Media and Conflict in Myanmar, comments from a technologist

Last week I was invited to respond at the launch of the US Institute of Peace Media and Conflict in Myanmar Report. It was a humbling honor to share the technologist perspective among such an experienced and learned gathering, and for a really excellent report, recommended reading. Another good recent report, this on the political economy of Myanmar from the Kennedy School is also worth a read if you have interest there. And this short post from OKFN on the challenges of open knowledge in Myanmar quickly touches on many points relevant to ICT.

Transcript of my remarks are below. There were too many other interesting points to capture them all, but here are a few that I noted. Aung Din recommended creation of an independent media monitor, which would simply “name and shame” out of line uses of the media (to promote private interests, or to stoke tensions); sounds substantially more effective and openly democratic than any official government media controlling body. Joshua Haynes asked the question of how donors can coordinate, and support organic, ongoing processes; that’s a relevant question for this field anywhere, but especially so as internationals accelerate exponentially in Myanmar. Others called for journalism training to emphasize digital literacy, and other innovative practices (I’d include GeoJournalism among those). Mobile networks are set to accelerate rapidly (grow from 17% area coverage to 50% in 12-18 months from now) but still, much of the interesting technical community practices are now mechanical rather than informational. Noel Dickover floated the idea of Maker Faire Myanmar, a super idea, if backed by a great local team along the lines of Maker Fair Africa. Finally, was mentioned that this year will be the first census of Myanmar in over 30 years, and population estimates for the country vary from 60-70 million; hopefully this is an opportunity for more open data and transparency in Myanmar.

My remarks…

I’m going to begin with some of my experiences working with tech activists in Myanmar; then share what I think are instructive experiences working with technology and peacebuilding in Kenya, and conclude with a few specific responses to points from the report.

Typhoon Nargis in 2008 devestated Myanmar, and was my first introduction working with technologists there. This was in the very early days of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. Our volunteer community produces geographic data to support the work of humanitarian disaster responders, which can be seen most recently in the Philippines and Typhoon Haiyan. Timely and accurate maps of affected areas are crucial to coordination of response, they are often incomplete or inaccessible, and that’s where we help. In 2008, we still had not proved this ability, but yet, I connected with technologists in Myanmar who were very eager to see if OpenStreetMap could make a contribution. The biggest hurdle was the limited access to the greater internet; using our services would simply be too slow, even for the small minority of people who had access. So I was completely bowled over to learn that these guys installed their own copy of the OpenStreetMap system on a local server. They could do that because the code is open source, but it was not a simple install by far. The motivation and skill of these guys, working with limited means, greatly impressed me. And I saw that with the right opportunities, the brilliant and eager people of Myanmar could quickly use technology for great benefit.

The next year, I connected with expat activists who were concerned with the Shwe pipeline. Very little information was available publicly at that point. That included the precise route of the pipeline, and especially information on communities directly affected by the infrastructure. We were looking at how to map that route openly, again using OpenStreetMap, and collect sociodemographic data and stories from the ground. There was simply no way to find this kind of data, so our effort stalled. No matter what your opinion on the Shwe pipeline, and natural resource extraction is such a contentious issue economically and environmentally, my feeling was that there should at least be clear and accessible information of the common facts on the ground, and platforms for presenting different views, and now that the pipeline is operating, tools to monitor all aspects of the impact of the pipeline. We can see this happening now. I’m pleased this vision of open data and broad communication on a crucial issue has found root in Myanmar.

You also may have heard about the BarCamp Rangoon events. BarCamps are “un-conferences”, where the schedule is set the morning of the event. Anyone can present anything they want, and people “vote with their feet” to choose what sessions are the most happening. And Rangoon has the largest BarCamps in the world, an astounding 6400 participants this year. I can’t even fathom that scale, especially in the political environment when they began there in 2009. But the tech community of Myanmar made it happen. This speaks to the power of tech and open source culture. The focus of much of the BarCamp is on technical details of computing, and sharing knowledge about skills, economically important skills, and those can often fly under the radar of controversy. But the opening is there for more, in an event style and a culture that expects everyone to contribute, that focuses on understanding the full scope of a problem out in the open, but brings people face to face to talk to each other as human beings, and focus on finding solutions and accomplishing things. For all sorts of conversations, I think we can all learn from the BarCamp model.

Now I haven’t yet made it to Myanmar for a BarCamp, but I’m certain with this opening environment, that’s in my future. A great deal of my work the past few years has been in Kenya, where I founded an organization with slum dwellers in Nairobi called Map Kibera Trust. Slumdwellers have taken the skills of making maps in OpenStreetMap, and citizen reporting with SMS and Ushahidi and video, and used those tools to represent their communities, essentially put themselves on the map. They’ve recently completed a technology and peacebuilding project for the Kenyan election this year, supported by USIP, and I wanted to highlight a few aspects that I think are relevant. This was the first election since the 2007-2008 post election violence. The team mapped ward and constituency boundaries and distributed printed “election maps”, and did citizen, community based reporting on all phases of the election, from voter registration, to primaries, campaigning, and aftermath. While this was all excellent technical work, it was only able to directly impact due to the great amount of work in peacebuilding and networking which Kenya has seen since 2008. Mosts of that happened offline, people directly talking to each other, organizing, deciding to work together for peace. And at the same time, technical communities in Kenya gained stature, particularly projects like Ushahidi, and gathering places like the iHub. Map Kibera was able to link to these peacebuilding networks, and these technical networks, and complement this work. This collective build up of a culture of peace in Kenya, in large part played out in the media.

So some of my responses to the recommended activites of the report should come as no suprise. Mobile technology for early warning and crisis response. Yes absolutely, can only emphasize the potential of this from my experience, and other projects from Kenya like Sisi ni Amani, when part of a broader context. Help people to understand the best social and technical practices. This is poised to be very important as mobile technology spreads rapidly through Myanmar.

On the issue of hate speech in social media, I do not want to minimize these realistic concerns, but from my perspective, I must sound a warning. My inclination when observing efforts to neutralize extremist voices on social media anywhere is, to wonder how any system of control itself would be held accountable. Who is to judge what is acceptable public dialogue and criticism and legitimate dissent, and what is dangerous? Especially in a place emerging from authoritarian rule, the temptation to control must be very high. There have been issues in the past. During the Saffron Revolution, photos of protests were posted to Flickr, and to great worry of people I knew working there, those photos were apparently used by security services to identify individuals. Facebook and Google are private companies, and do have relationships with many governments, and do act on requests, so finding a working relationship with them and others is important. Though as you can see with the NSA revelations, we still haven’t found the proper limits that preserve legitimate privacy and freedom.

However, I do have some ideas of the risks with social media, and what could become explosive, and that’s why I think it’s imperitative to invest in processes of dialogue, both offline and online, and in training in responsible reporting and technology. The initiative for training in journalism is right on. Let me suggest broadening that to non-traditional journalists, to citizen and community journalists, and connect all of that training to open digital culture and technologists.

That is what I imagine the Peace Technology Innovation Workshops can accomplish. Getting people together from different backgrounds, and different skill sets, to talk and work face to face, is excellent. I suggest making these workshops not only talk, not only skills training, but places where things can practically happen. One simple means to do that is through OpenStreetMap mapping parties, where people would produce open data right there. Also, think about such initiatives participating in other ongoing events, and connect to those, like the BarCamps.

And let me conclude with some suggestions I didn’t spot in the report. First, physical innovation spaces have been key to anchoring these kinds of initiatives. In Nairobi, the iHub has been instrumental in providing a neutral meeting ground, where things can happen. Encourage hubs in Myanmar. Second, information security and privacy tools need to be on the agenda, so that journalists and technologists and citizens can be sure they truly have liberty to share their ideas without fear. Finally, embrace the Open movement. Open source software is not only accessible, it’s modifiable for new purposes. Promote open data initiatives, both from data held by the government, and data created by citizens. And apply these both to open exploration. There are so many areas where media and technology can have impact in Myanmar, for urban issues, the environment, a responsible tourist industry, health, education, cultural preservation, and many other things that no one has even thought of yet. Let’s help Myanmar to embarce open culture.

Thanks very much.