Tag Archives: information

IPad 3? I’d rather have a Raspberry Pi.

These days it’s truly fashionable to be retro and ultra cool to be a geek, but I never thought 80s style computer programming would make a comeback. Ask people of a certain age in certain professions (architects, engineers and of course dotcom entrepreneurs) and they will most likely have started out writing code on their home PC or hooking their Lego Technic monster truck up to a Spectrum or similar.

These people have gone on to create and shape our world but computer DIY enthusiasm and curiosity as to what makes technology tick has vanished from the mainstream. Blame the Internet, video games, the meteoric rise of Apple and Microsoft, social media or our own plain laziness but somewhere along the line, fiddling about with computer innards became the playground of the elite few and computer coding became a foreign language. Computers are now pretty expensive and the inner workings encased and bolted in shiny metal; if you’ve spent close to £1,000 on a bit of kit, you are less likely to want to take it apart.

I remember tinkering with a BBC Micro computer at school and being taught the basics of computer programming to create a simple game, but too young to grasp the relevance of it all. I didn’t choose I.T at GCSE because it was so dull and miles behind; being taught how to use Word and Excel by a woman who frequently put the blackboard rubber in her mouth was beyond toleration for my teenage self, especially as I could teach myself on our battered PC at home in ten minutes.

Last year I worked on the production of a short film celebrating the BBC Micro computer and met the original team from Acorn, who built the 1981 working prototype using bits of wire and a soldering iron. Commissioned by the BBC as part of the BBC Computer Literacy Project, the hope was to sell 12,000 units into schools. The BBC Micro ended up selling 1.5 million. Home programming seemed the way forward but then Acorn sold out to IBM, Apple changed the game and now our whole lives revolve around their gadgets.

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BBC Micro. Remember this?

Technology has a grip on our everyday lives and has run away from most people’s understanding. We allow companies with a vested interest to bamboozle us with science, when in fact anyone can learn computer programming with a little patience. Technology was invented by us for us; let’s not forget the Internet itself was created by bods who intended it to be a free, open space for all to update and improve, exchange information and connect. Some of the most popular software we use is open source (WordPress being the classic example) and it’s time to wrestle back some control. Governments and private companies exploit our ignorance to sell our personal data to marketeers and allow authoritarian regimes to suppress freedom of expression.

Last week saw the release of the Raspberry Pi, a credit card sized uncased computer which may be set to take us back to 80s mindset, in a good way. Like the BBC Micro, it was intended for schools, to bring computer programming back to the UK curriculum, provide our young people with vital skills and spark a new, badly needed, technological industry.

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Raspberry Pi Model B.

It plugs into your TV/monitor and keyboard and you can plug-in a mouse as Model B has 2 USB ports. It can play hi-def video (so it’s down with the kids) and runs Linux open source software. It has 256mb RAM and an ethernet port but you will need an SD card to boot it up. There is a good instructional video on how it actually works here.

It has been developed by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a charitable organisation registered in the UK and can only be bought through Premier Farnell/Element 14 and RS Components. And the price? $35. Yes, $35 (around £21.60). There are apps costing more than that. Demand has way outstripped supply and the first batch has sold out, a sign that the desire to understand technology better is alive and kicking, but more are on the way so get your name on the waiting list through these companies. There are reports that a school in the Middle East has expressed interest in purchasing a Raspberry Pi for every schoolgirl to learn computer programming, which is good news in so many ways.

So, how do you actually learn programming on this? The Raspberry Pi supports a range of software so you will have to load it up with programming languages such as PYTHON and take it from there. There are loads of tutorials and forums which are going to grow and grow as more people get to grips with the Pi (none have actually been sent out yet) so be prepared to become part of a community and share what you have learned. It is early days and an ambitious project so a little patience is needed.

I don’t pretend to know everything about how the Raspberry Pi will work, but I can see that going back is the way forward. I am looking forward to learning a new language and wrestling back some control and understanding of the technology that holds us to ransom every day. Get your name on the waiting list now. At $35, how can you afford not to?

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Adventures in app-vocacy.

One of my major bugbears is seeing charitable organisations charged a fortune for simple technological tasks to increase their ‘online presence’.  If digital advocacy is here to stay, then being able to communicate with your members and donors is of course important. A quick google search will show a wealth of agencies offering to assist, but charging to upload a photo to Flickr? No thanks.

For the big campaigns, there are creative agencies out there with fantastic ideas desperate to get charitable jobs on their portfolio to stand out from the corporate-ness, so you can get some good talent at knock down prices. I managed to get a top design agency to brand a campaign, design a website and produce flyers and posters for £500. If an agency approaches you with an idea, take their hand off.

The old wives tale goes that Oxfam turned down The Global Rich List idea put to them (for free) by Simon Waterfall of the London agency Poke; he promptly took it to Care International, the site received 500,000 visitors in 80 hours, raised £15k in donations and received worldwide press for the little known charity.

More and more NGOs are employing digital media managers, but if your organisation doesn’t have £30k a year to spare, there’s no harm in a little DIY media strategy. However, a Facebook page and Twitter account doesn’t replace content, it is a tool to help you disseminate information and if you have the time (ha ha) you can invent a canny media presence.

I set out to support my theory by making this blog into an app. I have limited technological knowledge and my laptop is less powerful than my kettle. Seriously, how hard could it be…?

1. Firstly, you need an idea: What information are you trying to share, what issue are you raising awareness of? How can you visualise the information? In a previous article I listed the 5 best apps concerning rights. Now you’ve seen what can be done, have a think about the route you want to take. To make an app there needs to be content available on the web already, so you might have to spend some time preparing and publishing  blogs, photos and videos on platforms like WordPress, Flickr and YouTube.

2. Choose your software: Most of the software to make an app is open source, which means anyone can download and adapt it for free. Appmakr seems to be the easiest to use and is quite fun once you get into it. It is unfussy and holds your hand all the way through; play around with the visuals and content until you arrive at something you are happy with.

3. Choose your developer: There are 3 options- IPhone, Android or Windows. I succeeded in about an hour in making this blog into a simple app for Android; the problem is, I don’t have an Android phone so couldn’t publish the app as I don’t have access to the Android Task Manager! For my sins, I have an IPhone so I set about tackling the mighty Apple.

4. Curse yourself for having an IPhone: This is the stumbling block. Designing an app with Appmakr is free, as is publishing it through Android or Windows but surprise surprise, Apple is the only one who charges.  There is a one-off fee of $99, which isn’t astronomical but you have to set up a developer’s account  and Apple will have to vet your app before approving it, which takes time. This article about making IPhone apps is the best step by step guide I came across. The process does get a little complicated down the line and this is where you may need the advice of a techie friend (or the patience of a saint!)

5. Give up or press on: Even though I failed in proving my theory (this time), the point is, it’s not impossible or out of reach. I would definitely not be put off going through the process again in the future if I came up with an amazing idea. The tools are there for us to utilise, with a little time and willpower you can tame this technological beast! Go on, you know you want to…

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Response: Did the Internet matter in Tunisia and Egypt?

In response to Nabila Ramdani’s article and podcast on opendemocracy.net:

Freedom of information is now perceived as one of the biggest threats to governments on the verge of collapse.  Knowledge, at last, is power.  The part played by the relatively new phenomenon of social media in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings certainly has value, in the speed at which information spread and the potential to mobilise people, but we shouldn’t be too hasty in crowning social media as the catalyst for revolution.

Social media sites are not free spaces, as Ramdani claims in the podcast with Tony Curzon Price, they are private companies with terms and conditions, run for profit. As Ethan Zuckerman wrote (and recently quoted by Sam Gregory of Witness),

‘Hosting your political movement on YouTube is a little like trying to hold a rally in a shopping mall. It looks like a public space, but it’s not – it’s a private space, and your use of it is governed by an agreement that works harder to protect YouTube’s fiscal viability than to protect your rights of free speech.’

It is uncomfortable to see civil unrest in the Middle East defined by the social media outlet used to publicise it.  To call the Egyptian uprising ‘The Facebook Revolution’ (and Ramdani is not the only one guilty of this) is frankly insulting. A revolution cannot be branded and we should be skeptical of companies using their incidental involvement as a marketing tool and opportunity for brand development amidst chaos and suffering. Is ‘The MySpace Uprising’ coming soon? I hear they could do with the publicity.

It is indeed telling that a government in a state of emergency will shut down the internet before rolling in the tanks.  Ramdani states that ‘Internet Service Providers were shut down’ [in Tunisia and Egypt], but this didn’t stop the revolution; so really how big a part did the internet play? In his article ‘Why The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted’, Malcolm Gladwell wrote, ” Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools.”  In short, PCs don’t start a revolution, people do.

There is also the very real issue of how to protect activists using platforms which jeopardise their anonymity.  Morosov highlights in ‘The Net Delusion’ how social media can be used against activists, for example surveillance, and this issue needs to be seriously addressed before social media can claim its place alongside the revolutionaries.

Morodov and Gladwell’s arguments were not proved wrong by events in Tunisia and Egypt, they highlight the urgent need for enforcing the right to freedom of expression and reinforce a note of caution. If these tools are indeed now a staple of advocacy, activists need to learn to protect their safety and security online as well as offline and out on the streets.

Would these events have happened if social media didn’t exist? We must remember the initial event that resulted in the fall of two dictators, uprisings across the Middle East and a newfound empowerment of the people. The suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia on December 17th 2010, was not posted on Facebook.

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Top 5 Apps for Rights Information

In John Pilger’s 2007 documentary ‘The War On Democracy’ we find the Venezuelan Constitution printed on the back of local produce packets sold in government sponsored supermarkets. This is a significant and effective way to empower the people and spread the message that rights belong to everybody.  After all, how can you begin to defend your rights if you don’t know what they are?

In the UK, as we face uncertainty over the future of our own Human Rights Act, we are a long way from inviting human rights into our homes and perusing them on cereal boxes over breakfast.  Instead, we can download these brilliant apps and take our rights everywhere we go!

1. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)

This is where it all started. Members of the UN pledged to follow these 30 articles to preserve the dignity of the human. The home screen features a photograph of Eleanor Roosevelt with the original declaration where you choose your language from 14 options. Each article is laid out separately, it’s easy to read and use.  One step towards everyone knowing their rights. Download it right now! Available for iPhone/ iPad/ iPod.

2. International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

Once you’ve downloaded the UDHR which forms the basis of human rights law, you can find out about humanitarian law (the law of armed conflict) through the Red Cross and Red Crescent missions. Regularly updated information, photographs and films via YouTube, plus full reports.  There is a huge amount of information on this for a phone app, really impressive and a great resource. Available for iPhone/ Android/ iPad/ iPod.

3. Human Rights Watch.

Released in January 2011 and only available on the iPad at the moment, most likely due to the huge amount of content available. Catch up with weekly human rights news and Human Rights Watch’s excellent reports which allow you to take notes, bookmark and highlight text. Videos, photographs and podcasts. Would love to see this available for phones, if the ICRC can do it, HRW can!

4.  Facts On The Ground

APN, (Americans For Peace Now) created this app in September 2010 to map Israeli settlements in the West Bank.  APN claims to have “the most comprehensive, up-to-date and authoritative database on settlements in the world”. This app lets the user pinpoint individual settlements, access information on their size, population and year of establishment and see population trends. I’m not sure how often it is updated, but more detailed information is available on the web-based app. Available for iPhone/ iPad/ iPod.

5. Digital Democracy

An ambitious project from a small New York based NGO using app-creating software AppMker, DD have put their money where their mouth is and created this app to update users on their most recent projects helping grassroots organisations and marginalised communities become media literate. Easy to use featuring videos, photographs and articles, some of which are a bit on the long side for an app but still worth a read as DD is involved with some really fascinating projects. Available for iPhone, iPad, iPod.

These apps are all great sources of information and I’m excited to see developments in more interactive apps, which I’ll review at a later date.  Amnesty International’s ‘AI Candle’ app is worth a mention as it gives information on current campaigns and ways to take action. However, it still suffers from glitches and is quite slow, I’ve  had problems receiving data so can’t give it a full review. Lighting the virtual candle to show solidarity and support to end human rights abuses is fun to play around with but only for a few minutes. I did manage to ‘burn’ the side of my phone though!

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