Open or not open? That is the question.

For many of the open source “purists” in the ICT4D field, there is only one (relatively rigid) way to run an open source project. For others – usually those who have had to actually work through the many challenges and complexities of open sourcing a piece of software – things are rarely that clear-cut. Being “open”, and “openness” in itself, can mean many different things.

Three bits of news from the past fortnight highlight how difficult and controversial being truly “open” can be.

1. Twitter

In an attempt to “ensure users can interact with Twitter the same way everywhere”, the company announced that they were considering restricting – and even blocking – access to their API for third party applications. Although this may make sense from a business or user-experience perspective, it was arguably the very explosion of these third party Twitter clients which accelerated the growth of the service. Twitter’s decision to be more strategic with their API, rather than let anyone anywhere build applications around it, is a clear attempt to regain control of the micro-blogging service. The full story is available on the BBC Technology pages.

2. Android Marketplace

Right from its inception, Apple have been heavily criticised in some quarters for the way they control every aspect of the running of their App Store. Applications are vetted and quality tightly controlled, meaning that not “any-old-application” makes it into the store. While this may be problematic for application developers, end-users (such as iPhone and iPod Touch owners) get a largely guaranteed experience – apps that work, apps that have a reasonable and familiar UI experience,  and apps that are malware and virus free. The Android Marketplace is everything that the App Store isn’t, and whilst it’s fully open and community-managed approach may make the purists purr, for the end user the experience can be much more of a challenge. You can read more on the BBC here, where the open nature of the Android platform is described as a “boon and a danger”.

3. Android Honeycomb

“In the great mobile-device wars, Google has portrayed itself as the open-source crusader doing battle against the leaders in proprietary software—Apple, Microsoft, and Research In Motion”. This argument held up strong until a couple of weeks ago when Google – again in the “interests of the user experience” – decided to delay releasing the source code of its latest Android operating system. This has caused something of a shock in the mobile world, but for others it comes as no surprise.

Problematic as they may be, these little nuggets of news confirm one thing – that the mobile industry is in a constant state of flux. Two things we can be sure of, though, are that even seemingly unambiguous terms such as “open” can never be taken for granted, and that open can never be assumed – by default – to be better than closed.

The innovation/entrepreneurship divide

Last month I attended the Global Competitiveness Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and sat on a Panel discussing “Conscious Capitalism” with Sally Osberg from Skoll, Bright Simons from IMANI, Michael Strong from FLOW and Mabel van Oranje from The Elders. It was during preparation for a short ten minute talk that my concept of “reluctant innovators” took shape, something I blogged about in more detail here.

Here’s the video of that introduction (you can also watch on YouTube), in which I briefly touch on our work with FrontlineSMS and why we focus on the “social mobile long tail“. It ends with a summary of some of the challenges entrepreneurs and innovators face working in the mobile-for-development field – nasties such as business models, measuring impact and scale.

Nigerian youth ask: What about us?

I owe a lot to Nigeria. Throughout 2002 I lived in Calabar where I helped run a primate sanctuary. I made many friends and gained a real understanding of many of the problems facing the country. Five years later, in 2007, a loose coalition of Nigerian NGOs took our FrontlineSMS platform and monitored their elections with it, a breakthrough moment for us and for them.

This guest post, by Nosarieme Garrick, speaks volumes for the strength and character of the many Nigerians I’ve met over the years. It’s an honour to be able to help spread her message. I hope it resonates with you, too.

“The journey back to Nigeria was unexpected, but the planning came like a hurricane. One day I was chasing a story in New York, the next I was planning my trip back to the capital city of Abuja. So here I am pushing for the youth to truly exercise their civic duties in every sense of the word.

It started almost a year ago with a post on CNN Amanpour’s blog offering constructive criticism to Nigeria’s leaders, which received a deafening response, and persuaded me that sitting from the comfort of my Brooklyn apartment, ranting about that which ails Nigeria wasn’t good enough.

At the time a number kept haunting me – 70% of Nigeria’s population was under the age of 30, that’s 105 million people, yet the educational system is deplorable, food prices are so high that the average student can’t afford it, and millions of kids work the streets everyday hawking goods to help their families out. The majority of the country is disenfranchised. I looked at the political arena of Nigeria, and started to understand why, the lack of representation for the youth, with most of our political leaders way over the age of 50.

I realized the Nigerian youth had no voice. People had been making decisions for us, and we’d let them because we didn’t believe our votes would be counted. Countless times international observers had reported cases of electoral fraud but it never mattered, we’d watched complacently.

Growing up in Nigeria, every kid was aware of one thing if nothing else – children were to be seen and not heard. We didn’t stay in the room when our elders were talking, we didn’t question anything our elders said, and we definitely didn’t hold an opinion on their actions, wrong or not. In a sense there was a culture of fear created, what were we afraid of? Maybe lashes, being reprimanded, I’m not too sure anymore, we just knew that’s how things were. The home was a reflection of our leaders, we knew they were up to no good, but we said nothing for fear of jail, or even worse – death.

In April of 2010, I got together with some friends and came up with Vote or Quench, a youth driven, social media-focused organization seeking to engage our young people in Nigeria’s opaque political arena, and build a bridge between the diaspora and Nigerians at home. Inspired by the monitoring of election violence in Kenya, and the Iranian Green Revolution, we decided that 2011 would be the year young Nigerians would hold Nigeria’s leaders accountable, and create an atmosphere that encourages free and fair elections.

Since my return home, I have understood that we were not the only youths that felt that way. We paired up with a number of youth empowerment organizations (Enough is Enough, Sleeves Up) along with several blogs (CP-Africa, Last Plane To Lagos ) and young Nigeria celebrities (Nneka) to push for a mass awareness campaign for the crucial two week voter’s registration period. On January 11th, 2011 we challenged the youth to dream up the positive change that could happen if Nigerians went out and voted, using the hashtag #IFNAIJAVOTES. The campaign was a success, trending in Nigeria, and garnering massive support around the world to get people out to register. The registration period saw a huge turn out, with a recorded 64.5 million registered voters out of the eligible 76.5 million, despite huge setbacks by the flawed process. This spoke tons on the willingness of young Nigerians to go out and vote.

The culture of intimidation is quickly losing its edge as we have seen through the courageous, death defying acts of the Arab world. The youth have risen up and are standing up for their civil rights, and this is being mimicked through the world, Nigeria being one such example.

We are teaming up with these organizations once again to call for the first ever youth-centered presidential debate. As youth make up the 70% block of registered voters, we understand the power of our vote, and request that our candidates take an evening to address the youth that has been failed by previous administrations. Since the handover to civilian rule in 1999, presidential candidates threw out vague rhetoric about their plans to fix our country, however power outages are still a norm, infrastructure has yet to be developed outside of major cities, and what’s even more alarming is that our unemployed youth are quickly falling to crime, used as political weapons to disrupt elections, used to divide communities as we’ve seen in Jos, or are joining militia groups in the Niger Delta.

We will be utilizing social media and SMS to crowd source questions from Nigeria’s youth. We want to give the youth a platform to have their frustrations heard, and hear directly from our aspirants, in order for them to be held accountable for the promises they make. The problems of a militant youth in the Niger Delta are not dissimilar to those of a child bride in North, nor are they dissimilar to an undereducated youth of the east, resorting to kidnapping to make a living.

We want to know what these candidates have in store for the youth to get them back on track and give them the future that is owed to them by the country. We want to know why they are deserving of the youth vote. We are standing up, and asking: “WHAT ABOUT US?

Here’s how you can help:

Many young Nigerians have no voice, and we are here to provide them with one that is so desperately needed. For one day, we’re asking you to support them and do your part for our collective future.

What: Campaign to Support “WHAT ABOUT US?”
How: Dedicate your profile pictures and social network statuses to “WHAT ABOUT US?” and attend a virtual event at
When: Thursday March 3rd, 2011

Thank you.”

A product from around the world, but loudly repping Nigeria, Nosarieme Garrick is a journalist, entrepreneur and activist currently leading the campaign in raising awareness for youth participation in Nigeria’s upcoming elections. You can follow her – @Nosalikes on Twitter – or email her – Nosarieme [at]