At this year’s Burning Man festival in the middle-of-nowhere Nevada, Open Source Subnet is doing their second year of testing for a low-cost cell phone network program called OpenBTS that would allow even the most impoverished areas of the world to have cell phone service. The OpenBTS system works in conjunction with a small tower unit that can be powered with solar power, wind generation, or batteries. As author Julie Bort states in “Burning Man’s open source cell phone system could help save the world” (read the full article for details):
Today I bring you a story that has it all: a solar-powered, low-cost, open source cellular network that’s revolutionizing coverage in underprivileged and off-grid spots. It uses VoIP yet works with existing cell phones. It has pedigreed founders. Best of all, it is part of the sex, drugs and art collectively known as Burning Man.
As stated in the article cited above, the technology will likely be announced publicly in September and developers anticipate that the whole installation kit would cost approximately $10,000 versus the $50,000 to $100,000 that typical cell phone towers cost to install. Moreover, it operates seamlessly with existing frequencies and networks. Given the alternative power sources and the price point, this technology could be a reasonable alternative for cell service in remote areas with fewer financial resources. The implications for human rights and humanitarian work are pretty clear:
“The UN and ITU studies show that when you bring communications services to an area, healthcare goes up, economic well being goes up, education goes up,” Edens says, noting that costs and power needs are low enough that even a small village can afford to do this. Users may need to pay $2 or $3 a month.
Human Rights First, an international human rights organization based in New York and Washington D.C.,works to defend people’s rights to equality and for freedom of thought, expression, and religion. The group was founded in 1978 as the Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights and takes as its charter:
…to promote laws and policies that advance universal rights and freedoms. We exist to protect and defend the dignity of each individual through respect for human rights and the rule of law (Human Rights First Charter)
As part of this charter, the group maintains a strong Web presence where work, campaigns and breaking news are presented and regularly updated. The site incorporates a variety of digital media including video, still images, and blogs to illustrate their work and call attention to key issues in the defense of freedom of expression internationally.
Human Rights in a Networked World
A recent post at the Human Rights First Webpage focuses on the impact of an increasingly digitally networked world on human rights work. The post, titled “A Networked World: What’s Next for Human Rights” includes a very nice overview video that was commissioned by the group’s partner, Global Partners & Associates, a “…social purpose company working to promote democratic politics, effective governance and human rights.” The video (embedded below) demonstrates the organic and un-planned nature of digital networking and begins to lay out the hugely positive impact that this sort of social organization can have for human rights defense and activism.
The post further argues that “New technology demands new thinking about how companies, governments and civil society groups can each work to promote Internet freedom, visit our website to learn more.” See the complete post at the links above for a full discussion of the potential impact of digital networks on human rights.
Kenya-based Ushahidi, an organization that has created an online platform for gathering and mapping users’ text messages about crises in real time, launched a new mapping project last week to monitor Kenya’s August 4th elections. This project is particularly significant for Ushahidi (which means “testimony” in Swahili) because their work began in 2007-2008 as a response to the violence that erupted in Kenya after corrupt presidential elections (see this Documentalist post for background on Ushahidi). This year, Ushahidi is using its platform to try to head off such violence before it can even begin by mapping citizen reports of election activities at Uchaguzi (Elections). For a more detailed description of this project, see this Ushahidi blog post. As with all of their work, the platform will capture and archive all texts, videos, and images that users submit to the platform for mapping.