South Sudan: The #OSJUBA event stresses early moves by net activists

By FD Publisher: APCNews     Juba,

Imagine a city torn by war, overwhelmed with daily influx of people from the countryside, becoming the capital of a country from one day to the next. And then picture crazy computer people ruffled together in an abandoned supermarket, thousands of kilometres away, in another city, trying to fix the first city. These two images put together are called #OSJUBA. OS for open source and Juba for the capital of the latest country in the world, South Sudan.

Juba is a post-conflict city, one of the fastest growing cities in the world, on the banks of the White Nile, a branch of the mighty Nile. Juba is also the capital city of South Sudan since the country gained independence in July 2011. But what’s almost certainly wrong with this picture, are the crazy supermarket people. Because crazy they are not!

Past June 21 and 22, dozens of aid workers, software developers, politicians, civil servants and many more came together in Berlin at an event called #OSJUBA to answer to a simple but tricky question: Juba. The World’s first Open Source City? Organised by r0g, an ‘agency for open culture and critical transformation’, the event was meant as the kick-off of an idea. That idea was to look at creating a vision for the development of Juba, based on non-proprietary tools and systems, drawing not only on the expertise of the South Sudanese diaspora and local populations, but also on that of the large communities behind the many open source initiatives around the world . «By bringing together those interested in open, collaborative tools and techniques, with those interested in post-conflict development, we tried to test the plausibility of that vision,» says Stephen Kovats, the initiator of it all.

Maja Bott, an economist formerly with the UNDP mission in Sudan who came to share insights about her current experience with crowdsourcing initiatives in Togo, intoned that «these kinds of things we’re talking about may seem insane in a place like South Sudan, but they are exactly what needs to take place». She insisted on moving away from the often bureaucratic talk of the aid community and to refresh it by using new ideas.
«Juba is mushrooming from a regional hub into a world capital and along the way, many things need to be developed. Why not use open source ideas and methodologies?,» asks an enthusiastic Kovats. « The dialogue we started in Berlin might look like a meeting among crazy crack computer activists, but interestingly, the event has managed to galvanise support for the idea of open source as a significant tool for international development,» explains Kovats. His reasoning goes like this. South Sudan as an independent nation and Juba as a functional, modern capital need to be built from scratch. For now, much of this state is a construct of the international community, as he sees it. Therefore, as a collaborative venture between the people of South Sudan and the international community the development of the country can also be understood as a unique public domain project. All citizens have a right to participate in building it. «This is also where the role that open source helps in securing human rights and particularly freedom of expression kicks in,» his reasoning goes.

«The whole rationale of a conflict state morphing into an open source society, relies on the guarantee of people being allowed to express themselves freely,» he says. This attitude of openness towards the ideas of others, was exactly what the participants embodied at #OSJUBA. They explored means of digital activism and open source methodologies through case studies (e.g., HONF’s Micronation project in Indonesia) and focus groups (on themes such as open source economies; architecture & urbanism; forms of collaboration; open energy). Kovats is very conscious that Juba’s development relies on a fragile peace and that there are massive challenges to the most basic needs from education to health services, as well as political reconciliation and resource management. «It’s probably the most difficult place to do anything. At the same time, getting it ‘right’ in Juba can create enormous opportunities for the flegling nation,» he argues.

Creating effective modes of transparency between government, aid agencies and the population, using relatively simple technologies for instance, was a very big issue at the event. Some insisted on crowd-sourcing and using open data, as a way to fast-track urban development. Kenya-based open source developer Ushahidi’s latest platform upgrade for user defined mapping is called Juba, characterising the symbolic hope being invested in the success of the South Sudan project. With little modern infrastructure but an already adequate mobile phone system in and around Juba discussions about microcrediting systems and civic journalism using SMS technology were also triggered.

Among many other themes and examples, #OSJUBA looked at local knowledge transfer and information sharing, crowd sourcing and emancipatory internet tools, as well as collaborative technologies and platforms for economic development, freedom of expression and digital journalism. Development agencies present at the event – which was held in a transformed supermarket in downtown Berlin – were interested in looking at the power of open technologies and methods that would help people (use the potential of their innovation) to cement a peaceful and sustainable construction. «What could these tools mean for the future of the country? Can South Sudan become a development model?» Although yet unanswered, these questions seem to have struck a cord with the participants.

Next #OSJUBA event? If all goes well, end of year 2012 … in Juba!

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