Monthly Archives: September 2012

What the Quantified Self Movement Says and Tech and Gender

Over the past year or two I’ve been to a couple of unconferences sessions about how people are increasingly measuring different parts of their lives: how far they run, how they sleep, what they eat, etc… As some readers may be aware, these efforts are often referred to as part of the “Quantified Self Movement.” For those readers less aware (and curious), you can watch Wired Magazine editor and quantified movement originator Gary Wolf give a brief overview in this 6 minute TED talk.

All of this sounds very geeky I’m sure. And as a general data geek and avid fitbit user I am – I suppose – part of the quantified self movement myself.

Reflecting on these (few) experiences with the movement, I find it interesting that almost every session I’ve been to has been almost entirely populated by men. I’m open to the possibility that I’ve simply been to the wrong conferences or the wrong sessions, but I’m not sure that is the case. Even looking at the quantified self Wikipedia page, virtually all the gadgets referred to deal with fitness and sleep. Obviously these are not things that men exclusively care about, but they are notable because of what is absent.

Humans have, of course, probably been quantifying themselves for as long as we’ve been around. But when I think of a group of people that have been engaged in quantifying themselves in a meaningful way,for well over a millennia,it is women.

More specifically, it is women measuring their menstrual cycles. I mean as important as losing a few pounds or getting a good nights sleep may be (and it is important to me), I’m pretty sure the stakes are much lower than preventing, or trying to get, pregnancy (now that’s a life changing event!). Indeed, given that it is hard to imagine most men having any pressing needs to measure much about their bodies on a regular basis a thousand years ago, it think it would be safe to argue that women were societies first quantified selfers.

And yet I don’t think I’ve ever seen this activity discussed, looked to as a model, or engaged in by the quantified self movement. Lauren Bacon has a great post on her own experience measuring her menstrual cycle as part of her quantified self but it is pretty rare to see women adopt that language. Given that women have been measuring their periods for years, and that there is likely a strong oral and written history to look into around this, I’d think this was a line of research or inquiry that the movement would be interested at looking into. Doubly so since it would give us a window into what a community of quantified selfers looks like, especially when its activities have been more normalized (as during some parts of our history) and marginalized (during other parts).

This all feels like a lost opportunity, and the kind of thing that happens when there are too many men and not enough women in a conversation. You want to talk about the consequences of not having women in tech – this strikes me as a great example. A rich and important history is not (sufficiently) reflected in the conversation and so important lessons and practices are potentially missed.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe women have been part of the quantified self movement from the beginning and that this is not a larger reflection of the challenges we face when the ratio of men and women in an industry is out of whack. But my sense is that this is actually a very nice, and potentially wonderfully quantifiable, case study around the issues of women in tech.

 

Requiring Facebook for Your News Site (or website) – the Missed Opportunity

Last week I published I blog post titled Why Banning Anonymous Comments is Bad for Postmedia and Bad for Society in reaction to the fact that PostMedia’s newspapers( including the Vancouver Sun, Ottawa Citizen, National Post, etc…) now requires readers to login with a Facebook account to make comments.

The piece had a number of thoughtful and additive comments – which is always rewarding for an author to read.

Two responses, however, came from those in the newspaper industry. One came from someone claiming to be the editor of a local newspaper. I actually believe that this person is such an editor and their comments were sincere and additive. That said, there is some irony that they did not comment using their real name, while talking about how helpful and important it is that real names/identities be used. Of course they did use an identity of sorts – their role – although this is harder to verify.

The other comment came from Alex Blonski the Social Media Director at Postmedia Network Inc.

Again, both comments were thoughtful sincere and engaging – exactly what you want from a comment, especially those that don’t entirely agree with post. I also felt like while they raised legitimate interests and concerns, they, in part, missed my point. Both ultimately ended up in the same place: that handing commenting over to Facebook made life easier for newspapers since it meant less spam and nonconstructive comments.

I agree – if the lens by which you are looking at the problem is one of management, Facebook is the easier route. No doubt. My point is that it also comes at a non-trivial cost, one that potentially sees power asymmetries in a society reinforced. Those with privilege, who have financial and social freedom to be critical, will do so. Those who may be more marginalized may not feel as safe. This tradeoff was barely addressed in these responses.

As I noted in my piece, other sites appear to have found ways to foster commenting communities that are positive and additive without requiring people to use their real identities (although giving them the freedom to do so if they wish). But of course these sites have invested in developing their community. And as I tried to stress in my last post – if you are unhappy with the comments on your website – you really have yourself to blame, it’s the community you created. Anil Dash has good thoughts on this too.

As a result, it is sometimes hard to hear of newspapers talk about people not willing to pay for the news and complain of diminishing revenue while at the same time appearing blind to recognizing that what makes for a great website is not just the content (which, especially in the news world be commoditized) but rather that community that gathers around and discusses it. Restricting that community to Facebook users (or more specifically, people willing to use their Facebook account to comment – a far smaller subset) essentially limits the part of your website that can be the most unique and the most attractive to users – the community. This is actually a place where brand loyalty and market opportunities could be built, and yet I believe PostMedia’s move will make it harder, not easier to capitalize on this asset.

I also found some of specific’s of PostMedia’s comments hard to agree with. Alex Blonski noted that they had commenters pretending to be columnists, that they were overwhelmed with spam, and claiming that Discus – the commenting system I use on my site has similar requirements to Facebook. The later is definitely not true (while you may use your real identity, I don’t require you to, I don’t even require a legit email address) and the former two comments feel eminently manageable by any half decent commenting system.

Indeed Alexander Howard – the Gov 2.0 journalist who uses the twitter handle @digiphile seems to manage just fine on his own. He recently updated his policies around moderation – and indeed his (and Mathew Ingram’s) opinions on commenting should be read by everyone in every newspaper – not just PostMedia. In the end, here is a single journalist who has more than three times the twitter followers of the Vancouver Sun (~151,000 vs. ~43,000) so is likely dealing with a non-trivial amount of comments and other social media traffic. If he can handle it, surely PostMedia can to?

 

On Being Misquoted – Access Info Europe and Freedominfo.org

I’ve just been alerted to a new post out on Freedominfo.org has quotes of mine that are used in way that is deeply disappointing. It’s never fund to see your ideas misused to make it appear that you are against something that you deeply support.

The most disappointing misquote comes from Helen Darbishire, a European FOI expert at Access Info Europe. Speaking about the convergence between open data and access to information laws (FOIA) she “lamented that comments like Eaves’ exacerbate divisions at a time when  “synergies” are developing at macro and micro levels.” The comment she is referring to is this one:

“I just think FOIA is broken; the wait time makes it broken….” David Eaves, a Canadian open government “evangelist,” told the October 2011 meeting of International information commissioners. He said “efforts to repair it are at the margins” and governments have little incentive for reform.

I’m not sure if Darbishire was present at the 7th International Conference of Information Commissioners where I made this comment in front of a room of mostly FOI experts but the comment actually got a very warm reception. Specifically, I was talking about how the wait times of access to information requests – not theidea of Access to Information. The fact is, that for many people waiting 4-30 weeks for a response from a government for a piece of information makes the process broken. In addition, I often see the conversation among FOIA experts focus on how to reduce that time by a week or a few days. But for most people, that will still leave them feeling like the system is too slow and so, in their mind, broken, particularly in a world where people are increasingly used to getting the information they want in about .3 seconds (the length of a Google search).

What I find particularly disappointing about Darbishire’s comments is that I’ve been advocating for for the open data and access to information communities to talk more to one another – indeed long before I find any reference of her calling for it. Back in April during the OGP meeting I wrote:

There remain important and interest gaps particularly between the more mature “Access to Information” community and the younger, still coalescing “Gov2.0/OpenGov/Tech/Transparency” community. It often feels like members of the access to information community are dismissive of the technology aspects of the open government movement in general and the OGP in particular. This is disappointing as technology is likely going to have a significant impact on the future of access to information. As more and more government work gets digitized, how way we access information is going to change, and the opportunities to architect for accessibility (or not) will become more important. These are important conversations and finding a way to knit these two communities together more could help the advance everyone’s thinking.

And of course, rather than disparage Access to Information as a concept I frequently praise it, such as during this article about the challenges of convergence between open data and access to information:

Let me pause to stress, I don’t share the above to disparage FOI. Quite the opposite. It is a critical and important tool and I’m not advocating for its end. Nor am I arguing the open data can – in the short or even medium term – solve the problems raised above.

That said, I’m willing to point out the failures of both Open Data and Access to information. But to then cherry pick my comments about FOIA and paint me as someone who is being unhelpful strikes me as problematic.

I feel doubly that way since, not only have I advocated for efforts to bridge the communities, I’ve tried to make efforts to make it happen. I was the one who suggested that Warren Krafchik – the Civil Society co-chair of the Open Government Partnership be invited to the Open Knowledge Festival to help with a conversation around helping bring the two communities together and reached out to him with the invitation.

If someone wants to label me as someone who is opinionated in the space, that’s okay – I do have opinions about what works and what doesn’t work and try to share them, sometimes in a constructive way, and sometimes – such as when on a panel – in a way that helps spur discussion. But to lay the charge of being divisive, when I’ve been trying for several years to bridge the conversation and bring the open data perspective into the FOIA community, feels unfair and problematic.

Why Banning Anonymous Comments is Bad for Postmedia and Bad for Society

Last night I discovered that my local newspaper – the Vancouver Sun – was going to require users log in with Facebook to comment. It turns out that this will be true of all Postmedia newspapers.

I’m stunned that a newspaper ownership would make such a move. Even more so that editors and journalists would support it. We should all be disappointed when the fourth estate is unable to recognize it is dis-empowering those who are most marginalized. Especially when there are better alternatives at ones disposal. (For those interested in this I also recommend reading Mathew Ingram’s post, Anonymity Has Value, In Comments and Elsewhere from over a year ago.)

So what’s wrong with forcing users to sign in via Facebook to comment?

First, you have to be pretty privileged to believe that forcing people to use their real names will improve comments. Yes, there are a lot of people who use anonymity to troll or say stupid things, but there are also many people who – for very legitimate reasons – don’t want to use their real name.

What supporters of banning anonymity are saying is not just that they oppose trolls (I do too!) but that, for the sake of “accountability” we must also know the name of recovering sexual abuse victim who wants to share their personal perspective on a story in the comments. Or that we (and thus also their boss) should get to know the name of an employee who wants to share information about illegal or unethical practices they have seen at their work in a comment. It also means that a comment you make, ten years hence, can be saved on a newspapers website, traced back to your Facebook account and so used by a prospective employer to decide if you should get a job.

What ending anonymity is really about is power. Now, those who can comment will (even more so) be disproportionately those who have the income and social security to know they can voice their concern in public, safely. So I’m confident that this move will reduce trolls – but it will also snuff out the voices of those who are most marginalized. And journalists clearly understand the power dynamics of our society and the important role anonymity plays in balancing them  this is why they use anonymous sources to get scoops and dig up stories. So how newspapers as an institution, and journalists as a profession see narrowing the opportunity for those most marginalized to challenge power and authority in the comments section as being consistent with their mission, I cannot explain.

There are, of course, far better ways of handling comments. The CBC does a quite decent job of letting people vote up and down comments – this means I rarely see the worst trolls and many thoughtful comments rise to the top. The Globe does an adequate job at this as well. Mechanisms such as these are far less draconian the “outlawing” anonymity and preserve room for those most impacted or marginalized.

But let me go further. Journalists and editors often complain about the comments section as being wild. Well how often to they take even the tiniest bit of energy to engage their commentators? There are plenty of sites that allow anonymous comments with fantastic results – see flickr or reddit – but this is because those sites invested in creating norms and engaging their users. When has a journalist or commentator in this country ever decided to invest themselves in engaging their readers and commenters on a regular and ongoing basis in the comments section? While I’m sure there are important exceptions, by and large the answer is almost never. Indeed, I’m always stunned by the number of journalists and commentators I talk to who more or less hold much of their audience in contempt – seeing them as wild. No wonder the comment section has run amok – we can pretend otherwise but the commenters know you don’t respect them. If newspapers are not happy with their comment sections, they really have no one to blame but themselves. This is after all, the community they created, the norms they fostered, the result of investments that they made. Shluffing it all off to Facebook both runs counter to their mission but is also a shirking of responsibility (and business opportunity) of the highest order.

Of course, handing the problem to Facebook won’t solve it either. It was suggested, at last count, that over 80 million facebook accounts are fake. Expect that number to go up. But of course, the people who will be most happy to create that fake account are going to be the trolls who want to use it regularly, not the lone commentator who has an important perspective about a story but doesn’t want to tell the world who they are out of fear of social stigma or worse.

What’s worse, Postmedia has now essentially farmed its privacy policy out to Facebook. Presently that means that, in theory, you can’t be anonymous. But what will it mean in the future? Postmedia can’t tell you. They can’t even influence it.

For an organization managing discussions as sensitive as newspapers do – that is a pretty shocking stance to take. Who knows what future decisions about privacy Facebook is going to make. But here’s what I do know, I trusted the National Post a hell of a lot more to manage my comments and identity than I do Facebook because their missions are totally different. In the end, this could be bad not just for comments, but for Postmedia. Many people are already pretty uncomfortable with Facebook’s policies. I expect more will become so. Even if they don’t comment, I suspect readers will be drawn to sites that engage them more effectively – a newspapers that has outsourced its engagement to Facebook will probably lose out.

I get that Postmedia believes its job of managing comments will become easier because it has outsourced identity management to Facebook – but it has come at a real cost, one that I think is unacceptable for a newspaper. In the end, I think the quality of engagement and of discussion at Postmedia will suffer. That will be bad for it, but it will also be bad for society in general.

And that is sad news for all of us.

Added @ 9:27am PST. Note: Some Postmedia journalists want to make clear that this decision was a corporate one, not theirs.

Is the Internet bringing us together or is it tearing us apart?

The other day the Vancouver Sun – via Simon Fraser University’s Public Square program – asked me to pen a piece answering the questions: Is the Internet bringing us together or is it tearing us apart?

Yesterday, they published the piece.

My short answer?

Trying to unravel whether the Internet is bringing us together or tearing us apart is impossible. It does both. What really matters is how we build generative communities, online and off.

My main point?

That community organizing is both growing and democratizing. On MeetUp alone there are 423 coming events in Vancouver. That’s 423 emergent community leaders, all learning how to mobilize people, whether it is for a party, to teach them how to knit, grow a business or learn how to speak Spanish.

This is pretty exciting.

A secondary point?

Is that it is not all good news. There are lots of communities, online and off, that are not generative. So if we are creating more communities, many of them will also be those we don’t agree with, and that are even destructive.

Check it

It always remains exciting to me what you can squeeze into 500 words. Yesterday, the Sun published the piece here, if you’re interested, please do consider checking it out.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Open Data

I have an article titles Lies, Damn Lies and Open Data in Slate Magazine as part of their Future Tense series.

Here, for me, is the core point:

On the surface, the open data movement was about who could access and use government data. It rested on the idea that data was as much a public asset as a highway, bridge, or park and so should be made available to those who paid for its creation and curation: taxpayers. But contrary to the hopes of some advocates, improving public access to data—that is, access to the evidence upon which public policy is going to be constructed—does not magically cause governments’, and politicians’, desire for control to evaporate. Quite the opposite. Open data will not depoliticize debate. It will force citizens, and governments, to realize how politicized data is, and always has been.

The long form census debacle here in Canada was, I think, a great example of data getting politicized, and was really helped clarify my thinking around this. This piece has been germinating since then, but the core thesis has occasionally leaked out during some of my talks and discussion. Indeed, you can see me share some of it during the tail end of my opening keynote at the Open Knowledge Foundation International Open Data Camp almost three years ago.

Anyways, please hop on over to Slate and take a look – I hope you enjoy the read.

Fall 2012 – Some Fun Updates

Hi friends – am super excited about a number of upcoming events I’ve been asked to participate in this fall.

All this means I’ll be in Charlotte, Boston and Washington DC in case friends are around.

Democratic National Convention

Tomorrow, Wednesday, September 6th, the National Democratic Institute has invited me to speak at the International Leaders Summit at the Democratic National Convention. Tim O’Reilly and I will both be giving talks on technology and government – I believe it will be live streamed via a Google Chat room so will try to post details.

Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

I’ll be giving a talk on the State of Open Government at the Kennedy School on September 25th, as well as, possibly another talk at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Promise to blog on any talk I plan to give.

World Summit on Innovation and Entrepreneurship

I’ve also been asked by the State Department to be on a panel on innovation in diplomacy at the World Summit on Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Boston on September 26th. Hope to write up a summary and thoughts about this once it is over.

The White House

I’ll also be speaking to the White House Innovation Fellows in late October – more details on that, but very excited as this is a fantastic group of people doing some very interesting work.

Lots of other exciting stuff happening this fall as well – so hoping to have a bunch of great blog posts I’ll be able to share with people soon.