Archive for the ‘ORGANISE’ Category

I’m not quite as sceptical as some about this. However, it’s not clear to me how this differs from the sort of thing UNOSAT does all the time – here’s their analysis of imagery over Abyei, the key border area between North and South Sudan. Actually it looks like the “Enough Project” is going to be using UNOSAT imagery itself, going by UNOSAT’s own website.

If you follow the link you’ll see that they have more than reasonable capability (50cm resolution) and that they routinely observe the presence of refugees/displaced persons and returnees, construction, and the like. There’s obvious relevance to an effort to monitor potential conflict along the border, especially as oil prospecting is an issue. You can’t easily hide oil exploration from a satellite that can resolve objects 50cm across.

However, the downside is that the UNOSAT report is comparing images over a two-year period. I would suspect that they will need much more frequent passes to be operationally responsive, which is where the costs get interesting.

Also, I’ve just been over to the website and it’s a bit of an unstructured clickaround. What I’ve always liked about MySociety sites is that they all have a function – FixMyStreet reports things in your street that need fixing, WDTK issues Freedom of Information Act requests, TWFY looks up information on MPs, TheStraightChoice logged what candidates promised and said about each other during their campaigns. DemocracyClub, for example, worked because as soon as you logged in it gave you something to do and some feedback about doing it, and then it hassled you to do something more. It had structure.

Notoriously, if you don’t give volunteers something to do as soon as they show up, they’ll wander off. It is nowhere easier to wander off than on the Internet. And so there’s a button to twitbookspace it and a donation link. There isn’t, however, a to-do list or, say, a list of pairs of images that need comparing.

If it’s possible to get Americans to start a string of minor riots in order not to have at least $80bn worth of national healthcare, surely it must be possible to start a good row about whatever it is the Conservatives have in store for us? We stand to lose at least that and more. I ask in the light of this post at Bickerstaffe Record, which suggests, not stupidly, that making an Aunt Sally of the credit rating agencies might be a good idea for a demo.

After all, it’s very true that they played a key role in the great crash, and before that in the post-dotcom Enron/telecoms fraudfest. As Eavis & McLean point out in The Smartest Guys in the Room, the rating agencies were in the best possible position to work out just how much debt Enron had hidden down rabbit holes and in other people’s wheely bins – because every time Enron pulled another fancy dan financing, they had the ratings agencies rate the bonds that came out of it.

We rate every deal. It could be structured by cows and we would rate it.

And, strategically, this is always going to be a problem, because unlike all other forms of credit risk assessment, the agencies make their money from the party issuing the debt, so it’s always in their interest to be optimistic. (Similarities with this little beauty of a deal are entirely appropriate.) When they are dealing with private clients, that is; if it’s Argentina or Britain involved, they just go ahead and shoot. John Quiggin has an excellent post on their failure and their role in pushing PFI in Australia.

But I have my doubts that any such action will change their opinion; in fact, it wouldn’t be the aim of such an action. The point would be rather to render their opinion less relevant and alter the conditions under which it is formed. However, I have just ordered the domain name standardispoor.com, and I welcome suggestions for what we might do with it.

More broadly, what worries me is that the Tories will pull some horror out of their back pocket in the financial year 2010-2011, and by the time it’s passing through the House, we’ll just have started getting angry. This is one of the historical lessons of On Roads; if you really want to stop something, you need to start earlier than you think.

This is why, by the way, projects like FreeOurBills are important. If there’s no point protesting about a road project after it gets into the national programme, the answer is to shorten the feedback loop and react quicker. This is much more interesting and important – real citizen technology – than Twittering for Iran, DDOSing low value Russian Web sites, or any of the other manifestations of the fake version.

So this is one of the few good features of open primaries I can think of; they provide an opportunity to put together an organisation early in the game, which is roughly how Obama dunnit. In a parliamentary system, though, this is much less important.

Shouldn’t we be getting our lists together now, rather than waiting for the Tories? I agree that this implies giving up on the elections, but then, who wouldn’t, and who doesn’t suspect that a surviving Labour government wouldn’t be just as bad?

Wired reviews a book on the media of the Middle East, The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday. Well, even pirates have press spokesmen these days. It sounds like it could be interesting, but it strikes me that this piece by Tom Griffin about trolls sponsored by various Middle Eastern actors is its critical, rebellious twin.

The GLORIA Center at IDC gathered about thirty Israeli bloggers and members of Israel’s foreign and defense ministries for an informal gathering to evaluate the blogging effort during the Gaza war, new techniques and future challenges. Topics discussed included lessons of the Gaza battle for blogalogical warfare, live-blogging, new technologies and interactions with government. Bloggers delivered short presentations on their personal experiences and discussed future plans for cooperation….

Who wouldn’t want to be a fly on the wall? It practically glows with a radioactive mixture of trollishness, self-righteousness, and raging, thinktank/intern ambition. A weaponised version of MessageSpace. You’ll laugh; you’ll cry; you’ll read up on freeze-distilling your own hydrogen peroxide to escape all this hideousness!

As always, if you want a practical policy recommendation, make tools. A little investment in annoying javascript thingies pays off hugely by improving the productivity of your trolls; and it doesn’t have to be technically very interesting.

In Italy, meanwhile, they’ve got a truly impressive legislation tracker going.

It allows one to follow an act in its path across the two perfectly symmetrical chambers (La Camera and Il Senato), from its presentation as a proposal, to its final approval.

It tracks all the votations, highlighting rebel voters. It tracks who presented an act, and wether as a first-signer or a co-signer. It also tracks speeches of officials on given acts.

Access to textual documents related to an act is easy and documents can be emended by users online, using an innovative shared comments system (eMend), that allows discussions on a particular act to take place.

Users can describe the acts, using their own words, in a wiki subsystem, acts are ratable and commentable, too.

All acts are tagged with consistent arguments by an editorial board, and that allows to know what’s going on and who’s doing what in relation to a subject.

An event-handling subsystem allows the generation of news. Whenever an act is presented, it moves towards approval or refusal, a votation takes place, someone gives a speech or anything worth noticing happens, news are generated. A dedicated web page and a customized daily e-mail, containing just the news related to those acts, politicians or arguments monitored by the user, allows him/her to follow almost in real time what’s going on.

Pretty cool; better than anything we’ve got. And, I think, that’s much more a piece of real citizen technology than any of the TwitBook propaganda apps, which are all about creating a sense of participation; possibly, they actually exist in order to provide that sense as a substitute for real participation, in order to prevent it.

If that’s not hardcore enough for you, the Make blog has a HOWTO on listening to satellites.

An idea, seeing as no-one is very interested in ORGANISE and it looks like I’ll have to learn erlang to make any impact on it.

Observation 1: The price of voice telephony is falling fast. Mobile operators provide some truly huge bundles of minutes, and there’s Skype and Co.
Observation 2: Political campaigns of all kinds often need either outbound or inbound phone banks.
Observation 3: Asterisk rocks.

Conclusion: Wouldn’t a distributed phone bank, based on Asterisk’s AGI interface, be cool?

You could: Register volunteers and their availability. Create a campaign. Send talking points to participants as they become available. Dial them up, then dial the target number, and bridge them in. Log the results of the call.

You could also use it for inbound calls – for example, to take statements after a G20-like event, to provide advice, to register participants. And you could initiate and route calls intelligently, for example, to put callers through to people near them, or to send notifications to groups of volunteers.

Anyone interested? I raised this on the MySociety list and we’ve been discussing use cases.

Whoops, my flashmob stormed parliament. Really got to get my ORGANISE config sorted out…

Minor triumph. Hacker News dropped 2,095 hits on this post yesterday, which just shows you what a bit of well-directed whining can achieve; the fleeting attention of one million social-network Skinner-box pigeons. But yes. Anyway, Reggie makes a very good point in comments – why can’t I subscribe to somebody’s contact details and have them updated automatically? Amen! (He’ll like that, according to his blog he’s some sort of missionary.)

This shouldn’t be difficult; you need only to specify a URI for updates as a field in the vCard, and have the client application check it (on start-up; every so often; whatever), or perhaps we could use XMPP, which would permit changes to be pushed out in real time. In fact, if the client was at all sensibly specified, if it found a URI without any contact information, it would fill in the fields from the data source it specified, so you could just hand round cards with http://www.example.com/firstnamelastname on.

Of course you might want to restrict subscriptions to your contacts, or provide both public and private versions, and certainly be able to revoke access to them; OAuth or similar is fine. I’m surprised nobody’s done this yet. There are closed solutions, but it would be a pity to lock up all the data in a monopoly. In fact, perhaps the best way to deploy it would be to extend OpenID, associating a contact record with an identity URL and only divulging it with user permission. However, it would be nice to aggregate the information so that clients could register lists of contacts, and get a batch response (“No changes in your contacts” or a multi-vCard file of updates), especially as one of the affordances of such a system would be easy synchronisation between devices. In fact, it would obviate synchronisation as we currently know and hate it. (There’s another desperately awful application.)

By the way, if you’ve just landed from HN, you might want to check out ORGANISE, my project for a Stafford Beer-inspired organising tool, and the specification v0.5, to say nothing of the Viktor Bout RSS feed and map.

Rethinking ORGANISE

In the last couple of months, I’ve been increasingly fascinated by XMPP; I said this to a colleague of mine, who reacted roughly as if I’d informed him that I now perceived time as simultaneous. Hey, it’s a tech company but not that techie. Specifically, however, I’ve become convinced that I was barking up the wrong tree with ORGANISE in thinking in terms of database-driven Web applications. For a start, I think these tend to guide the users into a read-heavy, discussion mode; inhaling huge threads, commenting, and then polling for answers. I want people to send things and take action.

And XMPP makes a lot of interesting things possible; it’s real time, it’s a push system, it’s bandwidth efficient, and it has the idea of collection nodes – communities nested in each other – natively, as well as support for a wide range of useful stuff, like sending form options/user interface controls in messages, doing complicated subscription options, and even doing OAuth over XMPP. Transports – servers which bridge other messaging systems into the XMPP namespace – could help it interwork with pretty much anything else.

And as the messages consist of XML stanzas, there are interesting possibilities in what you could do with parsing and making other things talk to ORGANISE. You could even wrap an XHTML document in one and send structured data, rich media or even javascript app logic…if the client application could render it. Hmm.

So, basically, I’ve torn up the old spec and started afresh. There is a new document, version 0.5, and some changes to the design philosophy as well. And there’s a new kid, too – Jörg Wenck of many comments at Fistful has joined up. I want your comments.

What with things like this, the LibDems’ drive to collect members of the scientific-technical intelligentsia at a secret location in Kazakhstan (surely it must be a….), it’s surely time to shake up my ORGANISE project – a messaging and task scheduling system for organisations of all kinds that implements a Stafford Beer viable system approach. (Unofficially, “like a bulletin board that actually encourages people to do something”.)

Before Christmas, we’d gone through a couple of iterations of the spec, I’d vaguely decided to implement it as a Django web application, and I’d written a first version of the models.py (the file that defines the database schema in Django) that (I hope) embodies Duane Griffin’s design of the data model. I also managed to discuss it at some length with Chris “Chris” Williams…

Now, it’s unlikely to get anywhere by the 17th of March, so Rewired State is out as far as our methodology of conference-driven development goes. But I want to shake the thing up, and I’m increasingly interested in alternative routes; specifically, should it perhaps be more explicitly about messaging/communications rather than being a read-heavy Web site?

I’ve been reading up on XMPP messaging, and specifically on its publish-subscribe protocol. Each group in an ORGANISE instance would look like a virtual user. This would make sense – the defining characteristic of membership is the right to send to that group, after all. Percolation rules would determine whether a message from a group would be extended into the next biggest group; thematic groups would work in a similar way. In fact, the XMPP Standards Foundation has the notion of “collection nodes” in XEP 0248 which look very much like ORGANISE groups.

Among other advantages – federation with a lot of IM communities and social networks, the ability to interact with the ORGANISE server via other XMPP networks (which could be handy), a generally more real-time system, and the possibility of interconnecting different ORGANISations. And, y’know, it *feels* more appropriate for various reasons summarised here. Unfortunately it looks like 0248 isn’t well supported yet…but what say you?

After MySociety’s triumph on the MPs’ expenses issue, this looks interesting: the Lib Dems are putting out a call for geeks. This was followed up by a survey being sent out; I’ve filled it in, so I may end up spending the next election twiddling bolts on Chris Rennard’s particle accelerator. Apparently, there’s to be some sort of shindig in March.

In other news, all I could think of about this was: He writes a great blog/twittered Harry to Jack…

Stability

Bruce Sterling quotes a study into state failure which – counter-intuitively – puts Iceland and Canada at the top of the list of stable polities. It’s worse than that, though; they reckon Hungary is superstable , and they’re in the middle of an epic bank-currency-credit-mortgage crisis which has metastatised into a panic call to the IMF.

But perhaps it makes more sense than that. Despite Iceland’s spectacular financial panic and sovereign bankruptcy, despite Canada’s critical segmentation fault on the distributed queenship node, nothing very terrible has happened. The social fabric holds. Rival mortar teams do not exchange fire over Parliament Hill, the citizens of Reyjavik are not fighting with sharpened CDs over the last can of dog meat.

Perhaps that phrase, the social fabric, ought to be thought of differently. It implies threads straining over some sort of appalling national gut, bulging with the blows of irreconcilable interests, or rotting in the depths of a public crotch out of pure sin. What if it was the wind that tries the social fabric? When it’s just on the point of flapping you know you’re sailing to windward at optimal efficiency, thrashing forward under the gusts.

After all, what does the word stability mean? Stability isn’t immobility or size or mass; it’s an active, agile thing. A stable ship is one that rolls back onto an even keel after being knocked down; a stable aircraft will tend to trim correctly if you take your hands off the stick. A stable operating system will catch and handle errors rather than crash. A stable personality is someone who is capable of recovery from trauma, not someone who is incapable of emotion.

And usually, stability is actually in opposition to authority; try to design a ship that never rolls, and you usually have one that will be a floating hell in a real storm. Try to design such an OS, and you have… Everyone who thought that the best army would be the most obedient has lost since the Napoleonic wars.

Upshot; we need fewer Stability Pacts and more stable control loops.