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Saturday is a work day in Juba, but it’s also a day (the only day) when we have reliable internet because we’re not at the Ministries. Taking advantage of this improved access, I wanted to post some of the articles that I managed to read during the week and thought that other people might find interesting.

Technology will Set You Free. http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2010/02/22/internet-freedom-beyond-circumvention/. Ethan Zuckerman jumps off Clinton’s Internet Freedoms speech to talk using internet circumvention to provide information to people living in closed societies. He concludes that while the State Department should fund circumvention efforts in the short-term, it isn’t the long-term answer (too expensive, only provides access to international content, and doesn’t protect publishers from cyber-attacks). He also highlights three theories of how access to information can drive change and argues that theory we adopt should influence our policy decisions. I liked: that he tied the policy and the technology together. I wished: that he didn’t imply that his three theories for change as mutually exclusive. State should be pursuing policies to support access to external information, tools for internal organization, and forums for debate that connect a countries citizens to those living in the diaspora.

Bureaucrats are Unhappy.
http://www.janbanning.nl/. The Buearocratics, a series of beautiful portraits by Jan Branning of bureaucrats around the world in their offices was worth struggling with Juba internet. I liked: the way that common themes connected government employees throughout the world. I also liked that my office in the Ministry of Public Services is nicer than any of the offices in the photographs (albeit with less character). I wished: that more of the bureaucrats smiled.

Senator Brownback is on the Case.
http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/02/24/brownbacks_save_sudan_plan_a_traveling_basketball_team. Senator Brownback suggested to Secretary Clinton that having a South-Sudanese basketball team tour around the United States might help resolve the crisis in Sudan. I liked: that the Senator from Kansas knows that the Dinka are tall. I wished: that the Senator was as keen to remember that 4 million people are at risk of starvation as he is to recall that Manute Bol can dunk.

Cool Product of the Week: Bloom Energy Server is a fuel-cell that uses natural gas produces 100 kilowatts of power for about $800,000. With incentives, that’s about $.09 a kilowatt. (In DC we pay approximately $.20 a kilowatt and it’s powered by coal.) It’s cleaner and cheaper. The current version is geared to large companies, but they plan on building a consumer version for $3,000 that will recycle the carbon-dioxide to produce more power (and have zero emissions).

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In my last post I listed the argument for using Excel as a development platform in developing countries and the many arguments against it. Then, a couple of nights ago, I was discussing how to deploy a solution in a low-bandwidth, low-capacity environment and everyone kept circling around to Excel. The consensus was that it wasn’t the best solution – or even a good one – but Excel and its cousin Access were the ideas that came fastest to everyone’s mind.

Consider this an open appeal for better options. I’m looking for COTS solutions that can store information and support common government functions such as Human Resources and Financial Management. There are zillions of COTS solutions that satisfy those generic needs, but I’m looking for tools with the following characteristics:

  • Incorporate common desktop software. Installing remote clients on desktops and laptops that are scattered throughout rural environments dramatically increases the complexity of any deployment. Beyond the initial installation, it results in reoccurring maintenance requirements and additional license fees. While the proliferation of Microsoft Office promises one solution to this problem, modern browsers such as Google Chrome that store data locally and employ fast JavaScript engines offer another, intriguing, approach.
  • Works offline and online. Low-Bandwidth does not mean zero-bandwidth. Solutions should connect to a centralized server or cloud-based data store whenever possible and gracefully devolve capabilities to a local store when necessary. In the US, developers think of offline capabilities as solving the airplane-scenario when the user doesn’t have any internet connection. In South Sudan, it’s more common to have a connection that fades in and out depending on the weather, the electricity, and the number of users. The solution should not break – and users should not lose their work – when the connection disappears. The Gmail flaky-connection mode and Outlook Send/Receive are models of how this could work.
  • Consumes and conveys data in standard formats. EGovernment solutions must be interoperable. Just as the actions of one ministry impact the rest of the government, data that resides in one ministry’s solution supports the policy objectives of other agencies. Out of the box, the solution must be able to output data in standard formats that can be uploaded to adjacent systems. Likewise, it should be able to accept files that are shared via CDSs and flash-drives as a backup scenario when remote systems are not able to synchronize with the central database

In short, I want a solution architecture that is more nuanced. I want something that finds the sweet spot between desktop-centric Office customizations and client-server structured solutions. Can someone point me in the right direction?

A New Year and A New Blog

Hello and welcome!!!

Pressured by my mother to keep a journal, my colleagues to share my knowledge, and online advice-givers to “improve my brand”, I’ve decided that it was time to start blogging.  I am an obsessive reader of blogs.  According to Google Reader Trends, over the past 30 days I have read 2410 items from 112 blogs (and that includes two weeks of vacation during which I spent fewer than 20 minutes a day online).    My carefully cultivated blog roll is the only place where I can find information about the issues I care about:  US politics, international development and aid policy, Boston sports teams, US government management technology initiatives, and new technology trends.  There isn’t a newspaper in the world that prints everything that I want to read.

Yet, I’ve been hesitant to start writing a blog myself.     I think that transparency is wonderful in theory, but when applied in practice – particularly when applied to my own personal life – I have had cold feet.   I’m also worried about spending time crafting posts only to jettison them into the swilling vortex of the internet.  Worse, I’m worried that someone will actually read my blog and I’ll be subsequently shamed when my views evolve.    I am not an expert in any of the things that interest me and it’s nerve-racking to leave a public trail.

Nevertheless, I want to give this a shot.  I have recently moved from Washington, DC to Nairobi Kenya and started working in Juba, Sudan.   It seems like a shame not to capture my experiences as I try to build a life and a career in a new place.    I plan to keep this blog focused on my professional interests such as enterprise applications, development approaches for East Africa, and public sector consulting although I will probably drift over time and write about my personal travails living in a new place and my extracurricular interests such as new gadgets and cool software.

If anyone is out there, thanks for reading and please leave a comment.  I hope that this resolution lasts longer than most.