A memorial to free speech

This stopped me in my tracks this morning. Apropos my comments about park benches on the Internet, let us hope we don't yet need to memorialize free speech.

(Valencia Street, San Francisco, August 17, 2015.)
In case you can't read the plaque, here's a closeup of the text:
 And another view.

Park benches on the internet

Park benches are really important. They are places where you can grab a seat by yourself and read without anyone else knowing what you're reading. Or sit with a friend and chat and not be overheard. Or step out at midday with a work colleague to complain about your boss or plan your startup, without being listened to. 

Our actions on the Internet are listened to. Monitored. Scraped. Mined. Stored. If you read a book on a Kindle, Amazon knows the page number where you stopped. Read blogs, websites, Tumblr posts, newsletters - all tracked. Social media - stored. Text messages - stored. Search history - stored.

There are no park benches on the Internet. 

Why does this matter to civil society and philanthropy?

In order to develop independent ideas, we need places to think and learn without fear of being wrong or curious or different. We need private places where can study new ideas or develop different ways of framing a problem or try out someone else's ideas. Only then do we come together with others to debate, discuss, make plans, take action, make change. With no private place to think or read there is no space for ideas to develop. Without the development and exchange of ideas there is no free expression. Without places to debate and exchange and share and discuss and improve those ideas, there is no assembly. Without space for expression and assembly, there is no civil society.

When what was new becomes old

Alliance Magazine published my article,  From the Edge to the Middle, a few months ago and has now made it available for free to everyone.


(what if) we are not alone

(photo: http://www.hawking.org.uk/images.html)

Today's headlines are bursting with announcements of Yuri Milner's $100 million gift in search of alien life. Professor Hawking (pictured above) accompanied Mr. Milner when he made the announcement.

Let's suppose this philanthropic grant is effective. The scientists find extraterrestrial intelligent life.  Does the fact that the search was philanthropically-funded matter?

Does Mr. Milner get first dibs on meeting our new neighbors?
Do the UC scientists get to negotiate international(galactic) diplomatic ties?
Do all the citizen scientists who've been donating their computing power to @SETI at home get first dibs on space travel vouchers to the exoplanets?
Are there naming rights at stake?

To their credit, the funders and scientists are making all of the data from the Breakthrough Listen project open and available to any person interested. Which is right-on from the perspective of humans, but assumes that "aliens" don't mind having their conversations shared with everyone on our planet. 

(I don't know why this struck me. Just because.)

Good luck to the astronomers, engineers, and home scientists.


(photo credit: ISP)
[This is not an "anti-data, anti-measurement" screed. This is a plea to "understand the data."]

What do you do when the data sources you are looking at indicate that there are more black men in prison than there are alive? If you are Becky Pettit, Sociologist at University of Washington, you write a book called Invisible Men.

If you are in nonprofits, community organizations, foundations, or a citizen of the world - you should #QuestionTheData. When the data don't make sense,  ask how is such a thing possible? Who is doing the data collection? What are they looking for? What are they counting? What are they not counting? Who are they missing?

In our age of data we all need greater data literacy. We need to #QuestionTheData. We need to understand that data are "man made" - they are socially constructed by those who are collecting them. We need to abandon the belief that data are objective and somehow "natural" and recognize that they are useful and constructed.

Here's some old tropes that - when taken out of their intended contexts - highlight the interplay between data and purpose and should inspire us to question all data and all data sources.
  • You can't manage something if you can't measure it. 
  • What gets measured, matters.
  • Not everything that matters can be measured.  
Taken together those tropes point to the intentions behind certain data collection practices (management), the implications of measuring some things (some things don't get measured), and the challenge of turning every worthwhile objective into quantifiable metrics (or data). The tropes are meant to inspire the use of measurement and data, and I'm all for that, as long as we're also trying to be clear on what we're doing, what the data are, what they are not, and what else is needed to make sense.

The Open Knowledge Foundation's new paper on Democratising the Data Revolution gets to the heart of what civil society needs to be doing in the age of big data. Boiling down their report to a bumper sticker, I propose #QuestionTheData.

Download Democratising the Data Revolution here.