Urgent Action IM Bots and Twitter for Darfur
I'm a long-time admirer of backstage.bbc.co.uk and I'm wondering how their experiments with IM bots could be applied to human rights. (IM bots are programs that use IM as an interface to send information & respond to commands. IM users can add the name of the IM bot to their buddy list the same way they add friends). Bots could be used for campaign updates in the manner of the BBC news flashes or as a way to push messages that need urgent action, such as faxing / emailing an embassy about a prisoner of conscience.
Another fascinating possibility is the use of bots to evade censorship in those situation where IM protocols are unfiltered. An example is this IM Persian news bot from the backstage.bbc crew. And perhaps they could be used like IRC bots to deliver vital chunks of information, such as online privacy tips or the updated list of open proxy servers accessible from China.
Things become even more interesting when Twitter is introduced. Of course, backstage.bbc already started twittering.
But to me the critical thing about Twitter is the way it can be updated (and read) via mobile, and how that can reach in to urgent areas or situations in a way the internet can't (yet). In his post The Potential of Twitter in Africa Soyapi Mumba says
"In Malawi for example, there are about 50,000 Internet users against about 700,000 mobile phone users out of a population of about 12 million. Twitter allows users to post a small update via SMS, instant messaging client and the web. Anyone who chooses to follow you will get that update on the Twitter home page, or their mobile phone of they choose to. Unlike most mobile phone web services, you can update via SMS from anywhere in the world and from virtually any handset".
I heard UN emergency relief coordinator John Holmes in a radio interview describe how he was blocked by a Sudanese army checkpoint from visiting a camp for the displaced in war-torn Darfur during his first visit to the country. For an NGO wanting to convey the immediacy of it's mission in the field, Twitter could provide compelling live updates in 140 characters or less; imagine a Twitter that says 'Blocked at checkpoint - arguing with army colonel'. This is a great way of engaging people and giving them a sense of what's happening on the ground.
The unanswered question is whether we can come up with forms of (cyber)activism that are just as immediate, so people can do someting meaningful in response to the Twitter. On a similar subject, Andy Carvin explores the humanitarian relief potential of Twitter in his post Can Twitter Save Lives?