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February 16 2011

Rwanda: Blogging From Inside Rwanda: A Conversation With Graham Holiday

Written by Etienne Mashuli

Graham Holliday is an award winning blogger, a freelance media trainer and foreign correspondent. He blogs at Noodlepie and Kigali Wire, a news wire, photojournalism site and blog.

Q: Your blog, Kigali Wire is a popular news source on Rwanda; could you tell us how it all began? And something about yourself?

I started putting Kigali Wire together in June, 2009 when I knew I would be moving to Rwanda. The original aim was to aggregate interesting news from Rwanda, blog original content and distribute it using free tools.

The publishing and distribution model is largely based upon the work I did as the Digital Media Editor and Journalism Trainer for the Frontline Club in London.

I wanted to use free tools where possible. The only thing I paid for was the WordPress theme. Initially, I used WPNewspaper. I later moved to Graphpaperpress, as it soon became clear to me that I wanted to focus more on photography.

My hope was, and still is, that Kigali Wire will act as a model for others in how to publish and distribute a news wire online at very low cost.

In addition, I wanted to make how I built the site and the thinking behind it as transparent as possible. As a result, I documented the whole process of building the site on the Kigali Backwire and I occasionally add thoughts and ideas to the Kigali Wire Roughbook.

As for me, I started blogging nearly ten years ago. I lived in Vietnam for ten years and blogged mostly about the street food scene on my noodlepie blog

I've worked in blogs and online journalism ever since. I continue to blog for the Frontline Club, the BBC College of Journalism and Current Intelligence as well as Kigali Wire.

Q: You write that your blog is a “social media experiment”, what is the state of social media in Rwanda?

In Rwanda itself, it's very small-scale. Internet penetration is very low at about 3% of the population.

There are other limiting factors; many parts of Rwanda lack electricity, there are frequent power cuts, plus the Internet is very expensive, slow and unreliable.

The Rwandan government, a few expats and NGOs are probably the most active participants, certainly across blogs, Facebook and Twitter. I know some Rwandans in Rwanda on Twitter, but I could count the number on one hand. Facebook is more popular.

The diaspora and a number of overseas based commentators are far more active. Some of whom blog in Kinyarwanda.

Q: Rwanda has been emphatic on the role that the Internet can play in development, yet the country has on various occasions been criticized for hindering free press. What is the status of censorship in the country?

On paper, there is no censorship in Rwanda. However, it's clear self-censorship is a big problem within Rwandan media. There are virtually no critical voices in the Rwandan media, at least in the English language media.

However, the Kinyarwanda language media is quite a bit freer. Unfortunately, much of it is filled with rumour, gossip, made up quotes with little attention paid to ethics of journalism. Having said that, regardless of the poor quality of the Kinyarwanda language media it's hard to support the horrendous sentence passed down against the two Umurabyo journalists recently.

In addition, the six month ban of Umuseso and Umuvugizi in April last year was out of all proportion. Although, the ban was lifted in Septemeber 2010, the newspapers are yet to return to the streets of Kigali. Another tabloid, Umusingi, is also under threat of late.

Q: How does this affect the blogging community?

As far as I know, the blogging community, such that it is, consists mainly of expats blogging. Most of those appear to be transient, they'll often only be here for a year or so and then they're gone. So, there's little to no effect. Its rare to find bloggers within Rwanda blogging on these issues.

Q: Are there any other challenges that you experience while blogging or that Rwandan bloggers face in general?

Just the power cuts and slow Internet. Sometimes it's so slow, it actually stops altogether for a week or more.

Q: What would you consider to be the success of your blogging experience? For instance, some people have stated that your blog is the closest thing to free media that Rwanda has?

I measure the success of my blog in the number and quality of the connections I make with people inside and outside the country. I have met with some fascinating Rwandans, from bee keepers to orphans, politicians, diplomats and journalists. It also allows me to connect with foreigners interested in Rwanda.

A number of Rwandans have told me they find the wire invaluable. I think this is because I try to aggregate news in an intelligent manner, to weed out what's important on any given day. That could be a news story from the Government mouthpiece newspaper or a critical blog post or article in the mainstream media.

I try to refrain from adding too much of my own opinion. Facts and truth are elusive in Rwanda. An opinion I may hold today could quite easily change tomorrow.

I think an editorial layer is very important. I always check the source of a blog or news story I find interesting. Unfortunately, there are a number of blogs and Twitter accounts, with agendas out there. It doesn't take long to figure which ones they are and I tend to ignore them completely.

Also, there are quite a few very vocal commentators who publish strong opinions about Rwanda, but who seem to spend remarkably little time, or indeed no time at all, in Rwanda itself. I tend not to read or link to them either.

Regardless of your opinion of Rwanda, to form any kind of intelligent perspective you do have to spend a lot of time in the country, talking to Rwandans, finding out how things work, observing life.

Q: Overall, what is the status of the Rwandan blogosphere? Have more Rwandans started blogging?

Like I mentioned earlier, not that I have noticed. You'll find greater numbers of Rwandans congregating around Facebook, various email discussion lists and Igihe - I could be wrong on that, but that seems to be the case.

Q: Now you also use Twitter, how important is this medium to bloggers?

I have been on Twitter since it started in 2006. Twitter has evolved into an entirely new news platform, therefore it's obvious if you're interested in news you have to be on it.

It's a good distribution tool, but I mainly use it for monitoring and engaging with people.

I occasionally pick up stories I would not otherwise know about by running forward searches on keywords.

It has proved very useful as an early warning system during the grenade attacks we have suffered in Kigali over the past year. Not all of the information turns out to be true, but it's a good starting point, so long as you keep a skeptical eye on supposedly authentic information coming out of Twitter. Rumours spread just as fast as facts on Twitter.

On the evening of the last grenade attack at the end of January, 2011 I was having dinner with my family in central Kigali. We were unaware of the attack while we were out. When we got home, I looked at Twitter and saw a number of tweets mentioning a possible attack an hour earlier. However, there were very few details of where or when the attack was and if anyone had been injured.

I made some phone calls to a number of reliable sources and immediately tweeted the most important bits of information and tried to quash rumours. I then spent a bit more time talking to people, monitoring news outlets to put together a quick blog post summarizing what I had found out.

I suspect Twitter might become more and more important as and when the Internet becomes more affordable, reliable and widespread.

Q: Most other forms of media were used during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda to incite ethnic hatred? Do you think that blogging has the capacity to unite the society?

I'm afraid that's too big and idealistic a question for me… :) Come and ask me again when all Rwandans have access to a reliable electricity supply, know how to use computers, have access to computers and the Internet and can afford to use the Internet… Seems like a long way off to me, but here's hoping.

Q: What do you think will be the legacy of your blog?

I hope I will find a Rwandan who can take it over. If I can find the right person, Kigali Wire will be an ongoing news wire and resource that I just happened to start.

December 22 2010

How will the elmcity service scale? Like the web!

During a recent talk at Harvard's Berkman Center, Scott MacLeod asked (via the IRC backchannel): "How does the elmcity service scale?" He wondered, in particular, whether the service could support an online university like the World University and School that might produce an unlimited number of class schedules.

My short answer was that the elmcity service scales like the web. But what does that really mean? I promised Scott that I'd spell it out here. We'll start with an analogy. As I mentioned in The power of informal contracts, the elmcity project envisions a web of calendar feeds that's analogous to the blogosphere's web of RSS and Atom feeds. We take for granted that the blogosphere scales like the web. A blog feed is just a special kind of web page. Anybody can create a blog and publish its feed at some URL. Why not calendars too? We haven't thought about them in the same way, but the ICS (iCalendar) files that our calendar programs export are the moral equivalents of the RSS and Atom feeds that our blog publishing tools export. Anybody can create a calendar and publish its feed at some URL.

These webs -- of HTML pages, of blog feeds, of calendar feeds -- are notionally webs of peers. We can all publish, and we can all read, without relying on a central authority or privileged hub. There are, to be sure, powerful centralized services. My blog, for example, is one of millions hosted at, aggregated by Bloglines and Google Reader, and indexed by Google and Bing. But these services, while convenient, are optional. So long as we can publish our blogs somewhere online, advertise their URLs, and get the DNS to resolve their domain names, we can have a working blogosphere. The necessary and sufficient condition is that we can all publish resources (e.g., pages and feeds), and that we can all access those resources.

For the calendarsphere that I envision, a service like elmcity is likewise optional. Let's suppose that the World University and School succeeds wildly. At any given moment there are tens of thousands of courses on offer, each with its own course page and also with its own calendar. Instructors publish course pages using any web publishing tool, and also publish calendars using any calendar publishing tool -- Google Calendar, or Outlook, or Apple iCal, or another calendar program. Students pick schedules of courses, bookmark the course pages, and load the course calendars into any of these same calendar programs. The calendar software merges the separate course calendars and combines them with the students' personal calendars. These calendar programs are thus aggregators of calendar feeds in the same way that feedreaders like NetNewsWire or Google Reader are aggregators of blog feeds.

Given a baseline web of peers, it's useful to be able to merge our individual views of them into pooled spaces. NetNewsWire is a personal feedreader, but Google Reader is social. In the pool created by Google Reader, data finds data and people find people. The elmcity service aims to create that same kind of effect in the realm of public calendar events. When we pool our separate calendars, we publicize the events that we are promoting, we discover events that others are promoting, and we see all our public events on common timelines.

What constrains our ability to scale out pools of calendars? Let's continue the analogy to the blogosphere. Google Reader constitutes one pooled space for blog feeds, Bloglines another. Because the data aggregated by these services conforms to open standards (i.e., RSS and Atom), other services can create blog pools too. Likewise in the calendarsphere, Google Calendar is one way to pool calendars, the elmcity service is another, Calagator is a third. Others can play too.

How can we scale these providers of calendar pools? Along one axis, each provider needs to be able to grow its computing power. Google Calendar scales on this axis by using Google's cloud platform. The elmcity service uses Azure, the Microsoft cloud platform. Note that elmcity, unlike Google Calendar, is an open source service. That means you could run your own instance of it, using your own Azure account, but you'd still be relying on the Azure compute fabric.

Calagator, based on Ruby on Rails, could be deployed either to a conventional hosting environment or to a cloud platform. It would thus scale, along the compute axis, as either environment allows. The elmcity service could be used in this way too. The service is written for Azure, but the core aggregation engine is independent of Azure and could be deployed to a conventional hosting environment.

For feed aggregators, another axis of scale is the number of feeds that can be processed. When that number grows, the time required to connect to many feeds and ingest their contents becomes a constraint. The elmcity service currently supports 50 calendar hubs. Thrice daily, each hub pulls data from Eventful, Upcoming, EventBrite, Facebook, and a list of iCalendar feeds. So far a single Azure worker role can easily do all this work. I'll dial up the number of workers if needed, but first I want to squeeze as much parallelism as I can out of each worker. To that end, I recently upgraded to the 4.0 version of the .NET Framework in order to exploit its dramatically simplified parallel processing. In this week's companion article I show how the elmcity service uses that new capability to optimize the time required to gather feeds from many sources.

Pub/sub networks can also scale by coalescing feeds. Consider a calendar hub operated, for some city, by the online arm of that city's newspaper. One model is flat. The newspaper runs a hub whose registry lists all the calendar feeds in town. But another model is hierarchical. In that model, there's a hub for arts and culture, a hub for sports and recreation, a hub for city government, and so on. Each hub gathers events from many feeds, and publishes the merged result on its own website for its own constituency. If the newspaper wants to include all those feeds, it can list them individually in its own registry. But why aggregate arts, sports, or recreation feeds more than once? The newspaper's uber-hub can, instead, reuse the arts, sports, and recreation feeds curated by those respective hubs, adding their merged outputs to its own set of curated feeds. Such reuse can cut down the computational time and effort required to propagate feeds throughout the network.

None of these mechanisms will matter, though, until a vibrant ecosystem of calendar feeds requires them. That's the ultimate constraint. Scaling the calendarsphere isn't a problem yet, but it would be a good problem to have. First, though, we've got to light up a whole bunch of feeds.


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December 07 2010

Strata Gems: Five data blogs you should read

We're publishing a new Strata Gem each day all the way through to December 24. Yesterday's Gem: The timeless utility of sed and awk.

Strata 2011Whether your interest in data is professional or casual, commercial or political, there's a blog out there for you. Feel free to add your own suggestions to the comments at the bottom.

Measuring Measures @bradfordcross

Eclectic, thoughtful and forthright, Bradford Cross spends his time making research work in practice: from hedge funds to data-driven startup FlightCaster. His blog covers topics ranging from venture capital and startups to coding in Clojure.

Dataists @vsbuffalo @hmason

Unapologetically geeky, and subtitled Fresher than seeing your model doesn't have heteroscedastic errors, Dataists is a group blog featuring contributions from writers in the New York data scene, such as Hilary Mason and Drew Conway. Dataists includes an insightful mix of instruction and opinion.

Flowing Data @flowingdata

Consistently excellent, Nathan Yau's Flowing Data blog is a frequently updated stream of articles on visualization, statistics and data. Always pretty to look at, the blog often includes commentary and coverage of topical data stories.

Flowing Data Blog

Guardian Data Blog @datastore

Subtitled Facts are sacred, and part of the UK Guardian's pioneering approach to online content, this blog uncovers the stories behind public data. Edited by Strata keynoter Simon Rogers.

Pete Warden @petewarden

Founder of OpenHeatMap, Pete Warden's keeps a personal blog with a strong component of data and visualization topics, as well as commentary on the emerging data industry: most recently, Data is snake oil.

And plenty more...

While these are some of my favorites, the question and answer web site Quora has a more exhaustive list of data blogs.

December 06 2010

Four short links: 6 December 2010

  1. Apple I Basic as Mac OS X Scripting Language -- great hack. The “apple1basic” executable is a statically recompiled version of the original binary. All code is running natively. It plugs right into UNIX stdin and stdout. You can pass it the filename of a BASIC program to run. You can run BASIC programs like shell scripts. (via Hacker News)
  2. How to Discredit Net Neutrality -- the Level3-Comcast dispute isn't as straightforward as you might think (or as I implied). Increasingly, advocates of net neutrality have pegged their case to a larger and more powerful role for FCC regulation in the internet industry. And thus the net neutrality debate, instead of focusing on developing new institutional arrangements to preserve internet freedom on BOTH the demand and supply side, descends into a replay of the early 1980s, Reagan-era punch and judy show between democrats and republicans, with one arguing for "more government" and the other for "less government." Neither talking much sense about what the government should actually do. There's a missing discussion here about competition preventing carrier abuses, competition that the US lacks.
  3. The Dark Side of Open Source Conferences (Val Aurora) -- A good first step is for conferences and communities to adopt and enforce explicit policies or codes of conduct that spell out what kind of behavior won't be tolerated and what response it will get. Much in the way that people don't stop speeding unless they get speeding tickets, or that murder is totally unacceptable to most people but laws against it still exist, harassment at conferences may seem obviously wrong, but stopping it will require written rules and enforceable penalties.
  4. iDev Blog-a-Day -- love the layout and the content's good too.

October 12 2010

Why blogging still matters

We tend to get caught up in the latest tech ideas or gadgets, which is understandable since a lot of this stuff is undeniably interesting. But from time to time it's worth surveying where we are and where we came from; to consider how the tech landscape has changed over the years, and how all those past technologies have influenced the things and thoughts we currently have.

That sort of slap of perspective happened to me during a recent interview with Expert Labs director Anil Dash (@anildash) at Web 2.0 Expo NY. I was reminded of the enduring power of blogging.

Here's what Dash said when I asked how his blog relates to his other work:

I'm incredibly privileged and fortunate. I can put a post up on my blog and some number of people who are smart and thoughtful will take it seriously and respond. That's unbelievable. That's the greatest thing in the world.

If I spend an hour writing a couple hundred words about a really interesting challenge that we face as an industry, as a society, as a culture, sometimes I'll get the person that I'm writing about to respond. I could write something about Twitter and get somebody that works at Twitter to respond, or write something about government and get someone who makes policy to respond. That's still a thrill. It also kicks off really meaningful conversations. I think that's all you can hope for.

That was the promise we had when we all first discovered the web. Someday it would bring us all together and we'd be able to have these conversations. It's not perfect. It's not ideal. But in some small way here's somebody like me -- with no portfolio, I didn't go to an Ivy League school, I didn't have any fancy social connections when I started my blog -- and it has opened the door to me having a conversation as a peer, as somebody taken seriously, in realms that I would have never otherwise had access to. That's the greatest privilege in the world.

The full interview with Dash, embedded below, includes his thoughts on how he's avoided burnout after more than a decade of blogging. He also discusses his crowdsourcing/government work with Expert Labs and he explains why the Gov 2.0 movement would have never happened had it required a federal mandate.


July 30 2010

Muss die Marke “Basic Thinking” gelöscht werden?

Ein für Blogger sicher interessantes Thema ist die Diskussion darüber, ob die Marke “Basic Thinking” löschungsreif ist.

Nachdem Robert Basic das Blog “Basic Thinking” im Jahr 2009 verkauft hatte, meldete die GmbH, die das Blog derzeit betreibt, Anfang 2010 die Marke beim Deutschen Patent- und Markenamt in den Klassen 9, 16 und 38 an. Gegen die eingetragene Marke wurde im Mai Löschungsantrag wegen absoluter Schutzhindernisse gestellt.

Das Markenblog hat eine Umfrage gestartet, nach der 72 % der Leser die Marke für löschungsreif halten. Ich bin mir da persönlich allerdings nicht  ganz so sicher und tippe eher auf einen Fortbestand der Marke. Auf den Namen des Blogs und die Domain hat das aber keine Auswirkungen. Denn auch ohne Markenschutz kann “Basic Thinking” natürlich unter dieser Bezeichnung weiter betrieben werden.

July 02 2010

Google setzt BR-Moderator Richard Gutjahr eine Frist

Der Moderator des Bayerischen Fernsehens Richard Gutjahr (Rundschau Spätausgabe) hat Ärger mit Google wegen seines Blogs “”.

Google droht ihm mit einem Rauswurf aus dem AdSense-Programm, wenn er die Inhalte des Blogs nicht innerhalb von 72 Stunden an die Vorgaben von Google anpasst.

Gutjahr hatte über eine Künstlergruppe berichtet, die sich über das Porno-Verbot von Apple lustig macht. Vielleicht weil der Begriff “Blow-Job” auftaucht, spricht Google von nicht jugendfreiem Content.

Man könnte darüber lachen, wenn der Vorgang nicht gleichzeitig darauf hindeuten würde, dass sich eine bedenkliche Tendenz manifestiert. Falscher und überzogener Jugendschutz gefährdet die Meinungsfreiheit.

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