6 posts about community

The Culture of Open Networks, or: Watch What You Tag

Jan 20 2007

I'm getting into an excellent free pdf called "In the Shade of the Commons," a publication from the Waag Society, which bills itself as a small group of enthusiastic idealists ... with a mission "to make new media available for groups of people that have little access to computers and internet, thus increasing their quality of living."

They sound like a nice little bunch of information hippies in the Netherlands.

"We value information as a human resource of cultural expression rather than a commodity to be sold to consumers. ... We realize that intangible information resources raise the issue of a digital ecology, the need to understand ecosystems constituted by information flows through various media. " The Vienna Document
In the Shade of the Commons.

They have quite nicely put together a range of material about the fragility of openness in up-and-coming information societies and the need for "intellectual commons." My favorite part of it so far is the "Vienna Document," (quoted here) which summarizes a number of thoughtful progressive info-principles.

The lesson I'm taking away is not just that "information should be free" (ZZZzzzzzz.... ), but there is also need for a kind of "humane" network design that leverages openness in ways that are beneficial to more than just a select minority.

For those of us who design software (which is now 99% defined by networked computing), I think this has pretty hip implications.

I think it is brilliant to conceptualize information, as they do, as a product of "intellectual labor." In this light it becomes clearer how the information that we produce (in the context of, say, social tagging) can be evaluated as a product that can be shaped by the conditions in which it is produced, controlled, consumed and potentially misused.

Really, what is the most profitable thing to do with a massive database of human generated metadata? Exactly how often should we expect The Most Profitable Thing to line up with the most useful thing for real-live human beings?

Anyway, this line of thinking seems especially relevant to me now that I am so frustrated to discover that more than 1000 nptech tags are apparently not shown in some views of del.icio.us. I can't really blame del.icio.us for whatever is causing this, but it is a reminder that we are trusting our attention data to the databases and algorithms of a corporation with no vested interest in the integrity or proper use of our data. It's enough to make me want to start googling for an open source alternative ... but then there goes my intellectual labor being photographed again ...

Understanding a community tag: the history of nptech

Jan 11 2007

Recently there has been a lot of discussion among the nonprofit technology geeks about the use (and usefulness) of the tag "nptech".

When the nptech tag started one of the ideas was to gather enough data to look and see what words people were using to describe, say, open source (open source, floss, foss, open source software) and then use those words to inform a taxonomy. It's a taken a long time but I bet there's enough data in the nptech tag on a combination of bookmarking systems to do a little crunching and get at some of those commonly used terms. Sort of an emergent taxonomy... Marnie Webb,
nptech proto-tagger

The nptech tag (on del.icio.us) dates back to December of 2004 and was created by a group of nonprofit technologists that were exploring the potential for social tagging in the community. While I have a "curmudgeonly" eye for Web2.0 gizmos, in addition to a deep distrust of technophilic "progress" ... I think that the development of this tag is arguably the single largest reason for the current (thriving I think) state of what is commonly called the "nptech community." Which means a lot to me.

(A great summary of the current conversation is at Beth Kanter's blog.)

Opinions abound. Most of us seem to be worked up about the efficiency of the tag. On this note there has been a lot of interesting reaction to a post by Gavin Clabaugh, which was critical of folksonomies. Laura Quinn of Idealware largely agrees with Gavin.

In this context, it seems that generally the consensus has been that 1.) Taxonomies are harder to create than Folksonomies, but they are better in many contexts. And 2.) we need more data about how to make the nptech tag more useful as an "emergent taxonomy".

So, in the spirit of improving the tag and promoting the nptech community, here's some data:

  1. A plain text listing of every word that has been used on del.icio.us in association with nptech. fulltext.xml
  2. A sorted and ranked list of these tags. nptech-tagged.txt
  3. All of the tags presented as a scrollable tag-timeline.
  4. The script that I wrote to gather the data from delicious (in perl): community-tag-robot.txt. (The code is also displayed below with syntax highlighting.)

 [Prototype removed]

The script that I wrote crawls the pages of del.icio.us and pulls out all of the tags that were used to describe the same stuff tagged "nptech". This gives us an idea of how the tag has been used — effectively describing the tagged links, if we assume taggers are using "synonym clouds". Del.icio.us has a "related tags" feature but it is lame (only 10 are listed), and judging from my initial review of the data it is pretty random. (Not really sure if I broke some terms of use or not with my script, but it's our data, right? And besides, the script is very polite.)

There are a lot of delicious mashupy-type things that show you tagging patterns, but these approaches seem somehow very passive, and not community-oriented. I mean, in general delicious is used very passively — people want to be able consume more efficiently, not create some community in which greater action can be taken. Or it is just used for explicitly personal purposes, as a web-based bookmark service.

What I like so much about the nptech tag is that it was intentionally created to support and reflect a community (unlike, say, the tag "nintendo," which may very well support a community, but it is not active in a self-critical, dialogic way.) And certainly there is a beauty, I think, in using these hyper-technological tools (which have the ability to be very atomizing and consumerist) for the sake of doing things that are explicitly not-for-profit and mission-driven.

And personally I tend to agree with Michelle Murrain that we need to be wary of an "expert" approach to developing our tags and community taxonomies. That line of thinking is what made me want to do this in the first place. (Likewise I need to point out how much I have really been thinking lately about stuff that I have been reading at Ulises Ali Majias' blog like this.)

Anyway, further experimentation (graphs/charts from excel would be easy using the text files, for instance) would be nice; please let me know if you are doing something interesting with the data. I'm hoping that this will help us, as a community, determine what we want to do with this tag now that we have been using it for more than two years. What patterns do you see in the data? What does the nptech tag mean for our community? I am not going to try to start doing any analysis here, now — but I would really like to hear what people's reactions to the tag timeline are.

There are still a lot of holes in this data that I could answer with a bit more programming. (i.e., who has been using the tag?) Suggestions for extending the script are welcome. What do we want to know?

An Open Source Strike?

Dec 18 2006


Many Debian developers denounced the Dunc-Tank proposal. Some even demanded that Towns be removed as leader because he supported Dunc-Tank. Their objection was that by financially supporting developers, Debian would become a two-class system and that, in turn, would be destructive to the Debian community.
Linux-watch.com just posted this article commenting on recent delays in the much-loved Debian distribution of Linux. Interesting to note some of the internal politics on an open source project. I have to respect the developer's (reported) concern that the new pay structure at Debian might create a kind of class system on the project. So to me it makes sense the developers might stop contributing their time if something starts to smell bad in the project, but I haven't ever seen a "strike" called quite like this as the article suggests. I might be inclined to chalk this one up to something other than pure politics, anyway. (Gasp, a behind-schedule software project?)

Digital Libraries for Education

Nov 28 2005

The Digital Library for Earth Systems Education is a good example of the potential for using the web as a community repository of educational resources.

Unlike some of the other educational websites I've seen (which typically distribute prepackaged course materials), the DLESE has a strong emphasis on community input.

Having been around since 2001, it has a pretty extensive selection of resources, most of them related to the natural sciences (from the Mars rover to tsunamis).

I have seen some discussion recently about the value of this type of resource in areas like New Orleans, where entire libraries have been lost. It's not difficult to extend this logic to the context of Liberia or Pakistan, though we have a little way to go before this type of resource is widely multilingual and accessible to teachers worldwide.

Have a visit: Digital Library for Earth System Education

Hooray for Progressive Podcasting

Nov 12 2005

Podcasting is not complicated. It's just audio. The problem lies in finding something worth listening to.

I subscribe to about a dozen podcasts, most of them technology-related, though some are about education or the media. (Technology-anything is always easy to find on the internet, naturally, because that's where the experts live.) Soon we'll have high-quality podcasts about a much broader range of subjects, and I expect that many of them will be coming from much smaller, more independent producers. Keep an eye on the podcast directories such as the one hosted at www.apple.com/itunes/podcasts. For now, however, I must admit that — contrary to that maverick, grassroots image that hovers over podcasting — I listen to an awful lot of stuff from larger outlets like NPR and PBS. (I'm especially fond of On The Media from NPR. Bob Garfield just cracks me up.)

By the same token however, podcasts can help me tune into things on NPR that are well-produced, but have very limited distribution. I'm thinking of Christopher Lydon's Open Source, which is an excellent liberal call-in show produced by WGBH. Lydon is just sharp, and he certainly has a great deal of experience running a radio program. I'm listening now, offline, as I write. Their format embraces the use of the internet by actively soliciting comments and ideas through the web, and they do it worldwide, often including perspectives from the people that they are talking about. A nice package that I'd other wise miss out on if I weren't a subscriber.

Other podcasts, like those of the Bloggercon and Pop!tech conference series, attempt — in a wonderfully useful way — to reproduce and memorialize some of the ideas that get generated at these geek festivals. This has been an important way for me to have personally participated in conferences that I otherwise could not have afforded to attend (Pop!Tech was in Camden, Maine ... not an easy place to get to). Too bad the logistics of recording conferences are often fraught with recording problems. Audio is hard to do right. (Video, by the way, is a lot harder still, which makes me think that acceptably decent, small-scale videocasting is quite a ways off. Things change fast these days, though.)

Still other podcasts are the work of real individuals, working in idiosyncratic ways to create something that's often highly personal. Often these remind me of the mid-1990s' heyday of personal webpages ... which means they're important but sometimes ugly. Some are just bad and ulgy. This is what I hope changes as things mature, as we head toward a sweet spot of podcasting content produced by small teams of people who really care and understand what they're talking about. Further still, I hope that we'll be seeing more and more podcasts that address issues at the intersection of society and technology in a progressive, thoughtful way.

That's why I was so excited to find this in my RSS aggregator today, from Ethan Zuckerman:

Tim Zak, the head of Pittsburg Social Enterprise Accelerator, has teamed up with Doug Kaye of IT Conversations to produce a new podcast series called “Globeshakers”, which features social innovators from around the world. They’re off to a great start with interviews with Andrew Zolli (the curator of Pop!Tech), David Bornstein (an author and expert on social entrepreneurship)… and me.

Tim asked me to talk about my experiences with the Katrina Peoplefinder project and the larger issue of how the Open Source community responds to disasters. You can read more about the conversation, or just download and listen to it. Thanks, Tim, Doug and Peter Durand, for making this interview - and so many others - possible.


Is Open Source Software Ready?

Dec 21 2004

Yes, it is.

Open source software is free. It is supported by communities of developers, not corporations. And it is ready.

Sure, sometimes, it doesn't work. Development can stop abruptly on a project, and support can be limited — because it's free.

But often, open source software is better than the overloaded, buggy programs put out by the big guys (Intel, Microsoft, Cisco, etc.).

With a little bit of online research, there is often an open-source alternative to expensive programs that are needed for programs in rural/poor/developing areas.

What open source gives you (besides a free or cheap program) is a connection with software develpers that are, typically, committed to a cause that appears to be very much in line with the general philosophies underlying ICT and development work.

Power to the people.

Here's a bit from recent BBC article describing the use of open source software in Manchester schools, and the government research that supports its use. (Hard not to like thousands of Pounds in savings, right?)

I say, if it's good enough for Manchester, it's good enough for the world. Now if only there were open source programs comparable to Intel's Teach to the Future Program, which claims to have trained 2 million teachers. Too bad they're all trained in super-expensive proprietary software.

Software licenses cost Parrs Wood [elementary school] about 30,000 pounds each year, less than half the cost if no OSS [open source software] were deployed, according to figures in the recent Becta [UK education research group] report.

Only recently has the school become satisfied that OSS is now sufficiently well developed to meet classroom and office needs and provides a viable alternative to licensed software.

With governors' support and encouragement, the school is adopting OSS more completely over the next three years, including the eventual replacement of Windows by an OSS desktop, which will be a significant change.

Read the entire article: BBC NEWS | Education | How schools can get free software