Dear Kenya Airways, Some Observations to Improve In-Flight Customer Experience (that’s if you still care)…

Dear Executives in charge of KQ customer experience,

(I penned this from 38,000 feet above sea level, aboard KQ 100 on March 26, 2017, while crossing the Mediterranean Sea, to fly over Greece, towards the European continent).

I happen to fly with you quite often, and I think I’ve flown most of your direct-flight destinations, sometimes fighting tooth and nail to pay extra to fly directly – to London, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Accra, Bangkok, Amsterdam, to name a few. Since October last year, I have noted the efforts to acknowledge Frequent Flyers on board, beyond the flight parser’s welcome announcement.

There’s room for improvement, though. I benchmark this against my experience with other Frequent Flyer programs and their partner alliances (of which, the highest level I’ve attained is with SkyTeam, but I seemingly am reaping the least benefits, especially from Kenya Airways).

To ease your reading, I have italicized the major points I hope you can take away from my flight with you today.

My first point: as a Frequent Flyer, you will forgive me for growing to expect personalised services. You hold a repository of data on my -and other frequent flyers’ – preferences, if you care to dig into it, or collect it in formats that allow you to personalise my flying experience, that would do us all some good.

For instance, I always request a special meal. And yet, for this flight e.g. (booked via a KLM deal), I could not make the request for this KQ leg of my trip, nor indicate seat preference at the time of booking. (I have noted that for flights booked directly via KQ, however, I can do so).

Two things here: must I keep keying in my request with every booking? Given that bookings are done via multiple avenues, I do try to ensure that they have all my preferences captured in the booking (aisle seats, special meal etc). For this trip, I had to call your customer service center to make the request. It’s 2017, yawa. Coming up on my umpteenth flight with you, I am getting tired of always chasing after my requests being captured. (The option to amend previously captured preferences upon booking or checking-in would be a natural next step!)

Secondly,  what’s with your online data capture systems? I have a breezy time with KLM, Air France and linking to the Flying Blue system. Yet, when it comes to being referred to KQ’s partner website, blergh. The only thing your system seems to acknowledge is my Frequent Flyer number. Yet, most of my preferences are in the Flying Blue program database. Now, I understand Data Protection and Regulation mechanisms are likely at play, but what’s the bare minimum interoperability with the Flying Blue system you can aim towards, while upholding privacy safeguards? Else, what more can your systems do, even if it’s an option to save one’s preferences for future bookings and confirmations?

I suppose I could take a cynical approach here and be happy that you don’t have my data on preferences in a neat bow, if it meant that it would be prone to abuse. (I work in tech policy you see, so I’m super sensitive about personal data footprints and how they are (ab)used).

Then let’s get to the meals. Maybe  I’ve been compelled to pen this reflection because I’m stone-cold sober. (Your generous servings of alcoholic beverages is something you must never stop, we give thanks!). Halfway into my trip, and I’ve not had a meal. For breakfast, I didn’t need to as I had sorted myself. I did, however, hope to have some fruit in the special meal order- there was none. As my blood sugar levels dipped, I asked cabin crew for fruit; there was none (not in the meals on board for Economy class, at least).

Pro-tip: some apples, bananas, melon slices etc, aren’t a bad idea to have on board. Gives those of us who don’t like snacks of the junk-food variety some  options. (Keep the nuts forever, though!). At this time, I can’t quite indulge in the nuts, so one other option off my list. (What snack options for those allergic to nuts, by the way?)

I wait with trepidation, on what my lunch will be. It seems I shouldn’t expect fruit…

Let’s talk about the coffee served.  I imagine there’s some operational reason for which instant coffee (Nescafé) for Economy is the default. But I know for a fact that there’s good coffee on the other side of the curtain; something I’ve thoroughly enjoyed in other trips (oh, along with fruit).

By virtue of producing the some of the world’s best coffee, I have a difficult time reconciling the serving of Nescafé aboard the Pride of Africa.

If you will keep one data point about this passenger, right next to my Frequent Flyer details- it’s that I am a coffee lover (NOT instant coffee). Wondering out loud here: is it possible for that to translate to having decent coffee on future flights? (No milk or sugar, good ol’ black coffee). That’s why it’s doubly painful to down the instant stuff…but I needed it to make my alcohol-free trip bearable.

I really wanted to ask for “some of the good stuff from up front” when breakfast service was done and lights were dimmed. Twice, I tried to use the alert system (that  little blue light thingy? I forget the term, let’s blame it on low blood sugar). No one came. So each time I needed coffee, had to collect myself and go all the way to the back. (I don’t mind, actually. The walk is good for blood circulation). Couldn’t venture into asking for the good stuff given the fact that even a basic request outside “serving hours” comes across as a nuisance to your crew. This is something I’ve picked up  on severally. And I’m not one to beg for decent service.

Based on my experience with my other favourite alliance, such a request would not go unanswered, though. Isitoshe, (allow me infuse this with lugha ya taifa), even for frequent flyers not in Premier World/Business Class, an attendant is allocated to tend to the needs of  Frequent Flyers’  in cattle class.

My point in sum, is that there’s more to be done. Question is, will you do it? Or the fact that you got us to our destination is all there is to your hustle?

One time, on a NBO-JHB flights, one of your Executives was on board to assess customer experience, and so she came up to me and we had a chat. She thanked me for being loyal (though I come  up short on what resulting perks there have been). Pleasantly surprised, I asked her how she identified me, and she said my status popped up in the system (along with others – we were all in Economy). So I know you have ways to know who’s on board. She solicited some feedback, which I gave. Much of the same stuff mentioned here.

On a NBO-AMS flight, some survey forms were being dispensed; I was sufficiently marinated in wine and filled one out, even though I found the instrument very limiting to share meaningful insights.

Besides, all that feedback provision, and here I am. (My lunch request was pretty decent btw, and turns out there was some fruit. All of two small chunks of melon, pineapple and some traces of orange). I’ll survive till Heathrow, though I cringe at the thought of more instant coffee. I’ll dare request for the good stuff, and hope I won’t be shut down. I needed to read through a depressing report on communications surveillance back home (noting with irony that the practice is pretty much legal in my destination).

Next time you’re determined to improve customer experience, hope you can refer to these reflections. Also, next time your execs are “in the field”, have them fly economy. It’s just as important a benchmark as Premier World is.

Encourage more qualitative feedback from your Frequent Flyers. I see a lot of it shared via Twitter, but how much of it permeates through to those making decisions? Quantitative and one-off instruments limit what you can glean to truly remain the “Pride of Africa”.

(About 2 and a half hours to go on this trip). Let me comfort myself with the fact that at the very least, baggage allowance is more generous in my tier, when I need it. Else, I look forward to experiencing other perks of frequently flying with KQ.

If any of you care to do a right of reply, would be mighty nice. It could even be titled “Perks for KQ Frequent Flyers, both in Premier World and good ol’ Economy“. You can even have it in your next Msafiri issue; I’ll be back on board, and I’ll be happy to read such a piece.

Much as accolades and awards might stream in, you have a ways to go, not just in outranking your peers, but setting standards. Don’t -to borrow someone else’s words – pride yourself in being tall among stunted children. Not with such a tag line. Pride of Africa calls for always redefining that pride.

Onwards.

PS: how on earth can one utilise their miles with/on KQ, without having to call your centres? I have it figured out with KLM and Air France. Your system is a maze, Pride of Africa! Terrible user experience.

Also, please fix the KQ Msafiri portal. I need to redeem my miles from your Barclays’ co-branded Gold Credit Card before y’all sunset it. Please don’t make me have to call, I am not a fan of phone calls.

PPS: I am such an observer of phenomena, so whenever you really want to understand more, email me. (Please, don’t call. I don’t like calls).

Also, how about Fast Track forms for us folk who are loyal to y’all when we land at Heathrow? Can the service be extended to Elite Plus customers? You slide it along with the landing card…that would be peachy.

PPPS: I summoned strength to ask this lady for the good stuff. She said it’s for Business Class only. *sniffs*. (We have really good coffee in Kenya…sigh).

 

 

 

A Few Things You Should Know about Kenya’s Cyber Policy Landscape

The term policy very likely puts off a lot of folks. It probably evokes images of old men in suits and spectacles droning on about something or other. I, on the other hand, am fascinated by (public) policy. The most basic definition of policy is “a course or principle of action adopted or proposed by a government, party, business, or individual.” Policies help in shaping laws and regulations that govern various actors in a jurisdiction.

In an increasingly interconnected world, there is an emerging realm of cyber policy that is exciting as it is challenging. Safety, security, privacy, autonomy, freedom of expression are some of the aspects that now need to be rethought in the context of the cyber space. If you currently conduct any activity online, it definitely matters how the space is regulated, and what plans are in place to uphold your fundamental rights, as well as technological innovations that you leverage for work or leisure.

So what is the government of Kenya envisioning as protections and measures to underpin fundamental rights and freedoms online for its citizens? Which actors are involved? What laws are in place, and which ones are needed?

Equally, which non-state actors are in the forefront of these deliberations? Who is articulating citizens’ concerns in shaping our cyber policies?

A few things you should know:

i)  laws, regulations and policies pertaining to cybersecurity in Kenya largely approach it from the perspective of curbing cybercrime, and to a much lesser extent safeguarding the rights of citizens as they translate to an increasingly interconnected and inescapable digital realm.

Some of the laws in place include the Kenya Information Communications Act (KICA), Chapter 411A and the the Computer and Cybercrimes Bill (2016).

ii)  there exists a Computer Incident Response Team Coordination Centre (KE-CIRT/CC), whose role is to facilitate coordination and collaboration in response to cybersecurity incidents. This is to whom you can report a vulnerability or cyber-related incident that harms you or others.

iii) Our constitution, in Article 31, guarantees the right to privacy, including the right to not have information relating to one’s family or private affairs unnecessarily revealed, and to not have the privacy of one’s communications infringed.

BUT

a crucial piece of legislation to enforce is yet to be adopted. The Data Protection Bill, 2013 was formulated to give effect to this constitutional provision. It articulates requirements for electronic personal information collection, storage, protection/security, access, disclosure, and misuse.

iv)  Cyber policy needs thinkers, lawyers, geeks…(trying very hard not to use the hackneyed term ‘capacity’, but there you have it). Unchartered territories, where issues like sovereignty, Internet jurisdiction, protection of freedoms online and offline, national security all make for very interesting questions with no easy answers. Kenya is a lighthouse country in the region, and her people are sharp thinkers and doers who should explore this space a bit more!

For other insights, check out the report here.

Alternatively, you can listen to this podcast summary of the report.

This report was commissioned by Global Partners Digital, in a series designed to help civil society actors navigate the cyber policy landscape in four countries: Chile, India, Indonesia, and Kenya. It was co-authored by Tyrus Kamau and Juliet Maina

Hundreds of Fabulous Kenyan Women signed up to #SayNoToManelsKE

Back in May 2016, I wrote for the Daily Nation on this nefarious issue of all male panels, otherwise known as manels. They are pervasive. They are normalised.  They are problematic. The reactions to the piece have been interesting to follow, primarily via the #SayNoToManelsKE and #SayNoToManels hashtags.  (Other hashtags highlighting this issue globally include #AllMalePanels).

I am very pleased to see, and be part of many conversations around this. It is encouraging to note  increased awareness on how frequently we are treated to all male panels – in the media, in conferences and events. In turn, these shape perceptions, in many ways, and perpetrate the vicious circle of gendered norms. Some of the popular media shows are notorious for these manels.

Since the fallacious arguments that there aren’t women qualified or willing to show up are often used to perpetuate and justify manels, Ory Okolloh and I decided to put together a database of women in various sectors and industries across the country. 376 women and counting have signed up, and most importantly, THEY ARE WILLING to show up.

The publicly viewable and searchable database can be found here: http://bit.ly/SayNoToManelsKE 

You can search by industry of interest eg tech, health, oil etc.

If interested in specific contacts and for any queries, you can write to saynotomanelske@gmail.com. 

 The database is populated through this form: http://bit.ly/WomenSpeakersKESignUp

Efforts to tackle valid reservations to participating are also being pursued. For instance, public speaking workshops are being organised for those who have indicated interest.

 

We encourage more women to sign up, and help in tackling misrepresentation in our public spaces! If you cannot make it to an event/conference/panel you’ve been invited to, you can use this list to recommend other women, and encourage others in your industry to sign up.

Dear men, once again, a reminder, you can (and should) take a pledge not to take part in manels. We welcome a movement of bold men who will create and take such a pledge.

We need  champion organisations to also pledge to not organising manels!  In the meantime, we keep calling out manels as witnessed; it’s a critical first step in breaking the norm!

By the way, an all male panel with a female moderator is still a manel!

A special shout out to Sophie Mukhwana and Nanjala Nyabola for helping with organising the list, and public speaking workshops respectively. Mashujaa ni nyinyi! 💪🏾

 

 

 

On Writing about Tech in Africa (part 2): our toothbrushes, toilets and bulbs

 Back in 2009, some journalist -perhaps trying to make her story about “the pearl of Africa” land some eyeballs- stated that Uganda was “a place where cell phones could outnumber light bulbs.”

Now, that little nugget has morphed into the widely parroted factoid, that there are more mobile phones than bulbs in Uganda. It’s been cited in keynotes, presentations, maybe even helped advance some careers.

By 2010, we were being regaled with a UN statistic, that there are more people on earth with access to cellphones, than to toilets. It’s only upon digging deeper that one finds that the toilets benchmark for this factoid, is the flush toilet. Assumedly, it is the gold standard of toilets to access.

This particular statistic has been unleashed more specifically on India; though it is cited as both about the world in general, India specifically, and with pepperings of the country of Africa.

It is a tragic irony to think in India, a country now wealthy enough that roughly half of the people own phones,” so many people “cannot afford the basic necessity and dignity of a toilet,” UN University director.

Perhaps one day cell phones will bring to half the African population something else they lack — clean toilets.” The World Bank’s Chief Economist, MENA region.

Friends, it’s now 2016, and we are comparing mobile phone access to…drumroll please…toothbrushes.

Behold, the rush to quantity Africa, and indeed the “developing world”. We are our mobile phones, toilets, bulbs and toothbrushes.

Have pointed out severally how uncritical and condescending these kinds of comparatives are; even more unfortunate is we — as Africans, or “global Southerners” — tweet, ooh and aah at these nonsensical references.

So it seems the number of bulbs, for instance, is picked from household surveys, as this Ugandan who was just as tired of that uncritically trumpeted statistic about his country sought to investigate.

Other than to tingle the senses of those excited about “Africa rush 2.0″, what do such findings – flaunted and cited ever so excitedly – do for the perceptions of Africa, not just to the rest of the world, but also ourselves?

As someone rightfully asked, what logical policy conclusion does one draw from these stats? I mean…toothbrushes?

Am I too cynical to think this part of the bigger digital colonialism creeping upon us? Or the digital era’s version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness?

One’s tingly senses are activated when one grows increasingly familiar with how such projects have worked to keep us in need, lacking.

Of toothbrushes, toilets and bulbs in Africa. And the mobile phone takeover.

I am the first to acknowledge that there is a dearth of data to help many actors make sense of the continent. This is more so in certain parts than others, such as the absence altogether, of Central Africa on many maps.

But for crying out loud, this has got to stop. What next, more mobile phones than coconut trees? (Oh snap, did I just inspire some Africa research “expert”?)

On mobile phones, we need a serious push back on the thinking/operational hypothesis that a mobile-first Africa will make for a digitally transformed continent aside from generating consumers for products that will predominantly be from elsewhere.

For all our excitement about Silicon Savannah, most emerging market countries — including India — are rounding errors when we look at their share of global revenues on the app stores. Revenue is concentrated into a handful of markets that take the lion’s share back into their own countries, with local sales from local developers almost absent except for unique markets such as China, South Korea and Japan,Winners and Losers in the Global App Economy.

No app will make up for a lack of political will.

So, for crying out loud, enough of these insulting comparatives. There simply is no other way to rationalise that kind of framing.

And as always, Africa is not a country. There is no buy one, get 53 free.

Just stop it.

PS: Some may also want to scroll through “On Writing about Tech in Africa“.

A much needed clapback

Right off the bat, this is not a dose of political correctness, but a much needed clap back to the vitriol some women have had to bear on the Internet streets.

First and foremost, I want to address the comrade Boniface Mwangi, who is on a meteoric rise to leadership in this country, and who’s an acquaintance. Because you represent the emerging crop of leaders from our generation, be knowing that we will be here to celebrate and admonish you in equal measure.  This right here, is a much needed dose of the latter.  In warding off Esther Passaris from his timeline, the comrade opted to bring in her relationship status into the argument. I suppose that was with the aim to put an end to that discussion, have the final say? Whatever the case, Boni, that was uncalled for, and is bad manners.

The incident to which I refer has its genesis in your framing a visit to Othaya around the former and current MPs. For whatever reason, you decided to introduce Mary Wambui into the discourse as a mistress. I know, freedom of speech, and no one is here to police that. I’m here to shed insight on the (un)intended consequences of descriptive language. As far as I can tell, Esther questioned that framing, and you invited her to look into other tweets you shared about Othaya; having checked those, they entailed visiting your former teacher, Mrs Mucheru, among other things, none of which justify the mistress reference/framing. It is not lost on anyone who looked that evan in an inquiry about kutaka shamba, you felt the need to once again introduce Wambui as wa Kifaki.

Where you took things after that, however, hapana pris, as we say. This was unnecessary and reeks of sexism, plain and simple. You went to some lengths to frame Esther’s intervention around her private life. Why? To what end? As someone asked you on that thread, do you need to attack a woman to feel powerful? It’s interesting to also note that of all the comments you responded to, it was one by a brother who rightfully stated you are better than that. To which you said, you were responding using her line of reasoning. C’mon son, really?

How was she policing your tweets by questioning a very problematic framing of another woman as a mistress? If anything, Boni, it is you who’s adopted the stance of moral police for women of political prominence. Na it is bad manners. In a later response to Madam Passaris, you then referred to Madam Wambui as Kibaki’s successor. Now what was so wrong with using that framing from the onset?

I’m not going to bog you or anyone else down with literature on sexism. I’m sure you can find that of your own accord. But homie, it is unacceptable to reduce women to their choice of partners, or to any indiscretions in any argument. Disagreements can and should happen. However, there is no excuse for what are not only low blows, but sexist ones at that.

Of the injustices you choose to speak up  and fight back on, you must realise that justice for and dignity of women is very much intertwined. And you are failing. You owe the two women — and indeed all women an apology.  Your Twitter bio says you’re living your life to make a difference. Surely, it can’t be perpetuating sexism. So, if it’s unlearning the script on how to ‘handle’ women who stand up to an argument or confrontation with you, settle that based on logic, not one’s choice of life partners. You are better than that.

 

As for the explosive screenshots that have been, it is heartbreaking just how many women were casualties. From the descriptions and rapey comments within the screenshots to the names  of women that were dragged in the Twitter mud, it has been a sad display of the simmering and unwarranted hate on women. The comments–my word. I can only hope that you are in safe spaces to deal with what must be traumatic and haunting. Poleni sana.

To all the women affected, your choice of sexual partners should have had nothing in those ego trips. The Internet became very unsafe for several of you this week, and my heart goes out to you. I salute yours and all women’s presence on the Internet. Most often than not, it is a form of protest, to hold your own, and to bear the risk of knowing that what is a great resource today, can so easily be used to tarnish your name. In dusting off this blog’s cobwebs to comment on this, it is in a bid to keep pushing back against the patriarchy, for it is a strong and malignant force.

Finally, for all the brothers who’ve called out these bad, sexist habits, thank you. I hope that you continue to see sexism in its many manifestations, and call it out.

 

A luta continua. Stay woke, for sexism lurks in all corners.

 

Challenges and Opportunities for Advancing Internet Access in Developing Countries while upholding Net Neutrality

Abstract

Net neutrality deliberations go hand in hand with discussions of upholding and preserving the openness of the Internet, widely perceived as a precondition to the realisation of the Internet’s potential. This is particularly relevant with access to the Internet being increasingly accepted as a basic right. Rules and regulations to uphold net neutrality exist within various jurisdictions, and in both developed and developing markets. With mobile data plans as a primary mode of Internet access in developing markets, the practice of zero-rating – where mobile network operators enable customers to download and upload online content without incurring data usage charges, or having their usage counted against data usage limit – is closely interlinked with net neutrality deliberations. The overarching question is whether zero-rating defies the principle of net neutrality, by favouring some content over other content. The challenge for policy makers and regulators in developing countries, as addressed in this paper, is knowing which regulatory frameworks will be needed to expand Internet access to underserved communities, without compromising the fundamental principles of a free and open Internet.

Access to affordable Internet is increasingly a development priority, and even considered a basic right. There are huge economic and social benefits to be reaped from Internet access, as evidenced by gross domestic product contributions, as well as projections. However, a majority of the world’s population, most of who are in developing nations, remain unconnected. A crucial policy debate on how to avail Internet access, while upholding and preserving the openness of the Internet, also known as net neutrality, is emerging as state actors, private sector players and civil society alike operate in this space. The practice of zero-rating – where mobile network operators enable customers to download and upload online content without incurring data use charges, or having their usage counted against data usage limit – is one of the most popular approaches to getting the unconnected online. This follows the fact that the mobile phone is the primary device through which the ‘next billion’ Internet users are expected to get online.  The overarching question is whether zero-rating defies the principle of net neutrality, by favouring some content over other content. The challenge for policy makers and regulators in developing countries, as addressed in this paper, is knowing which regulatory frameworks will be needed to expand Internet access to underserved communities, without compromising the fundamental principles of a free and open Internet.

Read the rest of the report here.

—-

The Version of Record of this manuscript has been published and is available in the Journal of Cyber Policy, published 08 May 2016, http://www.tandfonline.com, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23738871.2016.1165715

 

Cyber Security and Cyber Resilience in East Africa

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of co-authoring a so-titled paper with Dr. Iginio Gagliardone, for the The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI). It was a useful exercise in analysing the efforts to enhance cybersecurity in the region, with an initial focus on Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia. Below is the paper’s executive summary, and the paper can be read or downloaded here.

 

This study analyses continuities and discontinuities of collective efforts toward enhanced cyber security in Eastern Africa, with a particular focus on Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia. Focusing on the challenges that have followed the contours of East Africa’s distinctive digital cultures, it challenges the view that cyber-security and cyber-resilience are simply technical problems that can be solved by reducing the gap with more technically advanced nations. On the contrary it shows how cyber-security is a inherently political challenge and that, in the absence of adequate checks and balances, the increasing securitization of domestic and international politics may require costly trade-offs with individual and collective freedoms.

Three concepts are suggested – emulation, extraversion, and enculturation – that can serve to better capture how Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia have respectively answered emerging cyber-threats. These concepts, rather than adding to the already abundant jargon in this area, are simply meant to encourage analysts to pay greater attention to how in each national context the technical, social and political interact in unique ways and produce distinctive outcomes. In Kenya public and private actors have sought to live up to international standards, keeping up with the country’s reputation as a regional ICT powerhouse, but it is unclear how such an ambitious agenda will find concrete applications. Ethiopia displays higher risks that the need to guarantee better cyber-security can further legitimize repressive measures in the new media sector. Finally in Somalia, in the absence of a functioning state, hybrid solutions have been found that connect traditional practices and new technologies to offer some level of certainty to individuals using services that are vital for the life in the region, such as local and international payments over mobile phones.

Social Media and Journalism: A Changing Media Landscape in Kenya

In 2014, I had the pleasure of contributing to a fascinating production titled Exploring Kenya’s Media Policy Landscape: 1963-2013. Commissioned by the Media Policy Research Centre, I was tasked with exploring the impact of social media on journalism in Kenya. I assessed some conceptual frameworks on social media, social media’s effects on communication – the rise of citizen journalism, examples of social media users challenging traditional media (#someonetell…), as well as a critique of online citizen journalism. I also investigated social media adoption trends by mainstream (traditional) media, benchmarking the local against international media. The challenges and opportunities of social media for mainstream media, as well as social media’s implications for media policy (e.g. whether bloggers are journalists) round up the chapter contribution.

The working papers collection was officially launched on 27 February 2015.

Below is the executive summary of the working paper, and a link to the publication download (page 66- 90). I welcome feedback and additional thoughts on other factors to consider. (It was also very interesting and saddening to note the dearth of analysis on this subject matter during my literature review).

The [social media and journalism] chapter explores the impact of social media on journalism, with examples and analysis anchored in the Kenyan context. It begins with an overview of social media, the tools and practices shaping it, and dives deeper into the social media landscape in Kenya. Social media structure and adoption is increasingly challenging ‘traditional’ channels and agents of information dissemination in the country. Journalists and mainstream media are no longer the sole or primary source of breaking news. Citizens are now more connected with each other through platforms that enable conversation, co-creation and in some instances organizing towards collective action. Through social media, and citizen journalism, there has been an amplification of voices, groups and communities that would not otherwise attract mainstream media attention. Several examples of how social media users have challenged both local and international traditional media’s reportage on national issues are highlighted. Social media use, however, is hinged on opting in, which is a factor of access and affordability of Internet and (mobile) devices. The limitations notwithstanding, social media continues to be adopted by Kenyan media, informing various practices such as setting up of blog sections on the media’s online portals, use of social media to stir conversation around news content, introduction of social media editors, and social media policy guidelines for journalists. The role of journalism remains significant, to sift through vast volumes of data and information generated, and make sense of it through application of journalistic skills. Though social media hasn’t yet completely disrupted journalism and traditional media in Kenya, its significance and ubiquity continues to rise and challenge the latter’s practices. How social media impact straditional media’s monetization streams as well as media policies is also discussed. The chapter concludes with the recommendation that more research and studies on social media in Kenya should be conducted in Kenya, to better inform policy practices. Journalism practitioners, trainers, researchers and policymakers should continue to assess and appreciate social media’s value in Kenya towards improving the media industry and creating a more democratic society.

Taking Free Basics in Kenya for a spin.

(As posted on Medium). 

I’ve been meaning to do this for a while. At iHub, we believe in having user experience at the heart of consumer-facing technology. Also, I’ve heard many a Facebook exec counter the backlash with a valid question: how many advocates (for/against) have actually used Free Basics? So, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I dug out my Airtel Kenya SIM card (Airtel is the current sole partner) and took the app for a spin. (For the record, I’m testing out Free Basics on a Smartphone — a Samsung Galaxy S3 to be precise, will also test out on a feature phone in coming days).

Step one: Downloaded the app from Google Play Store (used my paid-for Internet, not sure if one can download it without incurring charges).Free Basics needs access to:

Screenshot_2015-11-22-20-58-10

(Pretty light app: 1.18MB)

Step two: Read through the Data and Privacy Policies.

Step three: A cursory glance of the applications available on Free Basics in Kenya.

The gist of it

17 applications are available on Free Basics in Kenya. Two are news sites: BBC News and Daily Nation. Facebook and its Messenger platform also feature. One can also access Brighter Monday, one of the most popular job sites around, Scholars4Dev for scholarship information, as well as OLX, where one can search for real estate, cars, job listings and more (one can also submit an ad). Ebola Information, Facts for Life, Totohealth, BabyCenter & MAMA offer health information (the latter three focus on maternal and child health). You also have Accuweather (one can get weather information on local towns and cities, and one can search by postal code or city to access more info). Girl Effect offers ‘articles and tips for girls’. Jamii Forums ushers you to various boards to discuss news, platforms, politics and more. Supersport is available for sports updates. Wattpad offers access to free books and stories (none of which are by local writers, to my knowledge). Then there’s good ol’ Wikipedia.

That, for now, rounds up the ‘on-ramp to the Internet’ in Kenya. Would be happy to hear from any early testers if any of these apps weren’t there when the initiative was launched. Back then, Facebook had a pre-selected range of applications. Now, they say all it takes to have your content on the Free Basics platform is meeting the participation guidelines and technical specifications, i.e. developing for the platform, to meet zero-rating requirements.

Some Initial Observations (make of them what you will!)

While loading, a message reads ‘Visit popular websites for free with Free Basics.’

Popular, by whose demand?

Scrolling through a couple of news articles via the Daily Nation app, I noted that the comments section was missing. One can read and share a story, but not comment on it. To share, one has to leave Free Basics, where data charges apply. (Oddly enough, that was the case for the ‘share via Facebook’ plugin on the site).

Same thing with the BBC News app. Having found the BBC Africa section, and found a news item on Kenya, I sought a comment section, to no avail.

Over at Jamii Forums, I quickly scrolled to the ‘Kenya Forums’ section. One can see all the latest posts, and to participate, one has to log in. This presumes that one is already signed up for Jamii Forums. Meanwhile, on the main site (over on the Internet I pay for), there’s a pop up that asks me to register, since I don’t own an account yet. I would be very keen to observe a first time Internet user’s behaviour around this barrier to participation.

Jamii Forums screenshot off desktop
Jamii Forums screenshot off desktop
Jamii Forums homepage screenshot off mobile web
Jamii Forums homepage screenshot off mobile web
Jamii Forums homepage screenshot off Free Basics
Jamii Forums homepage screenshot off Free Basics

The Ebola Information app (from UNICEF) rightly indicates that while there are no known instances of the virus in Kenya at this time, many citizens are concerned, and that the site is presented to answer frequently asked questions. Great! Only…

Screenshot_2015-11-22-20-05-56
Screenshot before clicking through ‘Read more’
Screenshot after clicking through ‘Read more’
 … It is not quite clear where the FAQ section within this app is. If one were to report this anomaly, they’d likely go to the ‘Contact’ section. There, one is treated to UNICEF’s contact information (email), and the Ministry of Health Ebola Hotline. Let’s imagine that this app is being accessed in some emergency or panicky situation. Fill in the blanks.

Over at the Wikipedia app, I couldn’t even see the option to edit a news article, let alone it redirecting me to the paid-for Internet. My hypothesis: it creates the notion that Wikipedia is to be consumed, and not necessarily contributed to. Imagine that carried across to Wikipedia as many of us know it!

Inconclusive Conclusion

The analysis above is selective, and I’ll factor in my own bias (wariness about this version or ‘ramp’ to the Internet). The argument for or against Free Basics takes many forms, primarily of a technical nature. I like to bring back what I call the ‘spirit of the Internet’: the ability to connect, consume, create, collaborate and correct (content)— all in equal measure. The above sets the scene for consumption, which is one component, but not the only component of the Internet. Much in the same way that in many parts of the developing world, the pervasive notion that Facebook is the Internet needs some serious correcting.

While I imagine that the Free Basics advocates would say that this only encourages folks to cross over to the open Internet to comment on the news articles or sign up for such popular fora, the assumption is that people are inherently motivated to go to that trouble. This, in a country known for peculiar mobile telephony use. While I don’t have the stats to corroborate my take, I imagine that this would dis-incentivise many from going to the trouble of all the clicks it would take to participate. I could be wrong, but I don’t have the stats.

One of the first things I noticed in step two, was the (lack of) Community Standards around Free Basics. Over at the Free Basics Participation Guidelines, it is stated that services are not rejected on the basics of their (Facebook’s) Community Standards. For reference, said standards address self-injury, dangerous organisations, bullying and harassment, attacks on public figures, criminal activity, sexual violence and exploitation, and regulated goods. So we know what does NOT form the basis of rejection of platforms as far as such standards go, so what does? (Or is that since it’s mostly a consume-first platform, these aren’t necessary?). What happens if, say, Free Basics in Kenya or elsewhere, has a niche audience that would form a prime target for some problematic organisation or ideology that violates the community standards? How can Free Basics users learn the principle of self-regulation, that governs paid-for Internet use, including Facebook itself? How do Free Basics users report inappropriate content?

Facebook have been saying that at least 50% of Free Basics users have crossed over to the open and paid-for Internet within 30 days of coming online for the first time. Having pushed a bit further on the stat recently, one of their Heads of Policy said that they stay on the paid Internet, though this isn’t part of the popular narrative on the conversion rates. Who else, other than Facebook, has access to these statistics? Giving the benefit of the doubt, say the statistic is actually true. What norms about what the Internet is, does Free Basics (un)willingly postulate? Facebook says that Free Basics doesn’t create a two-tiered Internet and refers to the above statistic. They also say that without such a program, more people are left offline, unable to realise the benefits of the Internet.

We all want as many people, if not all to be connected. But the idea of a ‘free’ Internet is a particularly nefarious one, leaving room for loopholes such as these, and actually creating various tiers to Internet access. This has been compared to tiered access to water and education. While some may say that some water or education is better than none, why is it that there are different forms to access? So some Internet is better than none at all (especially for the developing world). But, what constitutes ‘some Internet’? Who decides on what ‘some Internet’ is, and why are they the ones to decide?

There are many arguments packed into the zero-rating, net neutrality and Free Basics discussions, and it wouldn’t do justice to pack them into one article. I will try to tackle the various domains, from my perspective, in future posts.

Would love to conduct this exercise with first time Internet users. Currently thinking through the research design, to enable unearthing of insights on the Internet they aspire to access, versus versions such as Free Basics issued. For now, I welcome discussion and feedback on the above, and perhaps others to take Free Basics on a spin in their respective territories! After all, advocacy for a free(as in freedom), open and secure Internet will require evidence and not mere opinion.

Should Government Regulate Social Media in Kenya?

In the past week, we have seen one faux-pas in an Embakasi digital prayer cell group go viral, and the private recordings of a private affair between a DJ and a woman become a matter of ‘public interest’. All irreversible. All embarrassing to those in them, and entertaining and/or appalling to the (un)willing recipients.

 

These are some of the outcomes of a digital society, one that is set to continue growing in number, of both passive and active users. The gadgets in our hands and on our laps, or on our desks, are avenues to transmit all manner of content and data. “Traditional” disseminators of information find themselves contending for attention with the more connected and engaged audiences who have the means to create, produce and share news, gossip, (mis)information and more, at their disposal.

 

Kenyan media and corporate Kenya have, since the turn of the decade, been getting in the social media game. The creative ways in which social media managers for various brands leverage a trending topic to do some product placement is impressive, if sometimes inappropriate, and speaks to just how mainstream social media have become as channels for communication and marketing. There are dedicated social media channels for breaking and sharing news, and engaging audiences. Civil society, one would contend, is being redefined or reclaimed on social media.

 

We have, to some extent, a digital government. Indeed, this was the alternative branding for the incumbent government during the pre-2013 election campaign period. Many a politician can be found on social media. A primary motivation, especially for those who engage in their personal capacity, is to directly share, and perhaps connect with the electorate. As with mainstream media and corporates, politicians are having to learn that the rules of social media engagement are different. These are avenues for many-to-many communication; it does not suffice to merely broadcast, no matter who you are.

 

The question many are now asking is whether social media use should/can be regulated.

 

Recently, some Kenyan lawmakers called on the Communications Authority to draft policies that would enable Parliament to enact laws around regulating the use of social media. They cited the fast-moving, irreversible nature of information shared on these platforms. We have seen the good, the bad and the ugly presented by real-time sharing of information. In their case, the parliamentarians cited a case of the news of an MCA’s passing being posted first on social media, before the family of the deceased was informed. That, in fact, isn’t the first of those cases. Nor is the sharing of unverified information, rumours or misinformation new, much in the same way we are used to alternative versions of events being shared on these platforms.

 

The desire to regulate social media is not unique to the Kenyan government. It is an issue that comes up often in many countries, including our neighbours who have interesting laws in effect. Efforts to reign in electronic forms of communication through laws such as the contentious Security Bill, and the recent announcement by some Members of Parliament hint at reactive, rather than proactive and evidence-based approaches. The benefits of social media, and the Internet in general, in connecting people to each other, and to vast opportunities don’t seem to be at the fore of legislative considerations. Besides, regulating social media content is a game of whack-a-mole, at best. It has been offered that a more effective approach to dealing with bad speech or content, is to enforce more speech, free speech.

 

Digital literacy, in my view, is best acquired through continued engagement, and not necessarily trainings, especially in the pedagogical format favoured in most cases. Granted, there might be an appetite for the latter. It is through trial and error, and being corrected along the way by others with whom we engage, that we learn when to stop and question the veracity of a piece of information before spreading it. This is increasingly evident among Kenyans online. The confrontations and counter narratives presented around the news items capturing public attention this past week, and many other times before, indicate that it’s not easy to propagate one narrative, and for it to go unchallenged. This is starkly different from traditional forms of communication, where the audience often would not get a chance to share their views, especially in a sustained fashion, be it traditional media or politicians as the information nodes.

 

Lawmakers would do well to spend time better understanding how social media in Kenya are used, before proposing laws to ‘regulate’. The bad and the ugly are not the entire story.