Lowy Institute

Debate: Digital Pacific

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Led by bloggers, digital entrepreneurs and social media groups in Papua New Guinea, a Pacific 'digital generation' is emerging that is increasingly influencing public debates, forming policy ideas, holding institutions accountable and coordinating political protests. The potential size and influence of the Pacific's emerging 'digital generation' is enhanced by the fact that more than 50% of the regional population is estimated to be below the age of 24.

In a new Lowy Institute Analysis research paper launched today, Digital Islands: How the Pacific's ICT Revolution is Transforming the Region, I outline how the Pacific Islands region is in the midst of an information and communication technology (ICT) revolution that could have profound implications for the region's governance and development.

My research, sponsored by the Myer Foundation Melanesia program at the Lowy Institute, reveals that digital technologies are increasingly being used in the Pacific Islands to harness, influence and project political and social change. About 60% of Pacific Islanders now have access to a mobile phone and this figure continues to climb. This has coincided and fused with another global phenomenon, the rise of social media.

This growth in mobile phone access is extraordinary given that only four years ago, six countries (PNG, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands) had penetration rates of 16% or less, meaning less than just 1 in 5 people had access to a mobile phone. In Tonga, mobile penetration has risen from 3% in 2002 to 53% in 2011. Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu and New Caledonia now enjoy mobile penetration rates of over 80%. In 2006 only 2% of PNG's population had access to a mobile phone; today this figure is fast approaching 40%. 

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The mobile growth statistics are impressive, but the region is home to some of the lowest internet penetration rates in the world. For example, Only 2% of PNG's population had access to the internet in 2011 and in Solomon Islands, Samoa and Vanuatu, it is less than 10%. However, web-enabled mobile phones and Facebook phones are enabling the region to leapfrog barriers (such as remoteness, cost and availability) to computer-enabled internet access. Decreasing costs for handsets and calls, and better reception, has facilitated more widespread access, far beyond affluent urban dwellers.

There are now almost 700,000 Facebook users in the Pacific Islands, dispersed across the region's population of 10 million people. PNG is leading the region's growth in social media use with Facebook membership nearing 150,000, a figure which has tripled since mid-2011. Fiji and Samoa, also experiencing high growth in Facebook membership, are not far behind.

What makes the ICT revolution in the Pacific particularly transformative is its potential to address the region's demographic, geographic and economic challenges. The Pacific population is dispersed across hundreds of small islands and atolls, spanning an area one-third of the globe's surface. The region's distance from the economic centres of the Asia Pacific make for some of the most remote countries and territories in the world.

Digital technologies are helping Pacific Islanders participate in political dialogue and are improving social inclusiveness and development. People in both urban and rural communities are participating in debates from which they were previously excluded. Unlike radio, arguably the most important source of information for most Pacific Islanders, Facebook discussion groups and blogs provide a forum for an exchange of information and opinion where all users can participate.

My paper doesn't just analyse what is happening in the region, it also tackles the region's 'digital development' opportunities. Tools such as crowdsourcing and mobile phone applications such as those devoted to health present the Pacific Islands region with immense opportunities. Tentative steps have already been made in this area, but there is enormous scope for Pacific Islands governments, the private sector and international donors to make far better use of the region's growing ICT infrastructure.  

Most importantly, I hope to use this paper to start a discussion on The Interpreter that looks at the Pacific's digital future. What could this ICT revolution mean for the Pacific Islands region? Are the region's governments ready to grasp these opportunities? Are the region's business, civil society and donor communities equipped with the right skills, knowledge and vision to capitalise on this digital transformation? Does the region's digital emergence offer an opportunity for Australia, as the largest trade and aid partner, to reinforce and revitalise its relationship with the region? And are there areas where Australia could focus more of its public and private resources?

I hope to see Pacific and Australian government officials, academics, bloggers, civil society representatives and others take part. Please send your submissions (of about 600 words) to DCave@lowyinstitute.org and blogeditor@lowyinstitute.org to take part.

Photo by Flickr user JonJon2k8.

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Gerard McCarthy is Project Manager (Asia-Pacific) at TechChange, based in Sydney. Keera Pullman is based in Darwin where she works for Esri Australia and volunteers for the Standby Taskforce.

The past decade has seen rapid increases in urban dwellers across the Pacific. Recent analyses of this region-wide human movement by a World Bank panel showed that the absence of reliable health and education services in rural areas, the concentration of industry and jobs in cities, and the proliferation of mobile phones which permit daily contact with rural friends and families, are prompting many across the Pacific to board buses, trucks and motorbikes in search of better lives in cities.

 

The results are unprecedented booms in urban real estate and municipal health services stretched to their limits. The Director of Papua New Guinea's National Office of Urbanisation, Max Kep, said these dynamics could soon lead to the emergence of slums on the periphery of cities, a trend exacerbated by government officials who see denial of the problem and conscious resistance through forced evictions as a solution to the largest human movement in Pacific history.

Responding strategically to urbanisation is notoriously difficult. But it's clear from Danielle Cave's paper, Digital Islands: How the Pacific's ICT Revolution is Transforming the Region, as well as international examples, that the explosion of mobile phone and internet access throughout the Pacific can help in the implementation of two basic responses: reducing the need for medically motivated migration to cities, and facilitating planning and formalisation of urban settlements.

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Mobile-supported health services, or mHealth, is a fast growing area, with health ministries the world over supporting deployment of mobile-based data collection and diagnostic tools. Danielle's research highlights some of the innovative deployments of mHealth initiatives across the Pacific, including the Vodafone Foundation's Dr SMS service, which has significantly improved patient services in Fiji. However, such deployments still have a long way to go to take full advantage of the opportunity presented by rapidly increasing mobile penetration across the region.

Indonesian health authorities, for instance, have used mobile-based mass-communication tools such as FrontlineSMS as well as SMS news system Info Obat Murah to significantly improve diagnosis, inform rural patients of appropriate treatments and conduct rapid assessments of rural health infrastructure and medical centre needs. Other text-message survey tools such as EpiSurveyor and GeoPoll have boosted the reach of rural vaccination campaigns in Bangladesh by using SMS to inform residents in targeted districts about where and when to bring their children for treatment.

Meanwhile, Angola's major telecommunications provider Movicel had tremendous success with a recent polio campaign by offering a top-up of phone credit for the parents of vaccinated children, resulting in 100% attendance by local families.

Greater funding from major donors such as AusAID and NZAID for the development of mHealth applications, face-to-face and online training of health workers in data collection, epidemiology and treatment, and the roll-out of mobile-based incentives schemes is vital if one of the major drivers of urbanisation across the Pacific is to be addressed.

The decision to urbanise is often about more than just access to health care. It can be influenced by a variety of factors including the search for employment, education and a richer social life. It's therefore vital that mobile-based and online tools be used to improve government response to the rapid growth of cities.

Lessons from Kenya's informal settlements suggest that accurate mapping of urban topography as well as reliable information about human settlement and the service delivery needs of fringe dwellers are vital enablers of political action. In Nairobi's Kibera slum, for instance, crowdsourced mapping tools such as OpenStreetMap and Ushahidi have been used to collect information cheaply and reliably about the area's human geography, ultimately resulting in its appearance on official maps and inclusion in planning processes.

Closer to home, Indonesia's Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team has focused on data preparedness and disaster risk reduction in cities. The goal is to train communities to collect reliable base data (roads, health facilities, water points etc.) which are then analysed to identify areas vulnerable to natural disasters. The exercise helps government and community decision makers understand the critical importance of developing local disaster resilience. With many Pacific Island countries at high risk of natural disasters, it's vital that similar initiatives aimed at building resilience through mapping and local emergency management partnerships receive strong support from donors.

Obviously, increasing deployment of internet- and mobile-based tools alone will not solve regional challenges such as rapid urbanisation; that's where committed, transparent governments willing and able to take action are vital. But Danielle is certainly right that a coherent Pacific ICT-for-Development Strategy is necessary to ensure donors provide governments with the right tools and expertise to confront those challenges effectively.

Photo by Flickr user WhiteAfrican.

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Olivia Wilson is a geoscientist and mapping specialist.

I've been following with interest the discussions around Danielle Cave's paper and blog post about the impact of information and communications technology on the Pacific island region. With the boom in mobile phone use, I would like to raise some current ideas about how this connectivity can be harnessed to help with disaster rescue efforts.

Natural disasters often occur with little or no warning and so coordinating a response can be extremely difficult. Pacific Island countries know this all too well, as the region is one of the most disaster-prone in the world.

Rescue efforts in the aftermath of a disaster are time-critical and so the rapid sourcing of information can save lives. The increasing connectedness of Pacific Island populations provides the potential for real-time mapping of people's locations and needs, and mobile phone technology is emerging as the most resilient form of communication. Although reliant on phone towers, systems exist that bypass the towers or allow for the easy deployment of replacement infrastructure.

Here in Australia, Telstra maintains COWs (Cells On Wheels) to provide quick restoration of mobile phone services and MEOWs (Mobile Exchange On Wheels) to provide temporary fixed line and broadband services for emergencies. Both were deployed just last week when a fire took out the Telstra exchange in Warrnambool, Victoria. This is also standard practise in the US, and has been for some time (this CRS report to congress [p.6] describes their use during 9/11).

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The power of mobile phones is that they are now so common. In the Pacific Islands, even if an individual does not own one, it is very likely they know someone who does. No other form of two-way communication is so widely used. Once connectivity has been restored after a disaster, mobile phone technology can be used to obtain location and status information in a rapid and coordinated way.

After the Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand, the only communications system that wasn't knocked out was the mobile internet system. SMS and phone calls were impossible but New Zealanders could access Google's Person Finder, an open source web application developed in response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake disaster. New Zealand has a much wider distribution of web-enabled mobile phones than in most Pacific islands but we can look to Haiti for solutions using SMS.

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, mobile phone towers were quickly repaired. In an effort to centralise data collection and provide Haitians with a way of requesting help, Ushahidi, a not for profit tech organisation, lobbied the authorities for the release of an SMS shortcode. This shortcode was advertised on the radio and people affected by the earthquake provided their location and needs in text. Ushahidi coordinated and crowdsourced volunteers to translate the information from Haitian creole into English (the dominant language used by those coordinating relief efforts) and georeference the texts so they could be mapped in near real-time (see video above). This constantly updated map was used by the large humanitarian relief and aid agencies such as the UN, FEMA and the US Marines.

In the Pacific Islands, developing software and networks that would enable a similar SMS-focused model could be helpful in response to a disaster. This method requires the manual input of position information and translation of texts by people online with the time and internet access required to map the information. Ushahidi maintains a standby volunteer taskforce for just this purpose, tapping into the goodwill of the online community and often the diaspora of a disaster-affected country.

Critics of crowd sourced data are wary of the hyperbole. They are concerned about the confusion when trying to sort information from noise, the need for those coordinating relief efforts to have sufficient bandwidth to view online maps and the false hope that may come from SMS shortcodes. Innovation around crowdsourcing, however, continues to emerge from the online community in response to disasters such as Japan's 2012 earthquake and tsunami.

As the use of such software and techniques become more widespread and agencies more aware, the use of shared information will become more refined and software will become more precise. Equipping the few with more sophisticated and expensive technology to allow them to access collated information provided by the many isn't that difficult. Using information directly from the people that require help, with some intelligent data mining, should lead to increased effectiveness in disaster relief.

The Pacific Islands, a region prone to natural disasters, stands to gain from such developments in situations when they need it most. Disaster response agencies, donors and governments in the Pacific Islands should be looking for the most suitable product that will help to quickly provide access to mobile phone networks in a disaster.

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Danielle Cave's recent paper on the uptake of information and communications technology (ICT) in our region consolidates a range of information about what is happening in Pacific island countries and reveals key questions yet to be considered or resolved.

In general, the position Danielle puts forward is one with which I agree. However, there are a few areas that give me some concern.

The first is the use of 'deregulation' in regard to market reforms in the early 2000s. What actually happened was that markets were liberalised (governments were persuaded to give up their shares in telco monopolies and legislation passed to facilitate new entrants into the markets) and subsequently regulated (ie. through the creation of telecommunications regulatory authorities, which had not existed previously).

The relationship between the creation of regulatory environments and increased use of mobile phones is explored further here, as is the potential for the office of the regulator to become a focus of conflict as incumbents negotiate a rapidly changing environment at the confluence of policy, politics and private enterprise. The impact of new entrants (including but not limited to Digicel) cannot be underestimated in this area and the robustness of national regulators will continue to be crucial to create and maintain an appropriate policy environment.

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The second issue I would raise is the importance of parallel infrastructure. In a recent study into the impact of increased mobile phone use in Vanuatu, the Pacific Institute of Public Policy (where I am currently employed) identified parallel infrastructure as a key factor affecting the usefulness of mobile phones in relation to social and economic activity.

As might be expected, the significance of parallel infrastructure (eg. facilities for recharging phones or transport services to get produce to markets) is greater in rural than in urban areas and this is part of the reason why availability of mobile communications is linked to increased urbanisation (as discussed by Gerard McCarthy and Keera Pullman). However, the concept of parallel infrastructure goes further, and appropriate parallel policy infrastructure is essential if the use of ICT applications is to be harnessed to enhance development in the Pacific.

What needs to remain central in this discussion is the realisation that use of ICTs is a tool to enable policy responses; it is not a policy response in itself. Take the example of sending lesson suggestions to teachers in rural areas by SMS. This sounds simple, cost-effective and innovative, and indeed it is. However, it presumes a number of things: that there is a teacher at the school who has a phone that is charged and able to receive the message and who has a blackboard on which to write the suggested activity and some chalk with which to write it.

Unless all of these bits of parallel infrastructure are in place (requiring appropriate policy implementation through 'traditional' means: budgeting, procurement, delivery etc), using an ICT application will not add value. In fact, there is a risk that too much focus on ICTs and their potential may create unrealistic expectations among individuals and communities unless the surrounding policy aspects are given appropriate consideration.

Finally, I think there is more to be said about whether a regional response or strategy is most appropriate in this area. There are certainly opportunities for Pacific island governments and policy professionals to share their knowledge, and this is already happening.

However, it is important to be cognisant of the diversity at play in this part of the world. It seems to me that the versatility of ICT applications and the relatively low development costs involved lend themselves to tailor-made solutions to 'on the ground' challenges. More exciting still is the potential for Pacific island communities to grab a hold of the technological building blocks and use them to develop ICT applications that are firmly sited in the particular geographical, cultural, linguistic and political environment in which they will be used.

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Thanks to Dr Tess Newton Cain for giving me an opportunity to delve into a few details of my recent research paper Digital Islands.

Firstly and briefly, in distinguishing between telecommunications 'liberalisation' and 'deregulation' in the Pacific Islands region, I don't want to get caught up in a niche debate on terminology, but in order to liberalise and open up markets, you must first deregulate them and implement certain reforms to create an environment for competition. I think both are apt descriptions of what has occurred in many countries across the region, so let's delve into the more interesting points of Dr Newton Cain's post.

Dr Newton Cain emphasises 'that the use of ICTs (information and communications technologies) is a tool to enable policy responses; it is not a policy response in itself.' True, digital technologies are only as effective as the people using them, and Dr Newton Cain points out, it is important to manage expectations about the limitations of ICTs. A mobile application that connects patients with doctors over SMS text, no matter how innovative, is not a silver bullet. In no way can such a tool replace or duplicate good quality health care provided by a functioning hospital.

But such mobile applications, and timely health advice provided via SMS, remain powerful enablers. Experience from developing countries around the world, particularly in Africa and Asia, is that they are benefiting from widespread use of digital development tools, even in challenging environments where supporting infrastructure is lacking. Waiting for all the elements to line up for a perfect development environment can take years. The power in digital technologies lies in their potential to overcome obstacles in the way of the development process. 

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Dr Newton Cain asks whether a regional ICT-for-development strategy is appropriate for international donors and businesses. I recommend in my paper that the Australian Government, as the region's largest donor, commit to a regional strategy. This certainly doesn't preclude country-tailored mobile application and crowdsourcing programs. In fact, most mobile applications and crowdsourcing programs will have to be tailored to each Pacific Island country, and in many circumstances, to certain provinces and to local communities, for them to be effective. Nevertheless, a regional strategy would ensure a commitment to explore opportunities in all Pacific Islands countries so that both large and small countries can benefit.

I think it is fair to say that, so far, the region has not seen the organic emergence of a locally-led ICT-for-development sector. And this likely won't happen without support, training and the provision of resources from government and business. But, the Pacific Islands region is in the unique position of being able to cherry pick the digital development tools and applications that have worked in countries facing similar development challenges

So far, few organisations have capitalised on the Pacific's growing ICT infrastructure to enhance development and social outcomes. It wouldn't take a lot of effort or resources from the region's key donors and businesses to collaborate directly with Pacific Island governments in creating and supporting the types of digital tools (such as mobile applications, mobile-based projects and crowdsourcing) that would benefit Pacific populations. 

It is abundantly clear that the Pacific Islands region is suffering from an under-use of digital development tools and I think the greatest concern lies in the opportunities being missed. These tools help get the right information to the right people at the right time. And the power of timely information, in a region as dispersed and remote as the Pacific, should not be underestimated.

Photo by Flickr user US Pacific Fleet.

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Sarah Logan is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University.

Did you know there is a Moresby street in Cairns? Pundits have long joked that it indicates the importance of illicit PNG money to the Cairns property market, with some claiming that Papua New Guineans are the city's most important property investors.

PNG's Sharp Talk forum is hosting a fierce debate about the amount of Australian property owned by prominent PNG political figures. In a country where about 40% of the population lives in poverty, real estate purchases in Queensland by politicians and senior public servants is fueling an increasingly furious online discussion. But despite their anger, without political will and institutional reform there seems very little PNG citizens can do about the potential misuse of funds. 

As the Lowy Institute's recent Digital Islands paper shows, one of the biggest claims for the impact of social media (and the internet generally) on governance issues is its facilitation of transparency. Websites like India's ipaidabribe.com, for example, allow citizens to report incidences of corruption and have had some success in bringing small-scale corrupt officials to notice, if not necessarily justice.

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Kenya's budget tracking tool examines the allocation of the Constituencies Development Fund, which the members of the parliament use to invest in their constituencies. The public response to the tool has been overwhelming. The website receives more than 5700 hits and 4000-4500 SMS messages per month. Cases have been uncovered where funds that existed on paper did not translate into expenditures, in some cases leading to the resignation of officers in charge of those projects.

The closest thing to an anti-corruption reporting website in PNG is fixmyroad.com, where users can upload pictures and reports of roads needing repair and alert other road users to problems. Unfortunately, the website has had only 35 reports since it was begun in 2009, not really surprising given PNG's still limited (although growing) internet penetration. However, even the Indian and Kenyan examples have had little measurable success in changing corrupt practices at the state level.  
 
This isn't to say that the excitement around online transparency initiatives is simply hype. There are few long-term studies, but that is probably because the technology is so new that the data is simply not available, and also because the structures surrounding corruption are so complex that transparency initiative will only ever be part of a larger puzzle.

One long-term study does find a link between mobile phone ownership and reduction in perceptions of corruption, suggesting that decentralised networks facilitated by mobile phones can reduce opportunities to engage in corruption and increase the risk of detection (although not everyone agrees). Others find that simply increasing citizen engagement — for example, by  participating in communal discussions about corruption — can engender greater participation in governance, with developmental benefits.

Perhaps major changes in corruption aren't the end goal, but just try posting that on Sharp Talk.

Photo by Flickr user Jorge Lascar.

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Dr Amanda Watson is a communication researcher and trainer with expertise in new communication technology for developing nations.

Could mobile telephony be harnessed for development in Papua New Guinea?

As Danielle Cave has pointed out, mobile phone uptake has increased rapidly throughout the Pacific in very recent years. In PNG, mobile phone coverage has extended greatly since the introduction of competition into the sector in mid-2007. To this day, landline phone service is essentially limited to urban centres. Despite urbanisation, a huge percentage of PNG people live in rural areas. Thus, the mobile phone is for many the only available modern communication tool. While affordability has remained a challenge, the tool has been embraced as people enjoy the benefit of being able to contact relatives living away from the home village.

As one commentator has remarked, 'the international-development community is having a love affair with the mobile phone'. It is wise to be cautious about any technology solving all woes. Indeed, previous technologies such as radio broadcasting, television and video did not live up to the hopes of development theorists and practitioners. But mobile phones enable two-way communication, whereas previous technologies allowed only one-way broadcasting. And compared to landline telephones, fax machines, computers and so on, the mobile phone is portable and relatively cheap.

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This means the mobile phone is seen as having the potential to directly assist poor people, particularly those in remote or isolated locations. Trials around the world have shown the potential for strategic mobile phone interventions to improve health and education, as well as in the lives of women and other disadvantaged groups.

Commentators have suggested the use of mobile phones for mHealth applications in the Pacific region. Telemedicine is one type of mHealth, and a pilot project was recently launched in Milne Bay Province to test its effectiveness in PNG. It is hoped this province-wide research project will give direction and guidance to the funder and others about the use of telemedicine in PNG. Another free-call line related to maternal health in PNG is the Susu Mamas Hotline. Other community service hotlines in PNG include the BAHA line for information on HIV/AIDS and the Famli Seif Line for domestic violence cases.
 
Receptiveness to the use of mobile phones for development in PNG is high. Mobile operators are open to M4D projects ('mobile phones for development'), and development sector organisations are also expressing interest in M4D, though most projects are only in the idea phase. Non-government organisations are keenly thinking discussing M4D, but their concerns include costs for the end user, the cost for the organisation, and the problem of charging mobile phone batteries in locations with no mains electricity supply.

Non-government organisations and church agencies of various sizes and issues of concern want to take advantage of the opportunity provided by the expansion of mobile phone networks in PNG. However, most do not have the technical capacity or understanding to implement the projects they envisage. Others are not sure of what is technically possible.

As Danielle Cave has suggested, a coordinated approach to the use of mobile phones in development could be beneficial. It may also be that there is a role for a funder to provide enabling support such as technical advice, relationships with providers and perhaps even funding. Such support could bring into being project ideas that have the potential to benefit disadvantaged or marginalised people in PNG or other Pacific nations.

Photo by Flickr user Butterfly Works Social Campaigns and Learning. A longer version of this post will be published in the next edition of Contemporary PNG Studies: DWU Research Journal.

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Douveri Henao is from the Institute of National Affairs, Papua New Guinea.

I have been following with interest the debate on this blog about the Pacific's digital future. In her new paper, Danielle Cave analyses PNG's Facebook discussion group Sharp Talk. I wanted to join this blog discussion and give readers background on how I started Sharp Talk. 

Sharp Talk was developed largely due to my personal frustration about the lack of information and dialogue on topical issues concerning Papua New Guinea. This is largely due to limited access to information, which is generally held in hubs of academia, research institutions and the mainstream media, where the privileged were able to hear learned commentators talk on issues of national interest and generate views on these matters.

I remember having my first constitutional law class. After almost 18 years living in PNG, it was the first time in my life I really knew what was going on in government. Such rare insights and appreciation was the norm up until social media and specifically Facebook provided mass engagement.

Sharp Talk has allowed public servants, the private sector, students, development partners, students and even buai sellers to air their views, report events, post news but more importantly read quality information from experts.

I have on several occasions been in-boxed by senior government officials, MPs, analysts, research students and many, many students hungry to get insights on how systems of law and policy work. Some of the views have translated into major outcomes, which Danielle's paper highlighted. On several occasions I've noted commentaries featuring in government policy. A positive of sorts.

However, I'm also mindful that information needs to be appreciated in its entirety and this is where social media such as Sharp Talk is defective. It is unable to add value to the information unless it can create action. Yes, it has brought people onto the cyber landscape to talk and even mobilise some of us to advocate for issues but getting decision-makers to make informed decisions remains a challenge. This is the challenge for Sharp Talk but one thing is for sure, offline networks such as the great wantok system will aid the flow of information, for good or bad.

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Stephanie Lusby is a PhD Candidate at ANU. Her research focuses on how public health messages are translated and applied by men in Papua New Guinea.

The two papers released recently by Danielle Cave and Sarah Logan are part of a growing body of work on information and communications technology in the Pacific. I'd like to offer some comments on mobile and internet use, using examples gathered during my work as an electoral observer in East New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea during the 2012 national elections.

The expanding on-line citizenry of Papua New Guinea employ the same 'Web 2.0' tools of self-publication and collaboration used around the world. Here, as elsewhere, these allow Papua New Guineans to adapt global models of digitised political and civic engagement to local contexts and needs. This is seen in the growth of Facebook, Twitter and blogs, and creation of groups such as Act Now! PNG (which uses a similar model to Australia's GetUp!) and associated campaigns like Papua New Guinea Minewatch.

As Logan and Cave both point out, membership of online political and social forums in PNG is growing but far from universal, as most participants live in urban areas and have a relatively high level of education.

The ability to afford credit and differing levels of literacy shape how Papua New Guineans engage with communication technology, but they're not absolute barriers. For example, SMS allows people to subvert illiteracy. SMS language is typified by its use of phonetic spelling, abbreviations and numeric substitutions for words (eg. '10x' means 'thanks'). Using numbers and symbols (such as emoticons) means that one needs only a basic knowledge of phonics and numeracy to become SMS literate.

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SMS language has also spilled onto the comments pages of blogs and community Facebook pages used by Papua New Guineans. In PNG, where 2011 census data recorded that only 50% of the population could read or write in any of the three official languages of Tok Pisin, Motu or English, this is potentially significant. Improving literacy and access to education across the country is critical, and it's an area where SMS has helped in other developing countries. Mapping how people otherwise classified as illiterate are using text-based ICT may provide important insights into how to better target literacy programs in PNG.

Across East New Britain and many parts of PNG, mobile phones are a ubiquitous accessory for men and women in most age groups. People who lack knowledge of or confidence with new technology are sometimes jokingly referred to as 'grinred man' or 'grinred meri', a man or woman who can only use the green button on their phones to access calls or text messages, and the red button to end calls. Even so, these people still have phones. And as Olivia Wilson notes, 'even if someone doesn't own a phone, they will know someone who does'. Equally, if a phone doesn't have internet access or if someone can't access the internet on their phone because they don't know how or don't have enough credit, someone else will help.

This means phone and internet use is not necessarily only about single users congregating in online communities. It may be several people sharing a password and/or collectively authoring a comment or text. With the rollout of initiatives such as mobile banking, this is important to consider, as it raises issues of privacy and the potential for theft and misuse of funds. These risks are higher for less educated people, and particularly for women. However, group or proxy user behavior may also be harnessed and targeted to disperse information via peer education programs for initiatives such as electoral education and health.

These brief examples indicate that new literacies and ways of using ICT are evolving endogenously and organically in communities across the Pacific. It is vital that any attempts by development partners to help generate ICT-for-development initiatives prioritise understanding and working within the trends set on the ground before attempting to apply lessons learned from other countries.

Photo by Flickr user Scallop Holden.

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