This app lets activists pass around information when the government is watching

During the last election in Uganda, the government suppressed text messages about voting. Abayima is a new service that helps mitigate this problem by using SIM cards as communication devices.

By Ariel Schwartz

Cell phones are more than just convenient communications tools; in an emergency, they can also serve as storage devices, logging data that can be passed along to others.Abayima, one of eight winners of the Knight News Challenge: Mobile, has created an app that transforms mobile phone SIM cards into storage devices that can be passed around in crises. It’s not terribly convenient, but it’s way better than no information at all.

In developed nations, citizens often take for granted that cell networks will always work. When a crisis hits--say, Hurricane Sandy--and the networks briefly go down, people are gripped with panic, and hat’s when misinformation starts being spread. It’s not such an irregular occurrence in more tumultuous countries. Just last year, citizens in Syria and Egypt saw their Internet access shut off so that they couldn’t communicate with the outside world.

Abayima was created in 2011 when co-founder Jon Gosier--along with a number of colleagues--noticed that the Ugandan government was blocking certain text messages from going through that indicated how the country’s elections were going. So Abayima was founded as a nonprofit with the goal of keeping communication open during these so-called "blackouts."

After the Uganda elections, Abayima created a post-election assessment to show just how bad it got. The assessment described incidents like this one, where a Ugandan posted a warning to friends on Facebook: "SMS is being monitored for key words like ‘dictator’, ‘egypt’, etc…my tip is; pliz (sic) try to mask your language in one way or another… chances are techies are using full-text search and not semantic (unless they’ve got $$ to spend)."



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