State Department Technology Adviser: ‘Connectedness’ Is Key In Efforts Abroad

As I wrote earlier, the Obama administration has been using social networking technology to spread his foreign policy message abroad.

The State Department has been at the forefront of the technology push, coordinating with the private sector abroad with a focus on connectivity.

Alec Ross, senior adviser for innovation at State, told TPMDC about several projects being done in Afghanistan and Pakistan to help bridge those communities in ways diplomats thing will help forge peace.

“The premise is that connectedness is a net positive,” Ross said.

“The more voices there are, the more points of view,” the better it gets, said Ross, who ran technology media and the telecommunications policy for the Obama campaign, including the text message rollout of Joe Biden as the Democratic vice presidential pick.The most prominent is Humari Awaz, a mobile social network the State Department helped create in Pakistan. They agreed to pick up the cost to build the intellectual capital infrastructure and for the first 24 million messages on the first-ever mobile network.

The network, translated into “our voice,” received more than 8 million messages in less than a month in operation, Ross said.

“Part of what we are trying to do is ensure that there is a diversity of voices in Pakistan,” he said. “It’s increasingly the case particularly for young people that they communicate and engage over mobile phones.”

He wouldn’t disclose the amount of the government’s investment, but said they are in negotiations now with the carriers for how to keep it going. The initial investment was the most important one since it does not cost the networks much to send a text message, Ross said.

Ross said mobile devices remain a fast-growing market across the globe. When he started at the State Department in April, there were 4.1 billion in the world. Now, there are 4.6 billion.

“It’s wild,” Ross said. “What’s taking place is we are now past the tipping point in global connectedness. It doesn’t matter where you go, by and large at this point people are a part of our global community.”

Ross said he recently touched down in Goma in the East Congo. When he disembarked from the United Nations plane, his Blackberry “chirped to life with choice of three different networks” in a place with a per capita gross domestic product of $184.

The State Department also has helped to secure the cell network towers the Taliban attacks or forces to be powered down at night.

The towers are being placed on bases and also insured to allow investors to help build up the network with less risk.

The State Department also has helped bring a mobile banking system, similar to a program used in Kenya, to Afghanistan’s cash-based economy.

The cash economy lends itself to corruption and also slows everything down as workers have to spend days traveling to remote parts of the country to give their wages to family members.

Instead of pushing traditional banks on Main Street, diplomats are working with Afghan banking regulators to promote mobile banking and paying security forces via this technology, Ross said.