Tag Archives: technology

briefly noted: disruptive technological change

1) The Atlantic on the Digital Underground of North Korea

2) New York Times Armies of Expensive Lawyers, Replaced by Cheaper Software about innovations in AI that allow textual analysis of large sets of documents. The article discusses two approaches it terms “linguistic” and “sociological.”:

The most basic linguistic approach uses specific search words to find and sort relevant documents. More advanced programs filter documents through a large web of word and phrase definitions. A user who types “dog” will also find documents that mention “man’s best friend” and even the notion of a “walk.”
The sociological approach adds an inferential layer of analysis, mimicking the deductive powers of a human Sherlock Holmes. Engineers and linguists at Cataphora, an information-sifting company based in Silicon Valley, have their software mine documents for the activities and interactions of people — who did what when, and who talks to whom. The software seeks to visualize chains of events. It identifies discussions that might have taken place across e-mail, instant messages and telephone calls.
Then the computer pounces, so to speak, capturing “digital anomalies” that white-collar criminals often create in trying to hide their activities.

3) An interactive example on game theoretic AI that plays rock paper scissors quite well.

4) New Yorker’s Letter from China interviews Rebecca MacKinnon on Internet in China – censorship, the state, the public, and corporations.

Toyama’s myths of information technology and development

Dr. Kentaro Toyama, a researcher in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, presents 10 myths of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in development that persist despite evidence against them and suggests approaches to build successful projects that use ICT for development.

See also his lead article in a special feature on the Boston Review on “Can technology end poverty.” He writes:

We are in the midst of the largest ICT4D [Information and Communication Technology for Development] experiment ever. In 2009 there were over 4.5 billion active mobile phone accounts, more than the entire population of the world older than twenty years of age. The cell phone is overtaking both television and radio as the most popular consumer electronic device in history. Some 80 percent of the global population is within range of a cell tower, and mobile phones are increasingly seen in the poorest, remotest communities.

These numbers prompt suggestions that there is no longer a “digital divide” for real-time communication. Yet any demographic account of mobile have-nots will show them to be predominantly poor, remote, female, and politically mute. Whatever the case, if the spread of mobile phones is sufficient to help end global poverty, we will know soon enough. But, if it doesn’t, should we then pin our hopes on the next new shiny gadget?

Untangling the Environmentalist’s Paradox

My colleagues are I recently published a paper in BioScience, Untangling the Environmentalist’s Paradox: Why Is Human Well-being Increasing As Ecosystem Services Degrade?

The paper originated from the involvement of the first four authors, my former PhD student Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, my colleague at McGill Elena Bennett, and my former post-doc Maria Tengö and I, in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.  While we were all happy with our work on the MA, we felt that the MA had not had enough time to digest its findings.  I was particularly interested in the apparent contradiction between the MA’s assumption that ecosystem services are essential to human wellbeing and the observation that human wellbeing has been increasing as ecosystem services decline.

Our paper compares four alternative explanations of this apparent contradiction.  Our abstract outlines the paper:

Environmentalists have argued that ecological degradation will lead to declines in the well-being of people dependent on ecosystem services. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment paradoxically found that human well-being has increased despite large global declines in most ecosystem services. We assess four explanations of these divergent trends: (1) We have measured well-being incorrectly; (2) well-being is dependent on food services, which are increasing, and not on other services that are declining; (3) technology has decoupled well-being from nature; (4) time lags may lead to future declines in well-being. Our findings discount the first hypothesis, but elements of the remaining three appear plausible. Although ecologists have convincingly documented ecological decline, science does not adequately understand the implications of this decline for human well-being. Untangling how human well-being has increased as ecosystem conditions decline is critical to guiding future management of ecosystem services; we propose four research areas to help achieve this goal.

BioScience has highlighted the article by writing a press releaseproviding a set of teaching resources, and featuring the article in the issue’s editorial.  BioScience’s editor-in-chief Timothy M. Beardsley writes:

BioScience will publish commentary on aspects of their analysis in a future issue. Yet the article clearly strengthens the case for research that integrates human well-being, agriculture, technology, and time lags affecting ecosystem services. Raudsepp-Hearne and her colleagues urge more attention to how ecosystem services affect multiple aspects of well-being, ecosystem service synergies and trade-offs, technology for enhancing ecosystem services, and better forecasting of the provision of and demand for ecosystem services.

The recent oil calamity in the Gulf of Mexico, the biological impacts of which will take years to fully manifest and will persist for decades, should be reminder enough that although technology can insulate us from degrading ecosystem services locally, it often does so by creating problems elsewhere. As the human population grows, fewer places remain where the impacts can be absorbed without adversely affecting somebody. Aggregate global human well-being is, apparently, growing—though it is obviously declining in some places. Extending and defending the gains, particularly as the quest for energy becomes more intense, will require policymakers to understand the complicated relationship between ecosystem services and the humans who use them.

I’ll summarize our paper and respond to some of the media coverage of our paper in followup posts.

The paper is:

  • Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, Garry D. Peterson, Maria Tengö, Elena M. Bennett, Tim Holland, Karina Benessaiah, Graham K. MacDonald, and Laura Pfeifer.  2010. Untangling the Environmentalist’s Paradox: Why Is Human Well-being Increasing As Ecosystem Services Degrade? BioScience. 60(8) 576-589.

Thanks to BioScience an open access version is temporarily available here.


That people need to learn in order to build a better world is a key idea motivating a lot of resilience projects, and learning requires failures that you can learn from.  In New York Times Stephanie Strom reports on FailFaire, an attempt to encourage learning from failure among the community of technology development professionals.  The article In Twist, Nonprofits Honor Technology’s Failures writes:

At a gathering last month over drinks and finger food, a specialist at the World Bank related the story of how female weavers in a remote Amazonian region of Guyana had against all odds built themselves a thriving global online business selling intricately woven hammocks for $1,000 apiece.

The state phone company had donated a communications center that helped the women find buyers around the world, selling to places like the British Museum. Within short order, though, their husbands pulled the plug, worried that their wives’ sudden increase in income was a threat to the traditional male domination in their society.

Technology’s potential to bring about social good is widely extolled, but its failures, until now, have rarely been discussed by nonprofits who deploy it. The experience in Guyana might never have come to light without FailFaire, a recurring party whose participants revel in revealing technology’s shortcomings.

“We are taking technology embedded with our values and our culture and embedding it in the developing world, which has very different values and cultures,” Soren Gigler, the World Bank specialist, told those at the FailFaire event here in July.

Behind the events is a Manhattan-based nonprofit group, MobileActive, a network of people and organizations trying to improve the lives of the poor through technology. Its members hope light-hearted examinations of failures will turn into learning experiences — and prevent others from making the same mistakes.

“I absolutely think we learn from failure, but getting people to talk about it honestly is not so easy,” said Katrin Verclas, a founder of MobileActive. “So I thought, why not try to start conversations about failure through an evening event with drinks and finger foods in a relaxed, informal atmosphere that would make it seem more like a party than a debriefing.”

On FailFaire’s blog, Ian Thorpe Reflects on Learning from Failure from a Failfaire Attendee:

A few shared lessons emerged which might also seem familiar to us in UNICEF: …

• People – not just technology – and process. Finding the right partners, listening to them and engaging them are critical success factors. A project that works well in one context might be ineffective in others if you don’t have the right partners and you don’t engage and make use of the skills and knowledge of the people you are working with.

• Make sure to pilot and test. Before scaling up a project, or before using it in a critical setting, make sure to have enough time to thoroughly test it and work out the kinks.

• Beware of “zombie” projects. If we are too attached to a “good idea” and have invested a lot of effort we are often unwilling to admit it is a failure and let go of it, and it keeps coming back from the dead, or it limps along unsuccessfully, not fully supported but still consuming valuable resources.

• Failures can lead to future successes. While a particular project might fail it can lead to new innovation and subsequent success. Look out for the learning and for the unexpected successful spin-off opportunities.

Some of these lessons might seem obvious with the benefit of hindsight – but it doesn’t stop them from recurring in development work.

As to the idea behind the event, I’m a strong believer in the value of learning from our mistakes if people would be willing to admit them and share them with others. This is challenging within a large publicly funded organization that places a lot of emphasis on delivering results and holding people accountable for them, but if we don’t do it we are at risk of continually repeating the same mistakes and in keeping alive our zombie projects because no-one wants to admit they are failing.

Ethan Zuckerman’s Propositions for Successful Development Innovations

Ethan Zuckerman writes about innovation in developing countries in Innovating from constraint and suggests seven “rules” or propositions about how innovation proceeds in the developing world.  He writes:

I’d been asked by the organizers [of the seminar on the Information Society in Barcelona] to talk about how NGOs and social change organizations innovate, with the special challenge that I wasn’t supposed to celebrate innovative projects so much as I was to talk about the process of innovation. As I thought about this, I realized that I a) didn’t have much understanding of how social entrepreneurs innovate and b) didn’t have much confidence that social entrepreneurs generally did a good job of innovating with social media tools. Generally, I think that social entrepreneurs place far too much faith in social media tools and assume that they’ll be more popular, useful and powerful than they actually turn out to be.

So I offered a talk about some very different types of innovation – African innovations including the zeer pot, William Kamkwamba’s windmill, biomass charcoal, and endless examples of innovation using mobile phones. My argument was that innovation often comes from unusual and difficult circumstances – constraints – and that it’s often wiser to look for innovation in places where people are trying to solve difficult, concrete problems rather than where smart people are sketching ideas on blank canvases.

I offered seven rules that appear to help explain how (some) developing world innovation proceeds:

  • innovation (often) comes from constraint (If you’ve got very few resources, you’re forced to be very creative in using and reusing them.)
  • don’t fight culture (If people cook by stirring their stews, they’re not going to use a solar oven, no matter what you do to market it. Make them a better stove instead.)
  • embrace market mechanisms (Giving stuff away rarely works as well as selling it.)
  • innovate on existing platforms (We’ve got bicycles and mobile phones in Africa, plus lots of metal to weld. Innovate using that stuff, rather than bringing in completely new tech.)
  • problems are not always obvious from afar (You really have to live for a while in a society where no one has currency larger than a $1 bill to understand the importance of money via mobile phones.)
  • what you have matters more than what you lack (If you’ve got a bicycle, consider what you can build based on that, rather than worrying about not having a car, a truck, a metal shop.)
  • infrastructure can beget infrastructure (By building mobile phone infrastructure, we may be building power infrastructure for Africa – see my writings on incremental infrastructure.)

The most experimental part of a very experimental talk was applying these seven principles to three ICT4D experiments – One Laptop Per Child, Kiva and Global Voices. Ismael has a review of my talk including the scores I offer for each of the projects on these criteria.

Mobile phones and global communication

The spread of mobile phones across the developing world has been extremely rapid in the past few years (e.g. 4X increase between 2001-2005 in Africa).


The BBC reports on the annual Information Economy report from the UN conference on trade and development:

It was now well-established, said the report, that greater use of technology in businesses, schools and at home could raise standards of living and help people prosper.

In many developing nations the mobile phone had become the standard bearer for these changes, it said.

“In Africa, where the increase in terms of the number of mobile phone subscribers and penetration has been greatest, this technology can improve the economic life of the population as a whole,” it said.

In rural communities in Uganda, and the small vendors in South Africa, Senegal and Kenya mobile phones were helping traders get better prices, ensure less went to waste and sell goods faster.

The take up of mobiles was allowing developing nations to “leapfrog” some generations of technology such as fixed line telephones and reap more immediate rewards, said the report.

Greater use of computers in small businesses in countries such as Thailand made staff boost productive, it said. A study of Thai manufacturing firms showed that a 10% increase in computer literate staff produced a 3.5% productivity gain.

The developing world was also catching up in terms of net availability. In 2002, said UNCTAD, net availability was ten times higher in developing nations. In 2006, net availability was only six times higher.