Monday, May 30, 2016

Leveraging ICTs to Facilitate Free & Fair Ghana 2016 elections




Ghana’s 2012 general elections witnessed a lot of application of Information and Communication technologies (ICTs) by all stakeholders including political parties, the media, civil society actors, elections observers, candidates, citizens and even the electoral commission of Ghana. Following this trend, there is ample evidence that the November 7, 2016 presidential and parliamentary elections is going to see a pronounced usage of ICTs.  In light of this, Penplusbytes will host its 2nd African Elections Project (AEP) Lecture on the theme “Leveraging ICTs to Facilitate Free & Fair Ghana 2016 elections” on Wednesday 8th June, 2016 at the New Media Hub (Osu Ako Adjei, near the Ako Adjei Park) at 6.00pm prompt

Gregg Pascal Zachary, a professor at the School for the Future of Innovations at Arizona State University, USA will be the distinguished speaker for the event. Professor Zachary studies the future of journalism and the effects of technological change on politics and media. He is a former senior writer for The Wall Street Journal, a columnist for The New York Times, and the author of five books.

This lecture comes at the time when some election stakeholders are calling for a ban on social media use on the day of the 2016 elections. This call has erupted diverse discussions and arguments on whether or not there is a need to implement such an activity to safeguard the credibility of elections in Ghana. This trending topic is expected to form part of this important lecture.

The event will explore and throw more light on how technology is making a difference in elections and how stakeholders working around Ghana’s 2016 elections can use new digital technologies to improve the quality of this years’ general elections.

“New digital tools are taking the elections landscape by storm, however, we have not had enough dialogue about its implications for elections.  Therefore this lecture is expected to bring together stakeholders to deliberate on the best strategies to ensure we can use new digital technologies to support Ghana’s quest to have a credible election come November 7th” said Kwami Ahiabenu II, Executive Director, Penplusbytes.

He added that, “this lecture will also expose attendees to how technology is modernising elections across the world and offering dynamic and versatile opportunities for citizens to participate and engage in the electoral process.”

The lecture is expected to be attended by key leaders in political parties, academia, the electoral commission and the media whose varied contributions are shaping the upcoming Ghana elections to ensure it is credible, free and fair.

The African Elections Project, AEP, established in 2008, is a ground breaking project of Penplusbytes (www.penplusbytes.org) enhancing the ability of journalists, citizen journalists and the news media to provide more timely and relevant elections information and knowledge while undertaking monitoring of specific and important aspects of governance. Using new digital tools like social media, mapping software and other, AEP has covered elections in over 14 African countries including Ghana and more than 35 elections remotely.


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Saturday, May 28, 2016

Ghana Elections 2016 : IGP calls to ban social media is an affront to the constitution

@ghanaelections
"Ghana' Inspector General of Police John Kudalor calls for social media ban during upcoming November 7 General Elections usurps Ghana's constitution and sends the country back to the dark ages of dictatorship " @kwamigh @peplusbytes

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Can ICTs transform Ghana’s agricultural sector?

Food production is key to any country’s development. From the most advanced to developing countries, agriculture is important because without this sector, their citizens can die of starvation. Human beings started food production since the dawn of creation literally using their bare hands. Over time, technology has come to play a very important role across the whole value chain of food production, starting from horse-drawn plough to current sophisticated use of new digital technologies.

New digital technology applications are now seen in every aspect of food production, from pre-production through production to post-production stages.

ICTs in action 
ICT solutions are helping agriculture producers to become more effective and efficient in the whole agriculture value chain.

One area which has received a lot of hype is agriculture information provision using ICTs, especially mobile phones, where a farmer is able to determine the best market to send his or her products due to increased access to reliable timely market information. There is also the combination of mobile apps, radio, SMS and voice services which allow farmers to receive information virtually rather than to physically interact with extension officers.  Also support services such as marketing of products, market access and payment system for agricultural products, information flow among stakeholders are all making a huge difference in the output of producers. Moreover, new digital technologies are providing options for farmers to access pension services, which are facilitated by electronic payment systems.

Also, technology, these days, is solving the problem of low ratio of farmers to extension officers through connecting the two parties remotely, as well as providing avenues for farmer-to-farmer extension.

In the pre-production process, technology is playing a key role in seed production. The big debate surrounding genetically modified organism (GMO) foods epitomises the high level of the use of technology in the production of seeds, which have high yields and disease and drought-resistant characteristics. Livestock production is also recording a lot of application of ICTs as seen in the delivery of validated livestock production and health knowledge and advice to producers, market information, early warning system, especially related to animal diseases and stimulating market-oriented livestock production techniques.

Stakeholders in agriculture, including small-scale holders, are now able to use farm management software to undertake budgeting, accounting, forecasting decision on what crops to plant, when to plant and what level of production to aim for.

Innovative solutions

Subsidies on fertilisers are plagued with a lot of challenges, including the situation where large-scale farmers buy more than their allocations, corruption, graft and general inefficiency. Evidence shows that ICTs can help resolve some of these problems. Nigeria is the first country in Africa to implement subsidised fertiliser distribution through the use of mobile phones as a platform to conduct this transaction and payment as well. Under this system, farmers first have to register with the Agriculture Ministry only after which they are able to receive their allocation of agriculture inputs such as seeds and fertiliser supplies through SMS alert. Once they receive this alert, they proceed to an agro dealer in the locality where the farmer gets a subsidy of 50 per cent and the farmer electronically pays the dealer the balance of 50 per cent through the mobile phone platform-enabled “e-wallet”. However, farmers without access can make use of a paper voucher. The most important innovation is, however, the completion of this transaction without money changing hands. This system has gone a long way to eliminate corrupt middlemen. In Ghana, farmers are now able to register with agriculture extension officers using a mobile app running on android phones. Personal details of the farmer and his holdings are collected with a picture of the farmer also taken.  When fertilisers become available, this SMS is sent to farmers: “Dear Farmer (name is indicated here) your subsidy code is 083700x. Use this code for your subsidised fertiliser purchases.” The farmer, now armed with this message, goes to a designated agro dealer, pays cash for the fertilisers less the subsidy. In comparison to the Nigeria example, cash changes hands. Ghana should work towards a full electronic platform where cash exchange does not take place.

Precision agriculture 
One growing exciting new area is precision agriculture. Defined as the use of satellite in farming or site-specific crop management (SSCM), precision agriculture can provide a tool for observing, measuring and responding to inter and intra-field variability in crops, ability to deliver exact nutrient and crop protection chemicals recommendation to improve crop quality. Also precision agriculture can be seen in the use of sensor systems, computational techniques, positioning systems and control systems to improve crop yields.

Due to dropping costs of hardware, software and other related equipment, ICTs can make a significant difference in productivity not only of large-scale commercial farmers but smallholder farmers as well.

In conclusion, agriculture production can benefit greatly from the use of new digital technologies. However, for this to happen, there is a need for policy and a clear-cut realistic implementation plan.

The writer is the Executive Director of www.penplusbytes.org Follow him on twitter at www.twitter.com/kwamigh  WhatsApp: 0241995737.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Net Neutrality: Does it matter?



By: Kwami Ahiabenu,II

The Internet revolution is making the world a better place. Since its birth in the 1950s, the Internet has become a ubiquitous global system of interconnected computer systems that use Internet protocol suites (TCP/IP) to connect billions of devices worldwide and provide countless online services.  

In recent years ‘net neutrality’ is in the news. Professor Tim Wu coined this term in 2003, to express  the idea that “internet service providers (ISPs) and governments should treat all data transactions on the internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment or modes of communication. This is to say that Internet users should enable access to all content and applications running on the Internet irrespective of the source, and access to particular products or websites should not be blocked as well.  

When Net Neutrality is respected, there is no blocking of content, no throttling (intentionally slows down some content or speeds up others), and no paid prioritisation where some services are stuck in a “slow lane” because they do not pay a special fee.  

One Service, Free Basics (the new name for internet.org), is receiving a lot of criticism from internet activists across the world, with India banning them for the violation  of net neutrality principles by offering free access to selected online content and services and putting others to a disadvantage by causing unfair competition. Free Basics, which is available in 37 countries including Ghana, aims at increasing access for low-income customers by allowing them to create a Facebook account on their devices and also access a limited set of internet services at no charge. Both Wikipedia Zero and Google Free Zone are other examples of zero rating services.  

Some benefits of not upholding Net neutrality  

Price differentiation, improving economic efficiency, increase in broadband penetration, reduction in customer costs and the provision of essential services to the poor who cannot afford access can all be stated as some of the advantages of not upholding the net neutrality principle. 

In support of Net Neutrality  

According to President Barack Obama You “don’t want to start getting a differentiation in how accessible the Internet is to various users,” “You want to leave it open so that the next Google or the next Facebook can succeed.” Conventionally it is not just possible for a smaller firm to compete with established companies such as Facebook when they are able to offer services based on discriminatory data tariffs. Furthermore this situation creates barriers to entry and a non-level playing field for other players especially start-ups thereby stifling innovation.  

Throwing net neutrality out of the window means a whole set of users (out of the same window) because then, they are considered as spammers, scammers, and phishers, with other “bad” Internet citizens excluded from sending mail through certain web mails.  

Also violation of Net Neutrality can lead to an outright block of country-level IP addresses, which affects countries in West Africa, including Ghana because of the prevalence of “scammers”. 

In many emerging markets, a new generation of messaging apps such as WhatsApp are threatening SMS revenues while Voice Over IP (VOIP) is eating away voice revenue. <$> A predictable reaction is to break net neutrality principles by setting up differential pricing in order to protect dwindling fortunes of the operators but this does not serve the interest of consumers.  

Is Net Neutrality a Myth? 

Some persons argue that we should not be discussing net neutrality in Africa, or in Ghana, because it is the preserve of persons with high speed internet access who do not have the access challenges which are the bane of most users on the continent.  However, internet access is constantly improving; and net neutrality will increasingly become more and more important an issue to grapple with in Africa.  

Conclusion  

At the end of the day, it is important not to create a two-tier Internet-one for the haves and the other for the have-nots. Breaking Net Neutrality can lead to control and censorship of Internet content which does not augur well for openness on the Internet. When the principle of net neutrality starts to be eroded, it should be of grave concern to everyone because it has the tendency of creating walls instead and hindering open Internet as per its original design.  

The writer is the Executive Director of Penplusbytes.org - you can follow him on twitter at www.twitter.com/kwamigh; WhatsApp: 0241995737


How to Bypass Electronic Communication Censorship



By: Kwami Ahiabenu, II

Control of communication is power. To preserve their status quo, many major institutions-state and non-state actors - are using their power to interfere with citizens’ communications. At times they prevent users from freely using email, social media, telephone, messaging services, broader Internet access, and more. Censorship of electronic communication differs from country to country, however it is more common in undemocratic countries than in open and free societies. 

According to freedom house https://freedomhouse.org/report/special-reports/leaping-over-firewall-review-censorship-circumvention-tools, “Internet censorship poses a large and growing challenge to online freedom of expression around the world. “Censorship circumvention tools are critical to bypass restrictions on the Internet and thereby to protect free expression online.” 

Electronic communication censorship can happen at several levels. At the individual level, a parent can control access in order to prevent minors from accessing inappropriate content.  Companies or organisations can set up filters so that their workers cannot access Facebook at work. An Internet cafĂ© can prevent its users from accessing certain online services, which are considered a drain on bandwidth.   

Governments can monitor, filter or shut down certain electronic communications services for a number of reasons including national security concerns, maintaining law and order, preventing dissent, and otherwise controlling citizens’ behaviour.  Some states prevent evidence of human rights abuses from getting out to the larger world by censoring electronic communications or in some cases prevent scrutiny of their electoral processes.  

State-level interference can occur within a country’s legal and constitutional framework, or in blatant infringement of its laws. For instance, USA Freedom Act (https://judiciary.house.gov/issue/usa-freedom-act/) while Ghana is promulgating a new law “Interception postal packets and telecommunications bill, 2016” with provision not only for monitoring postal and electronic communication but undertaking some levels of censorship as well.  

Now that we know that restriction of electronic communication is commonplace in our world today, what can we do about it?  

Circumvention tools
  
During Uganda’s February 18, 2016 elections, Uganda Communications Commission blocked the use of social media and mobile money. However, some citizens were able to access social media using circumvention tools such as proxies and Virtual Private Networks (VPN).  

When you communicate online, your message gets broken up into little packages of data, called packets, which are reassembled when they arrive at their destination so the recipient can understand what you have said. Circumvention tools bypass communications filters that try to prevent you from communicating. 

Sometimes they work by finding alternative paths for those data packages; imagine that you are sending a parcel to another city and the main road is blocked, so the parcel-delivery service uses a different road or mode of transport. Circumvention tools may also disguise the communication so censors can’t decipher what is being said. Circumvention tools are not a perfect solution, but they can offer practical help.  
 
Here are some of the key technologies in the field today. 
 
Proxies  

A proxy is an intermediary destination on the Internet. It gets data traffic from a browser in a place where censorship is occurring, and sends it to the destination the user wants; the traffic comes back via that same intermediary location. The location of a proxy is usually in a different country from the one facing censorship, which prevents it from being subjected to censorship there. Some proxy services find ways to use alternative routes if the first one gets blocked.  

TOR  

https://www.torproject.org is a free service that requires downloading and installing software compatible with most operating systems. It works to provide anonymity for online users, protect users’ privacy and defend them against network surveillance and traffic analysis.  Psiphon https://psiphon.ca grant users open access to the Internet when information controls and limitations are arbitrarily imposed within any given country. 

VPNs  

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) uses a public network to connect remote sites or users together via "virtual" connections routed through the Internet from one private network to others or a remote site.  If a government is blocking your Internet access, you may be able to use VPN to circumvent this by assuming a different geographic location. In other words, I could be using my computer in Accra but by using VPN, I can block my location and assume another geographic address, therefore my computer will not be found in the pool of users in Accra, thereby guaranteeing anonymity and privacy.  It is important to note, however, that some governments are skilled at blocking VPNs; China is especially tough on these bypasses. 

Encryption  

Another important tool to circumvent prying eyes is the use of encryption, whereby users enhance the security of a message or file by scrambling the contents during transmission. When it comes to mobile messaging and voice, there are a number of apps which enable calling and texting encryption, including Signal (https://whispersystems.org/blog/just-signal/), which works on android and apple, easy to install and use. 

Governments are not sleeping  

In spite of all these circumventing tools and apps, complete circumvention is difficult. Governments are increasingly developing the capacity to block anti-censorship tools but this is an arms race. Some governments even have access to the source codes powering some of the circumvention tools. It is, therefore, important to evaluate tools carefully before making use of them.  

Conclusion 

Evidently, censorship is of great importance today even in democratic states, because some leaders are falling to the temptation of monitoring and controlling electronic communication of their citizens outside the legal framework. Collectively, citizens must voice their concerns about this negative trend, advocate for laws which will balance security concerns with the right of citizens to express themselves without fear.  It is critical for all and sundry to understand key issues surrounding electronic communication censorship, and more importantly learn and invest in tools which can enable them to circumvent these censorship tools when they are deployed to cow them into submission.  

The writer is the Executive Director of Penplusbytes.org - you can follow him on twitter at www.twitter.com/kwamigh; WhatsApp : 0241995737