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2007's Best: Technology, Communications and Politics
Alex Steffen, 31 Dec 07

FarmSubsidy.org

FarmSubsidy.org demonstrates the power of geek activism done right. The project -- from the same people who brought us mySociety, FaxYourMP and TheyWorkForYou.com -- was launched to investigate where EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) farm subsidies were being spent. The budgets here are huge (in 2005 farm subsidies comprised nearly half of the entire EU budget) but opaque, with very little information available to citizens.

Turns out there's a reason for the hidden numbers. As co-founder Jack Thurston said:

"For too long people have been misled to believe that farm subsidies are about protecting small and family farms. This data shows conclusively that most of the money goes to large agribusiness and wealthy landowners."

...So based on their national, lawful rights, FarmSubsidy.org is demanding change. The organization uses EU freedom of information laws to request that European governments reveal all data on how the farm subsidy budget gets spent. Farmsubsidy.org then publishes all of the data on their website, searchable by a number of different criteria and geographic locations.


UK Conservatives' Blueprint for a Green Economy

The U.K. Conservative Party released its Blueprint for a Green Economy this morning, and it is groundbreaking, indeed, yes, worldchanging political work.

The tone of the report is somehow bit off -- like bankers at Burning Man -- but the content is phenomenal. The authors don't pull any punches here, bandying around phrases like "One Planet Conservatism," arguing for redefining progress away from purely economic measurements of well-being, advocating smart growth and a roads moratorium, demanding "zero carbon" new home construction standards, even calling for stiff carbon pricing as "the most effective surrogate for environmental cost" for greening the economy ("It's time to cut taxes on families and increase taxes on pollution.")


No Logo: São Paulo Bans Outdoor Advertising

Fed up with the rampant advertising smothering his city, São Paulo's mayor, Gilberto Kassab, passed legislature last year effectively banning all outdoor advertising in Brazil's largest metro. (With more than 11 million people, São Paulo is about five times the size of Chicago). Six months later, the removal of all the advertising is nearly complete and the city looks eerily vacant. Photographer Tony de Marco has a slideshow up on flickr documenting the decontamination of what Mayor Kassab has called São Paulo's "visual pollution" problem. As you might expect, many advertisers are outraged.


Ethan's Blogging Where Speech Isn’t Free

Blogging is important because it breaks the monopoly on information claimed by the press, letting people get around the dictum, “Let’s not talk about certain things.” He argues that “the freer the discourse, the more moderate the Islamic practice is,” and hopes the sort of discourses that take place in blogs will eventually be a moderating influence. To allow this to happen, we need to “use technology to pry the doors open from the outside”, using tools like Tor and Psiphon. We need to read and publicize the work of bloggers, showing governments like the government of Egypt that the world is watching. And it’s incumbent upon us to advocate for persecuted bloggers. ...

Jasmina Tešanović mentions that her name badge for the conference simply reads “Jasmina” - in the process of registering, she’s lost her surname and her country. SXSW’s system can’t accept the diacritic marks in her name, and doesn’t recognize “Serbia” as a country, wanting to put her as a citizen of Yugloslavia, a country that hasn’t existed for ten years. She tells us that this experience of losing her identity isn’t an unfamiliar one. Talking about the surreal experience of “seeing myself on the TV being bombed as I was being bombed,” when she lived in Belgrade during the NATO attacks, she discovered that she couldn’t trust any media. “Milosevic’s TV lied all the time,” she says, but NATO lied as well, denying civilian casualties and failing to talk about “collateral damage”.

To give voice to these “invisible victims”, she began writing letters via email to a large list of recipients - it would be called a blog now, but the technology didn’t exist then. She wrote anonymously, giving witness to the sights and emotions of life during wartime, and tried to speak to foes as well as friends. Speculation grew about authorship of the letter - now published as “Diary of a Political Idiot“, excerpts of which are available online. ABC News contacted her and wanted to interview her, but didn’t want to compromise her identity. She realized that there was no safety in anonymity - “Milosevic could kill me, so could random looters or NATO - my only safety is in the public square.” So she came out, and became one of the most visible and passionate voices about the war. She’s now active in Blog B92, a project documenting the rebirth and reconstruction of Serbia which she believes is the only free, uncensored media in the country. She tells us that the site gets a great deal of hate mail - she’s passing it onto researchers who study hate and facism as fertile ground for study.


Emily's How Mobiles and Blogs Don't -- and Do -- Help Human Rights

Bloggers and mobile phone users have provided some of the most immediate, visceral accounts of the past month's pro-democracy protests in Myanmar (formerly Burma). "Images of saffron-robed monks leading throngs of people along the streets of Rangoon have been seeping out of a country famed for its totalitarian regime and repressive control of information," wrote Stephanie Holmes for The BBC on Wednesday, September 26. "The pictures are sometimes grainy and the video footage shaky - captured at great personal risk on mobile phones - but each represents a powerful statement of political dissent...Thanks in part to bloggers, this time the outside world is acutely aware of what is happening on the streets of Rangoon, Mandalay and Pakokku and is hungry for more information."

But blog accounts and mobile phone activism didn't stop the government's violent police crackdown on the protestors over the past few days, which has left at least several people dead (including Japanese photojournalist Nagai Kenji). Accounts of brave Buddhist monks dying in hospital emergency rooms after their heads were beaten in with the butts of rifles definitely shatter the "wow" factor associated with how networked communications were used to get out the story. And it's hard not ask ourselves what good a few jumpy videos and anxious first-person reports really are in the face of such determined, ugly repression of human rights.


Ethan's Who's Happy and Why?

The founding fathers of the United States declared independence from Great Britain with the memorable phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness“. The phrase was inserted by Thomas Jefferson as a departure from Adam Smith’s more capitalistic formulation, “life, liberty and the pursuit of property.” (The frequent blurring of property and happiness in American poplar consciousness may well trace itself back to this tension…)

In recent years, some governments - notably the government of Bhutan - have suggested that a measure of gross national happiness might be a better evaluation of national priorities than a purely economic measure like “gross domestic product per capita”. And academic journals have appeared, dedicated to happiness studies, or the more academic-sounding “Subjective Well-Being”. These journals produce lists of happiest and unhappiest nations, which are always good for a quick media story, proclaiming Denmark the happiest place on earth and Burundi the most miserable.


Ethan's The Survival of Languages in a Digital Age

It’s an uphill battle to bring African languages onto the Internet. While there are lively communities on Wikipedia preserving European languages like Welsh or Frisian, most of the speakers of minority African languages, like Ewe or Bambara, have little net access and less net expertise. There’s the very real concern that some of these languages may die out before their native speakers start writing online.

Duane Bailey’s work on Translate.org.za helps explain why it’s important to bring languages online. In its post-Apartheid constitution, the Republic of South Africa enshrined 11 official languages. Duane has been working to ensure that South Africans have software, including applications and operating systems, that are in their native languages.

Why? Imagine learning how to use a computer in your second or third language. A native Setswana speaker, learning to use Microsoft Office, has the challenge of learning new software compounded by having to read dialogs and menus in a less familiar language. Educators believe that people learn to read more quickly when learning in their native language - it’s reasonable to believe that new users learning computers would benefit from computers with interfaces in their native tongues. Bailey has had great success localizing Open Office and other open source products into many South African languages, and is now approaching the larger question of building a framework to localize software for as many African languages as possible.

Alan's Freedom of Information: You Have Chydenius To Thank for That

Last year, the Anders Chydenius Foundation celebrated the 240th anniversary of the world's first Freedom of Information Act. Sweden and Finland were one big empire in those days, and the Swedish-Finnish law -- passed in 1766, two hundred years before a similar law was passed by the U.S. Congress, and ensuring open access to all government papers and other kinds of information under a "principle of public access" -- was largely the product of one man's visionary ethical ideas.

Anders Cydenius was the Finnish political thinker and clergyman who proposed the "Law on Freedom of Information" as part of a set of political reforms that worked their way through the Riksdag (parliament) of its day. Chydenius also wrote passionately about equality, free trade, universal human rights, liberal capitalism, and especially the rights of the poor. He is one of the most influential thinkers in the early development of the politics, economics, and values base for what has become known as the "Nordic Model."

Jer's Deconstructing Foo-- Designing Better Conferences

A couple weekends ago, I went to Foo Camp, a conference / camp-out held by O'Reilly publishers which we've mentioned before. Because it's an "un-conference", it's surrounded with a heavy dose of mystique, but I'd like to demystify it a little, to describe exactly why it's such a fantastic event and how to design its successes into other conferences.

The problem with most conferences is that they're a small number of talking heads with Powerpoints addressing darkened masses. The biggest opportunity most attendees have to participate is asking a question of a speaker at the end. In the gaps between talks, people mill around more or less at random, with no clue who around them has similar interests or has expertise they're looking for. When you're a presenter, people seek you out, but if you're not, you're left to random chance. But Foo Camp, as the organizers say, is "a little like Burning Man in that there are no spectators, only participants."

Everyone is encouraged to give a talk, but discouraged from being a talking head with Powerpoint. When I asked former attendees what this meant, no one gave a clear answer, but once I was there, it was very clear. It was just like being back at Reed College, my alma mater (for the few that'll get the reference, Foo Camp is Paideia for professionals). Anyone who's gone to a small liberal-arts school with conference-style classes will know the format: a handful of people discussing a topic together, each with their own insights and opinions, after an introductory framing by the teacher (or, at Foo, whoever convened the session). This still leverages the expert knowledge of the session host, but it also includes the knowledge and perspectives of all the session's attendees. Besides creating a richer session experience for everyone involved (and democratizing the conference), the attendees get the chance to see who else has insightful thoughts or experience with the subject, and see who they want to talk with outside the sessions. This design would work well for many conferences, particularly ones with a high percentage of experts, like Sustainable Innovation, where a third or half the attendees are giving talks already. You don’t have to be an "un-conference" to increase participation and improve networking.

(see also Unconventions and the Toronto Transit Camp.)

Erica's Britain's Girl Guides: Let's Talk About Sex

The British and international media have reacted with some astonishment to the news that the Girl Guides were interested in activities so out of step with the Guides' traditional mission, which centered, according to the Guardian, on spending "carefree days striving to achieve badges for keeping an orderly house and stamp collecting." But I say: Good for them. The days of expressing shock that teenagers would even think about having sex should be long over, and with them, the days of attempting to fit girls into the box of traditional gender roles. So what if girls want to replace lessons in sewing, baking, and darning their tights with workshops on HIV prevention, acing a job interview, and putting together perplexing shelving units from IKEA? The Guides of 100 years ago received badges for milking cows and ironing clothes; their lessons were as irrelevant to the girls of 50 years ago as housecleaning lessons are to those alive today.

Katie's i’m in ur Xbox savin ur planet

The folks at Something Awful recently issued a Photoshop Phriday challenge: environmentally-friendly video games. The sleek graphics put a new – and funny – spin on public transportation, fuel efficiency, nuclear disarmament, and other sustainability-related topics. Environmental Club spoofs the movie Fight Club with the tagline, “I am Jack’s greener self” and Need for Speed: Carbon Credit turns hybrids into tough and sexy racecars.


Eleanor's Peace is hard! Let's play a game!

None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth. That's what Mark Twain' said when "The War Prayer" was rejected by his publisher; it wasn't published until after Twain's death, and after World War I. And although many Twain works show up on the typical high school reading list or college syllabus of American literature, most of you probably didn't read "The War Prayer" in school (especially if you grew up in a red state). ... More than 100 years after it was written, "The War Prayer" remains one of the most effective anti-war pieces ever written.

I like to think Mark Twain, who was a journalist, would have appreciated the game Global Conflicts: Palestine, in which the player assumes the role of a journalist new to Jerusalem and chooses to cover the Palestine-Israeli conflict for either a European, Israeli or Palestinian paper. Gameplay consists of exploring a 3-D environment, talking to sources, gaining their trust, and ultimately writing an article that includes quotes from the game's dialog. The game contains six missions, each with a story to cover, and score is represented by how well the story is written for the chosen publication: the more inflammatory and greater the slant for the audience, the higher the score, but the greater difficulty in collecting quotes on future missions, since the player/journalist is then seen as biased and unreliable.

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