GEOG 479
Cyber-Geography in Geospatial Intelligence

Assignment 9 Intro - Case Study: Extending the Arab Spring Analysis for sub-Saharan Africa


Assignment 9 Intro - Case Study: Extending the Arab Spring Analysis for sub-Saharan Africa

Building upon previous lessons, the geospatial intelligence questions become:

  • Where might the Arab Spring events be replicated?
  • Is a sub-Saharan spring a possibility?
  • Is there a way to predict where and/or when?

By looking at the timing of the adoption of certain technologies in the Mahgreb, a pattern emerges. Before 2008-2009, there were several pieces in place and certain trends occurring. Just prior to 2009, all the critical enabling technologies were in place and were force multipliers.

The first technology is GPS. The technology is free to anyone with a receiver, and it is one piece that helped transform the Mahgreb. The second piece piece of ICT infrastructure is the sheer amount of bandwidth available due to the dramatic increase in undersea fiber optic cables. The third piece of technology becoming more available to Africans continent wide is mobile phone use. At the beginning of 2000, the penetration rate as measured by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) was very low but increased exponentially in North Africa in particular over the period 2000-2011. As seen in Figure 32 below, in the period when there was steady adoption of mobile phone technology in the US, the rate of adoption in the North African/Middle Eastern market was much faster in a shorter period of time. The ability of the ordinary person on the street to self-organize has been touted as an example of the possibilities of change enabled by the increases in ICT infrastructure put in place.

The second technology is based on subsea cables. Another piece of ICT infrastructure that became available to North Africa in abundance after 2009 was the Internet. The sheer amount of bandwidth available due to a dramatic increase in subsea fiber optic cables being installed was another factor as seen in the Figure below. As these cables have come online, more and more the transactions costs have come down. Infrastructure increases in Africa have led to increases in information flow, and associated increases in relational aspects between distant points. What could formerly be characterized as “Terra Incognita” is changing with increases in infrastructure. Would the “Arab Spring” have been possible in 2009? The lack of infrastructure makes it doubtful. At the time of this graphic, Africa’s total bandwidth increased from 6 terabytes/second (tbps) to more than 34tbps,  and more cables have been laid down and are still in planning stages. Currently, there are over half a billion Africans connected to the global system through cell phones and the Internet, and this number will increase. The geopolitical potential for change is being established.

Figure 30: Low-cost, abundant, easily distributed information lowers transaction costs, which affects the nature of institutions and organizations. Connectivity has increased exponentially since 2000.

Credit: Downloaded from Oxford Internet Institute (OII).

The third piece of technology becoming more available to Africans continent wide is mobile phone use. At the beginning of the 2000, the penetration rate as measured by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), was very low but increased exponentially in North Africa in particular over the period 2000-2011. As seen in the graph below, in the period when there was steady adoption of mobile phone technology in the US, the rate of adoption in the North African/Middle Eastern market was much faster in a shorter period of time. The ability of the ordinary man on the street to self organize has been touted as an example of the possibilities of change enabled by the increases in ICT infrastructure put in place.

Figure 31. Mobile-Cellular Subscriptions per 100 inhabitants. The growth of mobile phone technology in the period from 2000-2017 in countries where the “Arab Spring” took place. The US, UK, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Syria are included as a reference for comparison.Original analysis results by M. Thomas.

The fourth piece of technology in the process of being fielded is a satellite constellation called "OB3," or "Other 3 Billion" referring to the other 3 billion currently not connected to the Internet. On Jun 27, 2013, the first 4 satellites were launched into Middle Earth Orbit at an altitude of approximately 8000 km, eight more in 2014 (four satellites on 10 July 2014 and four on 18 December 2014), and four more on 9 March 2018. The constellation will grow to twenty satellites in 2019. The current plan is for a full set of 16 satellites providing satellite based Internet connectivity for the zone between N45-S45 degrees. At such a low orbit, the lag time is less, the cost is less, and the connectivity is ubiquitous due to the number of satellites in orbit. The launch was reported at Extreme Tech and a full description of the capabilities is available at the company homepage at O3B Networks. In Sept2017, SES announced the next generation of O3b satellites and placed an order for an initial seven from Boeing Satellite Systems using a new satellite platform based on Boeing’s 702 line of scalable buses. Expected to launch in 2021, the O3b mPower constellation of MEO satellites for broadband internet services will "be able to deliver anywhere from hundreds of megabits to 10 gigabits to any ship at sea" through 30,000 spot beams.

FIgure 32. O3b satellite constellation showing visibility of ring of MEO satellites around the equator. Rendered using the SaVi Satellite constellation Visualization package by Lloyd Wood, author of SaVi.

The fifth piece of technology is centered around content. Content from "traditional" sources has been supplemented with social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. All played a part in execution of the Arab Spring and will be discussed later. Measuring their impacts will be as well. Tools to acurately detect and measure content abound. The focus of one such tool - NodeXL Pro - will be what we use for the remainder of the class. 

Various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) supply data that offers additional insight. These include:

  • The Human Development Index (HDI) is a composite statistic of life expectancy, education, and income indices to rank countries into four tiers of human development. It was created by economist Mahbub ul Haq, followed by economist Amartya Sen in 1990, and published by the United Nations Development Program.
  • First launched in 1995, the Corruption Perceptions Index has been widely credited with putting the issue of corruption on the international policy agenda. Each year countries are scored on how corrupt their public sectors are seen to be. The Corruption Perceptions Index sends a powerful message and governments have been forced to take notice and act.
  • The Press Freedom Index is an annual ranking of countries compiled and published by Reporters Without Borders based upon the organization's assessment of the countries' press freedom records in the previous year. It reflects the degree of freedom that journalists, news organizations, and netizens enjoy in each country, and the efforts made by the authorities to respect and ensure respect for this freedom. Reporters Without Borders is careful to note that the index only deals with press freedom and does not measure the quality of journalism nor does it look at human rights violations in general.
Figure 33. Comparison of the cellphone penetration rate to the various indices of three different NGOs. The US is offered as a reference for comparison.
Country Cell Phone Rate/100 Human Development Index (HDI)a TI Corruption Index Reporters without Borders Freedom Index 2010
Libya 155.70 0.755 2.0 63.5
Tunisia 116.93 0.683 3.8 72.50
Egypt 101.08 0.620 2.9 43.33
US 89.86 0.937 7.1 6.75
Original analysis results by M. Thomas.

The question becomes one of whether an association can be drawn between the various measures and the existence of the ICT infrastructure increases that have taken place in the last decade. Using correlation analysis (available in Excel), offers a surprising insight as shown in Figure 33. What stands out is the high degree of correlation between the cell phone penetration rate in a country and two of the three other measures: the HDI at 0.98, the Freedom Index at 0.48, and the corruption index at -0.69, all with alpha at 0.05. Corruption in the police force in Tunisia is widely regarded as being the spark that set off the Arab Spring. The high correlation between the cell phone rate and the three NGO indices may act as a significant predictor of geopolitical change.

Figure 34. Cell phone penetration rate compared to 3 NGO indices of Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.
- Cell Phone Rate/100 Human Development Index (HDI)a TI Corruption Index Reporters without Borders Freedom Index 2010
Cell Phone Rate/100 1.00
Human Development Index (HDA)a 0.98 1.00
TI Corruption Index -0.69 -0.53 1.00
Reporters without Borders Freedom Index 2010 0.48 0.65 0.30 1.00
Original analysis results by M. Thomas.

The premise is that ICT infrastructure increases offer intelligence insights. The details of the Undersea cable architecture are worth reviewing. From the website, the geography of all individual cables can be viewed. Using Libya as an example, two interesting features can be noted:

  1. The undersea cables had multiple points of entry into the country all along the Mediterranean coast.
  2. The cables linked into points north – into Europe.

What is prominent, is that all of the countries in North Africa exhibit the same feature. Outward connections are mainly with Europe, not with neighboring countries in the region. There are few direct connections between north-African countries. Sub-Saharan Africa tells a different story for terrestrial connectivity.

screen shot of example of undersea connectivity in Libya
Figure 35. Example of undersea connectivity in Libya.

This model may be extendable throughout Africa. Many parts of the continent have either a recent violent past or are still in the midst of conflict. ICT technology increases tend to occur more prominently in areas near the coast—driven in part by the availability of connectivity outside of Africa. This is not a new trend, as intra-African trade and contact has always been dwarfed by external trade. It should not be surprising that this also extends to the information domain. It is based upon the geography of Africa - few large navigable rivers, along with the bulk of the interior in sub-Saharan Africa being a plateau. Smart phone use throughout sub-Saharan Africa has been projected by some analysts to increase almost 40%/year through 2017.

Listen to the Experts (Optional Talk)

Tech communities are booming all over Africa, says Nairobi-based Juliana Rotich, cofounder of the open-source software Ushahidi. But it remains challenging to get and stay connected in a region with frequent blackouts and spotty Internet hookups. So Rotich and friends developed BRCK, offering resilient connectivity for the developing world (9:33).

Juliana Rotich: Meet BRCK, Internet access built for Africa
Click here for transcript of the BRCK video.



JULIANA ROTICH: Living in Africa is to be on the edge, metaphorically and quite literally when you think about connectivity before 2008. There were many human intellectual and technological leaps that happened in Europe and the rest of the world, but Africa was sort of cut off. And that changed, first with ships-- when we had the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and also the Industrial Revolution, and now we've got the Digital Revolution. These revolutions have not been evenly distributed across continents and nations. Never have been. 

Now, this is a map of the undersea fiber optic cables that connect Africa to the rest of the world. What I find amazing is that Africa is transcending its geography problem. Africa is connecting to the rest of the world and within itself. The connectivity situation has improved greatly, but some barriers remain. It is with this context that Ushahidi came to be. 

In 2008, one of the problems that we faced was a lack of information flow. There was a media blackout in 2008 when there was post-election violence in Kenya. It was a very tragic time. It was a very difficult time. So we came together and we created software called Ushahidi. And Ushahidi means "testimony" or "witness" in Swahili. 

I'm very lucky to work with two amazing collaborators. This is David and Erik. I call them brothers from another mother. Clearly I have a German mother somewhere. And we work together first with building and growing Ushahidi. 

And the idea of the software was to gather information from SMS, email, and web and put a map so that you could see what was happening where and you could visualize that data. And after that initial prototype, we set out to make free and open source software so that others do not have to start from scratch like we did. 

All the while, we also wanted to give back to the local tech community that helped us grow Ushahidi the and supported us in those early days, and that's why we set up the iHub in Nairobi-- an actual physical space where we could collaborate, and it is now part of an integral tech ecosystem in Kenya. We did that with the support of different organizations, like MacArthur Foundation and Omidyar Network. And we were able to grow this software footprint, and a few years later, it became very useful software. And we were quite humbled when it was used in Haiti where citizens could indicate where they are and what their needs were and also to deal with the fallout from the nuclear crisis and the tsunami in Japan. 

Now this year, the internet turns 20, and Ushahidi turned five. Ushahidi is not only the software that we made, it is the team. And it is also the community that uses this technology in ways that we could not foresee. We did not imagine that there'd be this many maps around the world. There are crisis maps, election maps, corruption maps, and even environmental monitoring crowd maps. We are humbled that this has roots in Kenya and that it has some use to people around the world trying to figure out the different issues that they're dealing with. 

There is more that we're doing to explore this idea of collective intelligence, that I as a citizen, if I share the information with whatever device that I have, could inform you about what is going on, and that if you do the same, we can have a bigger picture of what's going on. I moved back to Kenya in 2011. Erik moved in 2010. 

Very different reality. I used to live in Chicago where there was abundant internet access. I'd never had to deal with a blackout. And in Kenya, it's a very different reality. And one thing that remains, despite the leaps in progress in the digital revolution is the electricity problem. 

The day-to-day frustrations of dealing with this can be, let's just say, very annoying. Blackouts are not fun. Imagine sitting down to start working and all of a sudden, the power goes out. Your internet connection goes down with it. So you have to figure out, OK, now where's the modem, how do I switch back, and then guess what, you have to deal with it again. Now this is the reality of Kenya, where we live now, and other parts of Africa. 

The other problem that we're facing is that communication costs are also still a challenge. It costs me five Kenya shillings, or 0.06 USD to call the US, Canada, or China. Guess how much it costs to call Rwanda, Ghana, Nigeria? 30 Kenya shillings. That's six times the cost to connect within Africa. And also when traveling within Africa, you've got different settings for different mobile providers. This is the reality that we deal with. So we've got a joke in Ushahidi, where we say, if it works in Africa, it'll work anywhere. 


What if we could overcome the problem of unreliable internet and electricity and reduce the cost of connection? Could we leverage the cloud? We've built crowd map, we've built Ushahidi. Could we leverage these technologies to switch smartly whenever you travel from country to country? 

So we looked at the modem, an important part of the infrastructure of the internet, and asked ourselves, why. The modems that we're using right now are built for a different context, where you've got ubiquitous internet, you've got ubiquitous electricity. Yet we sit here in Nairobi and we do not have that luxury. We wanted to redesign the modem for the developing world for our context and for our reality. What if we could have connectivity with less friction? 

This is the BRCK. It acts as a backup to the internet so that when the power goes out, it fails over and connects to the nearest GSM network. Mobile connectivity in Africa is pervasive. It's actually everywhere. Most towns at least have a 3G connection, so why don't we leverage that, and that's why we've built this. 

The other reason that we built this is when electricity goes down, this has eight hours of battery life, so you can continue working. You can continue being productive. And let's just say, you are less stressed. And for rural areas, it can be the primary means of connection. 

The software sensibility at Ushahidi is still at play when we wondered, how can we use the cloud to be more intelligent so that you can analyze the different networks. And whenever you switch on the backup, you pick on the fastest networks. So we will have multi-SIM capability so that you can put multiple SIMs. And if one network is faster, that's the one you hop on. And if the uptime on that is not very good, then you hop on to the next one. 

The idea here is for you to be able to connect anywhere. With load balancing, this can be possible. The other interesting thing for us-- we like sensors-- is this idea that you could have an on-ramp for the internet of things. Imagine a weather station that can be attached to this. It's built in a modular way so that you can also attach a satellite module so that you could have internet connectivity even in very remote areas. 

Out of adversity can come innovation, and how can we help the ambitious coders and makers in Kenya to be resilient in the face of problematic infrastructure? And for us, we begin with solving the problem in our own backyard, in Kenya. It is not without challenge. Our team have basically been mules, carrying components from US to Kenya. We've had very interesting conversations with customs border agents. What are you carrying? 

And the local financing is not an idea-- is it's not part of the ecosystem for supporting hardware projects, so we put it on Kickstarter. And I'm happy to say that through the support of many people, not only here but online, the BRCK has been Kickstarted, and now the interesting part of bringing this to market begins. 

I will close by saying that if we solve this for the local market, it could be impactful not only for the coders in Nairobi, but also for small business owners who need reliable connectivity. And it can reduce the cost of connecting and hopefully, collaboration within African countries. The idea is that the building blocks of the digital economy are connectivity and entrepreneurship. The BRCK is our part to keep Africans connected and to help them drive the global digital revolution. Thank you. 



Credit: TED