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.

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


Josh Wolf free but citizen journalism under threat

I'm very happy to see that Josh Wolf was set free on April 3rd, and I'm proud to say that this blog featured the 'Free Josh Wolf' banner. However, I've just had a quick scan of Josh's blog and I have a different view about the most important lesson of his imprisonment. His focus is the legal situation of journalists in the States, whereas I see more of a threat to the web as a participative space. The internet has become a tool for social impact, and the most important thing to defend is its use by ordinary citizens.

josh wolf

Josh refused to turn over unpublished video out-takes to a federal grand jury investigating a July, 2005 anti-G8 demonstration which he had covered on his blog. He was never been convicted of a crime. He was held on civil contempt in an effort to coerce him to testify and turn over his unpublished material to a federal grand jury. On February 6th he became longest-incarcerated journalist in U.S. history for refusal to comply with a subpoena on journalistic principles.

The immediate scandal of Josh's case is summed up by Dan Gillmor (a prominent advocate for citizen journlism). In short, the federal governmant blagged jurisdiction his case "using a pretext so flimsy that it would be laughable if the issue wasn’t so serious — it says there’s a federal case because federal tax dollars helped pay for a city police car that was damaged in the demonstration". In fact, it should have been handled at state level, where he would have had protection from imprisonment. So after his release Josh said

Much of the debate has focused on whether or not I am a journalist; this question is nothing more than a distraction and a red herring...The question that needs to be asked is not "Is Josh Wolf a journalist?" but should journalists deserve the same protections in federal court as those afforded them in state courts.

I think the threat is in the question 'who is a journalist'. It's clear that this will be used to divide the deserving from the undeserving. The space for ordinary citizens to use the web to report social issues is already being squeezed. See, for example, the recent French law on filming acts of violence - the implications of which are spelled out by Sami Ben Gharbia :

France’s Constitutional Council passed the Sarkozy law which criminalizes the filming or broadcasting of acts of violence by people other than professional journalists. During the parliamentary debate, government representatives said the law is meant to target a practice known as “happy slapping”, defined in Wikipedia as "a fad in which an unsuspecting victim is attacked while an accomplice records the assault (commonly with a camera phone or a smartphone)." In France, therefore, the filming and broadcasting of acts of violence such as the riots which took place in the Paris suburbs during the month of October and November, 2005, will henceforth be the prerogative of accredited journalists only. Under this new law, any other eyewitness who records acts of violence, or anyone who makes the content available online (the operator of a web site, for instance) could face up to five years' imprisonment and a fine of nearly US$100,000. In an ironic twist, the law was announced on March 3, 2007, exactly 16 years after amateur videographer George Holliday filmed African-American Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police officers. The officers' eventual acquittal in 1992 sparked off riots in the city.

So one way the clampdown comes is in the name of tackling antisocial behaviour. Historically, we've seen this tendency before. The original Public Order Act in the UK was introduced in the 1930's in the name of dealing with Moseley's Blackshirts (the British Fascist movement) - but in the subsequent decades it was used over and over again to suppress civil disobedience and left-wing protests.

My interest is how to defend the use of the internet by people who aren't (as the French law says) 'professional journalists'. Talking to experts on the role of Human Rights Defenders it seems to me that journalists are the ones who get the most attention and protection, both through professional organisations and because global society broadly accepts the role of 'journalist' as something socially necessary. (Note: I don't wish to minimise the specific threat to journalists where that exists e.g. in overtly repressive regimes). But what about all those other segments of society who are learning to use the net to report on social problems that are critical to them?

So, for me, the issue raised by Josh's case is the need to step back from the label 'journalist' and look at why that's seen as a necessary role in civil society. In Josh's first post after being freed he quoted a US Judge Douglas (from a press freedom case in the 1970's) who said "The press has a preferred position in our constitutional scheme, not to enable it to make money, not to set newsmen apart as a favored class, but to bring fulfillment to the public’s right to know". Surely this role is being massively and positively expanded by the blogosphere (one only has to look at Global Voices as an example) and in general by the participative internet (see for example my earlier post UCLA Student Tasered: is YouTube a human rights tool? ). Do we follow the citizen journalism of Dan Gillmor and say "While Wolf’s sympathies may well have been with the demonstrators, he was engaging in journalism when he shot that footage". Or do we just dump the category of journalist all together and find other terms for our right to participate and to be heard? In harsh times, is it enough to be reporters, or do we need to become defenders? Josh quotes the same Judge Douglas as saying

“As the years pass, the power of government becomes more and more pervasive. It is a power to suffocate both people and causes. Those in power, whatever their politics, want only to perpetuate it. Now that the fences of the law and the tradition that protected the press are broken down, the people are the victims".

UPDATE: Mass Digging as Virtual Activism

I see from the Avaaz blog that they're calling on people to digg their Stop the Clash petition. Looks like the digging is going to have to increase by a factor of 10 to make much of an impact - but as shown by the 'gaming' articles linked to in my earlier post on Mass Digging as Virtual Activism , the best tactic may be to target the key diggers for some help.

p.s. Human Rights Watch have also added a 'digg this' link to their news articles.

participative campaigning

'Help us design a direct action to save the whales' is the challenge from this interesting “Defend the whales” campaign from Greenpeace, called I-GO. Although the campaign theme is traditional the process is very different, because it is an open invitation to the public to generate the ideas for the campaign. This looks like a a major NGO trying to engage with the participative nature of the internet, and it's refreshing to see such a big organisation inviting the public to have a say instead of relying on central planning that gets pushed out to activists and volunteers. It's also a forward-looking attempt to harness the power of social networks, since people who register become part of 'a world-wide community of environmental activists' and can rate the action ideas. I think I heard about the underlying technology platform when it was being developed (codenamed 'Melt', as i remember) so it's great to see it live and with such a well designed front-end.greenpeace-igogreenpeace DIY campaign
There's an even more rock'n'roll example of participative campaigning described in detail in Yochai Benkler's book 'The Wealth of Networks' . In a section entitled Networked Information Economy Meets the Public Sphere he describes the emergence from the blogosphere of an effective grassroots campaign against a mass-media outlet (Sinclair Broadcasting) who was transmitting negative propaganda during an election campaign. As Benkler says:
Filtering and synthesis occurred through discussion, trial, and error. Multiple proposals for action surfaced, and the practice of linking allowed most anyone interested who connected to one of the nodes in the network to follow quotations and references to get a sense of the broad range of proposals. Different people could coalesce on different modes of action - 150,000 signed the petition on, while others began to work on the boycott. Setting up the mechanism was trivial, both technically and as a matter of cost - something a single committed individual could choose to do.Pointing and adoption provided the filtering, and feedback about the efficacy, again distributed through a system of cross-references, allowed for testing and accreditation of this course of action.
benkler-chartSinclair stock correlated with campaign

Benkler's blow-by-blow account is really worth a read and conveys the dynamism of self-organised direct action. I guess this is the creativity that Greenpeace wants to tap in to. Although their site says "We need your help to create an amazing campaign that accomplishes the unexpected" it's not clear if the organisation is committing itself to acting on any of the ideas. And maybe that's for the best, because the result seems to be a peer-to-peer swapping of ideas and materials via the site.

Another interesting lesson from Benkler's example is the way that certain well-connected blogs acted as key nodes:
High-visibility sites....offered transmissions hubs that disseminated information about the various efforts and provided a platform for interest-group-wide tactical discussions.

Benkler's further discussion about the connectivity of the blogosphere is nicely visualised in recent blogosphere graphs on Matthew Hurst's 'Data Mining' blog . I suspect that a campaign that's seeking well-formed action ideas would do well to target their call to action through well-connected blogs that reflect the campaign's concerns.

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