Mobile Connectivity in Africa: Increasing the Likelihood of Violence?

Regarding the above picture of DRC government troops with their mobile phones, Alexis Madrigal from the Atlatinc wrote in his column last year:

I don’t know what to say about this photograph aside from suggesting that an enterprising PhD student write a dissertation on “Cell Phones in War.” How are fighting, killing, and controlling territory different when you can call your brother after battle, post a photo of your squadron on the march to Facebook, or play Angry Birds between skirmishes?

Part of the answer to Alexis’ question comes in a newly published article in the American Political Science Review by postdoctoral fellow Jan Pierskalla and PhD candidate Florian Hollenbach (ht the Monkey Cage).

In a nutshell, the authors’ findings suggest that cell phone coverage in Africa increases the likelihood of political violence. The abstract is below:

The spread of cell phone technology across Africa has transforming effects on the economic and political sphere of the continent. In this paper, we investigate the impact of cell phone technology on violent collective action. We contend that the availability of cell phones as a communication technology allows political groups to overcome collective action problems more easily and improve in-group cooperation, and coordination. Utilizing novel, spatially disaggregated data on cell phone coverage and the location of organized violent events in Africa, we are able to show that the availability of cell phone coverage significantly and substantially increases the probability of violent conflict. Our findings hold across numerous different model specifications and robustness checks, including cross-sectional models, instrumental variable techniques, and panel data methods.

It will be interesting to see how this paper resonates with different audiences, such as the ICT4D community and political scientists. Some have already started to question the methodology and underlying assumptions in the paper.

But despite the findings of this study, like it or not, at some point technology cheerleaders will have to come to terms with a simple fact: if technology helps us overcome problems of collective action, there’s no reason to believe that this can only happen when it comes to virtuous collective action. And it shouldn’t take a PhD to know that.

Read the full paper here [PDF].

How effective are whistleblower laws in combating corruption?

A new discussion paper by Rajeev Goel and Michael Nelson looks at the effectiveness of US whistleblower laws in combating corruption. The abstract is below:

Whistleblower laws are becoming important governance tools in both the public and private sectors. To examine the effectiveness of whistleblower laws and their awareness, this study creates a unique internet-based measure of awareness about whistleblower laws and provisions, focusing on the United States. Placing the analysis within the larger corruption literature, our results show that greater whistleblower awareness results in more observed corruption and this holds across specifications. Internet awareness of whistleblower laws appears to be more effective at exposing corruption than the quantity and quality of whistleblower laws themselves.

And a few excerpts from the conclusion, which highlights the role of the internet:

Couching the empirical analysis within the extant literature on the causes of corruption, our results show that greater internet awareness about whistleblower laws results in more corruption coming to light and being successfully prosecuted. In terms of magnitude, an increase in whistleblower hits by one sample standard deviation would increase average corruption convictions per million population by nearly thirty over a decade-long period. Interestingly, the internet awareness about corruption seems relatively more effective at exposing corruption than the quantity and quality of whistleblower laws themselves. Further, the direct government resources allocated to controlling crime and the indirect efforts via whistleblower awareness are found to be complementary. These findings are generally robust to alternate specifications, including an allowance for potential endogeneity of whistleblower awareness, and to broader measures of internet whistleblower awareness. (…)

The results for the United States in terms of the effectiveness of whistleblower laws in exposing corruption should be of interest to policy makers everywhere, especially in other nations that do not have adequate protections for whistleblowers. As internet diffusion grows and the digital divide narrows, it would be interesting to see a further impact of whistleblower awareness and, more generally, of the internet.

Read the full paper here [PDF].

12 Papers on Social Media and Political Participation

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I just came across the website of the Social Media and Political Participation conference, which took place in Florence this May.

Below is the presentation by Henry Farrel (from the Monkey Cage) on Cognitive Democracy and the Internet, followed by links to the papers.

Cognitive Democracy and the Internet Henry Farrell, George Washington University

Politics 2.0: The Multifaceted Effect of Broadband Internet on Political Participation Francesco Sobbrio, European University Institute

Birds of the Same Feather Tweet Together: Bayesian Ideal Point Estimation Using Twitter Data Pablo Barbera, New York University

Politicians Go Social. Estimating Intra-Party Heterogeneity (and its Effects) through the Analysis of Social Media Andrea Ceron, University of Milan

Connective Action in European Mass Protest  Eva Anduiza, Autonomous University of Barcelona

The Bridges and Brokers of Global Campaigns in the Context of Social Media Sandra Gonzalez-Bailon, Oxford Internet Institute

Every Tweet Counts? How Sentiment Analysis of Social Media Can Improve our Knowledge of Citizens’ Policy Preferences: An Application to Italy and France Stefano Iacus, University of Milan

The Rise and Decline of the “Occupy Wall Street” Movement from a Digital Perspective Alessandro Flammini, University of Indiana

Is the Internet Good or Bad for Politics? Yes. Let’s talk about How and Why Zeynep Tufekci, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Follow the leader! Dynamics and Patterns of Activity among the Followers of the Main Italian Political Leaders during the 2013 General Election Campaign Cristian Vaccari, New York University and University of Bologna

Social Networks, Peer Pressure and Protest Participation Alexey Makarin, New Economic School, Moscow

Mobilizing Online Data to Understand Offline Mobilization: Two Attempts at Online Observational Research in Russia   Sam Greene, King’s College London

The Potential of Twitter Data for Surveillance of Epidemics in Brazil

A while ago in Brazil I had the pleasure of meeting the folks from Federal University of Minas Gerais who are using twitter data to monitor disease (more specifically dengue) epidemics. Their work is awesome, and worth taking note of.
The website of the project is here

And here’s a paper that provides a more detailed account of the experience:

*Dengue surveillance based on a computational model of spatio-temporal locality of Twitter∗

Gomide et al. (2011)

Twitter is a unique social media channel, in the sense that users discuss and talk about the most diverse topics, in- cluding their health conditions. In this paper we analyze how Dengue epidemic is reflected on Twitter and to what extent that information can be used for the sake of surveillance. Dengue is a mosquito-borne infectious disease that is a leading cause of illness and death in tropical and sub- tropical regions, including Brazil. We propose an active surveillance methodology that is based on four dimensions: volume, location, time and public perception. First we ex- plore the public perception dimension by performing sentiment analysis. This analysis enables us to filter out con- tent that is not relevant for the sake of Dengue surveillance. Then, we verify the high correlation between the number of cases reported by official statistics and the number of tweets posted during the same time period (i.e., R2 = 0.9578). A clustering approach was used in order to exploit the spatio- temporal dimension, and the quality of the clusters obtained becomes evident when they are compared to official data (i.e., RandIndex = 0.8914). As an application, we propose a Dengue surveillance system that shows the evolution of the dengue situation reported in tweets.

Download paper (pdf) at

Technology and Citizen Participation in Lawmaking: What’s the Impact?

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In times of open government one can come across many initiatives that claim to enable citizens to participate in the lawmaking process, but much less evidence is available about how effective that participation is. 

This is one of the reasons why I believe the e-Democracia project by the Brazilian House of Representatives is an extremely important experience for those interested in online participatory lawmaking. Besides taking place in one of the worlds’ largest democracies, e-Democracia is one of the few experiences to have shown evidence of actual impact – albeit sometimes limited – of citizens’ participation in the lawmaking process  (full disclosure, I advised the project in its early stages of implementation).

A new paper by Patricia Rossini (UFMG – Brazil) looks at a particular case of e-Democracia, in which citizens provided input for the drafting of the Brazilian Internet Bill of Rights. Below is the abstract of the paper – Is political participation online effective? A case study of the Brazilian Federal Chamber of  Representatives’ e-democracy initiative.


In Brazil, the Federal Chamber of Representatives conducts an e-democracy initiative that enables people to participate in political decisions regarding legislation. There are forums in which people can discuss and propose amendments to draft bills, vote for surveys to decide on the most important issues and speak their minds regarding legislative activities. The goal of this paper is to analyze the effectiveness of citizens’ engagement in the e-democracy initiative through the case study of the discussion of the Internet Civilian Landmark – a bill to regulate Internet use in Brazil. After a brief review of literature on e-democracy, we intend to measure if the platform guaranteed citizens an opportunity to affect decision-making by evaluating if the amendments suggested by users through the initiative were effectively taken into account by the legislative committee.

And a small excerpt from the conclusion:

Even though there are many barriers (social, economical and cultural, to cite some) that need to be transposed in order to reach a greater level of citizenship and deliberation on online public spheres, our case study shows that those who were engaged in the Internet Civilian Landmark’s discussion were able to reach decision-makers and to effectively make amendments to this bill. Although the final decision was top-down, as the representatives had the power to decide on what suggestions they would take into account, they were clearly open to accept amendments proposed.

Download the full paper here [PDF].

Petition Growth and Success Rates on the UK No. 10 Downing Street Website


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This is the kind of research that should be informing the design of ICT mediated initiatives. It also a good example as to why policymakers  and practitioners should reach out more to scholars (and vice-versa).

Now that so much of collective action takes place online, web-generated data can further understanding of the mechanics of Internet-based mobilisation. This trace data offers social science researchers the potential for new forms of analysis, using real-time transactional data based on entire populations, rather than sample-based surveys of what people think they did or might do. This paper uses a ‘big data’ approach to track the growth of over 8,000 petitions to the UK Government on the No. 10 Downing Street website for two years, analysing the rate of growth per day and testing the hypothesis that the distribution of daily change will be leptokurtic (rather than normal) as previous research on agenda setting would suggest. This hypothesis is confirmed, suggesting that Internet-based mobilisation is characterized by tipping points (or punctuated equilibria) and explaining some of the volatility in online collective action. We find also that most successful petitions grow quickly and that the number of signatures a petition receives on its first day is a significant factor in explaining the overall number of signatures a petition receives during its lifetime. These findings have implications for the strategies of those initiating petitions and the design of web sites with the aim of maximising citizen engagement with policy issues.

Read more here [PDF].


New Book on Open Parliaments

Brazilian House of Representatives

Cristiano Faria’s book on Open Parliaments has finally been translated from its original Portuguese to English. There are many reasons to read Cristiano’s piece, one of them being the scarcity of literature dealing with the usage of ICT by the legislative branch. I was honoured to be invited to write the preface to this book, in which I list a few other reasons why I think this book is very worthwhile reading. I have reproduced the preface below, with the addition of some hyperlinks.


Towards the end of the 18th Century, not long after the French Revolution, engineer Claude Chappe invented the optical telegraph. Also known as the Napoleonic Telegraph, this technological innovation enabled the transmission of messages over great distances at unprecedented speeds for its time. This novelty did not go unnoticed by the intellectuals of the period: the possibility of establishing a telegraph network that could connect individuals at high speed and lowered costs was seen as a unique opportunity for direct democracy to flourish.

The difficulties associated with direct democracy, so eloquently expressed by Rousseau just a few years earlier, no longer seemed relevant: simply opening the code used by the telegraph operators would suffice for a whirlpool of ideas to flow between citizens and government, bringing a new era of participatory decision-making. Events, however, took a different turn, and as time went by the enthusiasm for a democratic renewal faded away.

In the course of the centuries that followed, similar stories abounded. The emergence of each new ICT gave rise to a period of enthusiasm surrounding a renewal in politics and government, only to be followed by bitter disillusionment. While the causes of these historical experiences are multiple, it is safe to say that the failure of these technologies to deliver their much-heralded potential is underscored by a lack of understanding of the role of political institutions. These institutions are, inexorably, sources of obstacles and challenges that go beyond the reach of technological solutions.

Indeed, one could argue that despite the historical evidence, even today a certain amount of ingenuity permeates the majority of academic works in the domain of electronic democracy and open government, overestimating technological innovation and neglecting the role of institutions, actors, and their respective strategies.

Not falling prey to the techno-determinist temptation but rather carrying out an analysis grounded in institutions, organizational processes and actors’ strategies, is one of the many strengths of Cristiano Faria’s work. His experience as a civil servant in the Brazilian House of Representatives and his academic rigour bring together qualities that are rarely combined in the literature about the public sector. The result is a work that offers an unusual vision, taking into account a wide range of factors involved in processes of technological enactment and institutional innovation.

While underpinning the book as a whole, this encompassing perspective is most prominent in Chapters 4 and 5, in the case studies on the experiences from Brazil (e-Democracy) and Chile (Virtual Senator). Motivating factors, constraints, and institutional and organizational arrangements are brought to light. The reader encounters elements and processes that often go unperceived by even the most attentive observers and experienced academics.

For instance, while analysing the Brazilian case, Cristiano underscores the essential role played by legislative consultants in channelling citizens’ input into the formal decision-making processes of the House of Representatives. Only an individual who is viscerally familiar with the functioning of the public institutions in question is capable of such an insight – one of many throughout the book.

Even for this reason alone, this work is of inestimable value to the Brazilian and international literature in the fields of electronic democracy and open government. Numerous other characteristics, however, further add to its worth for researchers, politicians, civil servants and ordinary citizens with an interest in these subjects.

The object of study is relevant in itself. There is a disproportionate shortage of literature about the role of technologies with regard to the legislative branch. An incomplete understanding of how public institutions operate and interact among themselves has led an increasing number of academics and observers to focus their attention on the executive branch. Furthermore, in the limited literature that is available about the use of technologies by the legislative, the majority of studies are disappointingly superficial or excessively descriptive.

Cristiano’s text, although rich in detail, never loses sight of the major theoretical and normative perspectives that inform the state of the art in the electronic democracy debate. The literature that guides this piece is impeccable. This is a text that brings the reader into contact with the main theories and arguments relating to issues of transparency, participation, actors’ strategies, and processes of institutional and technological innovation.

Lastly, by presenting cases ranging from New Zealand to the Catalan Parliaments, this book has the inestimable worth of being a historical record, immune to temporal and technological changes. Cristiano Faria captures the state of the art in electronic democracy experiences in the legislative at the beginning of the 21st century. To ensure that the destiny of these experiences differs from that of the Napoleonic Telegraph, a realistic and perspicacious reflection is necessary, to which this book makes its contribution.