Viewsdesk - chasing the global public sphere

October 2010

Technologies19:18, October 24, 2010

As Wikileaks first released 70,000 documents from the war in Afghanistan – and then a staggering 400,000 incident reports on Operation Iraqi Freedom, it’s become clear that great sources today means something different than waiting for Deep Throat to call. The question is if old media is up for the challenge?

The Swedish national television network, SVT, was one of the few news organizations invited by Wikileaks to get advance access to the data. Apparently, SVT has a dedicated database editor employed! This is not news for larger, international outfits, like The Guardian, but to my knowledge it’s a first in Sweden. It’s a move that must be applauded, and hopefully this will inspire others to follow.

Understanding data is crucial for journalists and needs to be a prioritized part of the job – and it’s really nothing new. Scientists, even in social and political science, have always been looking at the world through datasets. For them, data mining is a methodology for finding patterns, discrepancies and that particularly interesting angle that’s worth a closer look.

The data is the story, stupid!
In the Wikileaks case it is, of course, quite obvious that a journalist printing nearly half a million pages and, after a quick visit to the coffee machine, start reading from page one is going to fail – and fail miserably. But it doesn’t have to be a massive material like this to make a data based process worthwhile.

In a transparent world, all data – in its raw, true, unedited state – would be made available to the public. The good thing is that the world is potentially filled with people qualified to do such analyses, and where journalists would fail or don’t find that needle in the haystack, maybe someone else will. Because the data is there, for everyone!

The data is the insight, stupid!
There is a tendency to treat whatever knowledge or intelligence is built up within an organization very secretively. In the end, the world has silos of insight, but no way of connecting the dots.

As I see it, there are two ways of looking at it. Firstly, from the point of transparency. This is what scares people, because what if someone finds something to complain about? There’s a tendency to treat data like business secrets, and reserve exclusive right to interpret the data. Transparency is naturally most important for anything governmental, but in that sector at least we can legislate for openness. Doing so for private enterprise is much more difficult.

Secondly, and this is what I believe people are missing, is that data mining and auditing by a third party can actually help the organizations’ internal processes. It will make them smarter; it will help them get better at whatever it is they’re doing. It will help companies churn out better products and better services.

There are, for example, a lot of NGOs that should open up their projects and submit its data of statistics, knowledge and insight for general use by external parties. Not because they have to, by law, but because they would gain from it.

Charity organizations are also dependent on donations, and it’s reasonable to think that donors have the right to know exactly how their money is spent. Understandably it’s scary, but the question is if they can afford not to do it in the long run? What if the donors would require it to make a donation? It’s the route that the UN is taking, for example.

The data is the giant, stupid!
Once data is set free, it can be combined and cross-referenced with other data. It can be plotted to geographical information system or provide answers to questions the creators never imagined. Suddenly, a seemingly dull dataset gets new life, and can possibly be used for something that wasn’t imagined by its creators.

Hans Rosling, professor of public health, and a fantastic public speaker at that, combine UN data, and fight for more open data, and gain valuable insights that would have been impossible to attain in any other way.

Data owners must realize that they are the giants on whose shoulders people want to be standing.

ICT4D17:56, October 22, 2010

Though the fight is less Batman and more committee, the UNs latest report on how ICTs can be used to alleviate poverty is interesting and highlights a very important role for technology to play. There are no guarantees that improved access to ICTs leads to poverty reduction. Information accessed through ICTs has to be relevant and appropriately presented to benefit the poor, reflecting the needs, skills and capabilities of the latter.

Better information – better decisions
Poor people often lack access to information that is vital to their lives and livelihoods, including weather reports, market prices and income-earning opportunities. Such lack of information adds to the vulnerability of the people concerned. In terms of livelihood strategies, information plays a dual role: informing and strengthening the short-term decision-making capacity of the poor themselves; and informing and strengthening the longer-term decision-making capacity of intermediaries that facilitate, assist or represent the poor. The contribution of ICTs to poverty reduction through enterprise lies in their power to give poor women and men access to improved information and better communications to help them build livelihood assets.

Evidence-based insights
Far more needs to be understood about the emerging new roles and impacts of ICTs in poor communities. As few empirical studies have looked specifically at this question, the evidence base remains weak. By placing the spotlight on this area, this the UN-report points to the need for more attention in terms of research and policy analysis to help identify the best ways forward in order to seize maximum development gains from the new ICT landscape.

Wireless is the way forward
Access to most ICTs continues to grow in poor countries, but at very different rates depending on the technology. Growth also varies by region and income level. Access to fixed telephone lines in the poorest countries is extremely low and almost negligible in rural areas. By contrast, mobile access deepens each year as networks extend to more of the formerly unreachable. After a radio or a television set, the next most likely ICT device found in poor households is a mobile phone.

The use of mobile phones to access the Internet is growing rapidly and may eventually become more prevalent in developing countries than in developed countries. In East Africa, for example, Internet access via mobile phones now far exceeds fixed Internet subscriptions. This underscores the potential for mobile phones to transform Internet use in the developing world.

Internet Governance17:38, October 7, 2010


Oliver Johnson, in his article Net Neutrality – The Phony War, published in this week’s CircleID, has a deterministic view on why net neutrality is never going to be achieved. It is, he argues, just a mirage even today. Net neutrality can never be achieved, simply because it is not in the interest of the markets. The problem, he says, is that the ISPs and cable companies must generate growth. This far, growth has been maintained by selling more and more connections. However, as the number of households is finite, that growth is impossible to retain. The only route left then is segmentation. His argument is self-referring.

Stability just isn’t sexy enough. If you want your share price to increase then you have to demonstrate revenue and preferably margin growth.

For whom is the “market”?
We have to stop talking about the market as an absolute. What we call a market is not as inescapable as gravity. It is not a law of nature. Without going too much into specifics, it’s clear that a capitalist market works well – most of the time. There are however, many occasions where it doesn’t work, of perform badly. Exactly where we draw the line depends on where you are in the world: most of Europe, for example, have quite a different view than the US on basic health services. But in all societies, regardless of country, there is a line.

Politicians, step up!
It is the responsibility of the politicians to oversee the market so that society reaps the maximum amount of benefits from it. I wonder if there’s any (developed) country where fire services are privatized, just to name one? When a house is on fire, it’s an issue for the whole community – not just the owner of the house.

History shows that cable companies are not very good at creating, what Mr. Johnson calls, value-added services. In fact, to put it bluntly, they suck at it. The reason the Internet grew, and won over competing closed services (and there were many: The Microsoft Network, CompuServe, AOL to name but a few) 15 years ago was because infrastructure and content is two very, very different breeds of horses.

Focus on what you do best. If companies who build roads would start making cars, or build amusement parks where people could go using the company’s roads in the company’s cars, most would agree that it was a serious case of hubris. Even if it made their shareholders disappointed.

Freedom to invent
Mr. Johnson speaks of a market. But there are others markets. Net neutrality guarantees that there’s a market of competing services on the internet. ISPs have one job to do: deliver bits. They might not like that, but really, that’s what they’re good at. Please, keep your fingers out of the other jars!

Without free competition on the internet market – if there was no net neutrality ten years ago, none of the services we use and love today would have existed. Not Google. Not Facebook. Not Flickr. Not Twitter. Kiva? Delicious? Yahoo? No! Definitely not The Pirate Bay or Torrentreactor and thus not Spotify or Pandora! I could go on. What we would have, in that alternate reality, is News Corp, Time Warner and Disney. In this universe Barak Obama wouldn’t be president of the United States!

I’m left with the feeling that Mr. Johnson is willing to sacrifice what could be the most important infrastructural achievement since the construction of a nationwide road network, all to keep shareholders in a few major cable companies happy. That’s outrageous.

Who is Topic Point?
It seems his argument is not only self-referring but also self-serving. It might be also interesting to note the Oliver Johnson is the CEO of Point Topic, a company that makes a living giving advice to broadband carriers.

Censorship00:13, October 5, 2010

Twenty years ago, this week, East and West Germany was reunited. The Berlin wall had crumbled – and with it fell of one the most oppressive regimes that had ever existed in Europe. Today we look at Iran and Cuba to illustrate censorship, oppression and breeches of human rights, but we shouldn’t forget that evil could just as well happen closer to our own doorstep. And if it does, we won’t necessarily recognize it. Not until it’s too late.

The Deutsche Demokratische Republik was a notoriously paranoid state. Using technology, that at that time was cutting-edge, it spied profusely on its citizens. The fear of subversive elements made Stasi, the secret police, powerful and all knowing. There was no way of knowing if your neighbor was just an elderly lady or an informer for the state. Naturally, this lead to strategies of immense self-censorship that was, in a sense, even worse than the open oppression.

One should tread carefully into the domains of historical parallels. Often, comparing a society with another gets overly simplistic. However, at the same time, there are things we can learn from history as it tells us something about structure and human responses to issues at hand.

There’s a proverb that says that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and I feel that there’s a lot too that.

The development in the western world today is very quickly going a direction of more and more surveillance, often with the quite rational argument to fight terrorism and/or child pornography. Suddenly we have filtering systems put in place. We have internet wiretapping listening to each bit we send through the pipes. We have data retention laws that make mobile operators save information about the conversations we’ve had. Let’s face it, mandatory DNA sampling is just around the corner.

And for what?

People will adapt; they will change their behavior and censor themselves. Suddenly, the mind is not as free anymore. In fact, this has already happened.

I would like us to, while marking the German anniversary, also be introspective and rethink our position on our own situation. We are not DDR – we will never be the DDR. That’s not the issue. But we risk becoming something else. Something we didn’t intend. Something just as bad.