Citizen Journalism 2

They made it! The group of people from AssignmentZero I blogged about some time ago have their articles published on Wired. Though it is easy to see that it has been a mixed blessing in results it is also easy to see the enthusiasm people have in doing this. One of the conclusion they have reached is that a good balance or professionals and amateurs is crucial. The professionals know how to present news, the amateurs are everywhere where news may be found. Read more about it here.
Also, we have an example of this trend in the Netherlands. They recently published an ad in the newspaper “DAG” for citizen journalist to cover news from the “Tour de France”. I think that is an excellent combination of enthusiastic amateurs covering many locations with phone camera’s in combination with a professional editorial team. All sides win: the amateur have a great time while watching the tour with a missions and the newspaper gets wider coverage of the news.
Lot’s of people love producing instead of just consuming.

A thousand lies

This is such an interesting example of how our new production of information can go wrong:This is an interview with Christine Boutin, the French minister of housing, about the conspiracy that George W Bush is behind the attack on the WTC towers on 9/11. A small translation of the first part goes like this:

I think that it’s possible. I think that it’s possible… I think it is possible. I think it more especially as I know that the sites that speak of is problem are the sites that have the greatest numbers of visits….And so, I tell myself, I who am extremely sensitive…to the new techniques of information and communication, that this expression of the mass of the people cannot be without any truth. I’m not telling you that I adhere to that position, but let’s say that, nevertheless, I’m questioning myself a bit on this question

Some time ago I talked about the fact that due to ease of copying information of the Internet it is possible for an item of information to multiply rapidly. And a thousand lies remain a thousand lies.
This I think is an excellent example why we have to rewire the way we interpret information due to change that Internet brings us.


When I have an appointment at an organisation that is very security conscious (e.g. Police, Thales, the home office and others) I normally have to show an official ID like driver license or passport. In normal life we all feel comfortable doing this when there is a reason for this security. And we see it as a normal task of the government to provide us with the means to identify ourselves in a way that creates a fair amount trust that we are who we say we are.In digital life there is a serious lack of trustworthy identification. At the moment I am developing a project that deals with organising prevention, care and cure bottom up. Not starting with the specialists but with the people in the local districts. Helping people organise this in their own district can help to strengthen the social fabric of our society. Through helping people to help each other and through a stronger say from the civilians living in these areas in what is important. For them and for the district. This is especially important in areas with problems like the Ella Vogelaar wijken in Rotterdam.
For some services you definitely need to know who the person is that is asking questions. For example in the case that a person wishes to view his medical info. Not from a big brother perspective but from the perspective of the user who does not want his information abused.
Yesterday I had a discussion with the EDBR in Rotterdam and this issue surfaced also here. The risk is that all organisations dealing with these areas are creating services that are going to develop their own identification, resulting in numerous ID’s and passwords. This makes the service less easy to use but also lowers the security dramatically because people will start to use easy passwords and such.
In real life we as well as the government feels it is logical that he government organises and operates a secure and trustworthy mechanism to proof identities. Why is it than that in the electronic domain the government hesitates so much. Several government administrators have been sent away due to problems with physical passports. But in the electronic domain, that is becoming more and more vital, the government leaves us in the cold. There is the service DigiD but the government is very hesitant to have this used by private companies (including hospitals).
Ensuring trustworthy identification is an important task of the government, in real life as well as in the electronic domain. For many initiatives that are using Internet to enhance the lives of civilians (us) and companies delivering services to these civilians it would be a big step forward when there is a trustworthy and easy to use identification service available for all.
Like a passport.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Does Wikipedia work or doesn’t it? That is the question.There is a lot of discussion on what the quality of Wikipedia is and how we should use it. An interesting point of view is the comparison with Open Source software. I think there are two quite important distinctions how Wikipedia and the Open Source movement handle the way they organize their processes.
Wikipedia is for the most part anarchy. Anybody can simply put some information in and correct whatever is there. Even when Einstein would have written the part about relativity than john doe can easily “improve” upon it. On pages where this leads to numerous changes (who the hell does this Einstein guy thinks he is by changing what I, John Doe, have shown to the world…) the adopt a feudalist approach where some people (the Aristocracy) have received special administrator powers by Jimmy Wales (the King, Wikipedia: c’est moi).
Open Source has adopted a much more open approach to this. Also here you find the few who are at the inner circle with special powers but they are promoted there by the group based on their merit. In software it is pretty easy to see if something works or not (most of the time). Either it crashes or it works. Either the function works or it does not. That makes it much easier to spot the talent and quality of developers compared to the quality of the contributors to Wikipedia. And of course: Linus Torvalds is no emperor. No, Linus is God and above us all. Considering the ubiquitousness of Linux at least he knows what we all are doing.
My conclusion is: you definitely need some sort of structure to make these things work. And the risk of structures, organisation and hierarchy’s is that they are easily abused.
But does this not like a lot like real (physical) life. The Romans already understood this: “who will guard the guards” (as you clever readers already understood from the title. I had to look it up on the Internet …).
We already have a history in mechanisms for this kind of situation for more than 3000 years since the forum in Athens and it is called democracy (OK, there where times when it did not work…).
In a democracy we elect people to rule our country. We elect people to make the laws and to enforce the laws. We appoint people that judge others within the context of that law. Reality is a big social network. And you know, when we are not satisfied with the ones that rule we send them away during election time.
The mechanisms in social software should not be that different from our democratic rules: we elect people in whom we trust that they will govern rightly. Some rules will be hard to change (the constitution or the way we vote for administrator) and others will be easy to change (parking fines or the mechanism how a recommendation is calculated), depending on how important they are for the foundation of the community. And regularly we will have the opportunity vote or run for administrator ourselves.
In order to make this work we should not just look at Machiavelli but also to Montesquieu who wrote about how to design the checks and balances to prevent the Machiavellian Kings.


LadybirdOriginally uploaded by Vigdis T
Sometimes the power of the long tail amazes me. The picture on the side is of a ladybird. It is coming from the group “Tiny animals on fingers”. Oh yeah, I suppose this is not a picture of a ladybird but a picture of a ladybird on a finger.
Of this group there are 448 members. Amazing.

Smart and Stupid

LemmingsThe crowd can be smart  and the crowd can be stupid. Part of the discussion on Brittanica deals with what the advantage is of social software and iCrowds. And when results are stupid or irrelevant. IS there for example a thing like a citizen scientist?
Open source seems to work great: Linux, Samba, Apache are all examples where the software has reached tremendous stability because it is open. Everybody in the world can test it, can comment on features and can look at the code to try to make it better. I think most will agree that in these cases no group of “professional specialists” would have done any better.
On the other hand we have Wikipedia that sort of combines the best and worst of information. And it can be hard to distinguish between good and bad. Parroting each other through blogs and fora’s creates information that looks like the truth because it is amplified a thousand times (you can Google it and a hundred links say the same “truth” but in reality it may be just one person who is the source and who might be wrong. A thousand consistent lies remains a lie. One of the reasons we think information that is found many-fold is true is because in the old days much of this information was from different sources. Due to the Internet and the free copy and distribution, information is replicated with the speed of lightning.  This speed of replication leads to a loss in diversity of sources since it is much more convenient to copy based on what Google delivers. This process is of course self propelling. 
One of the reasons for this difference is the ease how we can distinguish right or wrong. When using the Apache server I know when it crashes or is vulnerable for attacks. And I know when it is fixed (when it does not crash or does like advertised). also, each person looking at the application or code does this on it’s own. With information in Wikipedia this is not so easy to determine without thorough research based on “peer reviewed” sources.
As for the citizen scientist: there may certainly be a place in science for the pro-am model. A much mentioned example is the use of amateur astronomists that see a lot a things that the professionals missed because you can’t look at the whole sky. But collection of data is only a part of science. Building theories and designing experiments is something altogether different. On a photograph it is easy to see if it was a supernova. Building and proving a theorie is much less clear and needs the input and critical review of many experts.
Combining diversity is the key to iCrowds, not replication of the same.


Yesterday I was at a seminar organised by the Rabobank and Veldhoen and Company. Theme of the seminar was the new way of working made possible by new and flexible office environments, new tools and new working environments. Henny van Egmond, with whom we cooperate in our research project “The future workspace” made an interesting remark about the stimulation of new ways of working.
A big problem in our society is the automobile. On the one hand it has liberated us by making it possible to move freely but most of the time it now forces us to stand in lines kilometres long. This is costing us all far too much time. When we look at the new  government program (beleidsprogramma, sorry, only in Dutch) the only focus around this subject is how to deal with all the cars on the road (more road, more clever use of roads etc). But what they almost completely overlook is how to decrease the number of people who are trying to use that road. The ministry of transportation, responsible for our roads, has created a budget for 2007 of € 135.000.000 to decrease the transportation jams. In total 29 different types of measures they propose. All relating to how better make use of roads and none focused on how to learn people to commute less (well maybe one item where it says that the department should be an example. So they subsidize their own tools to work from their own home).
I think it is time to have a chat with the department.

Individual interests and Innovation

If you have invented something very interesting, you want to get a share of the action. I would. But fact is that our copyright laws and patents create a monopoly. And in general monopolies are bad for us.
In this interesting article I read the case is made that Watt and the steam engine that he invented has been the greatest bottleneck for further innovation. Simply put, the steam engine and the industrial revolution only took of after the patent expired. Innovation builds upon the shoulders of previous innovators.
In the discussion on Brittanica Andrew Keen is making the case that the movement of free information will lead us to a “counter-revolution”:

As Gorman so ably argues, we now have a whole generation of digital idealists who believe that information should be free, that it’s liberating, and that computers are emancipating our intellects, unbottling our creativity.

If I look around the Internet I would say: free information is liberating and that I see a lot of creativity unlocked. If we look at the potential for social software you can see we are only beginning. But one of the key problems we have is the fact that copyright laws make innovative use of information impossible. It simply is not possible to advance our society without the (re)use of all kinds of information that is copyrighted. This is the classic example of the balance between Individual interest and the Common good.
Watt, due to good political relations of his partner, was able to extent his patents. The same is happening at the moment with information. Fact is, companies like Brittanica should realize that their old business model simply do not work anymore. In a society where information is able to flow completely free it is impossible to rely on business models of the past, where the publishing and distribution of information was expensive. This led to fairly small production sizes (per item used by many, e.g. in a library) and so high costs per sold item to produce the content.
Now the unit is measured in views, not in books. Publishing and distribution costs zilch. Of course it still costs a lot of money to produce the content of the Brittanica. And society would be worse of if the business of creating quality content would become impossible because others “reuse” your results of hard work. But fact is that the context has changed so much that a) the old business models simply do not work anymore and b) society is harmed by enforcement of these antiquated models. Maybe the future is in hybrid models where professionals and amateurs work side by side. I do not know.
If nature changes than farmers have to adapt to the new reality. There is no need to complain against mother nature. Just like the content producing industry must adapt to the fact that information will flow freely.
The free flow of information has become the fuel for the advancement of our society. It has become too important for the common good to be left to monopolies that have no interest but their own.

Innovators or Free riders

This is a comment on the articles by Gorman and Shirky on the Brittanica blog and Many2Many. Major issue to me on this discussion is the consequences of the change we are making from the traditional publishing of information, including the accompanying business model, to the electronic publishing with the “free business model”. In this discussion a comparison is made with the Luddites, 19th century weavers and knitters who fought against the use of textile machines because it threatened their business.
But isn’t there a big difference with he Luddites. The Luddites complained that new technology was making them unemployed, which true but happened in a fair market. Machine fabricated and hand woven competed and the first won.
I think at this moment the case is different. Look at the way everybody is quoting the Luddites. Reading the articles it is my well educated guess that most people are retrieving what they know about the Luddites from … Wikipedia (King Ludd ..). Interesting.
But where do we think that the original knowledge of Luddites is coming from. Again my educated guess would be that sometime somewhere someone copied (rephrased) an encyclopedia.
The new competition for the Luddites did not use work from the Luddites to compete. They had their own full business model. Wikipedia can only be free since most of the original research was done by people that make a business by doing research and whose business model rely on getting paid for it. Who will do our future (original) research. My guess is not the current people filling wikipedia.
Also, at this moment we are all quoting from Wikipedia about Ludd and his companions. I am afraid if it would turn out that the Wikipedia page would be wrong we would all be parotting each other like it would be the truth. That in itself would even make it seem more truthful. Scary when you think of it.

The oldest book

Imagine: the oldest book in the world (I think?) being digitized through crowdsourcing.
in 1637 in the Netherlands 22 man have translated the bible from the original texts to normal Dutch (they took 20 years for this). This was quite remarkable at the time since it was not normal to translate religious texts into a language that people could understand. This translation was so important and famous that it has influenced the dutch (written) language significantly.
This original translation has been changed during the centuries and some researchers would like to be able to compare the copies. But at this moment the original is only available in scanned pictures. The idea now is that many volunteers will type over text from the scanned pages. This work is organized by Nicoline van der Sijs. 1418 pages are easy to do when you can activate the many people that are interested in this work (not just from a religious perspective but definitely also from a language perspective).
Anybody willing to participate: