VBTS at the IGF2018

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the 13th Internet Governance Forum (IGF). IGF 2018 was hosted by the Government of France and was held at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. This year’s theme is the ‘Internet of Trust”, and the topics discussed in IGF are very diverse: ranging from cybersecurity, privacy, digital inclusion, accessibility, emerging technologies, human rights, gender, youth, technical and other operational topics. Since our work, the Village Base Station Project (VBTS), is in the space of community networks, I was particularly interested in the digital inclusion and accessibility tracks.

Starting off, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) organized a pre-IGF event called “Disco-Tech.” It is a hybrid talk & social event where important issues were discussed in an informal setting. The theme for this year was about disability and accessibility to the Internet. The speakers shared their experiences in trying to change the status quo of technology for people with disabilities, either through education and information dissemination, or through the creation of customized technology solutions. In particular, I had the chance to meet Arun from SPACE, who is working on embedded tech interfaces for disabled people and shared how much customization was put in place since each of their clients have unique needs.

I started IGF’s first day by attending the session on “Connecting and Enabling the Next Billions.” This session highlighted the different SDGs that needs to be addressed in order to close or narrow down the digital divide. It was emphasized that connectivity cannot be addressed by just by technology and building communications infrastructure alone; but must be joined by training, ensuring affordability and energy sustainability. This high-level session also acknowledged the role of community networks as a complementary solution for connecting the unconnected.

Next is the DC session entitled “Community Connectivity: When The Unconnected Build Connectivity”, which discusses the community network model and how it can be a solution for connectivity and Internet access for unserved communities. The official output of this DC is a book, which serves as a guide in building your own community network. What was great about the book was that the authors did not solely focused on the technical part of building the network, but also included a discussion on organization and scale – with the end goal of network sustainability. I agree with the proponents, who manifested that by providing individuals and small communities the knowledge and tools to create their own networks, it empowers them to decide their digital futures.

This was followed by a workshop called “Spectrum for Community Networks: A “Must” That Is Hard to Get.” From our experience, spectrum was one of the most difficult resources to acquire and get approvals for. In the Philippines, all spectrum for 2G were already allocated to the country’s largest telco operators. As such, we had to partner up with a major telco and have our community cellular network initiative to operate under their spectrum franchise. The workshop started of with the discussion on a commonly-used argument that ‘spectrum is a scarce resource’, and how this thinking must be abandoned. The spectrum resource is already there: we just need to manage it more wisely and efficiently so that more players would be able to benefit from it. In addition, frameworks for both large and small operators must be in place, since there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Panelist Steve Song made a brilliant analogy about frameworks using pebbles and rocks. If we imagine that the big rocks were the large telcos and put them in a jar, you can only fit a few, but there would still spaces and gaps that these big rocks would not be able to fill up. For these smaller spaces, the community network ‘pebbles’ can be placed to fill in this gap. Another item that was highlighted is the transparency & open data in government specifically on telco infrastructure. From our experience, since this kind of data is not accessible to us, we really have to go and travel to the community to verify what connectivity options they currently have access to. Having this data will make our site survey process much more efficient and faster.

Later in the day was the IGF opening ceremonies. The main keynote speech was given by French President Emmanuel Macron. President Macron highlighted the most pressing issues in internet governance, such as: online privacy, hate speech, terrorism, and cyber attacks. He said that “regulation is needed in the name of public good. Moving forward, more regulation is needed and we will all pay the price if we will not regulate properly.” However, this leaves the question of ‘how much regulation is enough?’ There must be a balance where the state works with the civil society to ensure that the public good and interest is maintained and protected. This is a discussion that is very timely in the context of the Philippines, given the rise of local fake news, internet trolls, and data breaches in our country.

I started the 2nd day in the Seed Alliance booth and shared our work with some IGF attendees. Later in the day, I attended an NRI session on “Access beyond Mere Connectivity.” Here, representatives from different country and regional IGFs discussed how access to the Internet is still an issue all around the world. One of these issues was affordability. For example, there is a digital or social media tax in Africa that further limits the number of people getting online because of the additional costs. Resilient infrastructure was also mentioned, especially for countries that are always hit by typhoons and earthquakes such as the Philippines. I have also learned in this session that as part of their national broadband policies, India and Nigeria both have the ‘dig once’ clause. I believe that this is something the Philippines needs to seriously consider and adopt, not only the context of broadband plans, but also in the delivery of public utilities and services such as water and electricity. In addition to reducing costs, this will also minimize disruptions caused whenever there are roadworks in progress.

The highlight of the day was the the Seed Alliance Awarding Ceremony where work by the awardees from Information Society Innovation Fund-Asia (ISIF-Asia), Fund for Internet Research and Development (FIRE) and Regional Fund for Digital Innovation in Latin America and the Caribbean (FRIDA) were recognized and shared a moment up in the stage. All of the awardees did amazing work that contributes to social and economic development, specifically in the field of gender empowerment and digital inclusion.

It was also on this day that APC launched the 2018 GISWatch book on Community Networks. This year’s edition had reports from 43 different countries including our project, representing the Philippines. It was unfortunate that the awarding ceremony and the book launch were held during the same time. Nevertheless, I am sure that I and our team would still be able to learn a lot from the experiences shared in the book.

Moreover, I also got a chance to connect, interact with new people, and expand our network during session breaks and other social events outside the official IGF schedule. In particular, I finally met in person a colleague from UW and got to exchange latest updates from our community networks in the Philippines and Indonesia. I met the guys from Latin America, starting from Damian from AtalayaSur, and the two Nicos from AlterMundi. Damian is the Community Award winner under FRIDA and we had a nice exchange on our corresponding networks’ technology and operations. Later in the evening, I met Peter from Rhizomatica – an independent community cellular network operating in Mexico. We always cite Rhizomatica as our ‘poster’ case study whenever we talk to telcos or regulators because it is through their work that the Mexican government created a spectrum franchise for social use. We hope in the future that the Philippines’ policy and regulation will be as enabling as Mexico’s for small community networks.

On the final day, I attended the workshop organized by APNIC on “Investment strategies to scale community networks.” Carlos Rey-Moreno made a remark that investment models sometimes do not address community networks as they are stuck with the for-profit model. I concur with this because there are areas that have a very low populations to begin with that they will never be feasible if inspected using the conventional business models. Oftentimes, for these types of sites, one must look instead at the social return of investment. Another point that that was raised was that organizations operating these community networks are very small and sometimes cannot absorb large sums of money. However, from the donor’s perspective, large grants are still preferred over small sums. Nico of Altermundi also made a wonderful case of what community networks need to thrive. In terms of investment, he said that community networks need resources that are not necessarily money such as spectrum, regulation, peering and interconnection to existing infrastructure. These things are already there, we all just need to talk and allow community networks to utilize these. I think this is possible, but a lot of work needs to be done before we get to this desired outcome.

Afterwards was the high level session on Digital Inclusion and Accessibility. A new insight that I have learned is that the number of new subscribers is plateauing, which means that traditional mobile network operators seemed to have saturated the addressable subscriber base in their current markets. The conventional business and technology models will not work for those in the remote areas and which brings again the case of community networks as a potential solution.

Finally, the afternoon of the last day was dedicated to the IGF closing sessions. Aside from the keynote speeches, this included an open mic session which allows each participant two minutes to voice out their concerns. I was surprised at how open the participants can be, ranging from thanking the organizers, providing constructive criticism to some raising specific issues such as journalist killings. I found this as a good form of engagement with its participants. As affirmed by one of the speakers in his closing remarks, “we all part of the IGF’s multi-stakeholder model, and we are all core to this approach.”

Overall, the IGF provided me a chance to get new insights and share our work to more people. It also gave me a unique opportunity to personally connect with other practitioners in this domain. Hearing that we share common experiences, it made me feel that we are not alone in what we do. I admire their amazing work and their advocacy for enabling regulation and frameworks for small community networks. I am thankful that we can all learn from each other’s experiences and use this to collectively advance community networks. In the future, I hope that more representatives from the Philippines would be able to participate in an international dialogue such as as IGF.

Again, on behalf of the VBTS team, I would like to thank ISIF-Asia and APNIC Foundation for recognizing our work through the 2018 Community Networks Award and this wonderful opportunity to attend the Internet Governance Forum. I hope that you would be able to continue to support more work, such as ours, in Asia. Thank you very much!

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Tech Age Girls Myanmar at 13th Internet Governance Forum

This is my first visit to IGF and I was excited looking at the diverse agenda of IGF even before arriving to Paris. I have attended several workshops and panels which are relevant to our works in Myanmar.

I attended “Connecting and Enabling the Next Billion (s)” which is under the theme of digital inclusion and accessibility. Moderator is from University of Pennsylvania Law. Discussion were made around UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and very interesting to learn one SDG can be linked to one another. This high level discussion are useful for me especially when we write proposals for government and UN affiliated organizations. I was able to discuss about our Beyond Access Myanmar project in Myanmar where community partnership is very strong for sustainable development. Many participants agree the importance of community libraries in playing training of digital literacy. University of Pennsylvania Law is conducting a project called “One World, One Internet” and they interviewed me after the panel. I was able to explain about the reason of my visit and our current gender innovation project in Myanmar and the award that ISIF gave to our foundation.

Interview by One World, One Internet

I am also very interested to learn that motorbikes are used as hotspot providers in India. In Philippine, Unilever partners with Telco to create an innovative way of providing connectivity by allowing 20 minutes free unlimited data for every purchase of their product. These creative way or “thinking outside the box” models really interest me. At the same time, challenges are still present. For example, in Nigeria, some health workers think internet disrupt their works and they are worried about losing their jobs.

Connecting Next Billion Panel”

I joined the “Gender Issues and Democratic Participation: reclaiming ICT for a Humane World” panel. Panellists are from India, Pakistan, France CSO and companies like Facebook. I was able to learn quite a diverse group of discussion. However, challenges are quite similar to what we have been facing in Myanmar as well. For example, women are given less priority in access to mobile phones and parents restrict the learning of digital and online tools for their daughters in India. These happens mainly in most vulnerable remote area of the country. Other challenges like cyberbullying, lack of digital literacy among young women give vulnerability for them in the online environment. Internet is full of challenges and also opportunities are present. Therefore, many agree that digital literacy is very important to give to young women and peer to peer learning works in many country. This is exactly what our Tech Age Girls Myanmar project is doing.

Gender Panel

I also joined “Has it become Luxury to Disconnect?” discussion. I was a bit sceptical about the title initially but when I attended it, I fully understand the topic. The main topic is about how privacy risk are present in this 21st century. In this modern world, it is hard for people to stay away from internet. All our data are collected by Telco. What do they do about these data? Are they safe or not? According to one Indian panellist, the safest way is to keep data in their respective country. It is especially for sensitive government data. At the same time, many agree that education and training on privacy in online environment has to be given to students. Many bad experiences happened as people put a lot of their private lives on social media. They can backslash one day when they get old. I was able to discuss that we have developed a curriculum called Mobile Information Literacy which is mobile based digital literacy training and one module is on privacy, security and netiquette in online environment. Many agree that mobile based training are very much productive as devices like laptops are expensive for rural communities.

I also joined “EU Delegation to IGF and Youth IGF Movement” and it is very interesting as EU delegation are mostly old politicians and many discussants are young tech savvy people. In other words, EU delegation agrees that many of older generation think internet is a very special thing and would like to handle very carefully and slowly. However, technology is changing very fast and legal sector is hard to cope with the momentum of the technology changes. Cyberlaw and other legal policy relating to ICT is always behind. It is quite similar to country like Myanmar too. For example, cookies, cache shall be cleansed (like washing clothes) every 5 days and browser shall be updated often. Lacking to do so will give vulnerability for your device to be attached by virus and malwares. These things have to be taught in schools. I noticed that a lot of discussion always come back to education of digital literacy at schools. This is something which we are trying hard to teach to teachers at schools in Myanmar how to stay safely online. In this digital age, students shall be taught not only basic ICT skills such as Microsoft Office but also they need to learn how to become a good digital citizen (netizen). Important point is random teaching of digital literacy will have little effect as things are growing very fast and need to tech like school on daily basis. At the same time, media literacy trainings are also very important as there are so many misinformation and disinformation present on daily basis.

During the opening ceremony of IGF, speech from UN Secretary General is very powerful. He wanted to see more stakeholders in IGF such as including philosophers and anthropologists in the development of AI. He also emphasizes on promoting missing voices especially marginalized people such as women, elders and disabled persons. Finally, he encouraged this forum shall produce actionable plans which need to turn risk into opportunities. French President Macron speech was also very inspirational on how regulators and privacy enthusiasts are playing hard games in the online environment. But, France and EU would like to do midway (not like California style nor Chinese style). These are valuable messages for country like Myanmar too.

On Day 2, I attended “Internet and Jobs” which is organized by Internet Society and it was very insightful. Panellists are from ILO, Brazil University and University of Portugal. Nowadays, people are worrying about losing their jobs due to development in AI. However, many jobs which we have never expected before are opening doors for youths. For example, data analyst jobs sector alone will create 80,000 more jobs. Therefore, I recalled Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said that people will be doing different kind of jobs. Types of jobs will vary from developed countries and developing countries. Due to presence of more percentage of younger generation in job force in developing countries (like our country), youths will work new forms of jobs. However, developed nations will be having survival mode as they have more percentage of old aged people in the future.
However, at present, youths are suffering from retrench in case of crisis. Therefore, youths need to get digital literacy in order to prepare for 21st century job force. In the future, many of us will be working online from home. Therefore, most of us will loss our cultural norms like loosing family time. We all have to prepare them for the future. Youth involvement in Singapore is inspirational. Youths launched Singapore Youth Council which volunteers to help digital literacy to elderly people. This movement give not only skill for elders but also give social bonding between youths and elders. Myanmar shall be adopting this campaign as many elders are facing problems with digital tools nowadays.

Internet and Jobs for Youths Panel

I am able to visit most of the booths at the IGF Village and met with may interesting companies, universities and civil society organizations. I met with one organization called AccessNow which has developed game for youth to understand security measures of their own devices. Moreover, I met with Relex Life company which has interest to invest in Myanmar. I also visited UNESCO digital preservation unit at the basement of IGF and I was very impressed with digitalization efforts made by UNESCO on thousands of documents and files. Since our foundation is active in digital preservation of old palm leaves and paper manuscripts, I was able to learn a lot from UNESCO technical expert there.

Digital preservation room at UNESCO

I was so excited to accept the award for “Gender Empowerment and Innovation Award” from ISIF. I now understand SeedAlliance clearly and its affiliates to give numerous awards around the world to organizations like us. It was such a honour to accept this prestigious award for Asia.

Gender Empowerment and Innovation Award to Dr. Thant Thaw Kaung from Myanmar Book Aid and Preservation Foundation

Awards Recipients around the World

On the last day, I was able to attend “Investment strategies to scale community networks” panel which was organized by APNIC. It is very interesting to learn that how funders would like to support. Carolina said that any innovation both hardware, software, strong business model and enabling local content are key areas of support. All the panellists agree to have strong community network is key in success. Jane Coffin from Internet Society said that
“In community networks, much of the work is human engineering. Installing the equipment is the easy work “. I fully supported her and gave our Myanmar experience of having strong community library networks and main reason is human factor. We need to have dedicated, committed librarians who are willing to work for their own community. We also need to give ownership to them. Many discussants agree this model. Jane Coffin kindly told me after the panel that she would connect me to her colleagues in Southeast Asia. I was also able to greet Carolina who has vision for strong community network.

Investment strategies to scale community network

I also attended “Public Access in libraries: a policy toolkit for public access” panel which was organized by IFLA. All the panellists are eager to discuss how to be sustainable for public libraries. A panellist from Georgia said that 10 years ago, people think that libraries are no longer needed as everything will go online. However, access to internet alone is not enough as people need to learn how to go online and search for information and libraries become the best place for training these things. In other words, a lot of digital literacy training are taking place in public libraries. I was able to discuss about our experience in Myanmar. In order to be sustainable libraries, one of the key elements to create ownership. We have to create ownership to community libraries. I gave one example of one of the community libraries that we supported in Myanmar. We supported free internet, 4 tablets and training to the librarian. The cost for the tablets was only about USD 500. Librarian invited students from nearby school and many kids always come to their library. Then, community people found out and they invested for a separate room for ICT training and they were able to fund by themselves for computers as well. After the panel, IFLA panellist asked me to contribute an article about how to get sustainable model for public libraries based on our Myanmar experience. I had agreed to write one article for IFLA newsletter.

I was able to attend “Accessibility and Disability” discussion. Even though there are limited number of participants, this is very insightful how much challenges disabled people faced even in this modern world. They even discussed how difficult to attend the IGF. The reason of attending the session was to learn how our Myanmar library network can help disabled people by mean of technology. I was fortunate to meet with Professor Derrick Cogburn who is chairing the Disability Initiatives and he is willing to collaborate with our foundation.

In summary, IGF has given me a great deal of exposure about our works, new contacts and a lot of learning experience for me. The followings are my “Take Home” messages.

  1. IGF has enlightened me in many new topics such as blockchain technology and this gives me a new perspective of technology in this digital world. I have to say this is educational and inspirational trip for me.
  2. I am glad to learn that there are many common challenges in even the developed world on gender inequality and happy to learn how we can overcome them. Gender inequality is one of the hot topics at IGF and hence I have more energy to strengthen our Tech Age Girls Myanmar initiative.
  3. IGF has given me getting new contacts who are interested to collaborate with us.
  4. Role of community libraries and community centres approach is on the right track and this is exactly what we are doing. We have to plan ahead how we can expand sustainably beyond our current 150 library networks. Moreover, we are able to get access to IFLA’s toolkit for public libraries which they are going to launch soon.
  5. There are many lessons learned as I am able to apply and disseminate in our current mobile information literacy curriculum.
  6. I am more prepared by learning the current trends of sponsoring from donor communities.

Therefore, I would like to thank ISIF and APNIC to give a chance of offering the award and have a chance to visit IGF. This is a real honour for us and this recognition is meant to our foundation a lot. We really appreciate your support and efforts to make our works visible to the world. Thank you very much.