For many years I was doing mainly non-profit project management – which, by the way, is very different from the same activity in a corporate settings – including consolidation of the organization, research, grant writing, event management, capacity building, microfinance and some IT work for our websites. Faced with the challenge to find innovative solutions to the quite complex situation in and around Burma (Myanmar), I decided to extend my activities within the Burma Center in 2012 to a new field. Inspired by the use of mobile phones for banking in Africa and successful open source projects like Ushahidi that offer their product both as hosted and self-hosted solution, I started to work on a new software platform that would later become mycitizen.net.
After 2011 it has become quite clear that Burma would not be the stage of another Arab Spring. Those in power and their advisers were clever enough to relieve the pressure and reduce the risk of clashes by changing themselves from hard into soft and blurry targets. This way they gained the support of foreign governments, investors and most NGOs. The problem has now shifted from a military junta that brutally squashes any dissent to a “disciplined democracy” where people have rights but lack the awareness and opportunities to exercise them. This is the case more than anywhere else in remote areas that are hidden from the foreigners’ eyes and where ethnic people live.
While legal reforms are on the way and a massive surge of NGOs has occupied the hotels of Yangon and boosted the salary expectations of local staff, while mobile networks are increasingly available even in villages and the notoriously bad power grid is going to be upgraded, while people can with little risk show their support for political parties and read foreign news, the problem persists that the top-down approach of Burmese democratization does not – and possibly not even plan to – reach down to the citizens. What makes things worse is that Burmese society is not only shaped by long years of dictatorship, but also an entrenched tradition of ethnic and religious discrimination and social inequality.
I think it is not sufficient to “air-drop” NGOs into the country that would then serve as field bases to sow the seeds of lasting changes. To me it seems much more natural to start out from the basic need of locals to solve problems in their communities. In this respect, the chances to get things going and the possible outreach have considerably increased with the recent reforms, with the country’s reduced isolation and the increased availability and affordability of technology.
I will not describe the entire platform again. A friend has contributed the brilliant name mycitizen.net that can be used even beyond Myanmar by any community to form something that I can use as my citizen network.
Behind the scenes, this meant a huge challenge: Drafting a software platform, including the database structure and technical requirements, estimating a time frame and finding services providers was not only new in that scale, but also impeded by the tiny budgets that Czech NGO have at their disposal. When searching for software developers, I first turned to universities, seeking a cooperation with advanced students. Eventually we ended up with a freelancer, who did a great job creating the basic parts and making them work as drafted in the concept.
For this year, the budget to extend the software would have sufficed for around 10 hours of work. This is just enough a typical working day. I understood that I had to teach myself the technical backgrounds and then get down to it: The pages became much richer with useful information, the images could now be cropped and scaled, also groups got their images, images were served from the server for better caching, the handling of group subscriptions was simplified and many logical flaws (e.g. how to join a hidden group) were fixed. A huge number of jQuery scripts were added – the group chat could reload separately and got a reply button, the quoted text could easily be identified by mouse-over, and the chat lists now offer the possibility to search for names without reloading the page from the server.
During 2013, these improvements went alongside other changes that were requested by the designer who will finish her week this month. The same freelancer who has produced the core of the web software is currently working on the mobile application. Every now and then I receive a new version where I can watch the original mockup screen shots slowly taking shape.
At the same time, I am working on the documentation. I was surprised how difficult it would be to explain that simple concept to others, especially if they lack first-hand experience with smartphones or even social networks that would offer anything else than status messages, brand promotion and images of cute little cats. The whole thing became even more complicated since I based the concept on a web and a mobile interface where you can use the web-based part on our server or install your own deployment while the mobile application will nicely work with any of them.
Mycitizen.net would not have come that far without huge volunteering input, and I owe a great deal of my motivation to the efforts of other volunteers, namely those creating the logos 1 and the video with its Burmese translation. Particularly the video is hoped to contribute a big part to help people understand the basic concept.
Lastly, I post some screen shots of the web platform, close to finalization: