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Spotted: Me and Ken Worpole talking utopias at Stoke Newington Literary Festival

Thanks to my recent initiation into post-punk anarcho-folk outfit Pog, most of the festivals I’m going to this Summer are of the muddy field variety. The exception is this upcoming talk at Stoke Newington Literary Festival, where I’ll be attempting to match acclaimed writer on urban policy Ken Worpole‘s insights on the architecture of utopias in the built environment with my own observations from the virtual realm.

It’s five years since I published Barefoot into Cyberspace: Adventures in Search of techno-Utopia. Re-reading Thomas More’s 500 year-old Utopia for this talk, and particularly Book One (the one everyone forgets), I was reminded that being sceptical about people in power and their ability to act on the best information and advice is not a new thing. In his introduction to the Penguin Classic edition, Dominic Baker-Smith talks about More’s work being essentially an exploration of the “problematic relationship between imagined worlds and mundane reality”. Although reformers of all kinds will recognise this relationship immediately, I suspect it’s also something good software engineers think about too: after all, it’s actually their job to design perfect systems for non-perfect worlds.

Ken and I were introduced by the lovely Travis Elborough, who will chair the talk. He promises to help us “explore the concept of utopia, taking in Ebenezer Howard in Hackney, Garden Cities, Buckminster Fuller, Geodesic Domes, The Grateful Dead and the World Wide Web”. It’s on Saturday 4th June in Stoke Newington and you can buy tickets here.

Open Data impact: more questions than answers

Last week, I posted about the work I’m doing this year to get to the bottom of the impact open data policies have had on people’s lives to date.

Well, I’m about a month into that work, and I’m already thinking about revising my goals. By which I mean, if I can’t get to the bottom of this, maybe I can get about halfway down…?

My first post sparked some fun debate on Twitter, notably between Global Integrity’s co-founder and former director Nathaniel Heller and Development Gateway’s Josh Powell, and with Friedrich Lindenberg from Code4Africa and Open Knowledge Germany.

So, given how open (ahem) people appear to be to helping me think through this stuff on air, I thought I’d throw out the template set of questions I’m reaching out with to various open data scholars and practitioners in the coming months.

I hope they’ll spark even more engagement from anyone out there who feels they’ve got a dog in this fight. And just in case 140 characters don’t quite accommodate your thoughts on this, trackbacks and comments are also welcome (you can also email me, if you’d prefer).

  1. Can you name your top three examples of where you think open data has had a positive impact?
  2. How conscious do we have to be of the potentially negative impacts and unforeseen consequences of releasing open data sets or of open data policies in general? Are there stories to tell here too?
  3. Are there any particular sectors or spheres where you think open data is more likely to have a positive impact?
  4. Is open data more likely to have positive economic impacts than it is political, social or environmental ones? Or are economic impacts simply easier to quantify? Or both?
  5. What approaches have you seen to thinking and talking about open data impact that you think are valuable?
  6. Is it too soon to get a good idea about impact? Has open data been given enough of a chance to prove its worth?
  7. Where around the world (and not just US/UK) do we see open data sets that pre-date the recent Open Government Partnership commitments, and where we might therefore expect to see measurable impact?
  8. Do you subscribe to the theory that open data growth will be subject to network effects, and that we might not see impact at scale until it’s travelled a bit further along the power law curve?
  9. What are your favourite examples of measuring social/political/environmental impacts from other fields? Can they be applied to open data?
  10. Given one of the cited advantages of open data is that it allows many possible benefits, including unanticipated benefits, and given that research designed to evidence impact generally needs to be specific to a target or goal, is it harder to evaluate the impact of open data policies than it might be for other types of policies?

Governance By Algorithm: Big Data, The NSA and A Sinister Future

I was approached by The Quietus to write one of their Wreath Lectures this year. The result is this piece on our as yet fragmentary understanding of what the pervasive electronic surveillance activities of the US and UK as revealed by Edward Snowden means for all our futures.

For picture editors, it’s been a tough six months. The door to Room 641a is just a door, but it may be one of the most pictured doors in news history. It forms the front cover of Mark Klein’s autobiography Wiring Up The Big Brother Machine… And Fighting It. Wired magazine even have a slideshow of it, pictured from two angles. Similarly, after they got bored of running shots of the beautifully non-descript Snowden (no white-headed Julian Assange he), the picture desks at the newspapers brave enough to run his stories stuck with images of the doughnut-shaped GCHQ building in Gloucestershire, and the NSA’s mirrored box headquarters at Fort Meade.

This is important, because it indicates something deeper at play. Simply put, it means we – collectively, all of us, not just the Guardian‘s visual editors – cannot picture what the state of affairs as has now been revealed to us means. We don’t understand it. If this were a murder mystery, we’d be at the start, with nothing but the yellow-tape outline of a dead body to go by. We know where the crimes took place, but we don’t yet know why, or how to stop the killer from striking again.

Read the full post here. The post draws from a panel I took part in for the wonderful Cybersalon in November.

“Freedom cloud” republished by New World Academy

My 2011 article for openDemocracy.net The Freedom Cloud has been republished in a new reader produced by the New World Academy, an art/politics project founded by Dutch visual artist Jonas Staal and BAK (basis voor actuele kunst).

You can access the reader, which has contributions from Birgitta Jónsdóttir and Matt Mason, here (pdf).

Too much information: Links for week ending 19 October

US: Supreme Court terminates warrantless wiretapping case
Wired reports that the United States Supreme Court have ended the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)’s bid to hold telecoms provider AT&T to account for allegedly cooperating with the United States government in the illegal surveillance of US citizens after 9/11, upholding a lower court decision that the company enjoyed “retroactive immunity” from prosecution thanks to a law passed by Congress two years after the EFF first filed suit. The EFF’s fight against warrantless wiretapping will continue in the form of a class action lawsuit it is helping to bring against the US National Security Agency (NSA) on behalf of AT&T customers.
Wired | Jewel vs. NSA

Malawi: E—Bill puts online freedom of expression in cross—hairs
Malawi’s Nyasa Times reports on a proposed law to regulate and control online communications in the country that media commentators are arguing will have a negative impact on freedom of expression.

Canada—EU Trade Agreement contains same “outrageous” criminal sanctions as ACTA
La Quadrature du Net expresses outrage at the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) currently being negotiated between Canada and the European Union. The treaty contains provisions on copyright infringement including criminal sanctions, private enforcement by internet service providers and punitive damages, which have been directly lifted from another controversial treaty — the Anti—Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) — that was ultimately rejected by the European Parliament earlier this year in response to widespread public opposition.

Portugal: Court declares filesharing legal
TechWeek Europe reports that prosecutors in Portugal have ruled that sharing copyrighted files for personal use is legal: “Prosecutors added that the right to culture, education and freedom of expression on the internet should not be restricted in cases where copyright infringements are clearly non—commercial.”

Project on surveillance in Russia launched
Privacy International and Agentura.Ru, the Russian secret services watchdog, have announced a joint project “to undertake research and investigation into surveillance practices in Russia, including the trade in and use of surveillance technologies.”

Debate: Should industry face more cybersecurity mandates?
 “Is the threat of cyber attacks on crucial industries as serious as the government has claimed?”: Panellists drawn from industry, government and civil society — including noted security expert Bruce Schneier — discuss appropriate responses to rising fears about cybersecurity in this US—focussed New York Times “Room for Debate” special.

The Google Civic Information API
On the eve of the US elections, Google has launched a freely available and reusable data resource (otherwise know as an API) to help anyone developing websites and services that rely on civic information like candidate data and polling places. Google hope to eventually extend the service to other countries.

Report: Hacking Team and the Targeting of Dissent
This Citizen Lab report examines Italian company Hacking Team’s role in supplying backdoor surveillance products that were “used to compromise a high—profile dissident residing in the United Arab Emirates.”

A Data Journalist’s Life: Interview with Sarah Cohen
The Data—Driven Journalism blog publishes an interview with Pulitzer Prize—winning data journalist Sarah Cohen: “Pay attention to your gut feelings and critically question the data. The big risk is that, when you go back to the government with something they don’t know, they have to believe you.”

Interview: Bill Maris, Google Ventures
The Wall Street Journal interviews Bill Maris, head of Silicon Valley venture capitalists Google Ventures, about the state of start—up funding and his next big investments.

28c3 highlights: Behind enemy lines

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, hackers looked at each other and said : “w00t! Only two days to go until 28c3”.

Lego play at 28c3, courtesy of johnflan@flickr

This was the first year I went to the Chaos Computer Club’s annual Berlin shindig without taking my dictaphone. I was officially on holiday, hooking up with old friends from across the internet, and meeting a few new ones. This really is one of the finest, funnest events for computer obsessives in the whole world. Here are my highlights.

Roger Dingledine and Jacob Applebaum on TOR

For me, this talk illustrates the central role the hacker community is now playing in world events. The conference opened with a set piece from Evgeny Morozov on the perils of networked, digital surveillance, but it was this talk on Day 2 about the experiences of the TOR community with national network control infrastructures that felt like it united people at 28c3 against surveillance as a concept and a technology, in free societies as well as oppressed ones. The tub-thumping and the casual allusions to the technical vulnerabilities of state censorship technologies were tempered by the pair’s obvious expertise and considered ethical attitude. Gold.

Defending mobile phones

Two years ago, at 26c3, Karsten Nohl announced that the GSM encryption protocol had been cracked. This year, he detailed how network operators should be securing their networks while they upgrade the encryption, and asked the community to help him keep track of how the operators perform. He also previewed a new project, CatcherCatcher, which will track the activity of IMSI catchers on behalf of phone users. IMSI catchers are thought to be increasingly used by law enforcement agencies to track people via their mobile phones.

The coming war on general computation

An expertly delivered talk in which Cory Doctorow reminded congress that “information appliances” (like iPads, Kindles and all the rest) are simply fully functional computers with spyware in them out-of-the-box: “All attempts at controlling PCs converge on rootkits and all attempts at controlling the network converge on surveillance”.

Sovereign keys

The EFF’s Peter Eckersley proposes a way to fix the broken Certificate Authority system.

Towards a Single Secure European Cyberspace?

A beautifully constructed lecture cross-referencing the rhetoric used by European legislators to erode internet freedoms with the character of the new, networked activism which I ruin at the end by asking a stupid question no-one understands.

The hallway track

Random cool stuff I found out about from talking to people in and around the conference: the Open Source Next Generation Multicopter; the Hackerbus and Code Hero.

Photo courtesy of johnflan@Flickr.
Link to roundup of 27c3.

2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Syndey Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 26,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 10 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.