Archive for January, 2010


Coverage of Secretary Clinton’€™s speech at the Newseum on Internet Freedom has focused on its repudiation of censorship and its rebuke to China, but I was most interested in the section that discussed the role of technology in promoting the freedom from want (a.k.a. reducing poverty).  The speech included an intriguing example of how technology could close the feedback loop between beneficiaries and donor agencies and increase accountability:

Let me give you one example. Let’s say I want to create a mobile phone application that would allow people to rate government ministries, including ours, on their responsiveness and efficiency and also to ferret out and report corruption. The hardware required to make this idea work is already in the hands of billions of potential users. And the software involved would be relatively inexpensive to develop and deploy.

If people took advantage of this tool, it would help us target our foreign assistance spending, improve lives, and encourage foreign investment in countries with responsible governments. However, right now, mobile application developers have no financial assistance to pursue that project on their own, and the State Department currently lacks a mechanism to make it happen.   But this initiative should help resolve that problem and provide long-term dividends from modest investments in innovation.

The speech did not contain details about the shape of this initiative, but I hope that the Department of State goes beyond the typical response of providing funding and training.   Unlocking the potential of mobile developers in emerging markets and spurring economic growth requires two additional steps beyond more money and more capacity:

Create and Promote Tools for Developers. The open source community has been leading the way in mobile application development for emerging markets with tools like FrontlineSMS , which enables mass communication through text messages, and Ushahidi , which creates maps based on information submitted by SMS.   Both these tools require developers to install and maintain servers, which isn’t always feasible, and are only available to NGOs, which excludes local entrepreneurs.  The United States could help accelerate the creation of new mobile tools by provided hosted versions of these tools similar to Google App Engine or the WordPress.com instance of the wordpress.orgblogging software.   In addition, it should support innovative, open-source tools, by requiring implementing partners to use them.

Advocate for Governments to Improve Regulation of SMS. In the 2008 report ICT Access and Usage in Africaby ResearchICTAfrica.net , researchers found that Kenyans in the bottom 75% in terms of disposable income spent 63% of their disposable income on monthly mobile fees.     The cost of sending text messages, which cost nothing to transmit on GSM networks, eats up a significant amount of that expenditure.   Certain premium services, such as Google’s Trader, which allows people in Uganda to buy and sell goods via SMS, cost even more.  The State Department should encourage countries that receive development assistance to pressure mobile networks to drop the price of sending text messages.   This would be help poor people throughout Africa by reducing their mobile costs and would help spur innovation in the mobile application development market.

It was exciting to see the Secretary of State speaking enthusiastically about the role of technology in achieving the US Government’s foreign policy objectives.  I hope that they think about more than just pouring in money.

On Saturday night, in the mess in Juba, the members of my project started discussing how best to use ICT to promote development.  Here’s my answer: develop platforms and encourage the local government and private sector to build on those platforms.

Platforms provide a common infrastructure, accepted standards, a consistent governance structure, and established service expectations.  Platforms can refer to computers or networks (the Internet is a platform) but also to a legal framework that regulates a sector of the economy or a microfinance program that provides credit to entrepreneurs.  It is a structure – occasionally physical, but also conceptual – that permits growth.  By articulating the rules of the road and building infrastructure that can be used by multiple stakeholders, development projects can meet the objectives of the donor while still creating space for local partners to pursue their own goals.

What would this look like in practice?

Common Infrastructure. In South Sudan, deploying an enterprise system faces three hurdles: limited local technical capacity, unreliable electricity, and inadequate connectivity.  Currently we address these problems in the context of our individual projects.  We deploy generators and V-Sat connections at each project office and Ministry.  When the Bank of Southern Sudan decides that it wants to allow local banks to make electronic transfers, it constructs a microwave mast.  When the Financial Management Information System project needs a local database administrator, it offers specialized training.   When the Human Resources Information System team wants to overcome the absence of connectivity in the regional States, it updates the system design to accommodate asynchronous information exchange by placing files on solid-state media such as CDs.  In each case, the project team adopts the most efficient solutions to its specific problem, but holistically this eliminates the incentives within the broader community to coordinate efforts and enjoy economies of scale.

By designing a single, comprehensive network and identifying technical competencies that can be used on multiple projects, we would be able to develop products that don’t rely on ad-hoc solutions and specific personnel.  In addition, by opening this infrastructure to the broader community, we could provide the scaffolding that other projects and local firms can use to build their own solutions.

Accepted Standards. The proliferation of technologies and standards, an unfortunate byproduct of ad-hoc infrastructure development, saps resources and prevents the deployment of scalable solutions.  In Juba, for example, there is limited interoperability between cell phone networks.  Beyond the inconvenience and expense of requiring people to use multiple cells phones, the competing options undermine the provision of new services such as m-banking.  By clearly articulating technical standards and ensuring interoperability between solutions, we will lower the barriers to entry and make it easier for local firms to take the initiative to provide services.

In addition, the adoption of standards serves as an auto-catalyst, accelerating the effects of incremental improvements as their benefits compound overtime.  For example, by employing data-exchange standards for financial transactions, we can connect the payroll system to the financial management system and ensure that they work seamlessly even if they were not originally designed to be interoperable.   Standards allow independent teams to build small pieces while making sure that the larger puzzle fits together.  They make sure that our solutions are flexible enough to adapt to future problems that we cannot imagine today.

A Consistent Governance Structure. Successful platforms attract a range of users and these users must be confident that the platform will not suddenly disappear under their feet.   Common infrastructure and standards require management that is accountable and transparent.  They require operational teams to conduct maintenance, compliance committees to provide oversight of the standards, and administrative ownership to ensure a reliable funding stream.

In the developing country context, a governance structure must be strong enough to maintain the existing investment and flexible enough to adapt to unforeseen developments. It is not enough to deploy hardware and hope.  Deploying a structure that engages local government, private sector, and the development community will increase the likelihood that the platform attracts users and provides benefits into the future.  It also increases the likelihood that the platform can adapt and become a sustainable asset for the country.

Established Service Expectations. Organizations build their own infrastructure due to a limited market for ICT solutions, a lack of confidence in the quality of services, and then absence of information to price offerings.  This leads to a situation in which each ministry and project creates its own infrastructure that is expensive and frequently inadequate.   In addition to the cost, this dynamic creates variance between the capabilities of different organizations and creates new obstacles to designing solutions that can work in multiple environments.

Service expectations specify the reliability, speed, and cost of a platform.  They allow multiple providers to emerge while ensuring that each provider adheres to a minimal level of accepted performance.  Over time, this will lead to a competitive marketplace that can provide basic ICT services to the government, the donor community and the private sector.

By promoting a common infrastructure, accepted standards, a consistent governance structure and established service expectations we can create an environment that leads to accelerated growth in ICT.   This moves beyond our current efforts at deploying specific systems and would help create a sustainable foundation on which our partners can build.

Thursday’s op-ed by David Brooks reviews strategies that reduce poverty in developing countries and finds the existing approaches to be lacking.  Brooks proposes a new solution based on US-based anti-poverty strategies such as the Harlem Children’s Zone and No Excuses Schools which attempt to inculcate values believed to lead to greater prosperity.  He unabashedly calls this approach “intrusive paternalism”.

“[Intrusive paternalism] programs…are led by people who figure they don’t understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they don’t care. They are going to replace parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement — involving everything from new child-rearing practices to stricter schools to better job performance.”

My experience in South Sudan makes me skeptical that this approach will work in the developing country context.  Beyond my discomfort with the idea that people in the developing countries share a culture, chronic instability creates barriers that people in the US who are trying to escape poverty don’t face.  In US cities, neighborhoods with endemic poverty are a subway ride away from wealthier zip codes.  Americans living in poverty must overcome social and educational constraints, but they benefit from the opportunities of the society in which they live.  That is not the case everywhere in the world.  Somalia, which is reported to have a thriving entrepreneurial culture despite the constant state of chaos, shows that wanting to achieve is not always enough.

In South Sudan, the prospect of renewed violence casts a pall over any decision about the future.  The conventional wisdom is that now is a time to eat, not a time to build.  Convincing the South Sudanese that they can succeed is important, but that requires ensuring that the fragile peace will endure and not just imposing notions that they could be successful if only they worked harder.

The failed Christmas Day attempt to detonate a bomb on an airplane in Detroit by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has refocused national attention on the need for improved information sharing.   While it is clear that catastrophe was only narrowly averted, the review of the systemic failure also reveals how the attitude of intelligence agencies has changed since 9/11.

According to news reports:

Customs and Border Protection personnel based at the National Targeting Center in Washington came across the intelligence about Abdulmutallab — which was based on a tip from the suspect’s father to U.S. Embassy officials in Nigeria — during an in-depth review of the manifest after the plane was en route to Detroit, the other law enforcement officials said.

The problem has shifted from not sharing information across agencies to not sharing information and conducting analysis fast enough.   The State Department shared the tip with the CIA which shared it with Customs and Border Protection which compared it to the flight manifest.  The failure is no longer with a “culture of secrecy” as was the case before 9/11, but with technology and processes that are not able to provide information to decision makers in a timely manner.

According to the White House Security Review, “Information Technology within the CT community did not sufficiently enable the correlation of  data that would have enabled analysts to highlight the relevant threat information.”    This seems to include the fact that analysts did not search all available databases – something that could be made easier through identity management and federated queries – and that the systems were unable to match Mr. Abdulmutallab’s name in the database of current visa holders because of a spelling mismatch.   There is blame to go around and some of the blame should be shouldered by the consultants who helped design these systems.

One of my frequent complaints about public sector IT systems is that we  do not deploy systems quickly enough or iterate new releases often enough.   Here is an example of how the inadequacy of our tools could have resulted in disaster.

A New Year and A New Blog

Hello and welcome!!!

Pressured by my mother to keep a journal, my colleagues to share my knowledge, and online advice-givers to “improve my brand”, I’ve decided that it was time to start blogging.  I am an obsessive reader of blogs.  According to Google Reader Trends, over the past 30 days I have read 2410 items from 112 blogs (and that includes two weeks of vacation during which I spent fewer than 20 minutes a day online).    My carefully cultivated blog roll is the only place where I can find information about the issues I care about:  US politics, international development and aid policy, Boston sports teams, US government management technology initiatives, and new technology trends.  There isn’t a newspaper in the world that prints everything that I want to read.

Yet, I’ve been hesitant to start writing a blog myself.     I think that transparency is wonderful in theory, but when applied in practice – particularly when applied to my own personal life – I have had cold feet.   I’m also worried about spending time crafting posts only to jettison them into the swilling vortex of the internet.  Worse, I’m worried that someone will actually read my blog and I’ll be subsequently shamed when my views evolve.    I am not an expert in any of the things that interest me and it’s nerve-racking to leave a public trail.

Nevertheless, I want to give this a shot.  I have recently moved from Washington, DC to Nairobi Kenya and started working in Juba, Sudan.   It seems like a shame not to capture my experiences as I try to build a life and a career in a new place.    I plan to keep this blog focused on my professional interests such as enterprise applications, development approaches for East Africa, and public sector consulting although I will probably drift over time and write about my personal travails living in a new place and my extracurricular interests such as new gadgets and cool software.

If anyone is out there, thanks for reading and please leave a comment.  I hope that this resolution lasts longer than most.

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