In an effort to encourage Iraq to use social media to rebuild itself, the State Department sent representatives from Twitter, Google, YouTube and WordPress to Baghdad in late April. For five days, they visited universities, met with technology companies, and sat down with Iraqi president Jalal Talabani.
Raanan Bar-Cohen was there. He’s vice president of Automattic, which leads the WordPress open-source project, a blog-publishing tool. Raanan spoke with Word of Mouth about how he observed Iraqis using social networks during his visit.
You can listen to the interview (MP3) here.
Having had a chance to catchup and reflect a bit on our IraqTech trip last week, I wanted to share a few more thoughts and also address a few questions that have come in.
On general security situation and every day life that we saw:
We traveled in a secure manner and met with many leaders and students all over the city. It was obviously a small slice of the city that we covered over the course of 4+ days. Having said that, the parts of Baghdad we saw beyond the International Zone, neighborhoods not far from places like Sadar City – were remarkable. We got an on the ground view ( and an amazing helicopter ride ) where we saw a ton of active shops, cafes which were crowded, shauma stands with long lines, and traffic that was significant on the major roads.
Many people who once worked and lived on secure compounds told us how they have now moved back to living in residential neighborhoods. In addition many had sent their families to live in Jordan or Kuwait, and were now working on bringing the families back to Iraq.
With all that said, violence is still ongoing and people are mindful of which neighborhoods they visit and take other precautions. But everyone universally felt that the security environment had improved dramatically.
On what the staff was like at the the US Embassy, State Dept, Foreign Service, US Military, and the NGOs:
I had heard over the years that it was getting difficult to attract people to Iraq and that NGOs were pulling out, especially after the UN bombing back in 2003. What I found during my trip was quite the opposite, and the people we interacted with were absolutely A-list people — some of the brightest and most accomplished people that I had ever met. Not only were they extraordinary, but they also worked 24/7 – including the weekends. These are people who could be working for top companies back in the U.S., but instead were away from their families and doing really important work. My hope is that I get to work with them again in some capacity in the future.
On impact of oil prices:
In meetings with GOI (Government of Iraq) officials, this was a very big theme as the drop in price is having a real impact on budgets for the coming years. I felt like many of these officials were channeling Tom Friedman at times, who often talks about how the relationship between oil prices and private investment / pace of innovations are inversely related. Many spoke about needing private sector activity to offset the declining oil revenues.
On what role WordPress could play in Iraq:
I saw two immediate ways that WordPress could help.
1) Private sector. Iraq has tens of thousands of highly educated computer science and computer engineering students with very few commercial opportunities. Most of these students will end up in government roles and not in any kind of private firms.
My recommendation to them was to have students get involved with Open Source projects like WordPress, MySQL, PHP, etc — start making a name for themselves, contribute to these projects, work on translations,etc — and get some recognition. Blogging about it doesn’t hurt either :). Once Iraqis start getting involved and becoming experts, they can start bidding on all the available projects that are listed in marketplaces like oDesk. There are thousands of paid projects today that are looking for contractors and where the location of the contractor is not important. There is no reason today that only contractors in India and eastern Europe dominate these marketplaces and not ones from countries like Iraq.
2) Transparency and authentic voices. With tools like WordPress and our other projects like BuddyPress I saw an immediate platform for students, gov’t officials, companies, and really anyone working on interesting things to get the word out and put a face to the new Iraqi society. I heard lots of complaints from various people in Iraq that the media only covered bombings and had a “if it bleeds it leads” mentality. While somewhat true — and to me that’s more about news consumption habits than news producing — the best way to counter that perception is to produce your own content. Unfortunately, at least up until now, Iraqis, an the Arab world at large, is not producing much of it’s own content relative to other parts of the world. As my friend on this trip Ahmad (from Google) often pointed out, less than 1% of the Google index is in Arabic.
One student I met with, Helen, just left a comment here that “reading your blog encourages me to start my own blog, i think there is alot going on that needs to be told!”. Exactly :)
As a proxy for the activity in the WordPress community, below is a map of WordCamps around the world — which are community organized WordPress conferences. Besides the recent one in Egypt and in Israel, there is a huge vacuum in the middle east:
On our personal security:
We had an amazing security detail. I can’t, and won’t, reveal many details on how exactly they protected us, but I never felt in danger and had 100% confidence in our team. I’ll also say one thing: There is something remarkable about the quality of security and military personnel that are produced by free and open societies. These men and women are not only highly trained and have a ton of experience in hostile environments. They also care deeply about their mission, they are highly educated and understand the geopolitical importance of the work being done, and they exhibit a level of professionalism that is unmatched. Anyone thinking of going on a trip like this should feel confident about the security being provided.
On random moments where I took note and jotted something in my iPhone:
- Every meeting had tea & coffee. The tea was bedouin style with plenty of sugar :)
- Heard the word “transitioning” in every meetings — as in “Iraq is transitioning” to the next phase. People had a real sense that they were living through big historical times.
- People spoke of the sanctions of the 90s on the same level, from a negative impact perspective, as the first gulf war and the war in 2003. This was especially true at the Universities where many labs had to be shut down since the “dual use” of these labs was in question.
- During one meeting there was a brief power outage and we found ourselves sitting
partially in the dark. The Iraqis in the meeting didn’t miss a beat and just kept talking. Clearly this happens pretty often.
- Met a few Iraq soldiers and Baghdad police. These guys seemed well trained, friendly, and proud of the work they are doing. A few of them were on break and were off to the side playing soccer — good skills :)
Re: Who organized this trip:
Lots of people asked me about this. The person who put this all together is Jared Cohen who works for Hillary Clinton at the State Department. He’s a really remarkable guy with a ridiculous variety of skills and keen insights about the middle east. Smart, easy-going, and relatively young – you may have read about him in the New Yorker back in 2007, or seen him more recently on the Colbert Report. He is also the author of a recent book everyone should check out: Children of Jihad. Huge thanks to Jared for putting this all together — it was a real honor and privilege to be part of this delegation.
While a big component of the trip was fact finding and a bit of a listening tour, we have some real concrete ideas about ways in which we can engage with various Iraqi stakeholders — stay tuned !
( I wrote this late at night on Wednesday April 22nd, but was just able to publish this now due to travel back to the U.S. )
Pretty late and have to get up in about 1.5 hours, so I’ll keep this update brief :)
A few big themes for today from our meetings with Universities and President Talabani:
- Over reliance on looking for jobs in the gov’t vs private sector.
- Professors and Deans acknowledged that Iraqi gov’t won’t be able to hire 30-40% of these students.
- A near total disconnect between recent grads, alumni and the actual university. In Iraq there is a ministry for nearly everything, and the faculty of the University admitted that jobs were “not our duty” since a ministry of labor employment ( I believe ) is in charge of that.
- The University of Baghdad has about 80,000 undergrad students, and the incoming freshman class is around 12,000.
- Lots of chatter about how the sanctions in the 90s really impacted the various technology labs of these schools – forcing many of them to shut down.
- Huge brain-drain post 2003 of smart post-doc students to neighboring countries and Western countries.
- Faculty admits that students today are told what to study based on their secondary school scores, and not based on their interests.
- When I was chatting with Comp Sci students I tried to get a sense as to how involved they were with web apps, open source, etc. It seems that most dev work was happening in Visual Studio and and some web dev in .NET including this site that one female engineering student had built: www.itswtech.org
- Meeting with President Talabani was pretty interesting. He lives in the former palace of Sadaam’s First Lady. As in most of our meetings we had traditional coffee and tea.
- As we were leaving the meeting with Talabani, he was set to meet with Bashar Al-Asad of Syria.
I’ll be posting in the next few days more of a summary and “sights & sounds”. Plus new photos up here
A few things that jumped out during our third day here in Baghdad:
- Not surprised to see Windows XP on all machines being used at various government offices, but was surprised to see that they were all running in English language mode.
- Way too much focus on custom proprietary software projects VS using off-the-shelf available tools. This is because of how gov’t grants and budgets work here. Lots of parallels to western giov’t as well unfortunately.
- Strong belief out here that you need to host you own, and run your own email system at great cost. Data centers alone are very expensive, not to mention the constant power outages and grid issues. The Iraqis we met seemed embarrassed to admit that they use Yahoo mail and Gmail — while I encouraged them and told them just the opposite — that hosted services were a smart way to go about this and a cheap/free and robust way to get up and running quickly.
- Very clear that Iraqis living in the West right now could play a big role in helping Iraq - with funding and by moving back. Examples include the fact that 10K Iraqi doctors work in the UK, and that an Iraqi billionaires living in the West has so far been reluctant to invest until clear rules and regulations, transparency, and ease of doing business are a reality on the ground.
- 99.% of mobile users in Iraq are on pre pay. Payment gateways, banks, etc are all behind — it’s a cash society right now. But mobile companies are setting up mobile banking, and many agencies and companies are using mobile banking to speed up payments and deal with corruption ( since direct payments skip the middleman ).
- To get decent internet access to the home right now can cost around $400/month for VSAT – Satellite internet.
- Very clear that Iraq gov’t plans on putting guidelines in place, but will also run and operate many new state owned companies. Not that surprising given the petro state dictatiorship that has been in place here until very recently. US Model is for gov’t to set guidelines and perhaps regulation, but have private companies do the actual work in most sectors. Huge difference in thought here and potentially a real barrier to improving the private sector.
- We met with some of the top students of Iraq, many who had studied in the US or were planning on attending US universities this fall. Overall they were great and really inspiring and impressive in their own right. A very high percentage of them, when asked what they dreamed of doing, responded that their ideal job would be to work for the Iraqi government. Only a couple of them had interest in working in the private sector, let alone starting their own companies. The feedback we heard was that private sector jobs are perceived as ones where you work in a shop or “for your uncle” — where a gov’t job provided stability, even at a lower salary in some cases, and a big gov’t pension.
- Along the same lines as the gov’t jobs, many students and others blamed the government for almost every issue from power, to internet access. Every problem, in their minds, had a government solution. Yet the perceptions for the students in particular, was that the gov’t was not responsive, didn’t listen, and wasn’t open to any feedback. Nearly nobody had faith or energy in seeing the private sector here tackle these issues.
I’m uploading a few new photos to my flickr, including a few shots from the recently opened Iraqi Museum.
Very full day today meeting with government of Iraq officials and Embassy/US Military/State Department people.
Getting a good sense as to the unique challenges that this country faces. A few things that jumped out re: mobile & connectivity:
- Desperate need to improve internet connectivity. Right now about 5% of Iraq has internet access at home, but a larger (unknown) percentage get online at Internet cafes.
- Cell usage is nearly universal here — everyone has a mobile phone.. Coverage is currently not as reliable as it could be, and is getting overloaded with the huge surge in usage. There are 3 networks running through the country including AsiaCell and Zain which is Kuwaiti. This creates a bit of a comical situational where many people carry at least 2 phones with them from different providers to make sure they can conduct business regardless of where they are.
- There is also a ton of SMS usage here which is encouraging as it may provide an alternative means of interacting with certain services as Iraqis wait for internet broadband develops. In theory if you project out a few years iPhone/smartphone type of devices could become common and you could see a leapfrogging or simple a different web behavior where it’s predominantly mobile and not laptop/desktop based — as you do in places like Japan.
- Fiber projects are underway to improve the internet connectivity challenges, but these efforts have been hampered by legacy systems which were not in good shape, and security requirements / sabotage missions which disrupt the work. The optimistic projections are for Iraq to be at around 60% broadband penetration in about 18-24 months if things go according to plan.
- Very clear that on the Embassy, State Dept, and US Military side we have outstanding people working here who know what they are doing and really do give up a lot to work here — including being away from families, and a pretty restrictive night life ! The Embassy itself is quite amazing overall as well.
More to come …and a few photos from the day on Flickr.
Just finished my first day of a really interesting trip to Baghdad, Iraq. I’m here as part of a delegation with the State Department, and will have lots more to say in a few days. The trip into Baghdad alone so far has been quite amazing — and not surprisingly the US Military, State Department, and all others involved have been super impressive.