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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

The Positive Power of New Media

Nabiha Syed '07 witnessed firsthand what happens when women in developing countries are given the means to work.

While an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins, the young social justice activist worked within Grameen Bank, which awards tiny—but lifesaving—loans to some of Bangladesh's poorest women. She wrote about the innovative microfinance program in Replicating Dreams (Oxford University Press, 2009). Syed wasn't the only one to recognize the impact of the small-loan model: Grameen Bank and its founder, Muhammad Yunus, shared the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.

Now Syed, who recently earned a law degree from Yale, has won a 2010 Marshall Scholarship, which she'll use to pursue a master's degree in legal research at the University of Oxford. As a Marshall Scholar, she will continue to explore the health of developing markets, this time with an eye on the role of new media, especially where it intersects with women and the poor. New media, she says, have the potential to play an unprecedented role.

"In the developing world, virtually everyone has a cell phone," says Syed. "Phones are more ubiquitous than the Internet, and more important," particularly in times of crisis, as she can personally attest.

"Because of the recent Pakistani floods situation, I've been very involved in using technology to efficiently direct relief," says Syed, an original team member of PakReport.Org. The database uses media monitoring, partnerships with humanitarian organizations, and SMS text messages from individuals in the field to create an interactive, dynamic map of the crisis. "Using this map, aid workers can efficiently direct their limited resources to the hardest-hit places, and policy planners can use it for creating long-term strategy," says Syed.

Cell phones also hold potential for hiring and employment, she notes. She plans to investigate the ways that people in emerging markets such as Pakistan use cell phones to connect jobs with workers, and the impact of easily accessible work on a community.

"New media let women work in a way that fits with their social context," says Syed. "For example, a woman responsible for a household and children can specify her need to work in her home for a certain number of hours, and hope to be connected to a job that matches her needs.

"Not only do text messages get out the word of work, but they also enable women to do work over the cell phone, from their homes," she continues. Using their phones, women can screen, edit, and moderate text and images for companies that enforce policies concerning content.

But new media is vulnerable to any number of legal policies—and Syed plans to examine how communications, information, libel, slander, and access laws treat these newer forms of expression. "I want to look at legal barriers, " she says. "The freer the Internet, the better for everyone. People can make a livelihood based on connectivity, and when access is restricted, this is horribly damaging…. Cell phones need to be free and uncensored."

Syed's family emigrated from Pakistan, where she'll be focusing some of her study. Earlier this year, the country issued a two-day ban on YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, and Wikipedia because of an online campaign that solicited artistic portrayals of Muhammad, a practice forbidden in Islam.

"You definitely have a government that imagines a culture clash between themselves and the West, not realizing that the Internet doesn't have to be us versus them; it's a mosaic of experiences," she says. "There may be censorship, but people find a way to get around it."

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