I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to keep up this pace, but it’s been fun and rewarding so far.
Seattle – Grameen Technology Center:
Thanks to the kind invitation of George Conard, a few days before leaving Seattle I stopped by the Grameen Technology Center near the University of Washington. The center, which is an initiative of Grameen Foundation, occupies the top floor of a modern pier-side building which houses a few other NGOs focusing on the so-called global south.
The Grameen Foundation is the philanthropic arm of the Grameen Bank, Dr. Muhammad Yunus‘ famous microlending institution. (Update: Based in Washington, DC, Grameen Foundation was established by a group of friends who were inspired by the work of Grameen Bank. (For more on microlending, check out Clark Boyd’s report on Kiva in Uganda.)
I came to the Grameen Technology Center wanting to learn more about Mifos – an open source software suite specifically designed for microfinance institutions. But first I met with Tim Wood who described the runaway success of the Village Phone program and the much more limited success of the Village Computing program. I explained to Tim what we are trying to do at Rising Voices and later asked him what he thought about MIT Media Lab’s One Laptop Per Child Initiative. He was skeptical and felt that the $176 per child per laptop could be much more effective if spent on books, schools, and healthcare. If the money was to be spent on technology, he feels you get a lot more bang for your buck in the developing world with mobile phones rather than laptop computers.
The work done by the Grameen Technology Center is truly ICT4D. That is, their main objective is to employ communications technologies to encourage development. With Rising Voices and with citizen media in general, that’s just not the case. You could argue that web 2.0 literacy gives you access to larger markets and increases your social capital, but becoming a blogger isn’t going to help a farmer in the Gambia increase her crop yields or a villager in Papua New Guinea build a sturdier house for monsoon season.
Both Tim and George were helpful in reminding me that the Rising Voices microgrants should always be distributed based on how they will benefit the recipients, not the Western news junkie who is constantly checking his/her RSS feeds.
My first real day in Bangkok I had a great meeting with Kathleen Reen, Oren Murphy, Ivan Sigal, and Kittipong Soonprasert from Internews. I think it’s safe to say that Internews is the largest and most active NGO when it comes to fostering independent media in the developing world. According to their website, “Internews’ programs are built on the conviction that providing people with access to vibrant, diverse news and information empowers them to participate effectively in their communities, effect positive social change, improve their living standards, and make their voices heard.” But also according to their website (and I mean just by looking at it), they haven’t yet ventured too far into the realm of participatory media.
I think the reason why is a noble one – Internews works on the local level. They are interested in building strong local journalism specifically aimed at local communities. In other words, they are much less concerned with whether you or I know what is going on in rural Thailand and much more concerned with whether the villagers from that rural community are informed about what is going on there.
I like the local news for a local audience model. And I think it brings up a strong critique of Global Voices and the blogosphere in general – the most highly regarded bloggers and podcasters tend to write for an overseas audience just as much and sometimes more than their local communities. Ideally, of course, the web 2.0 will allow for a model where local media is directed at local audiences and available to a global audience as well.
Blog Tech Day 3.0
The next day I took the Bangkok Skytrain followed by a zippy motorcycle taxi to Kasetsart University, an agricultural school with a strong computer engineering program and one hell of an ugly website. A couple hours before Blog Tech Day 3.0, I met up with bloggers from Prachatai, Fringer.org, Blognone, and bact to discuss issues of censorship in Thailand and the recently passed Computer Crime Act. I made a podcast of our conversation which you can listen to at Global Voices Advocacy.
After our conversation, we headed upstairs to see what our fellow geeks were talking about at Blog Tech Day. One of the Blognone members was giving a presentation on user interface design with a sexy slideshow which put to use all the best of Keynote ’08‘s new features.
Mae Fa Luang University
Two days later I was at Mae Fa Luang University in Chiang Rai thanks to the invitation of Paola di Maio, a native Italian who first got involved in GV after her involvement with Neha and Dina in the South East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog. (She was living and teaching in Phuket at the time of the tsunami.) Paola turned out to be just as kind and unassuming offline as she is aggressive and demanding online.
We toured the incredibly beautiful campus and I briefly spoke to a web design class about blogs, Global Voices, and new media. It’s a shame that modern universities are still teaching old school web 1.0 ways of site design (html, tables, no css) instead of focusing on content management systems and the value of good content over ugly animated gifs.
Paola is trying to start a film club and video-blogging workshop at the university. It’s an ideal place to do something like that and I wish her all the best.
Next Stop: Cambodia
And now it is time for me to check in for my flight to Phnom Penh for the Cambodian bloggers’ summit, which takes place tomorrow and Friday. Supposedly a live broadcast will be available at http://cloggersummit.net/live. I have read Ethan’s guide to conference blogging and will do my best to post summaries from both days’ ambitious agendas. I was going to speak about photoblogging – something I have never done before, but instead I will now be speaking with friend and colleague Preetam Rai on a panel titled Citizen Journalism Vs Main Stream Media. Kind of ironic because I couldn’t agree more with Steve Safran’s recent essay “How ‘vs.’ thinking drags everyone down.”