Tag Archives: ambush

#futr Day 2: FutureEverything, Manchester, May 2012


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!


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.

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.

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!


England riots: an interactive timeline (guardian.co.uk)

The Guardian today released the first findings of its investigation into the riots which swept through some cities in England during the summer of 2011. More is to come, as they drill down into the data with a team of academics and other partners.

Regardless of the findings I’m interested in the time taken to explain the methodologies used, approaches adopted and the various ways in which the material is being used. Social media and its uses also feature, courtesy of researchers such as Farida Vis (who also has a book on the way on this very topic: http://researchingsocialmedia.org/ ). The resources pulled together for this are not at the disposal of independent researchers, just as it took a partnership approach for The Guardian and others to work on the large tranches of data released by Wikileaks in recent months. That said, the open approach adopted by such media organisations and others facilitates the work of others: we can all learn a lot, give a little in return through comments and wider discussion. The debate is therefore better informed and the methods discussed – ultimately gaining credibility in the process.

Minor hurdle negotiated: PhD proposal drafted.

Feeling a sense of slight dizziness just now, I’ve drafted my PhD proposal and sent it to a couple of colleagues for their thoughts.  Referees have also been approached.  Hopefully all will be in place by this time next week and I can rest up over Christmas…

Right: what next?

(Meanwhile, English cities have witnessed student protests for quite a few days now – some of it has reached Scotland as well, although the legislation they’re agitating against doesn’t apply up here.  For now.  Rather like the Ushahidi example of collaborative data management, the students in London have been using Google Maps to plot developments as they try to outwit and outmanoeuvre the police.  More information here, while the map’s here.)

Crowdsourcing Disaster Relief


Follow the TechCrunch link to a relatively short piece on the uses of Ushahidi and connected technologies in crisis and disaster relief. Among the points to note are that this is from the technology-focused media, that it’s written by guest contributors who are keen to spread the word about how technology can be used in these situations, and also that Ushahidi seems to be dominating this space at the moment from what I’ve seen. This is not a criticism as there are clearly opportunities for other to contribute – that’s the point after all – and as Ushahidi becomes more straightforward to use, more uses will be found.

Unplanned events?

Two recent/ongoing examples have informed my thoughts a little regarding unplanned events, principally ??the amount of work that has gone into planning them. ??So much so in fact that to call them unplanned is in many ways a misnomer; ‘ambush’ events is probably more accurate. ??There is a link to technology to both however as it makes possible the preparation which is at the heart of these goings on.

First up is the??Wikileaks/Afghanistan story, which was broken by??The Guardian,??The New York Times??and??Der Spiegel??on Sunday/Monday of this week (25/26 July 2010). ??In his two hour press conference on Monday the founder of Wikileaks,??Julian Assange, talked about the carefully orchestrated manner in which the material was initially handled, analysed by experts from the different organisations, then splashed across many pages of print and online media: he wanted to set the news agenda for the week ahead. ??This is therefore a case study in manipulating the news cycle in a connected world, yet also an experiment in limiting access to the data in order to maintain/increase its value. ??The journalists who had a few weeks to pore over the documents were doing so because their editors saw the benefits in being in on something this big, there was much to be gained from devoting resources to a careful analysis of the material that would be lost if Wikileaks simply announced a free for all. ??This has been done in the past and when supply is infinite (while their servers hold up) the value of the material plummets.

So late on Sunday night the sites went live, Channel 4 posted an interview with Assange and Twitter turned its attention to such things while suburbia slept. ??Monday saw the civil society take hold of the story as the BBC and other news outlets tracked the story: a series of set pieces played themselves out, from the White House to Downing Street to Assange’s press marathon and presentation. ??Was (is) this therefore an event in itself?????The planning was clandestine, the execution effective, the legacy wide-ranging and the initial evaluation generally positive in terms of overall success as set against the organisers’ short term objectives. ??(The long objectives range from withdrawal from Afghanistan to potential enquiries into war crimes, which isn’t within the remit of this post.)

Where’s the tech? ??All over the place. ??From the means by which the material was illicitly obtained and forwarded to Wikileaks, to the ways in which it has been manipulated and displayed by the mainstream media organisations listed above – just look at this??time line??of IED explosions from The Guardian. ??Discussions erupted about what this leak of material means for state secrecy, war time propaganda, the state’s ability to control the flow information, the ways in which governments respond to such events and so on. ??The time pressure placed on all the actors was paramount because there was so much information to be processed (some 92,000 documents, give or take) and a rolling news machine that demands comment and decisions and analysis and so on. ??To my mind this shares many of the same features that tend to pepper discussions about London’s hosting of the 2012 Olympic Games, where legacy, politics, vested interests and the like are regular themes. ??It is fitting that the Games celebrated their ‘two years to go’ this week, although the contrast is clear in that this high profile event is being organised, constructed, discussed and amended in the full glare of public opinion. ??Hence the thought that the Wikileaks story is not so much an unplanned interruption to everyday life as an ambush: the planning is every bit as important to those involved in order that their objectives may be met. ??This argument needs further refinement!

The second ambush event comes with plenty of warning, again destroying my argument before it’s made. ??Edinburgh is due to play host to ‘Camp for Climate Action’ in August 2010, about two thirds of the way through the festival. ??The focus is due to be on RBS and their investment practises, drawing on the decentralised and passionate enthusiasm of the Climate Camp’s supporters. ??Here’s their website:??www.climatecamp.org.uk.

It was old fashioned print media that brought this to my attention, courtesy of a Climate Camp free paper picked up at the Big Tent Festival in Fife. ??The publication talks through a history of capitalism, a run through of past successes and a litany of RBS’s sins (which is currently a majority-publicly owned bank). ??There’s also some pointers on what to expect should one choose to attend the camp. ??This has been followed up in my inbox by a couple of newsletters with loads of information about current plans, ways to get involved and so on: it’s all measured, open and non-threatening. ??There are sections there about links with the police and how they see the camp operating alongside the forces of law, order and civil society. ??The key piece of information that’s missing seems to be the final location of the camp itself, which will be somewhere in Edinburgh.

The technology in all this is there on their site, and it’s behind all the links that are listed in the closing pages of the free paper. ??It’s my intention to try and follow this as it develops, from the blogs they write to the Tweets they send and discussions they host. ??To what extent others find ways to join in remains to be seen, but with the tools available it will be second nature to so many of these activists and their supporters to find common cause through social media.

Unplanned? ??Not at all. ??Secretive? ??Perhaps. ??Ambush rating: currently unknown.

The value of this for me is manifold:
– where does this fit into the standard understandings of ‘events’ and ‘festivals’?
– what can be seen and learnt from the ways in which it is being planned, organised, publicised and carried out?
– are there lessons here for less controversial events, in terms of gaining popular support within a particular community?
– does the use of technology, alongside more traditional forms of media, lend this event a range of opportunities and means of communication/organisation that would not have been the case a few years ago; how are those opportunities being grasped?
– is there are link between the motivation to achieve an objective and the degree to which technology is fetishised/relied up? ??(To whit the fact that Climate Camp have a driving passion has necessitated a focus on that and tools which will help achieve that goal, rather than spending time and energy on superfluous activities. ??If old-media and direct action is more effective than an attractive website that’s got to be their main focus.)

This is the day I finally engaged with the 2010 Edinburgh Festival Fringe as I picked up half a dozen tickets to events and shows. ??The Fringe relies on technology to work, as is all too apparent when it falls over, yet the themes above are perhaps equally relevant: the driving motivation behind their work and that of their contributing artists, the balance between the planned and the unplanned/ambushed event, and the role of different media to aid in that process. ??Is the medium the message? ??Surely not when the focus is on live interaction between people… though if there’s a means by which the live experience can be enhanced by technology so be it.

Let’s not for
get the audiences: perhaps they’re the ones with some ambush moments up their sleeves.