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"Conversation. What is it? A Mystery! It's the art of never seeming bored, of touching everything with interest, of pleasing with trifles, of being fascinating with nothing at all. How do we define this lively darting about with words, of hitting them back and forth, this sort of brief smile of ideas which should be conversation?" ~ Guy de Maupassant ~

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Digital Communities category at the PrixArts - Akshaya wins.

Tsunamihelp blog gets an honorary mention. [via Chetan Kunte, via Joi Ito].

I'd blogged about Akshaya in November 2004. Great to see plans for VOIP and conferencing, access is one part of it, communications is so integral to really bridging the digital divide. From their website :

"Wiring up Malappuram, 3,550 Sq.KMs spreading from East to West section of Kerala is a huge challenge. Connectivity Requirements

- Should support data and voice
- Should support Internet browsing
- Voice over IP,Multimedia, Video conferencing (at a later stage)
- E-learning

Minimum Internet bandwidth requirement:

  • Maximum Information rate (MIR) : 64kbps & Committed Information Rate (CIR) : 16kbps.
  • Should be possible for any of the Akshaya centers to enhance the bandwidth and/or download limit on request."

Also read Villages may get Net, telephony on cable in the Business Standard yesterday, where the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) is planning a convergence of voice data services. It is expected to send a proposal to the government for allowing cable operators in rural areas to offer basic telephony and Internet services.

7:47:51 PM    comment []  trackback []

Social Tools - Ripples to Waves of the Future

I've been meaning to share in detail my tsunamihelp story and experiences - and I got the opportunity to pen my thoughts and reflections when David Gurteen asked me for an article for the Global Knowledge Review. This is the full text of the article - its fairly long by 'blog' standards, but it needs to be shared in its entirety :).

Social Tools - Ripples to Waves of the Future

December 26, 2004. A massive earthquake and resulting tsunamis in the Indian Ocean devastated many countries in South-East and South Asia. From the force amassed within this wall of water, nature spoke, and showed us just how insignificant we are. Nature's force, while tragic, stimulated an almost immediate response and outpouring of help. This is my story and my observations.

It's strange how we get involved. The first stone was laid as a spontaneous gesture from Peter Griffin, a blog buddy, who, within hours of the disaster, sent two of us an invitation to blog at The South East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog. Without any hesitation, discussion or question, Rohit Gupta and and I began blogging, working in real-time with real people wearing their hearts on their sleeves.

In a very short time from the initial impact, people began to respond, transmitting their heartfelt reactions into the most immediate and receptive outlet that they could access - the internet. This instantaneous deposition of emotion was executed in real time, with real voices. Text messages from journalists and volunteers doing relief work promptly found their way into our blog and others. This seemingly basic mode of communication, when cell phone signals were too weak to support spoken messages. These first 'words' spoke of first-hand accounts - with reports and pictures of devastation, recorded by bloggers who happened to be in the zone. The reverberation from these hasty dispatches caused their content to rapidly disperse into the internet.

We aggregated first-hand accounts with reports and pictures of devastation from bloggers who happened to be in the zone. Concurrently we were capturing other stories and statistics as they evolved and were published by other new sources.

It wasn't just the blog. Someone began a page on Wikipedia and today it has evolved into the best overall record. Andy Carvin of the Digital Divide network set up a news aggregator of blogs and sites reporting on the disaster. Groups of bloggers from all over the world set up relief funds and aid channels. Others simply voiced their shock and grief at the event and pitched in by offering useful links to help the victims.

The South East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog launched on December 26, 2004. It became the most important repository for news and information about resources, aid, donations and volunteer efforts around this disaster. Within three days 100,000 visitors viewed the blog. In eight days, we reached over a million. From three of us contributing on day one to over fifty contributors in three days, and more than 200 volunteers at last count. Volunteers not only from the affected areas like India, SriLanka, Thailand, Malaysia, but also from many countries in Europe, the USA and even the Carribean.

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It truly was a global effort reflecting a collective need to overcome the helplessness of the situation and do something to make a difference. We became a community, a network and an open space where anyone could contribute and I'm proud of that.

Today, I believe that no crisis on this scale or magnitude will ever be handled again without sms, blogs, and wikis. That social tools will become a natural extension of rapid adaptation to chaotic conditions. I'm still trying to figure out how it all happened. What was it that put my colleagues and me on the global stage answering news requests? It was all viral and we were on a completely "out of control" ride and yet somehow it all worked.

Some reflections ...

Motivational Drivers - Technology with Heart

One of the key drivers of this effort was the speed of viral communication, and the availability of accessible, simple tools that could facilitate this. In the face of such an event, these applications made a huge difference - expediting a need in people, the same people who were, perhaps, suffering from the vapidity of 'modern life',and became simply 'triggered' by such a genuinely significant occurrence, into a massively-emotional response. The Tsunami disaster had a truly global reaction, and we saw the effects - with the exponential spread of the 'message'in ways that we have never seen before.

While traditional media was doing its job, the World Wide Web was engaged in reaching people in ways that traditional media was not - by speaking in real voices, in real time - creating this huge wave of empathy, solidarity and action. Apart from the speed of dissemination of information, the blog also had a 'face' - people had access and could call or email. As a result, lowering barriers to getting information.

Technology with Heart.

This perhaps explains why we got so many people from all over the world writing in to us asking if they could volunteer in any way. It's why we got over 150 volunteers who were working actively on building this resource in a couple of days. It explains the push-factor, the desire and drive to help, in the knowledge that here was an opportunity to actually make a difference, in a personal way. We had so many people who had never blogged before, and still took the plunge and made their invaluable contributions.

The Blog and its Evolution - A Living Document

It was the right choice of platforms for this sort of effort. Blogger as a platform was the most familiar, and was very much ready-to-go. It wasn't pretty but it made it easy to recruit contributors as well because of low entry barriers and higher levels of familiarity. We did not expect the sort of traffic we were getting and we had to ask Google (who owns Blogger) for more bandwidth. Google as a corporate very kindly gave us unlimited bandwidth for this blog.

As the contributions grew, limitations in the structure of blogs came to light - the fact that they are chronologically organized, rather than by content. The blogging format can make it hard to find information, as new entries come in, older entries scroll off the bottom of the page. And are lost in archives. Blogger unfortunately does not allow categories, which might have solved some of these problems, doesn't even allow posts to be organized into categories. So sub-blogs were set up for different categories of information - Tsunami Enquiries / Helplines / Emergency Services, Tsunami Missing Persons, Tsunami News Updates, Tsunami Help Needed, Tsunami Help Offered, and a lot of effort has been put into maintaining them by teams that just self-organised into action.

As a result of tremendous traffic, requests were pouring in. We had requests to allow translations into different languages, to mirror the blog onto other pages, to set up pages for people who are looking for their loved ones gone missing, and for photographs of missing persons to be uplinked. In a wiki, these pages would be separate, yet part of a faceted collection and linked to each other. This would help someone to navigate and jump in and post as well. Or to open a new page that they felt was relevant without checking back with admin. There would also be few entry barriers asking whether they could post or not. The end result would be owned by all - a true community.

In addition to the blog, we set up a wiki as a classified repository for all the information that we were gathering. We then got wiki "janitors", "monitors" and "gardeners" from our pool of vounteers. The janitors cleaned up the trash, the monitors watched for redundant or duplicate information and the gardeners helped seed it by transplanting blogposts into relevant categories.

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While this was going on, another group adopted the role of remodeling the template for the blog and cleaning up the side panels. This was done overnight by a brilliant young designer who refused to add her name to the credits as she felt "everyone is contributing - this is just my way".

Another set of people focused on building image galleries and pages on Flickr, a photo-sharing site, for missing persons. And there were others who took on the task of building up a database of all volunteers and resources, that would serve as a resource that could be used in the future by NGO's , Governments or anyone interested in relief work.

Cooperation and interdependence

Sometimes, mass mobilisation can occur as an almost subconscious reaction. And the variant components just 'fit' as in nature.

"Some 90 million years ago, flowering plants first appeared on earth. The wasp-like ancestors of bees took advantage of the food made available by flowers and began to modify their diet and physical characteristics. Since then, flowering plants and bees co-evolved. This eventually led to a complete interdependence, meaning that flowering plants and bees cannot live and reproduce without each other." Apiculture

We experienced a near-magical interdependence as we were setting up and establishing this blog. Its not just about the people who were blogging there is a whole lot of volunteers who fed us with links, sent us letters from affected people reaching out for help, others who took on the mantle of editing, sub-groups working on design and template issues, still others quietly contributing by buying up bandwidth and applications and offering up mirror servers, that made the blog more effective.

The taskforce grew rapidly, each feeding the other. Unrelentingly. People put their live's on hold. Even trousseau shopping.

There was interdependence of another kind I experienced, this was with a larger community of bloggers. Groups of very influential bloggers sourced resources from the blog and in return we got tremendous traffic generated by them. Which just fed back into the system.

Blog buddies and mentors some of us have, who live far far away, so generously guided me through their recommendations for transitions in templates and platforms, over Skype and IM. Or just held my hand. Thanks Stuart, Euan, Ross, Phil, Rob, Judith, Jerry and so many others for all the encouragement and support.

And readers from every corner of the world were writing in with their offers of help, time, money and aid resources. One example:

"I'm a doctor and my wife is a nurse. We live in Seattle, Washington. Please let us know how we can help and what would be useful. We would like to take a month off from our work and come over to any of the affected regions. Please do advise us on how we should proceed "

The world needed this interdependence. It nurtured empathy and brought about cooperation on such a mass scale.

Communication and Information Flows

We all know that critical to the success of any organisation is the dynamic and dialectic in interactions between its people. This is determined by flows in communication and information. There's a lot of information on the net that is very quickly and easily available in such times. It stands up against the need to cut through miles of red-tape when handling government offices in some parts of our world. In some ways, the internet, helped quickly channel people to the right places to find the information they sought whether a hunt for missing persons, or a list of NGO's, or how to go about volunteering time or money or resources. It is the most efficient way of connecting swiftly - and the quickest method for people to respond too. With projects like ours, we had the advantage of speed and efficiency, as we built the resource as a one-stop-shop for people wanting to help or needing information.

I was completely overwhelmed at how many resources we were able to round-up in near hours. People just gave freely. Information flowed so smoothly, in and out. Although Peter and I live in the same city, we had never met face to face. We still haven't ... and it really does not matter. As a group, we relied heavily on social tools such as IM, chat conferences, Yahoogroups, Skype and SMS for our communication and information needs within the group. The team working on this was located in different time zones, spread all over the world. We shared our "presence" details with each other (something you wouldn't do normally with virtual strangers), we had impromptu chat sessions, we egged the group on with motivational posts on Yahoogroups, we beat on each other to get some sleep. We handed over the baton to those waking up on the other side of the world when we were nodding off, as we saw them smile at us brightly from the IM window.

A Decentralized Self-Organising System

Nicholas Calderone has written an article on The organization and evolution of insect societies, where he says:

"Insect societies engage in numerous activities, including the construction, maintenance and defense of a nest; the location, collection and storage of food; and the rearing of offspring. Many species also reproduce by swarming. These activities are performed in a social context, involving extensive coordination among hundreds, thousands, or even millions of individuals, many performing the same task, others performing different tasks. In most cases, these tasks are interconnected; that is, the performance of one task either depends on, or affects the need for, the performance of another task."

As always, nature provides us with the best examples and explanations for phenomena that we find difficult to comprehend. We never really expected the kind of viral growth we saw. We did not plan for it. I am glad we did not, otherwise we might never have experienced the beauty in creativity arising from the chaos that only a decentralized, self-organising system can embody.

There was no formal organization, no CEO or CTO or COO. We adopted roles depending on our experience and skills. We made commitments voluntarily. We rounded up people who we felt would help us in performing our roles better. As with any decentralized system, there were challenges. Different levels of tech savvy-ness, sagging spirits when the wiki pages crashed for 24 hours, for many lack of sleep for ten days at a stretch, often just a need to be heard (most of the group was very young). Even a clash in philosophy where a few were under the impression that this was going to be a formal organization. Dealt with by different members of the group at different times in different ways. In some cases gently, in others more harshly with the group turning upon the dissident.

To conclude, I'd like to share this beautiful articulation from a dear friend, James Straffon, who helped me add soul to this article :

"So, I think, what happened - a nerve was struck, people wanted to help, say something, speak up, shout, and your tiny portal became a place of refuge. Thousands, millions of people are desperately searching for a way - a path. And they are feeling the burden of this society that they have been born into - one of programmed, spiritless, self-regard. A human disaster often mobilises this emotion.

The internet is still a place where anyone can have a voice, and find those voices with which they resonate. As long as the freedom to speak remains there, people will search for some meaning - for their own existence. There is some comfort - in that the cables, wires, satellites circling our planet can facilitate this 'mobilisation of voices'. And every now and then, they all shout together, hear each other, and touch. And I suppose, like planting seeds, you never know what will grow, and how.

That is the unfortunate paradox - loss of human life, brings us closer together, reminds us of our mortality, and of the stuff we are made of. The hardest task of all, is retaining that emotion which was triggered, and not letting it become engulfed within the sterility of modern life - one where personal gain takes over. We should try and capture our vital essence, and fill our lungs with it often and openly. So perhaps, the internet can provide that alternate supply of oxygen - a lifeline, a networked air supply, or pseudo-panacea, one which can be plugged-into with ease. And upon connection, one can find the sources that nourish us, as individuals - isolating the essentials. I guess that is possibly the case at present - many bubbles rising in a big pond. The danger, I foresee, is the individuals who thought the pond was populated with simple lifeforms, suddenly feeling the need to pull the plug, and drain the ocean. Freedom to swim is rare. And we don't often get the chance.

In which case, I think your 'blog' was more of a tributary to that big pond. It was a tributary to a larger river, then a lake,then an ocean. Like the source from a rich, minerally-charged fountainhead, the news of this font spread, and those who heard it, swam upstream, bringing others with them. And so the flow reversed somewhat, source being fed by recipient. It was a resource that many could tap into. And, much like chaos, it is often said that water 'finds a way', and a leak is often positioned way beyond its origins."

This effort provides a blueprint on how you can set up and operate what is akin to a huge enterprise globally, in a few days. Crisis management is important for companies, public utilities, in natural disasters. If you don't adopt these tools, organizations will now spring up with them... they have faster access to the transfer of information, using tools that are so easy and, for the most part, free. It makes me wonder whether you really need structured knowledge to begin with, or CEO's, CKO's and CTO's. Perhaps the pillar is an emotional connect one hook really is good enough. Do we silo information, or let it flow in and out. Listen well and your monitors and janitors can edit the flows. Then you could use these very flows effectively to create an environment of interdependence. Consider decentralizing 'management'. And let it self-organise.

This is possible today with the internet and the many social tools it makes available to us. It is fascinating to me that these tools were put to use so quickly - blogger, wiki, flickr - tools that didn't exist a few years ago. You only need to identify one or two people in the world who have some familiarity with them and it is up and running.

Sadly, it took a shocking disaster to demonstrate this. Still, we have learnt so much. Nature is humbling. Human endeavour can be more so. I am in awe of each and every person who helped build, promote and nurture this tributary to flow.

11:14:24 AM    comment []  trackback []