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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.

Asymmetrical Networking and Human Dignity

Protesters held banners saying that the Bahraini government treats its own people terribly. Photo: Al Jazeera English

Neither Twitter nor Facebook caused the uprisings that are now spreading across the Middle East, but much of the conversation about their role misses the point, as Mathew Ingram writes. It focuses on the technical and tactical, yet important as these are, they’re not the whole picture.

The ability to tell your own story is empowering, even more so if you’ve never had access to the means to tell it, or if you’ve been silenced by repression.

Among the many indignities of people who live in poverty is powerlessness. Their voices are scarcely, if ever, heard by those in power. Marginalization isn’t only economic, it’s also the diminishment of the human spirit. It’s the sense that if you’re poor, you don’t matter. When people who’ve been treated like this find their voice, they find a means to experience affirmation and liberation. It’s a chance to discover dignity and self-worth.

In many places, legacy media are in state control or subject to manipulation by the state. Under these conditions, it’s possible to stifle alternative voices and frame the social narrative to the state’s own ends. This repressive use of media has gone hand in hand with physical repression of dissent, often through the use of intimidation, violence, imprisonment and state-sanctioned killing.

With cellphones and smartphones, text messaging, still and video photography, emboldened people, tired of neglect and repression, are finding their voices and telling their stories. And they’re finding a global audience anxious to know more.

They’re documenting events firsthand and providing images directly from the scene in contrast to the manufactured plotlines of state media. They’re experiencing strength in numbers through the free flow of information made possible by this new asymmetrical network.

While revolutions have occurred throughout history without social media, these are the first revolutions that have occurred with the tools of internet-based digital media and they shift the power balance and turn the people into producers. A new media ecosystem is being born.

We can celebrate this new age, but we must also learn from it because repressive rulers and fearful states are studying how to shut down, restrict or control these media as quickly as they can. Corporations are seeking to capture control of the systems for profit, turning them toward the economic models of the past that have shut out divergent voices, limited competiton and concentrated control in their hands.

In this interconnected world, the rights of people in the Middle East are as close as the cellphone in your pocket, or your contract with your internet provider or cell carrier. We share this need for open access and free flow of information in common with them.

In the new global media ecosystem, the health and freedom of each part of the system is directly related to every other part. This is more clear in these 21st century revolutions than ever before.

These revolutions also reveal what’s at stake in the net neutrality debate. The desire for control isn’t limited to totalitarian states. Dan Gillmor in Mediactive writes of the threat of “broadband oligopoly” that would make the internet into the financial model of cable television, limiting the flow of information in ways that will restrict timely, universal access. Corporate oligopoly puts at risk the participatory free flow of information upon which these people’s revolutions rely.

The Knight Commission on The Information Needs of Communities offers a wealth of resources for getting a handle on this challenge. The Open Society Justice Initiative offers an archive on global freedom of information resources.

Hillary Clinton’s support of an open internet is encouraging, but meeting the threat will take more than speeches, and the recent FCC ruling didn’t demonstrate unequivocal support for an open internet in the United States free from corporate manipulation, and even that is under fire.

It will require advocates who stand as firm as the people of the Middle East are standing at risk of their lives for more freedom, the right to assemble, the right to speak, the free flow of information and to be free from repression.

Those of us who don’t face the extreme conditions they are fighting against need to pay attention anyway. We don’t know where these various uprisings will end, nor if they will result in the kind of democratic states we hope for.

But they challange us to protect the media ecosystem that is being born, and if we do, we will go a long way toward creating a more open world in which human dignity and freedom have an opportunity to flourish.

(I think “asymmetrical” is a more apt description of the networks assembling today online. I don’t know why I didn’t use this descriptor earlier. But I changed the title and copy to incorporate it in this revision.)

Networked Revolutions: The New Form of Social Change

Is the Egyptian uprising a leaderless revolution? No opposition party controlled the call to action. No charismatic leader led the charge. No group stepped up to negotiate on behalf of the people.

In the most cogent analysis I’ve read, Charlie Beckett writes that in both Tunisia and Egypt the popular movements accelerated incrementally and “symbolic individual acts combined into collective movements.”

They are networked revolutions, a whole new form of social change building on the past but using new media to mobilize, expand and sustain change.

The case for citizen participation in media is strong in these movements.

Beckett says multiple tensions for social change were present including poverty, corruption, an educated, unemployed or underemployed young adult population, and growing economic uncertainty in the business community, among others. These daily indignities fed the movement and allowed it to catch fire.

Social media became a critical set of tools, complemented by live television and other media, including word of mouth, to voice this frustration. On Twitter, I followed shrewd, street savvy, brash organizers distributed across the city and nation who used social media to mobilize, provoke, and sustain pressure.

They also used these media to encourage perseverance and hold it together. They gave it new momentum and strength. Given this distributed leadership, Bennett says Tahrir Square gave the global audience a necessary focal point. Nadia El-Awady, a science journalist turned revolutionary, posted a moving first-person report from Tahrir Square after Mubarak vacated the Presidency.

This remarkable confluence of human aspirations and technology in Tunisia and Egypt have created new  paradigms for social change but there’s much more to learn.

Social media empower people. However, we can’t take this for granted. These media are held by corporations licensed by governments, and they control our access to information. We can be sure that those who control these levers are considering these issues today, particularly after Egyptian authorities attempted unsuccessfully to shut down the internet and social media.

Because of this, as fundamentally important as these two revolutions are to the Tunisian and Egyptian people, they are also important beyond the borders of the two nations. We’ve entered a new global media ecosystem in which the aspirations of people and their desire for a better life are intimately intertwined with the new media that give them voice and mobilize them to action. This ecosystem connects us beyond borders and through shared aspirations and universal rights.

Protecting citizen access and use of these media have never been more important. Mediactive by Dan Gillmor offers a solid case for both consumers of journalism and citizen creators of journalism.

Grassroots advocacy for net neutrality is curated at the activist site Free Press. Another section provides perspectives on a range of open internet issues.

(Note: I revised this post by adding the photo upper left, the Twitter screen grab and a sentence with a link to Nadia El-Awady’s Yahoo Story.)

Livescribe for Taking Notes

For the past five weeks I’ve been taking notes with a Livescribe Pulse 2GB smartpen, a system that records audio as you write notes. The Livescribe pen plays back audio as you move the tip to a point in the notepad you want to hear. I’m using the Mac version of the software.

It’s an ingenious, helpful system. Battery life for the pen has lasted for a full day  before recharging. It’s recharged by connecting to a laptop with a standard USB port with the Livescribe cradle, or by using a wall plug charger. Both are supplied with the basic kit.

The pen is about triple the size of a normal ink pen. It’s not unmanageable. It contains an led screen that gives time, date, battery status, and, most important, a menu that  progressively leads you to various tasks. It’s activated by pressing on icons on the Livescribe paper.

Livescribe requires dot-imprinted paper. It won’t work on plain copy paper. However, it’s possible to print your own paper on a 600dpi (or higher) color printer using a utility provided with the desktop software. And Livescribe notebooks and paper in varying sizes can be purchased online or at many Best Buy and Target stores.

I’ve read that some users find the pen runs out of ink sooner than other pens. The cartridge is smaller than most standard ball point refills. Refills can be ordered online or in the stores above. I use the pen to note key points, not to write a detailed narrative as I do when taking notes without the smartpen. Using it in this way, I haven’t experienced a shortage of ink.

The main menu allows you to replay a recorded session, draw a musical keyboard for a piano, demo the translator function in the software (write a word and a definition scrolls the pen’s led screen), delete a session or all sessions and create a security password.

Icons on the paper allow you to start recording, pause or stop. You can playback, jump ahead, go back, adjust volume and adjust playback speed.

With the smarten attached to a desktop, you can view notes on-screen and playback audio. Using the mouse pointer, audio playback can be started at various points. This is the ingenious part of Livescribe. It will accurately take you to audio where you have written key points you want to review.

You can also upload notes to your private account on the Livescribe website where you can work with the notes and audio and share them with co-workers if you choose.

Co-workers can see the notes and listen to the audio as well. I’ve used this collaborative capability with two workgroups and we’ve found it very useful.

I nearly panicked when I uploaded the first time, however. Livescribe calls uploading “Share with community.” When I thought I had mistakenly uploaded internal notes to a wider community, I nearly had a panic attack. But after a call to Livescribe support and a more careful reading of the user manual, I learned that despite this misleading label, uploaded notes are locked and private until the user adds the email addresses and names of those who will be given access to them.

I’m impressed with the quality of the recorded playback on a laptop system. I’ve used the pen only in conference room settings, I haven’t tried larger halls, but I’ve seen photos of people using the pen, holding it as if it were a microphone. A set of earbuds plug into the pen for private listening, a handy tool that could prevent you an embarrassment I experienced.

In order to review a recorded comment, I held the pen to my ear during a break at a recent staff retreat. I took a good deal of razzing about having a large pen sticking out of my ear.

The variable audio quality and adjustable volume offer surprising fidelity. One of my co-workers called me after logging onto shared meeting notes and described the playback as “awesome.” I don’t normally receive that kind of response to new media from our technologically jaded crew, so I take that as a great compliment to Livescribe.

Files can be organized into project notebooks and are searchable by keyword. A third party utility can turn handwritten notes into text. Alas, no transcription for audio to text. Wouldn’t that be something? But, hey, this little smartpen can do a lot and do it very well. I’m enjoying using it.

19 Ways I used the iPad While Traveling in Africa

The iPad has been described as a tool primarily for consuming media. That may be too limiting. It’s useful for many other reasons. While traveling in Africa I discovered several uses that go beyond consumption. Some the most useful apps are free. Some I bought on the app store. Because apps are being added daily, I might have chosen differently if options had been available when I made my trip. Here’s the list and how I used the apps:

1. Travel monitor for flight status, itinerary planning, electronic ticketing, seat selection using an online airline site and TripIt, FlightTrack and Flight Status apps.

2. Note-taking using the Notes app supplied with the iPad. I also have added Pages, Apple’s word processing software re-worked for the iPad, and Docs to Go from the app store. Notes is sufficient for quick note-taking but does not have formatting functions for document creation.

3. Calculator XL to determine exchange rates. This is always a trial for me. I’m mathematically challenged when it come to valuing dollars to local currency.

4. Business expense record using BizExpense. Extremely useful app which can scan in, or receive from an iPhone camera, copies of receipts which can be assimilated into an expense record and emailed for submission. Of course, accounting will require the real thing, but never the less, this is a great record of expenses.

5. Free telephone calls back home using Whistle. This app worked amazingly well when the wifi signal was strong. A weak signal renders the app much less useful. You have to listen to a 15-second ad using the free version, but it takes me that long to plug in my earphones and adjust the volume, so it doesn’t bother me. I called my wife on our home landline and on her cellphone from the iPad–for free.

6. Realtime text messaging in-country to another iPad and to Sharon and my daughters in the U.S. using TextNow, also free.

7. Reading the news using the Safari web browser supplied with the iPad in addition to Pulse and Flipboard. OK children, now gather ’round. I remember the days when I would buy a Sunday NY Times to hand carry to staff in Africa who had not seen a recent newspaper or magazine in months. Given this history, I’m amazed to be able to sit in a wifi zone and read today’s news online, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do.

8. Alarm clock using Alarm Clock Pro. A reminder. At this writing the iPad doesn’t multi-task, so an alarm app must be open for the alarm to work. It doesn’t run in background–yet. So, if you want to wake up on time, plug your iPad into the socket to charge up overnight and make this the last app you open before going to sleep.

9. Posting to Facebook and Twitter using the Facebook mobile app and Tweetdeck. Here’s another amazing change. (Maybe I’ve just lived so long everything new is amazing to me, but I can remember when it was nearly impossible to call from the African continent. That was when the postal service ran the telephone service and you had to schedule a call at a post office, take your turn–perhaps a day later–pay for the call, wait for the operator to place it and take your place in a booth when your name was called. Really! It was this way across Africa.) So, as we’re driving into rural Manjama village, I’m texting our arrival using the 3G connection on the iPad, notifying whomever cares in the U.S. of our whereabouts, and remembering the old days.

10. Bible reading using the Olive Tree app. I’ve put The Message, The New Revised Standard Version and the American Standard Version on the iPad. The new Common English Bible wasn’t released when we were traveling, but I’ll put it on when the app is available from Cokesbury. Incidentally, I note that most mainline publishers don’t have the extensive variety of Bible reader apps available from evangelical publishers.

11. Email using Google’s gmail, Apple’s mail and our Microsoft Exchange server at work. The iPad syncs up transparently and effortlessly with these mail apps and functions without a hitch. I’m very pleased with this seamless operation.

12. Calendar management using the calendar app that comes with the iPad. This, too, is a great tool. If you’ve wrestled with getting Entourage, Mac and Google calendars to sync, you know how frustrating it can be. Sometimes they work, sometimes they duplicate entries, drop entries, and generally make you want to tear out your hair. But the calendar app on the iPad syncs easily with the exchange server at work without the hassles of duplicate entries and other glitches. I am using the iPad calendar as my primary calendar for work because it functions so flawlessly.

13. Filing addresses using the native iPad address book from Apple. As with the calendar, this app has become my primary address book because it works so flawlessly and does not fight with all the other address books I’ve got elsewhere. When they play together well, I’m satisfied.

14. Document-sharing using Dropbox. This free app is a workhorse for me. It’s a cloud-based storage location to which I can upload documents and photos and then share them with others. This avoids email size limits that frequently make document sharing a problem, especially photos or video files.

15. Research using Google. While I’m overseas, I often find need for information that escapes my memory or that is pertinent to a discussion I’m engaged in. I use Google to get me up to speed. And, speaking of speed, while it wasn’t available at the time of my trip, I’ve been checking out Google Realtime search the past few days and it’s an impressive  search engine that returns immediate results from various sources in realtime.

16. Saving and storing notes. I’m an inveterate note maker. I don’t mean meeting notes, I mean notes on napkins, boarding passes, receipts or any other ephemera that I have in my pocket at the time. Needless to say, these sometimes survive to the end of the day, and sometimes not. So I’ve been using Evernote, a free online note service that is another workhorse app. I file a variety of material to Evernote and then transfer to other places as appropriate. However, Evernote syncs to my laptops, desktop, and Android smartphone in addition to the iPad. It illustrates the real value of cloud computing. I also use DevonThink database (it’s not an iPad app)  for my heavy duty filing system on my laptop, but Evernote comes in handy for reminders, thoughts, to do lists and article links I intend to return to in the future, among other things.

17. Planning and diagramming processes using Popplet, a free app. As we discussed a communications process for Imagine No Malaria while in Sierra Leone, I mapped out my own version of the process on Popplet on the iPad as the discussion progressed in the meeting. When the discussion was concluded I shared the diagram with members of the committee via email on the spot. There are other more full-featured apps like Omni-Graffle, which I use on my laptop, but it’s pricey for the iPad. For what it does, Popplet worked fine for me in our meeting.

18. Listening to audio books using the app. I find I retain as much by listening as by reading. I read a lot, but listening to some types of information seems to cause it to stick in my consciousness and I can recall it in a way that not’s true when I read. Maybe that’s why I loved radio when I was on the air. Whatever the reason, I listened to audio books in-flight and at night when jet lag made sleep impossible. Audible’s app is not as full featured as reading apps yet. It doesn’t sync to multiple devices, it’s too easy to accidentally touch the screen and cause the reading to jump to another location and it needs an easy “return to last location” function. These limitations aside, I like listening to audio books and Audible is a good source for the most recent and the largest selection.

19. Mapping our location using Google maps and related apps. For example, iTrips includes a Google map when it prepares a selection of travel information for you. The Google map for Freetown, Sierra Leone from iTrip identified landmarks and even showed a British Methodist Church we happened upon while in downtown Freetown. It also located the United Methodist Church where we worshipped and other key points of interest to us. I wouldn’t use it for a true gps, but for these kinds of sightings, it was a useful tool.

So that’s how an iPad becomes more than a tool to watch YouTube and play games online. I’ve purchased a keyboard which makes it even more functional for note taking in meetings and I got a camera adaptor that allows me to download images from my camera to the iPad and send them to interested friends via Facebook, Twitter and other programs.

Others may have found different ways to use the iPad. I’d be interested in hearing from you, and hearing about your most useful apps.

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