Updates on the Internet and its social and public policy implications, useful websites, political/cultural musings and more from a UK-based academic, internet consultant and journalist

Archive for the 'Positive uses of technology' Category | back to home

13 February 2014

I love hearing about the latest digital tools that help one operate as a journalist/researcher whether that be twitter search and monitoring tools, bookmark management tools, people search tools etc. “Search : theory and practice in journalism online” by Dick is particularly good for finding and describing this stuff – but I am not aware of any articles that bring the different pieces together to describe all the key online tools a journalist uses and how they all go together into a work flow. I plan to come up with something myself to share with students and if I do I will post it here but I would love to hear what other people are using.

22 January 2014

I’m as excited as anyone about the potential for organizations and governments to use the ever-increasing amounts of data we’re ’sharing’ (I prefer the less value-laden ‘giving off’) because of our love of smartphones and the like. So I enjoyed this presentation by Tom Raftery about “mining social media for good”.

(Slideshare ‘deck’ here)

And I am sure his heart is in the right place, but as I read through the transcript of his talk a few of his ‘good’ cases started to seem a little less cheering.

Waze, which was recently bought by Google, is a GPS application, which is great, but it’s a community one as well. So you go in and you join it and you publish where you are, you plot routes.

If there are accidents on route, or if there are police checkpoints on route, or speed cameras, or hazards, you can click to publish those as well.

Hm – avoid accidents and hazards sure – but speed cameras are there for a reason, and I can see why giving everyone forewarning of police checkpoints might not be such a hot idea either.

In law enforcement social media is huge, it’s absolutely huge. A lot of the police forces now are actively mining Facebook and Twitter for different things. Like some of them are doing it for gang structures, using people’s social graph to determine gang structures. They also do it for alibis. All my tweets are geo-stamped, or almost all, I turned it off this morning because I was running out of battery, but almost all my tweets are geo-stamped. So that’s a nice alibi for me if I am not doing anything wrong.

But similarly, it’s a way for authorities to know where you were if there is an issue that you might be involved in, or not.

To be fair Tom does note that this is “more of a dodgy use” than the others. And what about this?

A couple of years ago Nestlé got Greenpeace. They were sourcing palm oil for making their confectionery from unsustainable sources, from — Sinar Mas was the name of the company and they were deforesting Indonesia to make the palm oil.

So Greenpeace put up a very effective viral video campaign to highlight this [...] Nestlé put in place a Digital Acceleration Team who monitor very closely now mentions of Nestlé online and as a result of that this year, for the first time ever, Nestlé are in the top ten companies in the world in the Reputation Institute’s Repute Track Metric.

Are we talking about a company actually changing its behaviour here or one using their financial power to drown out dissent?

You should definitely check out this talk and transcript and if we’re going to have all this data flowing around about us it does seem sensible to use some of it for good ends – there are certainly many worthy ideas outlined in it. But if even a presentation about the good uses of social media data mining contains stuff that is alarming, maybe we should be asking the question more loudly whether the potential harms outweigh these admitted goods?

2 December 2010

Machine of death cover

This podcast interview by Jesse Brown with the creator of Dinosaur Comics and this web interview about the brief but dazzling success of a short story collection, ‘Machine of Death are interesting at a number of levels.

Briefly, a group of well-known web comic creators got together and found contributors from among their readers for this short story collection that they would then illustrate. No mainstream publisher would touch it because it didn’t contain material from authors they recognised, so they thought they would self-publish it. And they organized the fan base they had gathered from their web comic activity to buy the book all at once in order to get media attention. It worked and the book hit number 1 for several hours on Amazon US (though as they said it only took “thousands” of sales to do this – it’s now at #1192). A few days later, they released the full text of the book free as a downloadable PDF.

This phenomenon has naturally excited a number of the proponents of “new authorship” models and it is indeed an impressive achievement, but I would add a few cautionary notes to this tale:

Ryan North says he is able to make a ‘comfortable living’ from t-shirt sales driven by his free online comic strip but wouldn’t say how much this amounted to (and his standards of ‘comfortable’ may have been formed by his recent status as an impecunious grad student).

It benefited from promotion by the fan bases of several well-known web comics authors, was promoted on a number of very prominent sites like boingboing, and falls into the sci-fi/fantasy genre. It may even be a great read (I don’t know yet but I have started downloading the podcast). Taken together this constitutes a nearly ‘perfect storm’ in favour of this book.

The broader question for the future of this model has to be how replicable it is. At the moment this is newsworthy – the economic significance of online-driven publication will be proven when tens of thousands instead of (I’m guessing) a few hundred authors can earn enough in this way to afford to bypass the conventional publishing system.

Of course none of this should take away from the fact that even if this is not the start of an economic revolution for new authors it may well be the start of a cultural revolution enabling many more people to become published authors (even if with a rather different notion of what being ‘published’ means). It is this as much as anything else I intend to explore in my upcoming research.

13 July 2010

I am working on a presentation for IAMCR 2010 about the need to adjust media literacy education to encompass new forms of online practice and I would value your help, fellow netizens and academics. I am looking for references to the potential benefits that can be derived by individuals from their social media use. So far I have come up with the following categories and key texts:

  • Building and maintaining social capital (Steinfield, C., Ellison, N., & Lampe, C. (2008). Social capital, self-esteem, and use of online social network sites:A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29(6), 434-445.)
  • Finding one’s voice politically (Rodríguez, C. (2001). Fissures in the mediascape: an international study of citizens’ media. Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press.) (maybe also Couldry’s new “Why Voice Matters”? though I have not had the chance to read it yet)
  • Finding one’s voice culturally/creatively
  • Having a space to reflect on one’s self-identity (Stern, S. (2008). Producing Sites, Exploring Identities: Youth Online Authorship. In D. Buckingham (Ed.), Youth, Identity, and Digital Media (Vol. -, pp. 95-117). Chicago.
  • Having the opportunity to reflect critically on media products through increased familiarity with media forms Jenkins, H. (2006). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century.
  • Learning employment-related content creation skills

Are there any important categories I have missed? And what are the best empirical and theoretical references you would suggest that could relate to each of these themes?

I’ll add a link to my presentation here as soon as I upload it after the conference.

13 June 2010

I read a profile of Lu Xun (魯迅) in the Guardian which describes him as “China’s Dickens and Joyce rolled into one”. Surrounded as I am at the moment by Chinese students I was keen to learn more but I thought there might be little available in English – at least not for free. In an article I wrote ten years ago for Salon – The US-Wide Web I bemoaned the fact that the internet appeared to be dominated by the English language and by American content. Of course a lot has changed since then but I was still surprised to find that a free creative commons audiobook in English of some of his stories is available as well as some English translations as text online. Hurray for Creative Commons, the public domain and the internet!

PS if you are Chinese please comment and tell me what you think about Lu Xun and how his work and his place in China today have been described in the Guardian…

19 March 2010

Realtime UK train timetables have been around for a while but I have long wished the same were available for buses. Turns out that it has been for a while – Traveline NextBuses either gives you the next scheduled time or the next estimated time of arrival for buses near you across much of the UK. Excellent!

24 November 2008

I’m busy downloading the demo of Red Alert 3 to celebrate making progress on my thesis and I thought I would try out BBC iPlayer’s streaming video option to watch Survivors at “high definition”. To my surprise the BBC video is quite close to download quality even while I’m downloading the demo at 400Kbps! I was dismissive of the likelihood that people would bother watching BBC TV live on iPlayer but at this quality it would be quite bearable.

And I’m old enough to remember waiting for plain text web pages to load in Mosaic…

PS I am enjoying Survivors so far even though it is hardly sophisticated entertainment…

29 May 2008

Pat Miller explains how to surf the web, word process, email, do instant messaging and even make Internet phone calls all with a Nintendo DS.

Mind you, at least in the UK at £79 the DS is actually more expensive than an XO (the “one laptop per child“) would be (if we could buy one), and of course it lacks a keyboard. But doing all that on something that was designed to play simple games would certainly be good for one’s geek cred.

12 March 2008
Filed under:Personal, Positive uses of technology at3:41 pm

I just realised I have made at least 55 edits on wikipedia since mid-2005 (I don’t always remember to log in so some won’t show up). Recursively enough my last edit was to fix a link to We Think, a new book about online collaboration…

11 February 2008

Thanks to a BBC programme, Costing the Earth, I just heard about Desertec, a proposal to provide 10-25% of Europe’s electricity via solar power panels in the deserts of North Africa. What I thought was particularly impressive is the claim that the solar panels could provide a three-fold benefit for these African nations. They’d sell the power, of course, but they would also get desalinated water (because this is needed to run the power plants) and they could grow crops in the shade of the giant mirrors! I always thought that the problem with remote electricity generation like this would be the losses in transmission over long distances but the people behind this concept claim that by using High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) these losses would only amount to 10-15% of the power generated.

I have no idea whether this would be feasible, technically, politically or economically, (one critic says it would cost 0.15-0.20 euros per KWh – about double what we pay for power currently) but it sure sounds appealing on the face of it.

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