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.

Notes On a Full Day of Innovation

I was at a full day about innovation at Mediaplaza in Utrecht today. We used a room that had a stage in the center and chairs on four sides around it. This is a bit weird as the speaker has to look in four directions to be able to connect with the audience. The funny thing is that it actualy works (also because there are four screens on each wall): each of the speakers could do nothing else than be dynamic on the stage.

Below my public notes on a few of the presentations:

Gijs van der Hulst, Business Development Manager at Google

Gijs kicked off his presentation by showing this Project Glass demo:

The Wall Street Journal has done some research and found out that there has been an increase of 65% in how often top 500 companies mention the word “innovation” in their public documents in the last five years. Unfortunately the business practices of these companies have not really changed. How can you really effect change?

Google has nine “rules for innovation”:

  1. Innovation, not instant perfection. Another way of saying this is “launch and iterate”: first push it to the market and then see if it is working.
  2. Ideas come from everywhere. They can come from employees, but also from acquisitions or from outsiders.
  3. A licence to pursue your dreams. An example of a 20% project that was very succesful is Gmail. This was started by somebody who didn’t like how email was working at the time.
  4. Morph projects – don’t kill them. Google’s failed social efforts (Buzz, Wave) has taught it valuable lessons for its current effort: Google+
  5. Share as much information as you can. This is very different from most companies. The default for documents within the company is to share with everyone.
  6. Users, users, users. At Google they innovate on the basis what users want, not on profit.
  7. Data is apolitical. Opinions are less important than the data that supports them. They always seek evidence in the data to support their ideas. Personal note from me: Really? Really?? You cannot be serious!
  8. Creativity love constraints. Their obsession with speed (with hard criteria for how quickly the interface has to react to user input) is an example of an enabler for many of their innovations.
  9. You’re brilliant? We’re hiring. In the end it is about people and Google puts a lot of effort into making sure they have the right people on board.

Larger companies are more bureaucratic than smaller companies. Google is now more bureaucratic than it used to be. One of the ways this can be battled is by reorganizing which is exactly what Google has done recently.

Sean Gourley, Co-founder and CTO of Quid

Sean talked about our eye as an incredible machine with an incredible range. We enhanced our sight through microscopy and telescopy which opened up views towards the very small and the very big. We have yet to develop something that helps us see the very complex. He calls that “macroscopy”. For macroscopy you need:

  • big data
  • algorithms
  • visualization

He used this framing for his PhD work on understanding war. His team used publicly available information to analyze the war. When wikileaks leaked the US sig event database they could validate their data set and found that they had 81% coverage. His work was published in Science and in Nature. He decided to take it further though as he really wanted to understand complex systems. They needed to go from 300K in funding and 6 people towards an ambition level of about $100M and a 1000 people. He sought venture capital and had Peter Thiel as his first funder for Quid.

Sean then demoed the Quid software analyzing the term “big data”. Quid allows you to interactively play with the information. They extract entities from the information. So for example there are about 1500 companies involved in the big data space which can be put into different themes allowing you to see the connections between them while also sizing them for influence. Next was a fractal zoom into American Express where they looked at their patents portfolio and explored their IP creating a cognitive map of what it is that American Express does.

In 1997 Deep Blue changed the way we discussed artificial intelligence. We were beaten in chess by brute horsepower. As a reaction Kasparov started a new way of playing chess where you are allowed to bring anything you want to the chess table. The combination of human and machine turned out to be the best one. Gourley sees that as a metaphor for what he is trying to do with Quid: enhancing human cognitive capacity with machines, augmenting our ability to perceive this complex world.

Sean also talked about the adjacent possible: the way that the world could be if we used the pieces that are on the table right in front of you (e.g. the Apollo 13 Air Filter and duct tape).

His research on insurgents has taught him that some of them are successful and when they are, it is because of the following reasons:

  1. Many groups
  2. Internal Competition
  3. Long Distance Connections
  4. Reinforce Success
  5. Fail
  6. Shatter
  7. Redistribute

Polly Summer, Chief Adoption Officer at Salesforce

Salesforce was recently recognized by Forbes as the most innovative company in the world. According to Polly the tech industry has significant innovations every 10 years. For each of these ten-year cycles the industry has 10 times more users.

The ingredients for continueous innovation at Salesforce are: Alignment & Collaboration, “A Beginners Mind”, Agility, Listen to customers and Think big.

Polly talked about how she used their social platform called Chatter to collaborate in a completely “flat” way. They now even use Chatter as a means to make the worldwide management offsite meeting radically transparent. The next step in the Chatter platform is to “gamify” it and let the individual contributors rise and recognize their contributions (they’ve acquired Rypple for example).

Agile is about maintaining innovation velocity and delivering at speed. The “prioritize, create, deliver, get feedback, iterate”-cycle needs to be sped up. One way of doing this is by listening to your customers as they are all a natural source for ideas. She showed a couple of examples from Starbucks and KLM:

Polly then shared an example of where Salesforce made a mistake: they announced a premium service that they wanted to charge extra for. Customers complained loudly on social media and within 24 hours they reversed their decision.

In 2000 they asked themselves the questions: Why isn’t all enterprise software like Amazon.com? Right now in 2011 they asked themselves a different question: Why isn’t all enterprise software like Facebook? She would consider 2011 the year of Social Revolution. Salesforce’s vision is that of a social enterprise: allowing the employee social network and the customer social network to connect (preferably in a single social profile).

Bjarte Bogsnes, VP Performance Management Development for Statoil, chairman of Beyond Budgeting Roundtable Europe

On Fortune 500 Statoil rates first on social responsibility and seventh on Innovation.

Bjarte discussed the problems with traditional management. He used my favourite metaphor, traffic, comparing traffic lights to roundabouts. Roundabouts are more efficient, but also more difficult to navigate. A roundabout is values-based and a traffic light is rules-based. Roundabouts are self-regulating and this is what we need in management models too. He then touched on Theory X and Theory Y.

When you combine Theory X with a perception of a stable business environment you get traditional management (rigid, detailed and annual, rules-based micromanagement, centralised command and control, secrecy, sticks and carrots). If you perceive the business environment as stable and you have Theory Y your management is based on values, autonomy, transparency (can be an alternative control mechanism) and internal motivation. If you combine Theory X with a dynamic business environment you get relative and directional goals, dynamic planning, forecasting and resource allocation and holistic performance evaluation.

Finally, if you combine Theory Y with a dynamic business environment you get Beyond Budgeting.

Beyond Budgeting has a set of twelve principles (it isn’t a recipe, but more of an idea or a philosophy):

Governance and transparency

  • Values: Bind people to a common cause; not a central plan
  • Governance: Govern through shared values and sound judgement; not detailed rules and regulations
  • Transparency Make information open and transparent; don’t restrict and control it

Accountable teams

  • Teams: Organize around a seamless network of accountable teams; not centralized functions
  • Trust: Trust teams to regulate their performance; don’t micro-manage them
  • Accountability: Base accountability on holistic criteria and peer reviews; not on hierarchical relationships

Goals and rewards

  • Goals: Set ambitious medium-term goals; not short-term fixed targets
  • Rewards: Base rewards on relative performance; not on meeting fixed targets

Planning and controls

  • Planning: Make planning a continuous and inclusive process; not a top-down annual event
  • Coordination: Coordinate interactions dynamically; not through annual budgets
  • Resources: Make resources available just-in-time; not just-in-case
  • Controls: Base controls on fast, frequent feedback; not budget variances

Most companies use budgeting for three different things:

  • Setting targets
  • Forecasting
  • Resource allocation

When we combine these three things in a single number then we might run into its conflicting purposes. So the first step towards Beyond Budgeting is separating these three things. So for example the target is what you want to happen and the forecast is what you think will happen. The next step is to become more event driven rather than calendar driven.

Statoil has a programme called “Ambition to Action”:

  • Performance is ultimately about performing better than those we compare ourselves with.
  • Do the right thing in the actual situation, guided by the Statoil book, your Ambition to action, decision criteria & authorities and sound business judgement.
  • Within this framework, resources are made available or allocated case-by-case.
  • Business follow up is forward looking* and action oriented.
  • Performance evaluation is a holistic assessment of delivery and behaviour.

From strategic ambitions to KPIs (“Nothing happens just because you measure: you don’t lose weight by weighing yourself.”) and then into actions/forecasts and finally into individual or team goals.