Friday, 7 January 2011

Internet ... couch potatoes

Both the Google and Twitter doctrine has come to dominate thinking in many social networks today. Such doctrine is centered on the notion that somehow uncensored, unrestricted flow of information can spread democracy in the world, by encouraging the masses to react to an event, issue or cause in disgust, and thereby change the world. Facebook provides an interesting example of this via its Causes application, claiming that "Causes empowers anyone with a good idea or passion for change to impact the world. Using our platform, individuals mobilize their network of friends to grow lasting social and political movements." One can chose between "Animals, Education, Environment, International Issues, Religion" amongst many other possible categories. Those "cyber-utopians" who believe in such a vision believe that by using the Internet, they are able to propagate their message to a much wider community -- quoting examples from young Iranians using Blogs, Twitter and YouTube to broadcast their message to change history.

A wonderful new book by Evgeny Morozov entitled The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World challenges this vision. Morozov, himself a cyber-utopian (who, according to Crowd Surfing, "spent the early part of his career advising political activists in the former Soviet block, is well placed to comment on the behaviour of the political elite in places such as Russia"), has challenged how effective the Internet has been in supporting such activism. His observation that by passively clicking on applications such as Facebook Causes, we have essentially become armchair activists, each click producing big numbers but very little commitment from the individual involved. Virtual resistance is not resistance at all. Morozov also challenges the notion often adopted by sociologists that "technology is neutral, it is how it is used that determines its value". Morozov indicates that it is the form of the technology that determines its use, and therefore the nature of the Internet is much a reflection of its limitation. According to Crowd Surfing, "Morozov also cautions against the assumption that a new generation of ‘digital natives’ – the teenagers and twenty-somethings brought up in a digital world – are more likely to become political activists. He argues that younger Web users, especially in developing markets such as China, are more interested in cyber hedonism than cyber activism. In this way, the web can be seen as another opium for the masses, rather than an engine of political change."

He notes that the Internet is often used for entertainment, distraction and social networking -- and less a potent tool for activists. Perhaps, the easy availability of information and videos through YouTube makes one desensitized to such information -- often with attrocities that would have once triggered action now merely being another distraction, of interest for a short duration, and easily forgotten? Perhaps the information revolution has left us distracted, easily aroused couch potatoes rather than potential activists who could potentially become more active citizens in a democratic society? Worth a thought ...

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Watching Nemo

According to an article on 20 new ideas in science, it has been identified that: "covering 70 per cent of the planet, with an average depth of 4km, the ocean is the largest habitat on earth, and it is largely virgin territory. Whenever researchers go into the deep, they almost always discover new species. The oceans are also throwing up new geology, and surprising us about the conditions under which life can thrive, redefining what we think of as habitable zones". Monitoring the oceans has become an obsession for many in the Earthquake and environmental monitoring communities. Being able to detect changes in how the Earth vibrates, underwater, and linking this to the behaviour of fish and other marine animals provides important clues about potential sciesmic activity, and how our oceans change over time. In her thesis, Gayathari Nadarajan (Edinburgh University) and her supervisor Dr Jessica-Chen Burger automatically analyse video feeds from the Eco-Grid project in Taiwan. Gayathri indicates that "such data is valuable for long term monitoring and research especially for marine biologists. Studies on fish behaviour, suitable underwater conditions for marine life presence and activity, and population of particular species at a given time provide valuable information to scientists". In the Eco-Grid project, data is acquired using geographically distributed sensors in various protected sites such as Fu-Shan forest, Yuan-Yang lake, Ken-Ting national park and Nan-Jen-Shan site. Gayathri uses automated workflow construction (using planning techniques) to analyse video feeds and determine frames of interest to a marine biologist, or to count fish, level of algae etc.

Whereas the Eco-Grid uses underwater cameras with video feeds that can be externally recorded, NASA, US Navy and the Scripps Institute of Oceanography have demonstrated robotic underwater vehicle to be powered entirely by natural, renewable, ocean thermal energy -- as part of the SOLO-TREC project. "Most of Earth is covered by ocean, yet we know less about the ocean than we do about the surface of some planets," said Yi Chao, a JPL principal scientist and SOLO-TREC principal investigator. "This technology to harvest energy from the ocean will have huge implications for how we can measure and monitor the ocean and its influence on climate." Additionally, the multi-million dollar Cyberinfrastructure Ocean Observatories project at the Scripps Institute provides a collection of messaging middleware for supporting data capture, recording and storage of ocean data.

Perhaps, it is useful to better understand how such ocean monitoring projects -- which themselves embed sensors (fixed or mobile) into the ocean perturb the ocean themselves (and the associated marine life). An interesting anecdote was that the heat generated around cameras that monitor the ocean lead to new marine ecosystems around the observation site -- thereby leading to new behaviour not known before.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Collaborative Science

One of the leading scientific publishers -- the Nature Publishing Group -- has realized the importance of social networks to promote science research and education. According to Vikram Savkar (SVP and Publishing Director) at Nature, "... science education needs to become interactive and social". According to him, "... kids and young adults learn from people, not from static words in a textbook". A new Web site called Scitable has been launched to enable teachers, researchers, and students to collaborate and share work. Instuctors can create a classroom using content management systems such as Blackboard and Desire2Learn. It is interesting to see a major publisher realizing the importance of learning through people, rather than just learning from content. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Scitable is it's business model -- essentially where business provides "social value advertising", rather than specific product placement or paid content placement. Rather than provide large banners highlighting particular products, sponsors are able to directly add content (such as job openings) on certain pages.

A new book entitled Bursts -- The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi (of Northeastern University, in Boston) has used a "social" experiment in it's launch. The complete text of the book is available on-line, but each word is covered by a rectangle. Each user can 'adopt' a word, and at that moment all words adopted by others will become visible to that individual. Once 84,000 individuals have each adopted a word, roughly the number of words in the book, the whole book will become visible to the adopters. Additionally, to make the process more interesting (!), any user can unlock the whole book within days by guessing a sufficient number of covered words, as each successful guess offers additional points that helps the user reveal further content.

Both of these social network-based approaches to collaborative learning indicate the importance of involving people in the learning process. Proving texts on-line is only the beginning to a learning journey that could utilize on-line resource in a much more effective way. As educators, perhaps, we all need to take note and adapt to the possibilities and enormous potential opportunities.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Dr Sue Black from the University of Westminster delivered a very interesting lecture about her use of Twitter to spread the Save Bletchley Park campaign (part of the BCS Women Lovelace Colloquium, Cardiff, April 8, 2010). She indicated how Twitter brought together a diverse set of individuals who wanted to "contribute something back" to the history of computing by fund raising for this campaign -- and contributing their own skills. Her talk provided an interesting insight into how Twitter and social media provided the foundation for raising public and political awareness about a cause. After producing a publication about her experiences in using Twitter in the Bletchley Park campaigh, Dr Black was able to raise over 2000 UK pounds through the JustGiving Web site -- to present the paper at a conference in the US.

On the other hand, in the current heat towards the next UK election, a Labour party candidate (standing for the East Scotland seat of Moray) was removed from the party after describing old people as `coffin dodgers' on Twitter. According to a story in the Independent newspaper (April 10, 2010), he was also found to make "an ill-advised quip about bananas", writing: `God this fair-trade, organic banana is shit. Can I have a slave-`grown, chemically enhanced, genetically modified one please?' According to the same story, the Labour party now has it's very own "Twitter tsar", who mentioned that "most MPs were still too cautious in their tweets, rather than too forward". She mentioned that "... the greater problem is getting MPs to engage and communicate with the public on the site, rather than simply tweeting that they are out campaigning."

Both of these stories indicate an interesting new trend in on-line now being the published word. Perhaps, what we generate on-line (even though it may not have a persistent publication identifier), can now generate equivalent, or more, impact than the printed word. Dr Black's effort in making very effective use of social media, and the Labour candidate's ineffective use of it, shows how important size-limited, context sensitive twitter feeds have become in changing public perception, debate and fund raising.

Picture taken by Omer Rana @ BCS Colloqium in Cardiff, April 8, 2010

Friday, 26 March 2010

Survival Telecom

Communication is one of the major social needs of human beings -- and something that becomes even more important at a time of a natural disaster. Although significant emphasis is placed on supporting basic human needs -- such as shelter and food (and rightly so) -- by organizations such as Disasters Emergency Committee (an umbrella organization covering various charities) -- the need for individuals in diaster stricken countries to communicate with the outside world -- on a personal basis -- is equally important. An individual, able to communicate with his relatives, friends or close colleagues can convey a much greater need for help than charities that appeal on the behalf of a nation or a group of individuals. The work undertaken by Telecoms Sans Frontieres (TSF) provides an example of a charity that helps establish telecom infrastructure after a natural disaster. TSF has undertaken remarkable work in Haiti, for instance, enabling "10,500 families (more than 60,000 people) to reach their relatives". TSF works to establish telecom infrastructure across the disaster stricken country/region, in addition to enabling communication with the outside world (sharing such infrastructure with media organizations and other charities). A wonderful example of using the internet and telecomms infrastructure to save lives.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Tweet Analysis

Micro-blogging via Twitter (and status updates on Facebook) seems to represent the new fad in communication. Being able to declare your thoughts to the world -- without engaging the brain to process your thinking -- appears to be gaining favour with politicians, musicians, and need I add, academics! Communicating in bite sized thought-summaries is not new however. SMS and pager messages have already been around for some time, and the ability to communicate using short messages had already caught on before Evan Williams and Jack Dorsey launched Twitter in 2006. Perhaps, the most interesting aspect of this can be found at Wikileaks -- a "multi-jurisdictional organization to protect internal dissidents, whistleblowers, journalists and bloggers who face legal or other threats related to publishing." On November 25 this year, Wikileaks released half a million US national text pager intercepts, covering the 24 hour period surrounding the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington. Here's an example. The archives represent a catalogue of electronic and human "chatter" at a remarkable point in world history. Messages range from texts between machines, humans and machines and multiple humans -- from a variety of providers -- Metrocall, Skytel, Weblink_B etc. Perhaps, some historian in the future will trawl through this archive and try to better interpret it's contents. Could the analysis of Twitter and other micro-blogging sites, after a particular event in history (earthquakes, sporting events, elections etc), provide an insight that is often not available with "processed" news stories available through branded publications and media? Perhaps, an intelligent analysis of such feeds would provide real insights into what happened?

image from

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

To charge or not to charge

Newspapers have recently discovered that they can no longer rely on advertising as their sole source of revenue, and therefore need to start new business (charging) models for their on-line editions. Whereas previously such newspapers relied on the number of people looking at their site (and therefore also looking at the adverts on these pages), it seems that people are no longer clicking on these adverts. Whereas some newspapers (such as the New York Times) abandoned a subscription-based model to increase the number of people coming to their Web site (from 12 million to 20 million, according to New York Times' Vivian Schiller) -- just the number of people visiting a site does not seem to be enough any more. According to an article in the Guardian newspaper (which, interestingly, is still free), News Corp (who own a number of British newspapers -- such as The Times) feel that accessing news content for free is no longer viable, and utilising subscription based models from other successful on-line publications, such as the Wall Street Journal in the US and the Financial Times in the UK, should be the way ahead for internet based news media. In a BBC article, Rupert Murdoch of News Corp was quoted as saying: "Quality journalism is not cheap, and an industry that gives away its content is simply cannibalising its ability to produce good reporting."

Would people pay for news content -- or should content need to be of a very specialist nature for it to be of interest to subscribers? If it is of a specialist nature, would that also not limit the number of subscribers? The Financial Times, for instance, makes some articles available for free, and then charges for others -- although it does seem to have a very well defined readership. However, newspapers such as The Times, which appeal to a more general market may not be able to appeal to such distinctiveness. Perhaps, when major newspapers do start charging, those that don't, may dictate the newsagenda in the future -- and perhaps as markets recover -- dominate revenue from advertising once again. Similarly, this also raises questions about the role of government funded news media -- such as the BBC in the UK -- who, for a small licence fee, are already providing free content.

This also introduces the need for a new type of RSS-feed aggregator -- one that is able to take Blogs from different individuals and perhaps compile free news content. So, if you live in, say Cardiff, and write about events in your local area -- an aggregator engine (perhaps, similar to a search engine), could combine all news stories from Cardiff. Traffic to these news stories could then be used to identify their "value" to readers. Such reputation models -- based on number of readers -- could be one way that an aggregator could select which Blog entry to feature when compiling news content. In this way, news could be dynamically compiled, for free, without having to access subscription-based newspapers? Would this work -- or would the views of experienced reporters and journalists always be of greater value to readers -- and therefore result in people paying for such content?

One interesting comment from Mr Murdoch -- in the Guardian article above -- relates to advertising revenue from social networking sites (and perhaps, also from Internet-search engines) -- "... News Corp revealed that its interactive media division, which includes the social networking site MySpace, had turned in a lower contribution." Mr Murdoch stated that:
"We're not going for the Facebook model of getting hundreds and hundreds of million of people who don't bring any advertising with them at all," he said. This does raise questions about the possible future survival of social networking and search engine sites which solely rely on advertising revenue.

Image from University of Indiana