April 10, 2012

From slacktivism to activism

People Power is about using technology tools for social action

Over the past few weeks, Indians have been incensed at the callous official response to heinous crimes against women. Multiple incidents of gang rapes seem to have become another opportunity for senior policemen to abdicate their responsibility by asking citizens to be vigilant and learn martial arts. While this is the most vivid demonstration of official apathy and neglect of people, it is by no means unique.

Whether it be law and order, municipal services, healthcare or post-disaster relief, people expect less and less from the government. The affluent tend to seek out private providers and in effect secede from the rest of India. The less fortunate continue as they always have, either jockeying for ‘special treatment’ from the system by buying influence or taking refuge in community action. Motivation leads to action, either through goading the existing system or by creating alternatives. The issue is of scale, of getting more and more people to demand their dues.

People power is a powerful idea, especially in this day and age. Time magazine anointed The Protester as The Man Of The Year 2011, recognising the sea-change wrought by the Arab Spring, Occupy and many such movements across the globe. Activists and volunteers of all hues have used Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and sundry social networks. Or, as Time put it, “If you tweet it, they will come.”

The jury is still out on what these events may have achieved. There is perhaps greater recognition that they captured the imagination of people across the globe, led by their ability to mobilise people by creating rapid awareness, raising motivation levels to go over the precipice of informed inaction, to march in thousands. At their core, each of these events marshalled technological tools to amass groups of volunteers to protest against hubris-laden institutions and governments.

Photo: India Mobile

Returning to India. Marshalling people power through social media, attractive though it may be to social media addicts like this author, is more about promise than immediate possibility. The vast majority of Indians are more off than on the net.  With an internet penetration of 8% (100 million) and social media penetration of just 3% (40 million), one could be forgiven for questioning the impact that the net can have in drawing the balance 90 odd percent.

As the world’s largest, albeit flawed, democracy, inclusion of greater numbers is imperative. India has close to 900 million mobile connections. Almost three-fourth of Indians have one. Surely, that is a potent device. How does one use the simplest of mobile phones to empower lay citizens?

Two organisations, FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi, non-profits both, seem to have some excellent solutions on using mobiles for community awareness and action. Interestingly, they were born in Africa, in conditions which will sound familiar to Indians. FrontlineSMS was created by Ken Banks, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, as a way to help South Africa’s Kruger National Park officers connect with communities on their periphery. Internet connectivity was sparse, though mobile connectivity was excellent. Ushahidi (Swahili for ‘testimony’), was created in 2007 in response to the violence around elections in Kenya, when media and on-ground eyewitness versions were found to be divergent. Sounds familiar?

At its simplest, Ushahidi compiles a visual “heat-map” of critical incidents, submitted by concerned citizens, reporting via mobile or the web. Beginning with the 2007 Kenyan elections, Ushahidi has been deployed successfully across the globe – to help direct emergency rescue teams in Haiti, Indonesia and Japan. In India, the Ushahidi platform has been used by MAPS4AID to track violence against women (, monitoring power cuts ( and tracking elections. Think of it as validated, on-ground reporting by citizens interested in bringing about change, rather than citizen-journalism of the sort popularised by TV channels.

Ushahidi is a set of open-source software which takes input in a variety of forms (e-mail, SMS, web) and creates a Google Map powered display which allows for rapid updates. (Check out for a wealth of information, downloadable software and case studies). What Ushahidi does need are software people to customise the open source software (apparently it is quite easy for someone who knows how) and administrators to help maintain the data as it streams in. It is a resource which can then be used to create awareness and focus attention. A powerful way of goading the system to react and hopefully, render services.

FrontlineSMS, on the other hand, needs just a mobile and a notebook to create a communications hub which then can work to create a two-way SMS system. While disaster relief has been an obvious use of the platform, its promise lies in its augmented usage as a health monitoring system, a credit delivery mechanism, price discovery for agricultural commodities and many more.

A particularly inspiring project one read about was designed to serve HIV-positive people. The lessons learnt have wider applications because “patients knew how to act, but many were not aware of the underlying reasons for doing so. Yet it also became clear that too much was being communicated in too short a time frame and they soon became overwhelmed. The patients wanted to know why this information mattered and they wanted clear, practical solutions dealt out in small, manageable chunks.” The project is now being re-designed.

Archimedes had said, “give me a lever and I will move the world”. His words have never seemed more applicable than in today’s India. Indians have always rallied together to help others in times of crisis. Whether rail accidents in remote locations, cyclone relief, helping victims of terror attacks reach hospitals, Indians have demonstrated that when motivated, they will act. By the same token, it needs a crisis to take action, not before. One suspects this is driven by lack of options to engage rather than an antipathy to engage.

Technology, from social media to the humble yet powerful SMS, have already helped make fundamental changes in everyday lives. Why wait for a face to face meeting if one can connect immediately virtually? Extend the same habits to solve pernicious problems that plague everyday life – through tools which extend reach, promote awareness and propel action.  The medium is not the message. The message is the message.

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