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Archive for the ‘Open’ Category

Behind the Scenes of the Internet: Julian Oliver & Danja Vasiliev

The Networkshop

The Networkshop

This week I was in the fortunate position to be able to attend a five day workshop at de Waag in Amsterdam. Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev hosted Behind The Scenes of the Internet.

The workshop opened with a presentation on the influence of engineering on society. Julian and Danja refer to themselves as critical engineers and have a clear understanding of the deep influence of technology on how we relate to each other (“Look at what Easyjet has done to the shape of Europe.”).

According to them we have more and more black boxes (often locked down) which place a rich interface (a marketing, business or political decision) between the person and the device while at the same time being very intimate to us: think about the iPod Nano in your pocket (and compare it to the old grammophone). Opening these blackboxes (essentially hacking) should then be considered research. The right to open the things we own, if only for study, is increasingly contested. This is problematic because they think technology you depend upon should be understood.

They define the Internet as a deeply misunderstood technology that we have become deeply dependent on. Somebody does own (parts of) the Internet. When they did a workshop in Peru they found out that all of the Internet traffic in that country was routed through Telefonica, giving Spain the hypothetical power to turn off Peru’s Internet when they want to. The question of geography is interesting on the Internet. Where are you on the Internet? Can you access your data and get to it? What will they say when you show up at a data center and request your files? Olver and Vasiliev consider the cloud to be a dangerous form of reductionism.

McLuhan writes in one of his introductions for Understanding Media:

The power of the arts to anticipate future social and technological developments, by a generation and more, has long been recognized. In this century Ezra Pound called the artist “the antennae of the race”. Art as radar acts as “an early alarm system,” as it were, enabling us to discover social and psychic targets in lots of time to prepare to cope with them. This concept of the arts as prophetic, contrasts with the popular idea of them as mere self-expression. [..] Art as a radar environment takes on the function of indispensable perceptual training rather than the role of a privileged diet for the elite.

Julian and Danja showed their abilities as a radar by talking about some of their artistic projects that they are working on to try and problematize these topics. Julian has just made something he calls the Transparency Grenade, a little computer wrapped in a grenade shaped holder which start snooping on the wireless netwerks around it whenever you pull out the pin. Danja is working on Netless which tries to be a network of nodes that connect to each other independently from the net. Both of them showed worked in a recent exhibit for which the Weise7 book was created. It is a box shaped like an old-fashioned book with a computer inside. When you open the book it becomes a Wifi access point that allows you to read all the information about the exhibit. When you close the book, the computer turns itself off. They also created a project that plays with what they call the “browser-defined reality”: NewsTweek which used the faux sloga: “Behind every mind is a network. Own it. Fixing the facts. One hotspot at a time”. I’ve written about this project before. It allows you to change news sites in your local wifi network. You can check what people are changning on the NewsTweek Twitter account.

All workshop participants then got a specially designed virtual machine full of networking tools that we could run in VirtualBox. Everybody had to get up to speed with the command line which got a wondeful ode by Julian: Knowing the command line is great because it is a shared language across many machines. You are talking to the computer and it is talking straight back to you. You ask and the computer responds. You can take the output of one program and make it the input of the next program. It allows you to automate the operating system (rather than the computer turning you into a proletarian clicking machine). The command line is far from going away. As computers get smaller, the command line interaction becomes a dominant model.

The artists gave us a crash course on how to use the command line interface. I love how they desribed moving between the directories as moving inside the spatial landscape of your computer. We quickly moved on to commands like netcat (or nc), ifconfig, arp arp-scan, ssh and scp. We discussed what a network packet consists of, the header (SRC, DEST, LEN, SWQ) and the body with its payload.

On the fourth day we got a short lecture on routing and how to set your default gateway on the command line. At that point in time we had created and configured our own little network and were able to ping eachother, log into each others machines and go online using the “base” computer as the gateway and our local DNS server.

In the afternoon we explored the inherent vulnerabilities in using open Wifi networks. By using Aircrack and Driftnet we were able to see images scrolling by from sites that people were browsing on a public Wifi network in a local bar. Driftnet’s manual says the following:

Driftnet watches network traffic, and picks out and displays JPEG and GIF images for display. It is an horrific invasion of privacy and shouldn’t be used by anyone anywhere.

This blog is very much my notebook too. I therefore want to make sure I keep the following three commands (in this order):

sudo ifconfig wlan0 down
sudo airmon-ng check kill
sudo airmon-ng start wlan0
sudo airodump-ng mon0

The final day was about how to protect yourself a bit better online (a lot of the participants had started to feel “naked” after the Wifi snooping sessions of a day earlier. We discussed how encryption helps you with your basic human right to privacy while in the public space called the network and looked at the difference between anonimity and encryption. They explained HTTPS and Tor with this live diagram from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF):

Tor and HTTPS

Tor and HTTPS

They also made us download the the Tor Browser Bundle and discussed a few handy Firefox addons:

  • GoogleSharing to anonimize your Google searches.
  • User Agent Switcher allows you to change your browser user agent so that the webpage thinks you are using a different device.
  • HTTPS everywhere to force your browser to use HTTPS whenever it is available.
  • DoNotTrackMe helps to protect you against companies tracking you online (they want to do sentiment-analysis and try to pre-empt your behaviour.

We looked at setting up a VPN which is great tool to protect you against Wifi sniffing and to quickly . They showed us ipredator and OpenVPN and have inspired me to finally turn on the VPN capabilities of my VPN server.

Finally they shared a link to their Cryptoparty Handbook. This 400 page book was written in four day sprint and provides a comprehensive overview of everything that we learned (and much more).

For many participants this workshop was a truly transforming experience, hopefully changing their relationship to technology forever. I need to thank Dorien Zandbergen for masterminding this and making it possible!

MOOCs, Motivation, and the Mass Movement toward Open Education

Curtis Bonk led a session about MOOCs at Learning 2012. His slides are available at TrainingShare (this is the direct link). His presentation must have been one of the most insanely paced sessions I have ever been to. That is a compliment by the way.

What is a MOOC? Start here:

Curtis’ presentation consisted of four parts.

Part I. Past Year Recap of MOOC and MOOC Leadership

MOOCs are very much in the news nowadays. For example the conversation with Bill Gates or the Holy Apostles. The Chronicle of Higher Education has a nice timeline and even Newt Gingrich has one. The MOOC that probably got the most attention was Stanford’s class on Artificial Intelligence. Something that I hadn’t heard of before earlier this week is the Floating University.

Daphne Koller’s TED talk was probably the thing about MOOCs that got the most play:

Curtis runs his own MOOCs too. He uses tools like Piazza and Course networking.

If you want to be a leader in the MOOC space then there are a few things you could do. Each of the following points was backed up by some news item or article:

  1. Be first
  2. Offer something novel
  3. Define brand
  4. Take risks
  5. Rethink your classes
  6. Inspire your team
  7. Form partnerships
  8. Offer incentives
  9. Set bold audacious goals
  10. Create media attention
  11. Build on strengths and niche areas
  12. Do not make rash decisions
  13. Be pro-active in addressing concerns
  14. Give something away
  15. Look way ahead
  16. Expanding marketss
  17. Ask questions

Part II. MOOC Instructor Guidelines

Next Bonk discussed a few guidelines for instructors of MOOCs:

  1. Plan and Prepare
  2. Designate Feedback Providers and Tasks
  3. Offer Ample Feedback in Week One
  4. Use Peer, Machine, Volunteer and Self-assessment
  5. Gather geographic data
  6. Use a Warm and Friendly Tone
  7. Form Groups and Social Supports
  8. Arrive early for Sync Session
  9. Allocata Ample time for Questions and Feedback
  10. Share Resources
  11. Personalize
  12. Use Polling Questions
  13. Check Chat Window for Comments and Questions
  14. Reflect After Each Session
  15. Offer Weekly Recaps and Podcasts

Part III. Type of MOOCs

We are alreading seeing a whole set of different MOOCs. His attempt at a typology is here:

  1. Alternative Admissions Systems or Hiring System MOOC
  2. Just-in-Tme Skills and Competencies MOOC
  3. Theory- or Trend-Driven MOOC
  4. Professional Development (practical) MOOC
  5. Loss Leader (dip toe in water) MOOC
  6. Experimental MOOC
  7. Have to look it up
  8. Personality MOOC
  9. Name Branding MOOC
  10. Rotating MOOC
  11. Repeatable MOOC
  12. Reusable MOOC

Part IV. Business models

This was a part that I was interested in. What are the business models behind MOOCs? How can they be sustainable? Bonk has come up with the following (incomplete list):

  1. Advertisements
  2. Small and flexible application/enrollment fee
  3. Course assessment fee
  4. Certificate fee
  5. Enhanced Course Fee
  6. Option for full university credit
  7. Company sponsored
  8. Percent of first year salary (sell companies names and contact details of high performers)
  9. Sell or Lease Courses (for example to community colleges)
  10. Share Revenues

I think he missed an important value driver: the (aggregated) data of all the participants. We already see that university are not calling MOOC participants “students” because they don’t want to have to account to FERPA and I can see universities monetizing that data quite easily as a consequence.

Some more things from Curtis

Curtis has created a set of Creative Commons licensed videos about how to teach online. Well worth a look.

His next book is is about a learning framework that he has titled: TEC-Variety:

TEC-Variety Model

TEC-Variety Model

Finally check out his book: The World is Open:

The World is Open

The World is Open

Written by Hans de Zwart

24-10-2012 at 05:28

PICNIC Festival 2012 Day Two

Today was the second day of the 2012 PICNIC festival in Amsterdam. My notes about the first day are available here. Below my notes and thoughts on day 2:

Doc Searls – How the Old Bottom is the New Top

Searls spoke at at SxSW earlier this year. I caught him there already and made some notes. His talk today was very similar and still relates to the new book he has written: The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge.

Andy Hood – The Unselfish Gene

Hood is from AKQA a (marketing? branding? ad?) agency and sponsor of the festival that helps brands “improve business performance through innovation”. He talked about how in our current times it is incredibly necessary to try things and to make sure you learn from whatever it is that you try. According to Hood whenever you learn you can consider yourself to be successful. He quoted Wayne Gretzky who said: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”. Having learned something you have to act on it and follow it through.

His reference to The Selfish Gene was a bit thin: “evolve or die” (meaning you need to keep learning) and “the genepool needs to be diverse” (meaning you need to have an ecosystem of partners).

Finally he referenced an interesting Disney project around gesture recognition on normal surfaces (like a door knob):

Rupert Turnbull – An Inside Job: Tales from a Corporate Startup

Turnbull is the publisher of Wired UK. He talked about intrapeneurship (although I am not sure what he meant to say other than that we should cherish intrapeneurs). He beliefs we are all born with an entrepeneurial spirit, but that we don’t all use this spirit when we grow up. Turnbull is a good storyteller and shared his own forays into the world of starting businesses. He also discussed how disruption can be an opportunity: Wired UK has an incredibly diverse sets of business outlets: website, magazine (print and tablet), podcast, consulting, events, hospitality, retail, etc.

Louisa Heinrich – I am Superman

Heinrich works for Fjord and has no slides (brave!). She talked about how the extended Quantified Self movement and its thinking can make us better human beings. Our lives are made of thousands of decisions every day without us even being conscious about many of those decisions. Our brains process massive amounts of data and it is an illusion to think that computers can just take over that task.

We are inherently narrative creatures. We think of our own lives as a set of very rich stories and we cannot help but see patterns in these stories. She loves the ideas of technology helping us creating stories about ourselves on the basis of the data that is in our lives. When this happens we should all have the power to decide who gets to look at our data though.

I’ve put some thought into the quantified self and how this relates to learning myself. There is a summary of a talk I did on that topic in Dutch or in English.

Ross Ashcroft – No More Business As Usual

Ashcroft is from Motherlode and directed Four Horsemen, a film about the fundamental flaws in our economic system:

His talk was also mainly about storytelling. He showed the Hollywood formula:

The Hollywood Formula

The Hollywood Formula

On the basis of these plot elements Ashcroft told a story about a new way of doing business and “new ownership” (the theme of PICNIC). Similarly to the talks of Turnbull and Hood this seemed to be more about how you say something than what you say. I’m left with barely any content… Yes, the world is changing. Now what?

Elizabeth Stark – The Democratization of Knowledge and Innovation

Stark talked about the largest online protest in history: against SOPA. She described how the media portrayed the demonstrations as a top down approach from a set of Silicon Valley executives, whereas in reality it very much was a bottom-up, decentralized and chaotic movement. Stark sees this as a way of working and innovating in the future: harnessing the creativity of millions of people who realise that you can learn anything you want, that experts are made (rather than born) and you don’t need a PhD to innovate.

Farid Tabarki – Burdened with Radical Freedom

Tabarki (a trendwatcher with his own company Studio Zeitgeist) started his talk by looking back at the rise of Lady Gaga who rose to the position of most influential woman in media in only two to three years. She was able to do this because of three things:

  • In the past you needed MTV to become well known. Lady Gaga uses a platform where anybody can tune in anytime (2 billion views on her YouTube channel)
  • Before you could only communicate with your fans through magazines. She has around 30 million followers on Twitter.
  • In the past you had to make sure your records were in physical stores, now you have global instant delivery with things like iTunes.

We are all little Lady Gagas: we are also liberated from the constraints of the past and we live in the age of digital decentralization. The next part of his talk focused on education (the usual Coursera-like examples). These new ways of doing education are based on the fact that one size no longer fits all. Other fundamental changes are related to sharing, transparency (check out this Norwegian website showing the income of all Norwegians for an example of true radical transparency). Finally, we will also have a much more hybrid approach to things.

How will we go from the old centralized system to the new system? Will it be a revolution or a transformation? One thing is for sure: we need take some risks.

Cathal Garvey – Enter Bio-Hacking!

Garvey is a biohacker and an academic (his slides actualy have content, unique in PICNIC):

Garvey's R&D interests

Garvey’s R&D interests

His wish is for this “most fundamental technology of them all” to be democratized. Garvey showed quotes from Bill Gates and Freeman Dyson saying how important biotechnology will be in the future (“the machine language of life”). Biotechnology as the original open source technology, it is there for anyone to hack on.

He talked about open access, PLoS and the concept of Research Blogging. He showed us something I hadn’t heard about before: sciencecommons.org (an open source Material Transfer Agreement).

Why biohacking? Basically because it is about the ownership of self. 20% of the Human genome is currently patented (WTF?!). So there is a rich community of hackers (in hackspaces and dedicated biolabs) and biopunkers using things like the OpenPCR (for thermocycling) trying to democratize access to this type of technology and genetic information.

Jon Lombardo – HealthyShare: Because Friends are Good for Your Health

Lombardo leads social media for GE and talked about their new app: HealthyShare, a way to let your friends help you with your health challenges. GE sees health as a social thing. There are four things you do to or with others when it comes to health:

  • Well-wishing
  • Researching
  • Inspiring
  • Teaching

The app transfers these pre-existing things to the online domain (unfortunaty this is another app that is heavily based on Facebook). Right now the app is mainly focused on what he calls “casual health”. They want to move it to the more serious health concerns.

Tim O’Reilly – The Clothesline Paradox and the Sharing Economy

I saw O’Reilly being interviewed on the same topic at SxSW and wrote a blogpost about it. His truly excellent talk today (refreshingly full of content compared to the morning) was mainly a rehashing of what was discussed there.

Make sure to also read his first principles titled Work on Stuff that Matters and his article Trading for their own account.

O’Reilly has published a case study documenting the economic impact of open source on small business.

Finally O’Reilly talked about skateboarder Rodney Mullen talking about innovation and creativity:

Clash of Systems: A Socratic Conversation

Humberto Schwab, the “innovation philosopher for business” who used to be my philosophy teacher at the Montessori Lyceum and was called Huib then, led a Socratic conversation with a few of the speakers of the day.

Schwab started by outlining the basic rules for the Socratic method (as one way of battling the intellectual fallacy and putting the practical knowledge and practical intelligence in the center of our acting):

  • You can only get the floor when you ask for it by raising your hand, and only then when the chair gives you the floor
  • There is no discussion, you are in a process of thinking together and trying to answer a question
  • Before you can speak, you have to be capable of repeating what the person before you said and you have to be able to summarize the previous 15 minutes of dialogue
  • You are not allowed to refer to books, investigations or other smart people
  • You have to use simple and concrete language
  • The chair will be a philosopher, who will not provide any content but will make sure that all dimensions of the question are explored by creating the space for that
  • If the rules madden you then you can ask for a timeout

He then asked the four speakers to come up with one philosophic question each. The speakers asked the following questions:

  • Why do people do things for eachother without necessarily getting something in return?
  • Do we own ourselves?
  • What am I willing to share as a human being?
  • Are we losing leadership?

I focused more on the methodology than on the contents of the discussion, very interesting!

Cardboarders

Cardboarders is “a blog about artists, engineers, architects and people with a fetish for cardboard.” They created a giant cardboard marble run in the main hall of the Eye:

The Carboarders Marble Run

The Carboarders Marble Run

PICNIC Festival 2012 Day One

Today was the first day of the seventh edition of the PICNIC festival in Amsterdam (hashtag #picnic12. The festival’s goal is “to discover opportunities for transformation: processes, cultures, products, services, models and experiences”. The theme for the year is New Ownership: the shift from top down to bottom up. This is my first time attending the festival. I am on the lookout for interesting insights and connections around the topic of how to innovate at scale. Below some of my general notes and thoughts on the day.

George Dyson – There is Plenty of Room at the Top

Dyson‘s title is of course a reference to Feynman’s 1959 talk There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom. He talked a bit about Feynman’s role at Los Alamos. The digital world we live in today is the result of a “deal with the devil”: if scientist would help the government get nuclear weapons then they would get the computers.

There is room at the bottom, but there is also room at the top: a development of a global intelligence through networked machines and computation at all levels. We are starting to make machines that can think, machines that can replicate themselves and evolve. The founders of the computing age already saw this coming and questioned what this would mean and where it would take us (e.g. Norbert Wiener in Cybernetics).

His whole talk was looking back at what people have said 50-100 years ago and how those statements translate to current times. I can see why the festival programmers decided to open with him, but his talk was all description and very little prescription which made it less than interesting for me.

Byron Reese – The Great Disconnect

Reese started talking about how it used to be that most of the basic elements of life where decided for you at birth. A lot of aspects of your life came from where you were born and in what type of family. These things did not change, there was very little mobility. Today, if there is something about your life you don’t like, you have the ability to change it: you are unthethered. Who you are is no longer a set of circumstances, instead it is a set of choices. There is self-determination. If we combine that with the freedom of conscience then we can have a set of beliefs that can actually underpin a nation.

These changes are driven by the enormous amounts of technological developments that are happening around us. He thinks we are on the cusp of eliminating poverty, hunger and disease by solving them as technological problems (this reminds me of the book Abundance I recently read). I guess Reese is a true techno-optimist (unfortunately without the sense to talk about how many people in the word aren’t “unthethered” yet). He beliefs that even though we are unthethered, we aren’t used to that yet and still behave as if we are thethered in many ways. His advice: “make the most of it”.

Rich Pell – Strategies in Genetic Copy-Protection

Pell is director of the Center for PostNatural History, basically a museum dedicated to living things that were altered by people.

PostNatural is an adjective defined as biological life that has been intentionally and heritably altered by humans. This usually requires human mediated and controlled production. This leads to ethical questions, mainly around the ownership of life. There are now patents on life forms (Pasteur actually had the first patent on a life form: on yeast for beer) and a few strategies for genetic copy prevention are emerging:

  • Security through obscurity: not giving any information about what your organism is or does.
  • Genetic control: built-in reproductive control in the genes, initially a way to make sure that it was possible to contain the genetically engineered organism.
  • Contractual agreement: a contract that prohibits breeding (standard in pure-bred lines for dogs for example).

Pell then showed Monsanto’s terms of agreement for farmers wanting to use their seeds. A legal text scrolled by for a long time of which the main point is that the seed is single-use and that the farmer doesn’t own the seed. You agree to the terms by opening the bag of seeds. Pell had to do some smart legal and physical “hacking” to be able to put Monsanto corn legally in their museum.

Dale Stephens – The Empowered Learner

Stephens didn’t enjoy school when he was twelve. He found a group of unschoolers and quit school with the reluctant permission of his parents.

Unschooling is a set of ideas that try to solve the current failings of education (cost are going up, while value of the education is going down (see here), no equality of opportunity, academic rigour disappearing). The term was coined by John Holt who wrote two books titled How Children Learn and How Children Fail. Holt was inspired by theSummerhill school (the school as a democratic community). Growing without schooling was a magazine that came out of this movement. I am surprised Stephens did not quote Illich’ Deschooling Society which will become a very important text in the next few years I believe (it is listed on the uncollege reading list I now see).

Unschooling is not the same as homeschooling. It isn’t isolating, Stephens learned in a group of 30 unschoolers who created their own learning experiences (“collaborative learning groups”). The basic idea is to trust people’s innate capacity to be curious.

When he didn’t go to college he was asked: “But what about beer and the girls?”. His standard answer to that question is now “I actually prefer guys and champagne”. Stephens has founded Uncollege (read the manifesto here) with the goal of decentralising education and has written the book Hacking Your Education through interviewing fifty people who have done something interesting with their lives without taking part in the traditional educational system.

Mike Lee- Macrometaengineering

Mike Lee talked about the creation of Appsterdam. Appsterdam is now 18 months old and Lee is the “mayor”. It is his attempt to create a tech ecosystem. In his talked he answered a few questions that I guess you could term macrometaengineering.

How do you attract entrepreneurs? You just have to better than the default (which Silicon Valley) and then you have to be easy to get to. One thing that is nice about Europe is the patent law. He quickly took a jab at patent law in the United States and how ridiculous it is to own ideas. Ideas come from zeitgeist, it is all about implementation.
How to create jobs? By making talented people and creating a technical labour surplus.
How to fund your company? It is incrediby easy to find money in the Netherlands. Check out le.mu.rs to see what he’ll be doing with his funding soon.
How to promote diversity? Very easy: stop discriminating and make sure that everybody is welcome.
How to open your data? How to keep your subsidies? How to resolve the crisis? Share the information with everyone in the world, please don’t care about borders.
How to build the future? Let’s figure it out if we are all fingers on the same hand. The future is ours to create.

I will have to take a closer look at Appsterdam as it seems like Lee has created a force for change out of nowhere.

Michael Schwarz – Re-Design for the Era of Sustainism

According to Schwarz we are in a new cultural era. To bring new culture into existence we first have to rename the world. So they came up with the word Sustainism (the new modernism: “less is more” is modernist, “do more with less” is sustainist) which is a lens to think about the world. Sustainist design is where connectivity (technology), sustainibility (nature) and community (people) meet. Everything is seen as interconnected and interdependent. Global goals are connected to local initiatives. Local is an ethical, aesthetic quality. Sustainism is not just the name for an era, it also is a movement and even an ethos. This makes sustainibility and social good the new drivers for innovation and design. Open source is the cultural operating system for this time. You are what you share (rather than what you have).

How can we design for sustainist qualities? And redesign the world? To summarize, you need to start with the following sustainist values in your design briefs and use them as key drivers for innovation:

  • Connectedness – everything is connected
  • Localism – Local as a quality
  • Sharing – You are what you share

Also check out Open Sustainist Design.

Bas van Abel – If You Can’t Open It, You Don’t Own It

Van Abel started his talk with a picture from Occupy Wallstreet of a guy holding up a board saying: “Shit is fucked up and bullshit”. He is convinced that it is important to open up stuff because that allows you to understand the systems behind the stuff and that will enable you to take action.

Companies don’t like you to open up their things. Nintendo uses proprietary screws so that you can’t open their DS devices. Our “Electronic Anorexia” is a driver for thinner and thinner devices. These devices (e.g. the latest generation of Macbooks) are nearly impossible to fix yourself.

Makezine has the following quote: “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it”. They see ownership not just as property, but also as engagement. They have published The Maker’s Bill of Rights.

Van Abel then showed the problem with mobile phones and how they are produced. To solve this problem he is working on Fairphone an effort to bring a fairly produced smartphone to the market.

Anne Shongwe – Empowering Bottom Up

Shongwe from Afroes is working on a process that tries to inspire young Africans to re-imagine Africa. How do you move the mindset of young people from hopelessness to entrepreneurial and progressive? Mobile is the fastest growing media platform in Africa and has surpassed even radio in its usage. 73% of Africans have a mobile phone and this will be 85% by 2015. 450 young people in Africa have access to a mobile phone. Many organisations in Africa already use mobile technology to their advantage.

The mobile revolution is a social revolution for young people. Young people love playing games, so they’ve decided to create educational games. Their first game is Moraba a mobile game on the topic of gender based violence. They’ve put quite a lot of thought into how this works pedagogically.

Bonnie Shaw – Playful Communities and Urban Experiments

Shaw is dean of a chapter of the Awesome Foundation in Washington DC. She described herself through a Venn-diagram (a nexus between people, place and technology). The first few minutes of her presentation was completely conceptual and used words like collective individualism, aggregated, scale, disruptive, networks, local, etc. She completely lost me as she did not relate these themes or words to anything concrete. She then went on to talk about Snap-Shot-City as her introduction to social technology.

The Awesome Foundation chapters fund projects through $1000 grants that are scraped together by the chapter members. An example of a funded project is Petworth Jazz Project (Why is EVERYTHING called a project nowadays? Why isn’t this called a festival or a concert? I am starting a crusade with The New Vocabuary against the use of the word). I guess this is basically a localised version of crowdfunding.

Cesar Harada – Open Hardware for the Environment

Cesar asks the question of whether open source technology can help clean up or ameliorate our man-made natural disasters. He was in Kenya working at the iHub when the BP Oil Spill happened. Ushahidi was used to map the oil spill. He was then invited to MIT to work on oil spill clean up technology. They were working on long term, expensive and patented technology. Even though this was his dream job he decided to quit, because he wanted to make more impact on the short term. He connected to the public laboratory which was mapping the oil spill with balloons. He then focused on trying to clean up the oil spill with robotic sailboats.

He started Protei in which already a couple of engineering problems that came from trying to drag something heavy and still sail into the wind seem to have been solved. They created a robot boat with two steering rudders (front and back) and the ability to articulate itself. The boat is actually creating a whole new set of physics for sailing. This is community-generated technology: people from all over the world help to iterate this open hardware design.

He calls this way of producing “using an innovation network”.

Daan Roosegaarde – The Business of Soft and Hard Capital

Daan Roosegaarde runs an international design laboratory for interactive projects. He thinks artist nowadays have to be half priest (ideology, the vision to go somewhere) and half entrepreneur (the ability to make it happen). He showed some interesting projects humanising technology.

Things like Dune which is a set of fibers reacting to their environment:

Or Intimacy a dress that changes transparency based on how intimate you are with somebody (as measured by your heartbeat):

And a few other of their projects. This was easily the best talk of the day.

Live Scrabble

The designers of the festival created a small game to get people talking to each other: playing scrabble with the letters on your badge. See some of the results here. If any team needs an “E” (worth five points) tomorrow, just ping me.

Sensing Place/Placing Sense 2: Accountability Technologies

I am attending Ars Electronica: The Big Picture in Linz, Austria. This is a festival for Art, Technology and Society. If you are interested to know a bit more about the festival, then don’t watch this useless trailer:

Look at the program instead or check out their newly launched and fabulous archive.

One of the symposia I attended was titled Sensing Place/Placing Sense II. It consisted of three panels: Collect, Communicate and Compel. The session was introduced as follows:

A growing part of the general public is concerned that cities are planned and governed in a responsible way. In the contemporary information society, however, the democratic obligation of the citizens to rigorously inform themselves so that they can participate in public affairs has become impossible to fulfill. Rather than submitting to the opinions of self-proclaimed experts, citizens need new ways to make sense of what is going on around them. Accountability technologies stand for new innovative approaches to bottom-up governance: technologies to monitor those in power to make sure that they are held accountable for their actions. Accountability technologies are designed to support coordinated data collection, analysis and communication to achieve social change. The past years saw many examples dedicated to this concern: citizen sensing of traffic noise or congestion, pollution; monitoring of mobility infrastructures and urban energy consumption; whistleblowers revealing corruption and misuse of power. We are interested in such projects and technologies that have succeeded in making an impact on the reality of the city. We are interested in the motivations, strategies and tactics of the people who create and use these technologies. We are also interested in the role of representation – does it make a difference how information is presented? How can data generated by citizens interface with official structures and put into action?

Below my notes and quick thoughts on what was discussed.

Collect. Data from the top-down and bottom up – reflecting on truth, trust and and politics

Jeffery Warren is one of the cofounders of the Public Laboratory, an open source community that develops tools for grassroots science. They became famous when they helped to map the gulf oil spill with balloon and kite photography and MapKnitter.

A mapping balloon (CC-licensed image)

A mapping balloon (CC-licensed image)

His talk was full of examples of citizens collecting data and using it to hold companies and governments accountable.

Another exciting project is their attempt to make an open source and cheap spectrometer. You can support their idea on Kickstarter. Also check out the Spectruino if you are interested in this type of technology.

I really appreciated Jeff’s hardcore open source stickers on his netbook. My personal favourite: “I poop on your App Store”.

Ina Schieferdecker works for Fraunhofer. They are developing a platform for open data (available on Github). The first use of the platform was in Berlin and they are now also working on opening the datasets for all of Germany.

Amber Frid-Jimenez talked about a cool artistic project titled Data is Political. I obviously love this idea and like the fact that it is diametrically opposite to one of Google’s innovation principles (number 7) that I wrote about earlier. The question they ask themselves in the project is: How does the scale of expanding databases affect artists and designers and how they work?

She played a couple of videos. The one I liked best was Benjamin Mako Hill talking about who should contol our technology (read his appeal on the site of the Free Software Foundation). Note the irony in the fact that this video was played from an Apple computer.

Communicate. Data journalism and information activism – communicating data to the public

Michael Kreil is from OpenDataCity and wears a “There is no place like 127.0.0.1″ t-shirt. He talked about a few of their projects. One example is their train monitor: Zugmonitor where they publish live data of the German trains including an API to access the data.

Another important project they are involved with (but which he did not talk about) is Facebook versus Europe:

Kreil is also the creator of the Malte Spitz phone usage visualization I wrote about earlier. He made an interesting point questioning whether it makes sense to have a private company (i.e. Deutsche Telekom) have a lot of personal data about politicians, lawyers or doctors. Think about it.

Sami Ben Gharbia has been living in exile in the Netherlands for the last 13 years. He is one of the founding directors of Global Voices Online and has started Nawaat. He talked about information visualisation in Tunesia. He gave a few examples like the 2007 project tracking the use of the presidential airplane:

or their collaboration with Wikileaks: Tunileaks. They are now focusing on open data from the government.

Marek Tuszynski is one of the founders and creative director of one of my favourite NGOs: the Tactical Technology Collective which helps human rights advocates use information, communications and digital technologies to maximise the impact of their advocacy work. They make beautiful and useful resources for activists. See Drawing by Numbers for an example.

Marek talked about what he calls the spectrum of evidence. There are a few steps: first you have to find it (often it is hidden), then you need to collect it (often there is a lot of data in all kind of forms) and then you need to curate it (show who is talking, who is listening/looking). Now that you have the evidence, you can do three things: expose to get the idea, understand to get the picture or explore to get the detail.

He talked about how the ubiquity of data visualisation tools is making data a very abstract thing: a Googlemap with some pointers on it can be locations of road-salt depots in England or casualties in Bhagdad and look completely the same. One person tried to battle this through tatooing the data on his skin, a physical manifestion of the evidence.

Image from an NPR article

Image from an NPR article

Compel. From data to action – strategies for achieving change in the public sphere

Michel Reimon is a politician and a writer. He finds it hard to make a distinction between these two jobs. He is writing a book with the working title: “in _ formation, how we coordinate society”.

Reimon referenced systems theory by Niklas Luhmann. According to Luhmann there are five generalized media: love, power, money, art and truth. These are translated by Reimon into four ways that people can influence eachother in a political way. Through: relationship, physical force, compensation andinformation. Reimon says that we have shifted from relationship towards physical and then towards compensation (i.e. money, about 500 years ago). Right now we are shifting again into an age where information is the main thing used to organize ourselves. Is this the next big shift in the organization of society? Is information becoming more important than compensation to coordinate “the people”?

Dieter Zinnbauer is senior programme manager for Transparency International an organization well known for keeping transparency information for over 100 countries and publishing this on their website. He talked about “Ambient Accountability”.

According to him corruption affects all aspects of life: health, safety, education, water. One in four people in the world have to pay a bribe when they interact with one of these services. 50% of the people in the 80 countries that they research think that politics and law enforcement are corrupt and two-third of the people think things are getting worse. What makes it very bad is that there is a “trickle-up” effect.

There is now a surge in enthusiasm around the concepts of accountability and transparency. He talked about social accountability and participatory budgetting. There are some big challenges in this: it is difficult to encourage engagement and sustain it, there is the problem of free-riding and overkill, and there is circumvention and sometimes even citizen capture.

Ambient accountability is the systematic use of the built environment and physical public space, in order to further transparency, accountability and the integrity of public services. Dieter showed some examples of billboards battling corruption. They are quite ineffectual, but an example of a taxicab passenger bill of rights is already more relevant:

Taxi Bill of Rights (from Beck Taxi)

Taxi Bill of Rights (from Beck Taxi)

Another example is the famous “How’s my Driving” bumper sticker which reduces accidents by as much as 40% for trucking companies that decide to use it.

He has created a first possible typology for ambient accountability. It should facilitate three types of things:

  • Making it clear what ought to happen
  • Facilitate monitoring and tracking to show what is actually going on
  • An overview of who is responsible and how to complain

Ambient accountability can overcome some of the issues mentioned above: it complements ex-ante and ex-post measures of social accountability, it scales and persists, it limits the collective action and capture problems, mixes preventative and corrective effects, is open to bottom up, top down and mixed interventions and there is no need to invent from scratch. Dieter thinks it might work quite well because it is norm-promoting, aligned with a realistic view of citizenship and completely just in time and just in the right place.

Thomas Diez is the director of Fablab Barcelona. He is developing a project with the city of Barcelona exploring the relationship between machines building things and urbanism. According to Thomas we are now in a second renaissance (or a third industrial revolution) driven by personal computers and personal production. If you look at the history of Barcelona you can see the different stages of industrialisation. What will the future city look like if we take personal production as the basis? To find out they will set up a network of fablabs in the city each deeply connected to local communities (in collaboration with the IAAC?). The car was the last technology to change the way our cities work. Diez thinks the Internet will now change the way we configure our cities. He also criticized the concept of smart cities that you see everywhere and has decided to put out an alternative: the smart citizen: a platform to generate participatory processes of the people in the cities. Connecting data, people and knowledge, the objective of the platform is to serve as a node for building productive open indicators and distributed tools, and thereafter the collective construction of the city for its own inhabitants.

LiquidFeedback: Interactive Democracy and Non-Moderated Proposition Development

A few weeks ago I attended a workshop about LiquidFeedback organised by Netwerk Democratie and Waag Society. LiquidFeedback is a piece of open source (MIT-licensed) software that is used by the Pirate Party in Germany to help them in their decision making process. The tool aims to deliver the following:

  • Pure and representative democracy
  • Non moderated proposition development process
  • Indisputable results

In the Netherlands we live in a representative democracy founded on the principle of elected individuals representing the people. This has issues in the legitimacy of representation. A pure or direct democracy (in which all decisions are made by referendum) is more legitimate but is usually impractical at a large scale and has a danger of mob rule. Liquid democracy is an alternative (maybe a synthesis?) where you directly participate in issues if you have knowledge, are interested, are affected by it or if you think the issue is important. If you don’t have engagement with the issue, then you give the “power of attorney” (i.e. delegation) to somebody else on the basis of their expertise or your sympathy and trust for them. This delegation is transitive: your delegate can delegate his or her votes to the next person.

The LiquidFeedback software puts issues into areas, which themselves are clustered into units (e.g. the “parking permits” issue sits in the “transportation area” in the “Amsterdam” unit).

An Initiative in LiquidFeedback

An Initiative in LiquidFeedback (click to enlarge)

Unique in the software is that issues can be deliberated without moderation. The creators of the software had the following objectives in how issues should be discussed:

  • Participation of all members in decision making
  • Not just yes/no decisions
  • No need to compromise
  • Trustworthy and indisputable results
  • Aplicable in large organizations

Their design criteria were as follows:

  • No need for moderation (nobody in the system has special privileges), troll resistancy
  • Only constructive criticism and change requests
  • Quantified feedback
  • No encouragement to vote based on majorities and chances rather than political objectives
  • Integrity to be achieved by traceability

The whole process follows a simple model: First there is a discussion phase which consists of three parts: new, discussion, freeze. After that there is voting.

There is no anonymity in the system. Every member can start an issue. When they do, it is considered “new”. Everybody can then give constructive and quantifiable feedback. They can support the issue, or they can give a suggestion on how to improve the issue. Their suggestion is delivered as a “must”, “should”, “should not” or “must not”. Suggestions can get support too. The original initiatior has full discretion on if and how to amend the issue on the basis of the suggestions and is scored on how well the suggestions are incorporated (“yes” or “no”). Anybody can also post an alternative issue which can get support. If there is enough support (and a quorum is reached) then the issue turns into an initiative and can, after a frozen period, be voted on.

In the voting LiquidFeedback manages to solve a classic voting problem: sometimes similar initiatives can steal eachother’s votes (i.e. would Gore have lost the 2000 US elections if Ralph Nader would not have been in the race?). The presenters used the following example:

Imagine three plans for the redevelopment of a closed military plant and the number of votes they would get in a referendum:

  • Community park (30%)
  • Camp ground (30%)
  • Chemical plant (40%)

In this case the plan for the chemical plant would win, even though there is a majority of people who would prefer a green option. This is problematic. LiquidFeedback solves this by using preferential voting. For each initiative you have following three options: approve with preference (you can prioritize each of the initiatives you aprove), abstain or disapprove with preference.

Business use?

LiquidFeedback is not only used in politics, but has also been piloted in business. The CEO of the large german IT consultancy company Synaxon (who sympathises with the Pirate Party) has implemented the software in his company. He wanted to avoid the peer pressure that would naturally come within office politics, so Synaxon’s implementation is pseudonymous. The CEO as committed himself to act on any ideas that get enough support, even if he doesn’t like them. Here is a German article if you want to read a bit more.

I do realise that business isn’t a democracy (nor should it be), but I do see many domains inside business where it would be beneficial to have a much wider discussion and to get broad feedback on ideas. I would be very interested if anybody knows other companies experimenting with this type of information technology enabled deliberation.

P.S. LiquidFeedback isn’t the only tool for this purpose. An alternative is Adhocracy.

Moodle Changes its Approach to Mobile

Moodle for Mobile

Moodle for Mobile

I haven’t been blogging much about Moodle lately, but this news excited me very much, so I’ll do a quick write-up.

Moodle HQ has decided to move away from native mobile Moodle app development and will switch to developing with HTML 5 and the open source mobile development framework Phonegap. This will allow developers to work on a single codebase and compile a release for all mobile platforms simultaneously. The important part in the news item is this:

The app will be highly modular, and allow the community to contribute to development just like Moodle itself. [..] Although we will lose a little speed and smoothness in the interface when moving to HTML5, I think the idea of building up community effort around a cross-platform mobile client will far outweigh that and sets us up better for the long term. [..] The app will be licensed under the GPL. You are allowed to fork it and build your own custom apps if you wish. (Institutions may want to rebrand it and modify it for their own purposes).

This is the first open source project that I know of that has taken this approach. I’ve always found the way that the mobile space fragments development efforts irksome. I’ve also seen very few true open source projects targeting mobile technology. This masterstroke of Martin Dougiamas solves both of these problems. Once again he is at the vanguard of community based software development. His has my attention!

You can read more about the app here or check out its roadmap.

Update: I’ve now learned that this approach towards mobile started at CV&A Consulting, a Moodle partner in Spain. Kudos to Juan Leyva for coming up with Unofficial Moodle Mobile which will now drop the “unofficial” part!

Written by Hans de Zwart

16-07-2012 at 02:03

Watching TED Global 2012 Streamed Live From Edinburgh

TED Global 2012

TED Global 2012

Today I attended a virtual TED session at Kennisnet in Zoetermeer. Kennisnet has a TED Live membership and hosted a few guests on their verdieping. I watched two sessions of about six talks each streamed straight from Edinburgh. Below my semi-live blog with the things that triggered me.

Shades of Openness

Chris Anderson kicked of this session on radical transparency (one of my favourite topics) by saying that transparency is a great driver of moral progress, but that it is also easy to get carried away by it. This session thus also presented some of the darker sides of openness.

Malte Spitz has a lot of courage: he has a significant stutter, but was still on stage talking about the power of mobile phones. He talked about the EU data detention directive which tells providers that they have to store the data of their customers for months on end. There have been a lot of protests against this. Spitz asked his telecome provider Deutsche Telecom multiple times to give him all the data that they stored about him. They wouldn’t send him the information, so he took them to court. The court case was settled and Deutsche Telecom gave him 35830 lines of information (basically six months of his life) on a CD. He decided to make this information public to show people what data retention truly means. He visualised it in a scary way:

Malte Spitz' data

Malte Spitz’ data

This shows that if you have access to this information you can control your society. He considers it a blueprint for countries like Iran and the future of a surveillance society. States love this type of information. Privacy is not an outdated concept and should continue to be a value in this 21s century. Spitz says we have to contineously remind ourselves and our friends to fight for our self-determination in this digital age.

Spitze’s talk reminded me that I still have not published the results of my Privacy Inzage Machine exercise that did a few months back. I should really make an effort to get this online.

Ivan Krastev is a political theorist from Bulgaria talking about the crisis of democracy. He wants to question the popular belief that transparency and openness will fix our democratic problems. He questioned the optimism of the “Church of TED” and contrasted it with “the most pessimistic country in the world”: Bulgaria. He wants to know how come we live in societies that are much free-er than before while at the same time having lost our faith in the democratic institutions and trust in politics. One issue he sees is the huge increase of unequality in our societies.

With a transparent government we might get into a situation where we have a “reverse 1984″: all of us monitoring the politicians. What would that mean? When we put all our politicians under the microscope will consistency become more important than common sense? Politics is about people changing their views. Will that become harder? We should also remember that any unveilling is also a veilling: there will always be things that people will hold back. Maybe the best way to shut people up is to publish everything they say on the Internet.

Gerard Senehi is an experimental mentalist. He performed a few relatively lame illusions around telekinesis and mind-reading. I guess this was the entertainment part of this session.

Gabriella Coleman is a digital anthropologist. She has been studying Anonymous for the last three years doing “ethnographic diplomacy”. According to her it is very hard to answer the simple question: Who/what is anonymous? One of their more famous campaigns was Operation Payback, but they also consist of smaller groups like LulzSec and Antisec. In general she would describe anonymous as irreverent. Slowly the movement has become more politicised which probably started with their “ultra-coordinated motherfuckery” around Scientology.

Anonymous scales and is participatory; it is not simply hackers. To become anonymous you only have to self-identify as being anonymous. Anonymous may seem chaotic, but most targets are not random. They put on a good performance, obvious even to their detractors. They are a formidable PR machine that becomes a PR nightmare for others. Their political art is that of the spectacle. They dramatize the importance of anonimity and pricavy in an era when both are rapidly eroding. There visible and invisible.

What is their future? They’ve been plagued with government crackdowns and brand fatigue, but she believes that there will continue to be a group of people who care to protect the Internet and who might fight back when some forces and institutions are trying to erode the power of the net. As an aside: Wired has just published a good article on Anonymous too.

Walid al-Saqaf a journalist and TED fellow has developed a program called Alkasir that is designed to map and circumvent censorship in countries that censor the Internet. He shared some stats from the usage of his program: around 90% is Facebook usage.

Leslie T. Chang is a journalist who has spend a great deal of time talking to the people who make the things we use everyday: the factory workers making our running shoes or our phones. She says that our usual narrative equating Western greed to Chinese suffering is way too simple. Chinese workers are not forced into factories because of our insatiable demand for iPads, they migrate away from the countryside towards the big cities looking for a larger life. We shouldn’t think that we can know what the individuals making up what we see as the labouring masses are really thinking. Very few of them want to go back to the way things used to be.

I thought Chang’s talk itself mainly showed her prejudices going into this assignment: of course each of these factory workers has their individual life consisting of dreams and ambitions. Why wouldn’t they have? And yes, of course there is upwards mobility. But is that really the most interesting thing you can say about globalisation after spending two years talking to these people?

Neil Harbisson cannot see color (he is totally color blind, everything he sees is grey). He wears a device he calls the eyeborg allowing him to hear color. He created an electronic eye in 2003 that transforms light frequencies into tones allowing him to hear those tones using bone conduction. After wearing it for a while it became a true extension of his brain. Life has changed a lot for him now that he sees color. Visiting a supermarket is like going to a nightclub. He now dresses in a way that “sounds good”. During the talk he was dressed in “C-major” and he goes to funerals dressed in “B-minor”. He can use food to create melodies so that he can “eat songs”. When he meets people he likes to create sound portraits of them, finding for example eyes that sound similar. An interesting secondary effect is that normal sounds started to sound like colors. So he has created paintings from songs or from speeches. He can differentiate 360 colors (all degrees from the colour wheel), but he can also hear infrared and ultraviolet which are frequencies that normal people can’t see. He has started the cyborg foundation trying to encourage people to extend their senses through devices like eyeborgs, noseborgs, earborgs and fingerborgs.

Wonderful talk! I would love to make “extending your sensory perception” an informal research theme going forward. It reminded me of the Wired story about the haptic compass. Is there anybody who is willing to lend me some extra-sensory perception gear? Maybe something to be made in the Amsterdam Hackerspace Technologia Incognita? Here is an interesting blog belonging to the Extra Senses, Extra Interference research group at the Interfaculty ArtScience in The Hague.

Misbehaving Beautifully

Sarah Caddick introduced the topic of the talks in this session: they all relate to the brain in some way.

Read Montague is a reformed computational neuroscientist. He talked about what we can now do with fMRI technology. It has allowed us to study human beings to isolate mental functions. His research uses economic games (like the ultimatum game) and measures the cognitive apparatus that people use when they play these games. He has created technology to synchronize multiple fMRI machines and link them together on the net. For the first time we can now measure interacting brains simultaneously.

Elyn Saks is an academic with chronic schizophrenia. She described a psychotic episode she had years ago. She had delusions, hallucinations and weird/loose associations and was hospitalized in a psychiatric institution where she was restrained for many hours on end on many days. She wrote a paper about physical restraints and now is pro-psychiatry and anti-force. She also described how she tried to get off medication and what negative effects this had. Why is she able to address us like this today:

  1. She has had excellent treatment
  2. She has many friends that know her and know her illnesses and support her
  3. She works at an accomodating and even supportive workplace

But even though she has these three things, the stigma against mental illness is still so strong that it took her a long time before she was willing to talk about her schizophrenia in public. She asks us to stop criminalizing mental ilness (with the LA County Jail being the US’ largest mental institution) and to know that there aren’t schizophrenics, instead there are people with schizophrenia.

Ruby Wax started by thanking the creators of the chemicals that allow her to function. Without them she doubts she would have been able to conquer her depression. She had a terrible bout of depression and was institutionalized with the “other inmates”. She got very little support from the outside world, just a few calls telling her to “perk up”. How come we don’t get sympathy when our brains aren’t working properly? According to her there is a mismatch between how we are hardwired biologically and what modern life is throwing at us. This is why our pets are happier than us. She started a project/website titled Black Dog Tribe with the motto: Mental illness does not discriminate, it does stigmatise.

Vikram Patel talked about a life expectancy gap between people with a mental ilness and people without one: in developed countries this is 20 years, in developing countries this is worse. Many people all over the world don’t get the treatment they need. There isn’t enough mental health professionals in the developing world. He found books on task-shifting in health (like this one) and on the basis of that created the concept of SUNDAR:

Simplify the message
UNpack the treatment
Deliver it where people are
Affordable and available human resources
Reallocation of specialists to train and supervise

With SUNDAR ordinary people are taught how to deliver health and psychiatric services. To help this end forward he started a movement for global mental health.

Wayne McGregor talked a bit about the body as a very literate entity and proprioception. He then live-choreographed a piece of dance inspired by the T from the TED logo and had two dancer interpret his movement into movement themselves. Fascinating to see a choreochrapher in action, I can’t remember seeing that before.

Reflecting on South by Southwest (SxSW) 2012

SxSW: The Place to Be (photo CC-licensed by Debbs)

SxSW: The Place to Be (photo CC-licensed by Debbs)

It has been a few months since I attended SxSW in Austin. Time to do a bit of reflection and see which things have stuck with me as major takeaways and trends to remember.

Let me start by saying that going there has changed the way I think about learning and technology in many tacit ways that are hard to describe. That must have something to do with the techno-optimism, the incredible scale/breadth and the inclusive atmosphere. I will definitely make it a priority to go there again. The following things made me think:

Teaching at scale

One thing that we are now slowly starting to understand is how to do things at scale. Virtualized technology allows us to cooperate and collaborate in groups that are orders of magnitude larger than groups coming together in a physical space. The ways of working inside these massive groups are different too.

Wikipedia was probably one of the first sites that showed the power of doing things at this new scale (or was it Craigslist?). Now we have semi-commercial platforms like WordPress.com or hyper-commercial platforms like Facebook that are leveraging the same type of affordances.

The teaching profession is now catching on too. From non-commercial efforts like MOOCs and the Peer 2 Peer university to initiatives springing from major universities: Stanford’s AI course, Udacity, Coursera, MITx to the now heavily endowed Khan Academy: all have found ways to scale a pedagogical process from a classroom full of students to audiences of tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands. They have now even become mainstream news with Thom Friedman writing about them in the New York Times (conveniently forgetting to mention the truly free alternatives).

I don’t see any of this in Corporate Learning Functions yet. The only way we currently help thousands of staff learn is through non-facilitated e-learning modules. That paradigm is now 15-20 years old and has not taken on board any of the lessons that the net has taught us. Soon we will all agree that this type of e-learning is mostly ineffectual and thus ultimately also non-efficient. The imperative for change is there. Events like the Jams that IBM organize are just the beginning of new ways of learning at the scale of the web.

Small companies creating new/innovative practices

The future of how we will soon all work is already on view in many small companies around the world. Automattic blew my mind with their global fully distributed workforce of slightly over a hundred people. This allows them to truly only hire the best people for the job (rather than the people who live conveniently close to an office location). All these people need to start being productive is a laptop with an Internet connection.

Automattic has also found a way to make sure that people feel connected to the company and stay productive: they ask people to share as much as possible what it is they are doing (they called it “oversharing”, I would call it narrating your work). There are some great lessons there for small global virtual teams in large companies.

The smallest company possible is a company of one. A few sessions at SxSW focused on “free radicals”. These are people who work in ever-shifting small project groups and often aren’t very bounded to a particular location. These people live what Charles Handy, in The Elephant and The Flea, called a portfolio lifestyle. They are obviously not on a career track with promotions, instead they get their feedback, discipline and refinement from the meritocratic communities and co-working spaces they work in.

Personally I am wondering whether it is possible to become a free radical in a large multinational. Would that be the first step towards a flatter, less hierarchical and more expertise-based organization? I for one wouldn’t mind stepping outside of my line (and out of my silo) and finding my own work on the basis of where I can add the most value for the company. I know this is already possible in smaller companies (see the Valve handbook for an example). It will be hard for big enterprises to start doing this, but I am quite sure we will all end up there eventually.

Hyperspecialization

One trend that is very recognizable for me is hyperspecialization. When I made my first website around 2000, I was able to quickly learn everything there was to know about building websites. There were a few technologies and their scope was limited. Now the level of specialization in the creation of websites is incredible. There is absolutely no way anybody can be an expert in a substantial part of the total field. The modern-day renaissance man just can’t exist.

Transaction costs are going down everywhere. This means that integrated solutions and companies/people who can deliver things end-to-end are losing their competitive edge. As a client I prefer to buy each element of what I need from a niche specialist, rather then get it in one go from somebody who does an average job. Topcoder has made this a core part of their business model: each project that they get is split up into as many pieces as possible and individuals (free radicals again) bid on the work.

Let’s assume that this trends towards specialization will continue. What would that mean for the Learning Function? One thing that would become critical is your ability to quickly assess expertise. How do you know that somebody who calls themselves and expert really is one? What does this mean for competency management? How will this affect the way you build up teams for projects?

Evolution of the interface

Everybody was completely focused on mobile technology at SxSW. I couldn’t keep track of the number of new apps I’ve seen presented. Smartphones and tablets have created a completely new paradigm for interacting with our computers. We have all become enamoured with touch-interfaces right now and have bought into the idea that a mobile operating system contains apps and an appstore (with what I like to call the matching “update hell”).

Some visionaries were already talking about what lies beyond the touch-based interface and apps (e.g. Scott Jenson and Amber Case. More than one person talked about how location and other context creating attributes of the world will allow our computers to be much smarter in what they present to us. Rather than us starting an app to get something done, it will be the world that will push its apps on to us. You don’t have to start the app with the public transport schedule anymore, instead you will be shown the schedule as soon as you arrive at the bus stop. You don’t start Shazam to capture a piece of music, but your phone will just notify you of what music is playing around you (and probably what you could be listening to if you were willing to switch channel). Social cues will become even stronger and this means that cities become the places for what someone called “coindensity” (a place with more serendipity than other places).

This is likely to have profound consequences for the way we deliver learning. Physical objects and location will have learning attached to them and this will get pushed to people’s devices (especially when the systems knows that your certification is expired or that you haven’t dealt with this object before). You can see vendors of Electronic Performance Support Systems slowly moving into this direction. They are waiting for the mobile infrastructure to be there. The one thing we can start doing from today is to make sure we geotag absolutely everything.

One step further are brain-computer interfaces (commanding computers with pure thought). Many prototypes already exist and the first real products are now coming to market. There are many open questions, but it is fascinating to start playing with the conceptual design of how these tools would work.

Storytelling

Every time I go to any learning-related conference I come back with the same thought: I should really focus more on storytelling. At SxSW there was a psychologist making this point again. She talked about our tripartite brain and how the only way to engage with the “older” (I guess she meant Limbic) parts of our brain is through stories. Her memorable quote for me was: “You design for people. So the psychology matters.”

Just before SxSW I had the opportunity to spend two days at the amazing Applied Minds. They solve tough engineering problems, bringing ideas from concept to working prototype (focusing on the really tough things that other companies are not capable of doing). What was surprising is that about half of their staff has an artistic background. They realise the value of story. I’m convinced there is a lot to be gained if large engineering companies would start to take their diversity statements seriously and started hiring writers, architects, sculptors and cineasts.

Open wins again

Call it confirmation bias (my regular readers know I always prefer “open”), but I kept seeing examples at SxSW where open technology beats closed solutions. My favourite example was around OpenStreetMap: companies have been relying on Google Maps to help them out with their mapping needs. Many of them are now starting to realise how limiting Google’s functionality is and what kind of dependence it creates for them. Many companies are switching to Open Street Map. Examples include Yahoo (Flickr), Apple and Foursquare.

Maybe it is because Google is straddling the line between creating more value than they capture and not doing that: I heartily agree with Tim O’Reilly and Doc Searl‘s statements at SxSW that free customers will always create more value than captured ones.

There is one place where open doesn’t seem to be winning currently and that is in the enterprise SaaS market. I’ve been quite amazed with the mafia like way in which Yammer has managed to acquire its customers: it gives away free accounts and puts people in a single network with other people in their domain. Yammer maximizes the virality and tells people they will get more value out of Yammer if they invite their colleagues. Once a few thousand users are in the network large companies have three options:

  1. Don’t engage with Yammer and let people just keep using it without paying for it. This creates unacceptable information risks and liability. Not an option.
  2. Tell people that they are not allowed to use Yammer. This is possible in theory, but would most likely enrage users, plus any network blocks would need to be very advanced (blocking Yammer emails so that people can’t use their own technology to access Yammer). Not a feasible option.
  3. Bite the bullet and pay for the network. Companies are doing this in droves. Yammer is acquiring customers straight into a locked-in position.

SaaS-based solutions are outperforming traditional IT solutions. Rather than four releases a year (if you are lucky), these SaaS based offerings release multiple times a day. They keep adding new functionality based on their customers demands. I have an example of where a SaaS based solution was a factor 2000 faster in implementation (2 hours instead of 6 months) and a factor 5000 cheaper ($100 instead of $500,000) than the enterprise IT way of doing things. The solution was likely better too. Companies like Salesforce are trying very hard to obsolete the traditional IT department. I am not sure how companies could leverage SaaS without falling in another lock-in trap though.

Resource constraints as an innovation catalyst

One lesson that I learned during my trip through the US is that affluence is not a good situation to innovate from. Creativity comes from constraints (this is why Arjen Vrielink and I kept constraining ourselves in different ways for our Parallax series). The African Maker “Safari” at SxSW showed what can become possible when you combine severe resource constraints with regulatory whitespace. Make sure to subscribe to Makeshift Magazine if you are interested to see more of these type of inventions and innovations.

I believe that many large corporations have too much budget in their teams to be really innovative. What would it mean if you wouldn’t cut the budget with 10% every year, but cut it with 90% instead? Wouldn’t you save a lot of money and force people to be more creative? In a world of abundance we will need to limit ourselves artificially to be able to deliver to our best potential.

Education ≠ Content

There is precious few people in the world who have a deep understanding of education. My encounter with Venture Capitalists at SxSW talking about how to fix education did not end well. George Siemens was much more eloquent in the way that he described his unease with the VCs. Reflecting back I see one thing that is most probably at the root of the problem: most people still equate education/learning to content. I see this fallacy all around me: It is the layperson’s view on learning. It is what drives people to buy Learning Content Management Systems that can deliver to mobile. It is why we think that different Virtual Learning Environments are interchangeable. This is why we think that creating a full curriculum of great teachers explaining things on video will solve our educational woes. Wrong!

My recommendation would be to stop focusing on content all together (as an exercise in constraining yourself). Who will create the first contentless course? Maybe Dean Kamen is already doing this. He wanted more children with engineering mindsets. Rather than creating lesson plans for teacher he decided to organise a sport- and entertainment based competition (I don’t how successful he is in creating more engineers with this method by the way).

That’s all

So far for my reflections. A blow-by-blow description of all the sessions I attended at SxSW is available here.

Learning from the Outside, How External Focus Can Help Learning and Development

This presentation delivered on April 19 for the Irish Centre for Business Excellence Network tries to address why things are not changing fast enough in the (corporate) learning world by pointing out that we often fail to look to the outside. We rely on benchmarking without realising that this will never get us ahead of the game. We try to implement best practices rather than focus on emergent practice. Changing this requires finding our edge and trying to see what you can learn from there. For corporations and organisations the edge can be found in things like the consumerisation of IT, open source, experimental academia and the startup world.

You can download the presentation as a PDF or watch in on SlideShare:

I’ve used many sources to create the presentation. Here are all the relevant links in context.

In the past I have thought a bit about seredendipity and have written a few blogposts about the topic.

Bert De Coutere describes how Learning and Development is stuck in his blog post Learning got stuck in itself…. Steve Wheeler writes about the differences between upstairs (where the Learning Technologies conference was held) and downstairs (where the learning vendors could tout their wares) in his post titled Upstairs downstairs.

If you are interested to learn more about Omphaloskepsis, check out this Wikipedia article.

The following three companies (among many others) offer benchmarking in the learning space: Corporate University Exchange, BrandonHall and Bersin (their benchmarking data for 2011 is available here).

Youngme Moon has written a book titled Different in which she explains why products in a category all become alike. Harold Jarche reviews the book in a blog post titled Different – Review. In that review he refers to Tim Kastelle who lifts stwo diagrams out of Moon’s book in Be Great at One Thing. I remade the diagrams using the excellent Inkscape.

The Wikipedia page about the Cynefin Framework isn’t bad. Dave Snowden’s Harvard Business Review article about his framework and how it can help with leadership is titled Leader’s Framework for Decision Making (and maybe I should credit Mary E. Boone for once).

Automattic is an amazing company. They create and host the wordpress.com platform (more information). The Automattic creed is available on Matt Mullenweg’s website. Matt gets interviewed here. This map shows where all the “Automatticians” are located. Check out this page if you want to know more about Automattic or are interested in working for them.

If you want to know more about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) you should start here and then quickly move on to what Stephen Downes writes in his piece What a MOOC Does. The MOOC example I decided to reference in the presentation is Digital Storytelling also known as DS106.

The term Edupunk was coined in Jim Groom’s post The Glass Bees and quickly got its own Wikipedia article. Stephen Downes tied together a few good posts about the topic here and this article on BlogHer could also be a good start.

The big open online courses that are now fashionable and are starting to get a commercial face (Coursera and Udacity) owe their debts to MOOCs and the Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU).

If you want to be kept up to date about learning technology “on the edge” then your best bet is likely to pay close attention to Audrey Watters’ blog Hack Education (not mentioned in my presentation).

Mozilla‘s mission page is here and it is worthwile reading their whole manifesto. Their Open Badges program is getting a lot of deserved attention and could always use more participants. You can read about all their learning plans on their Learning Wiki, this is also the place to go to if you want to get involved.

If you are interested in becoming more entrepreneurial and innovative, regardless of whether you have your own business or are working in a company/organisation, you can’t do better than read The Lean Startup.

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