boogdesign posts

Longer posts on standards based web design, portable web development and Linux, intermingled with some stuff on my other nerd interests.

Rob Crowther, London, UK based Blogger, Web Developer, Web Designer and System Administrator - read my Curriculum Vitae

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Category: Society and Politics


02:30:00 am Permalink Tech for Good Meetup - September 2013

Categories: Blogging and Internet Culture, Society and Politics

On Monday I attended the first Tech for Good Meetup, a showcase for startups aiming to solve social and environmental problems. The format was a series of lightening talks, an introduction from the sponsors followed by short presentations from five startups. This post comtains my notes and links.

A picture from the back of the room at Google Campus London where the Tech for Good presentations were about to take place

Bethnal Green Ventures - Lily

The organisor/sponsor, Bethnal Green Ventures is a tech accelerator (like Y Combinator) for ?social good' startups. The idea is they give seed capital to a number of startups, along with some office space and a whole load of support and mentoring. Follow them at

Echo - Matt

Echo stands for "EConomy of HOurs", the site is a broker for trading an hour of your work (an 'echo') for an hour of work from other people. They hope to create "a nationwide currency of echos". All hours are created equal, which I'm sure simplifies things but doesn't seem to me to offer much incentive to offer hours of work which require a lot of training (eg. legal or medical advice). Follow them at @economyofhours.

Winnow Solutions - Marc

1/3 of food is wasted globally per annum, this is equivalent to 300 billion dollars. Kitchens are very inefficient and waste 20% of food used. Winnow have developed a food waste 'smart meter' which allows easy logging and classification of food waste, leading to metrics and better awareness. The device saved 12k pa at its first trial site.
Follow them at @WinnowSolutions. - Yodit

An aggregator for the internet of things, OpenSensors allows you to collect data from any device and easily perform data mashups combining both open and private data.
Follow them at @OpenSensorsIO.

SpeakSet - Ewan

The problem SpeakSet has set out to solve is that 1 million older people haven't spoken to friends or family in a month. This is not just a problem of lonliness, it is also a problem for healthcare delivery where there has been no innovation since Florence Nightingale. Average life expectancy goes up by 5 hours every day so this problem is only going to get worse. SpeakSet packages up a Skype style video calling service into a remote controlled TV interface. The grandchildren can use their existing smartphones to receive calls. Call your Grandparents tonight!
Follow them at @speaksetUK.

Flip Yourself - Bruno

A visual LinkedIn for kids. Young people don't know how to write CVs or evidence their achievements, they're not good at selling themselves. Flip Yourself allows them to collect evidence easily, using tools familiar to them from social media.
Follow them at @flipurself.

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02:09:00 am Permalink OpenTech 2013

Categories: Web Design, Web Develop, Blogging and Internet Culture, Society and Politics

It's been a while since I've written a proper blog post but now that my 'professional' writing obligations are mostly out of the way I've been meaning to return to my amateur ramblings. As I attended OpenTech 2013 at the weekend I thought this was a great opportunity to get back into the swing of things. I've been to a few of these events now and they're always well organised and thought provoking, this year was no exception. Each of the six timetable slots through the day had three rooms with sessions and each of those sessions had 2 or (usually) 3 talks. So obviously I was only able to be in one of those rooms at once and see only about one third of the speakers, but I've assembled all those speakers into my OpenTech 2013 twitter list and in this post I'll give my potted impressions of each talk.

Session 1 (Stream C)

  • Farmification - the joystick factory - Lisa Ma - When everyone is using touchscreen devices, what happens to all the people working in the mouse factories? Lisa has been creating programmes to encourage workers to do part time farming work so that they have something to fall back on when the hard times come. An interesting alternative to 20% time.
  • House on Github - Francis Irving - Francis is recording issues with his house on GitHub, he thinks that in the same way that he put his CV online in 1996 and now everyone's doing it, by 2023 everyone will be doing this too. The serious point of the talk was that to effect change in the behaviour of the general population, to cross the chasm, requires geeks to hack the market, not just the tech.
  • The Constitutional Excerpts Project - James Melton - a project to create semantically indexed and fully searchable database of the world's constitutions, because generally people that are writing constitutions are doing it for the first and only time in their lives and could do with some help.

Session 2 (Stream B)

  • The Children's Republic of Shoreditch - Lucy Macnab - a fascinating project run from the back of a fascinating shop, I urge you to check out the video.
  • Writers Centre Norwich - Chris Gribble - Chris wants 'creative people' and 'technical people' to get together and create fictional works featuring and about technology while still being 'literature'. However it was clear he'd never read any SciFi, which I think set him apart from most of his audience, and when directly asked why he didn't think 'technical people' couldn't also be 'creative people' his answer, even though he denied he thought that, described them as two separate communities who needed to be somehow united.
  • School of Data - Tony Hirst - a project to educate civil society organizations, journalists and citizens in the skills needed to analyse publically available data and 'find the story' through a combination of outreach, training and crowd sourcing.

Session 3 (Stream B)

Graeme Burnett talking about FPGA

  • Unix FPGA - Beyond just Finance - Graeme Burnett - using Field-programmable gate arrays in high speed trading platforms where 80GbE throughput will soon be a common requirement.
  • Raspberry Pi - Rob Bishop - An interesting talk on problems and possibilities from one of the Pi developers. Although four fifths of the audience owned a Pi only one fifth had actually built something with one.

Session 4 (Stream A)

KickBackStarter ushers in the politics of the future

  • Tiny Data - Richard Pope - A number of practical projects for easy data visualization, including the bicycle barometer.
  • Bribing MPs with Crowdsourcing *Satire* (probably) - Terence Eden - definitely the most amusing talk of the day, but inspired some discussion on the serious issue of how the general public can overcome the concentrated buying power of rich people with special interests.
  • The Domain Logic of Direct Action - Stephen Reid - Beautiful Trouble is a book and web toolbox that puts the accumulated wisdom of decades of creative protest into the hands of the next generation of change-makers.

Session 5 (Stream B)

  • Big Data for Real People - Chris Osborne - The 4 rules of data visualization are that data should be:
    • Personalized - relevant to the person viewing the data
    • Accessible - don't set a science exam because, unlike you, most people dislike science (and graphs)
    • Actionable - data is no use if you can't do anything as the result of seeing it
    • Instinctive - recognizes human behaviour and the environment the decision is being made in
    The full version of this talk was recorded for Big Data Week if you're interested.
  • Doing Good With (open) Data - Duncan Ross - As we enter the age of big data what will the legal and moral framework for using that data look like? The major pieces of legislation which govern big data are old (1995 for the EU Data Protection Directive, 1791 for the US Bill of Rights) and cannot hope to keep pace with the speed of change of the Internet. How will society ensure big business uses big data in a moral way when we're not event sure what that morality will be? DataKind UK brings together leading data scientists with high impact social organizations through a comprehensive, collaborative approach that leads to shared insights, greater understanding, and positive action through data in the service of humanity.
  • What do Open Sensor Networks mean for citizen science? - Dan McQuillan - There is so much data available nowadays that statistical methods are often used in place of traditional knowledge gathering, for instance drone strike targets are governed by a data mining algorithm rather than on the ground intelligence. But this huge pool of data can be used for good if we can stimulate people with technical and data mining skills to consider social issues.

Session 6 (Stream A)

  • The STEMettes - Stemettes - Providing events, support and strong role models for women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. Role models are important: hack days delivered by women for women and girls produce better engagement than those delivered by men, similarly recruitment events delivered by a team including female members produce a far higher proportion of female applicants. Also women tend to be motivated by the outcomes rather than the opportunity to simply experiment.
  • FOSSbox - Paula Graham - it is understood that diverse teams produce better solutions, but only 3% of FLOSS contributions are from women. Fossbox actively support women contributing to open source projects.
  • Practical Diversity - Meri Williams - an excellent presentation with practical advice for fostering a more diverse work environment.

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11:42:41 pm Permalink The Social Impact of the Web: Society, Government and the Internet

Categories: General, Society and Politics

Last Friday I attended The Social Impact of the Web, an event organised and hosted by The RSA. It was one of two events I attended last week, but the only one I managed to be on time for :roll: so the only one I'm in a position to present my summary and thoughts about...

The afternoon was introduced by (RSA Chief Executive) Matthew Taylor, he talked about the issues The RSA was hoping to address (or at least stimulate discussion about) through the event:

  • How do you develop the citizens of tomorrow?
  • How do we foster more self-sufficient citizens?
  • How to be other regarding? (ie. have empathy for other people and cultures)

He discussed what a great opportunity was presented by 'Web 2.0', but warned us all that we were saying the same thing about 'Web 1.0' ten years ago, before sitting down to chair the first panel.

Politics and the Web
The format of all the sessions was a collection of speakers and a chairperson, each speaker spent ten minutes talking, then there were 'questions' from the audience, and then there were responses from the speakers. In this session the first speakers was Andrew Chadwick, a professor and author from Royal Holloway, University of London. He built his talk around three positive and three negative outcomes of the 'Web 2.0 Revolution'. He also had slides, which allowed a slightly better fidelity in note taking :) The three positive ones:

  • Citizen Journalism - on average the BBC website has over one million comments per month, this is equivalent to ten years of letters to all the UK newspapers combined, the web has involved people more than traditional media has ever managed
  • Little brother - blogs and other websites have "turned the surveillance gaze back on the powerful
  • Low threshold to co-present, co-production - ie. people publishing on Wikipedia, Digg,, eBay etc.

The three negative trends:

  • The production/consumption divide - only 15% of the internet population is actively interacting with web content, while 26% are 'unconnected', the median age of the first group is 28, of the second 65
  • The shift to video - the recent trend towards video content (YouTube etc.) reduces the "emancipatory effect of text" which we enjoyed in the earlier days of the web - people are once again able to form opinions from your appearance and accent instead of just from what you write
  • Social network narcissism - or a bunch of people pretending to be social so they could have a friends list with a thousand people on it without forming any relationships or producing any real content, Twitter came in for special criticism here

In conclusion, Dr Chadwick claimed a mood of 'cautious optimism' for what the future of the web might bring.

This mood was soon dashed by the next speaker, Georgina Henry, editor of the Guardian's Comment is Free website. Her first comment on the potential of Web 2.0 - "Don't expect too much of it!" In general she seemed to find the whole web thing a bit distasteful - stating it was not a substitute for other political discourse and generally bemoaning the lower quality of content coming from the uninformed 'public' (rather than qualified journalists), which seemed a bit of an odd position in a conference targeted at increasing involvement in democratic politics. She also said,"you have no chance to shape it if you don't get involved." This seemed a bit of a pessimistic motivation to me.

The final speaker was Tom Steinberg, who is partly responsible for the Write to Them and They Work for You websites (co-incidentally, the only two websites mentioned at this conference I'd actually visited before attending). He discussed the division between 'accelerators' and 'tool smiths' - generally all the web has done has speed up the delivery of traditional news, news has become less scarce and cheaper and this is really just the regular process of capitalism. But this acceleration of news delivery hasn't made more people more interested in the news, it's still basically a one way communication process. What we need are tools which make it easier for people to participate in politics, and this is where the tool smiths come in. He mentioned his own websites and also MoveOn in the US, which has had an impact on the political process.

After the speakers we had some 'questions', though 'statements' might have better described a lot of what was said, and then we had some responses. The format meant there wasn't really much of a debate, and I wondered why, therefore, it was necessary to group all the speakers together like they were. One of the things which surprised me was the general refusal to take on board anything Tom Steinberg said. "It's not tools but people which lead to political activism," we heard, not verbatim but frequently, from the audience and the rest of the panel. I couldn't help thinking this was really,"I can't contribute technically to improve political activism through the web, therefore that can't be as important as other things." One of the reasons this surprised me is because of this statement in the event description:

This conference will ask: How can new internet technologies empower us to interact with each other in novel ways?

How can they all think to address this question without considering the technologies themselves or the tools derived from them? Also there is a prominent advert currently sitting on The RSA's home page for The Coffee House Challenge - here's an excerpt from one of their recent press releases:

New research from a YouGov survey, released today (April 2nd 2007) shows that although Britons are deeply troubled by major issues like crime in their communities, they feel powerless to make a difference individually. The survey is released on the same day that the RSA and Starbucks launch the Coffeehouse Challenge, a UK-wide campaign that encourages communities to take action for local change.

Although two-thirds of the people interviewed in the survey were concerned about crime and policing and anti-social behaviour, less than one third of respondents were members of 'community groups' which might be able to do something about it, and only one sixth felt they would actually be able to do something about the issues concerning them. To me the obvious implication is that people need to be equipped with better tools to facilitate their involvement.

Well, that's the first session summarised and it only took me six days :oops: I'll break off here and resume with the next two sessions in a later post. You can decide for yourself about the speakers by listening to the audio feed, or you can read some alternative summaries and blog opinions.

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09:10:52 pm Permalink Software Patents

Categories: General, Society and Politics

This is a subject very close to my heart, I think software patents are a very bad idea, quite a lot of software industry people in the UK agree with me, and yet the government is all for it anyway.

Software is created from language, and I believe it should therefore have the same legal protection as other language artefacts like books and plays - ie. copyright. The only people who really stand to benefit from software patents are large companies and patent lawyers, and guess who're the people trying to push the changes through?

If I haven't convinced you, have a read through the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure campaign pages and then get in touch with your local MEP, MP, councillor or whoever and tell them what you think.

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