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DOE Green Investment Portfolio: Is This Government Qua Private Equity Investor Receiving Fair Criticism?

This is a cross post with the Fordham Corporate Law Forum.

During the first debate, presidential candidate Mitt Romney called Tesla Motors, along with Solyndra, Ener1, and Fisker, “losers.” Governor Romney reiterated his displeasure with the Department of Energy’s (“DOE”) green investment portfolio in the last debate, and the recent bankruptcy filing of A123 has encouraged others to launch similar criticism. Most of these companies received loans or loan guarantees from the DOE intended for the development of innovative green energy technologies. Here is a list of all the DOE green energy loan projects for reference.

Whether this or that energy company is a “loser,” however, misses the point. The DOE’s portfolio and all of its consequences should be judged as a whole. This post will discuss recent developments involving the so-called “loser” companies mentioned above. It will then discuss whether it is fair to characterize the DOE’s support of these and other start-ups as a failure. Read more

Kony 2012 “Cover the Night” a Flop?

Asch Harwood is the Council on Foreign Relations Africa program research associate. A version of this post originally appeared on Africa in Transition, a Council on Foreign Relations blog.

When Invisible Children released its call to “make Kony famous” on April 20, Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in the New Yorker about the inadequacy of social media to affect social change came immediately to mind. The Kony 2012 video, with its eighty million plus YouTube views, could easily be seen as a litmus test for his hypothesis: can online networks translate into offline action? Read more

One Day On Earth

Yesterday, “One Day on Earth” premiered at the United Nations and in countries around the world. The film compiled more than 3,000 hours of footage from every country on the planet shot on one single day, 10.10.10. Watching the film in the General Assembly, one couldn’t help feeling both small and grand. You become intimately aware that you are just one person, living on a massive planet of nearly seven billion, and that each person has their own stories, their own experiences on any given day. And yet, you feel connected because you share the same common bonds, needs, emotions, life experiences. You feel pain in the face of sadness, happiness as result of a smile. It’s clear that the culture we are immersed in and the structures that surround us are accidents of the time and location of our birth, but the larger connections that bind us together are no accident.

The film reminds us that on a single day, the world faces hopes and challenges: 230,000 people will meet someone they love and will eventually marry; 45 countries are engaged in armed conflict; 26.4% of the world is under the age of 14 but too many of them lack the basic necessities for a long, fruitful life; 1.3 billion people lack access to clean water; 45% of people live on less than $2.50 per day. And possibly one of the most hopeful facts from the film was that on 10.10.10, the average person had 60,000 ideas — ideas have the potential to change the world we all share.

Learn more about this incredible project at: www.OneDayOnEarth.org.

New Figures on Facebook and Twitter in Africa

Asch Harwood is the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Africa program research associate and Melissa Bukuru is the CFR Africa program intern. A version of this post originally appeared on Africa in Transition, a CFR blog.

Like mobile statistics (which Asch wrote about yesterday), information on social media use can also be thin. A communications firm, Portland, has set out to address this deficit and measure just how prevalent Twitter is and how it is being used across Africa. They analyzed about 11.5 million geolocated tweets across the continent (including North Africa). Read more

Defining Mobile Phone Usage in Africa

Asch Harwood is the Council on Foreign Relations Africa program research associate. A version of this post originally appeared on Africa in Transition, a Council on Foreign Relations blog.

A comment was recently made to me citing the huge number of mobile phones in Nigeria—over 90 million—as an indicator of that country’s budding middle class. However, in this conversation, my interlocutor failed to make the distinction between mobile phones and mobile phones subscriptions, which turns out to be important. Read more

Chat Rooms for Change

This post is part of the Innovation in Politics and Policy series.

Young people growing up in the Internet age were often told by their parents that there was one corner of the World Wide Web that was off limits: chat rooms. But that was ages ago, before boardrooms had video conferencing, before iPhones had FaceTime (or we had iPhones for that matter) and before leaders of the free world were “hanging out” on Google+. We were practically living in the dark ages. Read more

#WHTweetup at the @WhiteHouse

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to join about ten other “tweeps” and participate in the #WHTweetup at the White House (@WhiteHouse).  The digital team at the White House did a fantastic job putting the day together.  We had the chance to meet with a great lineup of key people from the Administration, including Press Secretary Jay Carney (@PressSec), U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra (@AneeshChopra) and White House Director of Digital Macon Phillips (@Macon44).  While the theme of the day focused on President Obama’s (@BarackObama) jobs speech and the American Jobs Act (#jobsnow), we had a great opportunity to peek behind the curtain and see how the White House is using innovative strategies and social media tools to educate the public about key policy objectives and engage Americans in the debate.

Before doing a digital dive into some of my key takeaways on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’s tech architecture, I wanted to give a few thoughts on the American Jobs Act.  The bill is right for America, and as the President stated many times in his speech last week, Congress should pass it right away.  Leaders from both parties must work to put Americans back to work.  I think the infrastructure points are dead on and will be key to creating jobs today while making our country more competitive in future generations.  In fact, Congress should consider taking even greater steps to rebuild America and find additional funding to build high speed rail in our most crowded corridors, develop our ports to increase export capabilities, and advance broadband and wireless access to ensure that we are positioned to lead in an interconnected and technology dominant marketplace.  As for the tax incentives for hiring and regulatory reforms, I think they will help, but businesses will only be able to shorten the unemployment lines if they have their own lines of customers at their doors.  Washington must not only incentivize current employers to hire more, but must make it easier for entrepreneurs to start new businesses and encourage investors to open up capital to the next generation of inventors and innovators.  This means passing pending legislation regarding a StartUp Visa to attract immigrant entrepreneurs from around the world.  The public and private sectors must also work together to develop young, aspiring entrepreneurs who have great ideas but sometimes lack guidance and resources.  As others far more experienced than me have said, we will invent and innovate our way out of this crisis, and these strategies will reinvigorate the entrepreneurial spirit that has for so long made America a dominant economic force in the world.

And on the point of innovation, this Administration’s digital team has made technology and social media a key part of the White House.  Focused on a four part strategy of outreach, platform, engagement and content, the team has increased transparency, opened communication and fostered an environment of information sharing.  Hosting the #WHTweetup gave every day Americans like myself and the other tweeps a unique opportunity to engage directly with our country’s decision makers.  And the White House Live Twitter account (@WHLive) and Facebook app give Americans across the country access to members of the Administration in a way that hasn’t been seen since the days of Andrew Jackson’s open parties (and the great wheel of cheese, for any fans of the “West Wing”).  The White House’s efforts to harness digital tools to improve democracy and access to leaders is exemplified in the upcoming launch of “We the People” which will give Americans a tool to build digital petitions that top officials will respond to once they’ve reached a target number of signers.

Two centuries ago, our founding fathers could not have imagined the tools that we’d have today when they were building our democracy (imagine the start of America in the digital age, with it’s “Bill of Tweets” and the Constitutional Convention being convened via MeetUp).  But as our country and our technology have developed over two hundred years, this Administration and its digital team have adapted and are nicely prepared for future innovations.

Mapping Violence in Nigeria

This is a cross post with the Council on Foreign Relations’ blog, Africa in Transition, and Movements.org.

The recent intensification of attacks by Islamic militant group Boko Haram in northern and central Nigeria, including its capital Abuja, is alarming to Nigerians and the international community alike. But is it really an escalation?

Nigeria has been marred by violence almost continuously during its post-independence history.  To cite recent episodes, since 2005, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has waged war against the Nigerian government and the oil industry over what it deems is an unfair distribution of the wealth the Delta region produces. They have killed soldiers, kidnapped oil workers, and destroyed infrastructure, and have threatened renewal of its campaign against the government and the oil industry. Near the city of Jos, situated in the middle belt region of the country, economic, religious, and sectarian conflict (often between Christians and Muslims) has killed thousands over the past three years. Following the disputed presidential elections in April 2011, violence along religious lines erupted in northern states, claiming the lives of an estimated 800 Christians and Muslims, after southern Christian Goodluck Jonathan was declared the victor.

Considering the apparent daily attacks and bombings attributed to Boko Haram in the past few weeks, there is a new, palpable feeling of insecurity in the country. More than fifty civilians, soldiers, and militants have been killed in the last week in separate attacks in Maiduguri, Kaduna, and Suleja, prompting the indefinite closure of the University of Maiduguri and the banning of motorbikes in that city, as well as an unprecedented 10 p.m. curfew in Abuja. Further, bombings in the capital during its 50th Independence Day celebration in October as well as the June bombing at the National Police Headquarters have underscored the federal government’s inability to suppress violence, at least in the short term.

However, press and other reporting of the violence and unrest are often contradictory or inconsistent.  At times, numbers of victims appear to be underestimated.  Sometimes, however, casualties are double-counted.  And disagreement over responsibility is common.

In an effort to improve our understanding of the scope of the unrest, we have initiated a crisis mapping project, the Nigeria Security Tracker,  sifting through media reports, looking for incidents of violence that ostensibly can be connected to political, economic, and social grievances directed at the state or other affiliative groups (or conversely the state employing violence to suppress those uprisings). Using Ushahidi’s relatively new Crowdmap platform, we are recording each event we find, categorizing the data, and plotting it on a map and timeline. Over time, we hope to be able to evaluate the frequency of attacks, the magnitude (measured in terms of lives lost or injured), and the location of incidents.

Crisis mapping has a number of advantages. For one, it requires a more rigorous definition of violence and consideration of information as part of the process of determining which incidents should be included. It provides a means to organize and analyze often conflicting reports while at the same time allowing us to database information for future reference. In addition to being visually, appealing, the act of mapping also creates a novel opening to discuss violence in Nigeria for a technology-hungry media.

Of course, its analytical value is equally limited. Dependence on published reports means that incidents will be missed or reported inaccurately. This is particularly relevant in Nigeria where media is often concentrated in the south and important events, especially in the north, may not receive the coverage they should.

Further, it does not answer the question of why these incidents happen or why their frequency or intensity might be changing. As a result, we are working under the assumption that violent incidents often take place because of the weakness of the government and popular alienation from it, making scarce legitimate channels for redress of grievances. This alienation in turn is, at least in part, driven by Nigeria’s extreme poverty and inequality, which is most pronounced in the north; a political system that encourages winner take all competition; overzealous security services operating within a culture of impunity; and perverse corruption, which saps the political will for political solutions.

Follow the Nigeria Security Tracker here.

Is the Democratization of Media Good For Democracy?

The new film “Page One: Inside the New York Times” provides a behind-the-scenes look into the ivory tower of the iconic paper.  The audience is taken for an exciting journey through the history and present day of this respected institution while the narrator, NYT media columnist David Carr, ponders what would happen if this cathedral of journalism came crashing down and was subsequently overtaken by an army of autonomous bloggers and Wikileakers.

After watching the film, one must wonder what the future holds for news and media, and whether the current trajectory of independent bloggers and 24-hour news cycles leads to a better-educated public or if it establishes a tabloid economy made up of hot stories and illegitimate sources.  In a discussion with Arianna Huffington, the Twitter (and real world) celebrity Ashton Kutcher rightfully pointed out that technology has democratized media, giving microphones to a larger population and shining light on a greater array of issues.  While earlier generations may have depended on three evening newscasters and a collection of national papers for the pulse of the country, this generation turns to Twitter and Facebook and Google News to find the latest trends in national and international conversation.  The public can now find instantaneous information on issues and events from all corners of the world, as long as they can be reduced to 140 characters or less.

The problem though with this form of information gathering and digestion is rooted precisely in the term that Twitter has given users: “followers.”  As “followers,” we actively seek out sources of information that share similar interests, traits, ideologies and demographics, and we ultimately follow them.  Depending on our beliefs, we also follow bloggers, websites, and television stations like MSNBC and Fox News that lean a certain direction in the debate.  Using tracking tools, websites now feed us “suggested stories” and other content that we may be interested in based on our previous readings.  Listening to these “trusted sources,” we reaffirm our own personal beliefs and are pulled even further in whichever direction we initially began.  Now, the effects of this “follower” culture have begun to take shape in the United States, where opinionated media and a disgruntled citizenry has led to an even greater divide in the government and the emergence of new political parties and organizations.  And while the debate is more diverse, one must wonder whether either side is hearing the opposition’s argument, or if each is cocooned in a cave of echoes.

Whether the democratization of media is good for democracy is debatable.  While the historical prominence of a few, trusted, national voices may have guided the United States and other democratic nations in a more unified direction, the one narrative that they often echoed can in some ways be compared to the national media organizations that many non-democratic countries use to promote government propaganda.  The public’s emergence as the master of the fourth estate can enhance public discourse, but only if it demands journalistic integrity and investigation.  Many bloggers and freelance writers currently produce unique, reputable content, but many also package opinion as facts, and their actions threaten the reputation of the entire community.  Furthermore, the success of the new captains of the new industry depends on the success of legacy institutions like the New York Times and the Guardian of London, and that these institutions maintain their credibility in a time of austerity for the newspaper industry.  If these few standing giants permit their reporting quality to fall along with their ad revenues, then they too will fall like so many others before them.  The larger community of bloggers and citizen reporters are interdependent with these legacy organizations — the former can provide speed and reach while the latter can provide additional credibility and authority.  But the new masters of media are not dependent on their predecessors, and even if their goal is not the demise of the media establishment, it may ultimately be the result of their progress.  To answer Carr’s question, if the New York Times falls, the community will mourn its loss, but the kingdom will eventually find a new king(s) to lead the way.

Open.gov

Over the past few days, New York City has hosted Internet Week, and across many of the events and meetings that I had a chance to participate in, a common theme was echoed — the public sector, including government and non-profits, have a unique opportunity and responsibility to harness technology to improve transparency, accountability and service delivery.  Many governments and non-profits are already doing this effectively.  The City of New York has made many large data sets publicly available and has challenged developers to use the data and develop apps as part of the NYC Big Apps challenge.  Code for America takes this even further, bringing developers into leadership positions within government and enlisting their skills as part of an ongoing fellowship program.

Developers and entrepreneurs are eager to promote their work and to take on large scale challenges, and the public sector is tight on resources and often times lacks the expertise needed to produce interesting and useful technological innovations.  This seems likes the perfect partnership.  But it’s important that public sector organizations not always strive to build their own platforms, but rather, utilize existing technology and enlist the creativity, ingenuity and sometimes altruism of developers when needed.  The U.S. government’s Challenge.gov does this well.  As Vivek Kundra, the U.S. Chief Information Officer, stressed at the Personal Democracy Forum, it doesn’t make sense for governments and organizations to spend vast amounts of money building their own systems and software programs if similar platforms already exist.  Public sector organizations must explore what is already available, tweak current programs as needed, and develop their own platforms when necessary.

Many organizations in the public sector are leading the way on using technology for open data sharing and better delivery of services.  Governments and non-profits around the world should follow their examples and embrace new digital innovations to improve their transparency and openness.