Technology companies are making efforts to help the Egyptian protesters express themselves and self-organize. How can technologists seeking to help do so most effectively? This is likely to be a type of story we hear about many other places in the future. Sometimes using technology to help people across borders and cultures can be challenging. We spoke with a number of technologists that serve international constituencies every day and asked them for their best advice.
Companies large and small are getting on board to help information flow in and out of Egypt, contrary to the wishes of the government there. YouTube is pointing to videos about Egypt on every page on its site. Google and Twitter collaborated last weekend to build a speech-to-text service for Egyptians to post messages by phone. The independent media organization Alive in Egypt is working to translate those messages into English. Facebook, widely believed to be central in the protests, has not felt comfortable taking public action in support of them.
As Cecilia Kang and Ian Shapira wrote in The Washington Post wrote yesterday:
Facebook, which celebrates its seventh birthday Friday and has more than a half-billion users worldwide, is not eagerly embracing its role as the insurrectionists' instrument of choice. Its strategy contrasts with rivals Google and Twitter, which actively helped opposition leaders communicate after the Egyptian government shut down Internet access.
Though these questions are being asked by the press and the public because of the high-profile nature of events in Egypt, doing business across borders is a part of everyday life for many technologists and each day sets the stage for the future. Aaron Fulkerson, of enterprise collaboration and publishing service MindTouch, says he's been "ecstatic" to see his open source technology used from Iran to Syria, China and Nepal.
"I think that's why most of us that came from an engineering background got into software. We wanted to change the world," he says. Fulkerson argues that its everyday support for open technology that provides a foundation that can be relied upon in times of crisis. "Open standards and open source have been doing just that," he says. "Things like TOR, HTTP, TCP/IP, REST, etc... this is why we all owe it humanity to use open and contribute to open source."
More Than Tech Heros
It's not just about the technology, though. Providing meaningful support across cultures is also an exercise of will, self-awareness and communication skills.
"What Google and Twitter did over the weekend is spectacular," says Lidija Davis, one of the human editors at the largely machine-driven international technology news portal Techmeme and a former Australasian television producer. "It just goes to show what a couple of days, some smart coders and brilliant technology can do to bridge this gap."
It's not just about the tech heroes, though. There are everyday pitfalls that need to be watched out for, Davis says. "Don't make any assumptions about the technological landscape in countries other than your own," she says. "And be mindful of any misunderstandings when English is not the primary language."
Ultimately, the best strategies will no doubt be informed by both technical and human considerations. Thomas Vander Wal, a leading social technology consultant who focuses on effective collaboration, cites both hard and soft concerns.
"First [step] is using a platform that does internationalization well," he says.
"Using technology that fits the region and capabilities is important. Currently the Google solutions are really good given what technology is available (due to other tech being shut down).
"You should plan for cross-platform options: text, audio, video. Text-to-speech is good as well for those who are not literate. Sharing MP3 files of info is really helpful.
"Another big thing though is to sort out what is a cultural no-no, that will save a lot of grief. Find somebody from the region to check and test what has been set up."
That all sounds like good advice, but it's important to consider your efforts in the context of long-term efforts for self-determination that people around the world have been engaged in for a long time.
"Enable Sustained Communication"
John Smith, a consultant in co-ordinating international communities of practice, emphasizes that there are no simple solutions:
"Remember that real change takes a while. We're all moved by the big protests in the streets, but enabling sustained interaction and communication is more important than being there to capture the headlines. The time to pitch in and help is probably after the headlines have died down.
"To enable sustained communication (locally and globally) we have to ask people what they want: how and what they want to make visible needs to be under their control. They may need secrecy or maximum visibility. People who are seriously working on social change have their own creative and effective sense of accountability to each other and to history. It's our job to support it -- as they see it.
"Any help we can provide is just an ingredient: giving too much credit to one tool or one intervention is not only simple-minded, it's probably plain-old deluded. People working in difficult situations have a lot of choices about what tools to use: anything we offer has to fit into a context that's incredibly complex and locally coherent.
"Often we need to make sense of what's happening using multiple channels: both satellite TV and Twitter are useful, but they see different facets [of the situation]."
Everyone always said that the Internet would shrink the world we live in. That has proven true; we're likely just at the beginning of a period of intense internationalization and it makes sense to begin discussing now how to best deal with both historic and everyday changes.