s site to Nigerian Software Engineering and awareness to allow for more participation. SMS capabilities could be added to broaden constituency of reporters or Smartphone apps could be developed (prudent of apps though). And perhaps, some media awareness will help. But even after achieving huge participation, only a percentage of bribes can get reported. Statistical methods could be used to get a reliable figure for how many Nigerians are involved in paying bribes (or not) and how much is this bribe-market worth.
In the future we might be seeing statistics on bribes being quoted next to poverty figures etc of the country. I am interested to know if much bribery happens on weekends and perhaps whether intensity of bribery negatively correlates to dates of salary payments.
20% of Nigerian population are disabled. That is a significant constituency. A representative of handicaps at the conference asked the Minister of Youths what efforts the ministry is putting into supporting the disabled. The response was not promising. I will like to propose a New Media solution to harnessing power of the disempowered.
For now I am more concerned with the deaf and the blind. Assuming a quarter of the disabled population (5% of Nigerians) fall under deaf or blind. Then imagine that policy-making information is available online and legislative members embrace the online monitoring system (like theyWorkForYou or Mzalendo). Then providing internet access to this 5% (more than 10% of citizens that voted) could make all the difference. Cheap and reliable internet devices could be provided as in India presently (which Prof Steven Livingston mentioned).
The technology that makes online content available to the deaf and blind is available. The disabled person only needs an additional device to interact but the issue lies in designing websites/online-content to be accessible/handicap-friendly. In fact such a standard exists: here is the guidelines and here is a tool for website developers to ensure that their sites are handicap-friendly. The University of York in the UK is committing a lot of research in this field.
Now to a more realistic analysis. Not all of the 5% may be literate enough to use the portable internet devices but they can use phones. We might need a little African Software Engineering there. Then by accounting other categories of the disabled (of limbs), shortage from the assumed 5% could be topped up by the excess in other categories. So indeed participation could be 5% or more. If New Media flourishes, we might see a disabled-persons union that has a political will. Now this is social justice!
Points of Action… Action!
Discussions and conferences can be insidious to progress if they are not translated to action points. Fortunately in this case, a few actions had already been taken by the end of the conference… talk about speed. And by this I mean those I have come to know about.
EnoughIsEnough have agreed to work with a concerned citizen from Warri which in his own words “does not have big problems… but extraordinary problem”. Also, Omidyar agreed to sponsor mySociety’s work with EnoughIsEnough. Action!
New Media Tools
MySociety: TheyWorkForYou, WriteToThem, FixMyBarangay, FixMyTransport etc