Book Review: SMS Uprising

I have just finished reading a book edited by Sokari Ekine, SMS Uprising. Subtitled “Mobile Activism in Africa”, it gives a great overview of the use of mobile technology for development and empowerment.

The book consists of two parts, each comprising a series of essays by international authors. The first four chapters target the context of mobile activism. Christian Kreutz has contributed a great summary of future trends and software developments in African mobile activism.

Another essay by Ken Banks asks whether “social mobile” is “empowering the many or the few”. Ken is the founder of FrontlineSMS, “a free software that turns a laptop and a mobile phone or modem into a central communications hub”. As the second part, consisting of seven case studies, includes a chapter co-authored by Juliana Rotich, the book brings together developers of two applications that stand for the success of mobile activism in Africa, FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi.

I especially liked the essay by Rotich and Joshua Goldstein on “Digitally networked technology in Kenya’s 2007–08 post-election crisis”. It is a short version of a case study written for the Berkman Center’s Internet and Democracy Project. The chapter looks at three facets of social media in a conflict situation: “SMS campaigns to promote violence, blogs to challenge mainstream media narratives, and online campaigns to promote awareness of human rights violations.” Here’s a short excerpt dealing with the latter part:

Ushahidi is a mashup: a blending of two internet applications to relay information in a visually compelling way. The design teams combined Google maps, which allows users to zoom in and view satellite images of Kenya, with a tool for users, via mobile phone or internet browser, to report incidents of violence on the map, add photos, video and written content that document where and when violence occurs. […]

The Ushahidi platform is revolutionary for human rights campaigns in the way that Wikipedia is revolutionary for encyclopaedias: they are tools that allow cooperation on a massive scale. Yochai Benkler describes this phenomenon as ‘commons-based peer production’, and argues that it has a central place in rethinking economic and social cooperation in a digital age.

The essay more than once refers to Benkler’s outstanding work, The Wealth of Networks. I am just now reading this book myself and I find it to be very useful to fully understand the whole magnitude of the social media revolution we are experiencing. As Rotich and Goldstein write, “Yochai Benkler provide[s] useful language to help us begin to understand the place of these tools in society.”

SMS Uprising combines theoretical groundwork and practical case studies useful to everyone interested in the use of mobile technology for activism and development. While some chapters are a bit longer than necessary, in combination the book provides a good overview of the issue.

SMS Uprising is published by Pambazuka Press. It is available on their website as a paperback plus PDF for £12.95 or the PDF alone for £9.95 as well as on Amazon.

The publisher encourages non-commercial redistribution of the work, so if for any reason you cannot afford to buy the book, drop me a mail at [myfirstname] [at] [thisdomain] and I’ll send you the PDF.

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