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Join a real-virtual colloquium on the United Nations and Social Media on Friday, 16 November 2007

I've been invited to join a panel for a real-virtual colloquium on "The United Nations and the New Media/Information Age: Education for the Next Generation of the People of the United Nations" hosted by the Academic Council of the United Nations System and taking place on Friday, 16 November 2007. Anyone is invited to join in during the colloquium, posting questions that will be forwarded to the panel moderator; join the Colloquium live or pose a question in advance

seedcamps for social innovation (because charities are broken)

I've heard quite a bit about seedcamp and it's high octane approach to incubating web innovation. I wonder if the same model could be applied to social innovation? For sure, we need some new methodologies, because it looks like the old way of organising into charities and NGOs is broken.

UNDERMINING INNOVATION

At first sight, seedcamp is a purely business proposition, mentoring startups on competitiveness and providing injections of venture capital. What's that got to do with alleviating social problems? But compare and contrast with the characteristics of many charities. In my experience, the amount of innovation that makes it out of the door of an NGO is a tenth of what it could be. And the limiting factor isn't rigerous testing of ideas against reality, but institutional conservatism. Anyone who's worked in the sector knows the score; anxiety-based leadership, a focus on internal politics, inter-departmental struggle and an unquestioning conflation of the charity and the cause.

CATCH UP OR CATCH 22

But charities don't own social issues. And it's lazy behaviour for the rest of society to assume that bunging charities a regular donation is actually good value. We'll see what happens as more sousveillance and web-enabled transparency is applied to the third sector. The web-savvy minority in nonprofits know that it's urgent for their organisations to catch up with the digital age. "If only the CEO would blog more, if only our campaigners understood facebook..." But are these the core issues? Or is the starker question that the inherent nature of charities as institutions makes them anithetical to the participative and post-deferential nature of the social web?

ROUTING AROUND BLOCKAGES

Personally, I'm more excited about the new modes of collaborative innovation opened up by the web, and how these can be powerfully applied to solving social issues . I don't just mean web tools themselves, but the wider social modes and processes opened up, from the virtual organisation to crowdsourcing, and from open IP to self-organising networks. There are already examples of NGO startups; GetUp systematically applied the accidentally viral success of MoveOn to the Australian third sector, and in six months had more members than Amnesty Australia. So if we want to encourage social innovation that leverages these possibilities we need ways to incubate it that are native to this space rather than native to the nineteenth century. Roll on, social innovation seedcamp.

Tactical Tech is hiring

My friends at Tactical Tech have asked me to highlight these job openings :

They're a great bunch who've convened some of the coolest grassroots tech events in the social change scene . So if you're inspired to empower non-profits across the Global South – in particular human rights defenders and rights advocates - get on to them before the deadline of Monday 29th October.

return on investment (ROI) of the social web for nonprofits?

"What do you think is the return on investment (ROI) of the social web for nonprofits?" is Britt Bravo 's latest Net2ThinkTank question. It's a hot topic for nonprofits and companies alike because of the time soaked up by tending social networking sites, but I think there's at least three dimensions to social web ROI for nonprofits, namely metrics, the paradigm shift and the new enclosures.

metrics

Non-profits aren't focussed on a financial return but they have a duty to use donations effectively. So it's good to see initiatives like frogloops ROI calculator for social network campaigns, which uses the tried & tested perspective of email marketing to calculate value for money. Metrics may be harder for the social web but nonprofits would be unwise not to try it - in part because the social web also leading to greater pressure for transparency.

paradigm shift

Even when the return rates are low, nonprofits should be investing in social web experiments because they herald a paradigm shift in how people will organise to have a social impact. In Participatory Web for Development I described how an era of mass collaborative innovation will lead to new ways of tackling social issues. Either nonprofits take part, or they risk being left on the beach.

the new enclosures

The big feature of the web 2.0 boom is the way that value generated by users is being cashed in by the site owners. As I warned in social networking and social change, one consequence can be nonprofits getting booted out if they get too 'controversial'. Monetisation of the social web is often done in a way that ignores the mass of contributors and threatens it's nature as a kind of common ground. As well as making creative use of this space we'll need to find collective ways to defend it. Mass investment of time, creativity and content implies a return for the common good.

 

Participatory Web for Development

Web2forDev in Rome

A big shout out to the organisers of the Web2forDev conference in Rome. They're shaking the hype out of web 2.0 and wrestling it in to relevance for the world's poorest and most marginalised.

Connectivity, Innovation, Censorship

If I'd had a chance to contribute to the conference, I'd have stepped back from the real issue of rural connectivity and looked at the less examined issues of innovation and censorship - the good and bad futures for the social web in the developing world.

The dark side of web 2.0

The bad news first - as soon as social media starts to make a real social difference it will be subject to some form of repression by those who favour the status quo. The downside for web 2.0 is that, under the wrong circumstances, its social networking side could become an engine for privacy invasion and surveillance. We must learn from places where social media survives and thrives in the face of corruption, military might, and the intimidation of opponents. Embedding human rights in social media requires eCampaigning for Internet Freedom.

Innovation - the disruptive fruit of participation

The real powerhouse of web 2.0 for dev will be innovation, the disruptive fruit of all architectures of participation. Charlie Leadbeater's book We-think starts with the example of the Barefoot College before going on to show how examples like Wikipedia are the herald of a new era of mass collaborative innovation. His wide global analysis of the new era mashes silicon valley with social innovation - as he says about a peer-to-peer AIDS support network "Low-cost, self-organising networks might be the height of organisational fashion on the US west cost but they are a matter of life-and-death in places like Mbuya Parish, Kampala".

Web2forDev HowTo

So where do we find guiding values for the development potential of web2.0? If I'd been at the web2fordev conference I'd have plagiarised the Res Publica Report 'Prospects for e-Advocacy in the Global South' and proposed this set:

  • Work within Movements: Working within a movement means that all the talent of the various members can be brought to bear in creating solutions and the lines of communications within the network can be used to quickly disseminate new methods.
  • Worship the Power of the Network: Through networks we aggregate our knowledge, amassing insight that is greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Bring Technologists and Advocates Together: Innovative solutions emerge when technologists collaborate with advocates, working on a specific campaign problem or network goal.
  • Build Innovation Systems: Rather than think of innovations as pieces of hardware or even creative ideas, it is better to think in terms of "innovation systems," combinations of hardware, social structures, and economic models that solve social problems.
  • Promote Independence not Dependence: Seek to empower, and explicitly address sustainability.
  • Engage with Youth: In almost all societies, young people are most likely to adopt new ICT methods. They are more familiar with ICT because it has been present for most of their lives.
  • Cultivate the Fringe: The boldest new ideas often come from far outside the
    mainstream.

I applaud the organisers and participants at the web2fordev conference for their global fusion of social media and social impact. The scale of that impact will depend on how well mass creativity can challenge the status quo. As the APC's Anriette Esterhuysen says "The key is NOT to think of social networking tools (or Web 2.0) as a completely new set of tools/applications. ... but as representing significant changes to power structures that characterise the creation and use of content on the internet".

the evolution of social action networks

social action networks

I get a real sense that we're due for a step-change in the evolution of social networks, and I think the momentum is towards networks that enable action.

causes - so what?

What an odd experience it is to be recruited to so many causes on Facebook. I've joined with hundreds of others on what feels like dozens of causes. And i'm left with the feeling - so what? What does it mean to have joined a Facebook group for issue X? What level of active participation comes from 'friending' an issue on MySpace? I'm not dismissing the real world impact that social networks are already having (see my earlier post on 'social networks for social change') but they're acting as networks of communication rather than as engines of active collaboration.

deepfish

At least Project Agape's Causes application for Facebook is adding a network-effect to fundraising by encouraging (and tracking) virality. But it's still about donations, not about enabling people to directly contribute to the activity of their chosen cause. Nothing wrong with that, except the risk that it could eclipse the potential for more active participation (see also my post 'chuggers in cyberspace' ). Surely one of the most exciting potentials of the social web is the way it could enable new forms of collaborative organisation and action - possibilities that are more disruptive and creative than simply using social networks for social marketing.

purposeful groups

The difference of social mode I'm talking about is described in Beth Simone Noveck's paper 'A democracy of groups' as the shift from 'virtual communities' to purposeful groups:

"Virtual communities, according to Howard Rheingold, are defined by conversations among people who meet in cyberspace. But a group in the sense that I use the word is unlike two people talking or ten people on a street corner or even unlike ten thousand people on Craig's List. It is not defined or determined by the size of its membership or the level of sociability. It is not defined by the rights it has or does not have ... A group is an agglomeration of people with the affirmative purpose of bringing about change. The group moves beyond the 'illusion of companionship without the demand of friendship' that characterizes virtual community."

aggregated action

How could social networks support change by becoming enterprise and action networks? Maybe we need to look at business models for web-enabled collective action. When Allan Benamer emailed me about his startup 'socialmarkets' he described how they embedded an action model in the site that goes beyond connectivity:

'I'd say the only way you can make Web 2.0 really interesting is using it to harness certain behaviors either on the part of nonprofits or on the part of donors. You have to choose the behavior you want and then break down those behaviors into their constituent parts. That's how Wikipedia works. The granular and atomized tasks that together form an emergent pattern of content contributions that is Wikipedia is pretty much how the Web works. So it's not really connectivity, but the emergent properties of mass activity that need to be looked at.'

I think the same logic can be applied to evolve social networks - iterate functionality that aggregates useful behaviours in to some kind of concrete change.

network-centric widgets

What would this look like for social networks, and how would it come about? Certainly that 'how' is not going to be in the mainstream functionality of the social network platforms but via their application APIs - the actionability of social networking will emerge via widgets like Pledgebank's Pledges app . My first guess at the 'what' is apps that distribute a major task in a way that can be directly actioned, and then aggregate the results. For example, the MediaVolunteer project described on the Network-Centric Advocacy blog . Each volunteer was assigned two reporters to call, out of which the project aimed to assemble a national media list of media contact details:

"To influence media coverage our groups need a good press list. The communications people for these groups need to be able to jump online and find all the reporters that cover health in Georgia or who covers veteran issues across Pennsylvania. The groups need to be able to work the media as with the same tools as Madison Ave. P.R teams hired by Halliburton. To update and develop lists of tens of thousands of reporters would eat up staff time. However, a few thousand volunteers could update the list in a week with just a few calls each."

collaborate at scale

Imagine the MediaVolunteer example as a Facebook app, using Skype to make the calls directly from the computer. This could have the same virality as the Causes app and give the same kind of visible feedback (e.g. calls made, friends recruited). As Charlie Leadbeater says in 'Social software for social change' :

"The rubric of the social web is: contribute, connect, collaborate, create...Under the right circumstances, people can collaborate and coordinate their activities at scale, without requiring much of the top down hierarchy of large organisations...As a result, large scale collaborations can create quite reliable, robust and complex products ranging from open source computer programmes such as Linux to compendiums of knowledge such as Wikipedia."

Will social networks evolve beyond 'connect' to 'collaborate', or will the disruptive potential of network-centric collective action spring from elsewhere?

Bulgaria: environmental bloggers threatened

Environmentalists from the BlueLink Information Network report :

"The Bulgarian police has called in bloggers and pressured them to stop writing about the recent wave of environmental protests that has swept across the country in the recent weeks. Michel Bozgounov, BlueLink's web designer, was one of several online activists who were summoned, interrogated, and advised "friendly" to refrain from blogging on environmental protests. During the conversation, which he described in his blog again, Michel saw an investigation file against himself and his blog, compiled by the National Service for Combat against the Organized Crime, one of Bulgaria's several secret services that have inherited the notorious State Security of the former communist regime."

BlueLink

In my recent post on eCampaigning for Internet Freedom i pointed out that one of the deep reasons for defending internet freedom is its increasing importance for environmentalism (given legal recognition in the Aarhus convention, which grants the public rights regarding access to information and public participation and access to justice in environmental matters).

As an e-network created by green activists, the BlueLink network has been pioneering the potential of the internet within Bulgaria's dynamic environmental movement. This latest attempt to repress freedom of expression online stems from a controversial decision by the country’s Supreme Administrative Court to remove the protected status of the largest nature park in the Balkans - the Strandja Mountain. The decision has been claimed to favour the interests of a local mayor and businessman, who campaigned for hotel construction project within the park.

BlueLink's response to the intimidation of Michel Bozgounov and others is to launch the Freenet Campaign "not only as an illustration for Bluelink’s support for individual freedom of speech, but also as a tool to help network and share information regarding the current issues, news and campaigns related to the freedom of speech movements." They are also asserting that asserting that repressive actions are in breach of the Bulgarian constitution and are targetting the government for action on this. Sign BlueLink’s Declaration Statement.

UPDATE: Drupal and the Dot Org Boom

'How Drupal Will Save The World ' by Lullobot's Jeff Robbins has three key ideas that resonate with my post on Drupal and the Dot Org Boom .

1) Tools for the grassroots

My plan for Amnesty was that a switch to open source would allow the main web technology to be rolled out to the smallest section or activist group, anywhere in the world. Jeff's is also excited about the potential of tools like Drupal for grassroots activists and quotes a great example from the netsquared conference:

"My favorite story from the NetSquared conference comes from Kim Lowery of Kabissa who talks about a village in Nigeria that had agreed to let an oil company access their land and resources in exchange for clean water and school buildings. After a few years of letting the oil company get what they wanted, it became apparent to the people of this village that the oil company was not going to fulfill its end of the bargain. Ten years ago, these villagers would have had no recourse. But these days, they have their own website and the leverage that goes with it. They scanned the original contract and posted it on their site and followed up with a few emails to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the like. And before long they had a campaign going to bring people's attention to the oil company's failure to deliver on its promises. A few months later, the oil company began showing up to the village, taking more interest in their needs, and began delivering on some of their promises".

2) usability for activists

His second major theme is usability, and how it's critical if these tools are to be any use to people at the grassroots. As he says about some of the social activists at netsquared

"These are not technical people. And they want to build sites for even less non-technical people. They want to bring Drupal to third grade teachers in Indiana, church-basement activist groups, street orphans in South Africa, or Vietnamese farmers. These people may have very little experience on the web. The idea of "filtered HTML" is likely beyond their concern. And administrative idioms such as "node", "taxonomy", "vocabularies", "terms", even "menu items" and "blocks" are usually only understood after some conscious effort".

Jeff contrasts the clunkiness of Drupal with Apple products like iMovie and Automator which show "how even very complex operations and configurations can be simplified into a friendly user interface that the average user can begin to grasp".

3) drupal distributions

This is a simple idea that could pack a real punch;

"Drupal should have maintained, funded distributions (pre-configured packages of Drupal with add-on modules and themes) to act as a quick-start launch pad for various common website types".

Having specialist server-side distributions would extend the existing idea of operating system distributions (various Linux distros) and application distributions (like tactical tech's NGO-in-a-box series ). Instead of a community group spending months getting up to speed on Drupal, experimenting with various modules and wiring things together, there would be tailored Drupal distributions for specialized purposes e.g. a community events management system with discussion boards and event-related photo galleries and mailing lists.

footnote: linux live CDs and community translators

Part of my enthusiasm for easy-to-use distros comes from running a web project that delivered vital advice in community languages to refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. I needed non-technical tranlsators to be able to generate Unicode text in languages like Bengali, at a time when this was not possible in Microsoft Word. The tech side could be done with a combination of Linux and OpenOffice, but there was zero chance of the community translators being able to install this on their own computers. Then along came Indic language live CDs like Indlinux . They cut right through the problem; simply ask the translators to pop the CD in their computers at start-up and bingo - urgent translated text in the correct technical standards for web delivery.

UPDATE on Netsquared - the European Remix

There's been a great response to the call for a European remix of Netsquared! We're now discussing ways forward for the project (codename n2eu) so we keep the momentum.

The basic idea is to organise a major conference to catalyze social change via the tools of the social web (aka web 2.0). Like the original Netsquared project we expect this will also include an online community with community blogging and case studies.

We've opened the idea up to a community conversation, based on an n2eu mailing list and an n2eu wiki . If the idea of n2eu is going to be anything, it’s going to be community-driven. Please accept this invitation to be part of that community. And please feel free to forward this invitation to anyone else you think might be interested.

Hack Day London - a missed opportunity

I can't help feeling that Hack Day London missed a good chance to help keep the internet free for hacking (and for human rights). Both the BBC and Yahoo (the institutions behind Hack Day) lost the opportunity to make a strong value statement about freedom of expression and internet rights. And imagine the funky anti-filtering & socially positive hacks that could have come out of a weekend's hacking by 500 geeks!

hack day

Of course, the organisers deserve a lot of credit for pulling the event together, and for getting their respective institutions to back it (many wouldn't have). But Yahoo in particular has a lot of ground to make up to be seen as one of the good guys again, given the long-running case of Shi Tao (imprisoned for 10 years with the help of information from Yahoo) and the recent flurry of accusations that Yahoo Inc. provided information to the Chinese government that led to the persecution, torture and imprisonment of dissidents, for which the company is now being sued .

Hack Day was a creative event, not a political one - but it could have been so much more. A lot of the fun behind hacking lies in the freedom to mix and mashup, and it's eactly this kind of freedom that's at stake in the titanic clash between two legal regimes , namely Intellectual Property Rights versus Human Rights.

If I'd had a chance to introduce some social themes to Hack Day, I would have started with a rough definition of hacktivism, staring with this overview (quoting ron diebert from the Open Net Initiative). As a practical example, there's the Firefox extension that allows people in Iran (and other censored locations) to access Flickr. I asked a few friends what they would add, and the ideas included

  • show examples of what others have already done (like TOR, Psiphon, all the work of Cult of the Dead Cow) and invite folk to think about how innovations like yahoo pipes could be turned to similar ends
  • think globally when developing tools: in the West, people have alternatives to the information and resources available on the Internet, whilst many people living in developing countries do not. The Internet is their only source of real information. Develop open source, prepare for localisations and don't be afraid to answer simple user questions
  • Are there ways people could use for instance GreaseMonkey to build a kind of javascript decryption tool with which to reveal information encoded in images or videos? (Lots of bytes to hide information in.) Use one website as a “key” to filter information from another website? How to make it very easy to spread?

All the big technology companies (from Google to Cisco) rely on the kind of young developers that attend these events, who in turn could influence company activities when they show a blatant disregard for human rights. Having hacktivism as a standing part of Hack Days could help raise awareness of the ethical dimension (along the same lines as the Brazilian HackerTeen project).

We need a campaign to keep the internet open for creativity and hacktivism is going to be a part of that. But if the young d00dz are content to play trivia with frivolous API's, the internet control-heads will get to say 'I 0wn3d you'.

 (Thanks to ron , rolf and dmitri for their help with this post.)

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