The politics of Tsunami aid: Dueling donors, and recalcitrant recipients

While France, US and other countries duel it out (via Metafilter), trying to prove they are the most generous (US is currently leading at $350 million), India has refused aid from other Governments. They will still take aid from United Nations and other non-Governmental organizations, but not from other Governments. At first blush, this is a stupid idea – why stop anyone from helping? There are people who need help – there are Governments willing to help. But, as the escalating aid figures from US and Europe show, such aid is a political instrument. It comes with strings attached (even if the strings are invisible). And in the day of the internet, who needs Govts – people can help each other directly (as they are doing – in so many generous, creative ways).

In other news, how one phone call saves an entire village. That is all one needs – a phone and a Public announcement system in every village.

Donating to Tsunami: how to double your contribution

Like many others, I had been trying to figure out how to ensure that any money I donate for Tsunami goes to a good organization, with a low overhead. My brother who works for GE, told me how their company is doing matching contributions. Moreover, they have identified several worthy organizations doing relief work on the ground, and are directly giving the money to these organizations.

I ended up making my contribution through my brother. If you are thinking of making a contribution, then look for a friend/relative at a company doing matching contributions. Its an easy way to double your contribution.

The wonders of Skype

When I first came to the USA ten years ago (yes, its been ten years), I used to spend more than 50 cents per minute calling India. A fair proportion of my small graduate research assistant salary was spent on international calls. Over the years, the phone call rate to India has progressively gone down (currently I am paying 11 cents for phone calls). Since i was introduced to Skype (which uses P2P technology to offer free internet calling), the cost for much of my international calling has reduced to zero. The sound quality is far superior than for most international phone calls. There is almost no time lag (which makes a huge difference).

Right now, I am in Boston for the Internet and Society conference. From my hotel room, I have already had two international conversations, one with someone in India, another with someone in Brazil. I am also using Skype for communicating with my colleagues back in California (why pay roaming charges on a cell phone, or outrageous hotel phone bills).

Apart from the slight disruption in sleep cycle (with the three hour difference), I can work from my hotel room in Boston, as if I was back at my desk in California. And that’s primarily because of Skype. The sound quality on Yahoo and MSN audio chat just does not measure up. Also, I like Skype’s use of the phone icon for showing active calls, and the sound of the phone ring when someone calls you on Skype. I even like seeing the number of Skype users online (1,002,689 right now).

Yes, there are some usability issues. And the Skype conferencing facility still needs a lot of work. But Skype is living proof of the fact that usefulness can trump everything else. Skype fulfills a real, long-unmet need, and fulfills it better than anything else out there.

If you are still using Yahoo/MSN/AOL for voice chats, then give Skype a try. You will be pleasantly surprised at the difference.

The Global Voices conference at the Berkman Center, Harvard

Later this week I am heading to the Global Voices Online at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Going back to the East Coast is always welcome, and I look forward to reflecting on the DialogNow experience, and how to replicate such a system. Its just about four years since I started Dialognow (it was launched in January 2002, but I started working on it just about this time of the year in 2001).

There are many people at the conference who I look forward to meeting including Hossein Derakhshan who blogs about iran, Joi Ito, and Jeff Jarvis. The conference organizer, Rebecca MacKinnon has put together a very interesting bunch of people together. And to top it all, we are being put up at Irving House, which (along with its affiliate Harding House)is my favorite place to stay in the Boston area.