eResearch Australasia 2010

Plenary presentation: eResearch Australasia, Goldcoast, Queensland, 8-12 November, 2010

In Australia, all forms of computational research come under the banner of ‘eResearch’. This is probably because Australia has such a small population and our academic traditions tend to favour the generalist. Still, I am not sure that it always works and the eResearch Conference is somewhat indicative of this. Although the Scientists and support staff I meet are always kind, supportive, flexible and well-rounded in their approach, there is a problem in that the Humanities, like the Sciences, is a specialist research tradition. In other words, it isn’t really possible to say anything interesting about ‘the humanities’ unless you have invested a good deal of you life and career pursuing humanistic questions. Still, the relationship of Science and the Humanities could be a fruitful one if someone had the courage to make explicit the power imbalances inherent in the relationship (and structured the conference in a much more innovative way). It is dominant culture versus elite culture. It is the Goldcoast meets Florence!

Building Social Media Infrastructure to Engage Publics

An interesting new report from the Centre for Social Media at American University is Washington DC.

This field report traces how a committed group of volunteers harnessed the micro-blogging tool Twitter to create innovative public media 2.0 experiments—first to actively engage users to report on their voting experiences in the 2008 U.S. election, and then to document their experiences of the 2009 presidential inauguration. Along the way, these two projects demonstrated how journalists and advocates can effectively leverage a range of both commercial and open source social media tools to organize, publicize and implement citizen reporting projects, creating infrastructure for related future projects. Organizers have since worked to archive and repurpose the code and collaboration materials from these efforts for use in 2009 election monitoring initiatives in India and Iran (link)

OpenTech ’09

I attended the OpenTech ’09 forum on Saturday; organised by the UK Unix Users Group and friends at the University of London Union (ULU). For those interested in the social and political aspects of computing; this is an excellent forum to discuss new modes of political communication, privacy, advocacy and other issues that arise from the broader computing movement. There was an excellent talk on the two cultures of science/technology and the humanities from Bill Thompson who compared CP Snow’s pioneering work to present social circumstances. Bill basically argued that technological literary needs to rise considerably; especially in the political classes, otherwise we are doomed! He argued that many people in senior positions (as well as the broader public) do not understand the ‘power in code’ and this is perhaps why so many large government systems have failed in the UK (I just ordered CP shows book on Amazon for 10 quid).

Another interesting session was from a representative from the Guardian newspaper who discussed their experience of reporting the Ian Tomlinson death at the G20 protests earlier this year. The speaker explained how the video footage was released immediately  on the web rather the usual slower way through the print-edition. Although the analysis of this technique was not well communicated by the speaker, he did made the interesting observation that the Guardian in this instance had used their online distributing power to ‘crown source’ news rather than simply publish it. They had allowed others to use the video of Tomlinson’s death in Blogs and Youtube etc. rather than slowly releasing it thorough the print edition.

Another speaker from the Guardian talked about the paper’s very bold initiative to make much of their data open to the public. They have RSS feeds, an API system, and a sophisticated tagging system. I found their DataBlog one of the most interesting initiatives in that many of the facts that are researched by journalists have been aggregated for later use and open to the public.

The Guardian’s initiative to crowd source the expenses claims-documents of MPS was also discussed; along with the limitations and opportunities of this approach.

The Internet as Playground and Factory


(This conference about Labour online may be of interest.  From my rudimentary understanding ‘free’ labour online is a fairly contentious issue as online labour may be pooled by large commercial interests and used to accumulate profit without distributing the fruits of this labour to users).

Dear all,

You can now join the discussion about topics of user “labor” related to the conference “The Internet as Playground and Factory.”


Join the list and introduce yourself:

Follow the conference on Twitter:

A few questions from the introduction:

* Is it possible to acknowledge the moments of ruthless exploitation while not eradicating optimism, inspiration, and the many instances of individual financial and political empowerment?

* What is labor and where is value produced?

* Are strategies of refusal an effective response to the expropriation of value from interacting users?

* How is the global crisis of capitalism linked to the speculative performances of the digital economy?

* What can we learn from the “cyber sweatshops” class-action lawsuit against AOL under the Fair Labor Standards Act in the early 1990s?

* How does this invisible interaction labor affect our bodies? What were key steps in the history of interaction design that managed to mobilize and structure the social participation of bodies and psyches in order to capture value?

* Most interaction labor, regardless whether it is driven by monetary motivations or not, is taking place on corporate platforms. Where does that leave hopeful projections of a future of non-market peer production?

Trebor Scholz
— iDC

Podcast/Press Release: ‘HE in a Web 2.0 World’ report


JISC recently released a report on ‘Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World’. The aim of the report is to critically assess recent Web-based developments commonly termed ‘Web 2.0’ and assess them in relation to education and pedagogical practice. The report is available on-line and in hard-copy; plus some of the key findings are discussed in a podcast with David Melville, one of the report’s authors.

Some of the key findings of that report are that students may not be developing the critical skills to evaluate information and that ‘Web 2.0’ may be promoting shallowness. And although Melville discusses Web 2.0 as a solution to all sorts of social ills from those associated with multiculturalism and globalism to a ‘collaborative’ deficit in education, I do worry that the report itself is not critical enough as many technologies are produced within commercial and other contexts that may not have the unique interests of education in mind.

The report and podcast is available on the JISC website; discussions in this forum are most welcome.

Private Sheriffs in Cyberspace: Jonathan Zittrain OII Event: London, 19th May 2009

On Tuesday evening I attended an Oxford Internet Institute sponsored lecture by Jonathan Zittrain, Professor of Harvard Law School, Co-Founder and Faculty Director, Berkman Centre for Internet & Society (at the salubrious legal offices of Wragge and Co). Zittrain talked about regulation on-line by major Internet players such as Facebook and Apple and asserted that many of the regulating methods employed by them were outside of the rule of law. His contention was that many ‘Web 2’ companies have immense and increasing social and economic power within the fabric of our lives and are regulating their sites in a rather ad hoc and random way in terms of banning application developers, individuals, and groups that do not adhere to their governance structures. He used a number of examples to support his thesis, plus introduced a simple graph to illustrate emergent styles of governance:


Hierarchy >poligarchy


As an example of a ‘bottom-up’ governance structure Zittrain cited Wikipedia which includes a deliberative system to manage thorny editorial decisions. As a top-down system of governance he cited Facebook; although Facebook is beginning to include the community in decisions relating to its structure and functionality. He used the term ‘social governance’ to describe this bottom-up governance approach and suggested ways in which this approach may be designed into a system (through flagging certain tasks that help tap into the ‘reservoir of good will’ of the community). A well-designed system should have mechanisms to ask users for their input.

Although I tend to agree with many of the arguments of Zittrain, I feel there is a tendency to overstate the importance of sites such as Facebook and Youtube to the broader public. Sure they are popular, but this isn’t the British Library, the University of California, or the Library of Congress we are talking about! They are just large and fashionable web sites; a small part of the fabric of our complex lives. And commercial companies will perhaps always act in their own interests; either commercially or ideologically.

I suppose what is needed is some sort of bill of rights/responsibilities that is general to the operation of the Web within a certain geographical region balanced with the specific values of the site in question. There is nothing wrong with sites asserting behaviour norms upon users; but then again governance structures should be transparent and open; not outside of acceptable norms of the broader public sphere. A site should never assert policies that are deemed racist nor discriminatory (perhaps this is Zittrain’s anxiety when he claimed than many sites operate outside of ‘the rule of law’). The relationship between the community and the platform should always be fair and equitable; especially in large user-based sites such as Facebook. In my mind, governance structures, whether online or off, should always be open and transparent.

One of the respondents to the talk, Ian Brown, a Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute (and author of the recent report Database state) asserted that the relationship between Citizen and State and Cyberspace needed to be reconsidered. He also claimed (from his experience) that that the issues raised by Zittrain are not well-known in the UK;  especially in senior government levels. As an historian (and not a legal expert), my  scepticism relates to the actual significance of the entire debate.  I suppose that the significance of the debates depends on the importance the public places on systems such as Facebook and their governance structures. I may agree with Eric Hobsbawn that Terrorism is more a perceived threat in the UK that an actual threat (to the state), but then again the public is led to believe otherwise so it now painfully significant.  So if the debates about governance are perceived to be important by the public; then they will become important. So we may have a ‘Facebook Parliament’ in the making deliberating about the rise of rudeness on Facebook . They should start with the Tube system!

Web 2.0 in higher education

There is a belief in some circles that Content Management Systems (CMS) such as Joomla and Drupal are labour saving devices and that their very presence online will spontaneously invoke a community of highly-skilled individuals that will submit content and build the system in a coherent and meaningful way. This idea is a myth as virtual communities require a great deal of maintenance, promotion, and strategy to work in a meaningful way for all. It is almost impossible to make a virtual community work if the main concern is the technology alone. It is an inherently socio-technical exercise with the former being extraordinarily difficult in an institutional environment.

JISC will launch a report on Web 2 in Higher Education next Tuesday 12 May (that I will attend). I also draw attention to a case-study report published on the JISC web site last year that claims ‘The features most associated with a Web 2.0 approach (rate, comment, upload, blog and send to friend) were commonly described with reference to social networking or e-commerce sites and were largely considered non-academic and therefore inappropriate for the Pre-Raphaelite online resource’ (link). In other words, building a virtual community is a very labour intensive and difficult task in HE and almost impossible if there is not at least some attempt at a community building strategy. A virtual community needs a strong sense of community through a coherent and interesting concept, a belief that the labour that the user is contributing to the site is meaningful and consequential, and some sort of reward system. There is no rigid method for making a community site work, but it does take a strategy to grow and foster the community but the one that develops may not always be the one that was imagined in the first instance.