Prisoner of Conscience Microformat

One message that came across loud & clear to me at the excellent netsquared session on mashups last year was that you need to expose your structured data in the most granular way you can i.e. break it down & make it small, and there's more chance of people putting it together with other stuff in an interesting way. Unfortunately it seems to me that human rights organisations have a tendency to focus on unstructured information (facts & figures, yes, but in a narrative form), which makes it hard to envisage ways to mash it up. For me, that's a problem, because i think mashups have a lot of campaigning & engagement potential.

There's also the frustrating experience of seeing related cases spread over different websites without an easy way to draw them together (e.g. for a campaigning microsite).

So, without claiming to be an expert on the technical details, I'd like to propose the development of a Prisoner of Conscience Microformat. What I'm looking for is semantic markup that captures key details about a prisoner & their case at a useful level of detail. From what I understand, this would be classed as a compound microformat and could possibly be based on the widely used hCard microformat, which is "a simple, open, distributed contact information microformat for people, organizations and venues". I'd like to be able to share details such as

  • date of arrest
  • charges
  • current legal situation
  • relevant rights (e.g. articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights under which the person should have been protected)
  • thematic areas (e.g. land rights, cyberdissident)

as well as biographical information that could help people to relate to the case (such as their age, profession, country of origin and so on).

One aspect which I don't think is part of simple microformats like hCard would be a way to express relationships e.g. the fact that they were arrested in the same incident as other individuals. For example, the cyberdissident Truong Quoc Huy who I referred to in a previous post was arrested with two other young Vietnamese chatroom users, Truong Quoc Tuan and Pham Ngoc Anh Dao, for taking part in an online chat about political reform. I suspect that the FOAF (Friend of a Friend) project for modelling social networks could help here.

prisoner The whole point of this somewhat geeky exercise is something very non-technical; to make it easier to construct online communities around prisoners of conscience, and to have ways of visualising and connecting that stir peoples' affinity and will to act. The Prisoner of Conscience Microformat idea is a statement of faith - that if we make the data available, other people will do creative and contructive things with that information that we wouldn't have thought of.

p.s. Of course, there are organisations working in human rights that have a very structured approach to data (because their change model depends on cumulative analysis) - so allow me to big up the Human Rights Data Analysis Group and the Martus software project (even if they're not very web 2.0 smiley).

UPDATE: Mass Digging as Virtual Activism

I see from the Avaaz blog that they're calling on people to digg their Stop the Clash petition. Looks like the digging is going to have to increase by a factor of 10 to make much of an impact - but as shown by the 'gaming' articles linked to in my earlier post on Mass Digging as Virtual Activism , the best tactic may be to target the key diggers for some help.

p.s. Human Rights Watch have also added a 'digg this' link to their news articles.

Tunisian Prison mashup

Sami Ben Gharbia has created a Google maps mashup of Tunisian prisons which really sets the standard for human rights mashups. When you click on a marker of one of the semi-secret locations, details about prisoners' cases pop up, along with video from the dissidents and their families. tunisian prison maptunisian prison map Sami says the data is pulled data from Human Rights NGOs report as well as from a temporary list of Tunisian prisons on the TUNeZINE website; he made the Flash animations himself, and the mashup also draws on video/audio files hosted on YouTube related to Tunisian political prisoners. The locations of many of the prisons are only approximate (e.g. to the nearest town), such is the level of paranoid security imposed by the Tunisian state. As Sami explains

In front of this omerta by the governing authorities and its determination to muzzle the press and the organisations of defence of human rights as soon as they approach this “forbidden zone”, it becomes impossible to have an idea about the exact number of prisons and penitentiary institutions, to know the criminality rate in the country or the number of the prison population.

The mashup achieves its impact by breaking this veil of secrecy and by giving some of the 'lost' prisoners a human face.


It's interesting to reflect in how the map could be used directly for campaigning. Staring at the map immediately reminds me (by contrast) of all the tourist maps on the web that are supposed to help you "find the seaside villa of your choice". Perhaps there's a form of Google bombing which could be used to link holiday sites with mashups like the Tunisian prison map. I've always had a problem with the way that travel brochures ignore any of the more difficult facts about holiday destinations. History suggests that the countries the tourists come from (such as Britain) have frequently been complicit in the human rights abuses in the destination countries (see, for example, 'Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses' by Mark Curtis).

Another example from a popular holiday destination that's ripe for a mashup is the excavation of mass graves in Spain where many victims of Franco's terror are buried. For 60 years after the Spanish Civil war ended in 1939 the families were too scared to break the silence, but now a group called the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory has been working to identify and excavate mass graves which they say are dotted all over Spain. The association uses the testimonies and memories of relatives and survivors to pinpoint the unmarked graves. According to a BBC report from 2002 about the Piedrafita massacre "a relative, Asuncion Alvarez, 87, whose brothers were shot that night, became so worried over the years that their fate would be forgotten that she drew a map of the spot where they lay and gave it to her children. Last week's excavations confirmed the map's accuracy."


digital diasporas & human rights

As I track the internet & human rights I keep coming across examples of digital diasporas. Maybe part of the reason I'm fascinated by diasporas is because I'm born out of one (Irish) and married in to another (Kosovan). But I'm also convinced that the conjunction of the internet (international, low barriers to access, relative freedom) and the disaporic experience will make these communities one of the demographics of innovation that Charlie Leadbeater is so interested in identifiying.
I've seen this in my previous work on multilingual websites for refugees and minority communities; when i needed to understand the complexities of getting Bengali script encoded and rendered I would turn to people like Deepayan Sarkar, a student in the USA who was a key contributor to the Free Bangla Fonts Project.
I've recently come across Drishtipat, a diaspora organisation focussed on human rights in Bangladesh, which seems like a good example of people using the internet to collaborate for positive social change back home.
"Drishtipat is a non-profit, non-political progressive expatriate Bangladeshi organization committed to safeguarding every individual's basic democratic rights, including freedom of expression, and is opposed to any and all kinds of human rights abuses in Bangladesh. We are based in the United States, and have members in every part of the globe via memberships and local chapters."
But connecting with the diaspora can be sometimes be risky. I was gripped by the case of Truong Quoc Huy, from the recent Amnesty report on internet repression in Vietnam, who was arrested for taking part in a chat room entitled "The voice of people in Viet Nam and Abroad", hosted by the PalTalk website. As the report puts it;
"Another central transformation brought about by the Internet is that those voicing dissent in cyberspace are considerably younger than most of the well-established dissidents. Chatrooms that provide web based conferences, among them the popular New York-based PalTalk, have brought thousands of young Vietnamese face to face with each other across the nation and with young Americans, French or Australians of Vietnamese origin."


It may also be the diasporic connection that provides a way to make these kind of conversations secure, when combined with a tool like Psiphon, a project of the Citizen Lab. Psiphon is a private proxy run by someone outside the censored country which allows users in-country to circumvent filtering at a national level. Since using the software requires a user in an uncensored country and one in a censored nation, diasporas are a likely userbase. In a recent talk by Ron Deibert, the Citizen Lab director, it was reported that Vietnamese and Iranian users have flocked to the software.
The issues of digital diasporas & campaigning against internet censorship converge in the interesting new campaign by ARTICLE 19 called The Persian Impediment. As well as giving in-depth info on the system of oppression in Iran and on the cases of cyberdissidents unlucky enough to be imprisoned, the site has a blog which "provides an opportunity for bloggers, non-bloggers, Iranians and non-Iranians to discuss issues of systematic online censorship". One of the recent entries is an interview with Celine Petrossian, an Iranian-Armenian-American and author of ‘Liberating the Silenced: Iranian Bloggers in the Diaspora’ . which discusses the social impact of a transnational public sphere under headings like 'Breaking the Silence', 'Challenging Social Norms' and 'Depicting the True Iran'
While these are the kinds of outcomes I would hope and expect to find, there were two other aspects of the research that caught my attention, and back up my own observation of the general effect of diasporic communities. The first is that "Iranian bloggers serve as 'merchants' of culture and information, trading cultural knowledge and news from both Iran to the outside world and from the West to the Iranian people living in Iran.". And secondly, that one of the main effects of this is to challenge the conservative restrictions on the role of women in society (both in terms of gender and sexuality).
My hope for the transational space created by the Net is that it can influence positive change while supporting people to strengthen what's best about their unique identities. This seems possible, as Petrossian concludes that "The blogging phenomenon has made it possible for an increasing number of Iranians in the diaspora to use blogs as an avenue to break free from traditional political and social constraints as well as to maintain a sense of belonging to a cultural past and common homeland." So i can only echo her admiration of "the motivation and stamina behind the works of so many Iranian bloggers who have helped create this borderless, transnational space on the Internet."

Gapminder and net censorship


I've just had a lesson in the power of visualisation. I was playing around with the Gapminder graph of life expectancy versus income per capita, and randomly picked South Africa from the country list. Playing the animation from 1980 - 2004, life expectancy rises steadily until about 1994, after which it drops like a stone! Dramatic stuff - all sorts of questions and vaguely remembered news reports flooded in to my mind - "what the hell is going on over there?!".

 I think it would be really great to make such powerful visualisations about internet censorship, and an ideal opportunity would be to feed the data from the OpenNet Initiative's forthcoming global survey of internet censorship. My main interest is to drive awareness and campaigning against the growing encroachment of online filtering, and the risk that the internet will fracture in to an archipeligo of censored national enclosures. However, there's a direct link to the primary concerns of Gapminder's founder Hans Rosling i.e. global health and human development. Many organisations now see unrestricted access to the internet as a key aspect of development. (This really came home to me at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis where the best workshops on internet censorship & freedom of expression were organised by HiVOS). The irony in using Gapminder to campaign against net censorhsip is that the version of the tool i was playing with is the live online Gapminder provided by Google, who's other claim to fame at the moment is their participation in the Chinese authorities' censorship of the internet. The live version I'd like to see would feature net censorship by country, with a drop-down for corporate involvement, and maybe an overlay of number of arrested cyberdissidents. I wonder if Google would host it?


p.s. you can watch a webcast of Hans Rosling's Gapminder talk at the TED p.p.s I hunted through the Gapminder site for the download of their core software, Trendalyzer, but i could only find the pre-prepared Flash presentations. If anyone has any experience of using Trendalyzer, leave a comment or contact me.

Track My Fakes: an idea for social network privacy protection

Here's a possible privacy mashup (in the form of a Gedankenexperiment) that combines a tool and a service to protect users of social networks from automated surveillance and data-profiling.
Firstly, the genuine privacy tool TrackMeNot, which protects web searchers from surveillance by search engines (which we could call "adveillance" - is there such a word?).

It does so not by means of concealment or encryption (i.e. covering one's tracks), but instead, paradoxically, by the opposite strategy: noise and obfuscation...TrackMeNot runs in Firefox as a low-priority background process that periodically issues randomized search-queries to popular search engines, e.g., AOL, Yahoo!, Google, and MSN. It hides users' actual search trails in a cloud of 'ghost' queries, significantly increasing the difficulty of aggregating such data into accurate or identifying user profiles.

Secondly, the a version of the decidedly 'iffy' service Fake Your Space, which
"allows unpopular people on MySpace, Facebook and Consumating to buy hot friends. For just $.99 per month, you can buy a good-looking friend who will leave 2 comments on your profile every week".
That should give the Pentagon's software developers something to scratch their heads about.

chez pim and the long tail of campaigning

I had the pleasure of chatting to food blogger Pim Techamuanvivit at the recent NESTA Uploading Innovation Event. I've never read a food blog, even as one as popular as hers, but it opened my eyes to the potential of something I'll call the long tail of campaigning. Pim told me how, for one week each year, food bloggers use their blogs to raise money for a good cause. Here's the blurb for this year's campaign, which raised more than $60,000:

Every year, Food Bloggers from all over the world get together for a fundraising campaign. We call it 'Menu for Hope'. Last year, we raised $17,000 to help UNICEF.
This year, Menu for Hope III raises funds to support the UN World Food Programme, which provides hunger relief for needy people worldwide. To us Food Bloggers, food is a joy. On our blogs, we celebrate food as a delight or even an indulgence. Unfortunately, for many others who share our world do not share that privilege. For them, food is a matter of survival. This "Menu for Hope" is our small way to help.

Those active seekers of new social tactics at Netsquared have a podcast interview with Pim.
chez pimchez pim

And there's more. Pim told me about how they'd organised a Day without Food Blogs to protest against the threat to Net Neutrality. Apparently she had people writing back to her who were outraged about the possibility of a two-tier internet, and who would never have come across the issue otherwise. (That's not to say there aren't any foodies on the ACLU staff :).
There are at least two aspects i love about all this. One is the neat connection between a passion (cooking) and a political issue (world hunger). And the other is the way it connects hard political issues to people's lives in a way that makes them an aspect of our ordinary passions, not a specialisation of dour hacks or paid campaigners.
It really makes me think about the potential for the long tail of campaigning - how the internet can help to ground campaigning in everyday life, where it belongs; and not just as an exercise in scale, like the numbers game played by Make Poverty History, but as something that qualitatively touches the small & important in our lives.

my 3 minutes at NESTA Uploading

UPDATE: see this talk on YouTube (tx to Lloyd Davis.) a post of the rough notes from my 3 minute 'provocation' at today's NESTA Uploading Innovation Event.


not amnesty's official view

architecture of participation for campaigning amnesty, greenpeace, witness

disruptive innovations, bypassing and displacing

move-on, avaaz, genocide intervention network

post-deferential era people will do it anyway

youtube and human rights; wael abbas; first ever prosecutions of egyptian police for torture

ice cream flash mobs of belarus


chance social media will lead to conformity privacy invasion

google & yahoo - everything about us and our relationships

privacy backlash


you know social media is making a social difference when people start getting arrested for it

blogger kareem amer,

critical comments, protected freedom under int'l law


Internet Governance Forum - titanic clash, aggressive IPR & copyright versus Freedom of Expression

make a big difference to what innovation we can do with social media

Joichi Ito - remixing is a new form of freedom of expression


Q. how do we shape policy to optimise social media innovation?

best hope for human rights activism in C21st

not just social media for human rights, but human rights for social media

how to preserve that quality that Jonathan Zittrain calls 'generativity'

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

policy & law: we need more than creative commons code:

psiphon: anonymity - also spread via social networks culture:

providing a safe space for people to network and campaign c.f. hispanic kids in LA using myspace to organize against anti-immigrant legislation

maybe org not doing the campaign, but providing campaigning context provide a safe space for collaborative innovation and say to people: 'be part of the change you want to see'

Real-Time Revisionism

Apparently, there's a significant rise in Holocaust revisionism in Europe. (So, for human rights organisations, the debate is one about freedom of expression versus hate speech).

It made me think about what & other censored search engines are doing, as ably demonstrated by OpenNet Initiative's Google China Search Comparison.

I'm fascinated by how, in web terms, a censored internet can create a gaping absence in the visible history and politics of a country. So kudos to jimmy Wales for the way that Wikipedia defies China's censors. Perhaps the activities of the censoring search engines should be labelled real-time revisionism.

Google China Search Comparison - tiananmen
Google China Search Comparison - tiananmen

Fear of child abuse as a fig leaf for censorship.

One thing that really struck me at the Internet Governance Forum in Athens (see Human Rights at the Internet Governance Forum) was the way that many government and corporate representatives cited child pornography as a reason for filtering the internet. Perhaps it was quoted so much because opposition to child porn is seen as a shared global value, but i didn't like the way it was constantly invoked to symbolize the threat of the net. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights allows limited exceptions to freedom of expression so that things like child pornography can be dealt with. But these exceptions must go through proper legal process and be applied in a specific, proportionate and concrete way, not waved around as a general excuse for censorship.

At the IGF, Rikke Frank Jorgensen from the Danish Institute for Human Rights gave a good example of how this can become a slippery slope. Apparently the Danish police order web sites to be taken down on the basis of a phone call from the local branch of Save the Children, and these sites are added to a secret blacklist. Now, however contemptible the sites concerned, this isn't a good way to go about things - once websites are blacklisted simply because of 'common sense' and without being tested by legal process it is easy to widen the net to include any content that officials find objectionable.

I think this kind of cavalier approach to rights can become viral, especially in the online environment, as illustrated by the Personal Democracy Forum blog post Who's Molesting Who on MySpace? by Micah Sifry

"Apparently, the warrantless tactics that some prosecutors are now using to pull information off of MySpace pages to track sex offenders are now spreading to much lower level crimes. Henson discovered a thread on the Texas District and County Attorney's public user forum where a bunch of prosecutors are discussing whether it's OK to go online and create a fake profile on MySpace in order to get a kid to "friend" them and thus give them access to their private MySpace page, where they might find evidence of someone bragging about a petty crime like vandalism."

But, I hear you ask, how do we deal with all the bad stuff on the net? Firstly, human rights law makes adequate provision for dealing with truly illegal content. As for content that is objectionable, I would back the OSCE delegate at the IGF who pointed out that the presence of objectionable (as opposed to illegal) content is exactly what demonstrates the freedom of the media. There was plenty of constructive debate at the IGF in workshops like Content regulations from gender and development perspective organised by the APC Women's Networking Support Programme, where the question "should we define for children what content they can access, or rather let them decide what they want to access?" brought support for educating children about harassment on the internet and bringing their attention to some risks they need to manage, instead of censoring their version of the net. (As i remember, Danah Boyd also has some sensible stuff to say about this in relation to the Myspace scare in the USA).

I think some of the strongest challenges to triggy-happy content regulation are laid out in the intro to the APC workshop, especially the last point: "There are several problems which intersect to make content regulation in relation to 'harmful content' one of the most controversial areas for regulation and governance:

  • the definition of harmful content is contestable, subjective and open to a range of interpretations by multiple stakeholders;
  • the degree of 'success' of such controversial initiatives as 'clean-feed' and other filtering based systems, is primarily determined by the extent to which all affected stakeholders have been engaged in policy development and employment;
  • the key groups which are deemed to benefit from such systems - women and children - are largely absent from such discussions.
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