Archive for June 2010

In Kashmir Uprising, Government Bans SMS

30 June 2010

Kashmir, the restive and contested region divided between India and Pakistan, has in recent weeks seen a surge in violence after a long period of relative calm.  Kashmir has been the flashpoint of three wars between India and Pakistan since 1947, and Indian-controlled Kashmir saw brutal, persistent violence from 1989 up until the early part of this decade, as the Indian government tried to crush an independence movement, with Pakistan-based terror groups throwing fuel on the fire. The past few years, however, have been characterized by relative calm, with violence abating, tourism returning, and tensions relaxing.

KashmirIn the past few weeks, a great deal of that progress has evaporated.  On June 11, a 17-year old Kashmiri student was killed by an exploding tear gas shell during an independence demonstration in Srinagar.  Since then, at least 11 more Kashmiri civilians have been killed, as Indian forces have shot and beaten protesters after being pelted with stones.  In their latest move, the Indian Army has instituted a lockdown on the cities where protests have occurred, and, as of yesterday, the Indian government has banned text messaging.

Back in November, I wrote about the Indian government’s ban of pre-paid cell phones in Kashmir– a part of their effort to diminish the photos, videos, and other first-hand accounts of the disproportionate, often unprovoked violence of the Indian army. This new ban of SMS messaging is not cloaked in any excuse about fighting terror– it’s simply part of an effort to prevent protesters from organizing themselves while under citywide lockdown.

India certainly has legitimate security concerns in Kashmir; Pakistani terrorist groups including Lashkar-e-Taiba have exploited the situation to stage attacks on Indian forces. But banning text messages is just the latest iteration of the Indian government violating the rights of all people in these cities to quell violence that began with their own army’s misconduct.  Increasingly, tools like SMS and pre-paid cell phones are vital tools for information access and communication, and denying access to these tools has to be seen as a violation of the right of equal access to information. 

What’s more, this episode is evidence that mobile phones– which put extraordinary power in the hands of individuals– tend to empower groups of individuals, rather than centralized authority.  Yes, the government has the power to switch off the network, but that’s an extreme move.  Maybe the most accurate way to say it is that the advent of the mobile phone makes it harder to be “just a little autocratic.” If you’re going to crack down, you’ve got to crack down all the way, or the power of the network will remain.

To some degree, that’s what’s happened in Iran since last year’s fraudulent election.  A government that used to be “somewhat authoritarian,” was faced with an increasingly well-organized opposition, and forced to either let the opposition movement continue to gain steam, or crack down hard.  The government opted for the latter, and in so doing, lost an awful lot of legitimacy in their own country and around the world.

Ultimately, I do think this growing global network will be a force for freedom rather than oppression.  In the shorter term, I think it is likely to widen the chasm between democracies and dictatorships, as it will force the countries in between to choose one path or another.



Innovation in Learning: Lessons from the Slums

24 June 2010

Charles Leadbeater is a researcher at British think tank Demos who focuses his work on innovation. He recently delivered a TED talk about innovation in education, and he challenges his audience to think beyond the places we typically look for new ideas in education– places like Finland, where prosperity and homogeneity contribute to success that is difficult to replicate.

Leadbeater knocks the “19th century Bismarckian school system” that still prevails in most of the world as increasingly irrelevant to students and to the world they live in.  And he encourages people to look for innovation in the places where that system is least relevant: the favelas of Rio, the slums of Patna, or Kibera in Nairobi.  In these places, where a teacher in a traditional classroom delivers lessons based on a tight curriculum, forcing students to memorize the kings and queens of England, the education system couldn’t more more irrelevant for children. 

For these students, more relevant learning would cover topics like “how not to contract HIV,” or “carpentry 101,” that would help them stay alive and find a job.  But even this “extrinsic” motivation for going to school, based on a long-term payoff, is not enough for the slum-dwelling poor– the “long-term” is just too long.  And so the most successful innovations in education have also included some intrinsic motivation, making learning relevant, fun and accessible.  Put another way, if the Bismarckian education system was based on a “push” of knowledge to students, a new model needs to be based on a “pull” toward learning.

Not surprisingly, many of the most successful innovations in education have introduced technology to technology-poor regions.  Leadbeater talks about programs that have brought computer labs into Rio’s favelas, or installed single computers at the entrances to the slums in India’s megacities. These projects have gone a long way toward pulling children and adults alike toward learning by making it relevant and accessible. 

Why is this important here in the US? Because here, also, students are increasingly finding the schools they visit everyday disconnected and unrelated to the world they live in.  This is particularly true with regards to technology. More and more students have cell phones, and they’re texting up a storm.  Increasingly, they won’t find a job after graduation if they’re not computer-literate. So when they go into a classroom in which a 19th century schoolhouse teacher would feel at home, it’s a bad disconnect from the outside world.

Innovation in EducationLeadbeater broke down innovation in education into a two-by two box, which I’ve replicated at right.  Most of the innovation we see today occurs in the top-left box: sustaining innovation based in formal classroom settings that, at best, improves what we have.  He argues that we need a lot more innovation in the other three boxes– particularly in the bottom right, where disruptive innovation in informal, non-classroom settings will lead to a transformation of learning.

It’s a really interesting talk, and now that you’ve spent half an hour reading me gush about it, you might as well spend the 20 minutes to watch it yourself. 

(h/t Jason)



The World Cup: The World’s First Truly Globalized Media Event

22 June 2010

We’re soccer fans here at NDN, in case you haven’t noticed, and we’re currently addicted to the World Cup in a bad way.  As the Cup approached, I wrote a couple short posts on how the World’s Greatest Sporting Event might affect global connectivity– whether it would drive adoption or innovation– particularly in the mobile space.  And it has, no doubt.  If you’ve been watching on ESPN, you’ve heard the announcers remind you that you can “follow all the action online, on your TV or on your mobile phone” (with British accent-emphasis on the mow-boile phoune).

In addition, it turns out all this football madness has had an impact on this here internet.  Post Tech reports that the opening day of the World Cup saw the highest web traffic ever, with over 12 million visitors every minute around noon EST.  That’s a good 50% higher than the second-highest peak in history of 8 million visitors/minute, which occurred on the evening of November 4, 2008.  Note that the third-highest peak ever was also a World Cup moment– it happened around the time the US was eliminated from the 2006 Cup by Ghana. Akamai has the numbers.

Maurice Edu Scored That GoalWhat’s driving all this? A few facts, followed by a few theories: Numbers this big are necessarily driven by North American internet users.  While every other continent is over 100% above usual internet usage (North America is at about 90% above typical usage), all those continents combined don’t equal the number of viewers in North America.  So despite the canard that Americans don’t care about soccer (popularized by Europeans, adopted by American conservatives)… they do.

But, if the numbers are driven by the U.S., why does the World Cup cause a bigger spike than, say, the Super Bowl? Or Michael Phelps? Or the Christmas Day bomber?  Part of the explanation, at least, has to be that the Cup, unlike most sporting events, happens at odd hours, while Americans are at work, rather than on their couch, so they’re depending on the internet, more than television. But I think there’s also a more interesting explanation…

As NDN has noted time and again, we live in an increasingly globalized, interconnected world– and this trend has accelerated as connectivity has expanded to include the over 4.5 billion people on earth with a mobile phone. Increased web activity around this truly global event is echoing beyond borders, and the passions of foreign football fanatics are driving greater activity of American web-users. 

What I’m saying is that World Cup frenzy in the US is being driven not just by soccer-maniacs, but by regular people who are responding to the global obsession. Though Stanley McChrystal snuck into Twitter’s Trending Topics today, the top-ten list has been absolutely dominated by World Cup-related items over the past two weeks.  Media produced around the world is being gobbled up by Americans. And who could have imagined the word Vuvuzela on the lips of so many Americans this week?

Global football madness is driving Americans’ activity on the web, whether they know it or not. I can think of a few examples of American media driving global activity, but this may be the first time it’s gone in the other direction. Does that make this World Cup the first truly globalized media event?  I’d say so.