Social media and development – opportunity or threat?


November 16th, 2012

On Tuesday this week I attended a conference in London sponsored by DFID, the Omidyar Network (set up by the founder of the on line shopping empire eBay) and WIRED magazine. The topic of the conference was the use of new communications technology (social media, mobile phones and the web) to promote open government, transparency, participation and development. It was a high profile conference with a video message form the UK Prime Minister and a speech by the new UK Secretary of State for Development Justine Greening. More information on the conference itself can be found at www.openup12.org or on twitter at #OpenUp12 . DFID is clearly interested in this area and used the occasion to announce a new $50m fund created together with USAID and SIDA called Making All Voices Count to support the development of web and mobile technologies in developing countries that can empower citizens.

At the conference there were some interesting examples of social media being used to promote transparency. The Ushahidi platform which was initially developed after the violence of the 2008 Kenyan elections was one. It allows individuals to post information by SMS, MMS or via the web about election irregularities, intimidation, violence etc. to create a real time map of problems that is available on line and which can be used to force government to take action. Ushadhidi has since been used in the Ugandan and Congo elections and in various disasters including the Haitian earthquake. The Ushadhidi platform (and another simpler version called crowdmap which can be set up and used in a few minutes) are open source and can be downloaded and used for free and have the potential to be used for non-emergency situations as well where you want large numbers of people to contribute to information that could be displayed on a map (for example – latest market prices for tomatoes at different town centres or the location of broken water points or villages without electricity connections).  There was also an interesting presentation on the use of Facebook and Twitter in Nigeria to co-ordinate political protest.

One thing that struck me during the many presentations and discussions was that, just as in the real work, in the digital world there are many technology injustices. For example, depending on whose statistics you believe, in Africa, out of a population of over 1 billion people, somewhere between 400 and 750 million people have access to a mobile phone. But the cost of use, the level of connectivity, and the availability of electricity to recharge phones means that 90% of those people use less than 1 MB of data a month (in comparison the average data consumption in Europe and the US is between 150 and 400MB per person per month). This means most people are not really able to use the technology to access and exchange information beyond the most basic level.

It also means that when we are talking about a new wave of political engagment through the use of social media, be it during  the “Arab Spring” or the co-ordination of political protests in Nigeria, we are talking essentially about political engagment by a relatively small ‘middle class’ urban group, who has the connectivity and who can afford the telephone bills.  There is a danger, as one participant of the conference noted during a question, that we overestimate the power of social media to change the balance of power and give voice to the marginsalised. Its use (at least at the moment) is just as likely to  simply accrue more power and voice to those who already have it.

There is also a digital technology gender injustice to contend with as 300 million more men than women have access to mobile phones world-wide.

Practical Action is certainly not Luddite in its approach to new technology. Around the world we are increasingly using social media and the web in our programme work, most obviously in Practical Answers, where we see the use of the web and  YouTube videos in Latin America to provide information to farmers, podcasting in Peru, Zimbabwe and Nepal to get recordings out beyond the reach of the internet, SMS messaging for agricultural help lines in Nepal and Bangladesh, and mobile phone networks being used to provide advanced warning of floods in Nepal.

But we need to remeber that social media technology alone is no panecea and cannot, without other parallel action, overcome the more fundamental causes of poverty. You can’t join a twitter protest campaign if you live in a place that has no electricity to charge your phone!

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