Tag: digital divide

Get Real

Internet is expensive in South Africa, since all uploaded data has to travel via satellite.  So I will try to keep myself terse.

On the first day of FOSS4G2008, Sindile Bidha delivered a “lighting talk” on “GIS in schools programme and Quantum GIS.”  Quantum GIS, or QGIS, is open source desktop GIS software. Bindha spoke about how in Eastern Cape, one of the poorest provinces of South Africa, they were trying to introduce QGIS into the high school curriculum.  The challenges?  Among others: no trained teachers, no documentation, and no computers.

The next lightning talk was delivered by Arnulf Christl, president of OSGeo.  He rexcitedly read passages from the book Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything and interspersed his own commentary:

This is a revolution.  No, it’s an evolution.  The whole world can connect instantly, everywhere!

There was a talk given today on the subject of “Mapping the Sanitary Sewers of a South African City – First Experiences with FOSS GIS.”  Somebody is apparently making tentative steps to use open source geospatial software to make sure shit is disposed of properly.  First steps.

I didn’t go to that talk.

Instead, I went to a talk entitled “Participatory Free and Open Source GIS in the Web 2.0.”  A Brazilian masters student studying in Osaka told us that  the Web 2.0 was exciting because…well, I forget the specifics, but the reasons were displayed on a slide in the form of a tag cloud.  She told us that her thesis was on the future of the web and GIS.

“Studying the future is very popular in Japan; when I went there for the first time, I thought it looked like the future!”

Because crowds are wiser than individuals, she needed to talk to several people–maybe 30 total–about their predictions of the future, for her thesis.  She breathily asked the audience of nerds “who are so passionate about their work”–on the word passionate she turned to a slide displaying a red heart on a white background that was reminiscent of the Japanese flag–if they would agree to be interviewed by her.  To tell her what they thought.  About the future.

Q&A begins.  The first question from the audience, loud and clear: “How do I sign up for an interview?”

Another talk I missed today was about the “Development of a Malaria Decision Support System based on Open Source Technologies.”  Each talk–about malaria, about sewers, about the Web 2.0–was twenty minutes long.  About every three seconds, a child dies of malaria.

One issue that has come up frequently at FOSS4G is the importance of having free (as in “freedom”) data to be used with all the FOSS geospatial software that the conference is about.  The software is useless without data.  We are reminded of this most stridently by the OpenStreetMap community, which holds “parties” where they collect data by walking through streets with GPS in their hands.  They held one of these parties to map Hout Bay, a suburb outside of Cape Town, last Sunday just before the conference.  They put their data on the web under a CC-by-sa license (though, admittedly and regretably, the license cannot legally apply to the data because data does not fall under copyright law).

Late in the afternoon, I attended a workshop about GIS education.  It was attended primarily by people from South Africa’s GIS community; they were trying to figure out how the hell they could teach people how do work with GIS software.  At some point, somebody asks about how schools can get data for GIS students to work with in the classroom.  Ideally, it’s data that is local and relevant to the students’ lives.  Some guy from the South African government piped up:

“Oh, we have lots of data–on roads, lakes, vegetation, everything–and we want to make it free.  We just don’t have the bandwidth to host it!”

The government doesn’t have the fucking bandwidth.

Internet is expensive in South Africa.


A week ago I attended the OneWebDay event held in Washington Square Park.  OneWebDay is “Earth Day for the Internet”–a day for global awareness and celebration of the internet, and a not-so-subtle PR event for the cause of net neutrality.  There was an impressive line-up of speakers: Lawrence Lessig, John Perry Barlow, and Jonathan Zittrain were the most prominent, but there were others who were accomplished as entrepreneurs (The Craig of Craigslist, the Guy Who Started Pandora) or who could be classed as web advocates or activists in some sense or another.  A video of the event can be found here.

These were my reactions, in no particular order:

  • Nick Grossman pointed out to that “OneWebDay” is an overly cumbersome name that will probably cripple the adoption of the day on the calender.  Also, camel casing–really?  “Web Day” would be much catchier.  I fear the former name has stuck already, but somebody really ought to try to get the alternative out there.
  • It is absolutely fantastic that the Web Movement, or whatever you want to call it, has a poet among its founding members.  John Perry Barlowt–summary–is s striking figure against a backdrop of nerds, and will give this historical moment a memorably Romantic aspect.
  • One of the most contentful speeches, in my opinion, was Gale Brewer‘s.  She directly addressed the problem of the digital divide, and explained how it was a problem even within the borders of New York City and how connectivity is being fought for as a local political issue.  Since the theme of the event was “Participatory Democracy on the Internet” (double check), I think it was especially important that the day’s speakers address this point.  If political access becomes more tied to internet access, that will only reinforce the existing political inequalities unless there is a concerted effort made toward universal connectivity.
  • One of the more interesting comments was made by the Guy Who Started Pandora.  While most of speeches and Q&A discussion were a harmonious choir singing praises of the internet and calling for a united movement for its liberties, this Guy (whose name I forget) pointed out that there is one point of discord within the web community.  “People have to remember that they still have to pay for things,” he said.  “People have to get out the mindset that all of this can be free, free, free.”  He had solved this problem with advertising.  But as a businessman in the digital music industry and also a former musician who had tried to make a living, he was clearly making a reference to music piracy and the common attitude that there is nothing wrong with it.  I believe that the tension he highlighted is a deep one, and that the politics of the web are not as unified as “One Web Day” implies.

FairVote on social media in politics

FairVote’s blog has an article summing up the use of social media in politics.

As an example of people taking the initiative and offering presidential candidates star power, through using the medium of video sharing on YouTube, the Will.I.am “Yes We Can” song endorsing Barack Obama was an instant hit. Other candidates have also had unsolicited songs inspired by them and written about them.

I would describe the tone of the post as “cautious”–in both the scope of its claims and its attitude towards technology. The most important issue it raises, in my opinion, is the question of access:

One final note of caution is whether these technologies become so cheap that it is truly for the masses or will there become a technological underclass lacking access and the skills to keep up?

A totally appropriate concern. No discussion of e-politics is complete without a mention of the digital divide. I’ve gotten into the bad habit of answering this concern with a hand-wavy, “One Laptop per Child will solve it!” But that’s an inadequate response.