Daniel Kalinaki berates Uganda’s “middle-class intellectuals whose rarefied dialogue takes place on Facebook and Twitter” for not paying closer attention to the fate of “old school” activists:
For years the government came for journalists and few people cared. Some even said we deserved it. Now they are going after authors and civil society activists and many still remain indifferent. The real story will come the day a blogger or a “tweep” is arrested for something they put online. That is the day we will all realise that we should have been concerned and worried all the time.
I side with those — David Weinberger, Zeynep Tunecki, and others — who have responded to Gladwell by saying that attempting to cleanly separate online and offline media (or connections, or actions) is a futile pursuit. Social media are an integral part of a new media ecosystem, one in which bloggers are amplified and inspired by more traditional forms of media and in which mainstream media outlets increasingly partner with citizen journalists to provide the most complete coverage they can.
Throughout the forum, panelists have repeatedly raised this theme, arguing that framing media as old versus new or mainstream versus citizen is not a productive approach to understanding the impact of online networks. Speakers who work with major news outlets have thanked bloggers for sharing their first-hand accounts of what’s happening on the ground, while bloggers have thanked major news outlets for broadcasting their reports. In a break-out discussion on Saturday, citizen journalists from Tunisia and Egypt said that Al Jazeera’s amplification of their voices helped bring the situations in these countries to a tipping point.
This idea of a media ecology is one I’ve been mulling over as I’ve been working with the Technology for Transparency Network over the past year. We’ve interviewed more than 60 organizations who use digital tools to promote transparency and accountability in their governments, and one of our key conclusions has been that organizations who build partnerships with traditional media organizations — whether these are local radio stations or major national newspapers — tend to have more success than organizations that rely solely on the Internet to get their message across. For me, it’s been interesting to hear that this is the case not only when talking about city budget transparency, but also when talking about revolutions.
I don’t think this in any way diminishes the importance of social media in the movement for government accountability. In many cases, both local radio stations and national papers (and, as I’ve heard this weekend, Al Jazeera) would be unable to report on the stories they cover without the help of bloggers and tweeters. I’m glad to see that those who are here at the forum — both traditional and citizen journalists — are willing to exlore these partnerships and acknowledge their importance.
For the past six months, I’ve served as the co-director of the Technology for Transparency Network, an organization that documents the use of online and mobile technology to promote transparency and accountability around the world. One of the most common challenges the project leaders we’ve interviewed face is making sense of large amounts of data.
In countries where governments keep detailed digital records of lobbying data and education expenditures, data wrangling is a time-consuming, labor-intensive task. In countries where these records are poorly maintained, this task becomes even harder — everything from inconsistent data entry practices to simple typos can derail data analysis.
Google Refine (formerly Freebase Gridworks) is a free, open-source tool for cleaning up, combining, and connecting messy data sets. Rather than acting like a traditional spreadsheet program, Google Refine exists “for applying transformations over many existing cells in bulk, for the purpose of cleaning up the data, extending it with more data from other sources, and getting it to some form that other tools can consume.”
At its most basic level, Google Refine helps users quickly summarize, filter and edit data sets by allowing them to view patterns and to spot and correct errors quickly. More advanced features include reconciling data sets (i.e., matching text in the set with existing database IDs) with data repository Freebase, geocoding, and fetching additional information from the Web based on existing data.
Though it runs through an Internet browser, Google Refine operates offline, making it attractive for those with limited bandwidth or privacy concerns — a group that includes many of the projects listed on the Technology for Transparency Network.
Google Refine isn’t going to solve the problem of poor data availability, but for those who manage to gain access to existing records, it can be a powerful tool for transparency.
For more information, check out the links and video below:
Avid readers of my blog (here’s looking at you, Rev) may remember that several months ago I announced that research was beginning for the second phase of the Technology for Transparency Network. The first phase consisted of interviews with over 30 projects around the world who are using technology to promote transparency and accountability in the government and/or private sector. Our goal in the second phase was twofold: to double the number of case studies on the site and to expand the geographic regions we covered.
Since then, I’ve been largely silent about the project — we’ve been working so hard to complete and edit the interviews that I haven’t had much time to breathe. But today I’m thrilled to announce that we have eight new case studies online, with lots more to come over the next few weeks. The case studies that have been posted so far are:
Accountability Initiative researches and creates innovative tools to promote transparency and accountability in India’s public services.
Amatora mu Mahoro
Amatora mu Mahoro (“Peaceful Elections”) is an Ushahidi-based project created to monitor Burundi’s 2010 elections.
US-based ‘activism’ campaigns are often more about cause marketing or branding an organization or collecting emails than they are about changing a serious social issue at home or abroad. This is not the fault of the social media tools or of ‘digital activism’, it’s a reflection of US culture, our current values, the organizers behind the causes, and the sociopolitical moment we are living in.
I think there is a risk of a US-centric critique of all digital activism as ‘slactivism’, when that is not always the case. Should we call out the US media and those people who are hyping up social media as the key factor in social and opposition movements such as recent ones in Iran or Moldova? Yes. Should we in the US take a closer look at and question what’s behind our shallowness and cultural propensity towards ‘slactivism?’ Definitely.
But we should also be careful about projecting our weaknesses and cultural frameworks on all use of social media tools in activism.