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USAID and ZunZuneo

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 1.48.04 PMThe news that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) surreptitiously sponsored a text messaging service in Cuba created a storm of criticism last week when the service stopped and the secret sponsor was revealed. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said it was “dumb, dumb, dumb.”

It was also duplicitous and damaging, if not dangerous to others attempting to deliver humanitarian services.

Those who provide humanitarian aid, such as nongovernmental aid organizations – including those of religious groups – meticulously maintain a nonpartisan stance within the countries where they work. This is especially important where partisan conflict is rife and where governments are suspicious of such aid being used for partisan purposes. These agencies are compromised when they are viewed as extensions of U.S. foreign policy.

Humanitarian agencies cannot operate in a country without consent of the host government. Such duplicity adds to the perception that they are agents of external forces.

This cuts both ways, of course. Where governments are not popular and rule by coercion and force, the humanitarian organizations must also be seen as  functioning independently. It’s often a delicate dance.

This nonpartisan stance can be a matter of life and death. If  humanitarian workers in conflicted settings are viewed as agents of partisan agendas, their lives can be put at risk. Examples of kidnappings and murder of aid workers underscore this risk.

Beyond this life-and-death reality, the ZunZuneo texting service, as the Cuban SMS service was known, proved to be unsustainable. Sustainability is a key outcome of successful development, but perhaps ZunZuneo failed because development wasn’t the driving mission. The technology was implemented for other reasons.

In other difficult social situations, open-source texting services have been put to use in local contexts, and with adequate training and support, they have achieved much greater success at a much lower cost. These were implemented by small nonprofit organizations operating on shoestring budgets. Perhaps there’s a lesson here.

USAID has been an effective partner for humanitarian and nonprofit organizations, including The United Methodist Church, in different parts of the world. Let’s hope this episode is an anomaly and that USAID will make the adjustments needed to ensure that its mission and work are not compromised again.

Moving Forward and Looking Back–In Summary

In the past four posts, I’ve pointed to how information communication technology and communications strategy have been employed to encourage transparency as we discuss how new media influence us and the practices of the church.

Training staff of disaster relief organizations responding to humanitarian needs in the Philippines following Typhoon Yolanda.

Training staff of disaster relief organizations responding to humanitarian needs in the Philippines following Typhoon Yolanda. UMCom Photo/April Mercado

We’ve seen how the power of social media can unleash giving and provide a way for us to contribute to changing the world.

And we’ve reviewed how strategic use of communication and various technologies can connect us and be used to express how Christians understand our global responsibilities.

Moving forward

I attempted to provide a theological framework for why communication can be viewed as an expression of the mission and ministry of the church in the post yesterday. I believe communication is more than a technical support function and when we fail to see it in this more complete role, we reduce our capacity to communicate the Good News of God’s love for the world. Communication is ministry.

From the perspective of the practice of communication, the thread that ties these four posts together is that they are all about communicating with people using the media with which they are familiar (whether that is mobile technology, social media, low-wattage radio or other channels) in an environment in which they are comfortable.

We live in a communications environment that is shaping us and our unique cultures, no matter where we live in the world. For example, messages by global corporations are tailored to different contexts, but the use of media to deliver those messages and our response to the messages affects us in similar ways.

Shaped by technology and by messages

In this mediated process we are shaped by both the technology and the messages that are exchanged within the process.

More than ever, we in the church need to view communication as an integral part of the mission and ministry of the church. How we communicate–the technology we use and the conversations we engage–is extremely important.

Communication is more horizontal today than ever before. I’m not naive about who owns the transmission towers: large corporations do, and as Egypt proved, threatened governments can shut down these media when the government is under duress. As the NSA story has shown, these media can also be used to invade our privacy, so they come with a substantial downside as well as a positive upside.

But it’s clear that we can work within this corporate/government reality to interact with each other more easily and immediately than ever before. Therefore, we can be better informed and we can act globally with greater ease than at any time in human history. And we should.

The Absent Voice

We should tell our own stories and assist others to tell theirs. A significant change in mainline Christian communions in the U.S. in the past several decades has been their persistence in reducing their capacity to communicate by cutting communications budgets and staff. By abandoning the field, they have left it to others to tell their story.

And some storytellers have an agenda contrary to the well-being of the denomination, while others lack essential understanding and have been less enlightening.

This failure to be in the communications environment with adequate resources, creativity and consistent presence has left them marginalized. It is often said about my denomination, The United Methodist Church, that no one speaks for the church but an elected body that meets every four years. Thus, we have no “spokesperson.”

While that is true, it is also revealing. There are spokespersons by default. They are often detractors who speak about the church and whose critiques, inaccuracies and agendas go unchallenged.

The Default Position

Out of this default position, perceptions are formed and opinions about the church are expressed, but, too often, the voice of the church is absent because no one is sanctioned officially to speak for it. But those who are unabashedly willing to authorize themselves to speak, do so, often presenting a viewpoint that reflects a narrow slice of the church’s full teaching, or worse, bending the teaching to fit a particular agenda.

It has also meant that we have not given attention to communication as a legitimate field for doing theology. Thus, humane values and the ethical and moral witness of the church have been absent. I believe faith is formed in the interactions we have with each other in the world and out of this interaction we deepen our understanding of God at work in the world, and within us.

This is also where we come to terms with the sacredness of life and Creation. When we are disengaged from a significant part of the exchange that is taking place in the public conversation, and cultural and social interaction, we exclude a significant piece of the quilt that makes up the fabric of our lives.

While I’m not an academic theologian, I hazard to suggest we cannot do theology apart from the conditions in which people live, nor apart from the powerful influences that affect our lives through culture, commerce, governance and many other dynamics that shape life. This is the gritty stuff of life that the apostle Paul used to shape the earliest teachings about what it meant to follow The Way, as the earliest followers of Jesus were known.

The Demise of Vertical Communication

Paradoxically, the world has moved beyond the age of vertical communication in which edicts were issued, a receptive audience awaited them, and the edicts were received and followed. While this is much too simplistic, it’s a way of saying that more people are communicating more ideas in more ways than ever before, and top-down communication must compete with the noise and distraction of a media environment that is as participatory as it’s ever been. Several years ago, Jay Rosen made the point clearly when he said “the people formerly known as the audience” are no more.

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New media provide new ways to practice old spiritual disciplines such as Bible study on tablets with online connection for referencing additional content electronically. UMNS Photo/Kathleen Barry

We’ve also seen how the gatekeepers of the old media are being challenged to adapt to the new environment and come up with new ways of delivering information and interacting with the users of the information.

This is the environment in which Christian values can be projected, and where those values can participate in shaping the culture and, hopefully, humanizing the conversation.

The ease with which we communicate today is deceptive. The communication environment is more complex and fraught with risk than it’s ever been. This is why mainline communions should give more attention to strategic communication, and not disengage from the field.

Communication is Ministry

More people are producing and sharing information, and in the process finding their voice. Sometimes this is for good, sometimes for ill. When the church enables communication in places where people are off the grid, it is engaging in an important mission. When the church introduces communication technology to provide spiritual development, education, health information, connection and empowerment, it is offering ministry. Access to information has become a human right and an expression of justice.

I hope that 2014 will bring the development of more communication networks, more use of social media tools to communicate more widely, and a continuing effort to add new technology as it becomes available to build on these efforts started in 2013. While I believe the technology and the messages shape us, I believe that communication rooted in Christian community is not just about tools and technology, but about reaching out to people with concern and compassion as an expression of our ministry.

As always, I invite your comments, insights, or corrections.

Moving Forward and Looking Back–Connecting

UMAC 2012

Wayne Rhodes, General Board of Church and Society, leads a workshop titled, “What You Need To Know About the UM Connection” at the 2012 United Methodist Association of Communicators meeting. UMNS Photo/Kathleen Barry

In this fourth post in the series, I reflect on how communications technologies make it possible to connect with people half a world away, and why that’s important.

Connecting continents

New mobile technologies make it possible to connect with others in ways that were not previously possible. In The United Methodist Church, in which I am ordained, we often speak of ourselves as a connection.

The term is not well understood. It comes from the organizational system in which clergy and laity can conduct ministry and service as part of a global system. It is not a congregational-based organization.

Congregations are connected with each other in a regional organization called a conference. The conference is led by a bishop who is elected from within a larger regional area made up of conferences, called a jurisdiction.

Connection as asset

I believe the connection is one of our greatest assets. It gives us scope and scale that allows us to carry out mission and ministry that is consequential, the kind that can make a difference because of its reach and depth. Often, it is said about some rural parts of the world that the church is in places that even government ministries don’t reach, for example.

By this, it is meant that a local faith community exists beyond the end of the road in places that are not likely to get much attention, places where isolation can lead to poverty, lack of health care, educational services, and basic services. These conditions create stress and suffering that discourage the flourishing life that I believe God intends for all persons.

It means that ideas and resources can be shared in ways that would not happen otherwise. And it means people who might not otherwise be able to do so, can share at a scope that has greater result. This is undergirded by religious values that reflect a commitment to human dignity and belief in the sacredness of all life under God.

Haiti 2013

Teacher Sylné Guerdy works with students in the computer lab at the Thomas Food Project in Thomas, Haiti. The program is part of a United Methodist Communications effort to use technology for development. UMNS photo/Mike DuBose

It is an outgrowth of our understanding of the meaning of discipleship, to follow the teachings of Jesus to care for the world and for each other because we believe we are connected by the love of God and are responsible to and for each other.

Connecting for the common good

In a world of global messaging and influence by governments and corporations, a globally connected world, the means for people of goodwill to carry out works of religious value is needed. When religion is humanizing and compassionate, it contributes to the common good, and a connectional system that can offer, through its communications capacity and through its organizational mission, a deeper understanding of our humanity, a way to reach out with compassion, and to advocate for justice, is a valuable asset.

As we grow in members around the world, we are having conversations about an emerging understanding of how we are connected globally.

At its best, this connection means that we can do more together than we can do independently of each other, as individuals or as single congregations. It  allows us to achieve scope and scale, as when we give to Imagine No Malaria, which results in the provision of medicines, bed nets and health training that can affect whole regions and nations.

It also enlarges our influence for the common good, which is a direct outcome of our commitment to follow the teachings of Jesus to heal the world and reach out to those who are sick and in prison, poor and neglected, no matter where they are.

Connecting through global mapping

About five years ago, Bishop David Yemba of the Central Congo Episcopal Area and I discussed his concern that there were local churches, as well schools and health clinics operated by the church in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that could not be identified. Lacking a developed road system or effective communications, these facilities were unconnected.  The options available at that time to map those locations were both limited and expensive.

In the last 12 months, United Methodist Communications initiated a pilot project to map the geographic locations of churches outside the U.S. and add them to a global database available to everyone online. This effort began with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Philippines, and will extend to other countries within Africa, the Philippines, eastern and central Europe and Scandanavia in 2014. (United Methodist Communications began to provide communications tools and training to connect these conferences several years ago. A network of communicators has been created and the networking of conferences is continuing.)

For the first time, people looking for United Methodist churches, schools and health care facilities in Africa, Europe and the Philippines will be able to find them online and learn more about their ministries. This information is being gathered through the use of technologies that reside on mobile phones and take advantage of GPS and software called Ushahidi, an open source project that allows crowd source emergency information to be sent by mobile phones.

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Sam Perales configures link in Tacloban, Philippines to enable communication for humanitarian agencies while UMCOM representative April Mercado, and Randy Baido looks on. UMCom Photo/April Mercado

Ushahidi has never been used like this, so it’s innovation to the max. It’s also easy and cost free.

It’s important to understand where local churches and other facilities are located as we continue to grow into an understanding of ourselves as a global church. It will allow for more careful and informed planning, as well as better opportunities for sharing information, training, resources and personnel.

Global mapping is in its initial stages as I write, but as it progresses, we will have for the first time a visual database that offers a view of the geographic position of the mission and ministry of the global United Methodist Church.

Global connection is essential

There is real value in the phrase “think globally, act locally,” especially for Christians who inherit a theology spread by a global evangelist named Paul and the teachings of Jesus, who broke down regional and cultural barriers  through his actions and preaching.

Christian teaching calls us to open ourselves to our place in the world as well as our relationship to God and to each other. We are called to take responsibility for the whole of Creation. To be a follower of Jesus is to be connected through relationship with others and with God. We are called to consider the health of the entire planet and those with whom we share it, and to take action in our own communities and cities as well.

When we use information and communication technologies to connect us, they can serve as tools for ministry, and the outcomes, when they bring positive, transformational change, are ministry. I believe building an understanding of our global connection is important to the work of doing theology in the connected world of the 21st century.

Moving Forward and Looking Back–Giving

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United Methodist Church Giving Tuesday logo

In this third post in a series on how communication and technology are shaping life today, I reflect on the unprecedented giving that occurred in the 2-year-old initiative known as Giving Tuesday.

Unprecedented giving

United Methodists, the faith community to which I belong, gave lavishly on #Giving Tuesday, a national day of charitable giving following Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday.  The record-breaking total of donations — $6.5 million in one day — was more than notable. The resounding success of this effort leads us to new pathways for considering the value of communications strategy in support of the mission of the church as well as the power of social media.

The people of The United Methodist Church are generous and they have demonstrated that generosity over the years, but social media and the ready opportunity to give online to a variety of causes is a game changer.

Frequently, I hear in The United Methodist Church that people don’t want to provide funding support beyond the local church, but on #GivingTuesday, their willingness to support ministry beyond the local church, and in many cases in other countries, was readily apparent.

Several factors contributed to this remarkable outpouring of giving, not the least of which is the fact that people in this faith community are generous and give to those efforts by the church that they believe will improve lives. Whether it’s for education, health, or economic development, clean water, nutrition, medicines or bed nets, they have shown a willingness to give.

Factors in Success

Other factors in the success of Giving Tuesday included a wide range of choices for donors, direct access to information and an easy process for contributing, buttressed by a social media and print campaign that put Giving Tuesday before potential donors on virtually every social medium they use. This awareness led to contributions.

It’s significant that Giving Tuesday was  promoted in new media and in print. The interaction between the two gave the effort reach. The invitation to give was unavoidable; it was everywhere in the social media world. And it’s notable that people waited to give on Giving Tuesday, perhaps to take advantage of a matching grant that was available up to a limited amount.

There is still much to learn from the success of Giving Tuesday. Assessments and evaluations are still under way. Analytics are being reviewed, tactics assessed, and strategy evaluated.

As I write this, we have more questions than answers. What learnings can we glean from this overwhelming response about giving in the 21st century? What role did communications play in the favorable outcome and how did the various components of the communication strategy contribute to awareness? And finally, is this effort replicable and could it be scaled upward to include other beneficiaries important to the total mission of the church?

But one thing is clear, communication and technology have changed the game, and people will use these technologies to give generously to those things they care about when we communicate with them in the media where they are present.

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Note: Due to a typing error in an earlier version of this post, I wrote that Giving Tuesday is three years old. It is two years old.

Moving Forward and Looking Back–Communication is Aid

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Training to re-establish communications system in the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda, sponsored by United Methodist Communications. UMNS photo

On the threshold of a new year, information and communication technology plays a more critical role in shaping life than we have experienced before. This is especially true in nations with emerging economies, many of which have leap-frogged over hard-wired communications infrastructure and moved into  wireless infrastructure.

When Typhoon Yolanda, as it was known in the Philippines, devastated the central Philippines, one of the first calls for assistance from the government was for help to re-establish communications infrastructure. Without it, emergency aid could not proceed at the scale necessary to meet the widespread needs of the people.

In the second part of this series on how communication and technology are shaping the church today, I explain why I believe that in such crises communication is aid.

Communication Is Critical Aid

Communication is a form of aid when the need to communicate is critical to saving lives. This was boldly underlined by the Philippines government’s call for assistance to reconstruct the communication system following the typhoon. Communications had to be re-established to control aircraft that were delivering humanitarian aid, rescue and military personnel, and to tell people where they could receive food and medicine.

Without the ability to communicate, people were isolated and at greater risk of disease, lack of medical care, hunger and exposure. Communication in the aftermath of a disaster is as important as food, water, shelter and medicine, according to a project supported by the BBC called “infoasaid.”

Information is necessary to life-saving efforts, while inaccurate information can be costly in terms of human life.

Following the typhoon, United Methodist Communications worked with technology partner Inveneo to do a site assessment of church communications needs to help people recover from the devastating damage, including mobile and satellite phones, WiFi, and low power radio.

Along with other partners, United Methodist Communications provided communications training, software and hardware to assist in the humanitarian effort, as well as assessment of the  long-term communications needs of The United Methodist Church in the region.

Solar cellphone chargers and combination solar lamps and chargers were distributed to local clergy in the affected area. Mobile phones and satellite phones were provided to United Methodist staff  and 50 tablets donated by Google were equipped with apps and maps in order to help 25 non-governmental organizations distribute aid and relief more effectively.

Tablets loaded with apple and maps were provided to  organizations providing humanitarian aid.

Tablets loaded with applications and maps were provided to organizations providing humanitarian aid.

United Methodist Communications also worked with NetHope, a collaboration of 41 leading international humanitarian organizations providing the best information communication technology and best practices, to coordinate a training event for the non-governmental organizations on the ground, including NetHope, Americares, CARE, Concern Worldwide, Catholic Relief Services, International Medical Corps, International Red Cross, Mercy Corps, Oxfam Great Britain, Plan International, Relief International, Save the Children, SOS, Children’s Villages, World Vision International, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, and United Methodist Communications field staff.

Plans have been made to follow up with training participants to document how the tablets are being used to enhance recovery, looking particularly at emphasizing getting aid to areas that were ignored because they were “off the map,” or unable to communicate with the outside world.

The goal is to transition from assisting in the emergency to creating a sustainable communications system that will serve the church into the future.

Information has become essential to achieve a meaningful, productive life. United Methodist Communications is providing training and communications tools in areas where people have been left out of the communications revolution. Under the banner of information and communications technology for development (ICT4D), people are being trained to utilize sustainable communications tools that can be used education, health, agriculture and spiritual development.

In the 21st century, communication is aid.

Moving Forward and Looking Back–Transparent Communication

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A website contains the background papers for a discussion about offering the sacrament of Holy Communion online.

The year 2013 is in our rear view mirror. As we stand on the threshold of a new year, it’s useful to review past experiences and build on them.

We’re in an information age in which technology and communication are as important as they’ve ever been in shaping our lives. Over the next four days, I’ll take a look at events this past year and four big ways I think the intersection of technology and communication is shaping the church.

Transparency

In fall 2013, a churchwide theological conversation about whether Holy Communion should be administered online took place both virtually and amid a gathering of 27 scholars, bishops, laypersons, clergy and agency executives. The conversation followed a proposal from Central United Methodist Church in Concord, N.C., to launch an online campus that would potentially offer the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

The discussion stimulated a thoughtful and constructive dialogue during a 10-hour meeting that took place in Nashville, Tenn., while many people followed along on Facebook and Twitter. The discussion was archived on Storify. The background documents considered during the meeting were widely circulated and posted online.

Everything said was chronicled for public consumption via social media sites. The discussion became a trending topic on Twitter and even caught the attention of the Wall Street Journal. Social media provided a means for widening the conversation from an academic arena to one that was more about the life of the local church, as social media users reported on the dialogue in real-time so others could react and post their opinions.

The result of the expanded conversation was that it generated critical thinking and a means for education as well. People going into the conversation had some predisposition about whether the sacrament of communion online was good or bad, but those perceptions were somewhat influenced, at least to the extent that many were not quite as sure that the answer was black and white.

The group asked the Council of Bishops to call for a moratorium on the practice of online communion and to initiate a study on best practices for ministry through online means.

Further, the experience served as a model for how we might conduct church affairs publicly and accessibly, and opened the possibilities for wider and more transparent conversation about a variety of issues that are of concern to people today.

The Astounding Impact of Innovative Technology in the Developing World

Nathan Myhrvold’s TEDTalk,”Could this laser zap malaria?” is an eye-opening look at how computer science and technology can help address an ancient and persistent disease that is responsible for 655,000 deaths each year. To think that it’s possible for a laser to not only kill mosquitoes in mid-flight, but determine from their wing beat frequency whether they are females (which potentially carry malaria) or males (which do not bite) is downright astonishing.

Yet even technology that’s far more accessible than what Myhrvold describes is changing the game in Africa — not only aiding in the fight against malaria, but opening a whole new world. Mobile technologies make it possible to have access to information that is transformative, whether it’s tracking disease outbreaks or educating children.

Once I was in a remote village in northern Senegal where there were no telephones or even electricity, disconnected from the rest of the world. Back home in the U.S., my son was in need of emergency surgery and my wife, Sharon, was purposefully trying to get a message to me.

It took her an entire day to find someone who would agree to go to the village to locate me. It took a another day for that person to reach me by car — then yet another day for the two of us to navigate the poor roads to the nearest town with a post office that had phone service. Once there, I had to make an appointment to come back to use the phone the following day. By the time I was finally able to speak to her, my son was already recuperating.

Mobile technologies are empowering those who were once isolated and transforming the ways they communicate.

That’s what life was like in rural Africa before cell phones and satellites. Today, cell phone usage in Africa is commonplace, with more than 10.7 million mobile phones in Senegal alone. Mobile technologies are empowering those who were once isolated and transforming the ways they communicate.

Improving – and saving – lives

Pierre Omadjela, director of Communications and Development for the Central Congo Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, is using FrontlineSMS to share health information and increase awareness about malaria prevention (a major focus for The United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria initiative). FrontlineSMS is free, open-source software that can be used to send text messages to groups of people without an Internet connection that is being used in a variety of ways to improve people’s lives.

Using automated messages to mobile phones, Omadjela says they have already realized a 5 percent decrease from the work they are doing teaching people in the Democratic Republic of Congo ways to prevent malaria.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Blantyre, Malawi, for a meeting of The United Methodist Church of Malawi. During a workshop on Transformative Communication, which included presentations from leaders at Inveneo and Medic Mobile, one workshop leader asked the group of 85 participants how many owned and use mobile phones. Virtually every hand in the place was raised.

Later, at another training conducted in Madisi, Malawi, on how to use FrontlineSMS to communicate with key groups of people, local church personnel and caseworkers who work for ZOE Ministry, a program that helps empower orphans and vulnerable children in Africa, were in attendance. As one woman sent her first FrontlineSMS text message, she shrieked with wonder. “It worked!” she marveled.

While 75 percent of the world has access to a mobile phone, smartphones make up only 15 percent of the global market. biNu is a platform that allows those with feature phones to have a smartphone-like experience through cloud-based apps and services, providing them with immediate access to email, news, books, health information and social features.

That means the world’s information library is available through not only smartphones, but also conventional mobile phones. Children are able to read books they could not afford and have access to educational information they otherwise would not.

‘All about potential’

Access to information is also giving people the means to have more control over their circumstances. In Kenya, I watched as two women used a teacup-sized satellite receiver plugged into a boom box get audio digital information that was then translated into text, allowing them to check the market price of beans so they could negotiate a fair price for their own crop. No longer must they rely solely on the price quoted by a distributor.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer says, “The number one benefit of information technology is that it empowers people to do what they want to do. It lets people be creative. It lets people be productive. It lets people learn things they didn’t think they could learn before, and so in a sense it is all about potential.”

Remarkable new information technologies are unlocking the potential of developing countries in ways that are not only empowering, but revolutionary. As new innovations and new possibilities continue to be presented, the digital future is becoming the digital present. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

 

Digital Technology: The Future in Present Tense

Fasten your seatbelt. No seatbelt? Well, Hang on.

Fasten your seatbelt. No seatbelt? Well, Hang on.

A few days ago I was in Haiti. We traveled in public transportation, a small pickup truck called a “tap tap” with a wooden passenger compartment built onto the truck bed.

Our “tap tap” was not up to the task of pulling some of the steep grades in the mountains and on several occasions we had to hop out and push. Unloaded, the driver would creep to the top of the mountain and wait for us. Invariably, I arrived huffing and foot sore. But this is Haiti. And I was having a blast.

WIFI in the mountains

One night we turned from a paved road onto a nearly trackless path that wound upward. In the dark it looked more like a rutted, rocky wash than a road. We got out and pushed often. Walking on the rocks and stepping across the gouges cut by water was difficult by flashlight. Eventually, we arrived at the grounds of the Haitian Artisans for Peace International (HAPI), a group providing women artisans with training to make and sell craft goods.

After a good night’s sleep and a pleasant breakfast outside, four children settled in at the large table under the shelter of the sleeping quarters. They were on break from school. They carried a laptop and a tablet. They began to surf the internet, play games and eventually play YouTube videos.

One little girl was proficient at a tablet game that required considerable dexterity and quickness. Another was intent on a children’s website. Eventually they both pulled down a YouTube video of a little girl singing a children’s song in French. It was a circular tune. Each time it repeated, they changed gestures, facial expressions and body movements.

Singing

Children singing along with a YouTube video

It was a memorable scene. In a place where physical access is difficult, wifi signals, beamed across the mountain and pulled down to computers powered by solar energy, were connecting these children to the outside world. They don’t yet have computers in their schools, but they are coming. Meanwhile, The Haitian Artisans for Peace International is installing a community technology center that will make it possible for local people to use computers in a cyber cafe.

Across Haiti, community-based information communication technology (ICT) centers are being installed. United Methodist Communications is a member of a partnership working toward this goal.

The little girls I saw in Haiti are ahead of the curve. Widespread access to wifi across the country, as in many other parts of the world, hasn’t happened yet. But it’s no longer something in the distant future. Low cost, low wattage computers powered by solar energy, impervious to sand, salt and humidity, along with durable “ruggedized” tablets are being manufactured now for global markets. My hunch is they will be ubiquitous before long.

Technology and Education

In the U.S., digital tools have entered the educational mainstream and they are radically affecting how we go about our lives daily. Cellphones made it possible for Africa to leapfrog over the technology barriers of landline communication. Asia is leading the world in digital technology. The process isn’t slowing, it’s speeding up.

While it’s ironic that it’s easier to reach out to the world from a mountainside in Haiti than it is to get to a place on the mountainside, that’s the reality. It’s happening. The digital future is becoming the digital present. And as the transition takes place lives will be changed. The world will continue to shrink. New possibilities and potential will be presented.

As I watched the little girls at HAPI, I realized I was looking at the future in the present tense.

Philippines Central Conference Connects Globally

Communicators streamed the Philippines Central Conference using four cameras, switcher and realtime social media

I’m told it wasn’t the first time the Philippines Central Conference has been streamed live on the web, but it was the first time a full crew of communicators used four camera and a switcher to produce the conference for the web. In any case, the Philippines, one of the most active nations in social media, was able to view the full plenary sessions of the conference that was slated to elect three bishops.

When I turned on my iPad in the church sanctuary where the conference was held, forty bluetooth devices appeared in my settings. It should come as no surprise. Filipinos send a billion text messages a day and according to one website it could be even more. More than 75% of Filipinos are active in social media with 28 million registered users on Facebook.

Among Facebook users, 52% are females from age 18-24 followed closely by users 25-34. Three of the top four cities for The United Methodist Church Facebook page are in the Philippines.

What this will mean for the faith communities in the Philippines is only not yet clear. But these media, and this media engagement will likely have similar effects upon Filipinos that it has had on other peoples around the world: buffeted by a flood of commercial messages delivered through digital media, phone calls replaced by text messages, better informed, empowered individuals.

As I watched the young volunteers running webcast, I was impressed by their skills and energy. They were learning on the fly, but they were producing a professional product. Despite some technical difficulties (the roof of the church sanctuary was metal and it interfered with the walkie talkies they used to communicate remotely), they adapted and managed the live feed with great skill.

The story is very similar around the world. The church exists in a new media landscape that gives us the ability to tell our story globally, communicate instantaneously and reach more people than ever before. If we recognize this and utilize these media strategically and with theological care, it is a time of unprecedented opportunity to bring the values of the Christian faith to a hurting and broken world.

Welcome to the 21st century

Irene Innis , spouse of Bishop John Innis from Liberia, checks her cell phone during a plenary break at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.

The 20th century United Methodist Church ran headlong into the 21st century United Methodist Church at General Conference 2012 in Tampa last week.

Irene Innis , spouse of Bishop John Innis from Liberia, checks her cell phone during a plenary break at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.

The new world of pluralism and hyper-connection met the old world of authority and Robert’s Rules of Order, and the two didn’t mix well. The Rev. Jay Voorhees remarked in his blog that this was the first Twitter General Conference. And so it was.

The discussion about proportional representation was about more than political posturing. It was about the desire of many concerned, faithful United Methodist people to have a voice in decisions about the future of the church. Time after time, delegates from Africa, Asia and Europe, women, young adults, LGBT and ethnic delegates spoke of their desire to be included, to be recognized and to participate in the decisions that were before the church.

They were pleading for inclusion. They want to participate in the decisions that affect them. They want to be heard. They care about the church and its future course.

This desire for voice comes as the world is undergoing breath-taking change. New media empower individuals and give them the ability to project their ideas to people the world over. They allow those with similar interests to coalesce around common concerns and speak in a unified voice. They enable protests to be organized and conducted with an immediacy that was unknown in the past.

This desire to be included is as much about the positioning and procedural processes that frustrated so many General Conference delegates as outright political machination. The ability to use media for self-expression, to build awareness and to advocate for one’s ideas has created new, stronger expectations that all the voices will be heard.

The new transparency

At a time when the world yearns for transparency and participation, the willingness of the church to open its proceedings to the world through digital media is a sign of strength and maturity. The General Conference was willing to allow itself to be on display, warts and all. That deserves respect.

These media carry other implications as well. Twitter, Facebook, SMS texting, email, Google Plus and live streaming made it possible to monitor what was happening from a distance, report and comment on it, and to some degree, influence it.

When Bishop Mike Coyner announced a rule that would allow the May 3 afternoon plenary to be closed due to an ongoing protest that was disrupting the proceedings, the feeling of shock and dismay inside the hall was palpable. In the digital world, Twitter lit up like the Fourth of July.

“The General Conference was willing to allow itself to be on display, warts and all. That deserves respect.”

I began to receive text messages and direct messages on Twitter instantly. It was clear that in light of the transparency made possible through live streaming, the threat to close the proceedings to the public was, to put it mildly, not a popular alternative.

A last gasp

Inside the hall, protests were immediately lodged with the secretary of the General Conference. One delegate threatened to organize a walkout if the plenary was closed. Members of the Council of Bishops huddled at the center of the main stage to confer.

After several minutes of deliberation, Bishop Scott Jones told journalists assembled at the foot of the stage that the afternoon session would be open, and calm returned.

He asked journalists to get the word out through social media as quickly as possible. It was clear in that moment that the conference that had been accessible to the world through live streaming could not afford the devastating possibility of going into a closed session. The cost in public perception was too great. The realities of the digital age superseded the rulebook that allowed those in command to exercise control by shutting people out, even if they were justified in doing so to establish order.

Social media and the Internet had played a role in shaping a crucial decision about the nature of the deliberations. It felt as if we had heard the last gasp of the 20th century and said welcome to the 21st.

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