Monday, January 30, 2012

Occupy a Tea Party From the Cloud

Imagine you are going to a genteel scone and crumpets breakfast party in the English countryside. In another time and place, to be invited to such a gathering would have meant you had arrived, as they say, into the society pages. "Anything less would be uncivilized," you might utter, with your pinky finger sticking way out in the air, as you and your gentle friends titter over tea and biscuits and contemplate a jaunt to the opera. You are uninvited, but you still want to go, so you invite yourself to the gathering, knowing there are others like you in support of a planned assembly, a rally of sorts, even a demonstration of your numbers, and your attendance is part of a larger uprising and community movement. Before, during and after the event, you post and look at pictures and video, text, tweet, maybe facebook or google search, chat, email, all this in support of your common goal, to non-violently disrupt business-as-usual, and pleasure-as-usual, in the layers of society that seem to you unbearably hardened, even calcified. In preparation for the protest, you and your ever growing society hang out and chat in-person, then use your laptop and notebook computers, tablets, cellular phones, smart phones and PDAs, to form your own network of friends, to create a buzz and attract more people, and on the day of the event, you print out maps and directions, see what other people are doing and tag along, and before you know it, you've used the Internet and mobile phone network (collectively called the cloud) to plan, collaborate, share, publicize, attend, rally, demonstrate, and afterwards, document what happened, learn from others, and possibly prepare to organize and make the announcement to occupy another location.

About a year and a half ago, the author Clay Shirky gave a talk on cognitive surplus, "the shared, online work we do with our spare brain cycles. While we're busy editing Wikipedia, and making LOLcats," he argues, "we're building a better, more cooperative world." Clay states that people want to consume, but also we like to create, and sometimes we want to share. He relates the story of a woman in Kenya who found, in the midst of a disputed presidential election, that there was an outbreak of ethnic violence. In her blog, she solicited from her commenters more information about the dangers inherent in any succession of power in human society, and what areas to be mindful of, depending on who you were. She collated and posted the information flowing in, but there was so much data coming in, it became way more than one woman could manage. She asked if there was a way to automate the process. Two programmers saw her plea for help and, in 72 hours, launched ushahidi, which means witness or testimony in Swahili. This application very simply takes reports from the field, i.e., from the web, or mobile phones and sms, aggregates those reports, puts it on a map and makes it public. The app spawned a social push which became known as crisis mapping. Enough people found ushahidi valuable that the programmers decided to make it open source and turn it into a platform. The number of deployments of ushahidi went from a single idea and implementation in Kenya, to global reach, in less than 3 years. Cognitive surplus, then, can be the ability of the world population to volunteer, contribute, and collaborate on large, sometimes worldwide, projects.

In his talk (below), Clay Shirky states that civic value is when something is created by the participants, but enjoyed by society as a whole; when something is enjoyed just by the participants, that would have only communal value. When the Occupy Wall Street movement was getting started in New York, one of the first things the group did was put, at the top of their website, a link to the software platform that the participants used to consume, create and share. The idea was, should the movement catch fire (and how!), Occupy groups in other cities could download, install, deploy and begin their own geographic base of online operations. Github is where the occupy movement and ushahidi store their repositories, which contain the master copy of the project. Anyone in the world, on their own initiative, can download and install the software built from the master code, On a computer with a connection to the internet, you can soon host your own city chapter. You can contribute to the technological platform you downloaded by helping people get connected and stay more involved towards a common goal. For those who have spent enough time thinking about and using a tool, suggestions for improvement or features come to mind, such as adding the ability to show live video, or to display content in a specific language, or to give some users more or less responsibilities and privileges. If you make a change to your local copy, such as fixing a mistake, those improvements can be merged into the master code, and the communal becomes civic.

But that is all really big picture, so let's bring it back to the day to day life each one of us leads. How does this all apply to me? As we start in on 2012, what gets me out of bed in the morning is getting more users. I am here, and at your service. Last year, I had a goal of creating 2 blog posts for every month, which worked out well; now my new year's resolution is to make an app and host it on github, and to show you how to do it.

With the Tea Party, Occupy, the Arab Spring, and the demonstrations led by a Russian blogger Alexei Navalny against Vladimir Putin in Russia, it seems protest is in season.

Here's the link to the page with the video:

Hat tip to JJ Behrens for sharing the video.

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