For many people in the world, it is difficult to imagine what life was like without the World Wide Web. In the last quarter century, the Internet has fundamentally changed the way people across the world access, share, and use information. The Web is increasingly integrating into more and more aspects of our daily lives and work. For example, it has played an important role in empowering citizens with a digital platform for civic engagement, and spreading knowledge on disease prevention to boost global health.

Join us and USAID’s Global Development Lab in celebrating the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web, and the extraordinary opportunities it presents to helping people in the most remote places in the world. Check out this animation video the TechChange creative team produced in partnership with USAID featuring Rajiv Shah, Andy Sisson, Priya Jaisinghani, Sascha Meinrath, Dr. Ndemo, Judy Payne, Ann Mei Chang,and Adam Slote.

In the next several decades where we can expect the expansion of broadband connectivity, cheaper smartphones, the increase in data, and business models that serve more underserved populations, we are hopeful for a future where extreme poverty no longer exists.

If you’d like more information on TechChange’s animations and our creative team’s work, please email us at

This year, Starbucks announced that it would make its internet speed in coffee shops 10 times faster by switching from AT&T to Google. Though it has not revealed which 7,000 locations around the U.S. would receive the new Google internet first, I was lucky enough to experience it my hometown of Wichita, Kansas over the holidays. As I hopped on the Starbucks Wifi, I was greeted by a welcome page covered in Google logos. In a confused, still uncaffeinated stupor, I dared to try a speed test.

And it is awesome.

I mean, not just good enough for email, but good enough to watch Netflix (even ultra HD!), stream music, or, um, actually do work for a change and run one of our global live video events on Google Hangouts on Air.

Those familiar with Google Fiber may not be surprised that Kansas has some of the early adopters of the new WiFi. After all, our state capitol did change its name to Google for a month.

But what is surpising is how much this signals a shift. Back in 2008, Starbucks ditched T-Mobile for AT&T Wi-Fi, which showed a movement away from T-Mobile “hotspots” to the incentivization of AT&T data plans for smartphones. Then, Starbucks turned to free internet to remain current with competitors.

Now, we’re seeing a new shift as Google has made huge dents in both the smartphone and laptop market. Android has captured 81% of smartphone market share, while Google Chromebooks account for 21% of laptop sales in 2013. Not to mention the intimidating foray of Fiber into internet connectivity.

According to Wikipedia, Starbucks has 20,891 stores in 62 countries, and that’s growing daily. The comparison here might not be to AT&T and T-Mobile for mobile Wi-Fi access, but rather to when AT&T and Apple partnered to launch the iPhone. Bandwidth like this in a public place may not just threaten other carriers and internet providers, but even coworking spaces and office environments.

Sorry, playwrights and up-and-coming writers. Collaborating nerds are going to take over the local Starbucks. With speeds like this, Starbucks may even disrupt coworking spaces like 1776, which essentially rent seats to small teams with great bandwidth and good support.

Of course, this experience was in Kansas. As I returned to DC to find that our office Comcast had gone out again, I made my way over to Starbucks. Where I barely get 0.6 Mb/sec download speeds.

I had to remember: We’re not in Kansas anymore.

But perhaps soon in Starbucks, we might as well be.

It’s no secret that we’re passionate about the power of volunteer technical communities here at TechChange. We helped link volunteer communities with response organizations for the Digital Humanitarian Network procedures simulation, as well as streamed and assisted with online participation in last year’s International Conference on Crisis Mappers.

When a disaster occurs—an earthquake in Haiti or a landslide in Uganda—it’s often up to non-governmental organizations and volunteer groups to coordinate urgent emergency relief. Communication is the backbone of this disaster recovery, yet is currently limited to prohibitively expensive satellite phones and short range radios. Cell phones might work briefly if the towers are still up.

In response to these challenges, the web has been abuzz about two promising technologies that could change the way we connect in times of crisis: dependable ways to connect volunteers, refugees, and the general public in harsh environments and disaster zones.

The first technology is a new device: BRCK, a rugged cellular mobile hotspot. Roughly the size of its namesake, BRCK promises an eight-hour battery life, a powerful WiFi antenna, and Arduino-like extensibility. The Ushahidi team, the nonprofit behind the Kickstarter-funded project, dubbed it “[the] backup generator to the internet.”

While BRCK itself doesn’t present any new ways to connect to the internet, it improves and reinforces existing methods. The connection options make it a really powerful router; a business in Mozambique, for example, could use the BRCK’s redundant network connections to setup a WiFi router that had both Ethernet and 3G/4G backbones. However, while all these specs are useful, this device was probably not meant for crisis response (read: when cell service is unreliable). The weakness of this device lies in our current limited communication infrastructure.

To solve the need for a dependable remote cloud, Google unveiled just that: a mesh network of balloons. That’s right: internet-enabled balloons, floating in the sky, traveling with the wind currents in the stratosphere! A sort of hybrid of satellites and cell towers, Project Loon promises to set up highly flexible deployments of access points wherever they are needed. So, when an earthquake strikes New Zealand, Loon balloons can float over and beam an internet signal to the affected area on the ground.

In theory, this network is a wonderful idea. It’s portable, fast, disaster-proof internet. But the exact aspect that makes this project novel is the one that will create the most challenges. Google will become a sort of air traffic control for its own thousands of balloons, which require direction and maintenance. Users of Loon will also need a special Google antenna—the balloons unfortunately don’t transmit in the WiFi signal band. But for disaster situations, where the need for communication often means the difference of human lives, it appears to be a novel and practical idea.

Perhaps a comparison is in order. It costs an average of $150,000 to build a GSM cell tower with a maximum signal range of 35 kilometers (the effective signal radius is smaller, however). No one really knows how much a Loon balloon will cost—so far Google has been light on the details of the project—but we do know that each balloon has a coverage radius of 20 km. That means, to beat out the cell tower in terms of cost per square kilometer covered, each balloon needs to total less than $50,000. Likely a bundle of electronics attached to a solar panel hooked to a balloon will cost much less.

(The math: a GSM cell tower costs $150,000. Max radius of 35 km. Max area covered is π352 ≈ 3850 km sq. Loon balloon costs unknown. Max radius of 20 km. Max area covered is π202 ≈ 1260 km sq. Thus, a GSM tower covers about three times more area than a balloon.)

While these technologies might just be developing, they are really promising. Ultimately, I think both of these technologies could be used together; since you need a special antenna with Loon anyway, why not add one to the BRCK, so you can have a trifecta of connections: Ethernet, cellular, and Loon? This redundancy would be really powerful.

We won’t solve global internet infrastructure overnight, but these prototypes show us the way toward the future: creative solutions to fix real world problems in times and places where it’s needed most. Keep your eye out for new developments, it will no doubt get more interesting!

Are you interested in the future of our connected world? Join us for TC103, our exciting new course about technology and emergency management, starting in August.


This is the second post in a two part series on this topic. The first installment was written by TJ earlier in the week.

The Exchange 2.0 conference at the U.S. Institute of Peace on 4/27 offered a stimulating discussion that centered on using new technologies to further cross-cultural learning. While it was clearly conveyed that face-to-face study abroad programs are one of the best vehicles for promoting cross-cultural understanding, the reality is that many people (especially more disadvantaged students) may never have these opportunities. In an era when American young people need to know more than ever about our world and the people in it, the best estimate is that less than 2 percent of Americans enrolled in higher education participate in study abroad programs. Even then, the majority go to Europe. (more…)

On Monday May 2, 2011 Canadians will be voting in the 41st Canadian Federal Election. The election comes as the result of non-confidence vote held on March 25th, 2011 that saw the defeat of the Conservative party’s cabinet in the House of Commons on a motion declaring the Government to be in Contempt of Parliament – a first in the history of the Commonwealth of Nations. (more…)

The issue of Internet censorship has cycled throughout headlines, whether it’s Congress interrogating Microsoft and Yahoo! as to why they are selling products that assist Chinese filtration or Google deciding that they are no longer censoring The largest cause for concern has been the violation of human rights, which has lead to new Internet freedom scales from organizations like Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders. However, research of Internet censorship from an economic perspective has been pretty limited. I performed a mini case study of China and India, two countries that have had similar ICT growth but one is censored and the other is not. Unfortunately, there is not much evidence that shows that censorship is causing much of a negative effect on China’s ICT industry, but its continual growth could still influence policy change as the entire nation gets online. (more…)

You land in a country that is recovering from a long war.  The infrastructure is limited, but there is a nascent democratic government.  To make up for the lack of infrastructure, citizens use text messages sent to a central receiver or Twitter feeds to let government officials know what they need.  I’m describing E-Democracy, and using a platform like Swiftriver, these text messages and Tweets can be organized by time and geographic location.  It provides information to elected leaders, while starting a public record of citizen-government interaction. Since the Swift platform can handle data streams ranging from RSS feeds to the inflow of discrete numeric data, it’s an excellent platform for governance and peacekeeping professionals to use in their field work.   (more…)
The first Palestinian Intifada (meaning “Uprising” in Arabic: الانتفاضة) began in 1987 and the second in 2000. With the recent flock of revolution in the Middle East, a third was called for – via social media – to take shape in 2011.
The Facebook Page “Third Palestinian Intifada,” which drew in more than 340,000 members and originally called for Palestinians to peacefully protest after Friday prayers on May 15th, was removed on March 29th because of its hateful statements and violent commentary against Israel’s Jewish population.   (more…)

Deep in the “Chaco” of Paraguay where farmers live under two dollars a day, resides a budding entrepreneur named Alfonso Parada. “I took out a loan to start my farming business and with the profits I’ll send myself to IT school,” he told me. “I want to become a computer programmer and give a good life to my family.” Then he showed me his most recent investment: a cell phone that housed two SIM cards from different service providers. “I need to make sure I always have coverage and get the cheapest rates wherever I am.” Alfonso’s access to a mobile phone in one of the least physically accessible areas of South America is a symbol of communication equity.  (more…)

Qatar-based Al Jazeera may be completely responsible for the lack of productivity amongst university students, in many different disciplines, all over the world. Walking through the halls of a local university you may hear, at any one point, one student saying to another “Al Jazeera ate my homework.”

The reason for this is what the LA Times has coined Al Jazeera’s ‘CNN moment’ (referring to the network’s coverage of the Gulf War, which catapulted it into popularity). Al Jazeera’s around the clock news and live updated coverage of the protests and revolutions throughout the Middle East and Africa, has in many ways changed the rules of the media game. Al Jazeera has led news media outlets down a path that forces all others to be very conscientious of not only what they report but also in keeping up with real-time events. (more…)