Participatory Web for Development

Web2forDev in Rome

A big shout out to the organisers of the Web2forDev conference in Rome. They're shaking the hype out of web 2.0 and wrestling it in to relevance for the world's poorest and most marginalised.

Connectivity, Innovation, Censorship

If I'd had a chance to contribute to the conference, I'd have stepped back from the real issue of rural connectivity and looked at the less examined issues of innovation and censorship - the good and bad futures for the social web in the developing world.

The dark side of web 2.0

The bad news first - as soon as social media starts to make a real social difference it will be subject to some form of repression by those who favour the status quo. The downside for web 2.0 is that, under the wrong circumstances, its social networking side could become an engine for privacy invasion and surveillance. We must learn from places where social media survives and thrives in the face of corruption, military might, and the intimidation of opponents. Embedding human rights in social media requires eCampaigning for Internet Freedom.

Innovation - the disruptive fruit of participation

The real powerhouse of web 2.0 for dev will be innovation, the disruptive fruit of all architectures of participation. Charlie Leadbeater's book We-think starts with the example of the Barefoot College before going on to show how examples like Wikipedia are the herald of a new era of mass collaborative innovation. His wide global analysis of the new era mashes silicon valley with social innovation - as he says about a peer-to-peer AIDS support network "Low-cost, self-organising networks might be the height of organisational fashion on the US west cost but they are a matter of life-and-death in places like Mbuya Parish, Kampala".

Web2forDev HowTo

So where do we find guiding values for the development potential of web2.0? If I'd been at the web2fordev conference I'd have plagiarised the Res Publica Report 'Prospects for e-Advocacy in the Global South' and proposed this set:

  • Work within Movements: Working within a movement means that all the talent of the various members can be brought to bear in creating solutions and the lines of communications within the network can be used to quickly disseminate new methods.
  • Worship the Power of the Network: Through networks we aggregate our knowledge, amassing insight that is greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Bring Technologists and Advocates Together: Innovative solutions emerge when technologists collaborate with advocates, working on a specific campaign problem or network goal.
  • Build Innovation Systems: Rather than think of innovations as pieces of hardware or even creative ideas, it is better to think in terms of "innovation systems," combinations of hardware, social structures, and economic models that solve social problems.
  • Promote Independence not Dependence: Seek to empower, and explicitly address sustainability.
  • Engage with Youth: In almost all societies, young people are most likely to adopt new ICT methods. They are more familiar with ICT because it has been present for most of their lives.
  • Cultivate the Fringe: The boldest new ideas often come from far outside the
    mainstream.

I applaud the organisers and participants at the web2fordev conference for their global fusion of social media and social impact. The scale of that impact will depend on how well mass creativity can challenge the status quo. As the APC's Anriette Esterhuysen says "The key is NOT to think of social networking tools (or Web 2.0) as a completely new set of tools/applications. ... but as representing significant changes to power structures that characterise the creation and use of content on the internet".