Bjelkeman's travel notes

Travels with the cloud in my pocket.

Law is hard. Code is harder. Why new internet and software architecture will define the future of society

From left: Lawrence Lessig, Vinay Gupta, Srikant Nadhamuni. Picture of VInay by @charmermar, the other two by me.

Something which Vinay Gupta said the other day brought together several strands in my head. Vinay called it Foreign Policy by Internet Protocol. It is short enough to be quoted in full:

Foreign Policy by Internet Protocol
1. 5.1 billion cell phones, soon to be 7 billion smart phones on 3G networks
2. increasingly valuable services delivered over international borders, like Google
3. global shared knowledge bases like wikipedia or satellite maps
4. telemedicine, tele-engineering, micro-consultancy, social media and so on as the tools spread into new areas of life

Non-state actors conducting FPIP include WikiLeaks, Appropedia and many other groups. Currently it’s not at all clear that any state has begun to effectively deliver FPIP.

Vinay Gupta, Foreign Policy by Internet Protocol (2011) [1]

If you combine the thought that our communications infrastructure is going to start dictate how we think about the world with what Laurence Lessig says: “The Code is the Law”. Then a number of things which are going on in the world today can be seen in a very different perspective than what you see in your average newspaper opinion piece.

Of course, Lessig was years ahead of me thinking about this, in his piece The Code is the Law from 1999 he says [2]:

“The single most significant change in the politics of cyberspace is the coming of age of this simple idea: The code is law. The architectures of cyberspace are as important as the law in defining and defeating the liberties of the Net.”
Lawrence Lessig, The Code is the Law (1999)

The Code is the Law

Consider the example of copying of copyrighted works. You break a multitude of rules and laws if you copy a copyrighted work. Some countries are trying to implement some pretty draconian laws to stop copying over the internet, like the three strikes and your are cut off laws [3], which are met with quite a lot of resistance at the moment. But that hasn’t really stopped anyone from actually breaking these laws. The flow of information over peer-to-peer (P2P) networks is increasing and new laws seem to have short term effect on peoples behavior [4].

Google holds billions of images on their giant server farms with caches of images from web sites. According to the letter of the law they are breaking the copyright law when doing that. YouTube’s HTML 5 trials made it possible to download every video on YouTube to your computer (they seem to have disabled that again) and there is an enormous amount of material which breaks the copyright laws and rules on YouTube. There are some ongoing big lawsuits against Google, who owns YouTube, but in essence, for most people and companies YouTube is more useful than it is a threat, despite what the law says. Add to this that the function of the internet requires that you make a copy of a web page or a picture to actually view it on your computer, and it is trivial to copy it from the web browser cache to save it for later.

In short, the architecture of the internet has a stronger influence on how people behave than what the law says, as long as the majority of the people see a significant benefit.

The extension of this is that software architecture starts defining how our society behaves. Furthermore, I think that internet architects and coders who build useful systems, may in the long run, have a bigger influence on our future society than politicians and the traditional power-brokers have. Why do I believe this?

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: India, ITC technology, Social and economic policy

Identifying more than a billion Indians, another take on Gov 2.0

Image: Gireesh G V for Forbes India

Srikant Nadhamuni, tech lead for the Indian UID project. Image: Gireesh G V for Forbes India

The Indian UID project is very interesting to me, as the work they are doing is done on an enormous scale. There are other systems which reach this scale, and arguably are more complex than this (Facebook for example), but it is still impressive.

“By 2014, the government wants half of India’s population to be allotted UID numbers. To do that, the Authority will photograph a staggering 600 million Indians, scan 1.2 billion irises, collect six billion fingerprints and record 600 million addresses.”

Read more in this rather good Forbes India article. Another article about this was published on the Economist yesterday (although together with my friend Gabriel I am still pondering what the 14 billion transactions per second actually mean).

Whilst a country like Sweden, where I live, is struggling with a hodge-podge of identification services to be used online as well as offline, India isn’t only going to launch an online system of staggering scale, it is also going to leapfrog our old systems in a giant leap. Once they are up to speed with issuing IDs they could issue biometric IDs to the Swedish population in just over a week. At peak they expect to issue 1 million IDs per day.

Srikanth and my wife Anke taking a break during the bicycle ride on the outskirts of Bengaluru, buying some coconuts from a street vendor. January 2010.

A friend of mine, Srikanth Nadhamuni, leads the technical development from the Indian government side and it is really rather interesting to talk about the implications for this system with him.

One aspect which doesn’t get much coverage is that they are going to use the UID system to facilitate very inexpensive money transfers for people. This is in a country where a lot of people, maybe even most of them (hundreds of millions of people) don’t actually have a bank account at all today.

Another aspect which is interesting is that the team started the development in a way which would be very familiar to many Hacker News readers. They worked out of an apartment in Bangalore, where several team members lived as well as worked, in a true startup atmosphere. Software companies, like MS and Goggle would show up with teams and end up sitting around the kitchen table or on the spare bench from the hallway to participate in sessions where the project was being discussed.

They have software volunteers, expat-Indians, coming in from all over the world to work on the project, the top level people behave just like any other software startup entrepreneur you would expect, sitting up to 4am in the morning doing code reviews, walking into a room and asking: How’s it going? Not the usual bureaucratic India you would expect.

If I wasn’t working on what I work on right now I would probably have been a volunteer on the project myself, if they would have had me that is. 🙂

Edit: I have written about the UID project before, but it was quite short.

Filed under: India, ITC technology, Social and economic policy

Governance is the last mile problem

Picture by Mark Charmer

Yesterday I had the privilege to spend several hours with Sunita Nadhamuni. We had a lot to talk about, as we hadn’t met since the summer. Sunita sits on the board of Akvo.org as well as running one of my favorite organisations in development aid, Arghyam, which means I am lucky enough to be able to book some time with her and make it seem legitimate.

As usual the the topics of discussion ranged far across the board, but what really made me grab for a notebook to quickly scribble down a quote was something she said when we were discussing fundamentals around development aid. Sunita said:

“Governance is the last mile problem.” – Sunita Nadhamuni

The last mile is an expression often used in the internet and telecommunications business when discussing how to get people connected to telephone or internet services. There often is sophisticated communications infrastructure available locally, but often no money, or rather a perception that it is too expensive to get everybody hooked up. The investment in the required “last mile” connection is often unpalatable, but without it there is no point of building of the infrastructure in the first place. It may be easiest to understand the challenge economically for a northerner, like myself, when looking at it in an example: The single biggest cost in transporting food to your table is not where one would expect it to be, to the supermarket, but from the supermarket to your home, i.e. the last mile. 1

But back to development aid. In our discussions yesterday we noted that in the segment of development aid in which we work, water and sanitation, there seem to be a particular challenge in getting these services deployed on the ground related to the local situation. It doesn’t matter if the national or state government sets goals, understands the problem and sends out decrees, if there is no capacity locally to both understanding the problem and to understand how to approach solving it. The most successful efforts around solving water and sanitation problems (and I believe this applies to education, healthcare and other areas as well), are when you manage to engage the local community to the point where the local community not only understands the problem, but owns the solution. It doesn’t matter how many NGOs there are who works with the issue in a country like India, or anywhere else for that matter, if you can’t successfully get the local community to engage with the problem. In countries or regions which have functioning water and sanitation systems the solution nearly exclusively involves the local community and the local government.

In communities which do not have these services the main problem is not what technology to use, or how to build it, or who should be responsible or own it, but a matter of getting people to sit down together and discuss the issue and working together to solve the problem. It is nearly always a matter of governance.

At university I spent four years studying environmental problems and water related issues, but I only had three (3!) days learning about governance. When discussing water and sanitation issues there seem to be no end to the discussions about what technology to use, is access to clean water a human right or not, and government policy on the subject. But good examples to learn from how to make it work locally are harder to come by, or maybe harder to share, as the context in a successful solution is often what I would call “hyper-local”. In India, central government actually seems well aware of that the solution should local, but until now it seems to have had a hard time translating it into action. This may be about to change. Arghyam is currently working with the Indian central government in reviewing the current progress of the five year plan and planning the next five years, and this time, possibly for the first time, there is organized feedback from the grass roots level. Hundreds of participants from the gram panchayat level of government (village council) are participating and collaborating with other participants from state and national level to give feedback on the central government plans.

Technically we know what to do. The money is there to do it. The challenge is to engage people in an open discussion to make it happen. It is democracy. Governance is the last mile problem in water and sanitation. When you make that work the rest is easy.


Footnotes

1. The Validity of Food Miles as an Indicator of Sustainable Development, DEFRA, July 2005

Edited: 13 January 2011, fixed a spelling error. Thanks to @PraveenaSridhar for finding it.

Filed under: Arghyam, Development aid, India

Last day in India

Today, 31 January 2010, is the last full day in India for this trip. We have had an absolutely fabulous trip, we have made friends for life and we are going to go back as soon as we can. Thanks to all our friends in India!

Filed under: India, Travel

Governance or water?

Today I had some very inspiring and challenging discussions with Amitangshu and Sushmita about development aid and different approaches. Amitangshu works with Arghyam in the grants team and Sushmita works with forestry governance in South India.

India is like a person who received had a bad stab wound which is bleeding (abject poverty) and a dangerous infection (corruption and partially functioning democracy) as a result. How do you treat the patient?

We discussed this back and fourth and our joint suggestion was that you have to staunch the bleeding with band-aid, i.e. fix poverty, here and now, as anything else will kill the patient and apply antibiotics, i.e. support good governance and fight corruption, in the long run. There are measures you can take in decreasing poverty which have very quick results, whereas introducing good governance, i.e. a functional democracy at the local level and fighting corruption is a more long-term effort, like taking antibiotics. And taking antibiotics is pretty pointless if you are going to die of blood loss in the meantime.

I used providing sustainable clean water supply, as an example of good tools against poverty. Many water projects can be achieved with projects that are quick to implement, but with good long term results. Sushmita and Amitangshu argued quite strongly that this is not enough though.

In India local government supplies water systems to villages, in an effort to decrease poverty. The programmes are highly centralised and things like pump design are decided in New Delhi. The pumps used are the of the piston pump type, which are very reliable, but when they break down they need a skilled technician and special tools to repair. The result is that many of the pumps in rural India are broken and it takes a long time to get a repair. But even if the pump is functional the capacity of the system is often not enough for the village and there are better alternatives that fit the local context. But the centrally controlled bureaucracy does not allow deviation from what Delhi has decided. So there you are with in-appropriate technology for the context, which you can’t afford to replace and which break and you can’t repair it.

The result is that the villagers don’t turn to the local government for support to fix their water problems, but to an NGO. The NGO is often funded through other means, like international development aid, and is free to implement a solution that fits the context. If you are lucky the NGO is also not corrupt, which means that it is cheaper for everyone getting the work done. This is good to steam the flow of blood, i.e. implement water solutions which help fixing poverty, but it has a negative effect on the local government, as the work of the NGO essentially displaces the work of local government and as a result weakening the structure and effectiveness of local government, or doesn’t give the people the incentive to force the reform of an ineffective and corrupt local government system.

The result of our discussion was that we need both band-aid and antibiotics to solve the problem.

Filed under: Arghyam, Development aid, India, Social and economic policy

India Water Portal review

I had promised to review the India Water Portal and discuss what I found together with the team before I left India. I was a bit scared that I would run out of time, but I managed to get some time in on Monday to actually dive into the content on the site and understand what they have there. Maybe my ideas and feedback will help a little in improving this great resource.

The India Water Portal is probably the only one of its kind at the moment. It is a fabulous effort and it is surprising that there are not more like it. I mean, it isn’t like Bangladesh or Brazil couldn’t do with something like it, right?

Filed under: Arghyam, India, ITC technology

Wrapping up with VJNNS and travel

Picture from VJNNS training facilities

Today we wrapped up with VJNNS and agreed on how Akvo.org and VJNNS can work together. Karthik and his family has been incredibly friendly and helpful to us and I am really happy to have met them all.

The travel back to Bengaluru went without a hitch this time, which was rather nice. Hyderabad is really quite a nice airport if you ever get stuck there, like a smaller version of Terminal 5 at London Heathrow, but nicer.

Filed under: India, Travel

VJNNS gravity fed water system at Narsipatnam

Where the women collect water before they get a VJNNS gravity fed water system.

Today we went to see three villages in the hills close to Narsipatnam together with the Argyham partner VJNNS. The purpose was to see villages which have the gravity fed water systems which the engineers at VJNNS have perfected, and also see the difference between villages which have had the systems installed for a number of years and those that have not.

The visit was incredibly inspiring and nearly overwhelming in the warmth of the reception. I will be posting some videos of this later and more photographs.

Filed under: Arghyam, Development aid, Hydrology, India, WASH technology

Quick chat with Niteen about Water Information System

Niteen Shastri, manager of technology, Arghyam

Today I had a short but very effective talk to Niteen Shastri, who is the manager of technology at Arghyam. He has been working on a design and the idea of a Water Information System for India, which I talked to Sunita Nadhamuni about last year. There is much data about water which isn’t tracked or shared properly in India, and this team has taken on the task to try to define how can one track water data and make it really useful at the gram panchayat level (local elected government, 5-10 rural villages).

The rest of the day has essentially been a day of preparations for the rest of the week. Among other things there is a review of the India Water Portal which I have promised to do for Friday, which I spent much of the day doing. We have also been packing for the travel tomorrow.

Filed under: Arghyam, India, ITC technology

Comics as manuals

Anil is the cartoonist for the socio-political cartoons in the Bangalore Mirror. Anil is an architect and has combined his love for drawing with his education in architecture to make cartoon instruction manuals for the Nepal government. The manuals describe how to build a school. Not just how to slap up any old shed, but doing it properly.

This is a very intriguing thing and I have talked to Anil about doing this for some other things which we have been thinking about with Akvo.org. I love meeting new people like Anil, as suddenly you have a new possibilities to do things which just didn’t exist before you had met them.

A picture from the school building manual comic book which Anil have created.

Filed under: Culture, Development aid, India

About Bjelkeman

thomas@bjelkeman.com

Co-founder/director: Akvo Foundation

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