The Unbearable Lightness of Mashups

I was excited to discover Ushahidi.com, 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.