New Social Networks With Old Technology - What The Egyptian Shutdown Tells Us About Social Media


Egypt is the latest in a series of countries to witness the powerful potential of modern social media to catalyse and mobilise people around social issues. The Egyptian government response was to have the internet and mobile networks completely shut down. This was, however, not the end of the role that social media ideas played in the events that followed. People inside and outside of Egypt collaborated to re-create the missing networks using the still-available technologies of landlines, dial-up and ham radio.

This paper argues that this use of pre-digital technologies to form the kinds of infrastructure afforded by modern social technologies is evidence of a radical change in people’s perceptions of their world and its connectedness. Social media has constituted a real change that goes beyond specific technologies. This flies in the face of many sceptical critics who argue that new technologies only reinforce old practices and social structures.

This view of the effects of social media presents a challenge to its study. Technological studies and formal analyses of relationships inscribed in social networks will never be able to capture fully the way people understand and interact with these technologically-enabled structures.

In this paper, I use the internet shutdown in Egypt to raise issues that I believe need to be considered in analysing the influence of social media on social movements. I discuss how existing models need to become hybridic, heterogeneous and responsive to the grassroots appropriation of technology, especially the future creation of alternatives to the corporate internet. In conclusion, I analyse the phrase 'Egypts Facebook Youth' as the emblem of social media's impact.

Social Media and Activism

The role of social media in enabling social protest has been the subject of significant commentary, especially since the so-called 'Twitter Revolutions' in Moldova in April 2009 and in Iran in June 2009. Widepsread coverage was given to Malcolm Gladwell's article in The New Yorker which dismissed the role of Twitter in Iran ('Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted') and to Evgeny Morozov's book 'The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom' which articulated a number of reasons why social media is potentially more useful to autocratic regimes than to citizens or activists. Researchers like Ethan Zuckerman have attempted to resolve the debate in specific cases through an analysis of relevant Twitter data sets without being able to draw definitive conclusions.

I've been involved in spreading both practical social media skills and a critical framework for their deployment in social change. In 2009 I led a workshop in Riga where Sami Ben Gharbia, a leading Tunisian exile and online activist, shared his skills and experiences with civil society activists from across Central and Eastern Europe. Sami is co-founder of nawaat, a Tunisian collective blog which was a key online aggregator during the overthrow of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. As a participant in the eCampaigning Forum I see the frustration of practitioners who feel that their nuanced efforts to use social media for positive social change are overridden by the aforementioned cyber-skepticism or recuperated by the State Department to be used as a tool for US foreign policy My contention is that social media is neither the cause of major change, nor irrelevant to it; but that it's impact is most powerful in cementing new ways of thinking and acting based on connectedness.

Events in Egypt

The young opposition in Egypt as been using social media to organise since the 'Kifaya' (Enough) movement in 2004. According to researcher Jillian C. York of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard,

“demonstrators were seen pre-planning online strategy nearly a week prior to January 25. Egyptians on Twitter discussed the best hashtag to use days in advance, settling on #jan25, while the hundreds of thousands of members of the “We are all Khaled Said” group on Facebook collected e-mail addresses in a Google Doc in case of a Facebook ban. As the demonstrations got underway, members of that same Facebook group posted updates from around the Web, sharing videos, photographs, and first-hand accounts.”

At the time of writing 659,627 people had signed up to the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook page and 35,995 were signed up to the “January 25 Revolution Day on torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment” which was also used to organise for the demonstrations. On January 25th hundreds of thousands of people gathered for peaceful protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo and in other cities around Egypt.

According to activist and technologist Ahmad Gharbeia “The role of the internet was critical at the beginning. On the 25th, the movements of the protesting groups were arranged in real time through Twitter. Everyone knew where everyone else was walking and we could advise on the locations of blockades and skirmishes with police.”

The Cut-Off

On the first day of protest on January 25th 2011, reports began to emerge of interference with the online social networks that were being used to coordinate the demonstrators. Despite denials from an Egyptian Government spokesman, Twitter put a message on its official PR stream saying that use was being restricted:

"Egypt continues to block Twitter & has greatly diminished traffic. However, some users are using apps/proxies to successfully tweet”.

Indeed, some people in Egypt were quick to discover ways to circumvent the blocks. It emerged that the mobile version of the Opera browser used a proxy server to reformat web pages, thus enabling people to evade the block on specific sites. The first pragmatic deconstruction of the social web was visible, as people circulated direct IP addresses for Twitter and Facebook. For people in the central Tahrir ('Liberation') Square, the situation was more difficult, as reports came in that mobile reception was also being blocked and Vodafone subsequently stated that they complied with an order from the Egyptian authorities to to suspend services in selected areas. It was reported on social media that residents around Tahrir square removed the passwords on their wifi routers so protesters could reach the outside world.

Over the following days the circumvention efforts became more systematic, building on the base of knowledge within the human rights community about tools like Tor (a network of virtual tunnels that hides the connection between a user and the website they are viewing). By keeping some of the network entry points hidden, Tor is also able to evade many internet censorship systems. The Tor project reported on January 30th that “Over the last three days, 120,000 people — most of them Egyptian — have downloaded Tor software”. The Tor project was a platform for participatory solidarity as word spread across the social web of the need for people to run Tor relays and bridges on their computers, and graphs on the Tor blog show the dramatic rise in the number of bridges around the world after 25th January.

However, on 27th January 2011 the government of Egypt took the unprecedented step of shutting off internet access for the entire country. In a statement that day, the internet monitoring firm Renesys reported:

“In an action unprecedented in Internet history, the Egyptian government appears to have ordered service providers to shut down all international connections to the Internet...At 22:34 UTC (00:34am local time), Renesys observed the virtually simultaneous withdrawal of all routes to Egyptian networks in the Internet's global routing table. Approximately 3,500 individual BGP routes were withdrawn, leaving no valid paths by which the rest of the world could continue to exchange Internet traffic with Egypt's service providers. Virtually all of Egypt's Internet addresses are now unreachable, worldwide”.

The graph of Globally Reachable Egyptian Networks against Time on Jan 27th shows Egypt falling off the the Internet. Examining the above data in detail, the Renesys analysis concludes “this sequencing looks like people getting phone calls, one at a time, telling them to take themselves off the air. Not an automated system that takes all providers down at once; instead, the incumbent leads and other providers follow meekly one by one until Egypt is silenced”. As the former White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer (& former Google executive) Andrew McLaughlin wrote:

“Since the internet age dawned in the early 90s, no widely connected country had disconnected itself entirely. The starkness and suddenness of Egypt's reversal – from unrestricted to unreachable – marks one of the many tragedies of the Mubarak regime's brutal and hamfisted response to last week's emergence of citizen protests”.

Google's own Transparency Report (which provides information about traffic to their services from around the world) shows the drop off late on Jan 27th and the flatline on Jan 28th in a graph which has uncanny similarities to the signal trace on a cardiac monitor.

The only ISP to stay connected was Noor Group, the connection provider for the Egyptian Stock Exchange. A few people connected via Noor were able to provide some net access to their fellow citizens until Noor, too, was taken completely offline in the evening of 31st January.

The Response

People inside and outside of Egypt collaborated to re-create the missing networks using the still-available technologies of landlines, dial-up and ham radio. The mainstay of this effort was analogue: setting up international numbers for users in Egypt to connect via dial-up modems. Some ISPs, like FDN in France, offered free access to Egyptians specifically in response to the government's actions, and internet activist groups like Telecomix set up modem links and circulated lists of dialup numbers. On their blog they report their experiences:

“No data was flowing. As the phone lines were working, this was the solutions: Modems. Technology form the last millenium lying dusty in some boxes. We built them in our computers and reactivated them. Some of us still had them working. We set up servers which could answer modem calls via landline. Many of the Telecomix agents who were setting up this were even not born when this technology was considered modern and they had to do many hours of try and error till they got them up and running. Some touched their first modem on these very days.”

Telecomix was also at the forefront of experimenting with much older technologies as a way to re-establish horizontal communications with people in Egypt, such as ham radio:

“#SOS Please avoid #hamradio transmissions near 7080.8 kHz #cw transmit frequency, esp. region 1. Listening for #egypt. #dx #swl #hamr”

They established a fax-to-web bridge which would receive faxed messages from Egypt, remove header lines which might identify the sender's location, and publish the content to their main web page. While it is not clear if any faxes were received, it seems clear that the ham radio option wasn't viable for the situation in Egypt.

Another pre-web technology being used during the internet blackout was the Bulletin Board System, or BBS. This system for exchanging news and messages allows users to connect and log in directly over a phone line using a modem, and uses different technical protocols to the TCP/IP of the internet to network BBSs:

Block web 2.0 - counter with Net 1.0 - BBS networks springing up in #egypt to connect people - it's the 1980's all over again.”

Even when a part of the Internet is shutdown, the social web can give agency to the savvy user. John Scott-Railton is a graduate student at University of California with a network of personal friends in Egypt. When their social media was shut off, he phoned them for updates and posted them online at his Twitter account @Jan25voices. When the mobile networks were blocked, he drew up a list of people he knew with landlines. Even when many journalists were struggling to report from the ground there were live updates from Jan25voicesas Scott says

"Some of the updates I was getting were from people's aunts standing at the window, holding their phone out so I could hear what was happening"

A parallel piece of corporate innovation was the speak2tweet collaboration between Google and Twitter. On January 25th, Google acquired SayNow, a company with a set of services that connected phone calls and social media. Following Egypt's Internet shutdown, engineers from Google and Twitter collaborated to create speak2tweet which allowed Egyptians with phone access to leave a voice message on the SayNow site. A link to the message is automatically tweeted on the Twitter feed @speak2tweet.This also spawned a crowdsourced translation effort – people entered the translations on a google doc and they were posted on the site 'Alive in Egypt'.

The Internet in Egypt crackled back to life on February 2nd 2011, the day after Hosni Mubarak's first defiant post-protest broadcast. Quite why Internet services were restored at the same time that the regime was implementing a violent crack-down was a source of confusion to many observers. This chart of Egyptian Internet traffic from Arbor Networks shows the return as being as dramatic as the cut-off.

The Lessons

Even when the backbone supporting the social networks had been stripped away, people inside & outside Egypt strove to sustain sustain social communications with determination and creativity. Indeed, they sought to craft point-to-point analogue technologies like modems and landlines (and even fax & ham radio) in to a substitute, as well as a bridge back to the rest of the Internet. This approach suggests a radical change in people’s perceptions of their entitlement to connectedness. Social media has constituted a real change that goes beyond specific technologies, flying in the face of many sceptical critics who argue that new technologies only reinforce old practices and social structures.

Arguments over whether a particular social change would have happened in the absence of social media are somewhat sterile; there is no experimentally controlled comparison where we can re-run a revolution without Twitter. But more importantly those arguments fail to go to the core of the impact i.e. that social media has changed the global sense of entitlement to real-time peer-to-peer communication within fluid networks of association.

There are parallels with the unfolding impact of open source software, where the practical affordances of a technology form leveraged a wider impact for ideas of 'openness' (such as open innovation and open data). Internet scholar Wendy Seltzer comments on the Egyptian shutdown by drawing a parallel with the layers model of the Internet protocol.

“We also see that the Internet is not any particular means of data transport. The independence of layers means that applications don’t care what the route underneath looks like, so long as there is one. That meant that even cutting off Internet service providers couldn’t stop information flows: while Egyptians could call out from the country, they could tell their stories at @jan25voices, and through the Google-Twitter-Phone service, @speak2tweet, that automates some of the voice-Twitter connection.”

On the basis of Egypt and other examples, one can say that the social media model of communication now has a social or cultural layer that exists over and above the actual technical platforms that normally facilitate it. This is a generalisation to wider culture of the tendency observed several years ago by anthropologist Jeffrey Juris in his book 'Networking Futures: the Movements against Corporate Globalization' that networking practices

form part of an innovative mode of radical political practice that has to be understood in the context of an increasing confluence between network norms, forms, and technologies. It is important to point out that, when I talk about networking practices, I am not only referring to the use of digital technologies, but also to new forms of organizational practice. Activist networking practices are both physical and virtual, and they are frequently associated with emerging political imaginaries. It is precisely the interaction between network technologies, network-based organizational forms, and network-based political norms that characterizes radical activism”.

For those of us who have experience of both community mobilisation and social media, this doesn't come as a surprise. Networks are common to social media and to every aspect of social and business life, and it is the disruptive interplay of networked technology and business & social networks which is opening up new possibilities of social impact. The elements of participatory innovation observable in events following the shutdown of the Internet in Egypt have characteristics in common with Crisis Camps (e.g. the crowdsourced and social web-enabled response to the earthquake in Haiti) and our Social Innovation Camps (which bring together interdisciplinary self-organised teams to hack web-based solutions to social problems in 48 hours).

Future Research

This view of the effects of social media presents a challenge to its study. Technological studies and formal analyses of relationships inscribed in current social network platforms will never be able to capture fully the way people understand and interact with these technologically-enabled structures. What follows are issues that we believe need to be considered in analysing the impact of social movements. We also discuss how existing models need to become hybridic, heterogeneous and responsive to the grassroots appropriation of technology.

The first challenge is the fluid online-offline way these networks work. Restricting an analysis of relationships or dynamics to an online data set neglects the 'dark matter' of offline interactions that are necessary to make sense of the whole. While this is true in general, it becomes even more so when the trajectories of interaction leap from Twitter to mobile phone to street and back again.

Grasping social media in the context of social change also means appreciating the intent of the participants. In the same way that the embedded ethnography of Danah Boyd (PDF) cut through the haze around youth and social networks created by the collision of Pew Research and media punditry, there's a need for participant observation at the interface between social media and social impact. The overlap of social movements and the social web has generated is a tendency for near-real time reflexivity, where participants reflect openly on their experiences and tactics, as exemplified by the Twitter-based debriefs of the UK Uncut activists organised around the hashtag #ukuncutdb. Jeffrey Juris reports that

contemporary social movements are increasingly “self-reflexive,” as evidenced by the countless networks of knowledge production, debate, and exchange among global justice activists, including listserves, Internet forums, radical theory groups, activist research networks, etc.”

I have observed similar reflexivity in the online movement of #jan25 (the hashtag for the Egyptian uprising).

Retrospective studies of situations like Egypt and Tunisia also need to address the framing bias of pseudo-public spaces like Facebook and YouTube. Technology and policy choices strongly affect the way they are used in community mobilization. This ranges from citizen media videos being removed from YouTube due to 'violent content' that violates the Terms of Service, to the repeated suspension of activists by Facebook for not complying with the “real name” policy for their own safety.

All these challenges may converge if trends catalysed by the Egyptian shutdown come to fruition. Galvanized by the shutdown, a group of tech entrepreneurs started the OpenMesh Project which aims to create with ad hoc mesh networking solutions in a city where the Internet backbone and mobile networks have been silenced. Conversations along similar lines can be observed across blogs and social media (see, for example, the comment thread in the aforementioned Tor post). These initatives and the use of BBS in Egypt echo the call by author Douglas Rushkoff to abandon the current Internet on the basis that it has been surrendered to centralised corporate control. Presciently, he called for a new net of 'the commons' that learns from BBSs and deploys overlapping meshes, ham radio and telephony.

Recognising that if any of this happens it will be as part of a convergence of technology with cultural forms, we can propose that critical frameworks drawing on mesh models will be useful to future analysis. For example, de Landa has developed the idea of meshworks (PDF), influenced by the theoretical work of Deleuze and Guattari. “Meshworks are based on decentralized decision making...self-organization, and heterogeneity and diversity... It can be said they follow the dynamics of life, developing through their encounter with their environments (by “drift”), although conserving their basic structure.”

Conclusions from Tahrir Square

The mis-translation of a protester's sign from Tahrir Square encapsulates the argument about the impact of social media. The photo that shows a middle-aged protestor in Tahrir square holding a handwritten sign in Arabic. The only English word on his sign is 'FACEBOOK', in large red letters carfeully highlighted in black. Many western blog and media outlets published versions of this with the slogan translated as 'Thank you Facebook'. In fact, as I have verified with correspondents in the Egyptian diaspora, the correct translation is 'Thank you, Egypt's Facebook youth'. The gulf between these sentiments is huge; the wrong translation elevates the technology, whereas the real one identifies the youth as agents of change. But in labelling them 'Egypt's Facebook youth' it also recognises that they're acting differently to what came before, that their post-deferential dynamism reflects the character of their favoured tool.

And therein lies the visible impact of social media. It doesn't create uprisings or anything else, but it opens up ways of thinking and behaving because it makes thinking and behaving in those ways (horizontally, self-organised) more effective than before. It opens up new fields of possibilities.


NHS innovation diffusion - from Deleuze & Guattari to Digital Movements

Background: I was invited by UCL Partners to present at an Innovation Diffusion workshop for NHS London. The paper was subsequently presented to the NHS London Clinical Senate.

As Deleuze & Guattari would say, the NHS is a striated space. The quickest way to add innovative 'smooth spaces' is by combining digital tools and social movements. Slides below, full paper attached: comments welcome.

Digital Reverse Development

The idea of Digital Reverse Development is an observation and a call to action. It describes the way digitally-enabled social innovations from Brazil, Africa and elsewhere will start to tackle problems in the West. The part that's most visible is the digital: @Ushahidi is moving mainstream, and there's mobile tools from @FrontlineSMS and Android apps from @AppsForGoodCDI. But behind the tech are, as  @giantpandinha says, the social operating systems, the cultural behaviours that drive these innovations from the ground.

Digital Reverse Development is the mutant offspring of reverse innovation and liberation learning. Reverse innovation is a business concept which “...uses developing markets as seedbeds for product innovations to challenge incumbents in world markets” and is a hot topic places like the Harvard Business Review. Liberation learning (a.k.a. critical pedagogy) is exemplified by Paulo Freire, a radical Brazilian educator from the 1960’s who said "There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world."

Digital Reverse Development is what you get if you combine new technology with methodologies of participatory development, as in CDI's Apps for Good. What leaks back to the West is innovation from cultures that haven’t lost the idea of community and collective action as much as we have. Innovation from elsewhere allows us to see ourselves differently.

The developing world also has more experience of crisis. Argentina's financial meltdown in 2001 prefigures some of the social consequences hitting Europe following the failures of the banks, and Brazilian favelas are in a permanent state of social crisis. What we know from the developing world is that, in a crisis, people fall back on their informal networks. What do you do in a society which has lost it’s informal networks - can we use digital reverse development to rebuild them? Can we, for example, combine the praxis of Argentina’s neighbourhood assemblies with the UK's emerging hyperlocal sites?

This, then, becomes digitally-enabled community development.  Community development seeks to empower people by providing them with the skills to make changes in their own communities. It involves changing the relationships between ordinary people and people in positions of power. The role of the tech in this is both practical and imaginary. It enables us to organize stuff in the real world, but also to re-imagine how we organize ourselves. The critical edge of Digital Reverse Development moves it beyond the voluntarism of the Big Society to an explicit call for social justice.

Here's a 5-point starter plan to increase Digital Reverse Development  -

  1. seed digital social innovation in so-called developing countries via initiatives like Social Innovation Camp and Map Kibera
  2. set up structures to encourage reverse digital development, similar to The Ghana Think Tank ("Since 2006, The Ghana Think Tank has been "Developing the First World." Problems collected in the UK and US are sent to a growing network of think tanks in Ghana, Cuba, El Salvador, Mexico, Serbia and Iran. These "Third" World think tanks propose solutions, which are enacted back in the problem-communities, whether the solutions strike us as brilliant or improbable.")
  3. build reverse digital development on top of successful South-to-North social innovations such as BRAC
  4. encourage the digital imaginary elsewhere through ideas like Afrocyberpunk, and carry out a cultural infection of the Western digerati with proto-movements like #londontropicalismo
  5. focus on women, who drive the informal social networks in developing countries and should be central to reverse digital development

Your comments  welcome.

Photo credit: CDI Europe (some rights reserved)

Mental Health Camp UK

The moment I spotted MentalHealthCamp Toronto I wanted to help make it happen here. Years ago I was a volunteer MIND mental health advocate in the old Hackney Psychiatric Hospital (a former workhouse) which was a schooling in one side of mental health services. Now that I'm an accidental digital innovator I can see the huge potential in a mashup of mental health and digital, which I can’t really put better than the MentalHealthCamp Toronto mission statement :

“We live in a society with access to the newest technologies, open access to information and the possibility to connect through social media and online communities. Our goal for MentalHealthCamp is to ignite conversations around how can we use these technologies to promote better mental health and help improve the lives of people with mental health problems.
Mental health concerns everyone. So if you’re a mental health professional, someone with lived experience of mental health problems, a family member or friend of a person with mental health problems, or have a passion or an interest in the topic, then MentalHealthCamp is for you! MHCTO also welcomes technophiles, change architects and all sorts of social media types.”

In the tradition of our times, MentalHealthCamp UK started with a hashtag (#mhcuk), exchanged in tweets with the organizers of the Toronto camp, and is now working its way into reality.  I hope that #mhcuk will be about positive mental health as much as it’s about mental health problems, which it surely will be as one of the other organizers is Andy Gibson of Mindapples. I also hope that it’ll get gritty and apply digital innovation to some of the more intractable issues around mental health, whether that’s the limitations of statutory care or the stigma of being labelled as ‘mad’. For an idea of topics covered in Toronoto check out their Take Action Videos.

And for me #mhcuk is just a start – an idea generator and constituency builder for the idea of a mental health Social Innovation Camp. There's already been a #sicamp pilot for a specific sector -  the team ran the Jailbrake weekend to find and support great ideas that could break the cycle of youth offending using simple web and mobile tools (see here for the film of the weekend).

There are already pioneering projects exploring the potential of digital for mental health, like Buddy, the social media radio from Sidekick Studios which they're developing with South London and Maudsley Trust. Some studies show that online social support is an effective means of mediating stress and Social Innovation Camp Central & Eastern Europe generated the Betterfly project for psychology first aid. On the other hand, this Psychology of Twitter article asks whether it's supporting self-actualisation or leading to increased narcissism.

Holding a mental health sicamp and extending some prototypes in to really useful working services also fits with my new role at Media for Development and my aspirations for the ways digital innovation at Media for Development can use the untapped potential of media to empower marginalised communities.

But first, #mhcuk. The silos of the mental health scene can only benefit from the peer to peer conversations that’ll  take place at Mental Health Camp UK, and the follow-up could inject a post-digital kind of co-production into the mental health scene. As the folk of MentalHealthCamp Toronto said

“The age of digitization and technology enabled living is here and has catalyzed a new paradigm of participation. Please bring your ideas, questions and open minds as we work on solutions that are possible today and that we are dreaming about for tomorrow.”

At this stage we’re looking for potential venues, potential sponsors, and (of course!) passionate participants. If you are any of the above then please leave a comment, head over to our wiki or join the google group.

photo credit: Lada Brunova

open data doesn't empower communities

Open data doesn't empower communities. I'm not saying open data is a bad thing, but we need to highlight the gap between the semantic web and social impact. Otherwise we'll continue to get swept along on a tide of technocratic enthusiasm where hope lies in 'a flood of data to create a data-literate citizenry'.

I'm inspired by the idea that nuggets of opened data could seed guerilla public services, plugging gaps left by government, but i don't see any of that in the apps list. The reasons aren't technical but psychosocial - the people and communities who could use this data to help tackle their own disadvantage and marginalisation don't have the self-confident sense of entitlement that makes for successful civic hacktivism.

So why the big push behind open data and the lack of interest in enabling communities? i think the crude answer is 'bread and circuses'. And anyway, opening up data is a technocrat friendly activity whereas empowering communities is messy and difficult. So we'll continue to be told that we can improve public services and create future economic growth by linking data rather than tackling power.

There are many missing steps between open data & an empowered citizenry that can fulfill David Cameron's claim that “People will be the masters. Politicians the servants. And that’s the way it should be”. It might be useful to contrast the histories of libraries and of Chartism - libraries are a necessary platform for an informed citizenry, but it takes the channeled anger of a social movement to focus that in to historic change.

Hackney Peace Mural

So which path leads beyond the sterility of SPARQL queries? Part of me says forget the whole thing. In a past life i helped collect data for the NHS, so i know that most government data is fake anyway (massaged beyond recognition as it passes upwards through the layered sphincters of bureaucracy). I'll keep an open mind to the results of the Open Data Impacts survey but i think we should sound the alarm that open data risks becoming (as Becky Hogge says) a kind of cargo cult.

The real struggle, as ever, is on the terrain of meanings. Who will write the narrative that we inhabit? And how much does data actually help here?

Adam Greenfield captures the issue in microcosm when comparing two local crime apps, Asborometer  and SpotCrime NYC:
"In my talks and writing, I frequently argue that 'data' in and of itself is seductive, its dynamic visualization more so, and that we need to be very careful that we don’t get drawn into real-world decisions based on such visualizations without due reflection.... The distinction is between an abstract fear on the one hand, given apparent substance by its inscription in seemingly authoritative numbers, charts and graphs — and the actual texture of street crime on the other, in all its tawdry, banal and occasionally appalling isness. You’re likely to have much more of a sense of agency when confronted with particulars than you would against inchoate percentages. And agency, as far as I’m concerned, is the name of the game".

So either we dump data for narrative, or we 'queer' the data in the full knowledge of its limitations. I'm inspired in that by the counter-cartographies collective (3Cs) who say in their report from a Chicago community mapping workshop:
"One big point of discussion was how to deal with the embedded biopolitics behind data sources like US Census data that we use in our maps — as 3Cs, we often talk about how we ‘queer’ data or statistics by pulling map stories out of them that they weren’t intended for. But data sources often come so tightly bound up with state politics, white supremacist racial policies, definitions of family structure, etc., that queering them might require more conscious work than we always put in".

Open data is not a magic recipe for righting wrongs. What will move things on is the stories that communities tell about their situations and their possible futures. If open data has a part to play in this it will be through the bootstrap empowerment of projects like savvy chavvysocial startup labs and transition towns.

my Media for Development manifesto

Although I've only been at Media for Development for a week, I can already see the potential for digital innovation to boost MFD's mission. I hope that a mashup of my background in web & social change and Media for Development's experience of participatory media will produce some pioneering ways to empower marginalised communities. So here's a snapshot of my thinking about where to go and how to get there.

My starting point is the way Media for Development uses participatory media to help transform people's lives. As a digital guy, this seems to me like a good match for the 'maker' meme - people participating in building their own stuff and their own solutions to problems. To my mind, a good starting point for MFD digital projects would be co-creation and the kind of co-design promoted by @thinkpublic and @wearesnook . This can by carried through the technical side of digital projects by appropriating agile development- the tech project methodology that iterates in small stages, keeping the project close to the users and allowing it to adapt as new issues and opportunities emerge.

At the other end, the digital scene is a wellspring of questions about impact and ROI, as embodied by Measurement Camp. The visibilising of social connections that's embedded in the social web makes social network analysis a way in to measuring impact, especially around ideas of social capital. And I expect Social Return On Investment (SROI) will be a useful way to pin numbers to our projects in a way that aligns with MFD's values. Of course, the most powerful way to convey impact is to hear from people themselves and MFD is already expert in the power of narrative.

One of the biggest challenges that faces MFD or anyone trying to build peer to peer support is the investment of time and resources it can take to get self-generating momentum in an online community. My first ideas about tactics is to start with stuff that's simple and useful, and can be applied immediately in people's lives. There were some good examples of this at Jailbrake - an event that applied the Social Innovation Camp approach to making web & mobile services for young people caught up in the criminal justice system. For example, we heard that even a simple text reminder at the right moment can make a difference by helping someone with a fairly chaotic lifestyle make it to their probation appointments.

 daniel of the Nudge Me project

Daniel from the Nudge Me project at Jailbrake (Photo credit:

As one of the founders of Social Innovation Camp, I'd say its approach has a natural fit with media for Development and I'm expecting to draw a lot on @sicamp contacts and experience as I go forward with projects here, including the aim of making enterprises not just projects i.e. innovations that can find a way to be sustainable instead of petering out when the initial funding fades away.

But no statement about strategy would be compete without a 2 by 2 matrix :) so here's mine for MFD-Digital: with communities along one axis and digital along the other, we start with the communities that MFD knows well (e.g. people with experience of prison) and the tech that has already been successful (like the online community of Savvy Chavvy). Innovation on the communities axis means new hard to reach groups, and MFD already has plans to work with military veterans, and with young dad's who are in danger of being excluded from parenthood. Innovation on the digital axis has some straightforward starting points, like mobile and mapping: i've been inspired by the potential of open street mapping to catalyse community mobilisation, and i've already met with frontlinesms to look at ways that toolset can help overcome the digital divide here in the UK. In the future we may convene sicamp / crisis camp style events to catalyse unexpected digital innovations.

At the end of the day, though, it's not about tech but about the potential of digital to enable transformation; a change in people's lives and ultimately in themselves. And also, perhaps, in those of us doing this work. I'm looking forward to reporting irregularly on this journey.

"There ain't no justice, just us" - war crimes impunity in the digital age

One of the darkest things about war crimes is that most of the perpetrators get away with it. From Pinochet to Serb paramilitaries, the men (& it's mostly men) involved in acts of vile horror carry on with their lives untouched by justice. Will the digital age have any impact on impunity? If you need convincing about impunity, the Guardian's Datastore has taken the data provided by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague and compiled a spreadsheet of the cases that have been concluded. Set against the scale and duration of the horror, this is an essay in ineffectiveness. And listen to the women from the Omarska concentration camp recount their experiences on BBC radio. Their job was to clean the torture rooms of skin, teeth, hair; at night they were raped. Having bravely returned her home town of Prijedor, one the muslim women regularly comes face-to-face with her tormentors while the war memorial in the town glorifies the Serb 'war heroes'. I know from personal accounts that the spectacle of the ICTY is wholly failing to bring closure to those who experienced ethnic cleansing. But behind the horror there's the determination of some women to fight for justice. Having set up an association for women victims of war in Sarajevo, they have also become a detective agency, taking witness statements and tracking down & photographing perpetrators based on 'crowdsourced' identification of the men in the statements - a process that starts to sound a lot like the citizen journalism ushered in by digital tech. What impact could citizen journalism & social reporting have in unblocking the politically-motivated inertia of official war crimes investigations?
(Photo from Calling the Ghosts, A Story about Rape, War and Women by Women Make Movies) Another challenge is highlighted by the Kenyan election violence of 2007. On the one hand, this was the stimulus for Ushahidi, open source software which uses the lessons learned from Kenya to create a platform that allows anyone around the world to set up their own way to gather reports by mobile phone, email and the web - and map them. Ushahidi has now been used in many critical situations around the world including the first European application at our Social Innovation Camp Central and Eastern Europe by the Map Your Nazi project. Ushahidi is an exemplar of bottom-up digital innovation, but more than 2 years later no-one in Kenya has been prosecuted for the crimes against humanity that it helped to map. It turns out that neither a mashup nor the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court can have much impact on the political forces that trade power for impunity. My contention is that the real impact of digital comes from it's catalysis of horizontal process, social action that routes around institutional complicity. Could Ushahidi or something like it be used to convene activities of transitional justice - people-powered initiatives that take on the need to confront legacies of mass abuse? I'm not talking about the real-world equivalent of a Twitter lynch mob but holistic additions to criminal prosecutions that promote accountability and create just and peaceful societies. These would need to be more active than digital memorials. Perhaps we should apply the radical transparency of wikileaks to the archive of the war crimes court for the former Yugoslavia and pipe the results through citizen-up initiatives like we20? Whatever the challenges of transparency 2.0, the alternative is to freeze societies in a state of denial. Despite the efforts of Michael Portillo most Brit holidaymakers are still unaware that the beaches of Malaga contain mass graves of Republican sympathisers shot by Franco. Even though I count myself knowledgable about the Spanish Civil War, I visited Granada without knowing that the hills we strolled over still conceal 10,000 bodies. The psychic damage to Spanish culture is still in full effect thanks to the 'Pact of Forgetting' and the 1977 amnesty law. The transparency of the digital age is not just about open data but the surfacing of suppressed histories as starting points for transformation.
(Photo credit Mike Elkin &

Beyond Transparency: from Lessig to True Levellers

Lawrence Lessig's New Republic article 'Against Transparency' really rattled the cages of transparency fans and led to a spirited defence from Ellen Miller and Michael Klein, the co-founders of the Sunlight Foundation.

Lessig's opening diatribe is long-winded and sets up some straw men that Miller and Klein dispose of - like saying that transparency will increase cynicism because the public don't have the attention span to make proper judgements. I suspect the need for a complete throwdown comes from his lawyer-genes :)

But IMHO he wins out by addressing the core issue; that the only way to capitalise on transparency to increase trust is to actually change structures. So if we can never be sure whether a certain political donation did or did not influence a vote, we should take donations out of the process altogether. As Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El Fattah tweeted during the debate: "amazing how people r missing the point of @LESSIG article. disclosure useless without changing uderlying dynamics".

Despite the Sunlight folks efforts to 'annually directly train more than a thousand reporters and bloggers on how to use these datasets, tools, and sites to better inform their investigations' their aspirations stop at cleaning up the existing system. In this they follow the democracy geeks at MySociety, believing that current mechanisms would deliver fairness if only they were cleansed of unethical gunk.

For sure, we need transparency around finances, but cash is just a proxy for power. And power is a far trickier thing to map than money; it ranges from the psychological to the physical and involves us all in complex and contradictory networks. Our current institutions accrete power in ways that amplify its abuse while simultaneously producing narratives of denial.

Us liberal Twitterati have flexed our Streisand effect in the last few days to challenge the old trappings of power, in the specific shape of UK libel laws and #Trafigura. One rightful rallying cry for this was the 1688 Bill of Rights. But it's ironic that so many other flaws of our system are still glossed over, despite the fact that in the Putney Debates of 1647 the Levellers were predicting the need for a better system than the one we have.

While Sunlight say "the very idea of exposing government data feeds for outside developers is, at its core, about spurring innovation in the way we all perceive and contextualize data" I'm still troubled by The Unbearable Lightness of Mashups and the increasing tendency of information mashup initiatives to align themselves with the status quo rather than with movements for social change.

Last word goes again to @alaa: "activism that limits its ambition to exposing and reporting is useless if not harmful. work on redefining reality behind what is measured."

Observ. LIII. Of a Flea., from Micrographia by Robert Hooke

Will Politics 1.0 Swallow Government 2.0? a response.

Gartner analyst Andrea Di Maio has penned a couple of sparky posts this week about the more trenchant realities of government 2.0. In 'Will Politics 1.0 Swallow Government 2.0?' he characterised Tom Steinberg's decision to advise the Tories as heralding the way that gov 2.0 leaders will inevitably align with politics 1.0:

"What interests me, though, is how people like Steinberg in the UK or like Beppe Grillo in Italy feel the urge to join or take sides with a party, although they have been making independence and grass-root approach their mantra."

The reason being that bloggy tweety aggregation is all well and good but if you want to get stuff to stick in the real world you need established structures. "Perhaps going back into existing silos is the price to be paid for moving from vision to execution". That's the bit that makes me smile - the idea the the government, or any large incumbent institution, represent the best hope for executing anything flies in the face of experience, especially when it comes to anything that involves tech.

My sense is that it's easier for mySociety types to cleave to The Man because their agenda is to make current modes work more smoothly, rather than to question the distribution of power at a basic level. Shame, because the interesting thing about Stuff 2.0 is its potential to leak a bit of power back to a peer-to-peer model. That's not to deny the challenge of sustaining bright ideas in a hard economic reality, which is why I wrote about Lightweight Structures for Social Innovation Startups after the first SICamp. But politics 1.0 has the gravitational pull of a black hole and the only way to break the paradigm is to connect digital innovation with social movements that are the soil for its participatory roots. So, for example, if you really want to see government 2.0 you'd be better off doing digi with Transition Towns than with the Green Party.

And that's why I was rocked to see the title of Andrea's follow up post 'Why Government 2.0 Has Little To Do With Government'. Critiqueing the idea that gov 2.0 is about the ways "organizations and institutions can leverage technology to improve effectiveness and efficiency and to better engage constituents" he reframes the issue: "The problem is that government 2.0 is not about organizations and institutions. It is about the way in which constituents aggregate and socialize knowledge in ways that change their expectations and how they relate to government institutions." It's nicely articulated but stays on the safe ground of information and knowledge. I'd contend that the bolder win is for people to aggregate and socialize solutions i.e. actual functioning answers to social needs, whether stand-alone, grant funded or direct hacks of gov operations. That's what Social Innovation Camp has been trying for, and it'll be interesting to see which side of the wavy grey line that folk at the myPublicServices unconference will plump for.

Image courtesy of edmittance: part of his work with Transition Towns.

The Berlin Wall between civil society and social change

It's the weekend before Social Innovation Camp Central & Eastern Europe (SICamp CEE); one of the most intense experiments in digitally-enabled social innovation to have targeted that region. We've assembled seventy amazing people to build six great ideas in a manic 48 hours. Time to reflect on why it matters.

SICamp CEE is the guerilla sideshow to a Civil Society Forum (CSF) convened by the CEE Trust. In a bold move, this major funder of NGOs is questioning whether those dollars are having much social impact. The commissioned opinion pieces on the state of CEE civil societies reveal the depth of disillusionment and loss of direction.

The truth is that we didn't get rid of the Berlin Wall. Sure, there was a festive destruction of that hated bit of concrete, but the Berlin Wall and all walls like it are the physical parallels of a certain approach to the world; a way of dealing with life that works best with division and control. Read the insightful CSF essay Redefining NGOs by Primož Šporar: NGOs are "autocratic", "top-down" and "donor-driven", have an increasing "political dependence on the government in power" to maintain an "existence more closely related to the salaries of employees than the potential benefits for the target group". Bluntly, they are afraid that truly active citizens could undermine their "monopoly on problems".

This is the description of social change with a wall around it. Of barriers between people and the supposed agents of that change. Of hierarchical control that stifles innovation and the kind of "informal, ad-hoc and problem-oriented" local initiatives that Primož sees springing up outside of the NGOs. And I can say for sure that his description fits the so-called Third Sector in the UK as much as it does NGOs in Central & Eastern Europe.

Enter Social Innovation Camp! Of course we're not the answer to all that. But SICamp is like one of those early crowbars, digging at weak points in the wall, looking for leverage. And our leverage is digital because that enables people to connect and collaborate without the overhead of old institutions. It enables crowdsourcing, wikifying and the emergence of new possibilities by mashing stuff up.

And that's why we say SICamp is about "individuals using the web to change things" and not about making the third sector more efficient or effective. In my experience, people working in an NGO automatically filter out ideas that they know don't fit with the organisation's expectations, even if they're innovative ideas. An organisation bringing an idea to SICamp would want control and this would kill the magic. At SICamp the development of the idea is totally in the hands of the team who've formed around it. They can change it and play with it. They can be spontaneous and creative. But this is serious play - they want to win, and to win they need to create something that will have real social impact.

SICamp works. At least, our past events have generated enough real projects and ideas with legs that the momentum is growing. But SICamp CEE is a uniquely internationalist experiment, with campers from Romania, Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Poland, Slovenia, UK, USA, Germany, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. One of the criteria for selected ideas is that they can be applied in more than one country, and multinational teams will build them. SICamp CEE is truly internationalist.

SICamp and all similar hacktivist initiatives are using digital tech to break through the walls of resources and respectability, tapping straight in to people power by creating a space for free imagination. The liberatory potential of digital is that it allows us to do this without asking for permission. The tools are to hand - down with all Berlin Walls!

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