Guardian Activate Summit 2011

by - Sunday, July 24, 2011

Some fresh insight into how information and communication technology can make the world a better place - The Guardian Activate Summit 2011.

Having attended the inaugral event in 2009 I was dissapointed not to make it to the Guardian’s Activate summit in 2010. This year I decided to make sure I got there. Below is a record of how my day unfolded with apologies for gaps, misunderstandings and wishful thinking.

A good start to the day chatting briefly to Daisy Wakefield from the Institute for Philanthropy and Loren Treisman from the Indigo Trust about their work in the field of philanthropy. How nice to concentrate on how best to spend money rather than how the hell to bring some in.

Power and principles

Alec Ross suggested connection technologies could and should disrupt and redistribute power. He revealed how a group of  young diplomats with a sophisticated understanding of networks created theText Haiti disaster response practically overnight and how an enlightened Hilary Clinton allowed it to happen. These same technologies have also been proved to expose the vulnerability of dictatorship – the network as revolutionary leader – as weak ties are made strong. As to how technology can alleviate poverty, we are still on the first chapter.

Ricken Patel explained how the Avaaz community of 9.4M subscribers was aiming to close the gap between the world we have and the world we want. He spoke of how they were able to get money directly to Burmese monks for distribution rather than go via government channels, assert political pressure in Brazil and disseminate information about wrong doing in Syria. Interestingly he can identify no dominent demographic in the community. The big picture for him is the effect of the internet on democratic power.

Aleem Walji discussed the open data policy of the World Bank, encouraging transparency and collaboration. Whilst loaning money to countries, they provide information to everyone. The opening up of the data meant that Google quickly translated the banks own top indicators and other imediately began to identify gaps in the data which could be addressed. Overlaying different datasets on maps can reveal new information and there will be real progress as more user generated data is used in combination with bank data.

Jeremy Heimans from Purpose spoke of how technology must transform people’s sense of agency. Newt Gingrich’ clumsy use of social media to announce his candidacy was a good example of it’s ineffective use as a traditional media channel. Jeremy spoke of how online activity figures do translate to offline activity in all parts of the world  as demonstrated during the Arab spring and by his own GetUp project in Australia. He touched on a funding model of micro payments rather than charity (the notion of profit rather than NFP an interesting theme of the day). Leadership must be strategic, not charismatic, enabling the power of membership and facilitating the global effect of hyper-local activity. The network allows the emergence of rich stories rather than spin and messaging.

Ory Okolloh of Google Africa spoke engagingly of principles rather than specific examples. Technology has a universality and shouldn’t be ghettoised for “development” (ICT for dev). In Africa as elsewhere, technology is enjoyed right now as a communication channel not a development tool. Pregnant with her third child, Ory illustrated the pace of change of technical platforms by refering to her first child as Blog baby, her second as Facebook baby and  her third as Twitter baby. What would her next be – a Groupon baby? The mind boggles. The web must remain open, but not get too hung up on being edited – information has always been edited.  It provides an opportunity for people to speak (out), giving young people influence on their future lives now. They don’t want better futures for their kids but for themselves. She also asked us to keep in mind what is beyond tech – jobs, homes, etc.

The discussion covered clicktivism (or slacktivism), whether online petitions do lead to ongoing activity and the efficiency in terms of staff to member ratios for encouraging activism online. An alarm bell was sounded by chair Kate Bulkley regarding the connections between panel members and Google’s power. It was suggested that the googlisation of data makes sense of it. Were there conflicts between making money and doing good? A bigger question than perhaps anyone wanted to tackle but Oly suggested making money would be a good thing for Africa and noted that two thirds of Google Africa content is generated by Africans(?).  Also old models of statecraft become irrelevant and govenments must accept a loss of power. A question from the floor – is the fun being taken out of the web by activism? Aparently there’s room for everything. Finally institutions will become multi-issue but connected by consistent values.

The Profit Question

So a return to that big question mentioned earlier – For profit, for good? It was touched upon but didn’t really go anywhere. How do we fund innovation sustainably?

Zaw Thet’s Palindrome Advisors make business expertise available to NFP organisations by placing business leaders to their boards.

Michael Birch’s new venture Jolitics provides a new platform designed from the ground-up to focus politics and activism in one place – (easier to ban he joked). They aim to address the vocal minority problem of online activism and he argues that there are new “obvious” ideas to surface that can rival Twitter, Facebook et al.

Perry Chen explained the Kickstarter model of crowd funding, micro philanthropy where a $25 minimum pledge is more valuable than a free vote and helps to get creative ideas off the ground. Not surprisingly compelling ideas well communicated work best and bad feedback is exponential when taking money from a lot of people – you don’t want to let people down on this website.

David Edelstein revealed the enormous problems political pressure caused The Grameen Foundationparticularly in Bangladesh.

In discussion it was generally agreed that not-for-profit can come with limiting restrictions and that the for-profit model allows flexibility and sustainabilty. Open models rather than open-source allow scalability and the dynamism of internet doesn’t prevent sustainability.


Bigballs’ Tom Thirwall presented on peaceBomb – an 11 min short film crowd-funded on kickstarter. Its good story made fundraising easy and the target was reached in 30 days. A feature documentary should follow in the same fashion.

Sarah Dyer explained how Beatbullying took an offline support network of peer mentors in schools online, empowering children to change their lives. Interestingly they chose to develop their own software in-house and are open-sourcing both the tools and their data analysis.

Rakesh Rajani of Twaweza spoke of brokering information to make change in Tanzania and elsewhere and the lessons learned. He discussed medicine maps that were infrequently updated, maps showing water points in Africa that had no data on whether they were working or not due to unreliable SMS reports and schools not receiving the small amount of government funding allocated until a mobile monitoring initiative was announced at which point everything changed. He stated tha people not technology drive projects and that people need to share the evidence of their own participation for it to have a decent chance of success. Interaction between old and new technologies is also crucial – hear it on the radio, post it on Facebook. Old institutions like the newspapers are enhanced and transformed by new media, not replaced. The power of imagination must be fuelled by technology

Zaw Thet gave us a bit more background on himself and Palindrome. The son of Burmese immigrant parents, both doctors who fled the coup, Zaw was early into search and social media and became an angel investor silicon valley. With the economy in bad shape he set up Palindrome to make business expertise available to the NFP sector. With 100 founding advisors, each spends a minimum of 1 year on the board of a NFP organisation. They developed detailed questionnaires to make sure the experts are placed with appropriate organisations.

Jonathan Simmons from Public Zone and Jon Alexander from the National Trust introduced theMyFarm project whereby a working farm is “run” collectively by 10,000 internet volunteers. In an attempt to speak to people as something other than consumers and reconnect them with food production, the slow process of farming is enriched with lots of content and frequent voting events, giving a voice and engaging people on different levels. They had a bold approach to raising money with a revenue stream at the outset. The pair were clear that this is a product and 2,000 people have paid £20 each in the first 7 weeks to take part.


The video interview with eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar was disappointingly just that – a video of a pre-recorded interview. He identified his organisation’s (the Omidyar Network) areas of focus to change the world using technology to scale the impact dramatically. He predicted an increase in government transparency all around the world with social networking and mobile the most powerful influences. Expectations of transparency in all areas is a a result of increasing personal transparency on social networks. Top down control systems will suffer and older democracies have their own problems to solve.

Loss of control was a theme developed by Alec Ross with no more decisions being made in smoke filled rooms. Technology allows rapid constituency building as demonstrated by the Obama campaign but polarisation is a problem.

Venezuelan academic Dr Vanessa Neumann suggested Latin Americans broke new ground with the anti-FARC demonstrations facilitated by Facebook. She discussed global governance as an ideal in the 90s but spoke of a new empowerment. Of interest to her is the function of ex-pats connecting with home country voices and contextualising their messages. She also threw in the notion of Cosmopolitanism – global individuals – and a bit of Kant.

Michael Birch expanded on his plan for Jolitics to rival those existing forum platforms, social media channels and even petition websites that were not really designed for politics. Anyone can join and participate but to overcome the vocal minority problem, popularity can grow as individuals are “voted” for, allegiances shifting on a daily basis. There are tools to assess political compatibility between individuals and a balanced debate develops rather than one sided petitions.

After a running joke about not discussing the London cycle scheme (which I didn’t really follow) Kulveer Ranger from the mayor’s office spoke about the digital agenda for London and how politicians must change the way they engage. Social media channels aren’t good for just saying how well they are doing and a more relaxed attitude is needed. He warned of the dangers of the filter bubble – where our personal preferences are deduced and our options predefined by smart websites – and again of slacktivism click to vote.

The subsequent discussion covered a new connection between the governing and the governed and whether interconnected groups may still need a charismatic leader’s voice. Politicians use social media as broadcast channels but are rarely challenged online. Successful business leaders can now become politicians without the usual political bureaucracy but eyeball contact is essential. I was lost by a reference to 19th century democratic systems and whether modern technology produced parallels. The old favourite unresolved theme of how to validate online identities was raised with Jolitics opting for tying into Facebook and twitter accounts which take a while to construct and cell phone validation of votes.

There was a brief  film interlude with producer Claire Ferguson and Bozena Piniecka from the Inga Foundation introducing Up In Smoke – a film about efforts to replace slash and burn farming of the rain forests with innovative and sustainable Inga alley cropping. It seems like a great idea.

In the break I had a chat with John Nugent whose take on how online petitions could effect actual political change will result in the launch of The Voice Register later on this year.

Mobile Breakout

The SHM Foundation‘s Anna Kydd told us of their pilot scheme delivering healthcare to people with HIV in Mexico via support networks and SMS technology from general communications about diet and medication to more specific personal advice and support. Rigorous evaluation is an essential element of such pilot projects as it develops in other regions such as South Africa

Herman Heunis predicts that a shared mobile phone will remain the only access to the internet for some south africans for many years. His Mxit downloadable app “makes dumb phones smarter” creating a platform to send longer cheaper SMS messages, provide social gaming, chat, rich content, music, voting, books, etc. Whilst most services are free, they charge for some such as the chat rooms. An API is available and entrepreneurs split revenue on their applications 70:30. Data costs in South Africa are still very high so usage of rich platforms such has Facebook has not taken off but the Mxit has taken advantage of this fact by developing a very data-light protocol.

Rakesh Rajani of Twaweza told how national surveys could be prohibitively expensive and time consuming but that mobile surveys were changing this. His organization’s Citizens surveys consist of perhaps ten questions sent via SMS once a week and provide valuable monitoring data, gather opinion, etc. He is actively looking for people to use the data in visualisations and mashups.

Dr Joel Selanikio social business DataDyne also produces a mobile survey tool called EpiSurveyor. Originally developed for mobile Health, its built in flexibility has resulted in it being used for many other purposes. He acknowledged Ken Banks‘ work on SMS transmission and data retrieval and suggested that much mobile development still needs to be aimed primarily at low end phones.

In discussion it was suggested again that the for-profit model can add longevity to a project and that the cost of a pilot scheme is a good indicator of the chances of it scaling. Verification of data is not an big issue but rather providing mechanisms for its collection and the creation of prepaid systems has facilitated an explosion of mobile in countries where bank accounts are scarce. Mobile access to text books for learning has a big future and we must piggyback markets in west for devices such as the iPad and Kindle to drive down prices and put the technical hardware in other parts of the world.


Eirini Zafeiratu from Vodafone identified some of the barriers to access – the obvious ones are age, disability and economics but also gaps in coverage in even in European countries like Germany and the UK which are being addressed. Applications should be designed for all devices and all users from the outset.

Nadege Riche of the European Disability Forum pointed out that people with disability need access to ICT for the same reasons as everyone else and that content is as important as design considerations. Can technology facilitate new opportunities? She asked us to imagine an app tha made it possible for a blind person to travel in a foreign city without a human guide. She also stated that access to information has been declared a basic human right.

Adele Waugaman spoke of the United Nations Foundation partnering with organisations like the Vodafone Foundation mentioning reverse innovation and the value of software being “coded in country”.

Martha Lane Fox champions digital capability for the UK government and revealed that 9.5 million people in the UK have never used the internet. She rallied against advertisers for not explaining the benefits of broadband access to all and declared that cost must be taken out of the equation. An interesting observation is that the largest group of non-internet users correlates with the greatest consumers of government services. She promotes “digital by default” and hopes this will also build resilience into the economy.

Public Zone is Jonathan Simmons’s agency and helps the charity sector get its head around digital by default. He recommends we cut costs by talking to potential users before doing anything because building stuff does cost money – here, here! – and charities should involve their existing communities on Facebook or elsewhere in the design process.

It was agreed that the language of accessibility is not always particularly clear and that plain English speaking would benefit all. We were shown a video, I think made by Vodafone, where users with different abilities explained some of their needs with regards to mobile and the Vodafone Smart Accessibility Awards were mentioned.

Questions were raised about closing the gap between the haves and the have-nots and why, when so much has been done to ensure physical space is accessible, is the digital space so far behind. There is plenty of statistical analysis and some complex thinking but perhaps a action is not so prevalent. How has Estonia achieved 98% internet use? By providing great online services. An interesting point from the floor was that when women in California were asked what the next innovation in mobile phones should be, they answered “quality”.


The winners of the (H)activate award were introduced and one of them, Gareth Lloyd of Conversocial talked about their idea for an app to help people at risk of human trafficking travel safely. Its a simple idea that should be taken further n some form and I’m sure Gareth will find support despite his initial disheartening investigation into getting it funded. Gareth’s doubt that he merited his place on the expert panel did more to question anyone else’s expert status and he did well. Sobia Hamid of DataGiving was well prepared and knowledgable and Matt Biddulph from Nokia discussed open data with Daniela Torres Espinosa of Telefonica and Aleem Walji from the World Bank Foundation. Tim Berners Lee’s famous call for “raw data now” does seem to have been answered in many instances but what is really needed is analysis and interpretation – storytelling through data is a rare skill. We must ask the right questions and use visualization to clarify as well as make beautiful. If data is the fuel and applications are the vehicles, what we need is people to drive those vehicles.

A little worn out at this point (by the event and now by writing up these notes), I did have a quick chat over a beer about whether coding was the essential skill at a hackday or whether actually it’s idea development and that coding is just an excuse to get a certain type of person in a room to collaborate.

All in all a good day, perhaps not quite as inspiring as two years ago but maybe that was setting the scene and now we’re down to the nitty gritty!

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