transparency

Beyond Transparency: from Lessig to True Levellers

Lawrence Lessig's New Republic article 'Against Transparency' really rattled the cages of transparency fans and led to a spirited defence from Ellen Miller and Michael Klein, the co-founders of the Sunlight Foundation.

Lessig's opening diatribe is long-winded and sets up some straw men that Miller and Klein dispose of - like saying that transparency will increase cynicism because the public don't have the attention span to make proper judgements. I suspect the need for a complete throwdown comes from his lawyer-genes :)

But IMHO he wins out by addressing the core issue; that the only way to capitalise on transparency to increase trust is to actually change structures. So if we can never be sure whether a certain political donation did or did not influence a vote, we should take donations out of the process altogether. As Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El Fattah tweeted during the debate: "amazing how people r missing the point of @LESSIG article. disclosure useless without changing uderlying dynamics".

Despite the Sunlight folks efforts to 'annually directly train more than a thousand reporters and bloggers on how to use these datasets, tools, and sites to better inform their investigations' their aspirations stop at cleaning up the existing system. In this they follow the democracy geeks at MySociety, believing that current mechanisms would deliver fairness if only they were cleansed of unethical gunk.

For sure, we need transparency around finances, but cash is just a proxy for power. And power is a far trickier thing to map than money; it ranges from the psychological to the physical and involves us all in complex and contradictory networks. Our current institutions accrete power in ways that amplify its abuse while simultaneously producing narratives of denial.

Us liberal Twitterati have flexed our Streisand effect in the last few days to challenge the old trappings of power, in the specific shape of UK libel laws and #Trafigura. One rightful rallying cry for this was the 1688 Bill of Rights. But it's ironic that so many other flaws of our system are still glossed over, despite the fact that in the Putney Debates of 1647 the Levellers were predicting the need for a better system than the one we have.

While Sunlight say "the very idea of exposing government data feeds for outside developers is, at its core, about spurring innovation in the way we all perceive and contextualize data" I'm still troubled by The Unbearable Lightness of Mashups and the increasing tendency of information mashup initiatives to align themselves with the status quo rather than with movements for social change.

Last word goes again to @alaa: "activism that limits its ambition to exposing and reporting is useless if not harmful. work on redefining reality behind what is measured."


Observ. LIII. Of a Flea., from Micrographia by Robert Hooke

Twitter activism in Tbilisi

Next weekend I'll be doing some training for journalists and NGOs in Tbilisi alongside Kevin Anderson (blogs editor for Guardian.co.uk). 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, cyxymu.livejournal.com 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.

Transparency Tech and Riga Rioters

Suddenly, the workshop on 'Interactive Tech Tools for Transparency' I'm leading in Riga in a couple of days (February 5th & 6th) has been given a sharper focus. On January 14th hundreds of demonstrators clashed with riot police in Riga after an anti-government protest. The disillusioned young people involved, fed up with what they see as arrogant and corrupt governance, are ripe for being reached by pro-transparency NGOs. This isn't just the case in Latvia but plays out in different ways across a lot of the Central and Eastern European countries where the NGOs attending our workshop are based.

We'll certainly be accelerating their pilot projects as mySociety's Tony Bowden (handily based in nearby Estonia) will be passing on his experiences of developing the definitive Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow. But as I found out at last year's Crowdsourcing for transparency launch there's an urgent need to boost the way the NGOs mobilize through social media. This time round they'll have the benefit of Nixon McInnes's Anna Carlson taking them through a buzz monitoring and network mapping bootcamp.

Personally, I'm fired up by the potential of Ushahidi-style transparency engines that can be cloned and deployed in different settings; and by engine I mean both the tech and the collaborative model that it embodies. This Latvian blogger seems to think a clampdown on free speech may follow the recent disturbances in Riga. Certainly, whatever tools & techniques the NGOs settle on will get a reality-check from experienced digital activist Sami Ben Gharbia who knows all about repressive regimes. Fascinatingly the same Latvian blogger refers to an emerging youth movement called The Penguins (Pingvini). What are we to make of the fact that their civil disobedience blog sports the Linux penguin..?

Best online bailout responses? Sarcasm, transparency and taking to the streets.

A thread on the Progressive Exchange list asks "What's the best online response to the bailout?". For my money (heh heh) the star is www.buymyshitpile.com, which reckons we should all benefit from the $700bn rescue deal. Use their form to submit bad assets you'd like the US government to take off your hands.

If you like a bit more depth, the Sunlight Foundation has an awesome dynamic visualisation of campaign contributions by the finance, insurance and real estate industries, showing how they peaked as regulatory mechanisms were being dismantled. Click on the play button to see the visualisation, and roll-over the circles to see the industry sector.

Thanks to Nisha from Sunlight for pointing out that they're pressing Congress to make the legislation public and to let citizens comment and review.  While PublicMarkup.org is an admirable tool for online citizen participation, I don't see the decision-makers taking much notice unless they're pushed by offline action as well. One of the (many) amazing things about the 2001 crisis in Argentina was watching respectable members of the middle classes beating down the doors of the banks during the cacerolazos. If the internet is to have a place in the history of the current crisis, it may well be as a tool to for offline organising.

A protest and cacerolazo in 2002. The large sign reads "Thieving banks - give back our dollars".(Photo by Pepe Robles)

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 FollowTheMoney.org, a website tracking the sources and uses of money to influence officials in the United States, and OpenCongress.org, 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: http://earmarkwatch.org/). 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: http://www.spj.org/ogahold.asp ). 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?

GeezerPower

"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 acth.org.uk) or Loraine Leeson (l.leeson AT uel.ac.uk).

 

Syndicate content