Categorypolitics

Google/Skybox could offer a searchable DIFF of the world

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Since Google announced to buy satellite company Skybox recently, there’s been quite a bit of speculation about the reasons and potential implications of the acquisition. Some wondered about the emerging picture of a Google that owns military robots and drones and has access to information about both outside and inside our homes; others looked at how regularly updated satellite images could improve maps, or how a real-time map of, say, available parking spots might be possible with this technology. Or predictions about the market and economics developments. Wired speculates about Really Big Data and geopolitical forecasting.

Writes The Atlantic:

Right now, the raw imagery created by satellite cameras can be hard to decode and process for non-experts. Therefore, many companies like Skybox hope to sell “information, not imagery.” Instead of pixels, they’ll give customers algorithmically-harvested assessments of what’s in the pixels. For example, using regular satellite-collected data, an algorithm could theoretically look for leaks in an Arctic pipeline and alert the pipeline’s owners when one appeared.

This at least is one of the visions Skybox promotes in their videos:

 

 

It’s hard to tell how much of this is possible yet; I’d assume it’s nowhere near as complete now as it might seem. But it is a near-real time video feed of a large part of the surface of the world that – at some point – could be analyzed and converted into actionable data.

A searchable DIFF

And that’s where it gets really interesting: With this kind of technology, once it’s ready for prime time, Google could offer a complete over-time picture, a searchable visual and data representation – a DIFF of the world.

Imagine a cargo container, sitting in a dock, loaded onto a ship, the ship moving (and recognized by the image processing algorithms as such), the container being unloaded and put on a train, then a truck, then opened up and emptied. At any given time, you can trace (and trace back, if in hindsight it becomes interesting) how the tracked object has moved over time.

Live analysis combining a variety of data sources

Fast forward a few years and into version two of the toolkit (maybe) being built here. Then we’re looking at a much bigger picture. Assume a lot more processing power is now available to process, analyze, categorize and save the data available from the satellite images. Maybe enriched by other data sources, too. Now you can offer to pull together unforeseen searches on the real world as a service, similar to the way Wolfram Alpha lets you perform calculations by pulling together data from various sources – weather and traffic data; processed video feeds from drones; market and stock info; communications and network data, etc. – and combining them into one powerful analysis tool.

I find it hard to come up with good examples for this off the top of my head; let’s try anyway. Say you want to know how many trucks vs cars pass over a certain bridge. Or where to find the highest density of SUVs globally. Or the ratio of swimming pools per capita in LA compared to New Delhi compared to London. Or correlate the length of lines at bus stops to the local weather. Or want to know where your car ended up after it got stolen, and where the person went who stole it.

These examples are pretty weak, admittedly. But suffice to say that the range of applications – in commercial, military & security, social contexts – are enormous – ludicrously enormous – for good and evil alike.

A visit to GDS, the UK’s Government Digital Services

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Earlier this week, Matt kindly gave us a tour through the UK’s Government Digital Services (GDS for short) offices. GDS is, as the name suggest, the department that is tasked with running the government’s digital services. Among these, and that’s why we went, it’s the team behind the fantastic new gov.uk, a smart new interdepartmental and most importantly user-centric site that serves as one stop shop for UK citizens looking for any services the government might offer.

 

gov.uk Screenshot of gov.uk

 

Gov.uk is particularly interesting to me not so much because it’s a central service, but their mission and how they operate. In a nutshell (and I hope I don’t misrepresent anything now), it’s the manifestation of the UK’s digital strategy:

“This strategy sets out how the government will become digital by default. It fulfills the commitment we made in the Civil Service Reform Plan.

By digital by default, we mean digital services that are so straightforward and convenient that all those who can use them will choose to do so whilst those who can’t are not excluded.”

To do that, the GDS hired a kick-ass team of developers, designers and writers that apply their experience to shake up some of the crusty structures of traditional government operations. Think agile development, user-centric design, human-readable copy on government websites. All the stuff that startups and software companies work with every day, but applied to the behemoth that is a government IT infrastructure.

 

at GDS One of the many scrum-style walls at GDS.

 

at GDS Any trick that helps visualize progress across large teams helps.

 

at GDS Any office is better with an Anthill Mob Whack Racer, no?

 

The fact alone that the government can attract such a team (including Russell, Chris, Matt and many others) is noteworthy. Keep in mind that all these people could pretty much work wherever they choose, and traditionally the government isn’t the kind of employer where the more playful and innovation-minded are natural fits. So this shows us a drastic shift in the work culture, and smart hiring decisions. Also, I hope that it marks a shift that more geeks and designers realize that there’s an opportunity to really have a positive impact on millions of lives if you work with the leverage of a government – if only the structures allow for it and don’t turn you off too badly. After all, we see a similar mutual embrace starting in the US around Code For America, the White House Innovation Fellows, etc.

 

Learning #1: The government needs to embrace the innovators from the private sector and allow for structures that attracts top talent rather than just administrators. In Germany, we have a long way to go in this respect.

 

Then there’s a larger cultural shift that GDS promotes and fosters. A shift away from monthly reports to live status dashboards, from closed to open data, from 1.0 releases to 0.1 releases (as in agile development), from top down to bottom up. This very much requires a change of mindset and work culture, and of accepting transparency and openness in ways that before were considered highly problematic. It turns administration upside down. Starting at the GDS headquarters, the positive equivalent of trojan horse pilot projects are sent off into all branches of government – ideas spreading to change the way departments work and interact both internally, between departments, and with their constituents.

 

Learning #2: We need a shift in culture and the way governmental departments work and think of themselves, towards transparency, openness, and accepting public failures as well as successes.

 

at GDS GDS is big on post-it notes.

 

at GDS Illustrations on the wall.

 

at GDS Lots of playful elements in the office show the open, collaborative culture that emerges in well-functioning, energetic teams.

 

This all also means a certain need for more empowerment and autonomy for decision makers. Where live data is available and agile development allows for quicker user/citizen feedback (aka learning along the way), administrators will have to make more decisions on the fly. That’s a good thing. If projects are broken up into smaller chunks, the risk of failure is lowered along with the required budgets and potential impacts of these new, smaller chunks.

 

Learning #3: These new structures empower administrators. That’s a good thing.

 

Learning #4: Just like decision making becomes more agile and administrators are more empowered in the process, procurement needs to follow the same principles of smaller, quicker purchases. This leads to cost savings and opens the door for innovative solutions, reduces overhead and risk, and levels the playing field for smaller local vendors to participate in the bidding processes.

 

And while the institutional changes are important and interesting to watch, let’s not forget who profits most from all of this: Citizens will be able to find much more easily all the information and services they need, which is a huge empowerment in itself. Rather than digital services representing the structure of departmental structures, services are now built around citizens’ needs, which is the way it should be.

 

Learning #5: Governments exist to serve their citizens. Rather than just replicating the government’s organizational structures, digital services should primarily aim to serve government services to their citizens and stakeholders.

 

Edit: As James Weiner rightly points out, it’s not like we’ll need to bring in all the skills and knowledge from the outside either – civil servants know best about what needs changing and how, and they just need the space and support to do so. So it’s about empowering the civil servants as much as it is about building new teams.

Which brings us to learning #6: find and empower the civil servants wherever you can. Thanks, James!

 

None of this is magic. Rather, it is — or should be! — common sense by 21st century standards. Still, I found it mind-blowing to see it work the way it does at GDS. We’ll need to take a very close look at how we can learn from these examples in the UK and the US and apply those learnings in Germany and across Europe. There’s lots to be learned, and little to be lost.

The potential cost of change and failure is much lower than the certain cost of inertia. In other words, there’s little to be lost and lots to be gained. Politicians, step up and give us some top level support – then we can work out the next steps together.

Snapshot: The Digital Agenda for the 21st Century: Challenges and Opportunities

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Over the last few months it’s become painfully obvious – once more – that we’re not really set for the 21st century, policy-wise. This probably holds true globally except for very few exceptions, but it’s certainly true for Europe and particularly for Germany. It’s something I’ve been discussing with friends and peers for a while, and I’m more and more convinced that we need to collectively dig into getting the policy level right.

In our industry, and among the tech elite, there’s a widespread school of thought that politics move too slow to bother with, and that pushing ahead and just innovating (aka “doing our thing”) is the preferred way to go. There’s something to say for this mode of operation, too. But I think that we need to also get the actual policy right too, the laws, the codified rulebook that our society is based on.

Trying to collect my thoughts turned into a massive scribbling session.

 

Notes: Digital Agenda for the 21st Century

 

Notes: Digital Agenda for the 21st Century

 

Notes: Digital Agenda for the 21st Century

 

Here are the key policy areas I think need to be addressed as they came to me scribbling away. I tried to list key challenges and opportunities; this list is by no means complete – not even near to complete. It’s a snapshot of my thinking at this moment, in early October 2013, and a note to myself more than anything else. So if you see all the points that might seem out of context or just single words/references, that’s why. Much of it also focuses on a European/German context. Again, these are just quick notes.

I’m hoping that going forward I find the time to explore these areas further, beginning with more detailed blog posts, then let’s see where the path leads.

So here goes. Proceed at your own risk.

Key challenges for the 21st century

  • Education
  • New Work
  • Innovation
  • New Manufacture
  • Connected Cities & Things
  • Health, Tech & Data
  • Politics, Governance & Administration
  • Cyber Foreign Policy

Education

  • Budgets. We need to invest massively more into education at all levels.
  • Embrace technology, foster tech literacy (personally, culturally, institutionally)
  • Peer learning (student-student, teacher-teacher, teacher-student, student-teacher)
  • Collaborations & partnerships
    • domestic/international
    • Social Media Classroom
    • Hive Learning Network
    • Webmaker Movement
  • Alternative certification of knowledge & open access
    • Open badges, etc.
    • Open Educational Resources (OER)
    • MOOCs

New Work

  • Trend to more flexible work structure
    • Less full time employment, more part-time/project-based/freelance work
    • international mobility (global nomad elite/elite nomads). How to enable, empower, capture value?
  • Administration has to catch up
    • We need easier transition between systems
      • between countries/jurisdictions
      • between employment, freelance, alternative phases (family time, sabbaticals, education breaks, etc.)
      • between public/private systems (health insurance, social security)
      • pension plans & social security must follow the person around the globe (at least around Europe)
    • Social security for freelancers & other not-full-time-employed
    • Hubs/coworking spaces, etc., can revive and enrich buildings and neighborhoods. Embrace & foster them!

Innovation

  • Universities
    • Universities need massive budgets for applied research
      • Increase budgets
      • Foster cooperation with industry & non-profits
      • Foster trans-disciplinary cooperation & adjust budgeting processes accordingly
    • Increase cooperation between technical & design universities and departments
      • Create products and spin them off. Feed profits back to research.
      • Research and critically explore societal implications of technological innovation.
  • Fund experimentation and innovation
    • Create easy-to-tap innovation and founders funds & make it easy to raise money from distributed (non-VC) sources
  • Don’t regard political regulation as barrier but as creative constraint/framework to innovate withing
    • Example: Europe’s strict privacy laws are often regarded as a barrier to market entry by US companies. Rather, they can be an asset. Europe as data/privacy safe haven and privacy innovation cluster; home of privacy focused startups and services.
  • Update copyright, licensing, relationship between content creators, distributors, consumers/users.

New Manufacture

  • Germany is well positioned to play a leading role in new manufacturing (3D printing and related technologies)
    • But only one globally leading company in Munich, while most consumer-focused companies in the industry are based in US, UK or NL. Huge potential!
    • Foster collaborations with universities (like in the US), recognition as a policy priority (like in the UK).

Connected Cities & Things

  • Rules of engagement: Core philosophies of citizen/user empowerment are key.
  • Find & foster alternatives to authoritarian/top down models of “smart cities”
    • see Adam Greenfield’s work (Urbanscale, LSE)
      • empowerment instead of control
      • bottom up instead of top down
      • give citizens tools & control
  • Empower the organic networks of researchers & practicioners that exist outside big industry and universities
    • see critical & constructive informal networks exploring connected cities & devices
      • manifested in clusters like Silicon Roundabout/Tech City, or design school/lab Fabrica, built around small groups of committed individuals
      • Driven by practicioners, researchers & connectors like Dan Hill, Alexandra D-S, BERG, etc., who implement their philosophies of user empowerment in their design work/products/teaching each within their discipline
  • Can Europe play out its strength by empowerung these networks & structures?
    • plus a strong set of rules of data ownership/protection equivalent to privacy laws
    • more user/citizen centric power structures are possible

Health & Tech

  • Can Europe’s privacy laws be extended to other kinds of data/data ownership/open access?
  • Find the sweet spot at the intersection of
    1. Privacy/data ownershop/open data
    2. Body data/quantified self/personal analytics/health data
    3. Innovation
  • Potential of cluster in health tech built around these rules/ideals?

Politics, Governance & Administration

Most pressing issues/topics:

  • Legal framework needs to be updated to 21st century requirements
  • Net neutrality
  • Surveillance
  • Privacy
  • Governance, direct democracy, responsiveness
  • Transparency & open data
  • Digital inclusion
  • Update admin, processes (see gov.uk, nyc.gov)

Cyber Foreign Policy

  • Current focus of CFP in Germany is security/defense
  • How can a European version of 21st century statecraft evolve and work?
    • And who can be the actors/drivers?
    • see Ben Hammersley’s work
  • Merge and/or foster exchange between foreign policy/statecraft and innovation

 

Many, many big, gaping holes there, and lots of questions to explore and dig deeper. Hoping I can find the time and resources to do so in some way or another.

Bruce Schneier: The Battle for Power on the Internet

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The fantastic Bruce Schneier gave an excellent talk at TEDxCambridge: The Battle for Power on the Internet:

 

 

In it, he explains in his usual clear, easy-to-understand way how power is distributed in the web, and how this distribution has changed over the years. More concretely, how have distributed actors gained and wielded as opposed to centralized, institutional actors – and then goes on to think about how we can find a balance between both types of power to make sure the internet keeps being a force for positive social change in the world.

Please do take the 12 or so minutes, it’ll change the way you see the web and where it’s headed.

How to see through the cloud, translated

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Over on the Mozilla Webmaker site, James Bridle wrote a brilliant piece that explains in very simple terms how to get a better understanding of the web at the most basic level – where the cables and buildings are located, and where our data travels: How to see through the cloud. It’s fantastic!

And since the whole point of the Webmaker project is to allow for quick and easy remixing – and the learning process associated with it – I took the liberty to translate it to German.

We talk about the cloud all the time, the seemingly ephemeral, almost magical place where our data lives and thrives. But only when the system fails and something doesn’t work do we notice that there’s a brick-and-mortar infrastructure that everything runs on. Cables, servers, concrete buildings. Heck, even my mom asked me about the cloud a few weeks ago, and what it looks like.

Well, thanks to James everyone can now just poke around the web and get a better understanding on where the cloud really lives, and how our data travels down the cables hopping from data center to data center.

You can find my translation over on the Webmaker site: Die Cloud durchschauen.

As a side note, if you want to learn in a playful, really not threatening way about how the web works, please go check out Mozilla Webmaker. It’s a fantastic resource and very, very simple to get into.

A discreet hotline for politicians to get tech advice. Worth doing?

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We keep seeing politicians making decisions about technology and the web that seem odd and ill-informed.

In some cases, this might be due to lobbying, and that would be annoying. In other cases, it might be pure ignorance, and those I would chalk up as lost cases.

What would be the worst, though, is if a politian who is motivated and willing and just lacking the time to develop a deeper understanding makes a bad call, because of that’s preventable.

Politicians and their staffers work under immense time pressure. What’s more, they need to be informed about a huge number of topics, and the intricate, often complex details of how (for example) certain elements of the web work simply can’t get the amount of attention to grok it.

If a politician is high enough up in the proverbial foodchain, they might be able to muster the resources to have that research done. But not everybody can do that.

In the past I’ve often been the friend called by journalist and politics friends who needed a bit of trusted tech advice, and I’m always happy to give it. But not everybody is in a position to call a friend who knows this stuff.

Given the harsh, often ridiculing treatment politicians get when mentioning anything about the web online and getting even a tiny detail or reference wrong, I can almost understand why they don’t dare openly asking for advice. (Almost. But still. Nobody should be ridiculed for trying.)

So how about a hotline of sorts where politicians and their staffers can call for a quick briefing. Discreetly: Nobody but the two people on the line need to know. So they can ask away and need not risk being publicly mocked. In short time, they’d have a better understanding of how stuff works, and could make better informed decisions. A safe space to learn, in brief bursts of briefings.

Bonus: I think lobbyists would hate it, at least the one thriving on knowledge gaps on the politicians’ side. (Copyright lobby, I’m looking at you!)

Personally I wouldn’t mind setting aside an hour or two a week to have a few chats that way. And I’m sure we could find another half dozen of people, experts in their fields, trustworthy not to spill the details of these conversations.

Worth doing? [Y/N]

We’re all under surveillance – where to go from here?

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UNDER SURVEI LLANCE

 

Since the seemingly never-ending series of revelations about mass surveillance of citizens in the Western democracies by their governments (or indirectly by their partners through data exchange) has begun I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the implications – what it means for us as citizens.

One thing I can say for certain is an emotional one: It feels like our own democratically elected governments have — each in their own countries — kicked a leg out from under the table of democracy.

Wobbly metaphors aside, what we see is democratic governments installing the means of totalitarianism. Not with the same intention, I guess and hope, but maybe oblivious to the dangers inherent in their course of actions. Once the tools for mass surveillance are in place, there’s nothing structurally protecting us from a totalitarian state in the affected countries. It was one of the ground rules I learned in my political science studies: Never build tools that are only good in the hands of a “good” government. Build in strong safeguards against abuse by “bad” governments. And even without any abuse of power, we already know about the negative effects of mass surveillance.

I’m not one to say intelligence services should be abolished, I think they serve some important functions. But they must be under incredibly strict, tough supervision, and very limited in scope, with bullet-proof safeguards in place against abuse of power. This system of oversight seems to have failed at scale.

One of the little thought games I like to play when evaluation a seemingly complex issue is to change some of the variables involved to get other perspectives: invert the scenario or players; exaggerate/extrapolate; diminish it/dial it down; a system breakdown; shift motivations of the players and/or the players; etc. Often times, mentally going through these scenarios and comparing them with the as-is situation can help understand better what’s going on and what’s desirable.

So let’s go through some of these mutations, and see what comes up.

Inversion

Instead of intelligence services spying on citizens without warrants or real oversight and reporting to the government, the same services spy on politicians — around the clock, in their offices and at home — and report to the public. Why not start with five percent of communications initially, ramping up to 20 percent over time.

Dialing it up / extrapolation

Increase the amount of surveillance, and increased ability to read encrypted communications. Oh wait: That’s already a reality.

Dialing it down

Decrease the amount of surveillance. Maybe restrict it to cases of actual suspicion, based on police work. (I find it hard to find anything bad about this scenario. In fact, until recently that was how the system supposedly worked, and is meant to work.)

System breakdown

At the peak of performance of the surveillance machinery, something goes horribly wrong. Data is exposed, stolen, the system breached or undermined, that kind of thing. All the data and analysis is openly available, including the tools to collect it: The backdoors built into our software, the keys to the available encryption, the passwords and saved communications and the network analysis that shows social networks of people. Leaving more or less every person with access to digital communications (all the two billion or so, and counting) immensely vulnerable to abuse of the worst kinds. Dissidents tracked down by abusive governments, journalists silenced, individuals blackmailed or robbed. You get the drift.

But hey, when has a massive central system ever failed? After all, it’s not like someone could just burn a DVD of data or a take a memory stick full of stuff and walk out of a secure facility and expose top secret data.

Oh wait – how did we learn about all of this again?

Shift motivations and/or players

A new party emerges and gets the popular vote running on a populist, anti-democratic agenda. Think Tea Party to the power of 10, or neo nazis, or fascists of any sort, whatever. Only, this time they have the most powerful mass surveillance apparatus of all times at their disposal. History tells us that this kind of stuff happens. I think we can all agree that’s not desirable?

So what now?

So where does that leave us? Frankly, I don’t know. There have been calls for engineers to take responsibility and for more political oversight, among many others. Maybe there’s a constitutional course of action, kind of a political equivalent of negligence or abuse of power to hold the government or individual politicians responsible? Maybe introducing term limits like in the US in Germany, too, and maybe in leading positions inside the intelligence community as well?

I have no idea. But I’m pretty sure that just leaning back, shaking heads and becoming cynical won’t cut it. Not if our democracy and freedom is at stake. (End of melodrama.)

On this note, if you would excuse me. I have a demo to go to.