gCensus… census data for all!

For those of us working in development and humanitarian work is virtually impossible to get sufficient high quality information and data to help us do our job better. Often the best sources of data are hidden away behind officials and applications that rarely reveal all. Of course such professionals have good reason to avoid scattering data far and wide, anyone seeking the perfect presentations of high level data should check out The Gap Minder by Hans Rosling to be covered in future blogs.

Census data is often one of the richest sources, collected by national statistical institutions it is often available in unadulterated form… that is unadulterated by politicians. Thankfully statisticians being rather geeky are obsessed with the purity of the information they collect and share, in a handful of countries the politicians don’t even get involved in publishing the data so have no influence over it whatsoever… top marks to Norway.gcensus

Well opensource colleagues have come to our rescue again see this article by the developer, more can be found at gCensus a mashup of Google Earth and Census data (at this moment only US data). Informaiton Aesthetics brings this to us in full technicolour,

… a powerful web-based mapping & visualization tool based on Google Maps, capable of displaying all sorts of geographic data. gCensus is an effort to make geographic data freely and easily accessible to the public, without the need for expensive GIS software packages. users can freely pan, rotate, & zoom into & out of maps, change the ground angle or alter the transparency of different areas to satellite imagery.

gcensus2Of course we should not be unfair national statistical offices do make data readily available and often widely publish it, sadly government bodies are rarely up on the latest web technology and for many reasons they may not wish to freely distribute the digital data. But wouldn’t it be marvellous if all census data was published in this manner, I am of course hoping the opensource community worldwide will come to our rescue and provide modules that national statistics offices can adopt, publish their data on the web in readily manipulative form, yet retain appropriate control of the source data also. Experience in the field suggest that this is not such a fantastic idea.

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Aid effectiveness wiki… by UNDP!

UNDP LogoYou may not be surprised to learn that UNDP has developed an excellent resource on Aid Effectiveness, tho’ you might be surprised that it is a wiki! Though not launched, and appears to have sneaked up by the back door it is certainly worth a second and third look.

Designed by a hardened field practioner the Aid Effectiveness Wiki has been developed by Aidan Cox at the Regional Centre in Bangkok following his development of the Donor Assistance Database (DAD) in Afghanistan and coordination support to Angola, India, Iraq, Maldives and Sri Lanka. DAD spun off from AIMS Humanitarian Information Centre where a very early stage incarnation the Appeal Tracking Information Management System (ATIMS) developed. Yes this history is of primarily nostalgic value.

Now UNDP has complimented its comprehensive corporate DevAid site with the wiki they can truly act as the access point to some of the best information on this topic, of course they are by no means on their own, ODI, The World Bank, OECD just to name three all conduct critical work in this area. However genuinely opening up to contributions for the broader community of expertise may well ensure that on this topic UNDP can at least ensure accessibility from one location to critical information and comment, if not develop thought leadership.

Lets sing praises where it is due. Following recent critical comments about the slow adoption of modern approaches to information management by security specialists in the humanitarian and development sphere, What do Aid workers and spies have in common? and Open Source Spying and NGO’s by the NGO Security blog. It is refreshing that in a critical area such as Aid Effectiveness advanced transparent approaches to information sharing and management are being advanced.

No doubt some find it hard to swallow that UNDP is leading the charge! However take another look, UNICEF openly publishes its RSS, podcast and vodcast at the bottom of every page on its website. Despite the excellent podcasts being produced by Christian Aid they are still hard to find on their site. Maybe traditional fears of change stressed by NGO Security are on the mark.

Wiki’s are a key information management tool, the more focused the interest the more powerful and valuable they become. Given the critical nature of humanitarian and development work we would be doing a disservice to our end clients and ourselves if we do not adopt such technology sooner rather than later.

Mapping connectivity & the digital divide!

The old maxim “if you can’t measure it then you can’t manage it” is as true today as ever… however increasingly as many people reach information overload one could argue it should read “if you can’t present information you can’t get others to act on it”.

A classic challenge is presented by internet connectivity. We are all aware that many of the Southern countries where we have worked have terrible connectivity how is this linked to the economy, production, trade, education levels, health services?

i-isp-ss.gifThis map from the Internet Mapping Project Map Gallery shows the major ISPs indicating volume of traffic (colour density) and extent (distance). A variety of maps indicate other internet measures including distance from host, network address, top level domains or ISPs/ cities and many more. Including more detailed maps and raw data!

Other internet map sources include: Rocketfuel, The Opte Project, Cybergeography who publish a fascinating Cyberatlas and Caida.

Internet Map USA

This second image from Infosthetics March ’06

“is an extremely detailed map of the North American Internet backbone including 134,855 routers. the colors represent who each router is registered to: red is Verizon, blue AT&T, yellow Qwest, green is major backbone players like Level 3 & Sprint Nextel, black is the entire cable industry put together, & gray is everyone else, from small telecommunications companies to large international players who only have a small presence in the U.S. This map demonstrates that although AT&T & Verizon own a lot of Internet pipes, they currently do not dominate the Internet infrastructure (yet).”

IP map2

I love this third image again lifted from Infosthetics Dec. ’06, whilst it presents IP address space as a map it provides a clear impression of ‘internet face’ dedicated to continents, clearly if this were broken out in more detail, particularly with breakdown for “Asia” it would become ever more useful. See original source xkcd and comments from the artist.

a chart of the IP address space “on a plane”, using fractal mapping which preserves grouping (any string of IPs will translate to a single compact region on the map). each of the 256 numbered blocks represents one 8th subnet (containing all IPs that start with that number).

When preparing my dissertation on the privatisation of telecoms in Brazil in 1999 a communications star “map” clearly illustrated how minimal traffic was making the hops to and from Africa or Latin America. Different presentation tools using different internet usage “measures” consistently confirm this picture. Though we may not be able to lift detailed quantified facts from such maps they clearly provide tools to reflect trends and bias.

Second Life, the UN and living like a refugee

Second Life enters the humanitarian and development workers sphere of interest!


“The Stand Up Awareness Campaign” is being supported by the UN on Second Life. The Stand Up For Awareness Campaign is part of the larger Millenium Campaign to remind governments of their commitment to the eight Millenium Development Goals (MDG) that they agreed to in 2000, each of the eight 2015 targets are critical to reduce global poverty. This is a far from Bureaucratic excercise, if we can’t measure we can’t manage… by catalysing development organisations, donor governments and recipient governments the MDG indicators and targets, truly provide measures of success or failure that will have to be explained away if they are not met… keeping up the pressure world-wide is important.

DarfurThere is also a simulated Darfur refugee camp on Second Life, “Living Like a Refugee” was built to inform and educate … “An awareness and action camp spotlighting today’s genocide” and even patrolled by hooded avatars. Behind this seemlingly ‘geeky’ awareness approach, after all how many people really use Second Life, is a larger possibility of bringing the complexity, intricacies and daily catastrophe of humanitarian disasters to a increasinly well networked and socially aware next generation.

second lifeTeens Second Life is an interesting development by Linden Labs, visited by BBC’s Digital Planet, yes you guessed it Second Life for teens, governed by community rules, no parents or adults allowed, only screened adults from Linden Labs. Special institutions such as schools can feature on the game but are restricted to the island they create where the teens can choose to visit.

Clearly only the privileged (bandwidth, computers, high quality of life) are using Second Life, currently it acts as an interesting advocacy medium for the humanitarian and development world. But perhaps we should be more creative… why not a self concious training medium for students around the world, an advocacy platform. At the very least it offers an interesting way to capture the interest of youth and techie’s to increasingly support real life humanitarian needs, if only by applying their technology interests and genius to global advocacy and bridging communication gaps with the elite in southern countries.

The Renaisance, Apple Mac Apps & News – favourite podcasts!

Escaping into a reality you never were aware of! … ok, so that is over the top, however I must confess I have become a podcast addict since leaving Afghanistan recently and rediscovering the delights of broadband, (sorry again guys!), all downloadable from i-Tunes at no cost.

1. History 5: European Civilisation from the Renaisance to the present. University of Berkley.

French Revolution… Top marks to University of Berkley posting many of its lectures at last count 59 Audio podcasts and through the web site many as Video casts. The quality is very dependent on the lectururer however Professor Thomas Laqueur brings it to life, openness about his German Jewish roots adds to the value, full marks for a fascinating, insightful and entertaining account. This series illustrates what is missing or rather could be achieved with high resolution enhanced podcasts!

2. Jointly goes to Neat Little Mac Apps and ScreencastsOnline!

… sadly not for the Windows majority out there. Apple is renowned for having a broad supportive community of users and amazingly useful add on apps and widgets, I was surprised to find it really exists and they are incredibly helpful! NLMA presents enhanced podcasts on free or very cheap apps that are not only extremely useful but are a pleasure to use and often fun! Screencastsonline provides high quality full screen video tutorials on how to use Apple software with extra content available on subscription. But windows folk should not despair, with the advent of VISTA (replacing Windows XP) Microsoft has adopted a far more sophisticated front end and not a few Apple approaches so it should become a pleasure to use, your widgets are called Gadgets :-).

3. BBC Newsnight (video podcast feed)
… this was a tough call, but they just squeezed in! with excellent content on a variety of topics (sure a UK bias) not available on BBC World, recently they started releasing short format news casts more regularly, with a weekly show as usual… short and focused… like home from home. Of course the BBC seem to publish as many audio (ripped from radio) podcasts as they can, I find most of it uninteresting, but I imagine they are working on the longtail principle.

In truth podcasts are not that popular with surveys implying that pick up is not increasing dramatically. However niche markets such as humanitarian and development users such as MSF and Christian Aid are seeing sharp increases in usage because they have specialist application.

Of course I have access to broadband in Brazil… no doubt a trusty developer could easily configure content delivery software and package it with an i-Tunes like content aggregator to ensure that broadband doesn’t continue to be the bugbear it is for the populace of less developed countries and their frustrated humanitarian techies.

Podcasts, not popular… but useful!

podcastIn truth podcasts are not popular, BBC reviews a survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project (Nov, 2006).

Internet access in the US is extremely high, out of 300 million people in the US, there are an estimated 207,161,706 internet users (Nielsen NetRatings).

However in it’s 5000 person sample the Pew survey found just 1% of respondents download a podcast on a typical day, with 7 to 12% claiming to have dowloaded a podcast. These figures have been consistent much of 2006.

Despite this the number of podcasts being distributed has exploded… in November 2004 Podcast Alley a show directory, listed 1,000 podcasts, today more than 26,000 and over one million episodes. Although usage implies a high percentage are discontinued it is evident that publishing a podcast requires minimal equipment and is simple indeed.

I could go on to quote all the hype of market growth, but it is frankly irrelevant, podcasts are an excellent medium for select applications (“MSF & Christian Aid …”, “Rocketboom, UNHCR & Refugees”, “Online video sharing….”, “Promote MP3’s, Zunes, i-pods …”).

The technology has simplified to a stage where any luddite (such as yours truly) can download podcasts from i-Tunes, they are free. In truth it is nearly just as easy to upload! Even I (ok, an adventurous luddite) with an Apple laptop and Garageband, prepared an (admitedly poor) audio podcast ready for upload to i-Tunes. Don’t forget you don’t need an i-pod, any MP3 player or computer will do. I watch all video podcasts on computer and listen to audio from the laptop as if it were a radio (“Pandora & Filter – Personal Radio Stations…”).

Forget the hype, play with podcasts, lets see how we can turn this tool to valuable applications to further humanitarian and development work.

Confabb, taking the ‘con’ out of conference

Organising a conference well is tough… focused on the content, who has time to worry about the web site, uploading content, organising for participants to review speakers, organise additional activities, or plan local visits, in short how do we maximise their input?

Reality is that conference logistics are too often outsourced, or provide a poor experience to presenters and attendees, content is delivered late, registration lists out of date, additional side shows not added, presentations and speakers are not rated, assessments are after the fact… Confabb seeks to change all that providing a superficially simple interface to enable one to organise and publish a conference online with full flexibility to enable management of contacts, speakers, attendee registration by administrators, presenters and physical or virtual attendees.

Launched this month, the first iteration is designed to be useful to researchers, however over the next few months it will develop into a practical tool and interactive platform for all stakeholders… or if you like, a conference wiki!

For a fee, and fraction of the current cost to organisers, they will provide the full web site for the conference. Presenters will be able to manage their own sessions and post session content, everyone can critique, rate and review presentations, debate on discussion boards, post relevant articles, or add side shows as they are organised at the conference itself. With a Filckr link participants may upload their own photgraphs for sharing. Overtime speakers at more than one event could point people to their ‘Confabb page’, listing contributions over the years.

I suspect we have all had disappointing experiences of online tools for conferences (I tend to avoid them), however they should be intellectually stimulating, not administratively challenging. Confabb seeks to enable conference attendees and regular users to find events or people with similiar interests (oh dear, not online networking again!), and in theory at least support intellectual contacts and debate.

Unusually it has been set up over six months by four part-timers… at no cost! Like most tech start-ups it is currently very US centric, but that doesn’t need to remain the case (see Scoble blog and video demo). Confabb hopes to take online support to conferences to a new level, this is one US start-up that could potentially support our operations.

Humanitarian and development workers are criticised for not using simple, intuitive interfaces for software tools (see investing in the interface and why humanitarian end users suck, but we are renowned for interaction, comment and community. This tool appears to reduce one weakness and build on our strengths!