… My heart’s in Accra Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

May 28, 2015

The death of Tidbit and why it matters

Filed under: Media Lab — Ethan @ 2:57 pm

The New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs announced today that they had settled their complaint with the developers of “Tidbit”, a prototype piece of software developed by four MIT undergraduates as part of a hackathon. It’s about time. New Jersey made a boneheaded decisions to subpoena these students, and got what they deserved after wasting tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money: nothing.

Oh, the release from the state makes it sound like they’ve made a major step forward in consumer protection. But it’s worth unpacking what the Tidbit developers did, what they didn’t do, why New Jersey pursued the case, and why this matters, even though the case has now been settled.

What was Tidbit?

Tidbit was a prototype system and a thought experiment, designed to challenge the dominant model of supporting content providers online: targeted advertising. Instead of trying to capture your attention with an ad, with resulting revenue supporting the content provider, Tidbit captured spare cycles of your CPU and used them to mine bitcoins. While reading a story, your CPU would become part of the global pool of computers running SHA256 double round hash verification processes to verify and maintain the global transaction ledger, the blockchain, that makes bitcoin a non-duplicative currency. Close the window and you’d stop mining.

Would it have worked? Maybe not – mining bitcoins in the browser isn’t a very efficient process. (If you want to try it, read this article from Quartz, which includes a browser-based ap that allows you to mine. In the unlikely event that you mined a bitcoin, I suspect Quartz would own it through much the process Jeremy Rubin and his colleagues were proposing.) But it’s a very cool challenge to existing, problematic models that monetize your attention. In his blog post explaining the aftermath of the NJ subpoena, Jeremy explains that there were VCs interested in the idea and willing to fund further developments. Or perhaps Tidbit would have turned into a payment system using dedicated hardware, he speculates. We can’t know because the New Jersey subpoena led the students to stop all work on the project.

What Tidbit wasn’t was a system that hijacked people’s computers and forced them to mine bitcoins. The code Jeremy and colleagues released was a proof of concept which was not capable of actually mining bitcoins. New Jersey alleges that the Tidbit code was found running on three websites registered in New Jersey – Jeremy and his counsel note that the Tidbit code could not actually mine bitcoins, and was available online briefly. It’s possible to imagine scenarios where Tidbit’s code was downloaded and modified to hijack people’s computers, but it’s hard to see how that modified code could be blamed on Jeremy and his team.

So why did New Jersey take action against a student project?

New Jersey’s acting attorney general, insisting that his intention was not to stifle innovation, offered this reason for issuing the subpoena: “No website should tap into a person’s computer processing power without clearly notifying the person and giving them the chance to opt out – for example, by staying away from that website.”

It’s not hard to imagine scenarios in which unethical website operators run Tidbit-like scripts to hijack unsuspecting browsers into giving up CPU cycles. You don’t have to imagine – it happened. New Jersey prosecuted E-Sports Entertainment, which used malicious code to hijack 14,00 computers and use them to mine bitcoins. The company settled with the state for $1 million dollars. It’s possible that New Jersey thought Tidbit was heading down the same path and saw a chance to carry out a similar prosecution.

But there’s no evidence that the Tidbit team intended to hijack anyone’s system. In fact, the acting director of New Jersey’s consumer affairs director states clearly, in his press release about the settlement, “We do not believe Tidbit was created for the purpose of invading privacy.” (Indeed, New Jersey’s concerns seem to be about user autonomy.) Still, New Jersey subpoenaed the Tidbit team, and suggested that Rubin and others might face charges under the state’s Computer Related Offenses Act and Consumer Fraud Act, evidently because they believed “This potentially invasive software raised significant questions about user privacy and the ability to gain access to and potentially damage privately owned computers without the owners’ knowledge and consent.” Further, the press release states, “A New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs investigation has found that, despite initial assertions by Tidbit’s developer, the software was used to gain access to computers owned by persons in New Jersey, without the computer owners’ knowledge or consent.” Rubin, in his post about the settlement, insists that a five minute inspection of his code by a competent investigator, would have determined that his code could not have been used in this way.

What happened once the subpoena was issued?

Faced with the possibility of serious fraud charges, Rubin and his team stopped working on the project and sought support from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, where Hanni Fakhoury led Tidbit’s defense. Fakhoury’s argument centered on the idea that the New Jersey AG was engaged in jurisdictional overreach, seeking information on a Massachusetts-based project based on the assertion that the tool had been downloaded and (mis)used in New Jersey. MIT faculty, graduate students and administration wrote to the New Jersey Attorney General raising concerns about the ways the New Jersey subpoena could harm innovation on university campuses around the country.

Judge Gary Furnari of the Essex County Superior Court declined the EFF’s motion to quash the subpoena, but expressed strong reservations and “serious concerns” that the state’s actions might discourage the development of new technologies. Judge Furnari expressed his opinion that
it appeared “the Tidbit program and other similar creative endeavors serve a useful and legitimate purpose” and had no inherent malicious intent.

Perhaps the judge’s caution led New Jersey to settle with Rubin and his colleagues. Despite the triumphal language of the New Jersey AG’s press release, Rubin and his team admitted no wrongdoing, paid no fine, and released a minimum of information (a total of two domain names). Basically, the settlement binds the students to obey the law, at the risk of a significant financial penalty… the situation they, and all other citizens, faced before New Jersey issued this subpoena.

Why does this matter?

First, it matters because Rubin and his colleagues went through a terrible experience. Once the team faced possible legal action, investors backed away from the project and the students were no longer willing to work on the project, fearing further complications. In addition to working through MIT’s notoriously demanding undergraduate curriculum, the students spent their “free time” working with the EFF and other lawyers, worried that their work on Tidbit would lead to fines and fraud charges. Their reward for thinking outside the box was a year-long trip through a Kafka-esque bureaucratic morass.

Second, it matters because New Jersey’s actions have likely chilled development along the lines Tidbit was exploring. Whether or not browser-based bitcoin mining was a viable replacement for advertising-supported content, New Jersey sent a signal that they might lash out at any technology that attempted to enlist a user’s machine in mining, even if the user consented to the exchange. Acting Attorney General Hoffman’s insistence that New Jersey is not trying to hobble innovation cannot be taken seriously, as the direct result of the state’s overreach was the death of the Tidbit project and the clear sign to other innovators that this line of thought was a dangerous one to follow.

Third, the Tidbit case matters because it revealed a situation most universities are ill-prepared to handle: the moment when an innovative project puts students into serious legal trouble. Much of our federal and state legislation around computer crime is so badly written and vague that any number of student projects could conceivably lead to criminal charges. My students routinely scrape websites to collect analyzable data sets – as we learned at tragic cost in the case of Aaron Swartz, an overzealous prosecutor can argue that this sort of data collection is theft on a massive scale.

What should universities do?

What should a university do if a project like Tidbit were created as a class project? (Tidbit was created at a non-MIT hackathon by MIT students.) What are the responsibilities of faculty and administrators if students get into legal trouble in the course of their educational work? Rubin sought the EFF’s support with guidance from the MIT general counsel, as the counsel represents the Institute, not students or faculty at the university. Colleagues and I were concerned that MIT had no direct way to support students in situations like Jeremy’s and brought our concerns to President Reif. He responded quickly and the Institute is working towards creating a new set of legal resources for students around the freedom to innovate. (I’ve been involved with the process, and can report that there’s been a great deal of progress, which I hope will be announced soon.)

Other universities need to start building strategies to defend their students… and soon. The combination of badly written computer crime laws and the spread of entrepreneurial culture to campuses suggests that more students will put forward ideas that lead towards legal challenges. Whether these are ideas designed to be explored solely within the classroom, or in the entrepreneurial/VC/startup space, I think it’s important for academic advisors to think about how we can protect and advise students on the legal challenges that may arise. As someone who teaches and advises students, I don’t want to encourage students to climb high without a legal safety net.

Furthermore, universities need to take the lead in protecting the freedom to innovate and combatting overbroad laws like the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and New Jersey’s Computer Related Offenses Act. As we encourage students to invent and create, we have a responsibility to ensure that they are operating in a legal environment that encourages creativity rather than shutting down promising lines of research before their impact is clear. We’re convening a discussion at MIT on this topic on October 10th and 11th, 2015. If you want to take part, please let me know via email or via the comment section of the blog.


For further reading on the Tidbit case, please see:

April 22, 2015

Introducing FOLD, a new tool (and a new model?) for storytelling

Filed under: ideas,Media,Media Lab — Ethan @ 8:00 am

This morning, Center for Civic Media at MIT is releasing a new publishing platform, FOLD. Alexis Hope (a Masters student in my lab) and Kevin Hu began working on FOLD when they were students in my class News and Participatory Media. The class asks students to take on a reporting task each week, using existing tools or building new ones to solve a particular challenge. FOLD was Alexis and Kevin’s solution to a challenge I put forward around writing “explainers”, articles designed to provide content for stories that give incremental updates to a larger story (and to develop an appetite for those stories based on deeper understanding of their significance.)

Alexis and Kevin took seriously an idea I put forward in the class – the idea of explainers with an accordion structure, capable of shrinking or expanding to meet a reader’s need for background information. Alexis and Kevin built a story that could compress into a list of half a dozen sentences, inflate to a six-paragraph essay, or expand further into a rich multimedia essay with maps, images and videos appearing alongside the text. The class loved the idea, and Alexis decided to take on developing the platform as her Masters thesis. Kevin continued collaborating with her while pursuing a different project for his thesis, and Joe Goldbeck joined the team as a lead developer.

FOLD Authoring preview from Alexis Hope on Vimeo.

What’s emerged after a year’s work is fascinating and full-featured tool that allows for a novel method of storytelling. Stories on FOLD have a trunk and leaves. The trunk is text, with a novel form of hyperlinks – instead of linking out, they link to cards that appear to the right of the trunk and show images, videos, maps, data visualizations. They can also contain other text or links to the web. This has the effect of encouraging massive linking within stories – rather than a link potentially leading someone away from your webpage, it builds a stronger and richer story on the site.

While I’ve had the pleasure of advising Alexis on her thesis, FOLD is emphatically not my project – had you asked me a year ago, I would have told you that the last thing the world needs is a new content management system. But it’s been fascinating to try writing on FOLD and discovering the ways in which it’s a tool I’ve wanted and needed for years. I often write posts with hyperlinks every other sentence and trust my readers to check those links to understand the whole story… while realizing, of course, that very few do. FOLD brings those references to the front, capturing some of your attention in your peripheral visionas you read the core, trunk text. It’s incredibly easy to add media to a story in FOLD, and I find that when I write on the platform, I’m far more likely to include rich imagery and video, which makes my stories visualizable and understandable in a very different way than blog posts.

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 1.11.58 PM

Alexis, Kevin and Joe are launching FOLD without a clear business model. I think that’s a good thing. I don’t think we know what FOLD is good for yet, and I think that’s exciting. It’s possible that FOLD becomes an alternative to platforms like Medium, a place that encourages people to write beautifully on a beautiful platform. Perhaps it becomes something like WordPress, which hosts content for millions of people as well as maintaining an incredibly robust platform for independent publishers. (Not only are we releasing FOLD as a platform, but as an open source codebase.) Maybe it’s a tool for a radically new form of writing, perhaps stronger for literary than journalistic writing. Maybe some of the ideas of the platform are adopted into other systems and the influence of Alexis, Kevin and Joe’s thinking spreads that way. We don’t know, and that’s exciting.

For me, personally, I’ve loved the experience of seeing something cool and potentially influential coming out of our lab that wasn’t my idea and which I’ve helped guide, but emphatically haven’t built. This feels like a shift in how I’m trying to work in the world, and one I’m starting to get comfortable with.

Like many people of my generation, I’ve changed jobs several times in the past twenty years. Rather than switching firms, I’ve also shifted careers, moving from a dotcom startup to founding an international volunteering agency, to academic research (and co-founding another NGO) and finally, at age 39, to teaching at the graduate level at MIT.

When you change careers, some skills transfer, and some don’t. The shift from research to teaching was far sharper than I’d expected. There’s an unkind saying, “Those who can’t do, teach.” I’d offer a rewrite: “Teaching well forces you to stop doing things, and focus on helping others do things.” I build less, and write less, than before I came to MIT. But I coach more, listen more, and I’m starting to love the experience of watching projects I help advise coming to life.


Glyph from Savannah Niles’s story about Cuba

One of the most beautiful stories I’ve seen produced with FOLD is “What You Need to Know About the Cuban Thaw”, written by Savannah Niles (also for my News and Participatory Media class.) The story is illustrated with animated, looping GIFs, produced with a tool Savannah has been building for her thesis called Glyph. I’m one of the readers on Savannah’s thesis, and while I’ve thought these images were very beautiful, I didn’t understand what they were for until I saw them in this story. They add a sense of motion and life to stories without interrupting the reading experience as videos end up doing. This experience of supporting work I don’t understand and then discovering why it’s important – with Glyph, with FOLD, with dozens of projects around the Media Lab and in my broader work on Civic Media – is one of the most exciting experiences of my career.

I hope you’ll give FOLD a try and help us figure out what it’s for. Let us know what works, what doesn’t, what you want and where you think the project should go.

April 14, 2015

The Civic Statuary Project

Filed under: CFCM,ideas,Media,Media Lab — Ethan @ 1:28 pm

The University of Cape Town removed a controversial statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes last week, after a month of student protests. Rhodes, who build the De Beers diamond empire, was an unrepentant imperialist whose wealth came from purchasing mineral rights from indigenous leaders and turning their territories into British protectorates. Under his rule in Cape Colony, many Africans lost the right to vote, a step which some scholars see as leading to enforced racial segregation in South Africa. While Rhodes made major donations to charitable causes – including the land the University of Cape Town sits on – his legacy is a challenging and difficult one for many South Africans.

A month ago, student activist Chumani Maxwele emptied a bucket of excrement on the Rhodes statue on the UCT campus. Subsequent protests against the statue including wrapping it in black plastic, smearing it with paint and covering it with graffiti. When the statue was pulled down, protesters beat it with belts and chains as it was hauled away.

beatingrhodes

Protests against the Rhodes statue received widespread support online, spawning the hashtag #RhodesMustFall, and inspiring other attacks on statues throughout South Africa. Statues of Queen Victoria and George V have been splashed with paint in Point Elizabeth and Durban. Statues of Afrikaner leaders and Boer War generals have been targeted as well. The attack that’s received the most international attention was a defacement of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Johannesburg, part of a protest that argued that the revered activist had worked with the British colonial government in South Africa to promote segregation.

Statues are one of the oldest forms of figurative art, dating back at least to 40,000 BCE with the Lion man of the Hohlenstein Stadel. In ancient Egypt, Pharaohs were memorialized with Sphinxes, massive limestone statues that dominated the landscape – we might think of these as the first civic sculptures, public art designed to honor religious and political leaders. Fifteen hundred years later, Greek sculptors- who had previously portrayed mythological figures – began honoring political leaders in bronze and marble.

Statues erected for civic reasons are also torn down for civic reasons. Seven days after the Declaration of Independence was signed, General Washington’s troops tore down a statue of King George III that had been erected in 1770 in Bowling Green, a small greenspace at the southern tip of Manhattan Island. The decision to tear the statue down was practical as well as symbolic – the two tons of lead in the statue were turned into 42,000 musket balls for the use of revolutionary soliders. Statues of leaders who’ve been ousted are often torn down, sometimes spontaneously, sometimes with the help of conquering armies.

US marines pull down a statue of saddam hussein on
Statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square, Baghdad, torn down by the US marines.

It’s not only political leaders whose statues fall. In the wake of revelations about widespread sexual abuse by Penn Statue football coaches, a statue of Joe Paterno was removed by the university. The decision to remove the Paterno statue has been controversial, and a crowdfunding campaign has raised funds for a new Paterno statue in downtown State College, Pennsylvania, two miles from the university campus.

While statues are one of the oldest forms of civic artwork and technology (their only rival for age is the cave painting), they still gain attention when people erect them today… especially when they are erected without permission. On April 6th, a small group of artists placed a bronze-colored bust of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden atop a pedestal in Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn. By mid-afternoon, the bust had been covered with tarpaulins, and later that day, it was removed entirely. The bust took over six months to construct, and cost tens of thousands of dollars to design and deploy.

snowden projection

Frustrated by the brief lifespan of the Snowden statue, The Illuminator Art Collective – a group of artists not related to the original sculptors – projected a hologram-like image of Snowden on a cloud of smoke behind the pillar. The Snowden projection is part of a tradition of artistic intervention that has used projection to create provocative art in public spaces. Polish-American artist Krzysztof Wodiczko has used projections to bring statues “to life”, turning static war memorials into active spaces for the discussion of war and peace.

(Projection is a powerful tactic for civic activism – see Hologramas Por La Libertad, which is using projections of street protests against the side of the Spanish parliament to make a point about new laws that strongly restrict public protest. But this is a story about statues, not projections, so we’ll honor the effort and move on.)

A few days before the Snowden statue and projection, we found ourselves discussing civic statues in our lab, Center for Civic Media. The issue came up not because we were having a deep discussion about the nature of statuary, but because we moved a worktable revealing an open area that might students and I thought might be perfect for a statue. We began talking about the idea of a statue that could be rapidly deployed, which could change to honor different people at different times, and which would inspire discussion about why someone was being honored as a civic hero.

We built a prototype civic statue using an old projector and a sheet of optical rear projection acrylite. (The Media Lab is the sort of place where sheets of acrylite are just kicking around and folks like Dan Novy are generous enough to lend them out.) For our demo, I decided we would honor Professor Attahiru Jega, chairman of Nigeria’s election commission, which had just conducted a presidential election widely regarded as free and fair in which the incumbent president was defeated. Nigerians on all sides of the political spectrum honored Jega’s role in administering a fair election, and “Jega” began to emerge as slang for being chill, calm and avoiding conflict: “20 people showed up for dinner at his house unexpectedly, but he was totally Jega about it and sent out for chicken.”

This week is the Media Lab member week, where sponsors come to visit our labs and see our projects. We decided to rapidly prototype the statue so we could show it off, with some simple design constraints:

– It should be quickly deployable, easy to set up and move
– It should be relatively inexpensive (our target is a standalone programmable statue that costs under $500)
– It shouldn’t require a specialized photo shoot – it should use available imagery
– It should prompt discussion within the group hosting the statue about who should be honored and how

As we thought about who to honor, I came across this tweet from my friend Liz Henry:

As it turns out, that brave and awesome man was Feidin Santana, a 23-year old Dominican immigrant who heard Walter Scott being tazed and captured footage of his shooting by police officer Michael Slager. As with Prof. Jega, we found an image online, masked it and added text to form a plaque. Savannah Niles, who is working on a project to build smoothly looping animated GIFs that she calls Glyphs, went a step further and built a statue of Santana that moves, subtly.

savannah from Ethan Zuckerman on Vimeo.

Niles explains what a Glyph is, showing the statue of Feidin Santana

Our prototype raises as many questions as it answers. Some are practical: Should this be a single unit, perhaps using a mirror to bounce the projection onto the screen? Will this work only in dim, interior spaces? Others focus on the community aspects: How do we decide who to honor? We held a brief email exchange about who we might feature, and quickly realized that there’s a real problem when people disagree about who should be honored. We’re working on a system that will allow people to propose candidates and select people to be honored by acclaim, rather than by fiat, which is how we selected Prof. Jega, Feidin Santana and feminist scholar and activist Anita Sarkeesian as our first three honorees.

As we work on this project in the long term, I’m interested in taking on a richer and deeper set of questions: What are statues for in a digital age? Is the rapid deployment and impermanence of these statues a feature or a bug? Can new types of statues help challenge long-standing gender and racial disparities in who we honor?

The civic statuary project is an experiment, and we may or may not continue it beyond showcasing it at this members’ meeting. But this question of how societies honor their civic heroes is a rich one, and I hope this experiment – and this blog post – opens conversations about who and how we memorialize.

February 11, 2015

Helping Launch the NetGain Challenge

Filed under: Developing world,Geekery,Human Rights,Media Lab,newcivics — Ethan @ 2:28 pm

This morning, I’m at the Ford Foundation in New York City as part of the launch event for NetGain. NetGain is a new effort launched by the Mozilla, Ford, Open Society, Macarthur and Knight Foundations, to bring the philanthropic community together to tackle the greatest obstacles to digital rights, online equality and the use of the internet to promote social justice.

The event is livestreamed here – in a moment, you can head Tim Berners-Lee and Susan Crawford in conversation about the future of the web.

For the past six months, I’ve been working with Jenny Toomey and Darren Walker at Ford, John Palfrey at Phillips Andover, and friends at these different foundations to launch the NetGain challenges. We’re asking people around the world to propose difficult problems about the open internet that they think governments and companies have not been able to solve. We’re collecting these challenges at NetGainChallenge.org, and asking participating foundations to take the lead on one or more challenges, coordinating a new set of investments in tackling that problem.

I had the privilege of introducing a session at this morning’s event about these challenges. It was an Ignite talk, which means I probably didn’t manage to say all the words I have listed below. But this is what I was trying to say:


45 years ago, the first message was sent over the internet, between a computer at UCLA and one at Stanford University.

25 years ago, Tim Berners-Lee turned the internet from a tool for academics into something most of us use every day, by making it easy to publish and read online – he created the World Wide Web.

What’s followed on Sir Tim’s invention is a transformation of the ways we work, play, shop, argue, protest, give, learn and love.

Given the amazing transformations we’ve seen, it’s easy to forget that the internet is a long, ongoing experiment. The internet as we know it is the result of trying new things, seeing how they break, and working to fix them.

The first message sent on the internet was “login”, as Charley Kline and Len Kleinrock at UCLA were trying to log into a machine at Stanford. They only managed to transmit the letters “lo”, then the system crashed. An hour later, they had it up again and managed to transmit the whole message.

On the internet, we have a long tradition of trying things out, screwing up, fixing what’s broken and moving forward.

Twenty five years into the life of the World Wide Web, there are amazing successes to celebrate: a free encyclopedia in hundreds of world languages, powerful tools for sharing breaking news and connecting with old friends, platforms that help us organize, agitate and push for social justice.

But alongside our accomplishments, there’s still lots that’s broken.

In building an internet where most content and services are free, we’ve also adopted a business model that puts us under perpetual surveillance by advertisers. Worse, our communications are aggregated, analyzed and surveilled by governments around the world.
The amazing tools we’ve built for learning and for sharing ideas are far easier and cheaper to access in the developed world than in the developing world – we’re still far from the dream of a worldwide web.

We’ve built new public spaces online to discuss the issues of the day, but those discussions are too rarely civil and productive. Speaking online often generates torrents abuse, especially when women speak online.

Despite Sir Tim’s vision of a decentralized web, there’s a huge concentration of control with a few companies that control the key platforms for online speech. And as we use the web to share, opine and learn, quickly losing our legacy, erasing this vast new library as fast as we write it.

These problems may well be unsolveable. But it’s possible that we’ve been waiting for the wrong people to solve them.

In 1889, Andrew Carnegie gave money to build a public library in Braddock, Pennsylvania, the first of 1,689 libraries he funded in the US. These were not just spaces that allowed people to feed their minds, but in many towns, the only spaces open to men, women, children and people of all races.

Newspapers and the publishing houses made knowledge available to those who could afford it, but Carnegie made it available to everyone.

As television became a fixture in the nation’s homes in the 1950s, the Ford Foundation worked with other philanthropists to build a public television system in the US, ensuring that this powerful new medium was used to educate and enlighten as well as to entertain

The foundations here aren’t going to be able to put internet into every home the way Carnegie brought libraries to every town. But there are problems philanthropy can tackle in unique ways that provide solutions that go beyond what corporations or governments can do on their own.
That’s what led us to the idea of the grand challenge. We’re drawing inspiration here from Google’s moonshots and from the XPrize Foundation. More importantly, we’re taking guidance from the people we work with everyday, on the front lines of social innovation, to identify the challenges we need to overcome to for the internet to be a true tool for justice and social inclusion

The speakers you’re about to hear aren’t here with solutions: they’re going share with us the thorny problems they’re working to solve. We’re asking each foundation that’s a member of Netgain to take the lead on one of these and other challenges, convening the smartest people in the field, our partners, our grantees, our beneficiaries to understand what we can do together to tackle these deep and persistent problems.

These aren’t the only challenges we need to tackle. We need to hear from you about what problems we can take on and what brilliant guides – like nine speakers we’re about to hear from – can help us navigate our way through these challenges.

We’re taking this high-risk strategy of aiming at the toughest problems because even if we fall short of our goals, we think we’ll make enormous progress by working together. Every six months, we plan to bring our community together, convene around a grand challenge and start a process of collaboration and experimentation. We may only get to “lo” before we crash, restart and rebuild. But every time we do, we’ll be moving towards a web that’s more open, more just, more able to transform our world for the better.


Please join us at NetGainChallenge.org and help us identify the challenges we should be taking on.

November 20, 2014

Partners In Health at the MIT Media Lab – design challenges around Ebola

Filed under: Media Lab — Ethan @ 8:04 pm

Today’s Media Lab Conversations involves Ophelia Dahl and Dr. Megan Murray from Partners in Health with Joi Ito and David Sengeh from the Media Lab. The topic is understanding Ebola, and we’re learning about the disease to see if there’s anything the Media Lab can do to help organizations like Partners in Health combat the spread of the disease.

Ophelia Dahl, the executive director, of Partners in Health begins by noting that when she began her work in Haiti decades ago, audiences were less welcoming and receptive to these issues. With Paul Farmer, the organization was designed to respond to situations like the one in Haiti, where there was a complete dearth of health services available.

Partners in Health is not a disaster relief organization. While it addresses the everyday disaster of poverty, which has massive health impacts, and while they are often critical first responders to natural disasters, they are structured very differently. Because they work in countries like Haiti over long periods of time, they had doctors, platforms and a supply chain already in place. “We focus on systems,” she explained, which made them particularly well suited to help with Ebola. The organization has a home in Boston and partners closely with local academic institutions to train and prepare medical researchers and professionals to understand these complex health situations.

Dahl reminds us that Ebola is named after a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and that we’ve seen several outbreaks over the years. None of those outbreaks killed more than a few hundred people. This outbreak, starting in Guinea and spreading into Liberia, Sierra Leone has killed at least 8,000 people, and likely many more. A hallmark of this disease is that it spreads from patients to caregivers, and as people in rural areas have moved to urban areas to seek care, it’s moved into large cities.

There’s a tendency to think of Ebola as a death sentence. The high fatality rate – almost 70% – has an underlying cause: the weak, and now collapsed, healthcare system in these countries. Our collective failure to treat patients explains the death rate. Patients who contracted Ebola in the US have all survived – this is a disease that can be survived with proper medical care. That proper treatment is not complicated. It’s about staying hydrated and managing electrolytes. Most critical is good nursing care.

Dahl recently returned from West Africa where she talked to several survivors of Ebola. The survivors were young, had been in good health before the disease, and probably survived due to luck and their strength, not because they received especially good care. Many of these survivors had been caretakers to their families, and watched family members die before they contracted the disease. Hiring these survivors is key to Partners in Health’s strategy. Not only will they have immunities and a deep understanding of the virus, but creating strong healthcare jobs for these survivors is a way to combat the stigma of the disease.

The system that is weak and has collapsed means that more people are dying from the systemic effects of Ebola on the healthcare system, not from the disease directly. There’s not a single place open for women to deliver their children when a country is facing a crisis like this. Countries face a massive set of problems in the wake of Ebola since there’s not a functioning maternal health system, an emergency medical system or really any community care at this point. The resilience of health systems in the face of emergency, like the marathon bombings in Boston, is radically different than the situation on the ground in West Africa.

Dahl shows us a treatment center in tents, and a teaching hospital – Hopital Universitaire de Mirebalais – a hospital Partners in Health helped build in only three years. Linking these treatment centers to these teaching hospitals is a key step we need to take.

She shows us the gear healthcare workers are wearing – it looks like foul-weather gear worn on a ship, and features three pairs of gloves. Imagine finding a vein in a dehydrated patient with those gloves on, sweating – finding better personal protective gear is one of the first steps that needs to be taken.

Dr. Megan Murray, of Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, and Partners in Health, explains that the disease is so new to the medical community that people are still working out the proper treatment protocols. In these countries, what’s emerging is a three-tiered system of care. Countries are building tent-based Ebola treatment units, often in major cities, where labs can test samples and perform diagnosis. These centers are expensive to set up, and they’re often far from the communities where patients live.

The second tier of support is community care centers, places where patients are isolated from their communities so they don’t inflect their caregivers. Unfortunately, these have been really bad places, places where people go to and die – they have operational and image problem if they want to serve the populations they seek to help. At an even more grassroots level, community health leaders are working on screening and contact tracking, helping identify the people who are likely to have the disease for treatment at ETUs and CCCs. In terms of innovation, Partners in Health is looking for innovation in diagnostics and treatment at the ETU and CCC level, and in epidemeology and vaccines at the community level.

The fatality rate on Ebola, between 50-70%, is more fatal than anything else we’ve seen in the public health sector. The challenge is improving those rates in the ETUs and CCCs while maintaining personal protection for the caregivers. The care isn’t that hard – it’s about providing IV fluids. But it’s hard to get caregivers to safely put in an IV line, and when people become delirious, it’s hard to get people to stop pulling out those IV lines. Centers end up trying to care using oral rehydration salts, but Ebola patients can lose 10 liters of fluid a day, and that cannot be replaced with oral rehydration.

One path towards technological innovation would be finding better ways to track fluid and electrolyte status. That generally involves frequent blood draws, which puts healthcare workers at risk. One possibility is using a transdermal microneedle sensor, which was initially designed by a US scientist to monitor dehydration in athletes. The inventor has been completely willing to deploy it in new contexts, and Dr. Murray sees this as a great example of moving useful technology into a new context.

Another problem is ensuring dignity and comfort by allowing access to relatives. This is a problem that’s especially acute in treating children. Most children under 12 who’ve contracted the disease have died. It’s very challenging to convince people to pass their sick children off to people in space suits to go off and die. As a result, people hide from the ETUs and CCCs. We need better tools, possibly digital tools, to let parents and children connect.

It’s critical for Partners in Health to ensure rapid learning by optimizing data collection and management tools, Dr. Murray explains. We need to capture all the information from these cases, but it’s incredibly hard to build data collection tools that work with three pairs of gloves on. Right now, systems rely on holding up pieces of paper to windows for transcription – voice activated systems would be a strong step forward.

Stopping the disease will ultimately require accurate and early diagnosis. “If we could diagnose in the field before it was symptomatic, we could stop the epidemic.” Dr. Murray lists some promising directions: immuno-assays using antigen capture and antibodies, tests of nucleic acid amplification, viral culturing, and novel methods, like a single particle interferometric reflectance imaging sensor. Right now, current tests require lab facilities, take 2-6 hours, and might need more blood than you can get from a fingerstick. We need something that requires a finger prick and can be processed at peripheral sites.

There are promising new drugs and vaccine candidates. Three vaccines are in testing – two are single dose, another is double dose and may provide stronger protecting. New treatment protocols include ZMAPP, a cocktail of 3 monoclonal antibodies, originally engineered in tobacco, and being produced now in yeast. One possible treatment is a drug for flu, currently stockpiled in Japan, which has gone through safety and tolerability trials, and can now go into efficacy trials. Most other candidates have not yet been tested for safety and tolerability.

One promising development are BSL4 labs – biocontainment labs – built in shipping containers and delivered on tractor trailers. Unfortunately, most of the roads in rural areas cannot accomodate those trucks, and it can take 13 hours on terrible roads to travel from peripheral sites to a city.

Until we’re at a vaccine – and especially, an aerosol vaccine which wouldn’t require needle sticks – Partners in Health is looking to build a flexible data base and IT platform that captures knowledge, to build a network of partners in industry, research and funding agencies, and to support local research infrastructure through training.

Joi introduces into the conversation the idea that popular response in the US to Ebola has been to suggest locking down our borders. Instead, we need more volunteers to come into these countries and lend a hand. Dahl tells us that more than 1000 people have volunteered to come to West Africa, despite the fact that quarantines mean this could be a 6-10 week commitment. Locking down borders is making it harder for nurses, logisticians and lab workers to volunteer.

David Sengeh suggests we need to think beyond the immediate problems of the disease and into the broader issues that countries like Sierra Leone face. He notes that Sierra Leone has a population where 70% of citizens are under 30, and where young people already have a challenge accessing a quality education. Add to this the closure of schools and Sierra Leonean youth are facing a future that’s short on opportunity. David shows us a video made by a teenager from Sierra Leone that addresses discrimination and ostracizing that often happens to Ebola survivors. Helping people make media and address these prejudices is a key strategy.

We end up in a discussion between the audience and the stage about whether the Media Lab could be a collaborator with Partners in Health on addressing issues around Ebola. Joi pointed out that the lab is trying hard to work on codesign strategies, where we don’t design technology and drop it into communities, hoping it will work, but work with communities to identify problems and design solutions. It’s possible that the Media Lab might work to support hackathons and other efforts in Liberia or Sierra Leone, or that nurses and other health workers who’ve worked in the field could work with the Lab on issues like cooling systems for personal protection equipment or non-invasive blood drawing techniques. Mask fogging, one of the most serious problems with protective equipment, is a problem Joi identifies as well-known to the SCUBA community, and he wonders whether techniques from that world could work for Ebola protection.

The challenge, Dahl reminds us, is not just innovation, but deployment. One of the major tools used to combat Ebola is chlorine bleach, which is used to sterilize surfaces and people who’ve taken off their protective equipment. Someone had the bright idea of dyeing the bleach solution pink, so that people could see where they’d bleached off and where they hadn’t reached. Solving these problems is a first step – getting them widely adopted in the field is the key to saving lives.


The crew at Civic has a great liveblog of the event – check it out!

November 6, 2014

Sasha Costanza Chock on Immigrant Rights and Transmedia Organizing

Filed under: CFCM,Human Rights,ideas,Media,Media Lab,newcivics — Ethan @ 7:43 pm

Today’s Comparative Media Studies colloquium features one of our own, Assistant Professor of Civic Media, Sasha Costanza-Chock. His new book, “Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets!” explores the world of transmedia organizing and the immigrant rights movement.

His talk tonight focuses on his background in media making, activism and scholarship, before zooming into the immigrants rights movement specifically, and one aspect of his work, the professionalization and accountability of social movements

Sasha’s background is in the world of independent media, including production of movies like “This is What Democracy Looks Like”, shot and edited by teams of activists working together. On moving to LA to work on his dissertation, he began working on the VozMob platform, a tool that allows people with low-end mobile phones to publish content online. The tool continues to be used by working class immigrants in Los Angeles to document their lives and work.

On coming to Center for Civic Media, Sasha worked with our developers and others to build a hosted version of Vozmob, Vojo.co, which is now used by over 100 groups to collect and disseminate information, including the Sandy Storyline project, which won a major documentary award for their documentation of Hurricane Sandy.

More recently, he’s helped launch Contratados, which is basically a Yelp for migrant workers, reviewing labor brokers, the people who recruit agricultural workers to jobs in the United States. Contratados is a transmedia project, using online tools, radio, paper flyers and others to bring information about immigration rights and practices to vulnerable populations.

Sasha explains that his work is best understood as participatory research, which sometimes looks like media making, sometimes like activism and sometimes like research. This book is based on ten years work in the immigrant rights movement as an activist and scholar.

To understand this space, Sasha uses the concepts of Media Ecology to understand the complex world of English and Spanish language media, online and offline media, as well as concepts like Transmedia Organizing, Social Media Movement Practices, and Critical Digital Media Literacies. He suggests we think about media in terms of a read/write/execute movement – we need to consume media, make it ourselves, and use it to make change in the world. Sasha argues that making media is a critical path towards engagement in activism: making media is often a first step towards a deeper involvement and engagement in activism.

Stepping back to explain the content of the immigrant rights movement, Sasha explains that the immigrants rights community has been deeply disappointed by the Obama administration’s aggressive enforcement of immigration laws – he is often termed “the deporter in chief”. Activists are incensed by a massively expanded immigration enforcement budget, now over $3 billion a year and programs like SCOMM (secure communities), which collects biometric information on anyone who is arrested (even if they are not charged or tried) and checks to see if they have legal status to remain in the US. This program was rolled out as an optional program, but local law enforcement discovered that they would not receive federal monies if they opted out. Many local law enforcement agencies dislike SCOMM, as it tends to break down trust between local law enforcement and communities.

Bills like SB1070 – the “driving while brown” bill, which allowed people to be stopped under suspicions of being undocumented – have been challenged in courts, but there’s a large number of dangerous regulations on the books.

Sasha offers the observation that there are complex economic reasons why we might be seeing a rise in militarized immigration enforcement. Private prisons and detention facilities, biometric systems are powerful political and economic actors. Of the 30-40,000 people incarcerated on any given night, roughly half are housed in private prisons, and represent a growth segment for companies like Corrections Corporation of America.

It’s not just about profitability – it’s about the expansion of the security state. Surveillance and security systems have a tendency to expand, even if they’re not effective or profitable. Once you begin building SCOMM, there’s a compelling logic to expanding it to each county, to link it to other databases. Systems like e-verify are only roughly 50% effective, but they continue to expand.

The criminalization of immigration in the US is characterized as a racial project, a reproduction and maintenance of whiteness and racial hierarchy, Sasha argues, citing a long history of research on American immigration and discrimination against the Chinese and other groups. Our version of immigration also supports heteronormativity and patriarchy, allowing immigration for reunification of families, but only traditionally structured families (no same-sex marriage included.) He reminds us that the US is an ongoing project of settler colonialism, a consolidation and control over the borders and “body” of the nationstate, which is ultimately a colonized and occupied state taken from native peoples.

What do immigrant rights groups do in this hostile context? How do they tell their stories and work to shape these systems? We need to consider the shape of an English-language mass media system that tends to be overwhelmingly negative towards immigrant mobilization and narratives. A center-left media occasionally pays attention to issues of the undocumented, but tends to paint immigration as a balance between border security and “a path towards citizenship”. Even in the center-left, there’s an acceptance of the idea of “good immigrants”, implying bad immigrants who need to be kept out.

The rise of outlets like Univision, Telemundo and La Opinion have led to a more subtle dialog on Spanish-language media. This group has become quite powerful in mobilizing, with Spanish-language DJs cooperating to call people in the streets to protest a Sensenbrenner immigration bill. Sasha urges us to consider community media as well. Even with small reach in comparison to the national outlets, these outlets serve as legitimators to activist and community organizations.

Social media plays a role as well, both in terms of organizing actions and giving participants a voice. Sasha wants to focus specifically on how social media can augment relationships with reporters, allowing activists to amplify their message more effectively than sending out press releases. All these pieces function simultaneously, and smart actors in this space learn to operate across these media through transmedia organizing.

The term is descended from Marsha Kinder and Henry Jenkins’s work on Transmedia Storytelling. Kinder looked at the way that stories expanded not just through film but through toys and marketing tie-ins, creating storyworlds that are shaped in part by their expansion into multiple medias and markets. Jenkins sees this work changing the nature of storytelling and changing the media itself, sometimes making it more open to participation and counternarrative. Sasha expands this to consider how storytelling can be accountable and open to movement actors, and how creating media can transform people into movement participants.

In the immigrant rights movement, work is cross-platform: posters, mobile applications, films. What’s important is that people’s media strategy is explicitly cross-platform. Organizers are smart enough to know that they need Spanish language media to cover actions, then push those stories to their base via social media.

This media is participatory – Sasha points to the “Undocumented and Unafraid” campaign as a strategy in which creating media and disseminating it is a key action in joining a movement. A street action was complemented by a Tumblr (for people who couldn’t participate in person) and a video produced after the fact (which Sasha shows.) The movement draws explicitly on the LGBT struggle for acceptance through coming out, and looks specifically at the idea of Undocuqueer – coming out as undocumented to LGBT peers and as LGBT to the undocumented community.

Media production is rooted in a particular community action being taken. Sasha shows us a capture from a UStream of an occupation of an Obama campaign office in Colorado – the stream allowed thousands to follow the campaign for executive action to grant relief to undocumented youth. Dreamers succeeded in forcing Obama to make significant changes to deprioritize deportation of undocumented youth, and there’s now a discussion about the possibility of a return to sit in and occuption to seek change at a moment where change through Congress looks impossible.

The movement is careful in discussing framing. They are concerned with the framing of “I was brought here through no fault of my own”, because that’s a narrative that criminalizes parental behavior. Which narrative you pick – no fault of my own or a broader narrative – helps determine what you advocate for: reform for undocumented youth, or for all undocumented people.

Finally, Sasha reminds us that this work is transformative. By learning how to make and share media, the movement is expanded and the movement’s reach and capabilities are expanded.

Sasha sees this dynamic of transmedia organizing happening in other activist movements, including the Occupy movement. It’s also not unique to contemporary movements – he references research by Rogelio Lopez, carried out at Center for Civic Media, that looked at participatory and transmedia organizing by the Farm Worker movement from 1962-72.

Sasha closes by looking at one of the issues he explores in his work, the professionalization and accountability of social movements. There’s a long scholarship around this issue, looking at ways in which social movements become 501c3 nonprofit organizations. When you make the change from social movement to nonprofit, Sasha points out, you lose the right to advocate for specific candidates. When organizations make this change, start doing the dance with funders, they become increasingly service oriented and depoliticized.

In parallel, there’s a professionalization of transmedia production. Some years ago, “transmedia production” was a hot new topic – in 2010, the Producer’s Guild of America began issuing “transmedia producer” credits associated with films. You can now hire a transmedia producer to create an ad campaign or a cross-platform strategy to market a film.

In the last two years, we’ve seen three professionally produced transmedia campaigns. “Define American” is a campaign from Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-winning journalist who identifies as undocumented and queer. The project launched with a video, “Define American”, and a website, which lean heavily on web-based media like Tumblr and Facebook posts, as well as YouTube videos. Vargas has now produced a full length documentary called “Documented”, which explores this movement as well as Vargas’s personal journey. Sasha points out that the film was produced by an undocuqueer individual and has several undocumented production team members. However, there’s an argument that the documentary continues to support a narrative of “the good immigrant”.

He shows us a second documentary, “The Dream Is Now”, produced by the Emerson Collaborative, a foundation started by Steve Jobs’s widow. It’s a professional production, put together by people involved with An Inconvenient Truth, and was screened within the White House. But there are problems with the project. When you arrived at The Dream Is Now website, a modal box pushes you to sign a petition to support the DREAM Act. But the movement had moved on, Sasha tells us, and was now pushing for comprehensive immigration reform, not throwing DREAMers parents under the bus. Activists demanded that The Dream Is Now push a different set of action, but it took months to convince Emerson to change to meet the needs of the movement base. It was a beautiful and powerful piece of media, Sasha notes, but there are issues about accountability to the base of the social movement.

FWD.us is the third project Sasha features. He first shows “the leaders behind the movement”, who are (predominantly white) Silicon Valley CEOs. The campaign focuses on the ways in which immigrants represent a large percentage of the American workforce. One of the main emphases of the film is the need to increase the number of high skilled visas and allow DREAMers to contribute to the US economy. The video features 400 groups fighting for immigration reform… which turn out to be Silicon Valley companies. Sasha points out that most movement actors don’t have a problem with more high-tech workers… but the first policy plank of FWD.us is “secure our borders”, which is a policy that pushes people to cross the US/Mexico border in increasingly dangerous and insecure ways. They support e-verify, a program that auditors have found has a very high rate of false positives, in part because Silicon Valley will get the contracts to build these systems. While this is a deeply professional campaign, it’s unaccountable to the base of the movement and is erasing the broader movement history, replacing citizen organizations with tech firms.

There’s a nice narrative – organizations that have larger budgets are less accountable to the base of the movements. But it’s messy – Jose Antonio Vargas teamed up with FWD.us to promote his documentary. And undocumented youth wrote a letter to Vargas critiquing him for supporting a good immigrant/bad immigrant narrative, making it clear that he did not represent all the undocumented.

Sasha ends with questions: do greater resources always mean less community accountability? Is there always a tension between artistic freedom and strong storytelling and community accountability? Sasha believes we can have accountability mechanisms that don’t require the community to sign off on each stage of film production, but do have a powerful relation to community issues. Ultimately, Sasha is interested in building a culture of activism centered on the idea of “Nothing About Us Without Us”, framed by disability rights activist James Charlton.

Sasha invites Sofia Campos, one of the leaders of United We Dream, to the stage to react to his presentation. She points out that the movement has a culture of reflection, but hasn’t been able to publish a book like the one Sasha has. These meta-conversations about the movement can be repetitive and draining, and it’s helpful to have a careful consideration of the history of the movement to refer to. She agrees with Sasha’s contention that the media is a critical piece of the movement – before the Internet, she didn’t know that there were other undocumented people outside of California. In 2010, the internet allowed the movement to come to a higher level of organization and collaboration with unprecedented speed. Knowing that people were working across the country on the issues was a powerful feeling for movement actors.

Critically, the movement has been able to build its own narrative, and it’s been critical to move in the directions they’ve needed of going. She notes that the movement still needs mechanisms for accountability, which makes it helpful to have scholars like Sasha thinking about how the movement and those who want to help push it forward get engaged.

Desi asks why media making is such an important onramp to movement participation. Sasha makes clear that he doesn’t think media making is the most important aspect of movement building, just an important and understudied onramp. In sitting down and deciding how to tell your story, you are likely to contact others and share your experiences, as well as reflecting on the structures you’re struggling against. That struggle tends to lead to a social movement identity. Sofia that producing media is a way of combatting the isolation associated with the experience of being undocumented, and seeing support from others throughout the US going through the struggle you are experiencing.

A questioner makes clear that he’s frustrated by this as a “one sided” presentation advocating “illegal immigration”. He asks whether those who oppose illegal immigration can use the same tools to challenge unrestricted immigration. Sasha notes that the right has used every media at their disposal to make arguments, and argues that those counterarguments are as emotional and manipulative as arguments from the immigrants rights movement. He argues that it’s not an even playing field between powerful corporate actors who control broadcast TV and are likely to shape opinion against immigrant, and that the enthusiasm for social media may reflect a hope of countering those narratives.

Ian Condry asks whether there are new ideas about framing the immigration debate. Is the frame of “lawbreaking and amnesty”, which is gaining some traction, more successful than a narrative of the benefits of immigration, which seems well supported by American history. The idea of DREAMers clearly got through, he suggests, and wonders if there’s a way to embrace its power without the consequence of throwing parents under the bus. Sofia notes that issues of movement politics as well as deep legacies of racism and colonialism come into these questions of framing. The DREAMer framing was powerful because it was a narrative that came from the immigrant community, but sometimes failed to respect the radical, rooted message that the entire system of immigration needs reform. Within that framework, there’s then a question of what’s feasible, and how to negotiate for what people need now in terms of relief. Sasha notes that there’s an instrumentalist approach to media in which you A/B test your way through messages, but that this approach to framing runs the risk of coming into conflict with the community you are messaging around. The path forward has to give the affected community the ability to control the messaging, which may lead to less effective messaging in the short term, but will allow for a messaging driven by ethics and values in the long term.

Jim Paradis notes that he’s impressed with the range of objectives the movement is taking on, from inclusion in higher ed, to broader reform around immigration. He wonders how the movement is putting together a strategy to choose between competing objectives. Sasha notes that it’s a matter of constant debate within the movement: what are we working for short and long term? Political operatives tend to advise we pick a small, specific thing and message around it. But there’s a recognition that there’s a broad cultural shift around the idea of who’s a rights-holding human being. To transform ideas about immigration, we may need to win the larger battle to shift a vision of who’s human.

Jing Wang asks whether there are cross-racial alliances in the immigrant rights movement and what the dynamics of those alliances are. She wonders if the framework Sasha is advocating is equally good for movements led by Asian immigrants. Sasha notes that there is organizing and coalition work across different communities. Sofia notes that there are cultural challenges in this organizing, not just with activists but in connecting their parents, but that these movements are moving forward. Also, the movement is now trying to expand beyond immigration and into the broader space of challenging the for-profit prison movement.

A questioner who works on immigrant rights notes that he rarely attends academic presentations because of concerns about community accountability. He thanks Sasha for his consideration on that issue and asks how the activist community can best work with engaged scholars. Sasha notes that it’s easy for people with privilege, including scholars, to extract stories from communities and make profits with them. He points to work he does at MIT, teaching a Collaborative Design Studio course that brings MIT students together with community organizations to work together productively. This includes laying out explicit expectations about responsibility, participation and ownership in these processes. We need a broader transformation in institutional processes, Sasha argues, to ensure that research serves the needs of a community.

Rogelio Lopez closes with a question about the ways in which movements can spread across the world, where the Ferguson “Hands Up” protest appears on the streets of Hong Kong. What does this mean for movements when these frames spread across nations? Sasha notes that this is an exciting moment, when symbols and tactics circulate at greater speed than any other moment in human history. We see local instantiations of these techniques, and they bubble up at different moments in time – Occupy stalled in the US but came to the fore again in Hong Kong. Power is continually threatened by the potential of horizontal, people’s power. Sofia notes that the spread of ideas on the internet really benefits from the face to face organizing we’ve seen in the immigrant rights movement, which can keep it rooted in communities.

May 30, 2014

Melodica Music: stepping back in time in downtown Nairobi

Filed under: Africa,Media Lab — Ethan @ 1:26 pm

I would be sad to return to the pre-internet days of music fandom. I think back to the days of paper fanzines with hazy nostalgia, but in truth, it was pretty wretched to hear about a band you might or might not like, order a 7″, wait weeks and discover that just because some dude with an exacto knife, glue stick and access to a xerox machine loved a band, it didn’t mean they were any good. I try to remember to be thankful every time I look up an unfamiliar band on AllMusic.com, when I surf a band’s back catalog on YouTube and buy CDs I would never have found without online retailers who stock the long tail of musical tastes.

That said, one casualty of the digital age is the demise of the local record store. I am blessed with an excellent local record store, Toonerville Trolley Records in Williamstown, MA, and I was thrilled to see a line of patrons waiting to get in to celebrate Record Store Day a few months back. (I took Drew to buy his first LP. Four and a half seems like the right age to start building a record collection.) But despite how fortunate I am in terms of local record shopping (both in Williamstown and in Cambridge, which has great stores like Weirdo and Armageddon), I feel the loss of the institution of the record store when I travel to different cities.

This past week, I was in Nairobi, Kenya, with Media Lab students, staff and faculty, working to build a partnership between the Lab and iHub, the remarkable tech incubator and coworking space built by the founders of Ushahidi. I wanted to make sure my Media Lab friends saw Nairobi for the wonderful, exciting city that it is, and I especially wanted to show Joseph Paradiso, the other lab faculty member on the trip, some different sides of the city. Joe is a celebrated builder of analog synthesizers and a massive prog rock fan, and while I knew finding music to suit his tastes in Nairobi might be a challenge, I figured a visit to a record store was in order.


Johnstone Mukabi and Peter Rugenye perform at the Melodica Music Store in Nairobi.

Visiting Melodica Records in Nairobi is as much pilgrimage as shopping excursion. The proprietor, Abdul Karim, has been managing the store since 1971. Located in Nairobi’s Central Business District, Melodica is part musical instrument shop, part performance space and part archive. It was quiet on the Saturday afternoon we came by, staffed by Karim, his mother and an assistant, and we were the only customers exploring the stacks.

Like many African music stores, Melodica burns CDs for customers rather than selling packaged CDs. (Teju Cole writes movingly in Every Day is For the Thief of finding John Coltrane CDs in a record store in Lagos, then discovering they are astronomically expensive to buy, as they are designed to be kept as the reference copy, parent of the copies for sale.) Joe immediately begins grilling the sales clerk, asking for the weirdest, most experimental music the shop stocks. The first track the clerk plays is Kanda Bongo Man’s “Zing Zong” – not exactly what Joe was looking for, but I recognize it immediately and shout out the title based on the opening notes. That earns me admission to the back room, packed with piles of dusty vinyl, and an invitation from Karim to use his turntable to listen and discover.

joeatmelodica
Joe asks what Congolese Rhumba bands sound the most like Can’s “Future Days”

Melodica dates from the days when African record stores weren’t just selling a product – they were recording studios, producers, distributors and retailers. Many of the records Karim hands me are ones on the Melodica label, which he produced in the 1970s. As I’m picking through a stack of dusty Luo ballads, looking for Lingala dance music, Karim explains that musicians would travel with reel to reel masters from Kinshasa or Brazzaville to Nairobi to press their work and bring it to audiences throughout central Africa.

The production on the records varies widely. Some were originally recorded badly, and the saturated tape leads to gnarly, distorted records despite Karim’s engineering efforts. Others have the wide-open, echoey sound that’s characteristic of my favorite Congolese music, a sound that somehow evokes both all-night, outdoor dance clubs and distant vistas. Karim and I talk about what types of records I like and he does his best to find records that feature organ and synth crossing into traditional song structure, the local parallels to styles like Afrojuju in Nigeria (my genre of choice.)

melodicasetup
The back room at Melodica

I note a promising album propped up on the studio window, the scratched plexiglass producers once sat behind to offer hand signals to the band recording in what’s now the store’s main space. It’s “Mandingo” by Black Blood and Karim explains that he can’t sell me the album as it is his sole remaining copy, but urges me to download tracks from it from the store’s website. Karim’s role is at least as much preservationist as proprietor these days. A search for “Black Blood” on Afro7, a site dedicated to East African vinyl, offers the clue that Black Blood was a group of expatriate Kenyans playing in Brussels, but there’s little else about them online. Karim’s copy is surely not the sole one extant, but it’s one likely to ensure that a funky, ferocious band survives another generation.

Crate-digging, the art and science of searching for rare grooves in record stories, antique shops and yard sales, is a celebrated, if controversial, practice. Classic hiphop was built on the art of the sample, and the more obscure the sample you could find, the better. (Afrika Bambaata had notoriously deep crates, and was legendary for soaking the labels off his hottest breaks and replacing them with other labels to throw rival DJs off.) After a successful lawsuit by George Clinton’s publisher, Bridgeport Music, established a precedent that any sample, identifiable or not, would merit royalty payments, mainstream hiphop moved away from the world of crate-digging… but the best DJs didn’t.

Recently, DJs like Diplo have built their reputation on finding inspiration in global dance sounds from musical cultures unfamiliar to North America and Europe. (I discuss Diplo’s work at some length in Rewire.) German DJ Frank Gossner has established himself as an “archaeologist” of African vinyl, making multiple trips throughout the region to find rare grooves he can throw into his dance sets. This practice has its critics – DJ Boima Tucker draws parallels between the search for undiscovered African vinyl to the quest by colonial powers for natural resources in Africa, while allowing that these records may simply disappear if someone doesn’t rescue them from obscurity. (A comment by Gossner on Tucker’s post gives you a sense of just how nasty these conversations can get when one DJ accuses another of colonialism…)

Visiting Melodica gives a certain perspective to the crate-digging versus preservation conversation. I didn’t exactly have to fight off an army of European and American DJs desperate to throw some vintage Congolese rumba into their sets. And Karim is hardly a naïf, unaware of the treasures in his store. Instead, he’s acutely aware that the work he’s doing to preserve the music he grew up with requires this music to find new and broader audiences.

Joe and I each buy half a dozen compilation CDs featuring 7″ singles of taraab, rhumba, and afrorock that Karim has digitized. His assistant burns the CDs for us and prints fresh covers for the CDs – it’s hard to believe the roughly $1.20 we pay for each CD pays for more than the disc and the printout. I choose four of the records I most enjoyed and Karim apologizes before charging me $6 for each, explaining that his stocks are slowly dwindling for the old vinyl.

holdingrecords
Abdul Karim shows off the reason to come to Melodica – a wealth of historical 7-inches in the place where some were recorded and mastered.

That evening, I had dinner with some of the members of Just a Band, one of Kenya’s most exciting artistic collectives – the group includes filmmakers as well as musicians, and they are at the center of a scene that includes designers and installation artists as well. One of the filmmakers listens to my story about Melodica and says, “I’ve been meaning to do a film about that place.” I hope he will: Kenya’s music scene has a rich past and a promising future. It would be great to see the next generation honoring such a historic treasure.


Kentanzavinyl has a great database of the sorts of artists I found at Melodica, as well as a good blogroll of African record collectors, many of whom post digitized audio from their finds.

Melodica is in the Elimu Co-op House, across the street from KTDA on Tom Mboya Street. Abdul Karim is always happy when fans of east African music visit.

Special bonus tracks:


“A.I.E. A Mwana” by Black Blood


“Africans Must Unite”, by Geraldo Pino, one of the 7″ I bought at Melodica

January 24, 2014

Promise Tracker and Monitorial Citizenship

Filed under: CFCM,ideas,Media Lab — Ethan @ 10:32 am

It’s not obvious from looking at me, but while I’m American, I’m deeply partisan towards the nation of Ghana. I moved to Accra, Ghana in 1993 to study xylophone music, and I’ve traveled back to the country almost every year since 2000. I ran a nonprofit organization in Ghana from 1999-2004 and I now work closely with a Ghanaian journalism nonprofit. This dual allegiance is a good thing: I have two teams to root for in the upcoming World Cup (unfortunately, they’ll see each other in the first round), and I take disproportionate pride in Ghana’s economic and political success over the past two decades.

Ghana has a lot to be proud of, in political terms. After almost twenty years of rule by a man who took power through a coup, Ghana democratically elected a President from the opposition NPP party in 2000. After eight years of his rule, they elected a President from the NDC, which had ruled for the previous decades. Political scientists call this a “double alternation”, and it’s considered the gold standard for stability in a democracy, evidence that an electoral system is free and fair enough that either of two major parties can win an election. Due to its clean elections and history of stability, demonstrated when the death of President Atta Mills in office led to a seamless transition to his vice-president John Mahama, Ghana has become the exemplar for democratic transition in West Africa. Ghanaian politicians and NGOs are now working to export models and best practices from Ghana to the region and the continent.

But there’s something uncomfortable about Ghana’s elections. Many of the politicians from the NPP party come from a single ethnic group, the Akan or Ashanti, and their close allies. The NDC has a broader ethnic base of support, but the Ewe are particularly powerful within the party. You can see these alliances in a map of electoral results – the NPP candidate won in the Ashanti and Eastern regions, the home of the Akan, while the NDC won elsewhere, but dominated in the Volta region, where the Ewe hail from. Some critics worry that Ghana’s free and fair elections may be masking elections that are less about political issues and more about ethnic allegiances.

Economist Paul Collier warns of this problem in his book “Wars, Guns and Votes”, He warns that we may be seeing a lot of elections in the developing world that are free, fair and bad. They are free and fair because we’ve gotten very good at monitoring elections for obvious signs of rigging and fraud, but they’re bad because they are decided for reasons other than political issues. In bad elections, Collier argues, people vote for a candidate because they expect some personal financial gain (a job, a handout) or because they see an electoral victory as a victory for their tribe or group. A good election is one in which people vote for a candidate because they expect he or she will make positive policy changes, benefiting a broader community and the nation as a whole.

Free, fair and bad elections happen because it’s hard to hold politicians accountable. We elect politicians because we share their aspirations and visions, but we also elect them because we hope they will ensure that tax dollars are distributed fairly and ensure that our communities benefit from those investments in schools, hospitals, roads and other essential infrastructures. But in many countries, it’s very hard to find out whether our politicians are doing a good or poor job.

Sometimes politicians don’t do a good job because they are corrupt, more interested in their personal gain than serving their communities. In most cases, politicians work hard and their shortcomings are the result of being constrained by finances, thwarted by bureaucracy or otherwise held in check. If we had better ways of tracking what governments do in their communities and documenting the progress of taxpayer-funded projects, we would have far more information we could use to hold our politicians accountable, to re-elect the best and oust the worst. This means a strong, free press is important, as are efforts at government transparency, and systems to ensure access to government information, like freedom of information laws.

In other words, if we want strong, responsive democracies, we can’t just fix electoral systems – we have to fix monitorial systems. And we can’t just establish a culture of clean elections, as Ghana has done – we need a culture of monitorial citizenship.

The idea of monitorial citizenship is one I’ve borrowed from journalism scholar Michael Schudson. Schudson argues that we often understand democracy in terms of “informed citizenship” – our job as citizens is to be informed about the issues and to vote, then let our elected representatives do their jobs. This model became popular in the United States during the progressive era of the early 20th century, and Schudson worries that the model may be out of date, not accurately representing how most people participate in democracies today. One of the models Schudson suggests to describe our current reality is monitorial democracy, where a responsibility as citizens is to monitor what powerful institutions do (governments, corporations, universities and other large organizations) and demand change when they misbehave. The press is a powerful actor in monitorial democracies, as demonstrated during the Watergate scandal and the end of the Nixon presidency in the US. And new media may broaden the potential for monitorial democracy, allowing vastly more citizens to watch, document and share their reports.

This year, my students and I have been experimenting with projects that connect monitorial democracy with the mobile phone. We’ve conducted small experiments locally, monitoring the on-time performance of subway trains and wait times in post offices, and examined what sorts of infrastructures in our local community are built and maintained by different government and private sector actors. And now we’re heading to Belo Horizonte and São Paulo, Brazil for the next round of our experiments.

We’ll work with community organizations in neighborhoods in both cities to identify promises local governments have made that citizens see as high importance. We’ll work with these volunteers to map a few, carefully chosen, infrastructures in their communities and to track the status of those infrastructures over time. And we’ll work with the community to figure out how we should reward governments that live up to their promises and challenge governments that fall short… all within the course of two three-day, student led workshops. (!?!)

Our core insight – that citizens can use mobile phones to document infrastructure and monitor government performance – is not a new one. We are inspired by a number of exciting projects that have demonstrated the potential and pitfalls of citizen monitoring and documentation, notably:

– Map Kibera, which has demonstrated the importance of mapping squatter cities and informal settlements to show both the deficiencies and the vitality of infrastructure in those communities

– Ushahidi, which shows that mobile phones combined with mapping can help individuals work together to map crises and opportunities with little central planning

– Fix My Street and related projects, which have helped citizens see governments as service providers, responsible for maintaining infrastructures, and capable of providing customer service to citizens

– Safecast, which has encouraged Japanese citizens to monitor radiation levels in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, helping create data sets citizens can use to lobby the government for better cleanup plans and responses

– The Earth Institute’s collaboration with the Government of Nigeria, to use citizen enumerators, armed with mobile phones, to monitor schools, hospitals and other government-procured infrastructure to establish the country’s progress towards meeting Millenium Development goals

We hope to learn from these projects and push our work in a slightly different direction. Our system, Promise Tracker, starts from promises government officials (local, state and federal) have made to a community, and then helps communities track progress made on those promises by monitoring infrastructures like power grids, roads, schools and hospitals. The use case for Promise Tracker is simple: if the mayor of a city makes an electoral promise that roads in a neighborhood will be paved during her time in office, Promise Tracker helps the local community collect data on the condition of the roads and monitor progress made on the promise over time. If the mayor meets her goal, Promise Tracker offers proof generated by the community that’s benefitted. If the government is in danger of falling short, Promise Tracker offers an open, freely shared data set that citizens and officials can use to consult on solving the problem.

It’s this idea of tracking promises that has led us to Brazil. I spoke about the Promise Tracker idea at the Media Lab’s fall sponsors meeting and had two transformative conversations with Brazilians who heard me speak. One conversation was with Oded Grajew, a celebrated Brazilian social entrepreneur and innovator, one of the founders of the World Social Forum, and founder of Rede Nossa Sao Paulo, “Our Sao Paulo Network”, a network of community organizations dedicated to transforming and improving that remarkable city. One of Grajew’s many achievements is a successful campaign to get the city of São Paulo to change its constitution and require the mayor to publish campaign promises, allowing citizens to monitor the government’s progress. Grajew invited my students to São Paulo to meet with his organization and see whether the tools we’re building could help his organization keep a close eye on the government’s performance.

The second conversation was more surprising: it was with the government of the state of Minas Gerais, specifically from Andre Barrence, CEO at the Office for Strategic Priorities, who is in charge of innovation in government and the private sector. Minas Gerais is a sponsor of the Media Lab and has been looking for partnerships where Media Lab students and faculty can work with residents of Belo Horizonte and other Minas Gerais communities. It’s not easy for a government to volunteer to open itself to citizen monitoring, and it’s a great credit to the innovative leaders in the Minas Gerais government that they’ve been working hard to find community organizations we can partner with to monitor the government’s progress and enter into a partnership to celebrate successes and work to fix potential failures.

In our workshops in Belo Horizonte and São Paulo, my students – Jude Mwenda, Alexis Hope, Chelsea Barbaras, Heather Craig and Alex Gonçalves – will work with community leaders to understand what promises politicians have made to the community, to identify promises the community is most concerned about, and to identify promises we can evaluate my monitoring infrastructure over time. We’re using codesign methods promoted by our friend and colleague Sasha Costanza-Chock, trying to ensure that what we monitor is what the community cares about, and that we build the tools with the community, who will be responsible for using them over the next few months or years. Our short-term goal is to collect data on a couple of infrastructures in a community, leverage some of Rahul Bhargava’s work on community data visualization to help our partners present data, and to open a conversation with local authorities about tracking an infrastructure over time.

Our long-term ambitions are broader. We hope to build a tool that communities can customize to their own needs and campaigns, but which centers on the idea that mobile phones can collect photographic data, cryptographically stamp it with location information and a timestamp, and release it to public repositories under a CC0 license. We hope we’ll see groups around the world use the tool to track everything from road and power grid condition to air and water quality, integrating low-cost sensors into the system and asking citizens to engage in environmental data collection as well as civic monitoring.

The key idea behind the project is a simple one: civic engagement is too important to be something we do only at elections.

I’ve been writing and speaking about the recognition that many people feel alienated from existing political processes and like there’s no good path for them to engage in decisionmaking about their communities. This alienation leads to disengagement, and can lead to more dramatic forms of dissent, including public protest. The work I’m trying to do on effective citizenship focuses on the idea that we need to engage in citizenship more than once every four years… and also more often than we take to the streets in protest. It’s my hope that helping people monitor powerful institutions and evaluate the successes and setbacks of their elected representatives will be a way people can engage in citizenship every day.

I’m writing this post while enroute to Belo Horizonte, and I’ll share a report on what happened in our workshops and how this idea has changed as I fly home. I’ll also add more links once I have better connectivity. The really good stuff will likely come from the trip report my students put together – I’ll share that as soon as they share it with me.

January 21, 2014

Data and its Discontents – notes and reflections from a panel at Microsoft Research Social Computing Symposium

Filed under: ideas,Media Lab — Ethan @ 3:36 pm

As I’ve mentioned in years past, Microsoft Research’s Social Computing Symposium is my favorite conference to attend, mostly because it’s a chance to catch up with dozens of people I love and don’t get to see every day. I wasn’t able to blog the whole conference, in part because I was moderating a session, but I wanted to post my notes on the event to share these conversations more widely. I’ve added some of my thoughts at the end as well. Many thanks to Microsoft Research for running this event and to all participants in the panel.


The session is titled “Data and its Discontents”, and it was curated by RIT’s Liz Lawley and MSR/NYU’s danah boyd. They decided not to focus on “big data” – the theme of virtually every conference these days – but data through different lenses: art and creative practice, an ethical perspective, a rights perspective and through a speculative perspective.

The opening speaker is professor and artist Golan Levin (@golan), who’s based at CMU. He’s spent the last year working on an open hardware project, so he’s exploring other work, not his own. His exploration is motivated by a tweet from @danmcquillan: “in the longer term, the snowden revelations will counter the breathless enthusiasm for #bigdata in gov, academia, humanitarian NGOs by showing that massive, passive data collection inevitably feeds the predictive algorithms of cybernetic social control”

Levin offers the idea of “the quantified selfie” and suggests we consider it as a form of post-Snowden portraiture. In a new landscape defined by drones, data centers and secret rendition, can these portraits jolt us into new understanding, or give us some comfort by letting us laugh at the situation we are encountering? He shows us John Lennon’s FBI file, and a self-portrait Lennon drew and argues that they are the same thing, “two different GUIs for a single database query.”

Artist Nick Felton is blurring the line between data portrait and portrait by offering data-driven annual reports of his life, analyzing his personal data for the year: every street he walked down in NYC, every plant killed. In honor of the Snowden revelations, he is preparing a 2014 edition that examines the uneasy relationship between data and metadata.

A more confrontational artwork comes from Julian Oliver and Danja Vasilev, called The Man in Grey. Two figures in grey suits carry mirrored briefcases. The suitcases are “man in the middle suitcases”, sniffing packets from local wireless and displaying what they find on the suitcase monitors. The artwork makes visible a form of surveillance that’s possible (and, as Kate Crawford will later explain, commercializable.)

If the ethical issues associated with street-based surveillance don’t give you some pause, consider Kyle McDonald, a Brooklyn-based new media artist who pushes the legal questions around these issues even further. He became interested in the inadvertent expressions he made when he used the computer. Seeking more imagery, he installed monitoring software on all computers in the Apple stores he could reach in New York City, and captured a single frame each minute (only when someone was staring at the screen), uploading it to Tumblr. The images reveal some of the stress and anxiety many of us face when we stare into the screen of a computer – McDonald’s photos reveal expressions from empty to confused, unhappy and unsure.

Apple was pretty unhappy with McDonald’s project, and he was forced to de-install the software, and is not able to show the photos he captured – instead, he shows watercolor versions of the images. But Levin notes that such surveillance isn’t hard to accomplish, and that the project “pushed the legal boundaries of public photography”.

A piece that pushes those boundaries even further is Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s “Stranger Visions”. The artist collects detritus from public places that could contain traces of DNA – cigarette stubs, chewing gum, pubic hairs from the seats of public toilets – and scans the DNA to measure 50 markers associated with physical appearance. Based on these markers, she constructs 3D models of the people she’s “encountered” this way. The portraits are less literal than McDonald’s, but transgressive in their own way, built from information inadvertently left behind.

And that’s the point, Levin argues – “These inadvertent, careless biometric traces and our constructed identities are creating entries in a database whose scope is breathtaking.” None of the art Levin features in his talk was made post-Snowden – surveillance is a theme many artists engage with – but they take on an especially sinister character when we consider the mass surveillance thats become routine in America, as revealed by Edward Snowden.


Kate Crawford (@katecrawford) is a professor based at Microsoft Research and MIT’s Center for Civic Media. She’s a media theorist who’s written provocatively about changing notions of adulthood, about gender and mobile technologies, about media and social change, and she’s now working on an examination of the promises, problems and ethics around “big data”. She notes that danah asked speakers on the panel to be provocative, so she offers a barnburner of a talk, titled “Big Data and the City: Ethics, Resistance and Desire”

Her tour of big data starts in the nation of Andorra, a tiny nation in the Pyrenees that’s been facing hard times in the European economic crisis. The government decided to try a novel approach to economic recovery: they decided to gather and sell the data of their citizens, including bus and taxi data, credit card usage data and anonymized telephony metadata. The package of data and the opportunity to study Andorrans is being marketed as a “real-world, living lab”, opening the possibility of a “smart nation” that’s even more ambitious than plans for smart cities.

These labs, Kate tells us, are being established around the world, and according to their marketing brochures, they look remarkably similar no matter where they are located. “There’s always a glowing city skyline, then shots of attractive urbanites making coffee and riding bikes.” But behind the scenes, there’s a different image: a dashboard, usually a map, that’s a metaphor for the central controller – a government agency? a retailer? – to examine the data. You leave a data trail, and someone else gathers and analyzes it. What we’re seeing, Kate offers, is the wholesale selling of data-based city management.

This form of pervasive data collection raises questions of the line between stalking and marketing. Turnstile, a corporation that has set up hundreds of sensors in Toronto – gathers the wifi signals of passing devices, mostly laptops and phones. If you have wifi enabled on your phone, you are traceable as a unique identifier, and if you sign onto Turnstile’s free wifi access points, the system will link your device to your realworld ID via social media, if possible. You don’t agree to this release of data – Turnstile simply collects it. They’re using it to provide behavioral data to customers – an Asian restaurant discovers that many of their customers like to go to the gym, so they create a workout t-shirt to market to their customers. This leads Kate to offer a slide of a man wearing a t-shirt that reads “My life is tracked 24/7 by marketers and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.”

Often this pervasive tracking is justified in terms of predictive policing, improving traffic flow, and generally improving life in cities. But she wonders what kind of ethical framework comes with these designs. What happens if we can be tracked offline as easily as we are online? How do we choose to opt out of this pervasive tracking? She notes that the shift towards pervasive tracking is happening out of sight of the less-privileged – some of the people affected by these shifts may be wholly unaware they are taking place.

Behind these systems is the belief that more data leads us to more control. She notes that Adam Greenfield, author of “Against the Smart City”, argues that the idea of the smart city is a manifestation of nervousness about the unpredictability of urbanity itself. The big data city is, ultimately, afraid of risk and afraid of cities.

When people react to these shifts by arguing for rights to privacy, Kate warns that we need to move beyond an analysis that’s so individualistic. The affects are systemic and societal, not just personal, and we need to consider implications for the broader systems. Not only do these systems violate reasonable expectations of privacy and control of personal data – “this would never get past an IRB – human data is taken without consent, with no sense of how long it will be held and no information on how to control your data” – it has a deeper, more corrosive effect on societies.

She quotes James Bridle, creator of the site-specific artwork “Under the Shadow of the Drone“, who notes one difficulty of combatting surveillance: “Those who cannot perceive the network cannot act effectively within it and are powerless to change it”. Quoting De Certeau’s “Walking in the City, she sees the “transparency” of big data as “an implacable light that produces this urban text without obscurities…”

Faced with this implacable light, we can design technologies to minimize our exposure. We can use pervasive, strong cryptography; we can design geolocation blockers. We can opt out or, as Evgeny Morozov suggests, participate in “information boycotts”. But while this is fine for certain elites, Kate postulates, it’s not possible for everyone, all the time. In the smart city, you are still being tracked and observed unless you are taking extraordinary measures.

What does resistance look like to these systems when opt-in and opt-out blur? Citing Bruce Schneier, Kate suggests that we need to analyze these systems not in terms of individual technologies, but in terms of their synergistic effects. It’s not Facebook ad targeting or facial recognition or drones we need to worry about – it’s the behaviors that emerge when those technologies can work together.

What do we lose when we lose a space without surveillance. Hannah Arendt warned of the danger to the human condition from the illumination of private space, noting “there are a great many things which cannot withstand the implacable, bright light of the constant presence of others on the public scene.”

Kate offers desire lines, the unpredictable shortcuts that emerge in public spaces, as a challenge to the smart city. We need a reflective urban unplanning, an understanding of the organic ways in how cities should work, the anarchy of the everyday. This is a vision of cities that values improvisation versus rigidity, communities versus institutions. In the process, we need to imagine a different ethical model of the urban, a model that allows us to change our minds and opt for something different altogether. We need a model that allows us to reshape, to make shortcuts and desire lines. We need a city that lets us choose, or we will be forever followed by whoever is most powerful.

—-

Mark Latonero of USC Annenberg offers a possible counterweight and challenge to Kate’s concerns about big data. Latonero works at the intersection of data, tech and human rights, focusing on human trafficking. Human trafficking is common, and in severe cases, is a gross violation of human rights, sometimes involving indentured servitude or forced sex. It doesn’t have to involve transportation – he reminds us that human trafficking happens if someone is held against their will in Manhattan – and involves men, women, girls and boys.

His work has focused on human trafficking on girls and boys under 18 in the sex trade, a space where intervention is especially important as victims often experience severe psychological and physical trauma. (The children involved are also below the age of consent, which makes it easier in ethical terms – there are no considerations of whether a victim voluntarily chose to become a sex worker.)

Both victims and exploiters are using digital media, Mark tells us, if only mobile phones to stay in touch with family members. As a result, there are digital traces of trafficking behavior. Mark and colleagues are working to collect and analyze this data, including facial recognition as well as algorithmic pattern identification that could indicate situations of abuse. “It’s hard not to feel optimistic that this work could save a human life.”

But this work forces us to consider not only the promises of data and human rights, but the quagmires. This sort of work draws upon a kind of surveillance, and this kind of watching that’s intended for a social good that raises concerns about trust and control. “Gathering data in aggregate helps us monitor for human rights abuses, but intervention involves identifying and locating someone – a victim, or a perpetrator,” he explains. “Inevitably, there is a point where someone’s identity is revealed.” The question the human rights community has to constantly ask is “Is this worth it?”

Human rights work always involves data: data about humans, both about individual humans and aggregate data and statistics about groups of humans. At best, it’s a careful process relying on judgement calls made by human rights professionals. It’s worth asking whether it’s a process big data companies could help with. As we ask about the involvement of big data companies, we should ask about the balance between civil liberties risks and human rights benefits.

Despite those questions, the human rights community is moving head first into these spaces. Google Ideas, Palantir and Salesforce are assisting international human trafficking hotlines, analyzing massive data sets for patterns of behavior, hot spots where trafficking may be common. But all the questions we wrestle with when we consider big data – what are the biases in the data set? Whose privacy are we compromising and what are the consequences? – need to be considered in this space as well.

“Big data can provide answers, but not always the right ones,” Mark offers. One of the major issues for the collaboration between data scientists and human rights professionals is the need to work through issues of false positives and false negatives. Until we have a clearer sense of how we navigate these practical and ethical issues, it’s hard to know how to value initiatives like “data philanthropy”, where the private sector offers to share data for development or for protection of human rights.

There’s a growing community of data researchers who are able to bear witness to human rights violations. He shares Kate’s desire for an ethical framework, a way of balancing the risks and benefits. Is the appropriate model adopted from corporate social responsibility, which is primarily self-regulatory? Is it a more traditionally regulated model, based on pressure from NGOs, consumers and others? He references the “Necessary and Proportionate” document drafted by activists to demand limits to surveillance. If we could move towards an aspirational set of international principles on the use of big data to help human rights, we’d find ourselves in a proactive space, not playing catch up.


The session’s final speaker is Ramez Naam, a former Microsoft engineer who’s become a science fiction author. His talk, “Big Data 7000″ offers two predictions: big data will be big, and will cause big problems. The net effect is about the who, not the what, he offers. It’s about who has access to these technologies, who sets the policies for their use.

Ramez shows a snippet of DNA base pairs, a string of ATCGs on a screen. “This is someone’s genome, probably Craig Ventner’s, and as promised, once we sequenced the genome, we ended all health problems, cracked ageing and conquered disease.” It turns out that genes are absurdly complex – they turn each other on and off in complex and unpredictable ways. “We can barely grok the behavior of half a dozen genes as a network.” To really understand the linkages between genes and disease, we’d need to collect lots more genetic data. Fortunately, the cost of gene sequencing is dropping much faster than Moore’s law, and there’s now the long-promised $1000 gene sequencer. But to really understand genes and disease, we’d need to collect behavioral and trait data about people whose genomes were sequenced – what was the person like, what diseases did they suffer, did they have high blood pressure, what was their IQ?

Personal monitoring tools like Fitbit generate lots of individual value, and potentially lots of societal value, by helping us understand what behavioral and diet interventions are most helpful. Will you get fitter on the paleo diet? Or will red meat kill you? Our data about behavior and health is so sparse that we don’t know which is true, despite one third of health spending on weigh loss and fitness programs and tools.

Is Nest a $3 billion distraction for Google? Or the first step towards the Google-powered smart electrical grid. Enormous financial and environmental benefits could come from a smart grid – if we could manipulate electrical usage we might be able to take thousands of “peaker” plants, plants that run for only a few hours a day, offline.

Given the field, we can imagine situations where more data would be helpful. Education? Sure – if we had more rigorous understandings of what teaching techniques work and fail, what makes a good teacher and a poor one, could we potentially transform that critical field?

Ramez pivots to the problems. There will be accidental disclosures of data. He suggests we look at two stories with Target, one where they accidentally revealed a daughter’s pregnancy to a distraught father by sending her coupons for baby supplies, and the recent leak where Target lost 70 million credit card numbers (including mine.) It could have been worse, and it probably will, Ramez argues. It could have been data about where you go, your SMS messages, your email – they will inevitably be released.

Anonymization of data sets doesn’t really work, he reminds us. Chevron recently lost a massive lawsuit in Ecuador and has sued to identify the activists who sought charges against the company. It’s very scary to consider what might happen to those activists, Ramez tells us.

“The NSA is not the worst abuse of surveillance we’ve seen,” he points out. J. Edgar Hoover bugged Martin Luther King Jr’s hotel rooms with the approval of JFK and RFK, who were worried that MLK was a communist sympathizer. In the process, Hoover discovered that MLK was having an affair, and sent threatening letters to him promising to reveal the secret if MLK didn’t commit suicide. This is heinous abuse, on a scale that’s not been revealed in recent revelations. But if the current abuses are significantly more minor, the scale is massive, with millions of individuals potentially at risk of blackmail.

Still, what’s critical to consider is not the what, but the who. There are checks and balances between we the people, corporations, government. There are conflicts between all of these. We vote within a democracy, Ramez argues, and we can vote with our feet and with our dollars. Sometimes corporations and governments are in collusion – sometimes they’re in conflict. Sometimes government does the right thing, as with the Church Committee, which investigated intelligence activities and helped curb abuses. We may need to consider the legacy of the Committee closely as we examine the current situation with the NSA.

There’s some hope. Ramez reminds us that “leaking is asymmetric.” As a result, conspiracies are hard, because it’s hard to keep secrets. “If you’re doing something heinous, it’s going to get out,” he says, and that’s a check.

His talk is called Big Data 7000 and he closes by imagining big data 7 millennia ago, showing an image of a clay tablet covered with cuneiform. “When the Sumerians began writing in linear A – that was a dystopian period of big data.” Writing wasn’t empowering to the little people, Ramez tells us – the use of written language created top-heavy, oppressive civilizations. It’s the model Orwell had in mind when he wrote 1984. That image of the control of technology in one mighty hand, not distributed, is at the root of our technological fears.

But technology can be liberating – the rise of the printing press put technology into many hands, allowing for the spread of subversive ideas including civil rights . The future of the net, he hopes, is in from big data as something in the hands of the very few to data in the hands of the very many.


Hi, Ethan here again.

What I really appreciated about this panel was a move beyond rhetoric about big data that is purely at the extremes: Big data is the solution to all of life’s mysteries! Big data is an inevitable path to totalitarianism! What’s complicated about big data is that there’s both hype and hope, reasons to fear and reasons to celebrate.

The tensions Mark Latonero identifies between wanting surveillance to protect against human rights abuses, and wanting to protect human rights from surveillance are ones that every responsible big data scientist needs to be exploring. I was surprised to find, both at this event and in a recent series of conversations at Open Society Foundation, that these are tensions the human rights community is addressing head on, in part due to enthusiasm for the idea that better documentation of human rights abuses could lead to better interventions and prosecutions.

The smartest phrase I’ve heard about big data and ethics comes from my friend Sunil Abraham of the Bangalore Center of Internet and Society, who was involved with those conversations at OSF. He offers this formulation: “The more powerful you are, the more surveillance you should be subject to. The less powerful you are, the more surveillance you should be protected from.” In other words, it’s reasonable to both demand transparency from elected officials and financial institutions, while working to protect ordinary consumers or, especially, the vulnerable poor. Kate Crawford echoed this concern, tweeting a story by Virginia Eubanks that makes the case that surveillance is currently separate and unequal, more focused on welfare recipients and the working poor than on more privileged Americans.

There’s no shortcut to the hard conversation we need to have about big data and ethics, but the insights of these four scholars and those they cite is a great first step towards a richer, more nuanced and smarter conversation.

November 5, 2013

Members, fans and complementary revenue models for the New York Times

Filed under: Media Lab — Ethan @ 7:46 pm

The other day, I had coffee with a friend who works for the New York Times. Early in the conversation, I admitted to him that I’ve developed a love/hate relationship with the Times. I love much of the paper’s content (though I share Greenwald’s wish that the Times would call torture “torture”) and find that many of the most interesting stories I read in a week come from the Times. But I am getting really sick of the Times’s efforts to nickle and dime me as a digital subscriber. Despite paying for access to the paper’s excellent content, they somehow make me feel like a piker if I’m not a subscriber to the print edition at nearly a thousand dollars a year.

I can access the Times through MIT, but decided that I read the paper often enough on other devices and outside of MIT’s network that I should become a digital subscriber. For a couple of weeks, I was a satisfied customer, reading far more than my allotment of ten free stories in my browser, and flipping through the paper on my phone when in transit or waiting on lines. But then the Times implemented its new “three articles a day” plan for mobile readers of the paper. My digital subscription – which costs $240 a year – includes a tablet and web version of the newspaper, but getting unlimited access via my phone costs an additional $180 a year.

Because the Times evidently takes its business cues from the widely despised cable TV industry, they like to bundle their content. As a result, the best way to get digital access is to purchase it bundled with the paper edition of the newspaper… which the Times won’t deliver to my rural address. I could also downgrade my bundle from web and iPad to web and phone, but it seems bizarre to me that digital data paid for in one place can’t be used in another.

And so I’ve found myself in the space of Times hacking, looking for ways to get content I want to read for a less exorbitant price than the Times wants to charge. (My current strategies: I am using my web subscription to dump articles to Instapaper, which I then read on my phone. Take that, Big Media!) Here, I join a large cadre of people who proudly post their tips for defrauding the Times so they can continue reading for free.

Let’s compare this situation to another media organization many New York Times readers rely on: public radio. No one writes articles bragging about how they avoided donating to NPR or how they get podcasts for free. In part, that’s because we don’t have to – public radio, for technical and historical reasons associated with the challenge of monetizing broadcast radio, is free by default, supported by voluntary donations. But there’s another reason: people love public radio, want to support it and feel guilty when they don’t.

I don’t intend to argue that the New York Times should become member supported. But I do want to make the case that they would benefit from thinking about the relationship public radio stations and shows have built with their members.

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There’s a diagram that often gets drawn on napkins or whiteboards when media people get together: a Pareto, or long-tail curve, where the Y axis represents how engaged with content your readers are, and the X axis represents your reader population. Near the origin of the graph, the curve is very high – those are the small set of users who are deeply engaged with your content. Farther from the origin, as the curve flattens out, we have the majority of readers, who engage with your content occasionally. For the New York Times, it’s key to turn the folks on the left of the graph into subscribers and to make money from the right of the graph through ads. And as we head towards Peak Ad, it’s increasingly important to move readers across the paywall that separates the left and right side of the graph.

Public radio stations, producers and podcasters face a similar graph. In their case, it’s critical to get the left side of the graph to become members or make donations. But instead of dropping a paywall, they use a combination of gratitude and guilt to persuade their most engaged listeners to support their programming. When they do it well, their listeners feel terrific: Ira Glass urges listeners to defray WBEZ’s bandwidth costs for delivering This American Life online, telling us that if we could give more than $5, we’d pay not only our costs but those of listeners who don’t donate. And if we don’t donate? We feel guilty, but not criminal. The New York Times, which reminds me how many of my three free stories I’ve read on my phone, makes me feel like there’s a security guard trailing me to make sure I don’t stuff an extra New York Times article down my pants.

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I suspect the business folks at the Times are operating under the assumption that there are only two places to be on their subscriber/revenue curve – you can be a subscriber and pay $300-800 a year, or you can be an outsider and cover a tiny fraction of your free riding with ad views. But there’s another option: the Times could start thinking of its readers in terms of subscribers, fans and passers-by. The Times won’t monetize passers-by, except through ads – these are folks who stumble onto the site occasionally and may not even realize they are reading Times content. That’s frustrating, but that’s how the web works. And the Times should certainly cultivate subscribers and encourage more fans to become subscribers. But they might do a better job of that by courting their fans, instead of locking them out.

Fans could be encouraged to support content on the Times not through a threat of locking them out, but by encouraging them to support the paper, and especially, the parts of the paper they value the most. When I donate to WNYC, I always take the opportunity to tell WNYC that I’m not a customer of the station as a whole, but of On The Media, my favorite outlet for smart media criticism. I have to think that some Times readers would love the opportunity to give to the paper and say, “Please don’t give this to Maureen Dowd. I’m giving in the hope of more Ta-Nehisi Coates op-eds.”

A New York Times that courted its fans would help fans track how much content they access from the Times, and perhaps, from other sources as well. It would take a suggestion from Doc Searls’s ideas about tracking usage of public radio and allowing users to donate to stations or programs that they listen to often. It might recognize that fans of the Times are fans of other publications, like The Guardian, the Christian Science Monitor or Planet Money, and band together with some of those other outlets to build a common tracking, membership and recommendations platform. (It would be very interesting for New York Times fans to discover they’re deeply dependent on the site’s content… or that they actually read other sources more than the times.) It could start treating fans who choose to subscribe as members, thanking them for making media accessible to others rather than making it clear that their content is only for those who pay.

Making news accessible for non-readers as well as readers is critical. News organizations have two bottom lines: they need to make enough money to keep the presses running, and they need to have a civic impact, holding the powerful responsible and giving citizens the information they need to participate in a democracy. As ad revenues decline, there’s a tendency for paywalled news sites to provide information only to the small group of people who subscribe to the paper. In the process, it’s possible that newspapers will lose their broader civic impact. If sites could find a way to get support from non-subscribers as fans, they could open their content to a broader audience and have more civic influence.

This would require some serious rethinking for the Times, and it’s quite possible they can support their reporting without making this change in the short term. But if we’re moving to a world where people are less dependent on a single media source, like the Times, and more inclined to pick and choose news from multiple sites, the Times will need to realize that fans can’t pay $300 to each content provider they want to support. Perhaps it’s time for the Times to start embracing and celebrating those fans, instead of alienating them.

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