Youphil: One of your main ideas since you've been at the State Department was to use crowdsourcing to find ideas for development.
Alec Ross: Not all solutions come from people with graduate degrees wearing white shirts and red ties. Often times, the wisdom of the crowds can be greater than the wisdom of the one expert.
For instance, we created a contest called Apps for Africa, where we asked citizens from East Africa - Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya - to identify some of the societal challenges they had to face.
We then wound up technology developers from East Africa itself and asked them to build technologies that would address these challenges. And the results were fascinating. For instance, the app iCow maps the milking and menstruating cycles of dairy cows so that subsistence level farmers can be more efficient.
That is not anything that anybody in the White House would have come up with! I don't think we can crowdsource everything. I would never say 'what should the United States do about the potential of a nuclear Iran' and then have people vote on it. But the more defined and specific the challenges are, the more crowdsourcing can be efficient.
Is technology merely a tool for development or is it more than that?
It is more than that. Let's take mobile phones in Africa. Communities that were once amongst the most isolated on Earth are now connected through wireless networks, since a high percentage of people of low income have these mobile phones.
It enables them to communicate, to access market information, sell goods to the markets, in ways that weren't previously possible. These mobile phones have become part of these people's personal infrastructure. So it changes the entire ecology of a country.
The Arab Spring probably proved you right in the necessity of having technology and social media. Did you foresee it?
In the spring of 2009 I predicted that during Hilary Clinton's tenure there would be a leaderless revolution. Some people thought it was crazy but we've seen exactly this happen. I don't believe that these were Twitter or Facebook revolutions, but I do believe that technology and social media did a handful of things very clearly.
Number one, it accelerated movement-making. Number two, it facilitated leaderless-ness. So there aren't any of these revolution leaders whose face you are going to put on a T-shirt. The leadership of the movements themselves was more networked.
The third thing it did is that it enriched the information environment. Knowledge and information are power. And in a country like Tunisia which historically had a very closed media environment, the combination of pan-Arab satellite television like France 24 or Al Jazeera combined with social media meant that people in 2011 had dramatically more information than they had in 2008. So social media wasn't the reason for the revolutions but it played a meaningful role.
What are some of the projects through which the State Department helps activists and human rights defenders?
We've spent more than 70 million dollars to fund more than ten projects. It is increasingly the case that authoritarian countries figure out how to use networks as a way of keeping watch and repressing the people.
So our aim is to help activists exercise their universal right to freedom of expression on the internet but, most of all, it is about keeping people safe.
For instance, one of our projects called Panic Button helps activists erase all their data - and thus contact information of fellow activists - on their phones if they are arrested. A second project, Internet in a suitcase, helps activists get on the internet in countries where access to networks was made impossible.
Do you feel that social media can make people less active in the real world?
It's been a huge debate for the past ten years. There's been more and more research done - the most comprehensive one being one from PEW - that shows that online activity actually increases offline activism and engagement.
Are the consequences of the digital divide paradoxically stronger today?
I spent eight years of my life doing nothing but focusing on bridging the digital divide. The consequences for not being connected are greater than ever. It makes you become more isolated both economically and politically.
I was a teacher in West Baltimore, in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States where, if you don't have access to these tools, you are going to fold bed sheets in hotels and bus tables in restaurants. You are left to the forms of lowest paying employment.
As globalization spreads and labor moves to the most efficient market places it makes the necessity of connectedness greater. Because what it does is that it isolates those who are not and makes them become an underclass.
Are technology and social media the future of development aid?
In terms of actual network deployments, the private sector is more powerful than anything the government can do. What we can do at the State Department, in partnership with USAID, is figure out how can we create value through these networks for people of low income and not only the elites.
Apps for Africa shows that connectedness is relevant even for subsistence level farmers in East Africa. So social media is a piece of development. There are still some fundamental challenges like hunger or access to clean water that can't be fixed just with a mobile app. These are complimentary actions.
Photo credit: Insider Images for Social Media Week/ Flickr