Last week, i travelled to Nigeria for a meeting with NGO’s (McArthur Foundation grantees), the uber-blogger, Ushahidi Advisor, and Berkman Center Fellow Ethan Zuckerman, Colin Maclay of the Berkman Center, John Bracken of MacArthur Foundation, Dr. Michael Best of Georgia Tech, Eric Osiakwan of Afrispa and many distinguished speakers. This was part of a symposium organized by Georgia Tech, The Berkman Center at Harvard University and The Digital Bridge Institute.

Colin, Ethan, John, Eric, Michael, Deji

Colin, Ethan, John, Eric, Michael and Deji at the Digital Bridge Institute, Abuja Nigeria.

We shared our experiences with using technology for advocacy, led some working sessions that included hands on training, sharing of tools and best practices.

Ethan is awesome when it comes to live blogging I just marvel and highly recommend his posts. Please allow me to just point you to his summaries of the sessions and goings on at The Digital Bridge Institute.
Highlights from the 14th of July: Allow me to excerpt this section on Tunji Lardner’s presentation.

Lardner tells us that his group naively believed they could build a regional community of NGOs. While Wangonet involved Senegalese, Ghanaian and Nigerian participants, they quickly ran into the Anglophone/Francophone barrier which makes much regional cooperation difficult. In trying to get indigenous content onto the Internet. Wangonet found itself becoming an ISP. This wasn’t viable in the long run – they were outcompeted by commercial ISPs. But the real problem was in retaining talent – as Wangonet trained engineers to support the ISP business, they lost them very quickly to other IT-hungry employers. “We ended up training CTOs for several major banks.”

Despite these challenges, Wangonet has launched a set of very ambitious projects. Early this decade, they posted a database of 2000 NGOs, the first of its kind in Nigeria, which helped NGOs find each other and build coalitions. They launched ACID – the Anti-corruption Internet Database, an aggregator of stories on corruption, attempting to calling more attention to stories about this critical topic. More recent efforts have focused on tracking the behavior of the Nigerian Congress and bringing insight to legislative activites.

“Technology is no longer the issue,” Tunji tells us. While connectivity is costly and the power supply is a major problem, the real issues are human ones. We need to harness intellectual capital, build social capital around specific problems and address a sense of powerlessness by taking advantage of new tools and partnerships that can make us powerful. By embracing the sorts of technologies available today, it’s possible for individuals to act as IGOs, “Individual Nongovernment Organizations”.

Summary of the session on citizen media and elections: On Eric Osiakwan and the African Elections Project.

Eric Osiakwan, a man of many talents and almost as many responsibilities, discusses his
African Elections Project. Like Juliana, Eric was in Kenya during the electoral crisis. He found himself wondering, “How do we avoid these situations?” Somewhere between the polling stations where local vote counts were announced and the electoral commission, the vote count changed.

Eric and his friends realized that there’s widespread interest in these elections, and widespread enough use of SMS that SMS could be used to report on and help cover these elections. The African Elections Project is built around a simple idea – let’s take announcements made in local areas and broadcast them widely to help prevent the theft of elections. This involves reporters at polling places, SMS as a transmission mechanism, and the use of broadcast technologies like newspapers and radio to disseminate the information, as well as the internet. Eric is clear that this is a journalistic, reportorial project, not a monitoring one.

Based around this simple idea, AEP has grown to include a much wider set of information around elections. Sites for different country’s elections include pictures from polling places, blog posts, links to news stories and a broad range of information sources about these events.

The main problem with AEP has been a fundamental problem with African elections – the project has been prepared to monitor elections in the Ivory Coast and Guinea, but both elections were put off. So far, the project has monitored Ghana’s elections as well as Malawi’s.

There are many technological challenges when it comes to access, capacity and skills for utilizing technology in NGO work, but it is gratifying to see steps towards empowering the local organizations to use solutions that are readily available for free. The availability of free tools that many in the western world may take for granted, but when you find out that some NGO’s in Nigeria are paying thousands and thousands of Naira for web site creation, then when they want to update it, they are charged even more. For this, the MacArthur Foundation and the conveners of the symposium should be lauded for their support of the NGOs in Nigeria.

It was great to meet with organizations considering the Ushahidi platform, and those who had not heard of Ushahidi now have an overview of its data visualization capabilities, and how to use the tool. In the working sessions, the team of experts covered tools like WordPress, RSS readers, Twitter, Flickr and other social media. There was much excitement and good ideas started coming up. I definitel look forward to supporting the projects that will come out of the symposium.