Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Mobile Jujitsu

This is the week in September when every serious do-gooder and advocacy wonk in Manhattan goes into empathy overdrive, thanks to the simultaneous convening in New York of the United Nations General Assembly, the annual Clinton Global Initiative, Mashable's annual Social Good Summit and the gatherings of at least a half-dozen other social good events and Meet-ups and hackathons-for-change. (Anyone willing to trade their pass to WIE2012, on women's empowerment and 'mompreneurs', for a ticket to the Personal Democracy Forum's talk with authors Stephen Johnson and Clay Shirky discussing the evolution of peer-to-peer networks for social change?)

Let's be charitable.  Even the most passionate followers of this week's change panels across town — with names like "higher impact investing" and "strategic philanthropy" and "the built environment for women and girls" —should be forgiven for feeling just a tad overwhelmed.

But despair not, young activists. Mashable's just-ended Social Good Summit, despite the conference-hopping of many of its panelists, delivered enough fresh examples of mobile activism and social networking to keep things interesting for the under-40 set, even if  you weren't able to crash the geopolitical schmoozefest at CGI. 

Among the highlights of #SGSGlobal 2012:

* Larry Irving, co-founder of the Mobile Alliance for Global Good cheered efforts by activists to use their smartphones to distribute medicine, monitor climate change, spot election fraud, and take aerial photos of oil spill damage in the Gulf region. [He also cited Text4Baby and FrontlineSMS , among others.] But Irving said the cost and complexity of creating do-gooder apps has been dissuading many other causes from experimenting with the technology. To make it work well "in nonprofit mode," he said, "you're not just talking about technology. You've also got to talk about changing business models, changing cultures, changing operational models." To make mobile less daunting for activists, Irving urged organizers of digital hackathons to start making them more about pressing social needs that must be met and less about the event, itself. Irving also urged young activists to do a better job matching philanthropic investors with social entrepreneurs. "If Maasai warriors can use mobile phones to find water for their cows, we can do a better job in this country figuring out how to be connected via mobile for a purpose," Irving said.

* Todd Park, the Chief Technology Officer at the White House, urged attendees to take government data and "jujitsu it, put it in machine-readable form, let entrepreneurs take it and turn it into awesomeness." How to begin? "It's all about turning government into a platform for open innovation," Park said. "Data by itself is useless. I can't feed my baby daughter data. It's only useful if you apply it to create an actual public benefit." Park has been holding hackathons—"data-paloozas" and other events — aimed at encouraging social entrepreneurs to mine government data to leverage impact. He cited his office's June 2012 Health Datapalooza, which attracted 1,600 entrepreneurs over two days, with 242 companies competing for 100 spots to present innovations powered by open data from the government. "We took data already paid for and jujitsued it into the public domain," Park said. The cost? Zero, Park said. Data.gov is the federal government's online home for a wealth of machine-readable, cost-free data. "And now there's healthdata.gov, energydata.gov, educationdata.gov," he said, as part of the specialized data communities section of the site, open to all. Park announced Sunday a new initiative called the Equal Futures App Challenge, to encourage young girls to become leaders in democracy, to aggregate and create new apps to educate girls about gender gaps in elected office and new apps to teach girls about what it takes to run a successful campaign. "It's awesome stuff," Park told conferees. "Check it out and see what you can do with it."

"At the most fundamental level, we are not just connected, we are inseparable." -- Deepak Chopra

* The American Red Cross' Social Media Director Wendy Harman acknowledged that harnessing social media to help speed aid to people in disasters has been a "big challenge" at the Red Cross, forcing her and her team to meld the way people talk about social media with how organizations like hers process real-time information. Harman said that after the Haiti earthquake, "we got Tweets from people saying, 'I'm trapped under the rubble and in a particular supermarket and can you help?'" But the Red Cross didn't always have a way to turn that information into rescue, she said. "That landed like a thud on my shoulders and made me think we had to do something about this," she recalled. Last March, the Red Cross launched its new Digital Operations Center, built with a grant from Dell. "We now have huge visualizations of all of the data coming in to us via social media and we can get, in two minutes, a good idea of what is happening on the ground in a disaster and how people are feeling about the service delivery and how they are affected by a particular disaster," Harman said. Her team is also using the Center to identify topline trends in real time. During Hurricane Isaac, for example, "we were able to affect change on the ground based on what we were seeing at the Center" — to direct volunteers to specific groups of people who were able to communicate their need for help. Harman said social media can help nonprofits identify new ways to leverage existing, ad hoc networks to greater purpose. During the recent spate of Midwest tornados, Harman said, the hashtag #bathtub helped the Red Cross communicate and connect people who were hiding in their bathtubs to take safe refuge from the storms. "To see that people were doing that and to be able to tap into that conversation and connect people together more broadly in that way was awesome," Harman said. "A big part of the mission of the Red Cross is to provde hope and comfort, and in that really scary moment, this was the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my life." 

* Occupy Wall Street protester Tim Poole talked about how social media has been transformative, both for him and citizen journalism. After seeing a police officer dragging a protester by his leg during the height of the Occupy protests last fall, and noticing that the protester's hands were bleeding, Poole said he decided to start using his smartphone to broadcast the violence to the world via his Ustream livestream channel. On November 17, 2011, one of Occupy's most remarkable days of protests, Poole reached 750,000 viewers using his smartphone, filming the action for 21 consecutive hours — a feat that earned him profiles in TIME Magazine and The New Yorker as a pioneer of  livestream reportage. Poole told conferees how he turned a toy remote-controlled Parrot AR.Drone into an "OccuCopter" for aerial surveillance filming and has modified software for livestreaming into a system he calls the DroneStream. "This was reality TV," Poole said. "It wasn't the reality TV that everyone hears about, because that's just scripted BS. This is what it is: an unedited raw window into what's happening." It gets people out of their chairs, he said. "It can be incredibly empowering."

* Actress Maria Bello talked about her work to "Oprah-ize Haiti" —using social networks to begin connecting local women's groups in remote areas of Haiti to each other and to nonprofit support. She created We Advance University, a web and mobile site, as both a directory of local services and a hub for shared videos to educate women on everything from healthy food to the challenges of hygiene in refugee camps to advice on how to fight local violence against women. "This can let women to see that two miles away, the Red Cross is doing rape tests and 10 miles away there is a lawyer who can file rape-charge papers," she said. This will create a "revelation revolution" for women across Haiti, she said. "We got pissed off that women's groups in Haiti were not getting the access to help and community and the funding they deserve."

"We have ironclad evidence that social media can help people take down bad governments," says Tomicah Tilleman, U.S. State Department senior advisor for civil society engagement and emerging democracies, "but can social media help replace those regimes with better governments?" Tilleman joined Slovakia's foreign minister Peter Michalko and Marina Kaljurand, Ambassador of Estonia to the United States, to talk about the LEND Network, a new experiment in social media hatched in Mongolia this summer by a partnership between the Community of Democratics and led by the U.S. and Estonia. It's a social network that connects people who are experienced managing democratic transitions with social activists currently engaged in that struggle. Activists can use the network to create Facebook-style profiles in which they list their 'change sustainability' expertise, be it training judges, writing constitutions, decentralizing utility companies or setting up the rule of law. A mid-level bureaucrat from, say, Tunisia who is training a police force to comply with human rights standards can browse network and find someone in Estonia who once held that job, or an expert from a human rights NGO. The network also taps into some cutting-edge translation tech and social media to remove the need for human translators.

* Brooklyn illustrator Sophie Blackall [interviewed by CauseGlobal in a 2009 post about her Missed Connections illustrations based on Craigslist postings by the same name] talked about her initiative to use her illustrations from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to stop the threat of measles in that country, in partership with the Measles & Rubella Initiative. "In some parts of Africa, families don't name their children until the threat of measles has passed," Blackall told attendees. "That threat disappears entirely when children are vaccinated, and a child can be vaccinated for a single dollar." Her illustrated stories of health workers and families in the Congo battling the measles epidemic there can be viewed here.

* Spiritual leader Deepak Chopra told conferees that social media marks the world's 'next phase of humanity.' It is a technological creation and extension of society's subconscious, he said, and is the inevitable next phase of humanity —for better or worse. "At the most fundamental level, we are not just connected, we are inseparable," he said. "What drones can't do, what the armies can't do, what the weapons can't do, what the weapons of mass destruction can't do, what biological warfare can't do —we can do through technology." Chopra said social networks can advance humanity but also can bring enemies together. "The world is at a crossroads," he said. "...You can never program true intelligence into a computer."

*  A panel of present and former U.S. diplomats talked about how they are using social media to engage in dialogues in countries and communities where the U.S. does not have a diplomatic presence. Victoria Esser, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs for Digital Strategy at the State Department, said the agency has 300 Twitter profiles, 400 Facebook pages, and recently staged a Google Hangout in Persian to engage young people in Iran. Charles Ray, the former American Ambassador to Zimbabwe, shared as story about using Facebook during his tenure to circumvent a local government's obstructionism. "When the government discovered our face-to-face meetings with young people were having an effect, they started disrupting meetings," he said. "They hated it with a passion, so we came up with an alternative. We hosted a live Facebook chat, along with SMS, Twitter, and YouTube. In the first one, 200 people enrolled and we had 250 comments in the first 30 minutes." Dino Patti Djalal, the Indonesian Ambassador to the United States, says Twitter has become a critical way for him and others to interact with Indonesians at home and abroad. Djalal said he recently asked his followers to "do one act of kindness" to honor his recent birthday, and a few hours later, he got hundreds of replies. "They were amazing," he said. "One said, 'I proposed to my girlfriend' and another said 'I kissed my mom on the cheek.' That's when I realized that social media has a use in the field of diplomacy."

—Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration by PixelEmbargo for istock.com)

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