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.

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.

Netsquared - the European Remix?


I think Europe badly needs a Netsquared conference and online community, or something like it. NetSquared's mission is 'Remixing the Web for Social Change', and it does this though a framework that includes community blogging, case studies, major conferences and local monthly meetings. It has just held its second major conference , where 350 invited participants gathered to accelerate 21 Projects that were selected by the NetSquared community as having the greatest potential to leverage the social web to create social change.


I was lucky enough to be invited to the first Netsquared conference, which was a buzzing mix of geeks, activists and tech philanthropists. For me, some highlights included Howard Rheingold discussing the way hispanic youth in LA used MySpace to organize against anti-immigrant legislation encountering the Genocide Intervention Network, which is such a good example of a web 2.0 enabled NGO start-up seeing Camp Darfur in Sercond Life and, of course, the workshop on Human Rights and New Communication Technologies where i was a presenter :) (MSNBC published a good overview of the first conference called Can Web 2.0 change the world?)


Of course, there are already some great tech & society conferences in Europe. I recently did a workshop at the eCampaigning Forum which covers a lot of the key issues, but is very tightly focused on professional ecampaigners. I was also impressed by the LIFT conference which had a great diversity of content - but although they were kind enough to give us a platform the 2006 conference to talk about human rights & web 2.0 most of the event lacked any kind of activist edge.


Those of us who have been part of the Netsquared experience can see the need for a similar incubator for web-enabled social change in the UK & Europe. The proposal is to establish project like Netsquared that hits the sweet spot at the overlap of technology & social innovation. The goals would be

  • To stimulate web-enabled social innovation
  • To create a an online-offline community for learning skills, sharing experiences and developing expertise
  • To sustain socially progressive activity through alternative business & organisational models



Creativity and innovation are fundamental to the social web, not least because it empowers initiative at the grassroots level through an architecture of participation. This is attracting a lot of interest and engagement from groups and networks with a social mission. A Netsquared Europe would be well-placed to channel this dynamic and support some strategic development of this field. Tapping in to European movements for social change would also bring a more activist strand to the event.


The conference and community could also address 'the organizational question' i.e. the challenge that Web 2.0 raises for traditional NGOs and non-profits. The many dimensions of this challenge have been spelled out recently by Michael Gilbert in The Permeable Organization , Steve Bridger in Whose cause is it anyway? and Katrin Verclas in Online Communities Redux: Why They Matter to You. Perhaps, like the second Netsquared conference, it could aim to incubate a new generation of web-enabled non-profits that use new forms of organising to deliver more directly on their missions.


Like many other radical innovations, Netsquared Europe will have open source embedded in its genes. Not only because much of the innovation would be impossible without open source tools, but because the DIY attitude of open source software communities is the best innovation paradigm for web-enabled social change. As Karim Lakhani says, the open source model is about "the movement of innovative activity to the edges of organizations and into communities". I think a conference & community like the one proposed in this post, that brings together developers and social change activists, would be a prime site for another open source principle described by Lakhani: "the intersection of firms and communities and the emergence of hybrid models of organizations that blend and blur firms and communities".

I'd like to add a tip from the new programme at NESTA who's strapline is Innovation is a Contact Sport. NESTA Connect "will focus on creating new, unexpected or extreme collaborations - blurring the traditional boundaries between disciplines, organisations and places. We believe such collaboration has the potential to generate radical, transformational innovation." At their Uploading Innovation Event I highlighted the reasons why online innovation and human rights are closely intertwined . A conference like Netsquared Europe could be a great opportunity to creare unexpeted collaborations by mashing up the new wave of social entreprenuers with dedicated networks like The Association for Progressive Communications and young upstarts like the Web Activist Collective .


The success of a project like Netsquared Europe will depend on the collaboration of organisations and networks that already reflect facets of its goals. Take the original Californian tech-visionaries of Netsquared and remix with the professsionalism of the eCampaigning Forum, the European activist focus of Total Tactics, the open source know-how of the Tactical Technology Collective and the enterprise of The School for Social Entrepreneurs and what do you get....?

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