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Innovation for the Development Sector (Hint: The iPad Probably Isn’t It)

Susan Moeller's picture

This past weekend’s launch of the iPad has had me thinking more and more about the future of information because I’m not entirely convinced that we should go in the direction that Steve Jobs is taking us. 

Or what I really mean (since I have every intention of getting an iPad) is that I’m not convinced that that’s the ONLY direction we should go.

Let me step back for a moment and briefly explain what the media gurus believe is in our future. 

We live now in the age of Web 2.0 and the next BIG thing on the horizon is being called Web 3.0 or the “Semantic” Web.  In other words, we are heading, we are told, for a web that has “meaning.”i

According to MediaBistro, one of the must-read websites for media professionals, “Web 3.0 is a web in which data is linked to allow for more meaningful, actionable insight to be extracted.”ii  Or as John Markoff of The New York Times put it a few years ago:  “In its current state, the Web is often described as being in the Lego phase, with all of its different parts capable of connecting to one another. Those who envision the next phase, Web 3.0, see it as an era when machines will start to do seemingly intelligent things.”iii 

That’s all as fine as it goes, but that vision of the future is chiefly focused on how easily and well the newest enabling and linking hardware and software can sift through and make sense of the more than 500 exabytes of information that are already out there.

But what I think we and the development sector as a whole need to focus on is what information has NOT already been collected.

Because despite all the data stored on all the computer hard drives everywhere in the entire world, there’s a lot we don’t know yet.  There remain black holes of news and information. 

Those black holes are not just in worlds such as particle physics and nanotechnology.  They are in worlds such as North Korea and Burma, Somalia and Zimbabwe, Iran and the NW Frontier Province in Pakistan.

Steve Jobs at Apple, Steve Ballmer at Microsoft and Eric Schmidt at Google are bankrolling the cool technologies on the leading edge of Web 3.0. In other words, most tech R&D money—and most of the virtual column inches that report on the high tech world—are given up to the interests of the North.

There are no titans of industry who are bankrolling R&D divisions to find the newest app to bring news out of the global black holes.

What does exist, however, are some intriguing web models that offer cool ways to get some trickles of global news out to audiences.  Each is committed to bringing undercovered news to light and unheard voices to speak.  Each has a different vision of how to do that.  All need financial nurturing.

There are private foundations and philanthropists, as well as governments and international organizations that recognize the importance of news and information circulating inside and beyond those societies.  But not enough.  And not with sufficient resources.

The World Bank is making a small effort to signal its interest in supporting such web models through its Innovation Fair:  Moving Beyond Conflict, being held next week, April 12-15 in Cape Town, South Africa.  One of the thirty projects that has made it to the final stage is the Un Free Media website which features reporting from “independent journalists… operating in some of the world's most repressive places, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Iran.… Some are in exile, having been branded ‘enemies of the state’. Others publish courageously fearing the knock on the door from the security services. From behind bars, one Cuban journalist on our network delivers his blog in his weekly phone call to his wife.”

What the Innovation Fair offers to the 30 “winners” of travel and hotel support to South Africa is exposure and networking, although cryptically the Fair materials do note that “Some projects will be eligible for funding and technical assistance.”  What’s clear is that the funding to be made available will not look like anything Jobs or Ballmer might throw at a great idea. 

But it could help.


Check out these other seven websites that are working hard at bringing news of the world to the world:

  1. First, and arguably the best of all at identifying locally-generated news from around the globe is GlobalVoices:  “a community of more than 200 bloggers around the world who work together to bring you translations and reports from blogs and citizen media everywhere, with emphasis on voices that are not ordinarily heard in international mainstream media.”  (Take a look, too, at its farm-team site, RisingVoices.)
  2. Then there’s the activist journalist site called The Hub, this one also organized as a community: “an interactive community for human rights, where you can upload videos, audio or photos, or simply watch, comment on and share what’s on the site.”
  3. Then there’s the stripped-down, NGO-consortium model of FromTheGround, that “pools RSS-feeds from major, field-based NGOs to offer all of the organisations' output in a single feed, or in separate feeds for individual regions. FtG was originally started by the International Crisis Group and built in collaboration with Human Rights Watch.”
  4. And there’s the hybrid-consortium model of Reuter’s AlertNet, that joins news on “fast-moving humanitarian emergencies and on the early warning of future emergencies” from Reuters, with news and information uploaded by “a network of 400 contributing humanitarian organizations… actively involved in emergency relief.”
  5. Yet another business model is Demotix, a citizen-journalism website and photo agency which sells user-created content and photographs to mainstream media:  its “objective is nothing if not ambitious - to rescue journalism and promote free expression by connecting independent journalists with the traditional media.”
  6. Another variant is GlobalPost:  “dedicated to broad coverage throughout the world and especially of those geographic areas that have been historically under-reported by the American news media.”  Targeted at a US audience, GlobalPost’s slick tripartite business model marries online advertising, syndication of content and a paywall for “elite” content.
  7. Then there are those websites which want to reach across language lines.  GlobalVoices uses volunteer translators to publish blogs not written in English.  But the site that relies most dynamically on translation is Meedan which describes itself as “a digital town square where you can share conversation and links about world events with speakers outside your language community. Everything that gets posted on is mirrored in Arabic and English – whether it’s the headlines you read, the comments you write, or the articles you share.”


iConsider Microsoft’s Live Labs’ Pivot, for example, launching later this year, which will allow its users to view “the relationships between individual pieces of information…. by visualizing hidden patterns [of] thousands of things at once.”

iiDepending on who you talk to, Web 3.0 and the Semantic Web are either distinctive possibilities—distinct from each other, let us say—or more or less the same thing.  MediaBistro is holding a summit at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston this coming November, and actually changed the name of the conference from the Web 3.0 Summit to the Semantic Web Summit

 iiiIf “the classic example of the Web 2.0 era is the ‘mash-up’ — for example, connecting a rental-housing Web site with Google Maps to create a new, more useful service that automatically shows the location of each rental listing,” wrote Markoff in 2006, “the Holy Grail for developers of the semantic Web is to build a system that can give a reasonable and complete response to a simple question like: ‘I’m looking for a warm place to vacation and I have a budget of $3,000. Oh, and I have an 11-year-old child.’”


Photo Credit: Flickr user Yudi Setiawan