The Unbearable Lightness of Mashups

I was excited to discover, a mashup tool for people who witness acts of violence in Kenya. You can report the incident that you have seen, and it will appear on a map-based view for others to see. I'm a long-standing mashup fan, & I bet loads of other web-obsessed activists like me were thinking of something exactly like Ushahidi while watching Kenya disintegate on the news.

But another side of me is getting grouchy and cynical about mashups and social change. I can't help thinking 'so what?' - so what happens now, now that the violence has been mapped, or the corruption of representational democracy has been graphed? It's a funny feeling to have, because I can see how the simple power of visualisation could jolt people out of apathy. And it's awkward, because I need to vote in Netsquared's Mashup Challenge before the end of tomorrow - and Netsquared is an initiative that has inspired me a lot.

I think my gripes with mashups are both evolutionary ("we should go to the next level") and foundational ("there's a fundamental difference between the action of assembling data and the reality of social change").

IMHO, mashups would evolve by being more actionable. Many are collaborative, (people can contribute data) but not actionable - there's no clear plan for how the aggregation of data is going to change the reality it describes. Will the data in Ushahidi be used to hold the perpetrators to account, via the kind of analysis Patrick Ball did for Kosova?

And is there a realistic connection between mashups and social change anyway? I love the way a mission-based geek can pull together a proof-of-concept overnight. I love the sense of possibility that comes from an internet overflowing with information and data. But, chatting to a street activist friend from wayback (who's also turned geeky) I found we were both uneasy about the contrast between coding and community activism. Coding a mashup can be fast and frictionless - community activism is usually time-consuming, sometimes boring and occasionally confrontational.

But I can dredge up a memory from those days that would've made a good mashup. Hackney Community Defence Association supported many local people who had been wrongfully arrested by police. It was via a thorough correlation of incidents with the shoulder number of the officers involved that HCDA exposed drugs trafficking, planting evidence and perversion of justice by police at Stoke Newington in north-east London. An HCDA mashup could've combined a web-based reporting tool like Ushahidi with thorough cross-checking and statement recording by legal volunteers.

I think that, as more geeks overlap with people close to social issues (a la Social Innovation Camp), there will be more mashing up of tech and gritty social impact. In the mean time, mashups stand up for transparency and that's one of the web's most powerful memes. And probably, as I plough my sleepless way through Netsquared's Mashup entries I'll have to eat my cynicism because loads of creative people will have innovated beyond my limited idea of what mashups can do :)

Hat tip to Pete Cranston for putting me on to Ushahidi and apologies to Milan Kundera for mashing up his book title.

The Access Denied Map of web 2.0 censorship

The Access Denied Map is a high-impact map of the web 2.0 crackdown from Sami Ben Gharbia, creator of the Tunisian Prison mashup.

Access Denied Map

The map provides an overview of online censorship efforts related to the social web and major web 2.0 websites, and aims to amplify the local campaigns defending the right to access them. As Sami writes in his introduction; "The recent successes of ... citizen journalists and citizen watchdogs in Pakistan, Burma, Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco, have confirmed once again the enormous potential of user-generated content as an advocacy tool and as an alternative and independent source of news. The common characteristic of all these cases is that they have made efficient use of web 2.0 technologies in exposing abuses and injustice."

While Sami's map highlights the collision of the social web with what he neatly describes as the “authoritarian reflex”, the dimension of web 2.0 censorship unmapped in this mashup is the exercise of unaccountable authority by the sites themselves, and we need a Freedom of Expression League Table for Web 2.0 along with a campaign to defend it. One aspect that increasingly interests me is the power of the social web as a cultural space; and it's the cultural (rather than directly political) aspects that, a few days ago, seems to have resulted in Syria banning Facebook. As a blogger from Damascus writes

“Who lives in Syria knows that it's the country of “nothing's going on” except to hang out in old Damascus' cafes, but recently there has been a cultural awakening; people are starting to organize their interests in concerts, galleries, conferences, plays, screenings…etc. and Facebook is facilitating the process which is very hard to do in an inactive militarily controlled society. There are no cultural institutions in Syria, no private independent NGOs, no civic institutions, who represent the populations except the government? Syrian Facebookers are trying now to represent themselves. Those who cannot be activists in a “real” Syria can be one in a virtual Syria.”

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