2013-01-17

Co.Exist

This App Lets Activists Pass Around Information When The Government Is Watching

During the last election in Uganda, the government suppressed text messages about voting. Abayima is a new service that helps mitigate this problem by using SIM cards as communication devices.

Cell phones are more than just convenient communications tools; in an emergency, they can also serve as storage devices, logging data that can be passed along to others. Abayima, one of eight winners of the Knight News Challenge: Mobile, has created an app that transforms mobile phone SIM cards into storage devices that can be passed around in crises. It’s not terribly convenient, but it’s way better than no information at all.

In developed nations, citizens often take for granted that cell networks will always work. When a crisis hits--say, Hurricane Sandy--and the networks briefly go down, people are gripped with panic, and that’s when misinformation starts being spread. It’s not such an irregular occurrence in more tumultuous countries. Just last year, citizens in Syria and Egypt saw their Internet access shut off so that they couldn’t communicate with the outside world.

Abayima was created in 2011 when co-founder Jon Gosier--along with a number of colleagues--noticed that the Ugandan government was blocking certain text messages from going through that indicated how the country’s elections were going. So Abayima was founded as a nonprofit with the goal of keeping communication open during these so-called "blackouts."

After the Ugandan elections, Abayima created a post-election assessment to show just how bad it got. The assessment described incidents like this one, where a Ugandan posted a warning to friends on Facebook: "SMS is being monitored for key words like ‘dictator’, ‘egypt’, etc…my tip is; pliz (sic) try to mask your language in one way or another… chances are techies are using full-text search and not semantic (unless they’ve got $$ to spend)."

Abayima explains in its Knight application:

Rather than rely upon high-tech infrastructure, Abayima relies upon centuries old information networks inspired by the Jewish resistance, the underground slave escape routes in the United States, Navajo code talkers, the war scouts of Sparta, etc. There is a long lineage of using ‘no or low-tech’ means of encryption to protect sensitive information.

Abayima is hardly a no-tech solution, though it is more low-tech than cell phone networks. The initiative’s creators hope to train activists to use the app; those activists will then be expected to train others. In order to monetize the platform, they’re working on a closed-sourced version of the Abayima SIM Kit for publishers who want to reach audiences in developing countries. Instead of going out and buying a newspaper, people could just pass around their SIM cards, which will have news that the government doesn’t want you to get.

Before launching Abayima, Gosier founded Appfrica, a consultancy that incubates companies in Africa’s tech ecosystem with market research, technical help, and investments. Abayima is a spin-off of Appfrica.

The nonprofit’s founders are hoping to work with activists in Egypt and Syria in the short term. Gosier writes in an email: "Also, Kenya has presidential elections coming up. We hope Abayima isn’t needed there, but if it is, we actually have two developers on the ground who are prepared should a response be needed." Abayima’s open-source SIM card modification kit is available here for Windows and Linux developers.

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