Tag Archives: Social Web

Evolving a Global System of Info Webs

I’ve already blogged about what an ecosystem approach to conflict early warning and response entails. But I have done so with a country focus rather than thinking globally. This blog post applies a global perspective to the ecosystem approach given the proliferation of new platforms with global scalability.

Perhaps the most apt analogy here is one of food webs where the food happens to be information. Organisms in a food web are grouped into primary producers, primary consumers and secondary consumers. Primary producers such as grass harvest an energy source such as sunlight that they turn into biomass. Herbivores are primary consumers of this biomass while carnivores are secondary consumers of herbivores. There is thus a clear relationship known as a food chain.

This is an excellent video visualizing food web dynamics produced by researchers affiliated with the Santa Fe Institute (SFI):

Our information web (or Info Web) is also composed of multiple producers and consumers of information each interlinked by communication technology in increasingly connected ways. Indeed, primary producers, primary consumers and secondary consumers also crawl and dynamically populate the Info Web. But the shock of the information revolution is altering the food chains in our ecosystem. Primary consumers of information can now be primary producers, for example.

At the smallest unit of analysis, individuals are the most primary producers of information. The mainstream media, social media, natural language parsing tools, crowdsourcing platforms, etc, arguably comprise the primary consumers of that information. Secondary consumers are larger organisms such as the global Emergency Information Service (EIS) and the Global Impact and Vulnerability Alert System (GIVAS).

These newly forming platforms are at different stages of evolution. EIS and GIVAS are relatively embryonic while the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination Systems (GDACS) and Google Earth are far more evolved. A relatively new organism in the Info Web is the UAV as exemplified by ITHACA. The BrightEarth Humanitarian Sensor Web (SensorWeb) is further along the information chain while Ushahidi’s Crisis Mapping platform and the Swift River driver are more mature but have not yet deployed as a global instance.

InSTEDD’s GeoChat, Riff and Mesh4X solutions have already iterated through a number of generations. So have ReliefWeb and the Humanitarian Information Unit (HIU). There are of course additional organisms in this ecosystem, but the above list should suffice to demonstrate my point.

What if we connected these various organisms to catalyze a super organism? A Global System of Systems (GSS)? Would the whole—a global system of systems for crisis mapping and early warning—be greater than the sum of its parts? Before we can answer this question in any reasonable way, we need to know the characteristics of each organism in the ecosystem. These organisms represent the threads that may be woven into the GSS, a global web of crisis mapping and early warning systems.

Global System of Systems

Emergency Information Service (EIS) is slated to be a unified communications solution linking citizens, journalists, governments and non-governmental organizations in a seamless flow of timely, accurate and credible information—even when local communication infrastructures are rendered inoperable. This feature will be made possible by utilizing SMS as the communications backbone of the system.

In the event of a crisis, the EIS team would sift, collate, make sense of and verify the myriad of streams of information generated by a large humanitarian intervention. The team would gather information from governments, local media, the military, UN agencies and local NGOs to develop reporting that will be tailored to the specific needs of the affected population and translated into local languages. EIS would work closely with local media to disseminate messages of critical, life saving information.

Global Impact and Vulnerability Alert System (GIVAS) is being designed to closely monitor vulnerabilities and accelerate communication between the time a global crisis hits and when information reaches decision makers through official channels. The system is mandated to provide the international community with early, real-time evidence of how a global crisis is affecting the lives of the poorest and to provide decision-makers with real time information to ensure that decisions take the needs of the most vulnerable into account.

BrightEarth Humanitarian Sensor Web (SensorWeb) is specifically designed for UN field-based agencies to improve real time situational awareness. The dynamic mapping platform enables humanitarians to easily and quickly map infrastructure relevant for humanitarian response such as airstrips, bridges, refugee camps, IDP camps, etc. The SensorWeb is also used to map events of interest such as cholera outbreaks. The platform leverages mobile technology as well as social networking features to encourage collaborative analytics.

Ushahidi integrates web, mobile and dynamic mapping technology to crowdsource crisis information. The platform uses FrontlineSMS and can be deployed quickly as a crisis unfolds. Users can visualize events of interest on a dynamic map that also includes an animation feature to visualize the reported data over time and space.

Swift River is under development but designed to validate crowdsourced information in real time by combining machine learning for predictive tagging with human crowdsourcing for filtering purposes. The purpsose of the platform is to create veracity scores to denote the probability of an event being true when reported across several media such as Twitter, Online news, SMS, Flickr, etc.

GeoChat and Mesh4X could serve as the nodes connecting the above platforms in dynamic ways. Riff could be made interoperable with Swift River.

Can such a global Info Web be catalyzed? The question hinges on several factors the most important of which are probably awareness and impact. The more these individual organisms know about each other, the better picture they will have of the potential synergies between their efforts and then find incentives to collaborate. This is one of the main reasons I am co-organizing the first International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2009) next week.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Folksomaps: Gold Standard for Community Mapping

There were a number of mapping-related papers, posters and demo’s at ICTD2009. One paper in particular caught my intention given the topic’s direct relevance to my ongoing consulting work with the UN’s Threat and Risk Mapping Analysis (TRMA) project in the Sudan and the upcoming ecosystem project in Liberia with Ushahidi and Humanity United.

Introduction

Entitled “Folksomaps – Towards Community Intelligent Maps for Developing Regions,” the paper outlines a community-driven approach for creating maps by drawing on “Web 2.0 principles” and “Semantic Web technologies” but without having to rely entirely on a web-based interface. Indeed, Folksomaps “makes use of web and voice applications to provide access to its services.”

I particularly value the authors’ aim to “provide map-based services that represent user’s intuitive way of finding locations and directions in developing regions.” This is an approach that definitely resonates with me. Indeed, it is our responsibility to adapt and customize our community-based mapping tools to meet the needs, habits and symbology of the end user; not the other way around.

I highly recommend this paper (or summary below) to anyone doing work in the crisis mapping field. In fact, I consider it required reading. The paper is co-authored by Arun Kumar, Dipanjan Chakraborty, Himanshu Chauhan, Sheetal Agarwal and Nitendra Rajput of IBM India Research Lab in New Delhi.

Background

Vast rural areas of developing countries do not have detailed maps or mapping tools. Rural populations are generally semi-literate, low-income and non-tech savvy. They are hardly like to have access to neogeography platforms like Google Earth. Moreover, the lack of electricity access and Internet connection also complicates the situation.

We also know that cities, towns and villages in developing countries “typically do not have well structured naming of streets, roads and houses,” which means “key landmarks become very important in specifying locations and directions.”

Drawing on these insights, the authors seek to tap the collective efforts of local communities to populate, maintain and access content for their own benefit—an approach I have described as crowdfeeding.

Surveys of Tech and Non-Tech Users

The study is centered on end-user needs, which is rather refreshing. The authors carried out a series of surveys to be better understand the profiles of end-users, e.g., tech and non-tech users.

The first survey sought to identify answers to the following questions:

  • How do people find out points of interest?
  • How do much people rely on maps versus people on the streets?
  • How do people provide local information to other people?
  • Whether people are interested in consuming and feeding information for a community-driven map system?

The results are listed in the table below:

folksotb1

Non-tech savvy users did not use maps to find information about locations and only 36% of these users required precise information. In addition, 75% of non-tech respondents preferred the choice of a phone-based interface, which really drives home the need for what I have coined “Mobile Crisis Mapping” or MCM.

Tech-users also rely primarily on others (as opposed to maps) for location related information. The authors associate this result with the lack of signboards in countries like India. “Many a times, the maps do not contain fine-grained information in the first place.”

Most tech-users responded that a phone-based location and direction finding system in addition to a web-based interface. Almost 80% expressed interest in “contributing to the service by uploading content either over the phone or though a web-based portal.”

The second survey sought to identify how tech and non-tech users express directions and local information. For example:

  • How do you give directions to people on the road or to friends?
  • How do you describe proximity of a landmark to another one?
  • How do you describe distance? Kilometers or using time-to-travel?

The results are listed in the table below:

folksotb2

The majority of non-tech savvy participants said they make use of landmarks when giving directions. “They use names of big roads […] and use ‘near to’, ‘adjacent to’, ‘opposite to’ relations with respect to visible and popular landmarks […].” Almost 40% of responders said they use time only to describe the distance between any two locations.

Tech-savvy participants almost always use both time and kilometers as a measure to represent distance. Only 10% or so of participants used kilometers only to represent distance.

The Technology

The following characteristics highlight the design choices that differentiate Folksomaps from established notions of map systems:

  • Relies on user generated content rather than data populated by professionals;
  • Strives for spatial integrity in the logical sense and does not consider spatial integrity in the physical sense as essential (which is a defining feature of social maps);
  • Does not consider visual representation as essential, which is important considering the fact that a large segment of users in developing countries do not have access to Internet (hence my own emphasis on mobile crisis mapping);
  • Is non-static and intelligent in the sense that it infers new information from what is entered by the users.
  • User input is not verified by the system and it is possible that pieces of incorrect information in the knowledgebase may be present at different points of time. Folksomaps adopts the Wiki model and allows all users to add, edit and remove content freely while keeping maps up-to-date.

Conceptual Design

Folksomaps uses “landmark” as the basic unit in the mapping knowledgebase model while “location” represents more coarse-grained geographical areas such as a village, city or country. The model then seeks to capture a few key logical characteristics of locations such as direction, distance, proximity and reachability and layer.

The latter constitutes the granularity of the geographic area that a location represents. “The notion of direction and distance from a location is interpreted with respect to the layer that the location represents. In other words, direction and distance could be viewed as binary operator over locations of the same level. For instance, ‘is towards left of ’ would be appropriate if the location pair being considered is <Libya, Egypt>,” but not if the pair is <Nairobi, India>.

The knowledgebase makes use of two modules, the Web Ontology Language (OWL) and a graph database, to represent and store the above concepts. The Semantic Web language OWL is used to model the categorical characteristics of a landmark (e.g., direction, proximity, etc), and thence infer new relationships not explicitly specified by users of the system. In other words, OWL provides an ontology of locations.

The graph database is used represent distance (numerical relationships) between landmarks. “The locations are represented by nodes and the edges between two nodes of the graph are labeled with the distance between the corresponding locations.” Given the insights gained from user surveys, precise distances and directions are not integral components of community-based maps.

The two modules are used to generate answers to queries submitted by users.

User Interaction

The authors rightly recognize that the user interface design is critical to the success of community-based mapping projects. To be sure, users of may be illiterate, or semi-illiterate and not very tech-savvy. Furthermore, users will tend to query the map system when they need it most, e.g., “when they are stuck on the road looking for directions […] and would be pressed for time.” This very much holds true for crisis mapping as well.

Users can perform three main tasks with the system: “find place”, “trace path” and “add info.” In addition, some or all users may be granted the right to edit or remove entries from the knowledgebase. The Folksomaps system can also be bootstrapped from existing databases to populate instances of location types. “Two such sources of data in the absence of a full-fledged Geographical Information System (GIS) come from the Telecom Industry and the Postal Department.”

folksofig3

How the users interface with the system to carry out these tasks will depend on how tech-savvy or literate they are and what type of access they have to information and communication technologies.

Folksomaps thus provides three types of interface: web-based, voice-based and SMS-based. Each interface allows the user to query and update the database. The web-based interface was developed using Java Server Pages (JSP) while the voice-based interface uses JSPs and VoiceXML.

folksofig41

I am particularly interested in the voice-based interface. The authors point to previous studies that suggest a voice-based interaction works well with users who are illiterate or semi-illiterate and who cannot afford to have high-end devices but can use ordinary low-end phones.

folksofig1

I will share this with the Ushahidi development team with the hopes that they will consider adding a voice-based interface for the platform later this year. To be sure, could be very interesting to integrate Freedom Fone’s work in this area.

Insights from User Studies

The authors conducted user studies to verify the benefit and acceptability of Folksomaps. Tech-savvy used the web-based interface while non-tech savvy participants used the voice-based interface. The results are shown in the two tables below.

folksotb3

Several important insights surfaced from the results of the user studies. For example, an important insight gained from the non-tech user feedback was “the sense of security that they would get with such a system. […] Even though asking for travel directions from strangers on the street is an option, it exposes the enquirer to criminal elements […].”

Another insight gain was the fact that many non-tech savvy participants were willing to pay for the call even a small premium over normal charges as they saw value to having this information available to them at all times.” That said, the majority of participants “preferred the advertisement model where an advertisement played in the beginning of the call pays for the entire call.”

Interestingly, almost all participants preferred the voice-based interface over SMS even though the former led to a number of speech recognition errors. The reason being that “many people are either not comfortable using SMS or not comfortable using a mobile phone itself.”

There were also interesting insights on the issue of accuracy from the perspective of non-tech savvy participants. Most participants asked for full accuracy and only a handful were tolerant of minor mistakes. “In fact, one of the main reasons for preferring a voice call over asking people for directions was to avoid wrong directions.”

This need for high accuracy is driven by the fact that most people use public transportation, walk or use a bicycle to reach their destination, which means the cost of incorrect information is large compared to someone who owns a car.

This is an important insight since the authors had first assumed that tolerance for incorrect information was higher. They also learned that meta information is as important to non-tech savvy users as the landmarks themselves. For instance, low-income participants were more interested in knowing the modes of available transportation, timetables and bus route numbers than the road route from a source to a destination.

folkstb4

In terms of insights from tech-savvy participants, they did not ask for fine-grained directions all the time. “They were fight with getting high level directions involving major landmarks.” In addition, the need for accuracy was not as strong as for the non-tech savvy respondents and they preferred the content from the queries sent to them via SMS so they could store it for future access, “pointing out that it is easy to forget the directions if you just hear it.”

Some tech-savvy participants also suggested that the directions provided by Folksomaps should “take into consideration the amount of knowledge the subject already has about the area, i.e., it should be personalized based upon user profile. Other participants mentioned that “frequent changes in road plans due to constructions should be captured by such a system—thus making it more usable than just getting directions.”

Conclusion

In sum, the user interface of Folksomaps needs to be “rich and adaptive to the information needs of the user […].” To be sure, given user preference towards “voice-based interface over SMS, designing an efficient user-friendly voice-based user interface […].” In addition, “dynamic and real-time information augmented with traditional services like finding directions and locations would certainly add value to Folksomaps.” Furthermore, the authors recognize that Folksomaps can “certainly benefit from user interface designs,” and “multi-model front ends.”

Finally, the user surveys suggest “the community is very receptive towards the concept of a community-driven map,” so it is important that the TRMA project in the Sudan and the ecosystem Liberia project build on the insights and lessons learned provided in this study.

Patrick Philippe Meier

New Course on Digital Democracy (Updated)

As mentioned in a previous blog entry, my colleague Joshua Goldstein and I are teaching a new full-semester undergraduate course on Digital Democracy. The course is being offered as part of Tufts University‘s interdisciplinary Media and Communication Studies Program.

The course will address the following topics:

  • Introduction to Digital Democracy
  • American Democracy
  • Global Democracy
  • Media and Democracy
  • Guest Speakers: Digital Democracy
  • Bloggers Rights
  • Digital Censorship and Democracy
  • Human Rights 2.0
  • Digital Activism
  • Digital Resistance
  • Digital Technology in Developing World
  • Class Presentations

The course wiki along with the syllabus is available here. We regularly update the syllabus so do check back. Feedback on the syllabus is also very much welcomed.

We are particularly keen for suggestions vis-a-vis recommended material (websites, online videos, links, books, papers etc.) and in-class activities.

Patrick Philippe Meier

The Prospects for Cyberocracy

David Ronfeldt at RAND just sent me his new (co-authored) piece on “The Prospects for Cyberacrocy” which I found particularly interesting given the contrast to his original paper of the same name in 1992. David’s timing is impeccable since I am co-teaching a course on Digital Democracy with my colleague Joshua Goldstein. The course is being offered this Spring semester as part of the interdisciplinary Media and Commincation Studies Program at Tufts University.

Since David’s paper is 70 pages long, what follows is a concise 5-page summary with  references to additional contemporary works (e.g., by Clay Shirky, Yochai Benkler, Antony Loewenstein, etc.), and current examples written specifically for our Digital Democracy students.

In 1992, David Ronfeldt wrote that a “precise definition of cyberocracy was not possible at present.” In a general sense, then, he identified two ways in which cyberocracy may manifest itself:

  1. Narrowly, as a form of organization that supplants traditional forms of bureaucracy and technocracy;
  2. Broadly, as a form of government that may redefine relations between state and society, and between the public sector and the private sector.

Ronfeldt cautions that optimism about the information revolution should be tempered by an anticipation of it’s potential dark side. He contrasts term cyberocracy with aristocracy and theocracy—under which the high-born and high priests ruled respectively. The author argues that cyberocracy, a product of the information revolution, may slowly but radically affect who rules, how and why. That is, “information and its control will become a dominant source of power, as a natural next step in political evolution.”

Clay Shirky would certainly agree. “When we change the way we communicate, we change society.   The tools that a society uses to create and maintain itself are as central to human life as a hive is to bee life.” However, “the mere tools aren’t enough. The tools are simply a way of channeling existing motivation.”

Citing earlier research, David suggests that consequences of new technology can be usefully thought of as first-order and second-order effects. The first-order effect can be  framed as gains in efficiency. “The history of previous technologies demonstrates that early in the life of a new technology, people are likely to emphasize the efficiency effects and underestimate or overlook potential social system effects.”

The second-order effects bring about behavioral and organizational change which affect how people think and work together. New systems of thought are thus generated by second-order effects. “The major impact will probably be felt in terms of the organization and behavior of the modern bureaucratic state.” Take the printing press, for example, “it created conditions that favored, first, new combinations of old ideas and, then, the creation of entirely new systems of thought.”

In “Seeing Like a State,” James Scott explains why certain state-centered schemes to improve the human condition have failed. Scott writes that “no administrative system is capable of representing [or monitoring] every existing social community except through a heroic and greatly schematized process of abstraction and simplification.” David Ronfeldt provides additional insight: “the hierarchical structuring of bureaucracies into offices, departments, and lines of authority may confound the flow of information that may be needed to deal with complex issues in today’s increasingly interconnected world.”

Would a cyberocracy provide a more effective political template to improve the human condition? Ronfeldt might be tempted to answer in the affirmative. Clay Shirky [2008] and Yochai Benkler [2006] would not hesitate to reply with a resounding yes.

Ronfeldt writes that “bureaucracy depends on going through channels and keeping information in bounds; in contrast, cyberocracy may place a premium on gaining information from any source, public or private. Technocracy emphasizes ‘hard’ quantitative and econometric skills, like programming and budgeting methodologies; in contrast, a cyberocracy may bring a new emphasis on ‘soft’ symbolic, cultural, and psychological dimensions of policymaking and public opinion.”

As Clay Shirky notes, “if you want to organize the work of even dozens of individuals, you have to manage them.  As organizations grow into the hundreds or thousands, you also have to manage the managers, and eventually to manage the managers’ managers.  Simply to exist at that size, an organization has to take on the costs of all that management.” This template is hardly likely to improve today’s interconnected challenges.

In “Wealth of Networks“, Benkler writes that the “actual practice of freedom that we see emerging from the networked environment allows people to reach across national or social boundaries, across space and political division. It allows people to solve problems together in new associations that are outside the boundaries of formal, legal-political association.”

Writing in the early 1990s, pioneer computer technologist Alan Kay anticipates the rise of blogs which are in effect new types of associations that stand outside of traditional boundaries (cited in Ronfeldt):  “The retrieval systems of the future are not going to retrieve facts but points of view.  The weakness of databases is that they let you retrieve facts, while the strength of our culture over the past several hundred years has been our ability to take on multiple points of view.”

However, authoritarian regimes (and some democratic ones according to Noam Chomsky), typically crack down on the ability of individuals to express multiple points of view. Writing in 1992, Ronfeldt states that “some of today’s trendier points—e.g., the information revolution empowers individuals, favors open societies, and portends a worldwide triumph for democracy—may not hold up as times change.”

Ronfeldt suggests that the information revolution will foster more open and closed systems; more decentralization and centralization; more inclusionary and exclusionary communities; more privacy and surveillance; more freedom and authority; more democracy and new forms of totalitarianism.

Ronfeldt provides a superb critque of those who maintain that decentralization and networks explain and ensure the success in the new business environment. However, “complex organizations depend on some kind of hierarchy.  Hierarchy does not end because work teams include people from different levels and branches.  The structure may be more open, the process more fluid, and the conventions redefined; but a hierarchy still exists.”

The consequence of the information revolution may thus mean “greater decentralization for highly centralized organizations, and greater centralization for decentralized ones.” On the other hand, if new technology does foster decentralization, “it may also provide greater ‘topsight‘—a central understanding of the big picture that enhances the management of complexity.” The pursuit of topsight is thus the pursuit to understand the big picture, “the most precious intellectual commodity known to man.”

A question of interest to me given my dissertation research is whether repressive regimes will/do have the ability to retain the upper hand in using new technology to maintain information supremacy within their borders. Ronfeldt touched on this question in 1992. “As cyberocracy develops, will governments become flatter, less hierarchical, more decentralized, with different kinds of middle-level officials and offices?  Some may, but many may not.  Governments [particularly repressive regimes] may not have the organizational flexibility and options that corporations have.”

Along these lines, former US Secretary of State George Shultz argued in 1985 that information and communication flows can be used as a powerful instrument for compelling closed societies to open up. At the time, Schulz wrote that communist states fear the information revolution perhaps more than they fear Western military strength. “The revolution in global communications thus forces all nations to reconsider traditional ways of thinking about national sovereignty.”

Ronfeldt summarizes Shulz’s take on the “dictator’s dilemma“: if the Soviet regime risked adopting new technologies, it’s leaders would have to liberalize the Soviet economic and political systems, which is arguably what happened. Ronfeldt thus writes that as “long as the aim in the West is the demise of communist and other traditional hard-line authoritarian systems, policymakers in the United States and Europe are well advised to expect that the diffusion of the new technologies will speed the collapse of closed societies and favor the spread of open ones.”

This is (still) the current US policy towards Cuba, for example. In his recent book, “The Blogging Revolution,” Antony Loewenstein notes that,

“Cuba’s official Communist organ Gramma International reported in June 2008 that a meeting in Washington in May discussed using USAID to ‘promote the clandestine dispatch of electronic materials to the island via European and Latin American intermediaries’.  The aim of the US$45 million was to distribute ‘propaganda pamphlets, cell phones and modern communications equipment’ and ‘train Cubans resident in third countries.’

George W Bush has publicly stated that he wanted to use the Internet to destabilize the Cuban Government. In May 2001, Bush gave a speech in which he advocated the Internet as just one tool to weaken Castro, and the 2006 Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba Report state that US$24 million was being spent on ‘efforts to break the Cuban government’s information blockade and expand access to independent information, including through the Internet’.”

As Ronfeldt noted in 1992, however, “the fact that the new technology can help sweep aside old types of closed regimes does not necessarily mean that it will also make democratic societies more democratic, or totalitarian ones impossible.” Indeed, “a longer view of history provides little assurance that the new technology favors democracy.”

As Ronfeldt wrote, “the printing press and later technologies, like the telephone and radio, did not prevent new and ever worse forms of autocracy from arising.” While these technologies undermined the power base of old monarchies, these same technologies were subsequently “turned into tools of propaganda, surveillance, and subjugation that enabled dictators to seize power and develop totalitarian regimes.”

Ronfeldt maintains that technology is not neutral or apolitical but it does “widen the range of possibilities within a particular context.” But as Clay Shirky notes, “arguments about whether new forms of sharing or collaboration are, on balance, good or bad reveal more about the speaker than the subject.”

In any case, the effect of technology depends on context. Ronfeldt cites Daniel Bell (1979) to explain that “the new revolution in communications makes possible both an intense degree of centralization of power, if the society decides to use it in that way, and large decentralization because of the multiplicity, diversity, and cheapness of the modes of communication.”

Ronfeldt adds that “the existence of democracy does not assure that the new technology will strengthen democratic tendencies and be used as a force for good rather than evil. The new technology may be a double-edged sword even in a democracy.” To this end, “far from favoring democracy or totalitarianism, cyberocracy may facilitate more advanced forms of both. It seems as likely to foster further divergence as convergence, and divergence has been as much the historical rule as convergence.”

Furthermore, Ronfeldt argues that while “in the past the divergence principle was most evident between countries,” a future possibility “is that the principle may increasingly apply within countries. The information revolution may enable hybrid systems to take form that do not fit standard distinctions between democracy and totalitarianism.  In these systems, part of the populace may be empowered to act more democratically than ever, but other parts may be subjected to new techniques of surveillance and control.”

A question that naturally follows is whether cyberocracy will spell the obsolescence and transformation of standard Marxist theses. While Marxism claimed that “capital accummulation” faciliated political exploitation, would Marx not focus instead on “information” if he were to reappear today? Ronfeldt suggests that information may very well come to “succeed capital as a central theoretical concept for political and social philosophy” in the post-industrial age.

According to Marxism, the capitalist accumulation of “surplus labor” and labor’s exploitation by “monopoly capital” account for a society’s structure and its ills and inclinations.  That structure is composed of socioeconomic “classes” that are defined by the “relation to the means of production of capital.”

But the post-industrial age may instead raise a new concern about “surplus information” or “monopoly information” that is concentrated, guarded, and exploited for privileged economic and political purposes.  Moreover, a society may become structured into new kinds of classes depending on one’s relation to the means of production of information.

The above summarizes Ronfeldt’s Cyberocracy paper from 1992. The following is a summary of his 2008 postscript co-authored with Danielle Varda.

Ronfeldt and Varda conclude that “influence in the information age is indeed proving to revolve around symbolic politics and media savvy — the ‘soft power’ aspects of influence.” Based on the evidence of the past 18 years, the authors also conclude that “the information revolution continues to enable both democratic and totalitarian tendencies. [...] The information age is indeed leading to new hybrid amalgams of democratic and authoritarian tendencies, often in the same country.” The authors also conclude that “governments are still straining to adapt.  Bureaucracy remains the rule, cyberocracy a speculation.”

In terms of next steps for further research, Ronfeldt and Varda outline four speculations about future trends:

  1. The advanced societies are developing new sensory apparatuses that people have barely begun to understand and use;
  2. A network-based social sector is emerging, distinct from the traditional public and private sectors.  Consisting largely of NGOs and NPOs, its rise is leading to a re-balancing of state, market, and civil-society forces;
  3. New modes of multiorganizational collaboration are taking shape, and progress toward networked governance is occurring;
  4. This may lead to the emergence of the nexus-state as a successor to the nation-state.

The authors argue that people and organizations in “advanced societies” are “building vast new sensory apparatuses for watching what is happening in their own societies and around the world. Of all the uses to which the new technologies are being put, this may become one of the most important for the future of the state and its relationship to society.” The rise of citizen journalism is certainly a significant consequence of the information revolution.

Ronfeld and Varda point out that “many of the new apparatuses reflect the perception of perils.  Crime and terrorism are impelling new installations for watching cityscapes, monitoring communications, and mapping potential hotspots.  But sensor networks are also being deployed for early warning and rapid response regarding many other concerns — disease outbreaks, forest protection, [etc.].”

In addition, the authors argue that “environmental, human-rights, and other social activists continue to develop new media to keep watch and speed mobilization in case of a challenge or abuse somewhere [...].” Examples include DigiActive, Digital Democracy 2.0, Witness, Ushahidi, and Global Voices. Indeed, Ronfeldt and Varda suggest that citizens’ concerns about top-down surveillance may be countered by bottom-up “sousveillance” (or inverse surveillance), particularly if individuals wear personal devices for detecting and recording what is occurring in their vicinity.”

Ronfeldt and Vera maintain that new sensory apparatuses will accelerate the “rise of civil-society actors, by providing networked [actors] with new tools not only for checking on the behavior of government and corporate actors, but also for participating in collaborative governance schemes with them.  New mechanisms for attracting and combining diverse viewpoints under the rubric of ‘collective intelligence’ could help foster this. So could the continued advance of principles favoring freedom of information, the right to communicate, and open access.”

While networks are as old as hierarchies and markets, the authors argue that they are “only now coming into their own as a major societal organizing principle.  To function well on a large scale, multiorganizational networks require complex information and communications systems—even more than do hierarchies and markets—and those systems are finally afforded by the Internet and other new digital technologies.”

Clay Shirky would certainly agree with this conclusion. He writes that “we now have communications tools that are flexible enough to match our social capabilities, and we are witnessing the rise of new ways of coordination action that take advantage of that change.”

Ronfeld and Varda argue that civil society stands to gain the most from the rise of networks since “policy problems have become so complex and intractable, crossing so many jurisdictions and involving so many actors, that governments should evolve beyond the traditional bureaucratic model of the state.”

To this end, “a less hierarchical, more decentralized, pro-partnership model is needed, one that relies more on outsourced market measures and collaborative network designs.  Metaphorically, this means a state that is less about (vertical) stovepipes and silos, and more about (horizontal) webs, bridges, and pools—a state where issues are deliberated less in channels and more on platforms.”

Ronfeldt and Varda forsee that “the evolution of network forms of organization and related doctrines, strategies, and technologies will attract government policymakers, business leaders, and civil-society actors to create myriad new mechanisms for communication, coordination, and collaboration spanning all levels of governance.  Aging contentions that ‘the government’ or ‘the market’ is the solution to particular public-policy issues will give way to inspired new ideas that, in some areas, ‘the network” [or, in my opinion, 'the ecosystem'] is the solution.'”

Returning to the question of hierarchies versus networks, Ronfeldt and Varda maintain that “states, not to mention societies as a whole, cannot endure without hierarchies. Familial tribes and clans were the first major form of organization to arise centuries ago; hierarchical institutions were second—and the state remains the home realm of this form. Information-age government may well undergo ‘reinventing’ and be made flatter, more networked, decentralized, etc.—but it will still have hierarchy at its core.”

In conclusion, Ronfeldt and Varda argue that the rise of the “Nexus-State” does not imply the weakening of the “traditional state.” To be sure, “the rise of the market system had those effects on the state, beginning a few centuries ago.  As the state relinquished the control of commercial activities to private companies, both the nation and the state became stronger.  Likewise, as the social sector expands and activities are transferred to it, the state should again emerge with a new kind of strength, even though it loses some scope in some areas.”

Only time will tell. I look forward to David’s update in 2020!

Patrick Philippe Meier

Conference – New Challenges for Human Rights Communications

HURIDOCS

I was just invited to participate on a panel at the Human Rights Information and Documentation Systems, International (HURIDOCS) Conference in Geneva, February 25-27, 2009.

The panel will be part of Plenary IV: Trends in Information Technology and Human Rights. The other panelists include my good friend Lars Bromley from AAAS and:

  • Florence Devouard, Chair Emeritus of the Wikimedia Foundation
  • Dan Brickley, developer of Semantic Web technologies
  • Jan Kleijsen, Director of Human Rights Standard Setting, Council of Europe

Lars will also be leading a workshop on “Satellite Imagery and Mapping” which I look forward to attending. I also plan to attend Sam Gregory’s workshop on “Video Advocacy“. Sam is the Program Director of Witness.

I plan to sit in on Plenary III entitled: Drawing Together the Common Information Needs. I’m particularly interested in uses of satellite imagery by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and have had several conversations on this with my colleague Russ Schimmer based on his remote sensing work in Darfur.

Another perk of attending this conference is that the LIFT Conference will be taking place on the same days at the same location. So I really hope to attend some of the LIFT panels if time permits.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Snap Mobs of the World Unite – A Better Taxonomy? (Udpated)

Economist3

A writer for The Economist interviewed me earlier in the week for his article entitled “Rioters of the World Unite” sparked by the recent Greek riots. In the article, the author asks whether it is possible to imagine an Anarchist International comparable to the then Communist International, “a trans-national version of the inchoate but impassioned demonstrations that have ravaged Greece this month?”

While I’m not convinced that the word “anarchist” is an appropriate label for the rioters in Athens (more on that later), the author is certainly correct that the kind of “psychological impulse behind the Greek protests [...] can now be transmitted almost instantaneously, in ways that would make the Bolsheviks very jealous. These days, images (moving as well as still) spread faster than words; and images, of course, transcend language barriers.”

E-communications are now a familiar feature in pro-democracy protests against dictators. Equally fast-moving, say specialists, is the role of technology in what might be called “undemocratic protests”: violent acts in prosperous, networked societies.

Leaving aside the need to distinguish between protests and riots, I find the notion of “undemocratic protests” rather interesting although I’m not sure whether the qualifier “undemocratic” necessarily adds clarity. What is undemocratic about Hungarian youths in 2006 using “blogs to aggregate visual evidence of police brutality” and “distributing an audio recording of the prime minister admitting government corruption?”

This brings us to the issue of developing an appropriate taxonomy, as I noted in response to some excellent questions in the comments section of my blog post on the “Greek Riots, Facebook, Twitter and SMS.” (Incidentally, I should have included Second Life where a memorial was erected “giving its users a glimpse of real-life material from the riots”).

I think we need a better taxonomy for today’s new media. Individuals who find themselves in the middle of the action and send text messages or camera shots from their phones are not journalists in the conventional sense of the word. Adding “citizen” in front of journalism is perhaps too simplistic.

First of all, in repressive contexts, “citizen journalists” are not really citizens of their country; they tend to be marginalized, oppressed and persecuted. The term “civilian journalism” may be more apt. But we’ve already established that the qualifier “journalism” muddies the waters.

The Greek students rioting in the streets of Athens could not be described as a “smart mob” either. I wouldn’t use the term “dumb mobs” because I don’t find that any more accurate than describing the rioters as anarchists. Indeed, I think The Economist article gets it particularly wrong on that note:

The shooting and ensuing riots in Greece must be understood in the context of the “disenchantment of Greek students, the mistrust in and corruption of the right-wing government,”  as well as the “many acts of police brutality and incompetence through the years. This is why people wouldn’t wait for the coronary report. There were many things wrong even before the shooting and the coronary report” (see previous blog post).

In this context, then, perhaps a term like “snap mobs” might be more useful. Snap implies quick and plays on terms like “snapshot” and “snap judgment” which is a better description of the student-led riots in Greece.

As the article in The Economist suggests, what happened in Athens is bound to happen again in different forms across the world, i.e., rumors spreading and leading to chaos or worse, bloodshed. This may eventually drive the point home that text messages and Tweets should simply not be taken at face value.

I do think that as foreign reporting continues to decline, we will see the rise of  a professional class of citizen journalists and as a consequence, readers will expect the latter to operate at standards akin to that of the mainstream media today. At the same time, I suspect the mainstream media will shift towards a more investigative-journalism mode as consequence of increasing “snap mob” behavior.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Greek Riots, Facebook, Twitter and SMS (Updated)

I am particularly interested in riots since part of my doctoral research focuses on the strategic and tactical uses of digital technology to organize, mobilize and coordinate protest events in repressive contexts. On this note, Alternet just published this piece by Andrew Lam on the “Greek Riots and the News Media in the Age of Twitter,” which echoes some of the issues raised during the panel discussion I participated in last week in  DC on the decline of foreign reporting and rise of citizen journalism.

The Greek riots are a classic case of iRevolutions in the making, i.e., individuals and networks (hyper) empowered by linking technologies like Facebook, Twitter and SMS. What follows first are my thoughts on the two main points that the Andrew highlights in his piece. The second part of this post sheds light on the dynamics of riots by drawing on complexity science and Clay Shirky’s work.

greekriotmontage

Initial Conditions: The riots were sparked after a 15-year old student “died from a gunshot wound in his heart, inflicted by a policeman following an altercation between a police patrol and a small group of youths in Athens” (1). Thousands of young people took to the streets after quickly spreading the news via Facebook, Twitter and SMS.

But as Andrew points out, no one bothered to verify or investigate the police officer’s claim that he was innocent: “When the coroner’s report came out several days later, it said the bullet was dented, meaning it ricocheted before hitting the teenager, but the information changed nothing. Athens had been burning for several nights, and the people, whose rage fueled the flames, couldn’t care less for facts.”

These valid points aside, my first question is what took the coroner so long? Extracting a bullet (pardon the morbidity) is not exactly brain surgery.  If said coroner had a mobile phone, s/he could have taken a picture of the dented bullet and shared it as widely as possible hoping that it would go viral. I have no idea how effective that would have been, but it’s a thought. The second question I have is whether any investigative journalists were pressing the coroner to get on with it?

Future Conditions: Andrew notes that “professional front line reporters may very well be on the way to being redundant in a world where, according to Reuters Director of News Media Development, Chris Cramer, ‘Every key event going forward will be covered by members of the public, and not by traditional journalists.’” (I just checked the Wikipedia page on the riots and it was edited close to 200 times within 48 hours of the shooting).

However, as I mentioned during last week’s panel, the mainstream media has an increasingly more important social service to play in the Twitter Age: distinguishing fact from fiction. Andrew is thus spot on when he writes that “the role of the mature news organization [...] is to filter real news from pseudo news, rather than treating all content as equal.”

Complexity Science: Power laws are a defining signature of complex systems. The Richter scale, which relates earthquake frequencies to magnitude, is probably the most well known power law. As we all know, there are many small tremors every day but only a few major earthquakes every century. As it happens, protests such as strikes also follow a power law distribution. See for example this piece by Michael Bigs in the American Journal of Sociology. Here’s the abstract:

Historians have persistently likened strike waves to wildfires, avalanches, and epidemics. These phenomena are characterized by a power-law distribution of event sizes. This kind of analysis is applied to outbreaks of class conflict in Chicago from 1881 to 1886. Events are defined as individual strikes or miniature strike waves; size is measured by the number of establishments or workers involved. In each case, events follow a power law spanning two or three orders of magnitude. A similar pattern is found for strikes in Paris from 1890 to 1899. The “forest fire” model serves to illustrate the kind of process that can generate this distribution.

One classic way to illustrate this is by using the analogy of grains of sand falling on a sand pile. Eventually, small and large avalanches begin to occur at different frequencies that follow a power law.

sandpile1

The study of complex systems is often called the study of history. The sand pile becomes increasingly unstable over time as grains of sand cause “fingers of instability” to run through the structure, like fissures running across a wine glass or cracks in the earth as an earthquake unloads the built up tension. If you want to understand the vulnerability of the sand pile of a “Richter 9″ earthquake, dissecting the falling grains will give you little insight. In other words, the answer lies in the past, in the evolution of the sand pile.

I make this point to reinforce the fact that the recent shooting and riots in Greece should be understood in context. The incident was  but one of several that befell Mount Olympus. As Katrin Verclas and others have commented (below) in response to this blog post, “the disenchantment of Greek students, the mistrust in and corruption of the right-wing government,”  as well as the “many acts of police brutality and incompetence through the years,” provides the historical context behind the shooting. “This is why people wouldn’t wait for the coronary report. There were many things wrong even before the shooting and the coronary report.”

Networks Analysis: One way to think about the impact of the information revolution on the ability of groups to mobilize and organize is to use the analogy of disease contagion, which also follows a power law distribution. As Clay Shirky writes, “The classic model for the spread of disease looks at three variables—likelihood of infection, likelihood of contact between any two people, and overall size of population. If any of those variables increases, the overall spread of disease increases as well.”

As a consequence of the information revolution, the likelihood of an individual receiving and broadcasting information is increasing significantly while the likelihood of any two people communicating is increasing exponentially; and world population is also growing at a furious pace. Since each of these three variables are increasing, the overall risk of protests increases as well.

The reason I raise this issue of power laws and epidemics of information is to address the issue of rumors. As Andrew Lam writes, “the streamlining of news [via Twitter and SMS] makes the story skeletal and thin, bordering on becoming rumor and hearsay.” Countering false rumors  in a highly connected network may require a systems approach since command-and-control is unlikely to work (short of switching the network off).

This is where the work by Malcom Gladwell, Mark Buchanan and and the Santa Fe Institute’s (SFI) research might shed some light on the viral cure for false rumors in the Twitter Age.

See also my follow up post on the Greek riots.

Patrick Philippe Meier