#futr Day 2: FutureEverything, Manchester, May 2012

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Day two of FutureEverything dawned after the long round trip to Preston where I was staying. I’ve written up the first day, over the course of about 1,500 words here. As for day two you can read the organisers’ own thoughts here. But to the business of the day…

It was an honour and privilege to hear Birgitta Jónsdóttir MP (Iceland) open the day’s proceedings. She can be found @birgittaj, her site is here, there’s also Wikipedia and you can see her Prezi presentation here. Birgitta led with a call to arms, that ‘The Future is You’ and we have the internet as a tool for profound social change. Much of her keynote address focused on democracy and a need to remake it, upgrade it and start defragmenting the system. But what is democracy? Is it enough to vote; what other forms of engagement exist and why do people choose to use them? What are politicians for and how do we deal with the powerful lobbyists who essentially write the all important first drafts of legislation? What to do with a system that supports the 1%…?

What we do is reclaim democracy, recognise that we are the many and they are the few, we are the system and our representatives should be us (not professional politicians). The challenge is to create a constitution written by the people, for the people, as they’ve done in Iceland (that’s right, they crowdsourced their constitution). Where there is a system error you defrag and zero the system: install a new operating system for society, politics and economics.

During times of crisis governments will seize the opportunity to install restrictive laws and to shore up their power and control – witness the erosion of online rights through ACTA, SOPA, PIPA and CISPA in the US (with implications for citizens around the world); see also the ‘EU Data Retention Directive’. But see also Birgitta successfully suing the US State Department, a victory won during the period of the conference. (This brought a cheer.) There’s a direct link between online rights and offline freedoms: if the former is eroded the latter will also suffer. So we need to engage, to co-create the world we want to live in and WAKE UP!

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As if one role model wasn’t enough we were also treated to a talk from Juliana Rotich (@afromusing), the driving force behind Ushahidi.com. I’ve used this site as a reference point over the past couple of years when talking about crisis or ‘ambush’ events, whether it’s here on the blog or in class. I think much can be learnt from the ways crises are managed that can be applied to planned events – perhaps the biggest operational difference being that for the former all the effort and resource is deployed during and after the event, for the latter it’s during and beforehand. What can we learn about the tools that are used, the relationships between partners and stakeholders, the impact on host communities and their engagement in the process? Ushahidi is a mapping service that takes information from users through a wide variety of technologies and presents the results to help and tell the stories of citizens – often those caught up in natural disasters, state oppression and other crises. Juliana asked what would inspire us, as individuals, to contribute to a community? Maps help answer that question by providing context and demonstrating connections, brought alive through mobile technologies (SMS, apps, web, etc.) used by regular people to submit information. Ushahidi (meaning ‘witness’ in Swahili) was created in the furnace of post-election violence in Kenya, 2008 – but this was a situation that simply wasn’t being reflected in the mainstream media. 21st century technologies made possible the realisation that these problems weren’t localised and that citizens had the means by which to connect with each other.

The Ushahidi platform has been used in c20,000 places, from Kenya to Liberia, to the Christchurch and Japanese earthquakes. It’s also being deployed to map particular concerns and themes, from peak oil to opinions across a country to reports of violence against women. The software has been open sourced, and that’s at the heart of its popularity as a tool. It encourages contributions, both to its code and of course to each project that’s created wherever it may be around the world, aggregating data as it goes. Have a look at the way it’s being used to map the Occupy movement in the US: map.occupy.net. Likewise Al-Jazeera used it to reflect Ugandan responses to the Kony 2012 video that swept the world.

I had a question for Juliana: did she have examples of Ushahidi being used in conjunction with planned events, such as London 2012? She mentioned election coverage, but there was little in evidence of cultural events. Of course she then made the point that if I wanted it to be used to cover the London Olympics I had better grab the code and get on with it…

Kieran Kirkland spoke next, from his post at the Nominet Trust (‘social investment for social change’). He championed the ability, more likely the need, to support small scale innovation in order to make things happen: encouraging collaboration and engagement in ways that big organisations often fail to achieve. Big companies and big charities come with baggage – procedures, accountability mechanisms, numerous stakeholders, helpful board members and so on. But if a small organisation achieves a breakthrough, how is that scaled up? Here Kirkland took an interesting step by asking the audience what they had in mind when discussing the idea of increasing ‘scale’: the answers ranged from greater geographical spread, longer time periods (‘endurance’), great community engagement, the need for back end support and overall user growth. As a tactic it certainly opened up the discussion, which was then brought round to policy: if technology can enable growth in scale it can also act as the bridge between citizens and policy, through the collection and use of data. The potential is there for evidence based policy through that data.

A panel discussion was held to reflect upon the recent project ‘The Space’: thespace.org. Arts Council England and the BBC are behind this project, though it’s still a pilot at the moment and has no marketing budget – please head over to have a look and boost their pageviews. The panel included Ed Vaizey MP (Minister for Culture and Creative Industries) and folk from the other key stakeholders. The themes discussed included the perceived need to break down barriers between artistic genres, bringing stakeholders together in order that they might support the digital economy (that was Vaizey’s line). There was also recognition that digital output can lead to deeper engagement with a piece of work (or artist) by its existing fans, but not necessarily do much to expand an audience. From a technical perspective Mo McRoberts (BBC and @nevali) put the emphasis on The Space as a broadcaster in a box: a virtual do-everything piece of work in the same mould as Television Centre – a platform that one day will be a toolkit artists can pick up and reappropriate.
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The third highlight of my day was of course the appearance of Dr Farida Vis (@flygirltwo) on the main stage, merely two days after presenting at an Edinburgh Napier research conference that I’ve covered here. Farida reflected on eight years of research into social media and how the data just keeps getting bigger – how do you deal with 2.6 million tweets, as provided by Twitter and The Guardian for the ‘Reading the Riots’ project? You make friends with computer scientists, who can build you tools and help you get stuck into the data, and you engage with journalists who want to tell these sorts of stories as well. (It’s apt that Farida shared a Q&A session with Bilal Randeree (@bilalr) from Al-Jazeera, who had been discussing the role of social media in the Arab Spring.) Did social media cause the riots across England in the summer of 2011? No, they didn’t. Social media ≠ social change, causality has not been proven. But it had a part to play and Dr Vis was happy to announce that the team behind the research had just received funding to make available the tools used to analyse and manage all those tweets and all those data. What’s more the work has recently won a data journalism award. Farida has posted her slides on Slideshare here, where they sit alongside other presentations on her profile page.

Finally, as the day drew to a close, Carlo Ratti of the MIT SENSEable City Laboratory discussed ‘Future Cities’. Now that cities are wired up to provide us with a lot of information we can start closing the loop on ‘sensing’ and ‘actuating’ through the use of data: gathering the data and doing something with it. As a society we can now track trash to watch what happens to it, where it goes, how long it takes to reach its final destination. We can capture the metadata in photographs to tell what’s happening at a given time and a given place. We can do stuff with that data: visualise it, share it, change behaviors.

We can make buildings with walls made of water.
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Way back at the beginning of my day one post I made the point that FutureEverything is part conference (held at the excellent Museum Of Science and Industry) and part festival, with live performance taking place through the city. The visual arts exhibition rounded off my first day, at the bottom are some dimly photos that really don’t do it justice.

Top image: ‘Iceland’s open-door government’ / flickr.com/photos/opensourceway/6006269852/
Other images: all mine!

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