Apr 182012

Ever wondered how those conflicted confusions of politicos with vested interests might already be affecting our democracy?  Whilst Éoin speaks of “sleeper cells” in Clinical Commissioning Groups throughout the NHS, and expresses his unhappiness with great precision, the US has had a rather longer history of such organised pork-barrel politics.  Which does, in fact, give them an advantage in some matters as the Internet’s myriad of tools allows the people in some way to strike back.

This, then, in my opinion anyhow, really does deserve to be imported from the States.  More about it here and reproduced in full below:


I launched Sopatrack in late December, 2011. At the time, SOPA and PIPA were being rushed through Congress without public debate. There was major, one-sided funding for these issues, and it was alarming how much traction that could get.

Sopatrack had a few goals:

  1. Help voters find their local congresspeople on any connected device
  2. Allow voters to contact their members of Congress by phone or social networking site
  3. Show whether a congressperson supported or opposed this issue
  4. Show how much money the congressperson raised both for and against SOPA/PIPA

The site was immediately popular, with lots of press coverage including The Atlantic, Mashable, Lifehacker, and Hacker News. Twitter, Facebook, and Google drove the majority of the traffic, which peaked at over 40,000 unique daily visitors on key days around the issues.

The wider internet community also rose up, and Congress eventually tabled these bills. Great sites like SOPA Opera were developed, and ultimately Google, Wikipedia, and Reddit staged major actions so that their users would understand the issue. The resources of SunlightLabs, MapLight, and OpenSecrets were hugely helpful to developers and voters.

But there was still more data on other bills, and I wondered what Sopatrack would look like if automatically applied to all bills.

And so it is that we get the new Sopatrack:

How does Fundraising Impact Congress?

The new Sopatrack has the same goals as the original, except that it will work across all bills in the 112th Congress with contribution data from MapLight. Since there’s more data across more issues, the site also tracks how often a congressperson votes on the side of the greater contributions. Individual positions on pre-vote issues will not be tracked.

The votes with the money percentage is also applied to each state for all their congresspeople, and to all Congress.

A brilliant use of public data: follow the people who follow the money, analyse how this affects the way they vote – and make the information available to everyone.  With such a simple and manifestly open system as this, we don’t need to ban lobbyists; we don’t need to pass legislation; we don’t need – a priori – the politicians to change anything they’re already doing right now.  All we need to do is harness a kind of consumer value-for-money instinct and give the voters the data they need to decide on their lonesomes who should deserve our approval and who our disapprobation.

And if shame doesn’t change how politics is conducted, datasets such as these will surely have some sort of beneficial impact in other ways with an evermore tech-savvy public.

As I suggested recently in relation to political funding, approaches which pull together disparate but publicly available information – and then disseminate equally publicly this information about how our politicians and their supporters behave – might have more chances of changing cultures than self-administered and half-hearted patches to the weary body politic; patches which, in any case, the politicians will always find a way of working around and undermining.

If the latest memes and buzzwords in social media involve using the Twitter firehose and similar sets of information to analyse the voting public into submission, why not turn the tables on the politicians and their marketers and use the same tools to analyse the latter into acquiring good and democratic behaviours?

In the light of reports such as Éoin’s tonight, it’s high time we considered doing something similar to Sopatrack here in Britain.

Anyone up for it?

That is to say, anyone up for saving our democracy from the people who follow the money instead of our interests?

Apr 182012

Norman quite rightly points out the selectivity of interested parties in what we might term the Israeli conflict – a conflict which is waged when not on the ground in the echoing chambers of the chattering classes everywhere.

Today, we receive news that the soldier in question will be dismissed on moral grounds.  This is how I stumbled across the news just now in Google Reader.

As you can see, the New York Times feed also included an ad – algorithmically driven I assume.  And so it was that the number-crunching technologies decided that the Israeli Army’s decision should be fed alongside a banner which offered the following choice phrases:

Content Marketing Strategies Conference Announces …

[…] Nigel will share his thoughts on adaptive storytelling for brands in a convergent world.

No.  I’m really not arguing this is what has happened here: I do, however, find it fascinating that the algorithms clearly suspect it might have.

Apr 182012

For those of you who live in the UK and are affected by its legislation, the Open Rights Group – of which I am a recent member – has just published this briefing page on what the government most likely is planning for our web.

First, because I think such information generally informs people’s wider prejudices about the Internet, here are some stats pulled from the briefing on what people think the web means for children:

Key facts

  • One quarter of UK 9-16 year olds say that they have seen sexual images in the past 12 months, whether online or offline. 11% encountered sexual images online. (See Livingstone, S., Haddon, L., Görzig, A., and Ólafsson, K. (2011). Risks and safety on the internet: the UK report. LSE, London: EU Kids Online. p. 8-9)
  • “…overall, most children have not experienced sexual images online and, even of those who have, most say they were not bothered or upset by them”. (See Livingstone, S., Haddon, L., Görzig, A., and Ólafsson, K. (2011). Risks and safety on the internet: the UK report. LSE, London: EU Kids Online. p. 8-9)
  • 24% of those who said they had seen sexual images online, or 3% of all the children surveyed, claimed they were upset or bothered by something they had seen. (See Livingstone, S., Haddon, L., Görzig, A., and Ólafsson, K. (2011). Risks and safety on the internet: the UK report. LSE, London: EU Kids Online. p. 8-9)
  • 23 per cent of parents think it likely that their child will experience something that bothers them online in the next six months. (See The Bailey Review, page 36)
  • Ofcom found that in 2010, 26% of parents were very or fairly concerned about the content of websites their children were visiting. (UK Children’s Media Literacy, Ofcom, 2011, p. 66)

A pretty damning set of stats I might say – if, that is, sexual imagery is a particular issue for you in relation to how our kids are supposedly using the web.  Two things here: first, the real world presents its own challenges on this matter – the sexual imagery which is present in the music industry, for example, can often go beyond a similar pale and make us wonder if everything is as it should be; and second, the suspicion will always exist that the above – whilst covering important and key matters for our younger citizens – will be used and even exploited by governments and big business to make access to the Internet more convenient for their rather more closed interests.

On the wider issues of Internet freedom and innovation, then, here we have a couple of paragraphs on what ORG judges the government’s approach might lead to:

The UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Frank La Rue, noted (page 8) last year that restrictions on access to information can have a ““chilling effect” on the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”

Without adequate safeguards, handing powers over what information people can access, or over the visibility of certain kinds of information, inevitably opens the door to censorship, either through mistakes or abuse.

Overall, we are concerned that powers that DCMS will propose in the forthcoming Green Paper to restrict access to information are being given away too cheaply. The result is a suite of proposals that will likely damage the Internet as a tool for the promotion of freedom of expression and innovation through fair and open markets.

Something I’d be inclined to agree with one hundred percent.

Meanwhile, and as a footnote to what is now an ongoing debate, I’d just like to underline that the reason I think we have the web we have is because, quite simply, we don’t have the democracy we deserve.  Some examples to follow, then, so you can see what I mean:

  1. If it’s too easy to access sex online, if the demand in itself exists, in part it’s because first-time sexual “experiences” offline – the music industry stuff I mention above, for example – is as teasingly bent out of shape as it could be.  Get it right in an offline context, with proper and sensitive education, and you might find the subject came out of the underground the web currently seems to so delight in positioning it.
  2. If it’s too easy to access illegal music online, it’s because right at the beginning of digital music the industry itself failed to move with the needs of the market – they felt that they could continue to run their traditionally massive overheads and generate waste on an industrial scale just as generations already did previously.
  3. If it’s too easy to access news and journalistic endeavour online, and we discover we can’t fund the mainstream media we supposedly deserve, it’s because offline for far too long it’s been a privileged medium where those in the know often tend to protect those who keep them in the know.  We’ve simply lost interest in listening to the clever bods who play with our interests – far better a Web 2.0 experience where we speak to our peers and can at least suss out the fakes before they get too big and important.
  4. If it’s too easy to access general knowledge in the form of digital encyclopaedias, it’s because Microsoft – of all companies – failed to see the virtues of getting users truly involved and crowdsourcing the future generations of content.

If we have the web we currently have, it’s because the society we should be able to fashion – a modern, democratic and freely discursive 21st century ecosystem of connected voters and legitimate business interests – just simply isn’t getting there at all.

If we have the web we currently have, it’s because the real-world alternative is so damningly corrupt and unfree.

And if they’re now trying to take away from us the web we’ve achieved to date, it’s precisely because they understand that – in truth – for every excess that now takes place on the Internet, a man or woman or corporation has taken the wrong path in offline endeavour.

Why do we have the web we have?  Because those of you who run the real world have made such a mess of what could’ve been a real journey of discovery!  The web we have isn’t in its natural state – it’s reacting violently as a corrective to a sequence of violences committed by those who prefer to impose, on this Planet Earth, their anti-democratic ways of doing.

That, my dear friends, is why we have the web we have.  And in order to properly sort it, we first need to properly sort the real world which has caused it.

Not patch, flailingly and foolishly, the technology that simply reflects our own grubby visages.

For that really would be a churlish – as well as childish – act of uncommon vengeance.

Apr 182012

This story today makes me wonder what sort of government – and perhaps by extension, what sort of law – we want:

A Libyan military commander is taking legal action against Jack Straw, to find out if the ex-foreign secretary signed papers allowing his rendition.

Abdel Hakim Belhadj claims CIA agents took him from Thailand to Gaddafi-led Libya, via UK-controlled Diego Garcia.

His lawyers have served papers on Mr Straw after the Sunday Times reported claims that he allowed this to happen.

It’s interesting that whilst the users of Twitter and other social networks (my take here) are battling to keep the law out of encroaching on their casually couched freedoms of speech, that selfsame tool for supposedly exacting the truth of a matter is reaching up to the stratospheric levels of ex-government ministers and the like.

And my question really is: do we know what we are doing?

Once the law begins to get involved with the minutiae of relatively trivial intercourse, it can hardly resist the temptation to go after the mightiest in the land.  That’s what seems to me to be happening here.  A game whereby everything must come under its apparently objectivising gaze.  Maybe bearing more than a passing resemblance to that bewildering profession of economics which currently rules so many of our roosts.

Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong: it’s not the purpose of this post to decide.  It may be fair to send racist and foul-mouthed social-network users to prison; it may be right to serve civil papers on ex-ministers of previous governments.  I do hold my own opinion – but as a simple voter, what does that count?  In a society evermore circumscribed by the supposedly “good” and “wise”, what can be the point of me expressing it in relation to concrete cases which clearly have their complex and incommunicable ins and outs?

It does seem to me, however, in a more general sense, that there must be an alternative to an eternal legalisation of society.  In a way, it surely parallels the terrible medicalisation of what other ages judged to be the glory of human eccentricity: two professions – the medical and legal both – marching side by side in their awful attempts to type, control and ultimately homogenise our every instinct and movement as multifarious and ever-so-gentle beings.

Is this a battle, then, between the professions on the one hand and a wider and far more educatedly intelligent civic society, now far more aware of its intrinsic and moral rights, on the other?

Is what we are witnessing actually a turf war where economists, lawyers and doctors are all – maybe subconsciously, maybe with massive intention – fighting in some sad way to recover the respect and deference of yore?

And is it time the rest of us understood this war for what it was – and, by so doing, tried to renegotiate and reshape the compact which previously existed and defined our society?

In much the same way as some have argued in favour of an uneconomics, maybe it’s now high time we began to extend the principle to the other professions in the mix: unlaw, unmedicine and – even – uneducation.

Who knows?  Perhaps that’s exactly what this Coalition government is really all about.

It’d certainly help to explain very many of the dynamics currently on show.

And, as a result, whilst implementing foolishly and destroying quite unnecessarily, they may have a point in some of what they think.  If only our ministers knew how to properly verbalise their instincts, perhaps we could get somewhere through tried and tested methods of debate.

That greatest unprofession of all: the politico with nothing to do but retread old empires and resell them as something new.

Apr 182012

A tweet which this morning was directed at my innermost open-source leanings led me to wonder if Wikipedia has a symbiotic or parasitical relationship with knowledge.  The tweet went thus:

@eiohel like the wonderful open source voluntarism-driven marvel that is Wikipedia. It’s foundation is well-funded publications 4 citation

I answered with a perhaps too flippant reply that just as many journalists working for paid publications would be taking advantage of Wikipedia’s millions of pages as any of the alleged “free-loaders” out there.  I say flippant because this of course wouldn’t necessarily make the situation any better: quite the reverse in fact, as paid-for organisations could arguably free-load on the back of other paid-fors via the intermediary actions and paraphrasing skills of Wikipedia itself.

It also led me, however, to tweet back the following resulting thought (the bold is mine):

@Paul0Evans1 We could of course equally say the same of blogging since the beginning of time … symbiotic rather than parasitic?

Which leads to me to my final occurrence and the very point of this post: does blogging – has blogging ever – added real value to anything at all?  Dependent as it is on much of paid-for media’s output to spark off its over-the-garden-fence discourses, it would probably not exist if there weren’t a close interface between the blogosphere and MSM.  Yet surely even those most in favour of traditional copyright models could not argue that the blogosphere taken in its entirety had not added anything useful to the sum of human thought.

Or, in their irascible and fanatical mindsets, might they be tempted to assert that it manifestly hadn’t?

My opinion is, of course, quite different.  I believe we need deniable outriders in thought – just as much as we need them in politics.  They are the proving-ground of new and bright ideas – and such ideas need the freedoms of open and unrestricted places if the future is to be dealt with under any kind of intelligence at all.  The shutdowns of traditional copyright models probably do have their place in some form: but blogging, and the kind of open access to general knowledge which Wikipedia and social media in general tend to provide, are a necessary adjunct to the intellectually sustainable – and directly fundable – stuff traditional copyright seems to want to continue inscribing.

In any case, there have been notable calls recently for open access to publicly-funded research: if the debate is now getting as far ahead as the cutting-edge of such research, surely that cutting-edge shouldn’t any longer be causing us to bleed?