New blog

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Saturday, April 25

Cute animals: Bailey playing dead

LocalGovCamp - 20 June


LocalGovCamp is happening 20 June at the Fazeley Studios in Birmingham. You can get your ticket here.

More here.

NB you do not have to work in local government to attend, just have an interest.

Iranian, Gay & Seeking Asylum

A remarkable insight into the lives of two gay Iranian men living in Leeds. We follow them as they establish their new lives in the UK and the setting up of a new support group by the two who have become friends since arriving in Bradford. They both fled Iran after after their boyfriends were captured by the authorities, one of whom was tragically executed.

More On Iran, gay and seeking asylum

Friday, April 24

Tech lessons from Africa

Ushahidi: Crowdsourcing Crisis Information

Ushahidi, which means ”testimony” in Swahili, is an open source engine. The project was developed in the effort to better map out reports of violence in Kenya. This was after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008.

The aim of Ushahidi is to create a platform that any person or organization can use to set up his or her own platform for collecting and visualizing information. They explain that, ‘the core Ushahidi platform allows for a plug-in and extensions that can be customized for different locales and needs. The tool is open source allowing others to download, implement and use the engine so that they can bring awareness to crises in their own region.’

The core engine is built on the premise that gathering crisis information from the general public provides new insights into events happening in ‘near real-time.’

Ushahidi is also being utilised in the Indian election by Vote Report India.

screenshot of Vote Report India

Users contribute direct SMS, email, and web reports on violations of the Indian Election Commission’s Model Code of Conduct (PDF). The platform will then aggregate these direct reports with news reports, blog posts, photos, videos and tweets related to the elections from all relevant sources, in one place, on an interactive map.

Vote Report India aim is to not only increase transparency and accountability in the Indian election process, but also provide the most complete picture of public opinion in India during the elections.

Vote Report India is a non-partisan all-volunteer collaboration between software developers, designers, academics, and other professionals.

Here's Erik Hersman, aka WhiteAfrican, talking to TED about Ushahidi:

Here's a paper on the use of the Ushahidi platform in the Gaza war. Scroll to sec.5 for new media.

Recent research from ResearchICTAfrica reveals that Kenyans are spending incredible amounts on mobile communication as a proportion of income.

Here’s how it breaks down. The average Kenyan spends over 50% of their disposable income on mobile communication. For the bottom 75% of the population, that figure goes up to 63.6%. In terms of total individual income, the average Kenyan spends 16.7% of their income on mobile communication. That figure rises to 26.6% when looking at the bottom 75% of the population.

Africans are paying for mobile communication in spite of how expensive it is, not because of how affordable it is and because access to mobile communication is critical for people. Even if you are digging a ditch by the side of the road, day labour is now organised via SMS.

Nathan Eagle of MIT recently gave a talk to eTech where he explained about the mobile scene in Africa.

Entrepreneurs are constantly finding new uses for the technology.

A Kenyan water pump manufacturer combines an mobile-mPesa-enabled, solar-powered metering system with their water pumps. They give water pumps away for free and then make a profit by selling access to water via Safaricom’s mPesa service. Send the pump 20 Kenyan Shillings and it pumps 20 litres of water for you. This has increased the water pump companies business and made water more accessible to those who need it.

However, as Steve Song points out:
When a single mobile operator is a gatekeeper to water supply, something is wrong. For any village in this situation, [Kenya's largest mobile network]Safaricom can charge whatever they like.

If we accept the premise that, in places like Kenya, no one can afford not to have access to a phone, then one cannot help but feel that something needs to be done. A flour milling company in South Africa was recently fined more than 45 million Rand by the Competition Commission for price fixing and collusion. I think it is time to take a serious look at mobile operators.

Imagine an alternate reality where Africans paid less than 5% percent of their income on mobile communications and all phones operated on an IP-based network so that any new African innovation might be unlimited in terms of scope. Then we would see mobile-enabled social and economic innovation taking off in Africa.

As Nathan explains, African colleges and universities are turning out a lot of entrepreneurial tech talent. Unfortunately, much of this then migrates. Things like his work and the establishment of companies like Google Kenya is helping to stem this flow. Barcamp's have been held in Kenya and are coming up in Nigeria.

London is hosting a chance for sponsors and African innovators to meet up this weekend at Africa Gathering.

WhiteAfrican's blog is full of tales of tech innovation in Africa. Here he talks about the problems facing the next generation of techies in Liberia. Here's his list of African tech events.

Here Jonathan Gosier explains about his work in developing a tech hub in Uganda.

The rest of the world has a lot to learn from Africa, most obviously in developments around mobile phones.

HT: Kenya Pundit, WhiteAfrican

Thursday, April 23

Economic depression: a silver lining


It's not the grunts, it's the generals who need prosecuting

As the sirens close in on those who designed the torture regime in the Bush administration, this is a quite astonishing interview with one of its key actors.

Janis Karpinski ran Abu Gharib prison in Baghdad, source of those awful photos as well as jail sentences for some of the grunts who worked in it. Karpinski ended up getting demoted.

As the paper trail gets longer she unleashes on those who wouldn't defend those grunts at the time: Rumsfeld's cabal. Those who spoke of 'bad apples'

Here's Karpinski on the Daily Show.

I feel pretty much the same about the police officers who assaulted people at the G20 demos.

Those grunts were allowed to do what they did by both their superiors and by politicians (not just Jacqui Smith but Boris and Ken before him). All in an atmosphere, like that created by Bush and Cheney for US troops and contractors, of free reign for the police created by Blair.

Anyone who exercises the sorts of powers - lethal powers - that soldiers and police officers have needs to be well-managed as it should be obvious from human psychology and several thousand years of experience that they will abuse them if they are not managed. They are ultimately responsible for their actions but, like with a manslaughter charge, their superiors are equally culpable.

Tony Blair said in 2004:
"We asked the police what powers they wanted, and gave them to them."
Not what they 'needed', what they 'wanted'. Very important distinction.

In some ways you could say that Ian Tomlinson was a victim of Tony Blair.

Gawd help me, I'm going to quote a Tory, former home secretary Willie Whitelaw from the 1980s.
He boasted how after any security lapse, the police would come to beg for new and draconian powers. He laughed and sent them packing, saying only a bunch of softies would erode British liberty to give themselves an easier job. He said they laughed in return and remarked that "it was worth a try".
This is entirely the right approach - and I just love the reference to 'softies'.

Music: Martin Luther King sings

This actually works.

Tuesday, April 21

Iraqi pogrom of LGBT: horrific report upon horrific report

The following is a translation of a story from Alarabiya, a UAE-based media network, which was published on its Arabic website a few hours ago. While International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) has not verified all of the allegations, many are consistent with patterns of human rights violations being reported from within the country. As a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Iraqi government has an obligation to protect the right to life (Article 6) and the right of all its citizens “to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (Article 7).

On Friday April 17, IGLHRC sent a letter to the Iraqi Minister of Human Rights, asking her to take specific measures to protect LGBT Iraqis. On April 8, IGLHRC and Human Rights Watch submitted an urgent appeal to the Special Procedures of the United Nations to ask for an investigation. In 2006, after a wave of violence targeted LGBT Iraqis, IGLHRC sent a letter to then Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, requesting that the U.S. government conduct a thorough investigation of the violations.

IGLHRC will continue to monitor the situation and gather more evidence about the recent wave of violence against Iraqi LGBT people.

Bodies of 7 Gays in Baghdad Morgue

by Hayyan Neyuf -Dubai/ Ali Al-Iraqi - Baghdad

A prominent Iraqi human rights activist says that Iraqi militia have deployed a painful form of torture against homosexuals by closing their anuses using “Iranian gum.” … Yina Mohammad told that, “Iraqi militias have deployed an unprecedented form of torture against homosexuals by using a very strong glue that will close their anus.”

According to her, the new substance “is known as the American hum, which is an Iranian-manufactured glue that if applied to the skin, sticks to it and can only be removed by surgery. After they glue the anuses of homosexuals, they give them a drink that causes diarrhea. Since the anus is closed, the diarrhea causes death. Videos of this form of torture are being distributed on mobile cellphones in Iraq.”

According to this human rights activist, for the past 3 weeks a crackdown on homosexuals has been going on based on a religious decree that demands their death; dozens have been targeted. She says that the persecution of homosexuals is not confined to the Shiite clerics. Some Sunni leaders have also declared the death penalty for sodomy on satellite channels.”

63 People Tortured
According to Hassan from the Iraqi LGBT group in London, attacks against homosexuals have been abundant in Shiite neighborhoods, especially poor regions and remote areas such as the southern provinces and the Hurriya, Sho’la and Sadr neighborhoods in Baghdad. So far, 63 members of the group have been tortured.

Hassan also confirmed the use of “Iranian Gum” in the torture process, adding that, “I talked to many young men who have been tortured by this method. They went to the hospital for treatment and in some cases they were refused treatment.” According to Hassan, “all religious leaders, whether Sunni or Shiite, call for the eradication of homosexuals, but the Shiites are the ones who are most involved in these attacks.”

Vigilante Groups
According to newspaper reports from local news sources in Sadr City in East Baghdad, a previously unknown group “Ahl al-Haq (the followers of Truth) have stepped up the persecution of Iraqi homosexuals after the murder of a number of them in the past few days. The news sources say that, “3 lists, each with the name of 10 gay men were circulated in Sadr City for a few hours.” The lists included a quote saying, “You, prostitutes, we will punish you!”

7 Bodies in Bagdad’s Morgue
The Alarabiya reporter, visited the Baghdad Morgue in Bab-al-Moazaam in central Baghdad, where the Neman Mohsen, the medical examiner, confirmed that they have the bodies of 7 homosexuals in the morgue. He said, “We were not able to identify the culprits who dumped the bodies in front of the morgue and fled, without being seen.”

He explained, “There were bodies with gunshots in the head and chest and the rest of the body without any obvious causes of death.”

Khalaf Abdul Hussein, from the Legal Affairs Office at the Police Station in Sadr City, told Alarabiya: “the extra-judicial killing of any citizen is a crime punishable by law. No one has the right to become a substitute for judicial authorities or executive authorities, and if there are complaints against individuals, there is law and there are police and there are government agencies. No group or class has the authority to punish people instead of the state.”

He said: “We, like everyone else, have heard rumors about these cases, but we can’t comment on something that is not evidence, and there is no evidence for these crimes either in terms of motivation or in terms of the nature of the criminal acts. We do not know the motives of the killers and we do not know the intentions of those killed.”

“Son of a Bitch”
Officials and tribal leaders in Sadr City are reluctant to provide details about the murder of homosexuals. However, Sheikh Hashem Mokhani, one of the tribal elders in the city, said: “The people refer to these sexual perverts as ‘son of a bitch,’ but most of the victims were not residents of Sadr City. They used to hang out in a [gay] cafe, on Palestine Street in Baghdad.”

Sheik Salal Al-kaabi, one of the elders of Sadr City says: “we have heard that the tribes, to whom these perverts belonged, declared their lives worthless and allowed their death, but we have also heard that an organization calling itself the followers of Truth (ahl-al Haq) are reponsible for the murders and have written on the chest of victim a sentence that reads: This is the fate of a son of a bitch.”

Please urge your MP to raise this issue with the Foreign Office

Suggested letter


I write to draw your attention to the pogrom of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people which is currently taking place in Iraq.

Although this has yet to draw much mainstream media attention the reports are truly horrifying and escalating. They have draw the attention of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and US Representatives.

However the UK Foreign Office does not appear to be taking any action.

I refer you to the statement of Bill Rammell [].

The following are reports concerning the pogrom:


I would urge you to ask the Foreign Office why they are not taking stronger action in this matter.



The breathing earth

Watch in real time the earth's CO2 emissions, birth and death rates by country at this fantastic website.

This website was captured using screentoaster.

Monday, April 20

Crime in the UK: new perspectives is hosting a great series of short videos about crime in the UK.

This is one more outlet which can host your point of view. There is life beyond YouTube.

Can't also resist posting this one which appears on the thread (and is related) about an hilarious spambusting exercise:

Local hubs for local people

Leo Zogmayer, Change, No Change

Sorry, but here we go again. New Minister equals new pet projects. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose?

Hazel Blear's Department for Communities and Local Government has just announced a series of 'pilot projects' which are supposed to connect up councils with local people.

The national egov strategy over the past decade has been nothing but an endless series of 'pilot projects'. Most of which have ended up in a drawer somewhere. Vast sums have been spent and what has been the ROI? Is anyone calculating it? Certainly not HM's Opposition.

Here they all are:

  • London Borough of Barnet - will create an online consultation tool showing information on planning applications in a more useful format. It will allow users to track applications, comment on decisions and communicate with other users
  • Birmingham City Council - will develop an online community that will enable local people to influence the planning and delivery of services
  • Cambridgeshire County Council - will develop a one stop shop website for use by parents and carers of disabled children that will include specialist information from third sector organisations
  • Gloucestershire County Council - will create 18 online community notice boards for neighbourhoods that will provide information on local services and allow people to contact service providers. There will also be dedicated space on notice boards for partners such as police who will provide crime maps for the area
  • Kent County Council - will provide online information on local services in a way that allows people to choose which areas of information they use to provide a customised online service
  • Lancashire County Council - will provide tailored information on support to citizens affected by the downturn such as advice about debt, jobs and training
  • Leeds City Council - will create an interactive information site for older and disabled users of adult social care that will enable users to find out about different options for services near where they live and see the reviews of services by other older and disabled people in their area
  • Liverpool City Council - will develop the 'My Neighbourhood' portal that will allow people to request services, report problems in their neighbourhood and track how they are being dealt with
  • Norfolk County Council - will create community websites to provide up-to-date local information and support local campaigns
  • Wigan Council - will provide an interactive database to help people find opportunities for local volunteering and participation.
All very 'worthy' but all either directly or indirectly related to either existing work by other areas in egov or, more importantly, other work elsewhere on the web.

Fact is that all localities already have a number of blogs and forums which discuss local topics. As well, people who mainly talk online about other things than local issues or politics occasionally dip in.

So why not do the job of supporting (funding) the less-enfranchised to contribute to this - existing - debate? Why not facilitate engagement between this existing local debate infrastructure?

Why not support local hubs for local people?

In my city one local activist has a blog which reports in details on what local bodies are doing. His extremely dedicated and detailed work is undoubtedly pooh-poohed by authorities but he's managed to grab the attention of at least one council leader and I suspect many saw the worth when he exposed that local police were planning on doing away with pensions for police officers injured in the course of their duties when they turned 65. Something which the local paper managed to miss.

We also have an extremely busy former usenet group (now Google Group) and a busy youth-orientated bulletin board which sometimes covers local issues (as well as dozens of local blogs).

An example elsewhere which has built a lively community - but which fails to draw in the wider local online debate - is Haringay Online.

What I'm envisaging is a hub which contains what's going on in these sorts of communities alongside council input, gardened links, gardened local content from elsewhere (such as local newspaper reports), services pages, campaign pages, groups pages, blogs, (tagged?) blog content, local tweets, local pix, audio and video and more (the merrier).

I can think of two big things which might stop council's supporting this idea of local hubs in its tracks:
  1. the political implications of being associated with potentially politically disagreeable viewpoints or people
  2. resistance from local newspapers
The first can be dealt with by developing robust, transparent terms and protocols which work in the real (political) world. It's not like there aren't plenty of examples of people in the wider web having to sort out how to deal with nutters, racists and the rest. Think of CIF or the BBC, for starters. Or in another way Indymedia and the growing citizen journalism base of best practice.

The second is more difficult, as Mirror Head Sly Bailey highlighted in her threatening comments in her keynote speech to the Digital Britain summit last Friday. She (presumably) thought local council magazines undermined local newspaper ad revenues.

The way to get around that is to encourage local newspaper involvement. If you are driving traffic their way and highlighting the sort of local journalism with "deep and intrinsic value" which she spoke of there is a business case for them here.

It's also a two-way street. I wrote last year about how a Swedish newspaper was getting free hyper-local journalism from citizen reporters in villages. Local newspapers gain not only from that but from being seen to be connected into what's actually happening locally. And if they can't figure out how to monetise that it's their own silly fault. Old models are plainly doomed.

Richmond council has done some work here which is worth a look.

Another problem might be resistance from other sorts of commercialised walled gardens. There are stacks of national websites which pretend to be localised.

Again, some of this needs to be negotiated or co-opted, some needs to be ignored. Think of whose interests are being served.

Of course there's other issues too. Anything which is seen to be controlled by a council won't work. It has to be independent yet still representative. But here again there are existing models such as relationships with housing associations or town centre management which bring in other groups as well as interested citizens. A local council's role should be catalyst or enabler, not big momma.

But maybe that sounds like too much hard, patient work when you can just fiddle around with 'consultation' on a sexy site ready to be launched via a photo-op for the local paper? Which then fails to report on low usage six months or a year later?

We just had one local exception which proves the rule where a council housing 'consultation' had been costed at £2700 per response. This made the local paper.

The tools by which such local hubs could be built exist and there's stacks of rich content and debate already out there waiting to be tapped into and joined-up. What there isn't is a need for local councils and the rest of egov to built its own (expensive) spaces, within its own walled garden, and then expect the citizens to flock towards their good works. That's simply wasting money.
The true definition of madness is repeating the same action, over and over, hoping for a different result.
Albert Einstein

Cute animals: Younger cat gets telling off

Somehow I'm reminded of Ginger Spice ...

Sunday, April 19

Too many old guys in suits and ties (plus Sly Bailey)

I tuned into the afternoon of the Digital Britain event on Friday. (I really don't need to hear Brown, Burnham and Mandelson's reading out the pat words written for them from the morning session - just any resulting talking points).

The online presence for the event was good. Live video and live blogging by the stunning Mr Briggs. But the real action was on Twitter where #digitalbritain managed to hit no.5 trending hashtag on all of Twitter as the afternoon ploughed on.

There has been very little blogging about the Digital Britain event (which really says something) but Donald Clark has the goods here. He's responsible for the "too many old guys in suits and ties" line I've pinched and his point that "the debate has been hijacked by the BBC, BT, Virgin, Universal, Mirror Group and some irrelevant London web companies, who are really TV production companies in disguise" was correct too. The panelists really were almost exclusively a bunch of badly briefed no-nothing's with the odd scary one (the head of Universal music, who actually said "we're at the beginning of cultural and creative global warming" and, urgh, Sly Bailey spring to mind) and some shockingly ignorant lines from other panellists.

Apart from one guy who co-wrote the Digital Britain report, Andrew Chitty, the most origial and useful stuff came from the audience such as this great line "the #1 threat to creatives is not piracy but obscurity" or about how the UK digitech industry grew from the "unintended consequences" of BBC Micro.

The event reached it's significant low point right at the end when a very bored looking Stephen Fry finally got to speak and blew open the whole event by slamming the idea of 'digital skills'. Finally some smartness, finally some original thought, finally some wit. The Twittosphere lit up.

And then it was over. Thanks to the BBC's Nick Higham, Fry got to add one more point in but was otherwise unable to speak. Their loss. Our loss as well I guess but the quality of 'debate' was shown by just how many panelists played the man (Fry was 'out of touch' by being smart, by being a geek) or the analogy he used rather than addressing his actual point.

Fry was right. We have always had the need for 'media literacy', to be able to read-between-the-lines of TV reporting and newspapers to get to the truth. This is as true online as off. This isn't new.

The constantly restated 'need' to train people in this 'digital literacy', with 'digital skills', to feel the need to constantly restate a policy fear of the net as being a (unique) source of untruths, misses the point and is disconnected because, as usual, the people pushing it laregly exist within a back patting egov walled garden. (There's also an unmentionable self-interest at work.)

Digital development for all, for the great unwashed, is about easier to use tech Fry said. About meeting the problem of finding stuff through better designed search. Yes you can train people on mouse use but development will have to (does) address those barriers otherwise its shit won't sell.

Most stuff still isn't that easy to use (cf Nielsen), but it is getting better: there's another Moore's law here maybe? Fry's analogy related to learning to drive - these days it's much easier. I've pointed before to the now 40-year old and still going development of ATM usability.

Breaching the digital divide is about content people want and stuff they can use: we're getting towards a true tipping point where people will both want and need.

In Africa a majority now use mobile phones - because they need to. If you want a day job in Kenya you can only find them through notification on a mobile. UK industry hasn't thought that far yet! That's not government's fault but it is government's fault if it thinks the 'digital divide' (or 'accessibility') for that matter is simply about better access to public services!

The lowest point of the event and the one which stopped me in my tracks ('wtf?') was the keynote by Sly Bailey, who runs the Mirror Group (and Donald reminds me is "a non-exec at EMI, known for its inept response to the digital music revolution"). Introduced like she was going to focus intelligently on the demise of local newspapers, she provoked a flurry of tweets from me as I have seen her in action.

During the dotcom boom she headed magazine behemoth IPC Media whose 'digital investments' as they now would be called crashed losing at least £35m. So many of them were oversold propositions along the lines of the infamous, the unusable, trendy clothes retailer who burnt £125m of investor money before going - entirely predictably - tits-up.

I sat in countless meetings where she listened wide-eyed as sales people sold her something (always looking - literally - just gorgeous on - literal - paper) so obviously overworked and useless I wanted to scream. But she wasn't interested in the thoughts of little people, her own paid staff, these sales guys knew exactly how to press her buttons (beggar the thought) and so ridiculous site after expensive ridiculous site was built.

A quater of a million was blown on the (god preserve us) Flash driven (because flash designers were expensive I ended up concluding) corporate site - this was 2000 remember. After it's 'launch' the mega-design firm responsible took staff to one of London's most expensive restaurants, I thought of that as getting some of the massive, innapropriate overspend back.

Notably, the big survivor from this mess was NME's website. They had resisted the Group's digital interference and the site was driven by passionate musos.

After Bailey was poached by Mirror Group she presided over Fleet Street's worst newspaper web site for years before giving it a far too late overhaul last year.

Like most newspaper bosses she's laid off countless actual journalists, including lots in local papers. Now she comes as someone someone thinks knows what they're talking about to Digital Britain to state a line undoubtedly pinched from the likes of Jeff Jarvis that newspapers will only survive on their own unique content - their own journalism with its "deep and intrinsic value". Not the recycled PR and celebrity news done better by the TMZs etc. Which she like most newspaper bosses have staked their paper's current 'business model' on.

Well, doh!

Her business model solution to save newspaper corps? Allow mergers.

So, not only did the event organisers keynote invite to her sum up all that was wrong and patronising with this 'summit' but her inclusion I suspect as a woman when someone realised practically all the speakers were male made it even more patronising.

As I tweeted, I recommend watching the debate between the head of Associated Press and Arianna Huffington on American public TV's Charlie Rose rather than listening to a dinosaur like Bailey for a real thoughtful contribution on the future of news organisations and of journalism. I've embedded the show below, the debate starts at 15 minutes in.

Someone tweeted the (missed) need for an 'unconference' paralleling this sort of doggedly 'top down' dinosaur event. Ab-sa-bloody-lutely. The 'fake' Digital Britain report wiki, which some of the people who should on panels at any future Digital Britain event have set up, is a good start.