In two weeks’ time, I’ll be moderating a workshop at the Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference, on a topic dear to my heart:

Visual content and human rights – Visual content has changed our world – how do we manage its impact on society, governance, and privacy?

Sam Gregory, Program Director, WITNESS
Thor Halvorssen, Founder, Oslo Freedom Forum
Victoria Grand, Director, Global Communications and Policy, YouTube
Hans Eriksson, CEO, Bambuser

I’ll draw in part on Cameras Everywhere, but what topics and issues would you like me to raise with these panelists? Let me know either via a comment below, or tweet me.

I spoke at last Thursday’s The Power of Information conference in London, organised by the Indigo Trust, the Institute for Philanthropy, and the Omidyar Network, on a human rights-focused panel alongside Stephanie Hankey of Tactical Technology Collective, Erica Hagen of GroundTruth / MapKibera, John Kipchumbah of SODNet, and Patrick Meier of Ushahidi (here’s a picture of the panelists, and here’s the Indigo Trust’s video of my talk). I also summarised this panel on a plenary round-up at the end of the day (here’s a video and a PDF of the notes I was talking from – in case you’re wondering what I was gesticulating about). [Text updated on 23 Sept to include videos from Indigo Trust. And on 26 Sept to add Indigo Trust’s coverage of the Cameras Everywhere report.]

My talk slides and words (a mix of what I wrote and on-the-day adaptations) are after the “more” link below. Before that, and besides the WITNESS Cameras Everywhere report I drew on for my presentation, here are the principal resources I mentioned on both panels that might be of interest both to attendees at the conference, and to those who followed the hashtag #giveandtech.

Interesting recent research:
– Joe Karaganis of the SSRC’s epic Media Piracy in Emerging Economies (2011) – if you are searching for empirical research on copyright and intellectual property around the world, this is an essential read (see also the Washington Declaration below).
– Aeron Davis’ 2009 paper New Media and Fat Democracy, on how ICTs are creating wider gaps between a growing empowered core of citizens, and a much larger group of disengaged citizens (thanks to Ben Wagner for the pointer).
– Andrew Chadwick’s new paper The Hybrid Media System, which takes aim at false dichotomies between new and more established media.
– UNESCO’s recent Freedom of Connection, Freedom of Expression report.

Collaboration between multiple stakeholders:
– The remarkable Washington Declaration on Intellectual Property and the Public Interest (and my personal perspective on it).

Talking to donors: 
– Chris Blattman makes the case to DfID for conducting R&D, rather than M&E, in a recent post and presentation (PDF) called Evaluation 3.0.
– [not mentioned on the day, but very useful nonetheless –>] James Deane, Head of Policy at the BBC World Service Trust, and my former boss at Panos London, on lessons he has drawn from recent high-level meetings on talking with donors about media development – but which seem instructive for, and broadly applicable to ICTs and human rights too.

Read More

The conversations at Newsfoo afforded both the chance to delve deeper into topics and ideas with very sharp-minded people, and to reflect a little bit on a meta level on what all this ceaseless inquiry and activity means.  Listening in particular to discussions about sustainability, business models and revenue generation, it made me think of Sir Isaac Newton.

Most of us think of Newton as a mathematician, a physicist, an astronomer, striking out into new territories of shared, incremental, testable knowledge, whereas Newton spent the greater part of his time on studying and writing about the Bible (.doc), alchemy, and the occult – elite, hidden, controversial (as a Christian, he is widely held to have been an Arian).  He studied, for example, alchemical motifs like the Greene Lyon, and helped to sponsor an expedition in search of dragons in the Swiss Alps.  Gravitation was, in a way, a side-project – something he came up with in his 20% time.

Some of the discussions (in many, many settings – not specifically at Newsfoo) about how to pay for journalism feel to me at times more akin to a theological, doctrinal conversation about waning belief-systems than one intent on discovering the intrinsic natural forces that surround and govern our work.  That’s undoubtedly more due to my own limitations than the problems of the conversation, but I think it’s worth asking those wiser than I am:

What’s our Greene Lyon? And what’s the 20% time project that becomes gravity?

This rather lengthy post was my first maladroit assay, yesterday.

A note:  Newsfoo provided me with significant food for thought.  I was warned this would happen.  The post that sits below is one of many that have been rolling around in my head like little balls of mind-snus since the plane home in early December, but it’s only now I feel that this one has taken enough shape to share.  Thanks are due to Matt Bernius for engaging generously with this post when it was still largely a dérive – I have, with his permission, left in some of his notes and reactions. In response to one section, Matt wrote: “following [Bruno] Latour, the argument should come as a byproduct of walking the path, versus an active shaping of the argument to fit the path.”   That’s more or less how this post has come together, but I hope to pick up and refine some of the themes and ideas raised in it through more focused posts and conversations.  Naturally all infelicities, inaccuracies and mysteries below are mine alone.  And though I’m hoping to write more regularly, it will be more efficiently and concisely in the future…

At Newsfoo, a session on long-form journalism prompted me to think later that maybe we should have been talking instead about immersive journalism.

There was in the session an anxiety (my reading) that long-form journalism as an important way of capturing and understanding the world, is in danger – because it’s expensive, labour-intensive to produce, takes a long time to read, and takes up a lot of space in print and, in a different way, online.  The discussion ranged over the changing nature of news content and changing settings and habits of news consumption – and the impact this has on how we apportion our attention.  Within the ecosystem of online news, information and comment, I got the feeling that the lapidary status update (and in other settings the SMS) was being regarded as the increasingly sharp-elbowed atom/pixel of news and information, hustling other, more stately forms to the back of the queue.  If attention is “shortening” – whether deterministically because of the volume, variety and velocity of the stream (I think of our period as that of Strom und Drang – the stress of the stream), or because the market wills it, or because because because because… – either way, this was Kryptonite to those seeking to do or foster long-form journalism.  (It may be helpful, as a tech-free counterweight, to cite Julian Barratt, of The Mighty Boosh: “Having kids means relaxing is a different thing for me now. Today, finishing an article in a newspaper is like going to a rave.”  He and I both have young twin boys.)

Read More

On the first weekend in December, I had the good fortune to be part of a group of 150 people brought together at ASU in Phoenix, Arizona, by O’Reilly, Knight Foundation and Google for Newsfoo, a Foo Camp on the future of news.

A friend had been to such things before.  I asked her how I should comport myself at a Foo Camp.  She told me:

* don’t be a tool, contribute, and be peripatetic
* come with your mouth open, your ideas half-formed
* you will often feel like the dumbest person in the room.  that’s because you probably will be. [OK, I added that very last bit.  No, really.]

Following this, and wiki advice, seemed to act as a reasonable amulet (n00bery during my virgin round of Werewolf apart).

I won’t pretend it wasn’t daunting to begin with – as a hand-selected group, it was a formidable cluster of skills, achievements, futures – but it felt quickly more natural to explain my presence there by referring to what I do/know than by saying, as I did initially, “Because of a grotesque clerical error*.”  Everyone I interacted with (including those of us with jetlag-induced narcolepsy) was open, generous and discursive, and I hope the contributions I made helped.

This discursiveness was considerably enhanced as an experience by the general adoption of the Foo Camp ethos of “being present” as far as possible, by setting aside laptops, mobile devices and such (although a number of Newsfoo-ers wielded iPads – clearly a different, magical device-class), and of using common sense and courtesy as to what could be shared through social networks and blogging (see the second Steve Buttry post below for more on this).  This meant that almost the only interruptions were phone calls, but by this stage I was enjoying the freedom, so I let my phone battery run down.  Not that I took extensive field notes, or drew elaborate sketchnotes in every session, but I was definitely having uninterrupted, whole conversations, which felt nutritious, enjoyable, and freeing.  I should issue, however, a blanket apology to fellow attendees for inadvertently saying “rhizomic” twice over the course of the weekend.  Jetlag.

Newsfoo is an unconference, and as such each person’s experience is likely to be quite different.  Here’s the Rasho-blogging of Alex HowardSteve Buttry, Matt Bernius (once, twice, three times an anthropologist), Wade RoushAlex Hillman, and Dave Cohn (let me know if I missed anyone).  [16 Dec 2010, 5.53pm, adding the glory that is Meg Pickard, and the Storification of Mo Krochmal.  6.58pm: Andrew Walkingshaw’s provocation to the US press, and more from Alex Howard.  Looks like it’s accelerating.]  Something from me very soon [Update, Jan 21, 2011: here’s a short one about Green Lions, Isaac Newton and the news business, and another shambolically stalking one such Green Lion, and getting rather badly mauled].

* For the record, I am not Samira Ahmed.  Also, if you don’t understand the title of this post, I apologise.

Matt McAlister and Robin Hough of The Guardian were kind enough to ask me to speak at their Activate conference last Thursday, on which, more in due course, but I was also invited to give a pre-interview for their site.  I didn’t have time to contribute it before the day of the conference itself, but I thought I’d post it here anyway:

How, in your experience, have web technologies been employed to make the world a better place?

Improving access to information (for those that can access it), enabling people to share new perspectives (though there’s some way to go on diversity), and slowly and still a little randomly offering ways to challenge and hold power and authority to account.  Video specifically is very powerful – it offers both very direct and human ways to interact, and to see directly and feel more viscerally and authentically what is happening in many more places than we could before.  As more and more historical and archive visual material gets preserved, digitised and shared, it’s fascinating to watch what changes when people have access to their visual histories, especially in places where this hasn’t previously been possible.

And where for you are the real problem areas that remain that you think the internet and its associated technologies can help to tackle?

There are so many things we need to think about, and rethink – here are a couple of things that preoccupy me:

One of the big shifts I was working on at WITNESS was looking at how the human rights field is increasingly affected by new and emerging non-traditional players – technology/social media companies like Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Twitter, and hardware companies like Nokia.  Although these new players offer new arenas and publics for human rights work, their products weren’t designed with human rights challenges in mind, and therefore can expose many more people, and human rights activists in particular, to new, networked vulnerabilities.  These companies need to update and adapt their technology and policies to be more protective of human rights workers, and of wider populations – for instance, in the area of privacy and anonymity, or in thinking collectively about the legal/copyright status of human rights content online.

Beyond this, the perennial issue is overcoming barriers to access – whether we are talking about poor infrastructure or connectivity, a culture of censorship, literacy barriers, poverty or other kinds of exclusion.  Mobile’s important, but it’s only one part of a solution.  It’s good to see the UK’s Digital Champion, Martha Lane Fox, and Beth Noveck speaking at Activate – these aren’t just developing world challenges, they’re present in our societies too.  And we need to be a bit more realistic about what participation means, and understand better how online participation meshes with offline participation.

So what projects are you currently engaged in on a day to day basis and how does the internet fit into this?

Opportunities opened up by the internet, and through networks generally, to strengthen public understanding, debate and participation in human rights and social justice are pretty central to the work I do and hope to do with NGOs, media, foundations, and so on.  I’ve started gently since returning from New York to live in London last month – co-writing a series of posts about human rights video online as a collaboration between YouTube and WITNESS, doing some work for a US-based foundation, and interviewing psychoanalyst Adam Phillips about his new book On Balance, which touches on some of these topics, for BOMB Magazine.

Who do you admire in this space? Who’s inspiring you? Who’s pushing the boundaries and how?

Just so many people!  Here’s who comes to mind today…  Stamen for information design and visualisation; Berg London’s work and blog is professionally essential; danah boyd, Mizuko Ito, Molly Land and many other researchers; is always thought-provoking; there’s an incredibly good blog by the World Bank on communication and media in development; and I love Pete Brook’s Prison Photography Blog, where he talks about visual culture and activism; anthropologists/ethnographers Jan Chipchase and Dawn Nafus.  Got to stop there – too many people to mention – we’d be here all week.

And what can we expect from your presentation at Activate 10?

I’m going to talk a little about the recent history of human rights video online, the work I and colleagues did at WITNESS, and where I think things are going next – and I am really hoping that we have time for genuine conversation, as not just the list of speakers, but also the attendees I already know are pretty stellar and diverse.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.