Many of us take cheap high-speed Internet access for granted. I think nothing of downloading an MP3 album from Amazon MP3 while streaming a movie from Netflix on the Roku and browsing the Web on a powerful computer. That’s not a luxury that’s available to everyone, and in some parts of the world data charges prove prohibitive for going online for information.
To help counter that, the Wikimedia Foundation and Orange have come up with a plan for free Wikipedia access. Overall, the deal looks like a win for users, but it does raise a couple of questions as well. How is Wikipedia access going to change Africa and the Middle East?
Yesterday, Wikimedia and Orange announced a deal to provide more than 70 million people with mobile access to Wikipedia at no cost. Through the deal, subscribers in remote and urban areas of Africa and the Middle East (AMEA) will get to use Wikipedia through mobile phones with no data charge.
Orange is the fifth-largest telecom operator in the world, and it services 20 countries in AMEA. This includes Botswana, Cameroon, Egypt, Jordan, Kenya, Mali, Mauritius, Niger, Senegal, Tunisia and Uganda.
Jay Walsh, the Wikimedia Foundation’s head of communications, said that the organization has been in conversations “for quite a while to try to build efforts around mobile strategy” where “one of the key planks is to bring partners who are keen to provide Wikipedia for free without any data charges.”
According to Walsh, Wikipedia has seen a “dramatic increase in people connecting from mobile devices” but as more and more people come online in AMEA cost of data access has been a major impediment. Since we’re talking Wikipedia here, let’s [look at just one country (Senegal)] served by Orange according to Wikipedia. Orange is one of three telecom providers. The country has about 278,000 landlines for nearly 12 million people, but nearly 3.5 million mobile subscribers. Internet penetration is less than one percent according to Wikipedia. So this demonstrates a huge potential market.
Naturally, Orange isn’t the only company operating in AMEA, so providing Wikipedia access to customers isn’t just a goodwill gesture – it gives the company an added feature to entice customers to sign up for subscriptions with it instead of, say, Tigo in Senegal. If Wikipedia access proves popular, though, expect the Wikimedia Foundation to work with other carriers as well.
Part of the point of Wikipedia is that it’s not read-only. We not only have access to a huge body of knowledge, we have the ability to edit or add to it. At least at first, the audience that Orange brings to the table is going to be in read-only mode.
Walsh says that initially, it will be largely read-only. Most customers in the regions served by the free data programs are not going to be iPhones or Android phones. They’ll be phones that don’t readily lend themselves to editing Wikipedia. However, Walsh did say that Wikimedia is “looking at what things are necessary to make editing much more friendly on the phone.”
When editing does become easier, it will likely require Wikipedia to add new languages and new contributors will beef up entries in existing languages. If you look at Sengal, the Wolof-speaking population is about 43% of the country. Currently Wikipedia has only about 1,000 entries in Wolof (compared to more than 100,000 in English).
When Orange’s customers do have access to edit Wikipedia, another question comes to the fore. How are Wikipedia’s policies going to change, if at all, to accommodate an influx of users who want to contribute but may not be able to cite works according to Wikipedia’s current standards.
Users in some parts of Africa or the Middle East may want to add information that’s been passed down through oral tradition or might have other issues in being cited according to current Wikipedia standards. Walsh says that citation and other problems that might be encountered for AMEA users are “something that’s actively being discussed.”
At the same time, Walsh says that “people come to Wikipedia and edit it… because of those policies. They don’t necessarily want to radically transform it.”
Assuming the program takes off, this also gives Wikipedia a sort of monopoly in areas where Orange gives free access. It’s easy for users in North America (for instance) to hit Google and look up any topic, where Wikipedia is merely one of many sources of information. In this instance, Wikipedia may be the only source of information.
Customers will only be able to access content on Wikipedia itself, so any cited works and references linked from Wikipedia will effectively be off-limits to users who can’t afford to pay data rates. Walsh says that users will be given fair warning before leaving the site, though. “We warn the user with a banner at the top of page when they click a link that would incur data charges. The user has to accept the charges to continue to the resource.”
It also raises the question of using Wikipedia to spread disinformation. One of the areas where Orange is rolling out the program is Egypt. It’s interesting to imagine how the Egyptian government might have used Wikipedia during the revolution, or how other countries might try to influence people within AMEA.
Or consider how China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs might want to influence Wikipedia entries related to Senegal. Check the China and Senegal entry on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs site and compare with the Al Jazeera report on how the Chinese are changing Senegal.
Having a single source of information means that it’s much easier for organized attempts to influence what’s visible, and the slant of coverage. This is not a criticism of Wikipedia – but over-reliance on any single source of information is not an altogether good thing. It just happens that Wikipedia stands to become the single source of information here.
Wait and See
Access to Orange customers in AMEA will be rolled out through 2012. How it impacts users in AMEA, and how they impact Wikipedia, will be interesting. Wikipedia has already had a significant impact on much of the world with cheap Internet access. The impact in countries that are just coming online is likely to be substantial.
Though the deal does raise a few questions, it’s worth noting that this does seem largely positive for people getting access to Wikipedia. Access to more information is almost always a win. Free access to a comprehensive source like Wikipedia seems likely to be very beneficial.
Google announced a partnership with the World Bank today to make Google Map Maker data more accessible to government organizations in disaster scenarios. Google Map Maker is the tool for crowd-sourcing the editing and maintenance of Google’s world map. Its user-generated data include locations of hospitals, schools, settlements, water sources and minor roads.
Access to these data will help governments, NGOs, researchers and individuals plan without waiting for the changes to be approved and added to the official maps. World Bank partner organizations, such as government and U.N. agencies, can contact World Bank offices to request access to the data. Kenya, South Sudan, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Zambia, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Moldova, Mozambique, Nepal and Haiti will pilot the project.
Google’s New Gatekeeper
This partnership could improve response time and effectiveness in crises in underserved areas of the world. It’s just a shame that Google has decided to compete with Ushahidi and other open-source efforts to solve this problem. Access to Google Map Maker data is privileged information, and Google has chosen the mother of all elite gatekeepers, the World Bank, to facilitate this program.
The World Bank has supported much-needed online mapping efforts, such as the April 2011 project in South Sudan that enabled Google to put the new country on the map. It has also financially backed apps supporting economic development in a worldwide contest for software developers. In partnership with academic institutions, the World Bank has also backed a Web-based knowledge platform for urban development.
These are all great efforts, but they establish a familiar pattern for the World Bank. In Web technology, just as in global economic development, the World Bank has positioned itself as an unavoidable, privileged gatekeeper, and this time Google helped.
No More Open Source
We’ve reached out to Ushahidi for comment on the news, and we’ll update with the response. While Ushahidi‘s non-profit, open-source efforts carry on, Google is closing off access to its mapping platform upon which great works of software were once built. Having realized the enormous value of Google Maps as a resource, Google decided to start charging for API access last year.
That’s Google’s commercial prerogative, but its proprietary efforts are now in competition with the open-source community. Today’s partnership with the World Bank is a clearer example than the murky history of access to the Google Maps API. Google Map Maker is a moderated Google program, and Google has selected the World Bank as an arbiter of its data.
Last December, Google overhauled Map Maker’s editing tools to make it easier for any Google Maps user to add new data.
What do you think? Is the World Bank a good choice for Google as a partner? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Facebook is partnering with French cellular operator Orange to bring cheap cellphones with dedicated Facebook functionality to emerging markets in Africa and Europe. Orange will release three devices with a special “F” button for unlimited Facebook access to 15 countries starting in the fourth quarter of 2011. The move fits well in line with Facebook’s desire to increase its presence worldwide to people that may not have access to a computer but access the Internet solely through mobile devices.
The phones will be from Alcatel’s series of Android phones. These are not feature phones with Facebook integration but actual economy class smartphones. The roadmap for Facebook in the emerging world is clear: get smartphones in the hands of people everywhere and an easy avenue to access the social platform.
Facebook is at 800 million users and is looking to be the first individual dedicated platform to reach the 1 billion user mark (Google resources notwithstanding). We have been covering Facebook’s attempt to penetrate emerging markets with smartphones throughout 2011. In March, Facebook acquired Israeli Snaptu that creates applications for feature phones. In July we learned of Facebook for Every Phone that is fruit of the Snaptu acquisition.
This new partnership with Orange is not about feature phones though. The Acatel One Touch series phones are smartphones of the lower-end Android variety. Each has nominal specs that could be expected in a smartphone, from a QWERTY keyboard, a 2 megapixel camera with digital zoom, MP3 player with storage of up to 600 songs, MMS and group messaging capabilities. The particular specs differ between the three models but more or less come in the minimum viable Android phone category.
Each phone will be sold at less than 100 euros and data plans will be different between each carrier country. What Orange is promising though is that each phone will have unlimited access to Facebook.
This is mature move from Facebook in reaching across the ocean to partner with a major European carrier. To a certain extent the move by Orange is a form of commercial imperialism. Bring cheap phones with a big carrot (Facebook) to emerging markets like Armenia, Botswana, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Mali, Morocco, Mauritius, Niger, Reunion, Sengegal, Tunisia and Uganda. European markets that will be served included France, Spain, Poland and Romania.
As I type this, a UPS beeps furiously behind me, over the growl of half-a-dozen diesel generators on the street outside. I’m in an Internet café in Leh, a city nestled in a Himalayan valley surrounded by 6,000-metre / 20,000-foot peaks, the fast-growing capital of India’s northernmost territory Ladakh. It’s clearly outgrown its electrical capacity; power cuts hit several times a day.
Power generation is a deeply unsexy but profoundly important subject in the developing world. Technology is busily transforming lives all around the globe even as you read this—but a dearth of reliable electricity is a massive obstacle even in major cities, much less faraway villages.
People do find various imperfect and ingenious ways to cope. I was once on a riverboat in Guatemala whose captain distributed newly powered phone batteries to inhabitants scattered along the river, and collected their old ones to charge when he returned to civilization. You’ll find stores selling small-scale solar power equipment in remote small towns throughout Uganda, and occasional microhydro generators in the Himalayas; and people everywhere burn through enormous (and toxic) amounts of scarce (and expensive) diesel to power generators when their lights go out.
But there has to be a better way: and, increasingly, there is. In particular, I’ve had my eye on Fenix International for awhile now. Their ReadySet battery has two cigar lighter and two USB outputs to charge radios, lights, and batteries, and can itself be recharged via solar, bicycle, or wall power. Plus, they’ve recently released a universal charger that can power up almost any lithium-ion battery via a USB plug. (I wish I’d known this before I’d set out on this trip; I could have left both of my camera-battery chargers at home.)
It gets better, and wackier. There is also this BioLite stove that charges your cell phone And the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently awarded $100,000 to a project that seeks to use soil microbes to power fuel cells, which, it is claimed, could be built from scratch, in a few minutes, for pennies. I have to confess I’m a little skeptical, but I’ll be watching with interest.
In the long run, of course, localized micropower projects aren’t enough for serious economic development; you need a sizable and stable electrical grid. But in the interim, a little power is a whole lot better than none, and can and does make a huge difference. So here’s hoping that those microbes are a megahit.
Source: Power To The People
Seventeen years ago Wired published Neal Stephenson’s magisterial epic “Mother Earth Mother Board”, about the web of undersea fibre-optic cables being built to connect all of humanity. Well – almost all. Africa, again, was left behind. Until 2009, all of East Africa could only connect to the Internet over slow and hugely expensive satellite links.
Finally, two years ago, SEACOM laid a cable along the East African coast to Mumbai; then tributaries were run thousands of kilometers inland, as far as Uganda and even Rwanda; and later this year, a direct connection to Europe will be lit up. This has chopped the cost of bandwidth from US $5,000 per megabyte per month to approximately $100, hugely increased capacity to 1.28 terabits/second, and given more than hundred million people access to broadband Internet for the very first time. Today I visited their cable landing site in Mombasa, Kenya.
It doesn’t look like a high-tech hub. The site stands in the shadow of Fort Jesus, an ancient castle constructed by the Portuguese in 1593, and to better blend in with its UNESCO World Heritage surroundings, its outer walls are built to look like a Swahili keep:
But within are prefab buildings constructed in New Jersey (of all places) and shipped halfway around the world. The open trapdoor leads to the cable…
…which runs seven kilometres out to the branching station, and then 3,000 kilometers northeast to Mumbia, 2,000 km northwest to Egypt, and another 3,000 south to South Africa:
An observant eye can see the path the cable takes, beneath the shore below Fort Jesus:
Landing the cables is the hard part. It took three months to dig, lay, and cover those seven kilometres, using local barges and professional divers. By contrast, the cable that runs to Djibouti along the 1500 kilometres of Somalia’s wild coast was laid in less than a month … not counting the 55 days that the ship had to rest in port because of the danger of pirates.
That Djibouti branch isn’t even lit up yet. The cable is laid, and ready – but three kilometers of it that pass through Egyptian soil remain a sticking point. “Each country moves at its own pace,” sighs Mahmoud Noor, manager of the Kenyan landing station (which also double’s as the system’s backup Network Operations Center.) He won’t go into details, but I get the impression that the problem is more political than technical. When Egypt comes online, hopefully later this year, SEACOM capacity will leap upwards again, and lag times will halve. Until then, all their external traffic has to go to Mumbai, then be routed elsewhere by leased lines.
The undersea cable consists of the fibres themselves, as thin as human hairs, wrapped in a copper sheath that carries up to 12,500 DC volts to power the repeaters every 100km that keep the signals comprehensible. In depths less than kilometre, this is all sheathed in thick additional armour. Here Peter Ouko, a SEACOM engineer, displays a cutaway example of the cable:
…and here’s where it enters the New-Jersey-built prefabs after its monumental journey along the continent.
The interior is cavernous, antiseptic, and honeycombed with cables:
An outgoing sheaf of fibre connects to the next building, where customer equipment goes, and where SEACOM is installing added-value options: an exchange to route connections within Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda (and Ethiopia, when they finally connect) directly without having to wastefully forward that data to Mumbai or London first, and an IP service so that customers can connect directly to routers without having to step down from SDH themselves.
It’s a triumph of engineering, and a profoundly important one. In Kenya today, a SIM card costs less than a beer, and a minute of 2G Internet access costs only 2.5 cents. That’s still too much, but far less than in the bad old days. Once South Africa was the continent’s tech powerhouse, but now they grumble about how good the Kenyans have it -
- and this building is why. It and the others like it are the bedrock on which Africa’s nascent Internet revolution is built; they are, quite literally, where the future is being forged.
Source: This Is Where The Magic Happens
For most people, East Timor, known officially as the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, came to public notice in 2002 when it gained official independence from Indonesian occupation after a long, violent struggle that included the use by the Indonesian military of starvation as a tool for genocide.. In the time since, the country has experienced the usual amount of election violence and corruption that a new nation sees.
Now, the Timorese government has opened a FreeBalance-powered portal devoted to government financial transparency.
FreeBalance is a Canadian company that provides software for public financial management, including online portals for government customers include the United States, Afghanistan, Uganda and Iraq.
On their website the government of Timor-Leste declared the goal of the project:
“The Transparency Website will allow people to participate, in real time and interactively, in the process of the Timor-Leste national budget and to contribute to National Development.”
FreeBalance explains the use a Timorese citizen could put the portal.
“Citizens can investigate projects further to view budget transactions to ensure the budget is being spent as intended. This ensures honesty and transparency to improve citizen and investor confidence. The Timor-Leste Transparency Portal provides 10 years of budget information: the budget that was approved and the actual budget spent. Reports and filtered results can be exported in PDF, Word, Excel, XML and HTML formats.”
Can such portals provide real transparency? Can transparency itself really make a difference in difficult situations like that in East Timor? Or do so many interests militate against it that the transparency will either not last or never be truly see-through? It’s something I don’t have an answer for.
If you do, having worked in government or for an NGO on the financial side, please leave a comment below.