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Last October my organisation moved offices from West to Central London, reducing my commute  from 9 miles each way to 5. I was running out of excuses not to cycle to work, reduced to arguing that there’s not much room for a bike in a flat with toddlers. Andrea suggested I try out his Brompton. Clever, sure, but how absurdly Lilliputian, I thought. Look:

But I climbed on, and rode round the courtyard outside. Something happened. In minutes, I went from feeling absurd and wobbly, to feeling exhilarated. This was genuine chemistry… I borrowed the bike for a week to cycle to Millbank, and it was heaven. I’d arrive at work wearing a broad grin – and returning the bike to him felt a real wrench.

So I decided to buy one through work. Little did I anticipate the knots I’d tie myself into, as first I confronted the Brompton order form, and then trawled website after website trying to understand what different options meant. (I haven’t cycled regularly since the early 90s…) What the hell was “lowered gearing”? Should I get 1 gear, 2, 3 or 6? Firm suspension or normal? Hub dynamo lighting? And as for the colour…

So, in case it’s helpful to others, here are the resources I found useful in deciding which Brompton configuration to buy.

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mozillawebmaker: Register for the Mozilla Festival 2012 November 9 – 11 in London, UK A yearly festival with hundreds of passionate people exploring the Web, learning together, and making things that can change the world. Festival Program: Learn more about what’s in store at the festival and how to propose activities. What is it like? …

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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; edge.org 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.

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