Burundians with mobile phones

by wonderfullyrich on June 12, 2010

Without going nuts and writing a dissertation like I normally seem to get into, I'm going to try and talk about one of the projects what I've been doing for the last several days. As I mentioned, I've got several going on while I'm here in Burundi, the primary of which is implementing a mobile phone communication system for the 120 HROC  election monitors. We have just spent the last two days training trainers how to train the “citizen reporters” to use phones (of various types), how to text the “Bureau HROC” (FrontlineSMS on a laptop) with an update, how to use a private twitter like rebroadcast to a small community group using the Bureau HROC number, when to use what and what the reason for each might be like, and going over again how to use there existing training the Alternatives to Violence Program (AVP) that HROC incorporates to help defuse the small scale situations that lead to the large scale riots, attacks, and problems.

Overall it was a successful training, but I felt ill prepared for this. Thankfully Andrew was around, and I also had two Jessica's here to help. One Jessica Heinzelman is doing her MA at Fletcher on mobile tech in such situations as we are doing (mostly incorporating Text-in-Twisterthe Ushahidi platform) and just happened to be willing to come from her several months in Keyna to help us out for a week. Jessica Brown is here in Burundi for 3 months with HROC as part of her MA in Conflict Resolution. Andrew of course is invaluable for a variety of reason, but briefly the ones that come to mind include the fact that he speaks french and a bit of kurundi, he is very familiar with the HROC program and it's people, he help write the grant for this election monitoring, and he knows how to deal with me. This is in addition to Florence who's one of the prime movers at HROC and was learning and helping teach.

This confluence of people helped us bounce ideas and form a training that wasn't perfect in the least, but at least conveyed the concepts. I've taught people how to use technology for 10+ years, and I am fairly good at making K.I.S.S. decisions, but none of us has done this. According to Jessica H. few people have integrated such a system of election monitors that leverage previous training in community peace building, election monitoring, and mobile technology.

For most of you, sending a text might be relatively simple, but I don't expect it to be easy for rural Burundian's who desperately want a cellphone (even if they have to walk an hour to get it charged), but haven't the $12.5 USD to purchase a phone and the regular (and more expensive) ability to purchase airtime. Consider the first time you were introduced to a cell phone, now add the idea that Long line of cellphoneswe need them to send a text which has one piece formatted properly ( an @ symbol followed by a word at the preface of their message) to a specific number. It seems easy, but it's easy to assume it's simple if you've learned it, but it takes patience and time to teach people to use it. It's easy to make mistakes too, as it can't be “@ word” or “subject @word” or “@word+errant character”. You might also remember that mosts of these people speak some level of French, but mostly they work in Kurundi and donated phones don't work in such a language. (Some local mobiles have been regionalized into kurundi). The great thing is that they are eager students.

We'll get the 60 cellphones we have out to people and they'll ask people in there village and the trainers how to use them. And they won't want to give them back… but we'll see what happens. We are actually thinking, and even planning on using this in the future to keep in contact with communities and help them talk amongst themselves. To use a non-quaker term, we are looking at it being a force multiplier for peace.

So, what's next? Well I have to get the system to work as optimally as possible in these extremely aggravating mobile phone conditions. SMS'es irregularly take mins, hours, or in some cases weeks to get delivered, the power generally goes out at least once per day here during the dry season, and even inter network calls don't go through sometimes. (Oh and the local provider Leo formerly Ucom formerly Telecel-burundi gave us blank stares and the silent treatment when we asked if we can purchase a Short Code, ARRGGH!) You'd think this idea of immediate feedback via mobile won't work, but it's Burundi and they are used to aggravation and take it in stride (a trait the industrialized world could learn from). This on top of FronlineSMS being a quirky and the least obnoxious localized SMS platform of the choices. (Column sorting doesn't work!) It's not going to be like the Keynan election a few years ago, but it'll be a step forward.

I digress, I'm also working on getting the parts to make a more redundant power situation for the office (via Solar or Mains, but including batteries), we are moving ahead to build a simpler design on the CAWST Bio-Filter using local materials (clay pots) so locals can build and create filters for under $12, working with FWA on there wireless and on the new medical records system they want to build, building a clay oven for the house where HROC office/guest housing is, to finish fixing a 3 or 4 computers (did I mention my 6 month old Asus eee netbook inexplicably died on me, I think the heat of Eastern Africa killed the processor, random BSOD and can't install ubuntu now. Bad computer, no Donut!!).  I'm also teaching HROC how to use FrontlineSMS to broadcast, setup new groups, and harvest information and most importantly writing the training manual for the above mentioned non-phone-using-Burundians first experience with a cellphone (with plenty of input and guidance from Burundian's).

So many projects so little of me, my money, and my time…



by wonderfullyrich on June 7, 2010

I'm in Burundi again nearly a year after I  first arrived on the African continent.  I'll be here for about a month (till late June), working on a bunch of different things.  Primarily I'm here to help Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC) as a technical consultant for the Frontline SMS implementation they are using for Election Monitoring, as well as helping the Friends Women's Association with a variety of technical things. I'm also here because Andrew is in Burundi, 9 months later, in his capacity as an evaluator for the US Institute for Peace grant and other general follow up he's doing (in association with his MA at Notre Dame's Kroc Insitute for Peace Studies).  I haven't seen him for over a year (or some family/friends in the states for more then two years).  Beyond this I've gotten tied into a few other random projects, such as some work with the BioSand Filter that CAWST makes and which they are training several communities here in Burundi to make, as well as tending "my flock" of computers, doing some web stuff for other peeps, working on a solar setup to deal with the constant power outages, and sundries other stuff.

I've got bunches of thoughts going on (mostly on water), but many of you asked if I'm headed back to the US soon.  I'd have to say that, assuming things remain okay, I'm not likely to head back anytime soon.  To many interesting things going on in Eastern Africa, much to work on, to little money to make it to the US and return to E. Africa.  I could make it one-way, but I think I'd go more crazy at home then I would working on things here.

Hopefully I'll get more updates soon.


government as a rational tool

by wonderfullyrich on May 18, 2010

In my previous blog I talked about the effectiveness of the RILA on lobbying congress and how it illustrates the methods that FCNL and others teach about changing the face of our legal/policy reality.  Something that bothers me about this though, which I did not mention in the blog, is the fairly obvious reality that my analysis leads to.

If your Congressional staffers and there employers are effected by such cognitive bias devices as the Framing effect then is our government actually making rational, considered, and sane policy and legal choices about our lives?  Are we making similarly misguided choices in our own day to day lives and in our political existence?

If you reading history about the founding of America, you’ll realize that, like today it was politically fueled and perhaps from the perspective of the enactors at the time, equally absurd.  Much of what they created is argued about and rightfully so as we can never understand fully what all the enactors of our Constitution were thinking, but I have always gotten the sense that some of them were aiming to make a more rational government.  One that decided things based on facts and realities rather then beliefs and traditions.  It’s not the only one, as the US Constitution was modeled on others through out history.

Yet as I implied above, the one notion that we’ve only recently begun to more fully understand is that nature of human decision making.  In many respects this understanding has been most fully driven by advertisers and marketing types, as to persuade humans it’s best to understand humans, and over the decades or centuries, human psychology has exponentiation increased in our ability to pursuance others to act/believe/perceive in a certain way.  To our detriment, you can see the impact of marketing and it’s persuasion in American (and other countries now) consumeristic tendencies.  Using our cognitive biases against us marketing can change the probability of a purchase, so it has influence.  Influence is power, as the old saying goes.

In this way you can see how lobbying on the part of organizations (for a political belief, economic motive, ethic group, etc) can have a modifier effect on the outcome of policy decisions.  They change by probability and add those increments up.  You should also be able to see how time becomes a factor in this, specifically in monetary terms.  The more time you can metaphorically purchase of the decision makers (via lobbyist and marketing), the more the issue is cognitively processed the more likely it is to be acted upon.  So money equals an open ear, which equals influence, which equals power.

I don’t believe that the US system of government is rational and fair in a way that represents the people of the United States, at least insofar as I don’t believe the government is actually following the popular views.  Of course the populous is just as influenced by the same tactics as lobbying on a mass scale (hence a billion dollar presidential campaign) so can we achieve a government that is making decisions without bias?

I believe such as system is possible. Although we are irrational beings that believe we are rational, we do have the capacity to make some rational decisions.  We also have the ability to modify our environment, otherwise know as make tools.  Can you envision a set of tools (language is a tool don’t forget) which, if you begin to understand your own biases, can help you to mitigate your own irrational decisions an help you make more rational ones?  Can we devise such as system that governs us?

Yes, and the models that have shown the most promise are scientific ones.  Although irrational humans are the drivers behind science, the results of scientific discovery are a day to day practical reality. As you may already understand, science is about the immovability of the laws that govern nature itself.  Simply said, the laws don’t fluctuate, so if you test a million billion times, they should never change.  What this means is understanding based on testing is possible, and more importantly that building tools based on this immutability is possible.  Indeed our bodies, the food, the chairs, everything is hinged upon the notion that the number of atoms in a carbon molecule never just ups and changes.

So even though what we understand may change based on the way we perceive things, the things themselves a reliable enough to be trusted.  In this way we can externalize some of our decision making factors.  Conceive of thoughts that are based on tools and realities that are not biased in the same way our brains are.  They are repeatable and reliable because nature is repeatable and reliable (or we wouldn’t exist).

A question you might ask is that “We are a result of evolution, which developed an imperfect machine, but one which is capable of surviving. Why would we want to tamper with that?” In fact I don’t propose that.  I propose a notion that mimics that evolutionary capability in our laws.  Although our legal/political structure mimics this somewhat, I am suggesting we make it more efficient by making it a system based on models that have provide the most usable realities in our existence.  We use our ability to make tools, to make use more viable and cosmologically sustainable.

I don’t suggest my system is perfect, but here’s my suggestion. (Mitigated somewhat by the need to be somewhat politically feasible.)

Rather then having a political system that elects people who create laws/execute laws/judge laws, I suggest we modify this to elect people who create goals which itself creates a body which studies and try to achieve those goals. I would also include a body that assess the impact of these laws as objectively as possible.  The study and try body would be given a goal, say reduce Automotive fatalities by 50%. They would devise various methods of implementing this, test them in the working reality that we live in.  (i.e. Colorado would try one thing, California another).  The notions would be check, refined, synthesized. Then checked, refined, and synthesized until you have achieved the goal.

The assessment body would then aggregate the data and perhaps could help the goal making body find and define what areas are most worthy of resource allocation and improvement in understanding via setting a goal.

Some would argue that you can’t test a law on the public, as you are endangering peoples lives, but the reality is that government already does this.  It does not however have a dedicated system of refinement, rather it’s based on the will of the regulators, congress, judges, lobbyists and people.

Perhaps there are better implementations of a government which embodies the notion of a rational tool that has the goal of keeping humanity sustained and I challenge you to devise it.


Understanding effective lobbying

by wonderfullyrich on May 15, 2010

Two blogs in one week after such a dry spell, it’s crazy I know, but I’m feeling in the mood to write these days.

I wanted to highlight  a few things based on my experience at FCNL, in DC/Congress, and in my understanding of human nature from this excerpt of this article in the NY Times about Bank Debit Fees being limited. (Underline emphasis added by me.)

The Senate approved a series of amendments unfavorable to the banking industry over the last week, but this one was widely regarded as the most surprising. Meddling in dealings between businesses generally is anathema to Republicans and a relatively low priority for Democrats.

And this was not an easy vote. Lobbyists for the wounded but formidable banking industry made clear to some senators that this decision would affect future campaign donations, according to people who participated in those conversations.

But retailers mounted an unusually effective yearlong campaign to frame the issue as a chance for Congress to help small business. A leading trade group for chain retailers worked with small-business groups to make sure that every time a senator held a town hall meeting back home, a local business owner showed up to ask about card fees.

The industry also rode the support of Senator Richard J. Durbin, the Democratic whip, who wrote the amendment and pushed the sponsor of the banking overhaul bill, Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, to allow a vote on the Senate floor.

The winning margin was provided by several conservative Republicans. Senator Johnny Isakson, Republican of Georgia, told SunTrust, the largest bank in his state, that this time he planned to vote against the bank and with Coca-Cola and Home Depot, two other Georgia companies that had lobbied him fiercely.

“This was really a decision between helping out small business or helping out large banks,” said John Emling, a lobbyist for the Retail Industry Leaders Association. “No one wanted to pick between friends and they had friends on both sides, but because of the momentum, we just felt that if Durbin pushed folks to the vote we would win.”

Part of what this article is describing is what FCNL and other similar lobbying organizations try to teach there members and try to affect regularly.  The Retails Industry Leaders Association, change the forum of debate by “framing the issue.” It’s a buzz phrase that you hear regularly in D.C. and one my old boss Jim Cason loves, and he’s right.  In addition to using multi-path communication and persuasion based on their advantages (which I’ll talk about later), the RILA changed what staffers and there senators were comparing.  Whether or not it succeeds in the House, it’s an ideal chance to talk about framing and the other parts of effective lobbying.

Rather then looking at the Bank industry’s impact on the economy and how it’s fair to them (given it cost something to maintain the debit card system), the RILA put in terms of the retailer’s much larger effect  on the Senators voting constituent.  Small businesses employ over half US population, so it’s a very, very large base.  The fees at issue may directly impact the profits of the banks, but with the bail-out and sentiment in general being very low for banks, this is a perfect opportunity for retailers to point out that these fees have a far larger proportional impact on people then does the bank’s dividends and it’s employment base.

A point of psychology to remember, and one that makes the framing that I just did in the previous paragraph so important, is that humans make irrational decision because of the way our brain perceives and processes information.  It’s call cognitive bias, and in particular we are biased in the way we compare things.  This is referred to as the Framing effect, and it means when you receive information, you compare it and make decisions based on perceived loss and gain, but that we rate a loss higher then we do gains.  Although the options might be equal from a purely quantitative or qualitative point of view, we will choose differently based on the description of both options. In this way, although congress is indeed swayed by rational arguments in a one page fact sheet, the staffers and the Senators will be swayed by a “superior” framing of an issue.   In this particular case your perception of loss on the part of the banks should be smaller then the perceived loss of the larger group of retailers, even though we are talking about the same money in both cases. The shining glass monuments of banks can deal with it but the struggling mom and pop shop on the corner can’t.  I may feel this way but it’s perception not fact when I speak in those connotatively driven terms.

Another point of psychology worth remembering that psychologically speaking, we forget things regularly. Your brain is designed to forget things as much as it’s designed to remember them, and it’s a mechanism that works to your advantage, as you forget the things you don’t need (a smaller database is easier to search then a larger one).  If you are not reminded of something within your forgetting interval then it’s generally gone (with a few major exceptions).  You can more effectively be reminded of something by getting it from multiple sources, i.e. a letter from one person, a conversation with another, maybe a cute toy that you associate with it, an odd jingle that goes with it, etc.  In this way, if the staffer and his Senator hear about an item from multiple-paths on a radio news show, by his staffer, as a letter to the editor, in the town hall meetings he attends, a object or toy that keys to the issue (debit card), during lobby visits he sits in on, from his fellow Senators, etc. they are more likely to take action or feel action can be taken.  This is particularly true in the case of Congress in general, as over the last 10+ years the amount of communication has increased 10 fold while the staffing to organize and deal with such communication has remained at the same level as 30 years ago.  They have a lot to forget and a finite amount of brain space to put it in.

The RILA took advantage of this and used a multi-path communication campaign aimed at the senators.  The retailers leveraged there mass and distribution of people throughout the country to make this Senatorially unpopular issue into one that senators took note of, and after a year long campagain the Senators felt it had momentum.  This is particularly significant as it indicates they were looking at it not from a strictly rational point of view, but rather were responding to the sentiments of the retailers and there fellow senators in a more emotional way.  Incrementally, they began to believe this was an issue that was important and therefore it became important.

In spite of this daunting task of engaging congress and changing laws/policies, one of the things I took away from D.C. before I left was a belief that you can change an issue as an individual.  The big “but” to this is, it can take years of your life to make it happen.  I’ve seen it at FCNL, I’ve read about it, and we’ve just seen it again.  You literally have to make your own luck, which is exactly what happen here.  By using the large base of people at there disposal, the retailers lobbying organization kept lobing different shiny things at the monkeys until they all picked up there nugget.


reading update and thoughts

by wonderfullyrich on May 13, 2010

I have been sick for a good long while now, some where over a month.  I think I cleaned my sinuses with water that was treated, but unpurified which started an infection.  Initially I thought it was an allergy attack, but some where around week 2.5 after two visits to the doctors here I gave up and started taking the Doxycycline I have as a malaria prophylactic.  Immediately the infection responded and nearly two weeks later, I’m nearly back to normal and still taking the Dox.  (For those of you who don’t know Dox is an anti-parasitic as well as being a broad spectrum anti-biotic)

This sickness had me out of action and coughing like a very sick person (people kept joking that I had TB) and generally trying to engage in life through the haze of benadryl, and some major tears as well with my Grandmother in Sacramento dying.  I therefore spent a vast portion of my time in the last month plus indulging in comfort reading.  I re-reading/listening to all of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels that I could stand, then started in on what I have of Andy McNab’s Nick Stone novels, and have finally switched over to more serious reading of a Longwalk to Freedom by Mandela.

You have to realize that I was a kid when I was last devoutly into the thrillers and the thought pattern they pervade.  I’ve always been fascinated with the military, it’s equipment, history, how it works, etc, but I’m a converted non-violent type.  I still am fascinated by it all, which means I some times sound like a gun toting conservative, but the reality is that money spent on the military, war, your police para-military, is something I’ve realize is absolutely counter productive.  Violence begets violence.  Period.

Doesn’t matter if it’s state on state violence or individual violence.  It’s cyclical and entirely a waste of brian power (those that die and those that spend time using/developing/implementing hostile methods) and more importantly a waste of money.  I just posted this thought on facebook:

How absurd does this sound? In 2008 the world spent $4 dollars per person of the world GDP on the UN, and $217 pp on the World’s military! Of that %41 of that is the USA. You bloody oboxious Tea Party Movement blokes are yelling about the wrong god damn thing!

Which illustrates the point.  Americans spend 16% of our GDP on healthcare and 4.06% on direct military spending plus another 2.6 to 5.4% (depending on the amount of the public debt you add) on other outlays.  So we spend some 6 to 9% of our 14 trillion dollar budget on the military, which creates more healthcare spending (peace time is bad enough with training accidents) and perpetuates our debt, enriches defense contractors, but is not generally increase our economic growth as compared to other areas. I see a big dent in our healthcare if halved our attempt at creating national security through force.  (More then enough to shut the Tea Party Movement up.)

My dad used to tell me that it’s worth going into personal debt for two reasons, buying a house or going to school.  His reasoning is that they are both investments in your personal future.  If you are going to borrow money, it should make you at least enough to pay the loan back directly or indirectly.   Perpetuating violence by spending on the military definitely is not an investment in the future, it is a bad investment thinking about the security of “now.” Given that violence is cyclical and will result in retribution, any investment in force will result in an increase rather then decrease of violence.

We are ridiculously protective of our children.  Americans would scream at drivers who speed through residential neighborhoods with children around, create laws that identifies pedophiles when the risk of such acts is far smaller then car accidents.  Some how that same care and consideration is lost on us when we speak of the future we are creating for them.

We think of a big stick, a big lock, and secure walls as our security, but like any security expert will tell you, your highest risk comes from people you trust. If you give them enough incentive they’ll break that trust, but the better they know you the more human you seem, the less likely someone is to resort to violence.

It’s an old story, but rather then building barriers, bridges make you safer.  Friends–national and individual–make your life more survivable, more informed, wealthier, and much, much more secure.

All in all I’m happy to be here in Uganda (even if I still get an occasional sinus infection) rather then being ridiculous frustrated in American society with the pace, our irrationality, and the slow march of useful change.


The burning of the tombs…

by wonderfullyrich on March 17, 2010

I just have to say I saw these tombs a few months ago.  Things are not going well here in Uganda for students.  Check out my facebook page for things going on over the last several days.  This came out from the embassy in kampala.

This Warden Message is to alert U.S. citizens to incidences of civil unrest that could pose a threat to your personal security.  On March 16 at approximately 9 p.m., the Buganda Kingdom’s Royal Kasubi Tombs were engulfed in flames.  The Police/Fire personnel at the scene were unable to extinguish the fire and the historical site was destroyed.  Police have been operating on a heightened alert due to the potential for civil unrest as a result of the destructive fire.

Earlier today at around 11:30 a.m., demonstrations adjacent to the Kasubi Tombs turned violent with reports of at least three demonstrators killed.  U.S. citizens should avoid areas where demonstrations have occurred and seek shelter immediately if you should come upon demonstrations or large crowds.

Currently there is a tense calm in the greater Kampala area with ongoing low-grade civil unrest and riot police stationed in the vicinity between Kasubi Tombs and the Buganda Palace in Mengo.  There are also reports of blocked traffic and ongoing student protests around Makerere University. Traffic is flowing normally in the rest of Kampala but, based on previous city-wide demonstrations experienced in September 2009, traffic could be severely disrupted with little notice.

U.S. citizens are advised to register and update their contact information with the U.S. Embassy in Uganda.  The U.S. Embassy is located at Plot 1577 Ggaba Road.  The phone number is (256) (0) (414) 306 001 or (256) (0) (414) 259 791, fax (256) (0) (414) 258 451, email: [email protected], and U.S. Embassy Kampala website:http://kampala.usembassy.gov.  In the case of an emergency outside business hours, or during any suspension of public services, U.S. citizens may reach the embassy duty officer at the same numbers.

For the latest security information, U.S. citizens traveling abroad should regularly monitor the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs’ internet website at http://www.travel.state.gov/, where the current Worldwide Caution, Travel Alerts, Travel Warnings, and Country Specific Information can be found.  Up-to-date information on security can also be obtained by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll-free in the U.S. and Canada, or for callers outside the U.S. and Canada, a regular toll line at 1-202-501-4444.  These numbers are available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday (except U.S. Federal holidays).

This email is UNCLASSIFIED.


It’s alive!

by wonderfullyrich on February 5, 2010

K’la List is alive! In the first 10 days, I’ve gotten 3,000 pageviews 700 visits with an average time of 6 minutes on the site per visit. For those of you who aren’t familiar with website statistics, this is a fairly amazing turn-out for a campaign focused on a country that’s primary medium is mobile communication (as opposed to broadband internet).

With 3 million people in the city of Kampala, I have a long way to go, but I’m reassured by continuing use of the website and the incremental increase in posts by people. Certainly people are very excited by the prospect of having a website like craigslist or gumtree around. Actually, because of the reactions I’ve been getting and there feedback, I recently decide on putting up a Missed Connections section. Although I’ve been avoiding creating personals where sex could be sold, I was convinced that Missed Connections could provide a useful outlet perhaps be an amusing read, while at the same time be relatively harmless in propagating the already rampant prostitution here in Kampala.

Hopefully people enjoy the new area. I’m still trying to put the word out, less in a digital way right now–as I think I’ve penetrated my network of digital contacts in Uganda–and more on the ground in coffee shops, internet cafes, maybe an article in a paper (if I can swing it) and just glad handing as many people as I can.

I’ve been getting people and places to hand out cards about the website, but I’ve begun to consider the idea of some form of a gimmick. I haven’t figured out what, maybe a giveaway or a chance at featured ads maybe, but if you have a good idea, drop me a line! Things are looking good for the site though.


Online classifieds for Kampala

by wonderfullyrich on January 26, 2010

When I arrived in Kampala, I was frustrated by the lack of a craigslist.org or gumtree.com sub-site for Kampala. Over the many months I’ve been here I’ve found a huge expat population who’s also been frustrated by this, which got me thinking on multiple occasions about how hard it would be to create a site that could achieve similar goals of gumtree or craigslist.

Originally I was thinking I could get craigslist to add k’la as a city, but when I took a look at kenya.craigslist.org I was dishearten to find it’s very unused right now. It seems unlikely they’ll kick-off another city in Eastern Africa, and as I thought about it, the problem is more along the critical mass point. I can guess that there was no advertising in Nairobi, as craigslist doesn’t do advertising. You could let it go and it’ll build steam slowly, but this site has the capacity to make these areas much more dynamic and should be promoted. Basically it needs a push.

The more research I did, the more I realized that it’s feasible for me to set up a site and that I have a 50/50 chance of getting that critical mass if I push it.

A few weeks ago I gave in and put one up. I’m starting small and will expand as it warrants it. It’s nearly ready for public use. Right now I’m primarily focusing on trying to put the word on the ground. You can take a look at it while it’s still in beta. Feedback is much appreciated!

More as it comes!


Getting hacked…

by wonderfullyrich on January 23, 2010

A quick reminder to change your passwords regularly. There are more up to date guides, but password guide I wrote years ago is still fairly valid. Also it’s worth looking at my post on revisiting your personal security.

Last night after watching a movie, I noticed I was logged out of gmail, which isn’t odd, but it was odd that my password wasn’t working. I located the recovery method and was able to go to my back up account, retrieve the link, and reset my Gmail account.

Unfortunately I found out to late that someone else had access to my account. I knew it was a hack because looking at my activity information (a link near the bottom of your Gmail box) showed the IP, which I did a reverse look-up on and found out was a Bangladesh DSL address. I know of one person who has been in Bangladesh, but no one currently and certainly didn’t allow anyone my password.

Thankfully I caught it with-in 22 mins of the access, so they didn’t have much time in my account. I have done a full password change-up on all major accounts, but I’m fairly well convinced they haven’t got much useful info. They tried a further password reset on my account.

All in all that was a frightening reminder that it’s technological prowess is a survival trait these days. Stay on top of your passwords, change them regularly, maintain some diligence on your account information, and do your best to keep up on trends.

I don’t know how they got my password, but I’m not going to let them keep it.


Uganda treats you right

by wonderfullyrich on January 4, 2010

I’ve been in and out of Uganda for the last 5 months and for the most part there hasn’t been much ridiculous to report. Yesterday however I had an incident that is very African and quite ridiculous. First, you need some background. I am not working these days, rather I’m doing some volunteer work for openstreetmaps.org as I indicated in my previous posts. What this entails right now is having the driver of a special hire (car) take me drive me in really odd loops around the Kampala while I’m sitting in the passenger seat with my maps, gps, camera, and pad of paper taking notes, marking points, and directing the driver. I also walk some places as it’s more accurate data and slower pace for note taking, but you can cover more ground in a car. Specifically I’m “Mapping Users Needs” such as Clinics, NGOs, Marketplaces, schools, roads, Being an American, a tourist, and a volunteer, I don’t normally carry my passport (for theft reason) nor do I have papers indicating I work for OpenStreetMaps from the government or the organization. etc.

Yesterday around 3pm Daniel (the driver) and I just visited a friends house to check in on it, then drove to a supermarket so I could pick up a few things before we set off on our mapping for the day. We drove all of a few hundred meters up the street from the supermarket and noting a sign for the United Nations Clinic we drove towards it. The clinic itself is a UN faclity, which means it had Police Guards, a barrier, and the razor wire fencing (that many homes have too), but although there are signs on the street there were no signs on the barriers or building. So I asked the Police guards if this is the UN Clinic. Little did I know that this question would end up being a major annoyance lasting many hours that carried over to today. They started asking me questions about who I am, why I’m doing this, who it’s for, what the purpose of knowing the UN Clinic, etc. Being a transit person and growing up in the US under US rights of self-indictment I often times give vague answers to questions and don’t volunteer large amounts of information, especially in situations where you are suspected of something. I gave them what information I could, but continued to ask them what the problem they had was, which I got very little of the information about. This is all at about 4-4:30pm, eventually they took my Colorado Drivers License and Daniel’s papers into the clinic asking us to wait. I later learned that they went in and spoke to someone at the UN Diplomatic Security Service, who asked them to check me out. They did not tell me this however, so I was outside waiting in front of the clinic with no idea what’s going on, dealing with Ugandan Police (some of whom were carrying AK-47s as they do), feeling rather intimidated & rather pissed off.

Around 5:30pm they eventually asked us to go over to the police post with them where they would have me talk to their superiors. Mind you although one of the Corporals who accompanied us to the Post was uniformed, another Constable was not, and they did not identify themselves (no name tag, badge, or ID). This was also true of the Inspector who took my case history, life history, travel history, and incident history. I’ve been more frustrated in my life, but not often. When someone who isn’t uniformed and doesn’t identify himself in a country that has the possibility of being corrupt starts inquiring about where your parents, brothers, and friends live, I’m get somewhat offended and retort sharply. In addition to being asked idiotic things irrelevant to the incident, I had a heck of a time understanding this Inspector who was using techniques of superiority which don’t sit well with me. (i.e. things that go beyond polite) It can be said there was a cultural difference here, and I did manage to keep my cool for the most part and did get through this. I did however start texting and calling friends, specifically a friend of mine who works for human rights organization here in k’la and asked if she could help. I became increasingly concerned about this as I continued to asked what the issues was at hand they still wouldn’t answer and I wasn’t sure if they were ramping up for a bribe or something more serious. I asked my friend if she could indicate a lawyer, and I did this while the Inspector was speaking to me intentionally to make him understand I wanted more info and results.

Finally that ordeal ended, which I’ll admit afterwords was the most ridiculous part of the whole incident. The inspector took me to the Officer-In-Charge of the station. A youngish looking guy who wasn’t in uniform either. The inspector recounted his findings (slightly skewed) and the detaining officers started to explain, however they up and took it to the next room with the un-uniformed Division Police Commander (DPC). I sat for 15-20 mins while they chatted, then they called me into another couch (Daniel is still here and asked to stand outside). At this point I finally understand more of what’s going on, as I mentioned previously, the detaining officers called and asked someone what to do and they said to send it up the line. They thought of me as a suspicious person, and apparently there is a increased security threat alert right now, so they were trying to determine who or what I was. At the time I thought it was ludicrous that they would suspect a white umuzungu as a terrorist, especially one with such as bad cover story that it took hours to explain what openstreetmaps was, that it was a volunteer activity, and that my reasons for doing this was primarily altruistic and maybe I can make money off selling it later. I’d send a Uganda, or I wouldn’t even bother as most people around new it was a UN clinc (and it had signs on the road).

In any case the DPC similarly though this was a waste of time as he was familar with google maps and could understand the notion of openstreetmaps.org, but he still had protocol to deal with. He was a bit put out as the detaining officers did not report to him, they were VIP police who brought this to the local division. Something that he didn’t consider suspicious, nor an uncovering of secrets (as the UN clinic is publicly noted on the road). As I didn’t enter the barrier, then he was befuddled as to why they stopped me. At this point it was 7-7:30pm and the UN Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) has gone home, but he called the US Embassy. They sent someone over, who turned out to be a Investigator for the State Department Diplomatic Security. As I didn’t have my passport and the office were close at the US Embassy too, they eventually said they had two options. Detain me overnight or go with me, get my passport, and I’ll return the next morning. It took some haggling, but the latter was finally chosen. Even that took another 15 mins to sort out as trying to figure out the logistics of what car they were taking, who was going with who, and how they were returning required haggling, repetition (something very african in nature, even if you understand something the first time you tend to get it repeat two or three times), and finally decision.

I finally returned home last night at 9pm, took picture of the investigators US ID, got his card and gave him my passport. I got on the horn with several people, but was just hungry, tired, and zoned out by this time so I eventually just went to bed. I didn’t sleep overly well as as it was a rather nerve wracking situation and it wasn’t exactly over I was to meet the investigator at the police post this morning at 10am to get my passport back, assuming everything was cleared up.

I arrived with Daniel this morning at the police post, met the investigator who said I came up fine and had no warrants outstanding. We waited for the DPC (not the VIP Commander but the local DPC), I chatted with the constable who detained me and the investigator. After only brief wait we saw the DPC (now uniformed). The Embassy Investigator indicated his (non)findings and the constable was asked if this resolved his situation, and the DPC said he was satisfied and I left.

Oy vey! Who knew that African bureaucracy and American isolationism would meet in such as abstract way. This all started because the intelligence services think al qaeda types are using Uganda and Eastern Africa as a operations area. (I’ve gotten several emails from the US embassy listserv about this.) Both because of this and the christmas increase in crime (that the embassy also warned about while relating an incident involving Americans) there is an increased threat level. I’ll admit that I should have carried a copy of my passport and I can sort of see why I might be a suspicious character in this situation, but the aforementioned method of umuzungu intelligence gathering seems to make me a unlikely suspicious character. Add the repetitions, time consuming, personalized, and seemingly asinine way of determining my (non)suspicious character that is the Ugandan way, and I’ve just seen a part of Uganda I hope I never see again. If this constitutes a mix up, what constitutes a crime?

It was all taken care of though. I’ll go on with my mapping, and I think I’m headed back to the states here soon, as I’m not making enough head way on making money. It’s an experience I won’t soon forget.