By CHRISTINE ARMARIO
2014-01-31 08:22 PM
MIAMI (AP) -- Technology experts are gathering to brainstorm ways to improve access to the Internet and information in Cuba, considered the one of the least connected countries in the Western hemisphere.
The "Hackathon for Cuba" begins Friday in Miami.
Cuban dissident and online activist Yoani Sanchez is expected to deliver opening remarks at a reception via Skype.
"The primary purpose is to design solutions that help Cubans break down or circumvent barriers they face in communication with each other or with the outside world," said Natalia Martinez, chief innovation and technology officer at Roots of Hope, the nonprofit organization putting together the event.
"The secondary purpose is to create an inclusive and action-oriented conversation around the impact of technology in Cuba, one that involves Cubans from different waves of immigration, different industries," she said.
On Saturday, computer programmers and others will develop ideas for smartphone applications that could be used to address the challenges citizens face on the communist island: censorship, limited access to cellphones and the Internet, and expensive service.
Cuba routinely blocks Internet pages that it finds objectionable, such as the home page of the Ladies in White dissident group and U.S. government-funded news broadcaster Radio and TV Marti. Critics of President Raul Castro accused the government of withholding access to control the people.
According to the U.N.'s International Telecommunications Union, roughly 26 percent of Cubans reported using the Internet in 2012. That was up from just under 4 percent a decade before.
"One main challenge is that the Cuban government seems deeply ambivalent about the Internet," said Emily Parker, a former State Department policy adviser and author of the upcoming book about Internet activists in China, Cuba and Russia.
"Authorities know Web access is necessary for economic 'modernization,' but also recognize that the spread of the Internet would threaten their control over the population," Parker said.
The Cuban government has taken some steps to increase access during the past year. In June, authorities opened more than 100 Internet cafes around the island. However, the $4.50 an hour fee made it too expensive for most Cubans who earn an average of $20 a month.
Cuban bloggers like Sanchez have found ways to get across the digital roadblocks, such as saving posts to flash drives and publishing them through an Internet connection at an embassy or hotel.
"Hackathons" have sprung up around the U.S. to tackle issues ranging from gun violence to immigration. In November, journalists, activists and tech experts in 20 U.S. and Latin American cities got together in 48-hour meetings to produce apps, websites and programs to help migrants
Jose Pimienta, 25, is one of the developers taking part. Pimienta arrived from Cuba five years ago and developed Vinylfy, a social network for record collectors, with a friend. The duo won $22,000 for their creation at SuperConf, a gathering for web developers and designers in Miami.
"We'll be helping our friends and family in the island to have more access to information," Pimienta said.
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Online at: http://www.rootsofhope.org/hack