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For the past several months I’ve been working on a project for moving data around when there’s no internet.  I talked a bit about this at the Power of Information conference earlier this year in London, but I thought I’d share more here.

Abayima applies cold war tactics to mobile data storage and distribution.

Abayima targets anyone living in oppressive, restrictive, societies around the globe. It was inspired by the information networks during the most recent Uganda elections and the Arab Spring — both situations where electronic communication networks were compromised (or complete shutdown) by authorities.

As a strategy it will work in any country where there are low-end mobile phones, the most accessible communication technology on the planet. As a technology, it works for groups who wish to disseminate messages discretely in a way that mimics one of the oldest forms of communication,  pen and paper.

The History

Two recent events inspired the development of Abayima. In 2011 the internet in Egypt was shut off, preventing activists and dissidents from communicating with each other or the outside world. A few months later, in Uganda, during the reelection campaign for President Yoweri Museveni, the mobile carriers were compromised and monitored for voices of dissent. This allowed for the filtering of text messages that were deemed unacceptable, while the same networks were used to spread electronic propaganda in the form of SMS and MMS messages to the public.

As a Strategy

This conversation shaping using communication technologies for propaganda echoes the intimidation and propaganda techniques used by the German and Soviet governments during World War II and by many other oppressive governments since.  Anyone with two phones and a sim can do this right now but to do it more efficiently we’ll be developing an application to support this type of message storage.

Abayima is largely a strategy for moving messages sans telecom infrastructure. It’s also a toolkit which assumes electronic communication via internet or mobile carrier has been compromised completely and allows activists and journalists to use the SIM cards themselves to publish or distribute information freely.

As a Product

Rather than rely upon high-tech infrastructure, Abayima relies upon centuries old information networks inspired by the Jewish resistance, the underground slave escape routes in the United States, Navajo code talkers, the war scouts of Sparta etc. There is a long lineage of using no or low technical means of encryption to protect sensitive information.

As a technology Abayima is a way of storing information on SIM chips which can then be placed in a mobile phone on the other end to be read.

Examples:

  • A journalist writes several sensitive details and stores them to a SIM that isn’t used for texting, but to share the message with only a designated party whom they would hand deliver it to. Because the SIM isn’t used for calls, the only way to intercept the message is physically.
  • A group of activists could send messages between two locations using a ‘runner’. When the runner arrives he hands off the SIM which will contain messages for the recipient.
  • SIM cards are as ubiquitous as mobile phones and its generally understood how to use them across most populations. Thus, the SIM card itself could be a publishing/distribution mechanism for content of all types.
  • For advanced users with access to higher-end technology the messages could be written using a computer and our software, encrypted with software, and stored on the SIM. The receiver would need technology with a key to decrypt the message.  This adds a layer of protection against interception as it becomes necessary to crack the encryption algorithm first.

F.A.Q.

Why not use thumb drives?

Because thumb drives require two computers on either side, a level of infrastructure that exceeds the means of the poorest. The number of people with low end mobile phones, globally, far exceeds the number with access to computers.

Can’t these messages be intercepted?

Yes. Electronic communication like SMS can be ‘sniffed’ while passing through the air.  Paper with notes can be stolen.  People can be tortured to extract information.  There will always be a way to intercept communication.

That said, SIM cards are small, easy to destroy or swallow, and can’t be read without some sort of assistive device. Abayima (the product) can be used to encrypt whatever message is contained, adding another layer of protection.

Aren’t there better ways to distribute information?

Yes. This publishing method is more akin to pen and paper communication. By design, it is inefficient. But it’s highly practical if you have limited resources as it leverages local infrastructure. This is intended to be carried out in ‘last ditch’ scenarios where the more efficient methods of delivery like email, instant messaging, text messaging, VOIP or others have either been compromised by hackers, are being monitored by authorities, or completely disabled.  It’s a work around when the alternative is no long-distance communication at all.

What is a sneakernet? 

It refers to using your feet (sneakers) to move information around, particularly data storage devices. The implication is that though there are clearly other ways to access that information, the sneakernet is the fallback.

Visit the project at http://abayima.com

Kiberia, Nairobi’s million-person slum, will be mapped in November through a project initiated by OpenStreetMap and Jump Start International. OpenStreetMap’s Humanitarian team will collaborate with young Kenyans to map the slum and share the results. From the press release (PDF):

Twelve young residents of Kibera will first be trained on current mapping techniques during a two-day workshop. Individuals from the growing Nairobi technology scene will help train and network with the larger community. The group will then map all of Kibera over a two-week period in mid-November and share the results through OpenStreetMap, joining a growing global community of tech-savvy grassroots mapmakers. “The project will provide open-source data that will help illustrate the living conditions in Kibera. Without basic knowledge of the geography of Kibera it is impossible to have an informed discussion on how to improve the lives of residents of Kibera,” said Mikel Maron.

More information can be found at http://www.mapkibera.org/.

Jacob Zuma’s campaign promised to make the South African government and presidency more accessible to the public. One of his many proposals was a presidential hotline that would allow citizens to call a special number with questions and complaints about government projects.

The 4million rand hotline is set to go live today, with over 40 public liaison officers tasked with following up with citizen calls. The liaison officers are placed in all departments of the government at the national level. Zuma has announced that after the first few weeks of testing and debugging, he expects the provinces to establish similar hotlines. From the press release:

"The provinces are expected to establish similar services, and to create a forum that includes liaison officers for each municipality so that the service is taken to local government level, including rural municipalities and districts."

The aims of this public service were to encourage an all-round improvement in citizen care and liaison, "and to introduce a culture of putting the citizen first in all government departments as well as municipalities".

"This is part of the President’s directive to create an interactive, accessible and responsive government."

Vusi Mona, Deputy Director General in the Presidency expects the hotline to receive 1,500 calls a day, in several languages. Calls will be recorded and tracked for quality purposes as well as to gather statistics on which governmental departments are receiving the most complaints.

The hotline can be reached toll-free at 17737.

Around the world, bloggers are reporting that yesterday, Russia may have launched an attack against Facebook, YouTube, LiveJournal, and Twitter to silence a pro-Georgia blogger called Cyxymu.

Continue Reading…

The battle between France and Rwanda in relation to the 1994 genocide has taken a new twist. Rose Kabuye, the Rwanda’s chief of State Protocol was given a conditional release at her first appearance before the Palais de Justice in Paris.

Kabuye who was released after more than ten hours of waiting for a judge’s decision after being extradited from Germany, is along with eight top Rwandese officials accused of having shot down the plane of former president, Juvenal Habyarimana in April 1994. More from The New Times

As part of my social start-up Appfrica Labs, my entrepreneurs here in Uganda and I have been thinking of ways of making the world’s web applications work for us. For the most part, no web apps are really thinking beyond the first world, and certainly none are specifically targeting Uganda. But this is no one’s fault, Uganda (if it wants web apps) should be contributing it’s own ideas and applications to the web. That said, last year Twitter shut off it’s international services early last year leaving much of the international market out in the cold. Rather than complain about that, we began building our own Laconi.ca server in Uganda, hacking it to work for our market.

This meant users couldn’t need the web to use the service. That would have to be secondary to a social platform to MXit or QQ where authentication and registration was done 100% with your mobile device and number.

The Concept

Most countries in Africa share one thing in common: a high penetration of mobile devices. In terms of the evolution of communication technologies, Africa skipped a generation. Instead of e-mail and instant message, the average person here uses SMS, MMS or simply calls. It seemed natural, that a Twitter-like service was a natural fit for Africa. So, instead of knocking on Twitter’s door (they aren’t interested, they’ve got their own problems) we turned to Laconi.ca. With Laconi.ca, the open source microblogging platform. We were able to do things, begin working on an alternative, and hack the source code to work for our market.

The Collaboration

Erik Hersman, David Kobia and the other people at Ushahidi, knew what we were working on and proposed a collaboration. But again, with most things cool in Africa, it takes some creativity to get things funded. So Erik approached me about submitting the idea to the Ashoka Changemakers competition.

The Goal

The Goal is simple, we want to create a platform that can be used for socializing, but more importantly, we want to create a public utility. Ushahidi has become just that. When a crisis breaks out, they’re on the scene, allowing people to anonymously share reports of violence. But what if people could also use their everyday mobile social tool to do the same? The collaborative idea was born and you can check it out below. Regardless of whether or not we get this opportunity, the value in such a service is blatant and we’ll continue work on developing it.

Update: I forgot to mention this post which illustrates an actual use scenario, offering insight as to the realized value of micro-blogging in a crisis situation.

You can support our idea for this Crisis, Microblogging and Emergencies App here.

CNN has an interesting article on the black-Iraqi experience

Their faces and darker skins make them look different. They are routinely called “slave” by the majority, whatever their profession. But Iraq’s black population hopes that Barack Obama’s rise to the White House will mark a turning point for minorities not just in the United States, but also in their country.

Their history goes back 1,000 years to the time when Africans were brought as slaves to the south of Iraq to drain marshes and build Basra.

Many Iraqis still call blacks “abed,” an Arabic word that means “slave.” Thijeel grimaces when he pronounces it. It’s demeaning, he says, and he wants the government to forbid its use. Many white Iraqis claim the word isn’t meant to offend, but Thijeel says they have no idea how hurtful it is. “I never want my son to go through this,” he says.

Barrack Obama’s inspirational Inauguration speech will be remembered for a thousand different reasons but a few lines in particular caught RJ Eskow’s attention:

“… we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united…we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”

- Barrack H. Obama (20, Jan 2009)

In an OpEd for the Huffington Post, RJ looks at what that pargraph means to the developing world by quoting AllAfrica’s Wambui Mwangi beautifully written peace that suggests had Barrack Obama been raised in Kenya, he’d be at far greater risk for his safety. Wambui cites many examples of bright progressives that were cut down for trying to do just that, move Africa forward.

I am finding it very difficult to join in the jubilation about Senator Barack Obama. Not that I want to deny the man his victory, but my impulse to celebrate keeps deflating on the idea that the best thing that happened to little Barack was not growing up in Kenya…If he had grown up here, and had he somehow managed to retain most elements of his current self, he would have been another outstanding, intelligent and competent Luo man in our midst: and he would have been killed.

Yes, we would have assassinated a Barack Obama if he had remained ours, with us, one of us here in this schizophrenic cauldron we call home. This is not going to stretch the imagination of any Kenyan – after all, when we had that incredibly good-looking and charismatic home-grown hero, Tom Mboya, we shot him to death.

And when that austerely intellectual and elegant leader, Robert Ouko, threatened to look overly intelligent to the world, we killed him too. We killed Pio Gama Pinto and we killed JM Kariuki. There is no reason to suppose that Barack Obama, whose integrity of purpose and stringent sense of ethics even his enemies concede, would have survived his Kenyan roots.

HE IS MUCH TOO INTELLIGENT, TOO charged with the promise of history, too bold in his claim to a shining destiny, too full of the audacity of hope, for us to have let him survive. Kenya would have killed Barack Obama…

Being Kenyan, however, we prefer to drown in the pettiness of our parochial quarrels when at home, and if one of us threatens to be too hopeful, too ambitious, too intelligent, too creative or too inspirational to fit into our trivial little categories of hatred and suspicion, we kill them, or exile them from our societies, or we just cause them to run away inside, hiding from us and from themselves the grandeur of their souls, the splendid landscapes of their imagined tomorrows.

Nothing but the worst for us, at home.

That statement resonates all too fully. The history of brutal, power-hungry leaders across Africa perhaps reflects a need for politicians to be more cunning and more forceful and intimidating than their enemies. Intellect is not an asset, Wambui’s peace suggests, as did the movie THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND (2006), a fictional and slightly exaggerated account of the life of Ugandan president Idi Amin. Wambui’s essay however, illustrates that people are aware of a need for change and that’s a good sign for Kenya, it’s a good sign for us all.

Great thoughts from George Ayittey on what’s wrong with Africa and how Obama can avoid repeating the mistakes that have fueled corruption and abuse by African leaders for decades. A few highlights…

1. Africa doesn’t need aid. Its begging bowl leaks. According to the African Union (AU) corruption alone costs Africa more than $148 billion a year – nearly six times the aid ($25 billion) Africa receives from all sources.

2. Formulation of a new U.S.-Africa policy requires input from native born African dissidents and exiles living in the U.S. – the same role played by Soviet dissidents in the West. These Africans have a better understanding of conditions back home and, moreover, are not so encumbered by political correctness. But, hitherto fore they have been excluded from the formulation of U.S.-Africa policy.

3. The new policy should place less emphasis on the rhetoric of African leaders.

4. Forget about that useless continental organization called the African Union (AU). It can’t even define “democracy.”

5. The U.S. and the international community cannot forever continue to pick up the pieces and clean up the mess left by Africa’s hippos. A United Nations protectorate should be declared over failed states (Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Zimbabwe, etc.) Sufficient force should be deployed to remove an errant regime and the country administered for say 10 years before holding free and fair elections to turn it over.

via HuffPo

"Trade Carbon for Food"

Jon Gosier —  December 2, 2008 — 1 Comment

Could the key to Africa’s future have been there from day one? In sustainable agriculture, Busani Bufana thinks so…

Forget the view of climate change as impending catastrophe for a moment: if negotiators can recognise sustainable agriculture by African smallholders and forests as mitigating factors in climate change, carbon trading could become an important support for Africa’s food security. There’s no doubt that climate change is a threat: Africa contributes only 3.8 percent of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, but it will suffer worst impacts of climate change. This is because of limited mechanisms and resources to mitigate and adapt to this significant change from one climatic condition to another. Examples of adaptation activities include introducing different crops to compensate to local climate change and protection of coastal areas from sea-level rise.

Carbon trading places limits on emissions at agreed levels; polluters who exceed their assigned limit must buy credits to do so. This is where African farmers can help — if climate-friendly practices in agriculture or preservation of forests are recognised. Polluters in rich countries could then buy offset carbon credits from farmers in Africa.

The global market for carbon emissions is expanding. In 2007, it was estimated to be worth 30 billion dollars — two and a half times the value of average annual aid to Africa.

via IPS