Demystifying the Internet in Cuba

A group of early adopters at CENIAI, Havana, 1996. Photo courtesy of Larry Press.

A group of early adopters at CENIAI, Havana, 1996. Photo courtesy of Larry Press.

When it comes to the Internet, Cuba is routinely compared to countries like China, Iran, and Vietnam, where broad-reaching Internet censorship regimes exist. The degree to which Internet use is controlled by the Cuban government is great. But unlike these and many other countries, there is no evidence that the Cuban government conducts systematic censorship of online content.

Similarly, there is no reliable data on how many people in Cuba actually use the Internet — regularly-cited statistics range from 2.9%-25%. And one could spend years reading western media coverage of Cuba’s Internet and its embattled blogging community (as both of these authors have) and never figure out precisely how the Internet works there, how many people use it, and what kinds of restrictions they face in doing so. Like many other aspects of public life and experience on the island, Cuba’s digital culture is poorly understood by outsiders…

Read the whole explainer by me and Elaine on Medium.

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All Smiles in Somerville: The Many Dentists of College Avenue

Dental offices on College Avenue. Photos by Ellery Roberts Biddle.

Dental offices on College Avenue. Photos by Ellery Roberts Biddle.

Why Are There So Many Dentists’ Offices on Somerville’s College Avenue?

Walking on College Avenue, from the Davis Square T stop to the main campus of Tufts University, one cannot help but notice that nearly half of the businesses from Davis to Powderhouse Square are dental practices. Is Somerville just a smile-conscious city, or is there something more to it?

“It used to be called Doctor’s Row,” says Carol, the administrative lead at the offices of Anthony Parella. “I knew a lady who was about 100 years old. Her husband was a doctor, and his practice was in their house, on the first floor. It went on like that for decades.” Parella, who specializes in cosmetic dentistry and periodontics, has a small private practice on the main floor of what was once a single-family home. The second and third floors of the building have since been converted into apartments.

“It’s very rare to see a practice just disintegrate,” Carol explains. “When someone retires, a new doctor usually comes in and takes up the practice.”

Somerville dental offices, according to Google Maps.

Somerville dental offices, via Google Maps.

As with other types of businesses, the city maintains specific zoning and licensing requirements for privately-owned healthcare practices — while not impossible, dental office staff say that licenses aren’t easy to come by. Rather than filing for new permissions when starting a new practice, many of the dentists in the area have established their practices using pre-existing infrastructure that has made it easier for them to move in, change the window dressing, and get to work.

But is it really practical to have so many dentists in such a concentrated area? Like a fabric district or jeweler’s row, dentists in Somerville look a bit like a real-life illustration of the economic theorem developed by Harold Hoteling which suggests that when located next to one another, stores offering similar goods, pricing and services can generally expect to evenly split their surrounding clientele.

“It’s all about what the patient’s looking for,” said Deanna, who works as a receptionist at Somerville Dental Associates. “Most want the exam, the x-rays, and the cleaning. Some people just want a cleaning, like a one-time deal. But not all practices will do that for you.” Deanna pointed out that larger corporate practices in the area often can’t guarantee that a patient will see the same dentist at each visit.

She also spoke to the question of referrals, explaining that some practices offer specialist services, while others do not. “We regularly refer patients to our neighbors, when we can’t give them the services they need.” If your dentist can’t provide you with periodontic treatment, she can easily refer you to a colleague down the street.

This seemed due in part to the unique services each practice offers, and to the distinct patient populations they tended to serve.

Private practices like those of Lorna Lally and Anthony Parella reported that families and Tufts students made up the majority of their clientele, and that nearly all of their patients either had dental insurance through an employer or parent, or that they paid for services out-of-pocket. Both practices offer both general and pediatric services.

Outdoor wall advertisement for the Braces Place, part of Dental Associates of Davis Square. Photo by Ellery Roberts Biddle.

Outdoor wall advertisement for the Braces Place, part of Dental Associates of Davis Square. Photo by Ellery Roberts Biddle.

Dental Associates of Davis Square, a corporate practice with orthodontics, periodontics, cosmetic and general dentistry all under one roof, sees patients from throughout the surrounding area. Although they have fewer student patients than other nearby practices, office manager Kayann explained that their model attracts families with growing children, particularly given the offering of orthodontic services. Most clients had some kind of dental insurance, ranging from private plans to MassHealth.

When asked about competition with other businesses in the area, Kayann described their marketing strategy, which targets both older and younger audiences through both print and online advertising, and television commercials mainly on Spanish and Portuguese channels. Patients could request a Spanish or Portuguese-speaking doctor if they wished to do so.

Every staff person I spoke with emphasized the value of being located next to a major public transit stop. Deanna pointed out that most people don’t visit the dentist more than two or three times a year. “So they’re willing to travel for it. And the T makes it easy.”

None of the staff at the five practices that I visited seemed concerned about competition with other nearby offices. “It’s a diverse enough area with a high population density, ” said Deanna. So we all manage to do all right.”

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How do we create knowledge? What voices do we listen to?

As an editor, I consume a lot of media for work. I tried a few different ways to slice the seemingly mundane data that I collected in my media log and found myself focusing again and again on voices and who they belong to. Who is the author? Where is she from? Where are her sources from? Has she ever met them face-to-face? These questions I found myself asking again and again as I jotted down my daily tangle of tech and international news, NPR podcasts, and even late night “fake” news shows.

Perhaps more interesting than what I found in static (i.e. not evolving during the time of consumption) media was the information that I gathered on email lists. Global Voices is known as a community of bloggers and activists around the world – while we’re best known publicly by our site, if it wasn’t for our email lists, I’m not sure how we would have become a community to begin with.

During the first week of February, a really moving discussion played out on one of our community lists. A contributor from Tunisia wrote to the group and shared a link to a press release from the Kingdom of Bahrain that enumerated 72 people whose citizenship it had elected to revoke. Among these people was another contributor of ours, Ali Abdulemam, who now has political asylum in the UK. I learned a lot in that week from the conversation that played out over the list. Here is a colored pencil rendition of the conversation:

The increase of knowledge over time in a GV list discussion.

The increase of knowledge over time in a GV list discussion.

Each dot represents a message sent to the group. The color of the dot denotes the country that the sender identifies as his or her home. For each message, I made a rough (highly subjective) calculation of how much new information it contributed to the conversation. The line at the top of the graph indicates the total amount of information accumulated over time. In the end, we all learned about Ali’s story, but also heard stories from contributors in Egypt and Azerbaijan who had taken exile from their countries under similar circumstances. Towards the end of this record of the conversation, we decided to produce a series of stories on Global Voices focusing on citizenship and border crossing in the world of digital activism.

The second graphic hones in on question of voice and sources. While editing stories on all of the countries listed below, I read multiple stories and pieces of research focused on each the relevant issues in each place.

Percentage of stories that quoted a source in the country.

Percentage of stories that quoted a source in the country.

A few noteworthy findings:

Cuba: During this week, Netflix declared their aspirations to begin offering service in Cuba. Most English language media reporting on the story quoted only a press release from Netflix, which of course failed to acknowledge the fact that almost no Cubans have enough Internet connectivity to watch video online, nor do they have the credit cards with which to pay for the service. I edited a story by fellow classmate Elaine Díaz on the topic, which of course illuminated these facts.

Bahrain: I edited two stories that week on Bahrain, both of which focused on the stories of individual activists and bloggers, and both of which drew heavily on sources from those peoples’ friends and relatives.

Russia: Global Voices coverage of Russia consistently draws from social media commentary from users in the country. I read several of our previous articles in order to edit one that offered new information on a series of social-media related arrests. I should note that while all of these pieces quoted local voices, their authors are not Russian, nor do they reside in the country.

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