Bridging Silicon Valley and Tahrir Square

The Program on Liberation Technology at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) hosted two events in May, which brought together the technology and activist communities in support of a common cause-Egypt. The Program benefitted tremendously from the presence of two Egyptian activists, Ahmed Saleh and Sabah Hamamou, who traveled from Cairo to share their experiences and contribute ideas to help build a community between Tahrir Square and Silicon Valley. These events were coordinated by Stanford and Silicon Valley technology firms interested in leveraging their expertise in technology innovation to provide practical benefits for pro-democracy activists in Egypt and beyond.

On May 14, the Program on Liberation Technology in partnership with the Stanford Peace Innovation Lab, Code the Change (a Stanford student group), CloudtoStreet, and Platform d, organized a Hack-a-Thon for Egypt at Stanford's design school. This event attracted more than 80 computer engineers, programmers, technologists, academics, activists, and members of the public. All expressed a firm commitment to volunteer their skills and time towards the development of technology applications to aid activists.

Volunteers connected in real time with Egyptian activists through videoconference and live presentations where they described the type of applications that would be beneficial to their work. Programmers and designers in the room listened intently as ideas for the following technologies were proposed; mobile phone applications for political mobilization, web-based training for election monitors, a crowdsourcing platform for constitutional negotiations, and a tool to monitor the Egyptian parliament.

Ahmed Saleh, a political activist and founder of the Kifaya movement (the Egyptian Movement for Change), provided a personal account of the revolution, captivating the audience's attention with his details of the 18 days leading up to President Mubarak's fall. Sabah Hamamou, a journalist and blogger, emphasized social media's impact on the public's capacity to organize and connect.

Hackers quickly got to work dividing into groups to begin designing the prototypes for some of the suggested applications. Sketching out designs on whiteboards and developing basic code, programmers worked late into the evening on four tangible projects: a web platform to crowdsource constitutional negotiations, a content management system for an Egyptian watchdog group to increase citizens’ ability to hold politicians to account, an election monitoring training and certification interface, and new visualizations of Twitter usage data emerging from the 18 days of protests.

Going forward, the teams will work with their Egyptian counterparts to scale-up their projects into applications with practical and broad application. The CloudtoStreet project led by CDDRL visiting scholar Ben Rowswell will work to incubate several of the projects and maintain connections with their Egyptian partners to aid in the implementation phase on the ground. A follow-on event to the Hack-a-Thon is planned for the summer quarter of 2011 to encourage the teams to continue the development of applications.

The second event hosted by the Program on Liberation Technology on May 20, brought executives from Google and Facebook to Stanford to explore social media's impact on democratic transition. More than 40 gathered to hear from Egyptian activists Saleh and Hamamou who spoke at length about their direct experience using social media and its impact on the uprisings.

According to Saleh, "Facebook had a humble start in 2008 (in Egypt) but quickly became viral when activists coordinated a national strike on April 6. This shocked the security services but they quickly learned from their mistakes.” The We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page communicated the message of the revolution, Saleh explained, but it still took a great deal of social mobilization to convince people to join the protests in Cairo. Once the power was cut, Saleh told the audience, the "keyboard activists" were then inspired to go to the streets.

If it wasn't for the world watching (the revolution) I am not sure we could have done it.
-Sabah Hamamou

Hamamou showed a variety of YouTube videos featuring cartoons poking fun at the deposed regime, which were produced by small Egyptian media companies. In doing so, she highlighted the fact that social media is becoming increasingly more popular in Egypt as politicians and civil society groups use this tool for civic education and outreach. Sabah explained this by noting that "people want alternative ways of being entertained outside of traditional media." She continued by pointing out that, "if it wasn't for the world watching (the revolution) I am not sure we could have done it."

Both activists outlined practical steps that the technologists in the room could take to help aid their efforts. Saleh underscored the importance of secure communication, which is an enormous challenge for activists who are confronted with sophisticated technologies used by regimes to survey their communication. With limited funds, activists are unable to afford expensive circumvention systems and require software and secure tools that provide user-friendly and cheap solutions. Saleh ended by emphasizing that these secure communication technologies can save lives and are urgently needed.

Hamamou suggested that Silicon Valley-based technology companies should expand their grant-making and philanthropic programs to include Egypt where they can engage directly with NGOs on the ground. She specifically highlighted YouTube's Partnership program and Google's digital journalism grant, which currently have no formal presence in Egypt. A representative from Google explained that engagement in Egypt requires them to comply with local laws to use the Egypt domain, requiring them to censor materials that are not permitted by the authorities. These laws and limitations make it challenging to maximize freedom of expression in this kind of environment.

Both events allowed the Program on Liberation Technology and its partners to match the technological ingenuity of Silicon Valley with the needs of activists in Egypt. Looking forward, the Program will be building on the applications created and the community established around this cause to make a more profound impact on the efforts of pro-democracy activists in Egypt and beyond.

Note: News of the Hack-a-Thon spread quickly through both the traditional and social media sectors, eliciting a great deal of interest and coverage of this event. The initiative was featured on the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page, home to over 100,000 international members generating an upwards of 350 "likes" and 80 comments. In addition, Fast published an article on the event and the Financial Post of Canada mentioned the CloudtoStreet project in their business section. See the links below to read more: