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Fixing Myanmar With a Social Network

BY Rebecca Chao | Tuesday, July 1 2014

Before 2011, Myanmar was a technology desert. A basic SIM card was a black market item that could cost between US$50 to $300. Now as the country opens politically and as telecommunication companies and private businesses begin to invest in connectivity and infrastructure, Christoph Amthor hopes to leverage the country’s technological progress to connect the country’s civil society through a mobile and online platform.

Myanmar civil society is a disconnected one with many “mostly left to [their] own devices,” Christoph Amthor tells techPresident. He works at Burma Center Prague, a nonprofit run by members of Myanmar’s diaspora in the Czech Republic. MyCitizen will allow activists or socially concerned citizens to share resources and solve local or even national issues as a community.

“While people are well aware of the opportunity to promote real change,” says Amthor, “they often lack information and connections to other people with similar concerns.”

The launch video for the MyCitizen app provides a hypothetical glimpse of the micro-issues that remain unresolved in a country that for decades stagnated under a repressive military junta. Ma Lay, a teacher from a small town, is frustrated that young students must cross a high-traffic road on their way to and from school but lacks the resources to change road conditions or install traffic lights. She doesn’t know if others in her town are similarly concerned or whether a solution is in progress. Even the laws governing roadwork and repair are unclear – is it a local or municipal problem? The hope is that by connecting her with NGOS and others in her community who share her concern, she will be able to improve the students’ daily walks to school.

Similar networking platforms exist but Amthor and his team found that they required a certain level of technical expertise. “From our IT trainings, we learned that it is important to provide an extremely simple user interface,” says Amthor.

Others were not specialized enough. Facebook is popular in Myanmar, but it offered too much diversion. “Our platform should not be to help people forget their problems, but to solve them,” he says.

Since connectivity in Myanmar is still patchy, MyCitizen can also be installed through an intranet, which would require little to no data to travel through the country's still insufficient networks. “A school in a remote area could, for example, operate [on] their own, where students and staff connect from PCs and smartphones directly to the local network,” he says.

A mobile app is also currently in the works, designed to operate in areas with low connectivity. “It offers less features, it downscales operation according to the network speed, and it keeps some of its data for offline use in the case that the connection breaks down,” says Amthor.

The platform has begun to work, connecting environmental nonprofits and activists concerned with eco-tourism within Myanmar. Amthor explains, “This issue is actually a good example where civil society activists who are scattered over various regions but share the same concern would benefit from better networking.”

In the fall, the plan is to roll out a beta version of the mobile app and provide tech trainings in Myanmar.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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