App pays commuters to take routes that ease congestion

Springwise: “Congestion at peak hours is a major problem in the world’s busiest city centres. We’ve recently seen Gothenburg in Sweden offering free bicycles to ease the burden on public transport services, but now a new app is looking to take a different approach to the same problem. Urban Engines uses algorithms to help cities determine key congestion choke points and times, and can then reward commuters for avoiding them.
The Urban Engines system is based on commuters using the smart commuter cards already found in many major cities. The company tracks journeys made with those commuter cards, and uses that data to identify main areas of congestion, and at what times the congestion occurs. The system has already been employed in Washington, D.C, and Sao Paulo, Brazil, helping provide valuable data for work with city planners.
It’s in Singapore, however, where the most interesting work has been achieved so far. There, commuters who have signed up and registered their commuter cards can earn rewards when they travel. They will earn one point for every kilometre travelled during peak hours, or triple that when travelling off-peak. The points earned can then be converted into discounts on future journeys, or put towards an in-app raffle game, where they have the opportunity to win sums of money. Urban Engines claim there’s been a 7 to 13 percent reduction in journeys made during peak hours, with 200,000 commuters taking part.
The company is based on an original experiment carried out in Bangalore. The rewards program there, carried out among 20,000 employees of the Indian company Infosys, lead to 17 percent of traffic shifting to off-peak travel times in six months. A similarly successful experiment has also been carried out on the Stanford University campus, and the plan is to now expand to other major cities…”

Closing the Feedback Loop: Can Technology Bridge the Accountability Gap

(WorldBank) Book edited by Björn-Sören Gigler and Savita Bailur:  “This book is a collection of articles, written by both academics and practitioners as an evidence base for citizen engagement through information and communication technologies (ICTs). In it, the authors ask: how do ICTs empower through participation, transparency and accountability? Specifically, the authors examine two principal questions: Are technologies an accelerator to closing the “accountability gap” – the space between the supply (governments, service providers) and demand (citizens, communities, civil society organizations or CSOs) that requires bridging for open and collaborative governance? And under what conditions does this occur? The introductory chapters lay the theoretical groundwork for understanding the potential of technologies to achieving intended goals. Chapter 1 takes us through the theoretical linkages between empowerment, participation, transparency and accountability. In Chapter 2, the authors devise an informational capability framework, relating human abilities and well-being to the use of ICTs. The chapters to follow highlight practical examples that operationalize ICT-led initiatives. Chapter 3 reviews a sample of projects targeting the goals of transparency and accountability in governance to make preliminary conclusions around what evidence exists to date, and where to go from here. In chapter 4, the author reviews the process of interactive community mapping (ICM) with examples that support general local development and others that mitigate natural disasters. Chapter 5 examines crowdsourcing in fragile states to track aid flows, report on incitement or organize grassroots movements. In chapter 6, the author reviews Check My School (CMS), a community monitoring project in the Philippines designed to track the provision of services in public schools. Chapter 7 introduces four key ICT-led, citizen-governance initiatives in primary health care in Karnataka, India. Chapter 8 analyzes the World Bank Institute’s use of ICTs in expanding citizen project input to understand the extent to which technologies can either engender a new “feedback loop” or ameliorate a “broken loop”. The authors’ analysis of the evidence signals ICTs as an accelerator to closing the “accountability gap”. In Chapter 9, the authors conclude with the Loch Ness model to illustrate how technologies contribute to shrinking the gap, why the gap remains open in many cases, and what can be done to help close it. This collection is a critical addition to existing literature on ICTs and citizen engagement for two main reasons: first, it is expansive, covering initiatives that leverage a wide range of technology tools, from mobile phone reporting to crowdsourcing to interactive mapping; second, it is the first of its kind to offer concrete recommendations on how to close feedback loops.”

Democracy and open data: are the two linked?

Molly Shwartz at R-Street: “Are democracies better at practicing open government than less free societies? To find out, I analyzed the 70 countries profiled in the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Open Data Index and compared the rankings against the 2013 Global Democracy Rankings. As a tenet of open government in the digital age, open data practices serve as one indicator of an open government. Overall, there is a strong relationship between democracy and transparency.
Using data collected in October 2013, the top ten countries for openness include the usual bastion-of-democracy suspects: the United Kingdom, the United States, mainland Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
There are, however, some noteworthy exceptions. Germany ranks lower than Russia and China. All three rank well above Lithuania. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Nepal all beat out Belgium. The chart (below) shows the democracy ranking of these same countries from 2008-2013 and highlights the obvious inconsistencies in the correlation between democracy and open data for many countries.
There are many reasons for such inconsistencies. The implementation of open-government efforts – for instance, opening government data sets – often can be imperfect or even misguided. Drilling down to some of the data behind the Open Data Index scores reveals that even countries that score very well, such as the United States, have room for improvement. For example, the judicial branch generally does not publish data and houses most information behind a pay-wall. The status of legislation and amendments introduced by Congress also often are not available in machine-readable form.
As internationally recognized markers of political freedom and technological innovation, open government initiatives are appealing political tools for politicians looking to gain prominence in the global arena, regardless of whether or not they possess a real commitment to democratic principles. In 2012, Russia made a public push to cultivate open government and open data projects that was enthusiastically endorsed by American institutions. In a June 2012 blog post summarizing a Russian “Open Government Ecosystem” workshop at the World Bank, one World Bank consultant professed the opinion that open government innovations “are happening all over Russia, and are starting to have genuine support from the country’s top leaders.”
Given the Russian government’s penchant for corruption, cronyism, violations of press freedom and increasing restrictions on public access to information, the idea that it was ever committed to government accountability and transparency is dubious at best. This was confirmed by Russia’s May 2013 withdrawal of its letter of intent to join the Open Government Partnership. As explained by John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation:

While Russia’s initial commitment to OGP was likely a surprising boon for internal champions of reform, its withdrawal will also serve as a demonstration of the difficulty of making a political commitment to openness there.

Which just goes to show that, while a democratic government does not guarantee open government practices, a government that regularly violates democratic principles may be an impossible environment for implementing open government.
A cursory analysis of the ever-evolving international open data landscape reveals three major takeaways:

  1. Good intentions for government transparency in democratic countries are not always effectively realized.
  2. Politicians will gladly pay lip-service to the idea of open government without backing up words with actions.
  3. The transparency we’ve established can go away quickly without vigilant oversight and enforcement.”

Looking for the Needle in a Stack of Needles: Tracking Shadow Economic Activities in the Age of Big Data

Manju Bansal in MIT Technology Review: “The undocumented guys hanging out in the home-improvement-store parking lot looking for day labor, the neighborhood kids running a lemonade stand, and Al Qaeda terrorists plotting to do harm all have one thing in common: They operate in the underground economy, a shadowy zone where businesses, both legitimate and less so, transact in the currency of opportunity, away from traditional institutions and their watchful eyes.
One might think that this alternative economy is limited to markets that are low on the Transparency International rankings (such as sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, for instance). However, a recent University of Wisconsin report estimates the value of the underground economy in the United States at about $2 trillion, about 15% of the total U.S. GDP. And a 2013 study coauthored by Friedrich Schneider, a noted authority on global shadow economies, estimated the European Union’s underground economy at more than 18% of GDP, or a whopping 2.1 trillion euros. More than two-thirds of the underground activity came from the most developed countries, including Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
Underground economic activity is a multifaceted phenomenon, with implications across the board for national security, tax collections, public-sector services, and more. It includes the activity of any business that relies primarily on old-fashioned cash for most transactions — ranging from legitimate businesses (including lemonade stands) to drug cartels and organized crime.
Though it’s often soiled, heavy to lug around, and easy to lose to theft, cash is still king simply because it is so easy to hide from the authorities. With the help of the right bank or financial institution, “dirty” money can easily be laundered and come out looking fresh and clean, or at least legitimate. Case in point is the global bank HSBC, which agreed to pay U.S. regulators $1.9 billion in fines to settle charges of money laundering on behalf of Mexican drug cartels. According to a U.S. Senate subcommittee report, that process involved transferring $7 billion in cash from the bank’s branches in Mexico to those in the United States. Just for reference, each $100 bill weighs one gram, so to transfer $7 billion, HSBC had to physically transport 70 metric tons of cash across the U.S.-Mexican border.
The Financial Action Task Force, an intergovernmental body established in 1989, has estimated the total amount of money laundered worldwide to be around 2% to 5% of global GDP. Many of these transactions seem, at first glance, to be perfectly legitimate. Therein lies the conundrum for a banker or a government official: How do you identify, track, control, and, one hopes, prosecute money launderers, when they are hiding in plain sight and their business is couched in networked layers of perfectly defensible legitimacy?
Enter big-data tools, such as those provided by SynerScope, a Holland-based startup that is a member of the SAP Startup Focus program. This company’s solutions help unravel the complex networks hidden behind the layers of transactions and interactions.
Networks, good or bad, are near omnipresent in almost any form of organized human activity and particularly in banking and insurance. SynerScope takes data from both structured and unstructured data fields and transforms these into interactive computer visuals that display graphic patterns that humans can use to quickly make sense of information. Spotting of deviations in complex networked processes can easily be put to use in fraud detection for insurance, banking, e-commerce, and forensic accounting.
SynerScope’s approach to big-data business intelligence is centered on data-intense compute and visualization that extend the human “sense-making” capacity in much the same way that a telescope or microscope extends human vision.
To understand how SynerScope helps authorities track and halt money laundering, it’s important to understand how the networked laundering process works. It typically involves three stages.
1. In the initial, or placement, stage, launderers introduce their illegal profits into the financial system. This might be done by breaking up large amounts of cash into less-conspicuous smaller sums that are then deposited directly into a bank account, or by purchasing a series of monetary instruments (checks, money orders) that are then collected and deposited into accounts at other locations.
2. After the funds have entered the financial system, the launderer commences the second stage, called layering, which uses a series of conversions or transfers to distance the funds from their sources. The funds might be channeled through the purchase and sales of investment instruments, or the launderer might simply wire the funds through a series of accounts at various banks worldwide. 
Such use of widely scattered accounts for laundering is especially prevalent in those jurisdictions that do not cooperate in anti-money-laundering investigations. Sometimes the launderer disguises the transfers as payments for goods or services.
3. Having successfully processed the criminal profits through the first two phases, the launderer then proceeds to the third stage, integration, in which the funds re-enter the legitimate economy. The launderer might invest the funds in real estate, luxury assets, or business ventures.
Current detection tools compare individual transactions against preset profiles and rules. Sophisticated criminals quickly learn how to make their illicit transactions look normal for such systems. As a result, rules and profiles need constant and costly updating.
But SynerScope’s flexible visual analysis uses a network angle to detect money laundering. It shows the structure of the entire network with data coming in from millions of transactions, a structure that launderers cannot control. With just a few mouse clicks, SynerScope’s relation and sequence views reveal structural interrelationships and interdependencies. When those patterns are mapped on a time scale, it becomes virtually impossible to hide abnormal flows.

SynerScope’s relation and sequence views reveal structural and temporal transaction patterns which make it virtually impossible to hide abnormal money flows.”

How Civil Society Organizations Close the Gap between Transparency and Accountability

In a research note in the current issue of Governance, Albert Van Zyl poses “the most critical question for activists and scholars of accountability: How and when does transparency lead to greater accountability?”  Van Zyl’s note looks particularly at the role of civil society organizations (CSOs) in demanding and using government budget information, drawing on case studies of CSO activity in eleven countries in Africa, Latin America and South Asia.  Accountability is achieved, Van Zyl suggests, when CSOs are active and closely engaged with legislators, auditors, and other formal oversight institutions.  But research is still needed on the kinds of engagement that are most likely to enhance accountability.  Read the research note.

'Hackathons' Aim to Solve Health Care's Ills

Amy Dockser Marcus in the Wall Street Journal: “Hackathons, the high-octane, all-night problem-solving sessions popularized by the software-coding community, are making their way into the more traditional world of health care. At Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a recent event called Hacking Medicine’s Grand Hackfest attracted more than 450 people to work for one weekend on possible solutions to problems involving diabetes, rare diseases, global health and information technology used at hospitals.
Health institutions such as New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston have held hackathons. MIT, meantime, has co-sponsored health hackathons in India, Spain and Uganda.
Hackathons of all kinds are increasingly popular. Intel Corp.  recently bought a group that organizes them. Companies hoping to spark creative thinking sponsor them. And student-run hackathons have turned into intercollegiate competitions.
But in health care, where change typically comes much more slowly than in Silicon Valley, they represent a cultural shift. To solve a problem, scientists and doctors can spend years painstakingly running experiments, gathering data, applying for grants and publishing results. So the idea of an event where people give two-minute pitches describing a problem, then join a team of strangers to come up with a solution in the course of one weekend is radical.
“We are not trying to replace the medical culture with Facebook culture,” said Elliot Cohen, who wore a hoodie over a button-down dress shirt at the MIT event in March and helped start MIT Hacking Medicine while at business school. “But we want to try to blend them more.”
Mr. Cohen co-founded and is chief technology officer at PillPack, a pharmacy that sends customers personalized packages of their medications, a company that started at a hackathon.
At MIT’s health-hack, physicians, researchers, students and a smattering of people wearing Google Glass sprawled on the floor of MIT’s Media Lab and at tables with a view of the Boston skyline. At one table, a group of college students, laptops plastered with stickers, pulled juice boxes and snacks out of backpacks, trash piling up next to them as they feverishly wrote code.
Nupur Garg, an emergency-room physician and one of the eventual winners, finished her hospital shift at 2 a.m. Saturday in New York, drove to Boston and arrived at MIT in time to pitch the need for a way to capture images of patients’ ears and throats that can be shared with specialists to help make diagnoses. She and her team immediately started working on a prototype for the device, testing early versions on anyone who stopped by their table.
Dr. Garg and teammate Nancy Liang, who runs a company that makes Web apps for 3-D printers, caught a few hours of sleep in a dorm room Saturday night. They came up with the idea for their product’s name—MedSnap—later that night while watching students use cellphone cameras to send SnapChats to one another. “There was no time to conduct surveys on what was the best name,” said Ms. Liang. “Many ideas happen after midnight.”
Winning teams in each category won $1,000, as well as access to the hackathons sponsors for advice and pilot projects.
Yet even supporters say hackathons can’t solve medicine’s challenges overnight. Harlan Krumholz, a professor at Yale School of Medicine who ran a many-months trial that found telemonitoring didn’t reduce hospitalizations or deaths of cardiology patients, said he supports the problem-solving ethos of hackathons. But he added that “improvements require a long-term commitment, not just a weekend.”
Ned McCague, a data scientist at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, served as a mentor at the hackathon. He said he wasn’t representing his employer, but he used his professional experiences to push groups to think about the potential customer. “They have a good idea and are excited about it, but they haven’t thought about who is paying for it,” he said.
Zen Chu, a senior lecturer in health-care innovation and entrepreneur-in-residence at MIT, and one of the founders of Hacking Medicine, said more than a dozen startups conceived since the first hackathon, in 2011, are still in operation. Some received venture-capital funding.
The upsides of hackathons were made clear to Sharon Moalem, a physician who studies rare diseases. He had spent years developing a mobile app that can take pictures of faces to help diagnose rare genetic conditions, but was stumped on how to give the images a standard size scale to make comparisons. At the hackathon, Dr. Moalem said he was approached by an MIT student who suggested sticking a coin on the subjects’ forehead. Since quarters have a standard measurement, it “creates a scale,” said Dr. Moalem.
Dr. Moalem said he had never considered such a simple, elegant solution. The team went on to write code to help standardize facial measurements based on the dimensions of a coin and a credit card.
“Sometimes when you are too close to something, you stop seeing solutions, you only see problems,” Dr. Moalem said. “I needed to step outside my own silo.”

Ten Innovations to Compete for Global Innovation Award

Making All Voices Count: “The Global Innovation Competition was launched at the Open Government Partnership Summit in November, 2013 and set out to scout the globe for fresh ideas to enhance government accountability and boost citizen engagement. The call was worldwide and in response, nearly 200 innovative ideas were submitted. After a process of public voting and peer review, these have been reduced to ten.
Below, we highlight the innovations that will now compete for a prize of £65,000 plus six months mentorship at the Global Innovation Week March 31 – April 4, 2014 in Kenya.
The first seven emerged from a process of peer review and the following three were selected by the Global Innovation Jury.

An SMS gateway, connected to local hospitals and the web, to channel citizens’ requests for pregnancy services. At risk women, in need of information such as hospital locations and general advice, will receive relevant and targeted updates utilising both an SMS and a GIS-based system.  The aim is to reduce maternal mortality by targeting at risk women in poorer communities in Indonesia.

“One of the causes of high maternal mortality rate in Indonesia is late response in childbirth treatment and lack of pregnancy care information.”

This project, led by a civil servant, aims to engage citizens in Pakistan in service delivery governance. The project aims to enable and motivate citizens to collect, analyze and disseminate service delivery performance data in order to drive performance and help effective decision making.

“BSDU will serve as a model of better management aided by the citizens, for the citizens.”

A Geographic Information System that gives Indonesian citizens access to information regarding government funded projects. The idea is to enable and motivate citizens to compare a project’s information with its real-world implementation and to provide feedback on this. The ultimate aim is to fight corruption in the public sector by making it easier for citizens to monitor, and provide feedback on, government-funded projects.

“On-the-map information about government-funded projects, where citizens are able to submit their opinions, should became a global standard in budget transparency!”

A digital payment system in South Africa that rewards citizens who participate in activities such as waste separation and community gardening. Citizens are able to ‘spend’ rewards on airtime, pre-paid electricity and groceries. By rewarding social volunteers this project aims to boost citizen engagement, build trust and establish the link between government and citizen actors.

“GEM offers a direct channel for communication and rewards between governments and citizens.”

An app created by a team of software developers to provide Ghanaian citizens with information about the oil and gas industry, with the aim of raising awareness of the revenue generated and to spark debate about how this could be used to improve national development.

“The idea is to bring citizens, the oil and gas companies and the government all onto one platform.”

Ghana Petrol Watch seeks to deliver basic facts and figures associated with oil and gas exploration to the average Ghanaian. The solution employs mobile technology to deliver this information. The audience can voice their concerns as comments on the issue via replies to the SMS. These would then be published on the web portal for further exposure and publicity.

“The information on the petroleum industry is publicly available, but not readily accessible and often does not reach the grassroots community in an easily comprehensible manner.”

A common platform to be implemented in Khulna City, Bangladesh, where citizens and elected officials will interact on budget, expenditure and information.

“The concept of citizen engagement for the fulfillment of pre-election commitment is an innovation in establishing governance.”

The aim of this project is an increase in child engagement in governmental budgeting and policy formulation in Mwanza City, Tanzania. This project was selected as a wildcard by the Global Innovation Jury.

“In many projects I have seen, children are always the perceived beneficiaries, rarely do you see innovations where children are active participants in achieving a goal in their society. It was great to see children as active contributors to their own discourse.” – Jury Member, Shikoh Gitau.

A ‘watchdog’ newsletter in Kenya focusing on monitoring the actions of officials with the aim of educating, empowering and motivating citizens to hold their leaders to account. This project was selected as a wildcard by the Global Innovation Jury.

“We endeavor to bridge the information gap in northern Kenya by giving voice to the voiceless and also highlighting their challenges. The aim is an increase in the educational level of the people through information.”

Citizen Desk is an open-source tool that combines the ability of citizens to share eyewitness reports with the public need for verified information in real time. Citizen Desk lets citizen journalists file reports via SMS or social media, with no need for technical training. This project was selected as a wildcard by the Global Innovation Jury.

“It has become evident for some time now that good technical innovation must rest on a strong bedrock of social and political activity, on the ground, deeply in touch with local conditions, and sometimes in the face of power and privilege.” – Jury Member Bright Simons.”

Democracy in Retreat

Book by Joshua Kurlantzick (Council on Foreign Relations) on “The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government”: “Since the end of the Cold War, most political theorists have assumed that as countries develop economically, they will also become more democratic—especially if a vibrant middle class takes root. The triumph of democracy, once limited to a tiny number of states and now spread across the globe, has been considered largely inevitable.
In Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government, CFR Fellow for Southeast Asia Joshua Kurlantzick identifies forces that threaten democracy and shows that conventional wisdom has blinded world leaders to a real crisis. “Today a constellation of factors, from the rise of China to the lack of economic growth in new democracies to the West’s financial crisis, has come together to hinder democracy throughout the developing world,” he writes. “Absent radical and unlikely changes in the international system, that combination of antidemocratic factors will have serious staying power.”
Kurlantzick pays particular attention to the revolt of middle class citizens, traditionally proponents of reform, who have turned against democracy in countries such as Venezuela, Pakistan, and Taiwan. He observes that countries once held up as model new democracies, such as Hungary and the Czech Republic, have since curtailed social, economic, and political freedoms. Military coups have grabbed power from Honduras to Thailand to Fiji. The number of representative governments has fallen, and the quality of democracy has deteriorated in many states where it had been making progress, including Russia, Kenya, Argentina, and Nigeria.
The renewed strength of authoritarian rule, warns Kurlantzick, means that billions of people around the world continue to live under repressive regimes.”

New Field Guide Explores Open Data Innovations in Disaster Risk and Resilience

Worldbank: “From Indonesia to Bangladesh to Nepal, community members armed with smartphones and GPS systems are contributing to some of the most extensive and versatile maps ever created, helping inform policy and better prepare their communities for disaster risk.
In Jakarta, more than 500 community members have been trained to collect data on thousands of hospitals, schools, private buildings, and critical infrastructure. In Sri Lanka, government and academic volunteers mapped over 30,000 buildings and 450 km of roadways using a collaborative online resource called OpenStreetMaps.
These are just a few of the projects that have been catalyzed by the Open Data for Resilience Initiative (OpenDRI), developed by the World Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR). Launched in 2011, OpenDRI is active in more than 20 countries today, mapping tens of thousands of buildings and urban infrastructure, providing more than 1,000 geospatial datasets to the public, and developing innovative application tools.
To expand this work, the World Bank Group has launched the OpenDRI Field Guide as a showcase of successful projects and a practical guide for governments and other organizations to shape their own open data programs….
The field guide walks readers through the steps to build open data programs based on the OpenDRI methodology. One of the first steps is data collation. Relevant datasets are often locked because of proprietary arrangements or fragmented in government bureaucracies. The field guide explores tools and methods to enable the participatory mapping projects that can fill in gaps and keep existing data relevant as cities rapidly expand.

GeoNode: Mapping Disaster Damage for Faster Recovery
One example is GeoNode, a locally controlled and open source cataloguing tool that helps manage and visualize geospatial data. The tool, already in use in two dozen countries, can be modified and easily be integrated into existing platforms, giving communities greater control over mapping information.
GeoNode was used extensively after Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) swept the Philippines with 300 km/hour winds and a storm surge of over six meters last fall. The storm displaced nearly 11 million people and killed more than 6,000.
An event-specific GeoNode project was created immediately and ultimately collected more than 72 layers of geospatial data, from damage assessments to situation reports. The data and quick analysis capability contributed to recovery efforts and is still operating in response mode at
InaSAFE: Targeting Risk Reduction
A sister project, InaSAFE, is an open, easy-to-use tool for creating impact assessments for targeted risk reduction. The assessments are based on how an impact layer – such as a tsunami, flood, or earthquake – affects exposure data, such as population or buildings.
With InaSAFE, users can generate maps and statistical information that can be easily disseminated and even fed back into projects like GeoNode for simple, open source sharing.
The initiative, developed in collaboration with AusAID and the Government of Indonesia, was put to the test in the 2012 flood season in Jakarta, and its successes provoked a rapid national rollout and widespread interest from the international community.
Open Cities: Improving Urban Planning & Resilience
The Open Cities project, another program operating under the OpenDRI platform, aims to catalyze the creation, management and use of open data to produce innovative solutions for urban planning and resilience challenges across South Asia.
In 2013, Kathmandu was chosen as a pilot city, in part because the population faces the highest mortality threat from earthquakes in the world. Under the project, teams from the World Bank assembled partners and community mobilizers to help execute the largest regional community mapping project to date. The project surveyed more than 2,200 schools and 350 health facilities, along with road networks, points of interest, and digitized building footprints – representing nearly 340,000 individual data nodes.”

Social Media as Government Watchdog

Gordon Crovitz in the Wall Street Journal: “Two new data points for the debate on whether greater access to the Internet leads to more freedom and fewer authoritarian regimes:

According to reports last week, Facebook plans to buy a company that makes solar-powered drones that can hover for years at high altitudes without refueling, which it would use to bring the Internet to parts of the world not yet on the grid. In contrast to this futuristic vision, Russia evoked land grabs of the analog Soviet era by invading Crimea after Ukrainians forced out Vladimir Putin‘s ally as president.
Internet idealists can point to another triumph in helping bring down Ukraine’s authoritarian government. Ukrainian citizens ignored intimidation including officious text messages: “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.” Protesters made the most of social media to plan demonstrations and avoid attacks by security forces.
But Mr. Putin quickly delivered the message that social media only goes so far against a fully committed authoritarian. His claim that he had to invade to protect ethnic Russians in Crimea was especially brazen because there had been no loud outcry, on social media or otherwise, among Russian speakers in the region.
A new book reports the state of play on the Internet as a force for freedom. For a decade, Emily Parker, a former Wall Street Journal editorial-page writer and State Department staffer, has researched the role of the Internet in China, Cuba and Russia. The title of her book, “Now I Know Who My Comrades Are,” comes from a blogger in China who explained to Ms. Parker how the Internet helps people discover they are not alone in their views and aspirations for liberty.
Officials in these countries work hard to keep critics isolated and in fear. In Russia, Ms. Parker notes, there is also apathy because the Putin regime seems so entrenched. “Revolutions need a spark, often in the form of a political or economic crisis,” she observes. “Social media alone will not light that spark. What the Internet does create is a new kind of citizen: networked, unafraid, and ready for action.”
Asked about lessons from the invasion of Crimea, Ms. Parker noted that the Internet “chips away at Russia’s control over information.” She added: “Even as Russian state media tries to shape the narrative about Ukraine, ordinary Russians can go online to seek the truth.”
But this same shared awareness may also be accelerating a decline in U.S. influence. In the digital era, U.S. failure to make good on its promises reduces the stature of Washington faster than similar inaction did in the past.
Consider the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the first significant rebellion against Soviet control. The U.S. secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, said: “To all those suffering under communist slavery, let us say you can count on us.” Yet no help came as Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest, tens of thousands were killed, and the leader who tried to secede from the Warsaw Pact, Imre Nagy, was executed.
There were no Facebook posts or YouTube videos instantly showing the result of U.S. fecklessness. In the digital era, scenes of Russian occupation of Crimea are available 24/7. People can watch Mr. Putin’s brazen press conferences and see for themselves what he gets away with.
The U.S. stood by as Syrian civilians were massacred and gassed. There was instant global awareness when President Obama last year backed down from enforcing his “red line” when the Syrian regime used chemical weapons. American inaction in Syria sent a green light for Mr. Putin and others around the world to act with impunity.
Just in recent weeks, Iran tried to ship Syrian rockets to Gaza to attack Israel; Moscow announced it would use bases in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua for its navy and bombers; and China budgeted a double-digit increase in military spending as President Obama cut back the U.S. military.
All institutions are more at risk in this era of instant communication and awareness. Reputations get lost quickly, whether it’s a misstep by a company, a gaffe by a politician, or a lack of resolve by an American president.
Over time, the power of the Internet to bring people together will help undermine authoritarian governments. But as Mr. Putin reminds us, in the short term a peaceful world depends more on a U.S. resolute in using its power and influence to deter aggression.”