Damn Algorithms

Work. It’s boring, exhausting, and counterintuitive to the creative problem solving that once drove American innovation. What the hell happened?

Image: Tech mogul Tim O’Reilly, Jason Madara

Algorithms, that’s what. Google made it fashionable to boost the bottom line with them. Now, they’re little more than a way to save on labor. Tim O’Reilly describes this turning narrative in tech as “a very dangerous time.”

How can algorithms give us more creative control over our work schedules? Or make it easier to collaborate remotely? How can they build trust and transparency, or fit 80 hours of work into 40? The world is smaller, our brains are bigger. It’s time we made an algorithm for working smarter.

The founder of O’Reilly Media has a huge influence on the role of tech in our lives, including the future of work. Now, he’s set his sights on job creators and “innovators” he thinks are more interested in making a buck than building products and services the world can use (video).

Is he right? Have we accepted the future as an extension of the past? How can a more sustainable workforce ensure an abundant future? Fair questions for a society on the brink of the automation apocalypse. But don’t fret.

O’Reilly says, “It’s still possible to reinvent the world. If we could make a more inclusive world with this technology, that would be a great gift.”

The Two Faces of Data

Published by Markets For Good (now Digital Impact) Sep 29, 2014

As a classification system, Big Data is predictive, not intuitive. A system based on stats alone can’t possibly invest in the people it can’t see.


As public-private relations evolve and data sharing initiatives proliferate, philanthropy should remain vigilant about the perils of sharing too much too fast, remembering our sacred bond with civil society. As the coming wave of urban growth transforms the way we live and interact, sound ethics in big data will be an even bigger priority, underscoring the value of philanthropy as a bridge between civil society and private innovation.

When the fictional character Harvey Dent, district attorney of Batman’s Gotham City says, “you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” he refers to absolute power and the corruption of virtue. Later the fictional character falls prey to the schism between his inherent goodness and the more unsavory side of his humanity—a once idealistic public servant now obsessed with absolutes. Today we see a similar dynamic in data and the big data movement.

Big Data represents a paradigm shift in how we structure and move information and ourselves; as it becomes more pervasive in society it will increasingly define our collective and individual identities. Data will allow us to be more productive and cooperative, to make our cities more connected and resilient; our future depends on the data we produce today. But as Darin McKeever at Gates Foundation says, “data is not evidence.”

Data may soon be an asset the likes of which the social sector has never seen. But data is wild, some say wicked. Giving more data won’t make us wiser and sacrificing more for data’s sake won’t make us safer. Just take apps. Developers who overlook the social forces that inspire them may not consider the implications for society once their creations adapt and mature. Apps meant to for safety and convenience in cities may actually encourage social bias. Author Janus Kopfstein says this could result in “an increasing number of systems that impose values of their own rather than embrace the ethical standards that society at large tends to recognize.”

This assumes an ethical disconnect, which makes the social sector an asset to the Big Data enterprise. As a bridge between civil society, policy, and private innovation, the social sector not only brings a deep understanding of community, but also a heightened ethical awareness—one necessary to avoid what Lucy Bernholz calls “policy train wrecks between new technological possibilities and established forms of governance, privacy, and security.” (See “Preparing For The World We’re Trying To Bring About” for more from Lucy on this.)

The future of civil society depends on the architecture we build for data. By 2050 two thirds of the global population will live in cities. This mass migration will put an unprecedented amount of stress on already fragile urban infrastructures, especially in developing countries where the brunt of this migration will occur. Data will play a central role in making our cities more resilient over time as we transition into this new urban era. Private and public sectors will become increasingly intertwined as innovations in health care, public transportation, mixed-income housing and other initiatives expand and improve.

Private entities are already making their data available to the public through the UN GlobalPulse data philanthropy initiative. Robert Kirkpatrick echoes the popular notion that only private expertise can guide the public sector’s handling of Big Data, but admits the technology behind the analysis is so new that it presents a challenge even for private innovation. What does this mean for the social sector, as it shapes its own data initiatives?

What the social sector might offer here is ethical guidance. As a classification system, Big Data is predictive, not intuitive. A system based on statistics alone can’t possibly invest in the desires of the individuals it chooses not to see. Such a system would seem oblivious, if not hostile, to those already on the margins of society. This is a problem in a time of economic uncertainty and encroaching climate change, when ethical corners will likely be cut in order to compensate for lost time and resources.

Going forward, philanthropy should consider a more comprehensive code of data ethics. We must honor our sacred pact with civil society as we enter this new golden age of philanthropy data, ensuring that our initiatives remain socially inclusive as well as sustainable.

Boycott Journals, Easier Said

TBT Feb 2012 Repost:

Timothy Gowers, a mathematician at Cambridge University, wrote a blog post outlining the reasons for his longstanding boycott of research journals published by Elsevier. This firm, based in the Netherlands, owns more than 2,000 journals, including Cell and the Lancet.

Dr. Gowers, who won the Fields medal, mathematics’s equivalent of a Nobel prize, in 1998, is not happy with it, and he hoped his post might embolden others to do something similar.

It did. More than 2,700 researchers have so far signed an online pledge set up by Tyler Neylon, a fellow-mathematician inspired by Dr Gowers’s post, promising not to submit their work to Elsevier’s journals, or to referee or edit papers appearing in them.

From Tunis to Tahrir and Beyond

Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist, Vint Cerf, warns if we don’t build better systems for data, “people will lose trust in the internet, in which case its utility will begin to dissipate” (video).

Cerf is also a father of the internet (standards and technologies he co-created in the 70s still form the basis of the net today). He believes the internet itself is not a right, but rather an enabler of rights. Google’s Project Loon will connect the world’s most remote areas with broadband balloons traveling at the edge of space. If successful, it could help to circumvent bans imposed by authoritarian regimes, as seen during the Arab Spring.

“I harbor this hope as a technologist, that there will be tools available to let people make their conversations private on an end-to-end basis,” Cerf says. “To open up what would otherwise be a very closed environment.”

Craig Venter, Egoist

Published by Science 2.0 Mar 29, 2011

Craig Venter is brilliant. Brilliant enough, you might say, to enter the ranks of literary gods. So brilliant, he might not even know it.

Venter wants to patent the human genome—all 2.9 billion base pairs of it. And why not? The pioneering geneticist is, after all, the man responsible for sequencing it. Venter first set his sights on the intellectual rights in the 90s while president of Celera Genomics. Later, the company’s soured partnership with the publicly funded Human Genome Project served as a forecast of how genomics research might evolve as a competitive business enterprise, if the stakes ever went up. And they did.

In 2000, Celera won the genome race when Venter et al. produced a complete set of somewhere around 25,000 protein-coding genes ahead of schedule (98.5% of the projected total turned out to be other stuff). The genomics industry exploded, I got my first lab job and the rest is, as they say, history.

Since the best scientists are often the most tenacious, for Venter, decoding the recipe for humans wasn’t enough. Flash forward ten years to 2010. It wasn’t exactly the year we made contact, but Venter made history (again) when his team became the first ever to create synthetic life. I’d say that beats meeting aliens. The bacterium-based life form was fitted with four unique “watermarks”—hidden in the DNA—to keep it traceable in case it ever got out. Venter played up the new technique, going so far as to embed an email address for whomever decoded the message first. And what was the message?

Venter may have wanted something personal and meaningful to brand his progeny—something more interesting than the average security question. What was the name of your first pet? In what town was your high school located? Or better yet, an infamous world leader or influential philosopher.

Enter James Joyce. “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.” The memorable line from his semi-autobiography, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, was one of the four watermarks. The gesture, it turns out, wasn’t good enough; the Joyce estate is suing the scientist for copyright infringement. The irony. But this story goes beyond the typical legend and legality.

Invention, while often seen as derived solely from logic and reason, has a strong creative component as well. Venter, if he wanted, could change the code’s mappings to reveal Yeats instead of Joyce. Or Kafka or Borges or Melville—have your pick—as long as the message was identical in length. Inscribing DNA with a literary quote isn’t exactly mind-blowing from a technological view. The cultural implications, on the other hand, are nothing short of inspiring.

Venter may forever be the guy who gave life to man’s first bona-fide creation. But to discover a literary genre in genetic code? Now that’s a triumph.

Knowing Is Half the Battle

Alicja Peszkowska is a comms geek like me. She thinks data is as much a part of creating smart citizens as it is smart cities: “When you create a community, you create an environment where social change can happen.”

Peszkowska is at the front line of open data, working with orgs like TechSoup, Warsaw NetWtorek and the National Gallery of Denmark.

“Transparency of political processes translates into civic participation,” she writes in her open data manifesto (video). “The more citizens understand, the more they engage.” Agreed.

Distributed Comms Can Help Us Reach Our #SusDev Goals

Published by Markets For Good (now Digital Impact) Jul 8, 2015

In May, I presented at the International Conference on Social Media for Good in Istanbul, joining academics from all of the world to discuss how we might build on Internet technologies to enhance philanthropy and the resolution of social problems.

Organized by Kimse Yok Mu (KYM), an international NGO carrying out humanitarian aid and development projects in 110 countries, the conference brought together unique local experiences and views that might otherwise deny comparison.

The connective tissue—what had us speaking the same language throughout—was a shared faith in technology and social enterprise and innovation to reach new heights. For me, this is what the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are about. Andrei Abramov, former chief of the NGO branch of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) said it best in his event recap:

The role of information and communications technology (ICT) has been, and continues to be, crucial to the development of an effective and beneficial global civil society, since they enable the necessary interconnectedness across borders, the free flow of ideas, the exchange of thoughts and the process of consensus building that form the backbone of a civil society of global scope.

Since reading Heather Grady’s blog for SSIR, “Philanthropy, the Post-2015 Agenda, and Diffuse Collaboration,” I’ve thought about how big and small actors might work together to achieve great things in the urban SusDev space. The underlying principles of diffuse collaboration aren’t exactly new, at least for one whose background in science affords a basic understanding of ecology.

But putting the Post-2015 Agenda under a lens of diffuse reciprocity—a concept brought forward by Hewlett Foundation President Larry Kramer and reiterated by Grady in her post—really opens up a world of possibility with regard to making cities more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, as laid out by SDG 11.

The essence of diffuse reciprocity is the ability to see the value in any size contribution, as it applies to a shared goal or circumstance. Grady’s blog (you should read it) is a primer, a preview and a call to action for the Post-2015 Partnership Platform for Philanthropy, which encourages the sector to “engage more meaningfully” in the SDGs. Finding synergy between individuals and organizations is a big part of this process.

At the conference I presented a conceptual framework for distributed social networking for civil society organizations (CSOs), where engaged citizens can address issues specific to their local communities, all the while contributing to a more comprehensive and timely global reporting structure.

The goal is to show that a distributed model of communication (vs. centralized mainstream social networking) can help increase the impact of local organizations, while inspiring new ways to distribute resources, manage infrastructure and nurture local economies. Such an apparatus would help facilitate urban development through local civic participation and cross-sector collaborations.

At a United Nations side meeting in April, Don Chen (Ford Foundation) said the open nature of the SDGs invites more opportunity for new stakeholders to get involved. Building capacity and accountability, both to which Ford is committed, will be increasingly essential for local organizations looking to collaborate across borders and oceans.

Gatherings like the AGAG conference in New York and the Council on Foundations’ conference in San Francisco have since sparked meaningful conversation on how foundations, associations and grantmakers might engage with the SDGs to help empower youth and underserved communities around the world.

A workshop earlier this year in Colombia opened a dialogue between the broad philanthropic community, national and local governments, the private sector, academia and civil society, to identify opportunities where philanthropy and private social investment can work together within the Post-2015 context. Upcoming events like the AGN Assembly in Arusha and Takaful in Abu Dhabi will connect civil society, social enterprise, governance and other themes with philanthropy in order to understand the role that donors, implementing organizations, and society at large might play in achieving success in the coming years.

CSOs collectively provide the basis for a framework for civic participation, and a distributed social ecology would help bring about a more connected and effective means of advocating for human rights, community development and the preservation of local cultures, building on cross-sector partnerships. Furthermore, metanetworks with diverse and far-reaching memberships could be ideal intermediaries for implementation, where member organizations come together across the “development divide” with innovations in knowledge sharing and capacity building.

If diffuse reciprocity represents the exchange of items of nonequivalent value, then distributed social technology is the best substrate for realizing a system in which every contribution, large and small, is recognized within a greater ecosystem of social reality and practice, and met with gratitude.

To achieve this, the social sector should consider a distributed model of communication that affords everyone a seat at the table.

Cities and Social Networks

Tech can bring us together, but are social networks enough? Building on my 2015 thesis, this site looks at data and diversity, and asks how social tech can build smarter cities. Forgive the abstract. The paper’s friendlier.


Local Communities and Socialized Citizens: The Role of Social Networks in Sustainable Urban Development offers a conceptual framework for a distributed social networking application for CSOs, where engaged citizens address issues in their communities while contributing to a more comprehensive and timely global reporting structure. The goal is to show that a distributed model of communication can help to increase the impact of local organizations, while inspiring new ways to distribute resources, manage infrastructure and nurture local economies. Urban resilience is a top concern for the social sector, where data and cross-sector partnerships are key. In lieu of a comprehensive interoperable system for civic engagement, based on their broad appeal, mainstream social networks would seem ideal. But issues around transparency and ownership make centralized services problematic for civic participation. Research shows that, while emerging technologies can help drive sustainable urban growth, centralized communication is prone to failure. By presenting a community-based model of communication for organizations and individuals that includes cross-sector partnerships, this paper highlights the potential for an interoperable and widely adopted social networking solution for local communities, where economic development and social agency are both considered. The paper also considers the role of metanetworks in implementing this solution.

Keywords: apps, civil society, CSO, digital engagement, ICT, metanetworks, mobile tech, NGO, social media, social networks, technology, urban planning, urban resilience, urban sustainability

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