Digital Kung Fu for Civil Society

My slides from the civil society workshop in Tbilsi in May 2009. Questions, suggestions and comments welcome!

Twitter activism in Tbilisi

Next weekend I'll be doing some training for journalists and NGOs in Tbilisi alongside Kevin Anderson (blogs editor for Our mission:

  • To popularize and legitimize new media in Georgia for both journalism and civic activism purposes
  • To fill the niches that are currently unfilled by both mainstream media and current bloggers
  • To create at least one showcase local project - defined by the local audience/blogosphere and designed by the local participants

We've only got two days to achieve all this(!) and I don't want to parachute in with irrelevant training. I've posted below about the background and opportunities and I'd be happy to get any tips here or off-list.

The time is ripe?

According to the project brief "The time appears ripe for new media projects in Georgia, as the situation with the mainstream media continues to deteriorate. Throughout the region, blogs are underdeveloped - even as Internet usage continues to rise - and knowledge of worldwide trends regarding citizen media is largely missing. Few blogs can be characterized as locally driven and influential, as members of the Diaspora or other Caucasus-watchers operate the majority from abroad".

Decreasing media freedom

Freedom of the media in Georgia is on a downward trend. "Significant problems still remain with press freedom advocates pointing to murky media ownership structures, oppressive Internet policies, restricted information access, harassment of journalists, self-censorship, and the cozy interdependence of the state authorities and media outlets...The media in Georgia are relatively free when compared to neighboring countries; however, international organizations have noted the authorities’ creeping control - both direct and indirect - since the so-called Rose Revolution in 2003".

Potential for new media

On the other hand, both the recent war and opposition demonstrations have revealed some of the latent potential for social media to have an impact: after the war with Russia over the disputed region of South Ossetia "many Georgians turned to the Internet to find information not provided by the country’s three major stations. Youtube, for example, provided video of Gori being bombed and other shots unavailable on Georgian media, some of it filmed by normal people with their mobile phones - true citizen journalism". And "the Resistance Georgia blog was launched one day after the Georgian authorities forcibly broke up the 7 November opposition demonstrations, and subsequently attracted numerous citizens with diverse opinions. The discussions, impressions, rumors, and analysis posted on the site helped to better shape on the ground coverage of the unfolding events, and after only a week, even The New York Times was quoting it".

Online civil society

There's a strong interest in developing an online civic space where there can be level-headed discussion of controversial topics across communities. Ahgain, there are positive signs: "another interesting blog, run by a Georgian refugee from Abkhazia, attracts an average of 1,261 visitors a day. Showing the strength of the interactive blog format, the blogger Sukhimi is able to discuss issues surrounding the frozen conflict in Abkhazia with Abkhaz, Russians, and Georgians, all at the same time. The discussions are generally lively and vibrant, and provide valuable insight into what the dialogue between the conflicting sides looks like".

But like most other places the existing NGO sector seems poorly prepared to make the most of the digital opportunities: "many throughout the civil society and NGO sector are unfamiliar with these new technologies, do not understand how to use them effectively, or lack tools for their particular setting. Despite the growth of new media in recent years, NGOs have yet to adjust their outreach strategies, ignoring the possibility of using platforms such as blogging and social networking sites to promote their activities and research, in the process attracting members of the younger generation".

Looking for impact

My starting point for digital impact is to match the memes (patterns) of the social web to the faultlines of the social situation. In other words, how can the power of the web to increase transparency or organise mass collaboration be used to strengthen civil society.

Of course the best way to do this is with inspiring examples, like the ones we used in the workshop on 'Interactive Tech Tools for Transparency' in Riga a few months ago. I want to show how straightforward it can be to assemble an online campaign from the giant toolkit that the web has become.

Mashups and Mobilisation

Mashups are great next step because they combine compelling visualisation with the potential for engagement that we also explored in 'Crowdsourcing for transparency'. Here in the UK, initiatives like Mash the State and Tony Hirst's Googledoc ninja skills are starting to put the power of mashups in the hands of the non-programmer. (Tony's gone in to overdrive recently with the data on UK Members of Parliament's expenses).

And it's the potential for engagement and mobilisation that the social web offers to nascent social movements, especially in an environment where discontent is high. I want to shift the conversation in Tbilisi from 'websites' to the social web as a cloud of possibilities for participative campaigning. How much that applies to the online and offline situation in Georgia is something I hope to learn when I'm there.

Twitter activism and repression

The spectrum of online campaigning was well represented in our Riga workshop, from the sophisticated probing of MySociety projects to the guerilla activism of the Tunisian blogosphere. But in Tbilisi I plan to explore more about Twitter activism, examples of which are breaking out all over the place. Those sterling folk at DigiActive have produced a Guide to Twitter for Activism which is a good starting point. The reality becomes more complex when contesting claims that recent protests in Moldova were a Twitter Revolution. And Guatemalan police recently arrested someone for a tweet they claimed was "inciting financial panic" - in reality, the twittering was part of a widespread & outraged response to the assassination of a lawyer for threatening to expose government corruption.

Social innovation and civic futures

Although online campaigning is of interest to both journalists and NGOs, the real innovations will come from people thinking outside of those disciplines. If the web is going to catalyse in Georgia then people need to to think differently and feel more empowered.
In the UK we've pioneered SocIal Innovation Camps to unlock the potential of the internet to deliver different solutions to social problems. I'm co-organising a SICamp for CEE countries in Bratislava in September, and while there's no space in Tbilisi for that, it'd be good to run a version of the 'SICamp express' that we use at meetups.

Journalism and tipping points

One big win of doing the training alongside Kevin is that we'll be able to cover the blurred zone where mainstream & social media collide with online activism. The events around the G20 protests in London are an interesting case study which has challenged the previous dynamic of police impunity on protests. It sounds like civil rights in Georgia may be approaching a critical point and there's a chance that new media can help tip the balance the right way. At the very least I hope the participants in the training come away with an idea of what's possible, feeling inspired and feeling able to act on that. Your thoughts, as ever, very welcome.

Tbilisi by pazavi There is a Creative Commons license attached to this image.

Crowdsourcing for transparency in Central & Eastern Europe

This weekend I'll be running a workshop for Transitions Online in Prague. It kicks off for a year long initiative to give NGOs in Central & Eastern Europe the web tools and strategies to promote transparency, anti-corruption & good governance. I think it's a pretty cool project because it's tapping into internet memes like crowdsourcing and applying them in a context where there's an urgent social need.

The project is also trying to seed learnings from the USA (Sunlight Foundation) and UK (mySociety) and build on local initiatives like Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza appealing to its readers to report on their experiences of Polish maternity wards.

I think it's vital that young civil society organisations learn to use the power of the web. I'll be passing on what I've learned about social media campaigning, but I'm also trying to think of other ways that these groups can get ideas and support. Maybe finding mentors from more experienced groups, maybe encouraging them to join UnLtdWorld as a way to stay in touch and find friendly help. Any other ideas gratefully received.

More details from the Transitions Online project spec:

Project: Interactive Tech Tools for Better Transparency

Project duration: 12 months

This year-long initiative seeks to provide NGOs in the new member states of the EU (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Bulgaria) with web tools and strategies that will better enable them to promote transparency and good governance norms in their respective countries. The Internet is a powerful tool for the dissemination of information to the public and policymakers; however, NGOs in this region have been slow to adopt Internet-based approaches and, as a result, a great deal of their socially-useful research remains unavailable or poorly organized, having limited influence on public policy.

In addition, rarely, if ever, have NGOs used innovative Internet approaches to recruit their members or the larger public into data collection or analysis – though these approaches have started to undercover public wrongdoing in North America and parts of Western Europe.

The core project activities include a training seminar in Prague, drawing together representatives from various NGOs in the region; three pilot projects to test the strategies discussed at the seminar; the creation of an e-learning course; and a closing evaluation meeting in Riga to access the lessons learned over the course of the year.

The pilot projects will take the form of "watchblogs" or online monitoring sites tracking key issues of importance, as well as a website aggregating the affiliated watchblogs and collecting feedback from participating organizations and the wider public. The watchblogs will be modeled after successful corruption-combating projects like, a website tracking the sources and uses of money to influence officials in the United States, and, a non-partisan resource monitoring the development of legislation, issues before Congress, and Congress members' votes. These and other similar projects have been sponsored by the Sunlight Foundation , an organization that harnesses the power of the Internet to help citizens better understand and monitor what their elected officials are doing.

The proposed project also aims to acquaint NGOs with the concept of crowdsourcing as a potentially valuable strategy "specifically, recruiting the aid of the public in the analysis of data. Crowdsourcing has been effectively used by NGOS and journalists to promote transparency in the United States over the past several years: since 2006, the Sunlight Foundation, in coordination with other NGOs and newspapers, has invited the public to help uncover which members of Congress sponsor secret spending earmarks that direct taxpayers' dollars to personally-motivated projects (see: After a bill strengthening the Freedom of Information Act was blocked from reaching the Senate because an unknown senator placed a secret hold on it, the Society of Professional Journalists asked journalists across the country to poll their senators in order to discover who had placed the hold. (see: ). These techniques are especially useful for under-resourced organizations that would never be able to conduct such investigations on their own.

As of yet, the technique has been underutilized in Central/Eastern Europe, with one notable exception: in the summer of 2006, the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza appealed to its readers to report on their experiences of Polish maternity wards. The paper received 40,000 reviews of care standards, which were fact-checked by a team of 170 editors and volunteers. The project has since spun off into message boards with millions of posts, 200,000 uploaded photos, and local editions.

social innovation and geezer power

Where do you find performance art, geeks, and a bunch of older people with attitude? At last week's 'On the Margins of Technology' Symposium, part of The Not Quite Yet exhibition at SPACE Media arts.

I delivered the keynote presentation, which I've uploaded to slideshare;

I'd never thought about using performance art as a way in to technology, but I'm wondering now if it could be a missing link, a way to open up participation to groups that are far from being digital natives. This came across really strongly as both the exhibition and the symposium had a focus on older people. The flip of perspective to the older age was great as well, because I spend so much time looking at what the kids are up to with tech.

According to Lois Weaver, the use of performance for participation leans on bringing out personal and fantasy elements - there's an overlap in my mind with the general nature of the social web (blogs etc.) and in particular the Alternative Reality Gaming I'm finding so interesting at the moment.

But the biggest buzz of the day for me was The Geezers, a self-run group of senior men from Tower Hamlets who'd worked with artist Loraine Leeson on a project to harness the tidal power of the Thames. I'll leave it to The Geezers to tell their own story (in the words of their 'GeezerPower' leaflet!) - but it was a privilege to encounter them and other sussed participants, such as community mentor Vi Davies from Senior AGE. Basically, The Geezers ROCK - I want to join - where do I sign?


"We are The Geezers, a self-run group of senior men based at Age Concern in Tower Hamlets. Artist Loraine Leeson has been working with us on a project that started as research by Queen Mary University of London into the way that new technologies are normally invented by the young. Older people have more experience of life, yet this knowledge is seldom able to inform technological innovation. We may be past our sell by dates, but we still have a lot to offer - and a special interest in how the world will be for future generations.

When we thought about how technological development might be used to improve life on this planet, it occurred to us that perhaps the tidal flow of the Thames could be used to provide power for London. This isn't new, as centuries ago a water wheel was attached to London Bridge. In our living memories tidal technologies have been developed, but then set aside in favour of wind farms. Now the threat of nuclear energy is on the agenda again. We think it is time to let the Thames power London and we, the Geezers, supported by Loraine and others, intend to make it happen.

We have been doing our research! Starting with the older technology, we visited the water wheels of Three Mills and discovered how they alone could potentially power seventy houses. Between us we know quite a bit about engineering, mechanics, history, politics and the like, so our ideas developed and we took some advice. As a result we went to see a new form of wind turbine at Rainham Marshes which could be adapted to tidal flow, since it can turn in two directions. Then we looked at the Thames Barrier, a ready-made barrage across the river, and ideal for siting a string of turbines, since only a few lanes are used for shipping.

A visualization by the artist has helped bring all these ideas together. We don't intend to stop here however. The next stage will be to find resources to investigate the viability of the technology, look at different designs, consider where it could be sited and what the economic potential could be. We need some specialists on board and perhaps a postgraduate student or two to try things out. Even if we could just provide power for some homes for the elderly, or for the street lighting, that would be an achievement. The world now needs as many sustainable resources as it can get. It's time for GeezerPower.

Geezer Club: Dennis Banks, John Bevan, Eddie Brown, John Day, Tom Diss, John Griffin, Ray Gipson, Bill Hardy, John Hunter, Tony Johnson, Danny Langdon, Ted Lewis, Con McCarthy and Alan Pullen."

More Geezer info from Ray Gipson (ray.gipson AT or Loraine Leeson (l.leeson AT


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).

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."


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