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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–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.

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.

Social Media and Street Protest

Protesters in Syria are using text messaging, and social media to organize and satirize the government. Street dancing as a form of protest goes against the grain of a more somber, repressed social order, while it confounds and confuses authorities, according to a recent report in the New York Times.

Technology does not lead social change, it follows. Social change is rooted in the aspirations of local people in communities. It is dependent upon their experience. If their experience is of injustice, being ignored and/or abused, technology that allows them to tell their story is a tool for organizing and empowerment, but it is not the driving force. The driving force is the human desire to be heard and treated with dignity.

People in local communities are learning how to use technology to tell their own stories and to act collectively. There is a good discussion of this in SMS Uprising: Mobile Activism in Africa. Jeannie Choi provides an overview about online organizing in the United States in the July issue of Sojourners.

When people who have not had the means to tell their own stories find the mechanism to do it, they become empowered. There is a relationship between the ability to tell your story and the legitimizing function of technology. Simply put, if people listen to your story, the act of listening itself is affirming. It can be empowering to discover that your story is important enough for others to listen to it. This affirmation can become a driving force that reinforces your belief in the rightness of your cause. Today you can tell your story globally.

Coalescing frustrations

It’s often said that media shape culture and values. It’s also true that media give expression to culture and values. They provide the means for expressing frustrations and angers denied or ignored. The relationship between media and empowerment has become even more direct in the age of Twitter, the web and SMS (short messaging service) texting with an important caveat: the power of new technology depends on where it is available and who can afford it.

Protesters across the Middle East have used social media to coalesce the frustrations of people who are economically repressed and denied their rights. Emboldened by social media and its extensive reach, they have been able to use it strategically to counter official propaganda and coalesce large numbers of people to act in concert and call repressive governments into question.

The conflicting narratives being told by state media and independent media in Egypt today are the result of the earlier use of storytelling and calls to action through social media that gave protesters a voice and the capacity to act. Alternative reporting, often first-hand and in-the-street, challenged the narrative provided by the state-controlled media and continues to do so today.

The larger challenge

In a more ominous use of social media, it’s being reported that the Shabab Islamist militia in Somalia is using Twitter to reach an English-speaking audience outside the region for recruitment. The Shabab have imposed harsh punishment upon those who break their interpretation of Islamic law — amputating limbs, for example — and have restricted the distribution of food aid to starving Somalis unless they control it.

Some U.S. Somali youth have been recruited to Somalia and have died as suicide bombers and militia fighters. As U.S. officials consider how to shut down or immobilize the Shabab’s Twitter account, they must also struggle with the underlying alienation that attracts recruits, and the narrative of Shabab that makes it attractive. This is a far larger challenge than the use of technology itself. And it’s one that the repressive governments of the Arab Spring must contend with as well.

Herein lies a cautionary concern. The same media that empower can be used to disempower. If governments pass restrictive regulations that require media companies to turn over tracking information, personal data and airtime use for cellphones, for example, or tracking data for online use (among other data), the potential for harm to genuine grassroots activism is real.

We’re not at that point yet, but as we celebrate the opening of the repressive regimes in the Arab Spring, and as we see the empowerment of peoples across the African continent and the United States, we must also recognize the tenuousness of the technology that is being utilized — and with it, the fragility of the hopes that lie deep within the human breast to be free, to speak openly and to be heard.

We must work to ensure that the irrepressible desire to make the world a better place does not fall victim to the principalities and powers that would seek to use this technology for evil purposes, and we must resist those oppressive forces that would contain it or snuff it out.

(Postcript, Dec. 29, 2011: A report in the New York Times on Dec. 29 tells of an alarming increase in rape of women and girls in Somalia. The report says gangs of young men have raped women claiming jihad as justification and others have abused women in lawless refugee encampments with no security.)

Stay Connected or Opt Out? The Choice is Obvious

Yesterday, I sat in a video conference room in a company in Nashville where executives hold conversations with their counterparts in India and other global locations, sometimes several times a day. They not only see and hear each other with crystal clarity, they view the same spreadsheets and images, and work on them together.

Technology not only shrinks the world, it connects us in remarkable ways.

Cell Phone Charging Station in Haiti. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

Recently the world surpassed 5 billion cellphone users. Many are in rural areas once described as remote but now connected. Each month, more than 734 million unique users log on to Facebook. They stay in touch with family and friends around the world. Hyper connection.

It’s sparking a burst of creativity. Mini Silicon Valley-like technology centers are sprouting the world over–Nairobi, Guatemala City, Mumbai.

Technology entrepreneurs are creating solutions for long-term problems of isolation, lack of knowledge and access to information, lack of voice and power. Sometimes they’re solving problems people didn’t know they had because they were socially marginalized and geographically isolated.

As a result, children across the world are developing media skills, creating content and sharing it through these media in ways that were beyond imagination only a few years ago. This is changing how we form community, share information, see ourselves in the world and even how we think.

I reflected on this recently as I tried to get in touch with someone who had not activated his voicemail and doesn’t use email. He lives in a different world, the world before global hyper-connection. That’s hard to imagine.

An exciting new world

We can choose to live outside the media ecosystem that has developed around us. But because these technologies are shaping the lives of billions worldwide and fueling cultural changes that sometimes we can’t predict beforehand, it’s hard to understand why some choose to opt out.

I’m not talking of sleeping with your cellphone, being online 24/7, interrupting meetings to text or replacing face-to-face interaction with screens and keyboards. I’m not suggesting ignoring your children or spouse to hunch over a screen.

But there is a universe of information-sharing, conversation, engagement and interaction that’s fascinating, enlightening, informative and connective that, I believe, enhances life. It’s not the whole of life, and it has its drawbacks, but it’s an interesting, often exciting, new world that we all live in.

Acquiring skills and relevance

I think it’s essential to understand how people use media for good and ill purposes. We need to know how social media are being used to build community and sustain relationships, as well as how they’re used to manipulate and misinform. We are beyond the reading and writing skills of the past. They won’t go away, but they are being complemented, supplemented and sometimes replaced by new media skills.

We need to understand how content is created and distributed, and we need to participate in the evolving media ecosystem that is re-shaping our cognitive ecosystem (our brains) individually and collectively.

Dan Gillmor writes that solid communication skills are becoming necessary for social and political participation. I would add that without these skills we become (at best) less effective in communicating our ideas, and at worst irrelevant. The new media culture will move forward without us.

There are so many different worlds to explore, to choose to not engage them puzzles me.

 

“O For a Thousand Tweets”

As some of my readers know, I always travel with enough technology to ensure that no matter where I am, I am never out of touch with what’s happening in the world or back home.

John Wesley on horseback

John Wesley reportedly logged more than 250,000 miles on horseback during his career, traveling around England to share the Gospel. I can’t help but wonder, what would the founder of Methodism have done if he had all of the high-tech tools that I have today?

The man who viewed the world as his parish would be delighted at how easy it is to connect with Methodists in far-flung places like Mozambique or Vietnam. With his Facebook account, Wesley would have thousands of friends. Of course, since he wrote his journals in code, he might be tempted to do the same for his Facebook page, which could be challenging for the rest of us.

I have no doubt that Wesley would be ahead of most clergy in using the Internet and social media. A man who knew the power of the printing press, he would ensure that all of his churches had a Web site. With his love for the music of the church, he probably would have an iPod loaded with Bach and a ringtone on his phone that played, “O For a Thousand Tongues.”

One thing is certain: Wesley knew the power of communications and made the most effective use of the media of his day.

Methodism’s great communicator would be using every tool at his disposal to spread the faith, build up people and speak prophetically to the issues and injustices around him. In the 18th century, he excoriated slavery in his writing, but today, he could use video storytelling and new media to attack this blight on humankind. With Twitter, he could tell people in real time about the conditions he encountered in the coal mines of England.

Twitter would also enable Wesley to share ongoing updates from the road, apprise his followers of upcoming sermon topics, and exhort truants to attend Sunday school or class meetings.

And can you imagine what Wesley could do with video conferencing? He could potentially address multiple churches at a time on Sunday mornings, hold Bible study on a mass scale and give a keynote address at the next Council of Bishops meeting.

Being the founder of a connectional church, Wesley would immediately see the value of using LinkedIn to build a network of believers. An avid reader, he would carry his extensive library around with him on an e-reader such as Kindle or the iPad.

If I could meet Wesley, I would show him one of my favorite new gadgets, the Livescribe smart pen. This handy device enables me to record meeting conversations and keep digital notes for use in my blogs.

Perhaps I could get him to sing a few measures of “O For A Thousand Tongues.” John Wesley singing Methodism’s signature song – now that would be a ringtone.


The Ivory Coast in Revolt

As I write, rebels are moving into Abidjan, Ivory Coast after having taken the capital city Yamoussoukro, 143 miles north. It’s a fast-moving story, virtually invisible on U.S. mainstream media. However, it’s exemplary of the new media landscape and the resources it makes available to us.

I’m particularly concerned because I have friends in the country. A colleague has just concluded an interview via Skype with five employees in a radio station in Abidjan that our organization funded in a partnership with others in The United Methodist Church. Gunfire was audible in the background.

Besides direct contact, the most reliable sources of information are international news organizations providing updates from the scene. France 24 English language service is originating video and audio coverage from Abidjan.

As I write, I’m watching France 24 on an iPad with its live video stream, reading email from various sources and monitoring Twitter. I’m also surfing the web viewing Reuters,Yahoo and BBC to double check what I’m seeing on Twitter. While U.S. news organizations are not covering the revolt, these global counterparts are providing on-the-scene updates.

In this circumstance, non-profit information services are filling in some of the blanks. Staff of United Methodist News Service are in direct contact with church officials in the country and are monitoring and updating information as it’s available. I’ve also read releases from Medecins Sans Frontieres, AlertNet and the U.S. Catholic News Service.

This is a circumstance in which as concerned citizens we must seek out a variety of news sources. We must approach the news with a degree of skepticism and check multiple sources. I trust some sources more than others, of course, but in a fluid story it’s not unreasonable to verify reports as best we can. And we are blessed with multiple sources, most of them online.

This is the new media landscape.

Four Tools for Writing on the Go

Sometimes I’ve got a great idea for a blog post and need to jot it down because I can’t develop it fully at that moment. Sometimes I’d like to photograph something for later use. And sometimes a thought occurs that I can’t write down but I can record on an iPad or cellphone.

These are pretty common needs for a writer and I’ve found a variety of apps to help preserve these gems before I forget them.

Evernote is an all-around cloud app that I use for making notes, clipping links to articles, recording audio notes or capturing images. Evernote provides you with a personal email address that makes it easy to send yourself a link which lands directly in your Evernote notebook.

It’s available on several platforms and syncs your notes so that you can retrieve them from a tablet, cellphone, laptop or desktop.

I’ve created several notebooks to hold different types of content. One notebook holds brainstorms for the blog while another contains links to new media articles, for example.

As a result, I’ve dispensed with notes on napkins, slips of paper and the back of airline tickets, which was my former archiving system. Evernote is free.

Dropbox is similar to Evernote, but I think it’s easier for file sharing. It’s also a cloud-based app. I often put documents I want to share into a public folder in Dropbox and use the file sharing function to invite others to read them. They receive an email with login instructions.

Dropbox is especially useful for files like photos which are too large to send via email. I’ve sent collections of photos to colleagues with ease in Dropbox. Dropbox is also free and works across platforms. As with Evernote, in Dropbox you can work on a document offline, save it and sync to the cloud later.

Docs To Go. Sometimes I travel without a laptop and need to read a Word, rtf or pdf document on my iPad. Docs To Go opens these documents along with Excel and several photo formats. You can also edit documents and email or file them. The app also makes it possible to sync with desktop documents through Bluetooth if you have that on your laptop or desktop.

This versatility makes it a go to app. It’s also available for the iPhone. Docs To Go is a paid app.

iA Writer. Tablets weren’t made for heavy duty word processing but I want more than the elemental notes function that comes with the iPad.
For basic writing without the hassle of formatting, I use iA Writer. It’s designed to be a straightforward writing tool without bells and whistles. This means I can concentrate on the text and not fiddle with formatting distractions.

iA Writer has no preferences to change margins, fonts or font size. In an age of bloated software with functions too numerous to use and a learning curve too steep to bother with, this plain approach to getting ideas into the machine seems like a brilliant idea.

The on-screen keyboard of iA Writer adds functions that upgrade the standard keyboard on the iPad. These functions simplify cursor movement and punctuation. They make the onscreen keyboard much easier to use.

iA Writer has an email function and a setting to automatically sync your saved documents to an iA Writer file on Dropbox. This means it’s possible to send your document to Evernote, sync it to Dropbox, or send it as an email attachment. iA Writer is a paid app.

Taking the Pulse of News Today

Whoever said “the best things in life are free” probably never heard about Pulse. But the sentiment is correct for one of the best real-time iPad news reader apps around.

Pulse is an RSS feed on steroids.  It allows you to arrange your feed content into easy–to-browse, scrolling headlines.  Its slick magazine quality graphics feel like your own personal stack of magazines and websites. You can also personalize content by categories such as News, Business, Sports, Design, Food, and Tech.

Browsing through the app, I’ve discovered new sites and reintroduced myself to favorites like The Atlantic, BBC and Fast Company.  Plus, you can add any RSS feed to Pulse.

I also like that Pulse prominently displays the image associated with each story (as opposed to an abstract).  Its very pleasing visually. Viewing a variety of stories from all your favorite publications at one time is a real time-saver and engagement winner.

The way we use our iPads has contributed to the popularity of Pulse.  I turn to Pulse first thing in the morning, much as I used to do with a newspaper. For others, the iPad is the go-to leisure time reader.  It is the mobile device that we favor for couch surfing and bedtime reading.  Research has shown that consumption of articles in an iPad raises dramatically in the evening hours from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.  Pulse fits perfectly into our evenings and weekends.

Users can add Facebook and Twitter accounts as content sources, connect their Google Reader accounts or add individual RSS feeds or websites. The application supports up to 25 different news sources.

In November, Pulse added three different Facebook streams – news links, status updates and my wall –  so you can incorporate your own Facebook content in a unique fashion.

And this month, Pulse added six popular social media sites as sources: Reddit, Digg, Vimeo, YouTube, Picplz and Flickr.

Pulse is less than a year old but it’s growing by leaps and bounds.  An infusion of capital allowed parent company Alphonso Labs to move from a paid to a free site. The Pulse reader was developed by two talented young men, Akshay Kothari and Ankit Gupta, who created the app in ten weeks for a course at Stanford University.  After launch, it became a best-selling application in the iTunes App store.

The way we read is changing and while Pulse is the leader now, it will be interesting to see what tools will be our go-to in the next year.

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