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Which Came First: the ICT or Collective Action?Posted by: admin on Wed, 2011-02-23 18:40
Before we label the people’s movements fueled by the quick availability of information as the next “Facebook Revolution” or “Internet Revolution”, maybe we can pause and examine the human motivations behind these socially motivated technological innovations. Gayatri Murthy reports from a recent event discussing Africa's new successful infosystems......
Gayatri Murthy, Research Assistant, AudienceScapes Project
To credit Facebook, Twitter and other social media with enabling the pro-democracy uprisings sweeping the Middle East and Africa is too simplistic. So argued Prof. Steven Livingston from George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs and the School of Media and Public Affairs during a presentation at the World Bank on February 22. Livingston asked that we pause before labeling the people’s movements fueled by the quick availability of information that have uprooted and challenged governments the next “Facebook Revolution” or “Internet Revolution.”
Livingston argues against focusing on the technology itself (the internet, mobile phones) and the widespread use of social networking applications (Facebook, Twitter). Instead, he believes that those interested in collective action and better governance in the developing world should examine the human motivations behind these socially motivate technological innovations.
In his research across Africa, Livingston finds that, “remarkably innovative uses of mobile communications, often paired with radio broadcasting, have created entirely new types of institutions that promote transparency, accountability and security. These evolving institutions are often organic to Africa, and pegged to the immediate needs of the communities they serve.”
Livingston’s paper, titled “Africa’s Evolving Infosystems: A Pathway to Stability and Development,” explores how security and development initiatives in Africa have been affected by changes in the information environment. Livingston studied ICT innovations generated in Africa that have improved security and monitoring programs (Ushahidi, Frontline SMS), provided information needed for effective health care (Voix des Kivus), created banking services (M-Pesa and MTN, Grameen Foundation), provided farmers with market information, and others.
The unprecedented growth of mobile telephony in Africa (65 percent in the last 5 years from ITU stats) -- making cell phones easily available to large proportion of the population -- has often been cited as the reason for the success of these social innovations that have promoted collective action.
But is technology the driving force behind this new collective action in Africa? Livingston does not agree. He firmly believes that technology is politically neutral; it is the human motivations that vary, that, when matched with technological tools, can lead to an endless variety of positive or negative outcomes. The expansion of cellular services in Africa was a function of economics, not politics. Livingston attributes collective action to the combination of technology and action by local actors, who identify local needs. Together, this combination fuels the locally appropriate innovation for that population.
Once we understand these socially motivated ICT advances through the framework of indigenous African innovation, he believes we will be better equipped to understand their future positive potential for collective action.
His main research question is thus more macroscopic and abstract. He asks: What are the effects of leaping from isolation in remote locations to being integrated in a global information network, within the lifetime of a young adult?
To understand how mobile phones are enhancing collective action and, in some cases, creating it where it did not exist before, Livingston classifies mobile phone services into the following categories:
Expanding Access to Information: Based on the fact that mobile phones and other ICTs reduce the cost (time, money and manpower) of acquiring information, Livingston profiles Frontline SMS, Pill Check for checking availability of drugs, Trade-in-Hand for enhancing trade and market exchange.
Mobile Telephony and Security: An example of this would be international peacekeeping organizations using cellular telephony to extend their reach to inaccessible areas, or community-based civilian security initiatives such as PeaceNet in Kenya.
Remote Sensing Satellites and Event Mapping: This refers to the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) along with mobile phones to create crowdsourcing solutions to pressing social needs, such as human rights monitoring and disaster response. The prime example is Ushahidi -- which has been used for monitoring election violence in Kenya, tracking xenophobic violence in South Africa, coordinating relief work in Haiti and during wildfires in Russia. Also profiled is Voix des Kivus, used for reporting violence, development initiatives and key social events in eastern Congo.
Radio and Mobile Telephony: Besides the mobile phone revolution, in Africa, “radio has a reach and intimacy that is unmatched…” according to Livingston. It is only natural then, that, “mass communication campaigns are most effective when combined with personal communication and outreach." This is perhaps the most useful of Livingston’s observations for development practitioners seeking to craft a successful communication strategy. “Even if a fraction of the target population may hear the original message, if the content is relevant, a wave of others will subsequently hear the message via personal networks.” This category hardly exists yet, but could prove the most important for development communication.
In each of these cases, Livingston shows that mobile services and ICTs in general, can break down hierarchical structures inherent in governance and civil society. The premise of hierarchical organizations, according to Livingston, is that “information is scarce, costly and difficult to assimilate or change.” But because information is distributed to everyone in a network through ICTs, it makes a command structure less necessary and less oppressive.
Given this framework, we can also understand the inevitable tension between these hitherto powerful organizations and the technologies. For example, government-mandated registration of SIM cards has been rampant across Africa (link to our blogs), making it easy for the government to track its citizens. While security concerns have been cited as a reason for registration, Livingston says it makes mobile phone users less likely to use their phones in activities that undermine those in power. Another example would be the clamp down on mobile phone signals and internet connections across Egypt during the protests.
Members in the audience questioned Livingston about the extent of local innovation since services such as Ushahidi are still being created by a few elites in society. For Livingston, even if created by a few elites, innovations such as Ushahidi, Frontline SMS and even M-Pesa thrive, not because they are innovative, but simply because many decide to use them. The fact that close to 45,000 mobile users responded to Ushahidi in the first few weeks demonstrates how an effective merging of technology with local tacit knowledge can catalyze collective action among many.
Mobile and ICT services, when effective, change the “infosystem” and make information available in a cheap way that is easy to aggregate and disseminate. At its best, ICT has the ability to dismantle the inherent power distribution in hierarchical society -- where a small minority controls the flow of information to a large majority of powerless population (see graph above). This results in the creation of more inclusive environments or the extension of services to people who would not have access otherwise.
In fact, a healthier infosystem facilitated by these tools and services has the potential of transferring control to the majority in framing their own narrative. When thus understood, Livingston’s research does not dismiss the concept of a Facebook revolution, but enhances our understanding of it.
Gayatri Murthy is a Research Assistant for the AudienceScapes Project and helps in analyzing the AudienceScapes data, writing the Country Profiles and overall maintenance of the website. You can reach
her at firstname.lastname@example.org