Tag Archives: technology

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.

Image

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.

Image

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?

Leave a comment

Filed under Internet Milk

Thank you VW much!

Is it wrong to indulge in a little self promotion? For a good cause? I’ll keep it short…

Greenpeace recently launched a campaign to highlight Volkswagen’s continued opposition to cuts in CO2 emissions. Called VW Darkside, the campaign parodies the VW adverts featuring a mini Darth Vadar trying and failing to use the force on various household objects. Gorgeous Dad helps him out by remotely turning the headlights on the family car in the driveway: cue astonishment and all round cuteness.

Greenpeace’s subvert trumps this by sheer numbers, a whole team of tiny Jedis sent to combat the Dark Side, complete with a VW badge on the Death Star. The evil VW threatening our planet cannot succeed! Greenpeace have highlighted the fact that even though VW may position themselves as the leader on more environmentally friendly vehicles, they in fact have a huge lobbying power who have been hard at work in the EU to prevent a vote for an increase in the overall cut to Co2 emissions- from 20% to 30% by 2020. Not only that, but only 6% of the cars sold in 2010 were the more efficient models, VW having effectively priced consumers out of this market.

With this in mind, Greenpeace launched a film competition to make a 1 minute ‘subvert’ of a VW advert. The films go to a public vote, the 12 films with the most votes make the shortlist, Greenpeace choose the winner who gets a £5k budget to make Greenpeace’s next campaign film. There are 80 entries and some of the films are really stunning.

I have, ahem, also entered and would love it if you take a look and vote by clicking here. My entry subverts the recent VW Cabriolet advert which plays on the use of Super 8 footage and memory, showing kids messing about in go carts and toy cars, using the song ‘Days’ by The Kinks. I’ve employed the same tactics (hope you don’t mind me using your song, Ray, it’s all for a good cause!) to show the environmental consequences of our inaction. I filmed the whole thing on an IPhone 3G, using the 8mm Vintage Camera app from Nexvio. It cost me around about nothing to make.

You can vote for more than one so do have a look at the others. Read Greenpeace’s report about VW here too.

Thank you, may the force be with you.

1 Comment

Filed under Internet Milk

The Heroes and Villans of London Town.

It is amazing how much you realise your love for a place when it is threatened. I have lived in Hackney on and off for 12 years, sometimes experimenting with other parts of London but always returning and finally settling here.

My flat borders three areas which were targeted on Monday night: Mare Street, the Pembury estate on Clarence Road and Kingsland Road. A long night spent glued to the news, Facebook, Twitter and the view from my window for the best part of 12 hours, while fielding calls and messages from concerned family and friends in other parts of the world and down the road. My very own situation room. While I couldn’t see much from the window and could only hear sirens and helicopters, footage from Twitter and YouTube showed a bus on fire round the corner, major clashes on Clarence Road and Turkish shopkeepers defending Kingsland Road. Even the brand new library was attacked. It was like I had my own satellites focused on the area.

Information was easy to find but hard to digest. There was up to the minute reporting from Paul Lewis of The Guardian on the ground, regularly using Twitter to ask where he should report from next (although he repeatedly misspelt Pembury as ‘Penbury’), footage of an inspiring woman giving the rioters a massive telling off, depressing footage of an injured man being mugged and aphotograph of a woman jumping from a burning building. Those rioting didn’t have a lot to say so everyone else said it for them. Not to ever justify looting, but if they had been stealing food instead of TVs and trainers, the root cause could not have been ignored. So much is to be written on the cause and effects, heroes and villans, but this article is very good (thank you to Dom for sending it to me).

On Tuesday morning, information kept coming, opinions were formed and I noticed all the bins had disappeared from the street. We were treated to an embarrassing display from Fiona Armstrong interviewing Darcus Howe on the BBC. Just watch, it’s awful. The anarchist group Solfed released the most comprehensive comment on the situation and don’t get me started on Nick Griffin’s insights into the situation. Clarence Road seemed to be the only place not yet scrubbed of any trace of the night before. The road was scorched, reporters were still out in force, people were watching shop windows being replaced and when a van crushed the back of a car while turning into the road it was barely noticed.

Theresa May held the fort while Cameron and Boris decided whether or not to come back from holiday. She said “we don’t do water cannons” and I agree. After water cannons are sent in, then what? My feeling is that the use of these would have aggravated and prolonged the situation by days as there is suddenly a legitimate reason to riot against police brutality at that moment, which until now appears to have been restrained. But most importantly, despite Cameron stating there is free rein on “whatever tactics police feel they need to employ”, England does not possess any water cannons. They could be shipped over from Ireland, but due to recent unrest there I doubt the request would be accommodated. Bring in the army? Instead, they brought the Northumbria police. Coming from Newcastle myself, I would advise anyone still bent on trouble to run away fast. Joking aside, the threat of rubber bullets and an extra 10,000 police officers, swelling the numbers from 6,000 on Monday night to 16,000 on Tuesday night, seems to have calmed London but other areas of the country are suffering. It will be interesting to calculate the monetary cost of the policing and clean up compared to the amount of cuts to services in each borough. We may be right back where we started.

This year we have seen Twitter and Facebook praised for helping to mobilise protests in the Middle East and companies falling over themselves to be associated with revolutions (yes you, Vodaphone). In London, Blackberry’s marketing department must be deep in its own COBRA meeting over how to avoid the “Blackberry Riots” tag after reports its BBM (BlackBerry Messenger) app was used extensively to organise looting. BBM quickly allows the user to instantly message groups (one-to-many) even when there is no mobile phone signal and all for free, unlike PAYG texting. Using BBM is not like posting to social networks as it is encrypted, a feature which appealed to the original target consumer: business. Lots of young people now own Blackberry’s because they are cheaper than IPhones, heavily endorsed by celebrities and come in lots of shiny colours. 37% of British teens prefer Blackberry over other smartphones according to a recent OFCOM survey.

Whether Blackberry owner Research In Motion (RIM) will hand over details of encrypted messages to police or not is yet to be seen, although making public that it would cooperate with authorities led to its blog being hacked and a message being posted including :

“Dear Rim; You Will _NOT_ assist the UK Police because if u do innocent members of the public who were at the wrong place at the wrong time and owned a blackberry will get charged for no reason at all…”

British authorities are not alone in this request, Indian authorities requested access to BBM messages last year citing “security fears”. These are some familiar tactics more commonly associated with authoritarian regimes, along with facial recognition technology which was used to identify protesters during the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009 and is now being used to identify looters and calls to cut the BBM service altogether, as Egypt did with its internet. While British authorities are not using this technology to arrest legitimate protesters but those who committed crimes, they need to be careful of what they condemn in other countries and condone at home.

I’ve written nearly a thousand words here, but one tweet I read today sums up both the role of technology and the riots themselves in under 140 characters: You can’t close Pandora’s box.

Leave a comment

Filed under Internet Milk

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…

Leave a comment

Filed under Internet Milk

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Internet Milk

International Women’s Day 2011: Women and Technology

There were some amazing happenings to celebrate International Women’s Day this week… even the bizarre (but arguably, valiant) effort  by ITN with their promo featuring Daniel Craig . The sun was shining and I flitted from a vigil outside the Swaziland embassy to a protest in Trafalgar Square to a talk at Amnesty International HQ, all the while receiving texts from the ladies I love celebrating, well, us.  I thought about my great-grandmother, who kept the family business running during the First World War and turned a handsome profit; my grandmother, who is very much the leader of our pack; my business executive mother, who was expected to give up work when she married my father (she happily informed  my father’s employer that as she was the bigger earner, this would not be happening) and the cunning entrepreneurs and creatives in my gang who are quietly smashing the glass ceiling.

Women are increasingly utilising technology to combat discrimination and change cultural norms.  During the Egyptian protests calling for the resignation of Mubarak, one of the poster girls was 26-year-old Asmaa Mahfouz.  Her vlog was a call to arms, radical in her own right, daring  the men of Cairo to accompany her to Tahrir Square.  Predictably, she received threats for daring to consider stepping outside unaccompanied, let alone joining the crowds on the street.  Sam Gregory from Witness recently blogged about how to combat the growing issue of visual anonymity in video and protect the vulnerable.  This will be discussed more in Witness’ upcoming report ‘Cameras Everywhere’ and word on the street is that Witness are also developing a new app around this area which should definitely be worth a look.

There has been a surge of initiatives to tackle street harassment of women and end its cultural acceptance. Comments to women about their appearance dished out by strangers on the street, from passing cars or on public transport, are not flattering or complementary- they are insincere and intimidating. Have you ever met a couple who got together after he shouted ‘nice arse’ at her while waiting at the traffic lights? The worse thing is, it’s accepted as part of being female and only really discussed amongst groups of girls like it’s a secret, which is a real shame as the boys I know were horrified to find out how widespread this kind of behaviour is as, obviously, it never happens when they are around.

Back to Egypt, I have been keeping an eye on the  Harrassmap project since it started at the end of 2010. This is an SMS service for women to text in incidents of catcalling, touching and worse on the streets of Egypt which are then mapped.  A similar initiative, Hollaback,  exists in the USA and UK as an app and a map and is currently being rolled out worldwide.  I like to think of these as a virtual alternative to a Mace spray, but what exactly will happen to the data once it is collected? Let’s hope these projects have teeth and go some way to changing cultural norms and encourage women to speak out about the unspoken.

Leave a comment

Filed under Internet Milk