Governments and citizens status: it’s complicated

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[This post was initially published on FutureChallenges.org.]

I have been mulling over how to frame my thoughts about the ‘relationship trouble’ between the people and the institutions that govern them. On FutureChallenges, Corina Murafa phrased a very interesting perspective; I, however, disagree with her main proposition: “governments, be they local, regional or national, are no better than their constituencies.”

I believe many out there have read Jacques Rousseau’s “The Social Contract”, either during the seemingly never-ending philosophy classes at high school or on some whimsical Sunday afternoon later on. In this foundation work, Rousseau firmly rejects a (not only at that time) pervasive idea that people can invest some group or individual with the authority to act on their behalf and rule over them. Instead, Rousseau considers that when you hand over your general rule to another person or entity, this constitutes a kind of slavery. More importantly, the mere fact of recognizing this authority is an abdication of moral agency. Such a surrender is even more striking when  you consider the hostility with which Rousseau approaches the election of representatives to sovereign assemblies: these vote and pass laws that bind citizens to terms and obligations the citizens themselves have not agreed upon.

Now, this is no scoop: many people have come to think that such an infantilizing political system needs to be challenged and reconstructed. Take the #Occupy movements, the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, 15M, #IdleNoMore, the huge protests that have erupted even in a country as apathetic as Bulgaria… But I don’t want to get into an analysis of popular movements here: I’d much prefer to talk about a more ’2.0 version’ of a Rousseau-inspired fight against the abdication of moral agency. Let’s talk about Open Government initiatives.

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Blogging the 2013 Global Forum on Development at OECD

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OECD Development 2013
Save the date 🙂 I’ll be covering the OECD’s 2013 Global Forum on Development (April 4-5) along with fabulous Lova Rakotomalala and Julie Owono. We have been invited to do so on as Global Voices authors interested in spreading the word about challenges developing countries face:

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is an international economic organisation of 34 countries that supports democracy and world trade. The Global Forum on Development is focussed on poverty reduction and social cohesion and attracts a wide range of participants from governments and civil society to help discuss solutions.

As for now, you can follow the Twitter hashtag #oecdgfd (OECD Global Forum on Development). I also recommend you to read these thought-provoking and insightful pieces and get involved in the conversation!

The Democratic Bahraini Regime Kills Irony Once More

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Today March 12 is the World Day Against Cyber-Censorship. Initiated by Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières, RSF) back in 2011, the Day aims “to rally everyone in support of a single Internet without restrictions and accessible to all.” RSF released a special report highlighting the “Enemies of the Internet.” The report, which presents the 2012 list of countries, has identified five State Enemies of the Internet: these are all ‘spy’ states as they conduct systematic online surveillance which results in human rights violations. They are Syria, China, Iran, Bahrain and Vietnam.

The report also emphasize the importance of advanced technology which enables authoritarian regimes to
spy on their citizens. RSF has thus compiled a list of five “Corporate Enemies of the Internet,” that is 5 privately held companies which it names ‘digital era mercenaries’ because they sell software used by authoritarian governments to commit violations of human rights and freedom of information. With no surprises, these are Gamma Group, Trovicor, Hacking Team, Amesys/Bull and Blue Coat.

I guess the Bahraini repressive regime is greedy for becoming even more famous: in celebration of its excellent rank in the top 5 of the ‘Enemies of the Internet,’ it has arrested 6 tweeps. The Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights lists the names and a few details on each case. The Bahraini Ministry of Interior cheekily explained:

The General Director of Anti-Corruption and Economic and Electronic Security announced on Tuesday that a group of individuals were monitored for using social media for defamation of the King. Investigation identified six of them, in which they were referred to the public prosecution.

He said that freedom of expression in protected within the constitution and law, while urging for the best use of social media to avoid breaking the law.

I guess no comment is needed at this point…

Closed-source software recommended to Syrian activists as 100% secure…

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It is about Wickr, an app only available for iOS thus far. I remember this app made me smile when it was announced back in June 2012: it sends messages and photos that will be erased. The funny thing is that the user chooses for how long the messages/photos will last.

Nico Sell, co-founder of Wickr and one of the organisers of the DefCon, says Wickr will bring “NSA top-secret level encryption to the masses.” It seems absolutely awesome.

As operating on entirely proprietary and locked OS was not enough, Wickr also uses proprietary cryptography algorithms and its source code is closed. I’m confused about the “geek utopia” Sell depicts as follows:

Wickr has a patent pending on technology which Sell said could give people ways to safeguard anything they send or put online, even digital bytes in Internet telephone calls or posts to leading social network Facebook.

Loads of discussions (Mashable, for the non-crypto specialists and Liberationtech for the geekier) have been taking place around how much one could trust this tool. As quite a few security concerns have been addressed (see the Liberationtech messages above), I was particularly alarmed by the following in the Mashable article:

So could Wickr be used by an activist in Syria who is worried about enemy spies and Assad’s regime? Sell has no doubts — she answers that question with an unflickering “yes.”

You mean, people at risk of dying for communicating through technology could use a tool that only a small crowd knows the secrets of?
The blackbox software is good for you

Open and Connected: Impressions from the Social Media Week Hamburg and Paris

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[Co-written by Mario Sorgalla and yours truly, this post was first published on FutureChallenges.org.]

This year, Social Media Week celebrated its fifth birthday. Ten cities all over the world were hosts of this truly global conference. The organizers marked this milestone with a unifying global theme that explored openness in a connected and collaborative world.

Future Challenges first got in contact with Social Media Week last year. The Future Challenges team gave a crowdsourced presentation titled “Big World – Big Challenges: can a big network help?”. Twenty bloggers from our worldwide blogger network contributed to this presentation. That’s just one of the reasons why we at Future Challenges are familiar with the benefits of openness and collaboration – especially across borders.

Social Media Week 2013

Our globalized world forces us to rethink accustomed practices. The organizers of the Social Media Week assert:

Emerging technologies have dramatically changed the way we communicate and engage (with) the world around us. One voice can now ripple to millions, and we can now share our passions openly and across cultural and geographic boundaries. Change is happening everywhere (…). Groups are self organizing to take positive action. Transparency, accountability, information sharing, and collaboration are accelerating progress to levels never seen before.

FutureChallenges.org joined Social Media Week in two European cities: Hamburg (Germany) and Paris (France). Mario Sorgalla reports from Hamburg and Rayna Stamboliyska participated in Paris.

Hamburg

One week and 170 events. You don’t need to be a professional statistician to seee that one person couldn’t possibly attend all the sessions that the organizers of Social Media Week (SMW) Hamburg got going. But this abundance of interesting sessions was a great opportunity for cherry-picking. Which new trends, tools and perspectives did Social Media Week Hamburg offer its participants regarding “Principles for a Collaborative World”?

My personal Social Media Week started with a presentation about corporate blogs. Many, or actually most of, the big corporations are still hesitating to start their own blog. A loss of control is probably the main reason for such reluctance. The classical mindset in Public Relations and Communication departments is that the information flow has to be controlled and directed. Such a mindset necessarily clashes with the attitude that prevails in the blogosphere and on social media channels. However, there are some good examples of big corporations that run their own blogs, like the Daimler blog. Setting up blogs could be of particular interest for transnational corporations. Don’t you think it would be exciting to get to know the faces in different countries behind an anonymous corporation?

Let’s jump to the second day in Hamburg, when the session “A Nerd Toolkit for Journalists” caught my attention. I’m not a journalist and not a nerd (though some people might challenge the latter point) but I’m convinced that data visualizations — the focus of this session — will become ever more important for our globalized world of big data. We learned about some useful visualization tools and got to know the technical basics of visualizations. Did you know that the Guardian provides all the data they use for their visualizations via Google spreadsheets? And why shouldn’t they? They don’t own the data and everybody in any corner of the world can take these data and create something new. This is how globalized data journalism looks like. If you’re interested in the technical basis of data visualizations and you understand German, you should take a look at this summary. You will find some useful notes from the session.

…It’s already Wednesday! My highlight of the day was “Wikipedia in Museums”, an inspiring project that I’ve also discussed on my blog. There is hardly any better example for our global, open and connected information society than Wikipedia. The German Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte (Museum for the History of Hamburg) has collaborated with members of the Wikipedia community in Hamburg in order to publish information and photos about many of the museum’s exhibits on Wikipedia, an endeavour resulting in a rich collection of information for all museum geeks out there. The museum’s visitors can access this information via QR codes that are placed next to the museum signage. I’m sure there will be many more projects like this in other parts of the world.

Paris

For its third edition, SMW in Paris hosted “only” 62 events. But what a tough choice it was, selecting which one to visit, especially when I was also speaking at a few of them. As a number of the organizers are also involved in what I’ll call the collaborative economy, many sessions were converging to the focal point of identifying economic models able to sustain open knowledge in the broadest sense. Here are my top 3 SMW events from the last week!

The first day kicked off with a whole afternoon at Paris’s City Hall. This building is an absolute jewel in terms of external architecture and the interior totally follows, which makes the venue even more striking as we discuss the ‘digital Parisian’ against a backdrop of 19th century marble chimneys. The goal was to build a bond between the Parisians and their (well, our) city. One of the ways to do so was with the introduction of an app, “Dans ma rue” (translated: “In my street”), inspired by the British ‘Fix my street’. The app aims to provide Parisians with a handy tool to report the status of city works in the neighbourhood. Using the app, anyone can take a photo and geolocate the situation.

The event itself also allowed us to work in groups of 3-5 during an hour around a few other topics. In one group session, we worked on the idea of ‘Paris Answers’, a crowd-sourced Yahoo! Answers-inspired platform which will collect information on various topics related to services proposed by the city. A very interesting debate emerged around the possibility and the rationale behind crowd-funding of public services, an idea that clearly divided the participants. On one hand, some were putting forward the fact that a citizen already pays taxes, so s/he should not be asked an additional effort. From the other hand, why reject such a much more targeted contribution to the city and the neighbourhood? So many answers yet to find…

A session dear to my heart came on Tuesday: “Open & Connected: Research Joins, Too!”. In this session, we addressed vital questions about the economic models that underlie open libraries, open data produced by public institutions, and open labs. I talked a bit about open data and how it can change a person’s everyday life; one can stop being an observer and begin acting upon one’s environment. More specifically, the discussion emphasised the screaming need for opening the data produced by research groups, especially by those that receive public funds. If you read French, I greatly recommend you to allocate a neuron or two to the summary (and in any case, to watch the amazing video, no French speaking required).

Last but not least, I’d like to end this retrospective with a very short mention of the Open Hardware session. We had Open Source Software decades ago, now the time has come to have all the nerds united and geek out with Open Hardware. Actually, this is partly misleading, as anyone can hack: I leave you to the fabulous ‘Fabrique–Hacktion’ initiative (French & English) which will convince you that everyone can be creative and that wonderful things can be achieved when we work in an open, connected way.

Cairo Administrative Court Bans YouTube… | Une cour égyptienne veut bloquer YouTube…

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(Français ci-dessous)

This morning, February 9, the Cairo Administrative Court announced its decision to ban YouTube and “all other websites that showed the anti-Islam film” ‘The Innocence of Muslims’. The ban is for 30 days. The lawsuit was initially filed on 18 Sept 2012 by a lawyer, Mr. Mohamed Hamed Salem, in the middle of a MENA-wide turmoil the trailer provoked. The lawyer insisted on having the website removing all anti-Muslim videos as they “distort the image of the Prophet”.

Courtesy @asteris

Courtesy @asteris

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Retraction Watch suffers DMCA bugs*

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*Ok, trolling away, DMCA itself is a bug.

The background: Retraction Watch is one of the must-follow resources on the web for anyone who is interested in scientific publishing. The blog, maintained and nurtured by Ivan Oransky (Reuters health editor) and Adam Marcus (science journalist and managing editor of Anesthesiology News), is the place for keeping abreast of retractions and corrections in scientific and medical journals. Recently, the blog editors woke up to find out that 10 of the posts have been taken down.

What happened? Apparently, some firm from India copied these 10 posts — relating to Anil Potti, a cancer researcher whose career is imploding as 19 of his papers were already retracted, — then claimed them and filed a DMCA takedown notice. Consequently, the posts were pulled off by WordPress from Retraction Watch… and haven’t been restored thus far.

Petitioning Obama: Build a Death Star!

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This is my #LulzOfDaDay 🙂 Background: the Obama administration provides a web platform — We the People, — for citizens to send a petition to the President, and “if a petition gets enough support, White House staff will review it, ensure it’s sent to the appropriate policy experts, and issue an official response.” Among the most popular petitions, you can find one calling for free access to scientific publications arising from taxpayer-funded research or the one asking for the removal of District Attorney Ortiz for overreach in Aaron Swartz case.

Star Wars Cookies, by Betsy Weber on Flickr (CC-by 2.0)

Star Wars Cookies, by Betsy Weber on Flickr (CC-by 2.0)

And here comes one of the most important petitions to Obama ever: “Secure resources and funding, and begin construction of a Death Star by 2016.” Launched on Nov 14, 2012 it has gathered nearly 35,000 signatures thus far. The rationale:

By focusing our defense resources into a space-superiority platform and weapon system such as a Death Star, the government can spur job creation in the fields of construction, engineering, space exploration, and more, and strengthen our national defense.

This makes you laugh? Come on, don’t go medieval on this concerned citizen. The Obama administration took his demand into consideration as it “shares your desire for job creation and a strong national defense.” Unfortunately, a Death Star isn’t on the horizon:

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#ArsenicLife reviews leaked

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You certainly remember the allegedly revolutionary discovery of a bacterium using arsenic instead of phosphate to build its nucleic acids. Arsenic is a poison, and phosphate is mandatory for life. Thus, this alien, “the first known microorganism on Earth able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic” as presented during the NASA HQs press conference, was supposed to be an alien constituting a paradigm shift, etc. — you remember the hype. The alien that wasn’t one as I already summed up critics shortly after the paper was published (ici en français). The story received an incredible media coverage as well as a huge number of comments from other fellow scientists. A few months after the paper was published in Science, follow-up studies revealed the bacterium does require phosphate — even though in small amounts — to be able to grow and sustain life.
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Data protection reform in the EU

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Français ci-dessous | Български по-долу

UPDATE: The Macedonian Metamorphosis Foundation For Internet and Society has translated the Brussels Declaration into Macedonian and is urging people to sign it.

The EU directive on data protection is to be amended (process already started), and massive corporate lobbying in Brussels against the data protection reform is happening. A few organisations, namely European Digital Rights (EDRi), Bits of Freedom and Privacy International, drafted a statement: the Brussels Declaration. Such an initiative is very needed as the first vote of the Consumer Committee of the European Parliament showcased how resistant is to US lobbies: not at all. I strongly encourage you to sign it (on your personal behalf and/or as an organization).

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[Brevia] #NetNeutrality through Neelie Kroes’s eyes

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In an Op-Ed in Libération (in French), Neelie Kroes, the European Commissioner for Internet-related policies, can be found giving in to telecom operator pressure and giving up on Net Neutrality. Ms. Kroes supports the creation of a fragmented Internet, banning innovation and opening the door to unacceptable censorship.

Read more from La Quadrature du Net: English, French

The Internet according to Neelie Kroes, by @mmu_man

The Internet according to Neelie Kroes, by @mmu_man

Crunching raw stuff: on the road to #dataviz, part 1

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One day, my overcrowded inbox delivered a particular message: an invitation to enroll in a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) on information graphics and data visualization. This made me pause a bit, for a few reasons. First one is curiosity, of course: I’m obsessively curious, my memory is like a sponge, so anytime I bump into something new, my neurons start jiggling. This happened this time as well: I had never taken a MOOC before, and anyway #dataviz is something I’m quite interested in.

Second is this, precisely: I’m a hardcore scientist, and infographics are generally dismissed as “fancy, glossy and stupid” by a majority of my peers who hail the idea of presenting raw, dry facts which supposedly speak for themselves. Indeed, many infographics I have seen when browsing the web are not far from this pejorative definition as they are just a nicely put brag of a gifted designer but bring no insight whatsoever in the information they are supposed to present you.

Third is that I somehow got into data storytelling, or making big boring numbers relevant for the layman. I know many people — including myself! — who are not keen at all digging into the World Bank Database and reading about GDP or GNI or whatever the eggheads out there have decided to call it. This repulsion is, however, much easier to overcome when you are scientist for the mere reason that a major part of your daylight job is just this: crunching raw boring stuff to make sense of it.

How was I supposed to reconcile my somewhat innate obsession of analysis, of uncovering mechanisms and ‘reverse engineering’ even art pieces — which supposes a great sense of detail and possibly a quite rigid mindset, unwilling to give up on details — with depicting and abstracting this incredibly broad range of information into an infographic? I gave it a try or two on my own. I was not happy, either because I feared it was too heavy on facts (the mechanistic freak was too present) or because in an attempt to make it understandable, it was sloppy (the perfectionist came forward).

Then the course kicked off. And my talespinner-scientist schizophrenia got a breathing space 🙂 This sums it pretty well: “The life of a visual communicator should be one of systematic and exciting intellectual chaos.” This just sounded right to me and for me. The quote is courtesy of Alberto Cairo, our instructor, who does an amazing job introducing things in a progressive and logical fashion. I recommend you follow him on Twitter and/or read his blog as his prolific remarks are really worht the read (and funny).

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Science blogging in the Arab world (or the lack thereof)

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This was first posted at Nature Middle East blog ‘House of Wisdom’.

When I started browsing the web for science blogs from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, I didn’t think it would be such an adventure. And for a quest, it was one.

I thus started entering keywords in the search engine. The outcome was disappointing: one or two blogs in English popped up. I thought it is because I was only searching in English, but French and Arabic searches did not harbour significantly more results. When I asked friends to point me out my wrongdoing, they just laughed and the comment invariably was: “dear, spare your efforts, there is no such thing like science blogging in the region.”

The blogging culture in the Arab world thus seems to mainly touch opinionated people with a say in politics and economy. There is nothing wrong with this. I’ll spare you a lecture on the importance of social media for changing the society we live in, this has been thoroughly discussed elsewhere. Loads of bits and ink have also been spilled to demonstrate the importance of science blogging. Given the paucity of science blogs in the Arab World, I guess a reminder is more than useful.

Why writing about science? Reason #1: scientists get to speak directly to the public. Reason #2: lay scientists or enthusiasts engage and keep up to date with developments in various scientific fields. Reason #3: open discussions on research topics are promoted among peers.

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Healthcare Ailments

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This was initially published on FutureChallenges.org. I’m particularly glad of this post as it constitutes an insight on Eastern Europe healthcare, and complements the global topic “In Sickness and In Health” that I suggested to the FutureChallenges.org community back in December 2012: ‘From Uganda to the United States and from China to Chile, access to healthcare is an enormous issue for citizens and governments. The economic burdens of many countries’ healthcare systems can seem trivial when compared with the persistent health crises that continue to trouble other countries. Access to healthcare differs not just between countries, but between regions, genders and classes. What role does healthcare play in determining economic success or failure? How can we bring better health to more people without bankrupting ourselves?’

With scary news about the “financial crisis shaking the world!” making the headlines every second day, you can easily end up blaming the godawful traders for every single bit of wrong-doing. Or Greece. As time goes by, I more and more have the impression that everyone around is turning into a life hacker: tinkering with life habits to avoid a disease has become a regular mission.

While the poverty gap continues to widen between member states of the eurozone, jobs in the south-eastern part of the European Union (EU) are vanishing at an alarming rate. We have all heard about those mind-blowing budget cuts such as the end of funding for the Erasmus educational exchange program. Generalized austerity is praised by most of the iron fists in European governments as the panacea to the financial crisis although its implementation is controversial and its effects are far from obvious. Which is only logical given that austerity measures are not imposed on the cradle of the crisis: traders and their ilk.

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Freedom fighter Aaron Swartz commits suicide

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I guess anyone out there has come up to know Aaron one way or the other. For me, it was when he created the RSS 1.0 specification, but more importantly after he freed an impressive amount of the JSTOR scientific publications repository. This bold action of knowledge sharing called for another copyright-prompted obscenity: he was charged with “data theft” and indicted on a wide range of charges. The prosecution continues, and Aaron was facing up to 35 years imprisonment. The thief who stole knowledge later founded DemandProgress.org, the movement that kicked off the campaign against internet censorship bills SOPA and PIPA.

MIT’s The Tech announced this morning that Aaron has committed suicide on January 11. May he rest in peace.

[Brevia] Slovenia Backs Net Neutrality

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The government adopted an Economic Communications Bill in September 2012, more importantly enforcing net neutrality. The government has also engaged into transposing the EU ‘cookie’ directive after it consistently failed enacting it (along with four other EU countries) and was referred to the European Court of Justice.

On 19 December 2012, the Electronic Communications Bill was passed by the Slovenian Parliament, and the rules are now officially published in the Official Journal on 31 December [PDF]. This makes Slovenia the second EU country — after the Netherlands — to have officially enforced net neutrality in its national legislation.

When will the EU Commissioner for the Digital Agenda wake up and resume working on enforcing this fundamental principle?

Note: for more on the Cookie Law Enforcement within the EU, check Cookiepedia out.

Egypt’s Constitutional Referendum Results

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[This analysis was first published on Jadaliyya.]

Based on numbers reported by Egyptian media outlets, below is a summary of the constitutional referendum vote results broken down by governorate.

What do these numbers tell us?

  • In two stages of voting, average turnout across governorates was 30%, with Egyptians abroad participation being the most notable outlier with a 41% turnout rate.
  • The only three governorates where the majority of voters elected to reject the draft constitution are Cairo, Gharbiyya, and Menofia.

What do these numbers not tell us?

  • Given that the vast majority of eligible voters (68% or 33,855,564) did not participate in the referendum, we can neither conclude that the majority of the eligible voting population supports the constitution, nor can we conclude that a majority rejects it.
  • Only 16,232,035 or 32% of eligible voters have reportedly cast a vote. It is, therefore, misleading to claim that the silence of the other 68% is reflective of support for one position or another.

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