About Priya Kumar

Priya is a summer 2013 intern at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. She studies data storytelling at the University of Michigan School of Information.

The Pursuit of Open Government

Countries in the Middle East and North Africa historically held statistical data about their populations close. But in recent years, Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, Morocco, Libya, Djibouti, and Jordan have joined regional open data pioneers Palestine and Iraq in releasing detailed data sets to the public or directly to organizations.

While this offers promise to researchers, students, journalists, and citizens who seek detailed information about life in the region, open government involves more than posting data online. Countries around the world are talking about open government, and people are creating useful tools and uncovering important stories with open data. But legislative obstacles, fear, and gaps in access to information communication technology can reduce or even detract from the benefits of open government.

The United States and United Kingdom launched open data portals between 2009 and 2010, spearheading an open government data movement. Kenya launched a portal in 2011, and Sri Lanka and Canada unveiled updated versions of their portals this June.

More than 50 countries have joined an Open Government Declaration. This June the G8 countries passed an Open Data Charter pledging to develop and implement open data policies. Experts praised this initial step but cautioned that cumbersome licensing or inability to enforce policies, among other concerns, could hinder the charter’s effectiveness.

The Open Knowledge Foundation compiled a census that evaluates data from 60 countries (at the time of writing) on seven conditions: existence online, open licensing, public availability, machine readability, digital availability, recency, and bulk availability. The census deems less than one-quarter of datasets truly “open.”

The Knight Foundation recently awarded $3.2 million in grants to develop online tools that facilitate citizen-government information sharing. The city of Oakland, California developed a process to involve citizens in allocating the city’s budget; this includes a website with data and visualizations.

The buzzwords transparency and accountability often accompany pronouncements about open government data. But the concepts do not always operate hand-in-hand. Availability of mass-transit data yields an animation of how people in New York use the subway. Availability of procurement data enables an interactive database to map connections between people, companies, and government contracts in Slovakia. Both provide useful insights, but one offers greater utility to citizens who want to keep their government honest.

Governments continue to speak of the benefits of open data, but too often the conversation focuses on “opening up uncontroversial data sets and the method of distributing these data sets” instead of letting journalists and citizens freely access public data and use it to question public servants, writes Index on Censorship’s Mike Harris. He cites excessive classification of documents in the United States, broad exemptions in Rwanda’s freedom of information law, and a threatening environment for journalists in Azerbaijan as examples of governments paying lip service to open data.

Even if governments provide access to their data and incorporate data analysis into their decision-making, the digital divide reminds users to consider the representativeness of that data. If the Centers for Disease Control uses Google searches to monitor flu trends, what happens to communities that do not have Internet access or to people who do not own a computer?

Democracy draws strength from the participation of an informed citizenry, and the Internet offers tools to realize new levels of civic engagement. But as long as governments allow data to remain hidden or people who pursue that data to be intimidated, openness remains an aspiration.

#imweekly: August 5, 2013

Saudi Arabia
Raif Badawi, founder of the website Free Saudi Liberals, faces seven years in jail and 600 lashes for “‘setting up a website that undermines general security’ and ridiculing Islamic religious figures.” The website is a public discussion forum that authorities have blocked for years; the judge in this case ordered it shut down. The government arrested Badawi in June 2012 for cybercrime and failing to obey his father, and sentenced him more than one year later, in July 2013. Badawi initially faced charges of apostasy, which would have condemned him to death.

Russian blogger Anton Ilyushchenko discovered that a local nightclub had posted pictures on its website of seemingly intoxicated patrons “engaged in what appeared to be amateur striptease contests and public sex acts.” The Omsk resident posted them on his blog and criticized the nightclub. The post went viral and police began investigating him for distributing pornographic material, charges that carry a punishment of two to six years in prison. Some people said Ilyushchenko posted the pictures to generate traffic for his blog. Most who have spoken online about the case criticize the police for caring more about the image of the city and for failing to go after the nightclub where the photos originated.

Vietnam’s prime minister approved a decree that states blogs and social media sites can only contain personal information. “Personal electronic sites are only allowed to put news owned by that person, and are not allowed to ‘quote’, ‘gather’ or summarize information from press organizations or government websites” said Hoang Vinh Bao, director of the Broadcasting and Electronic Information Department at the Ministry of Information and Communications, to local media. The decree also forbids foreign Internet service providers from sharing “information that is against Vietnam.” Facebook users in Vietnam criticized the law, asking if sharing a link was now a punishable offense and lamenting that the government showed no signs of understanding the value of an open society. Digital rights organizations have criticized the decree’s vague language. The law is set to take effect on September 1, but it is unclear how the government will enforce the rule.

The Wikimedia Foundation is accelerating plans to enable native HTTPS for all its projects after leaked information indicated that the NSA’s XKeyscore program “specifically targeted” the site. The Chinese anti-censorship organization Greatfire took Wikipedia to task in June for dragging its feet on native HTTPS. China completely blocks HTTPS versions of Wikimedia’s projects, and Greatfire alleges that Wikipedia’s move could force the Chinese government to loosen its censorship of the site. In addition to Internet filtering and blocking, China is adding another tactic to its censorship arsenal: fact-checking. The nonprofit Beijing Internet Association is teaming up with the state-run Beijing Internet Information Office to launch a website that corrects falsehoods on the Internet. One visiting scholar at Columbia University said the site’s utility may be limited if people don’t trust the government. Amidst the government’s overarching censorship, one area will remain free. The University of Macau will become the first university on mainland China to obtain access to an uncensored Internet when it moves to its new facility on Guangdong’s Hengqin Island in January.

#imweekly is a regular round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

Map-Based Data Visualizations Reveal Patterns in Human Behavior

Billions of tweets. Millions of check-ins. How can we make sense out of such staggering amounts of data? One answer: Maps.

Social media companies and researchers use map-based visualizations to link virtual information with the physical world, surfacing patterns of human behavior that dazzle and educate.

Twitter’s data science team recently visualized all geotagged tweets in two and three dimensions. Both reveal where tweets concentrate, two-dimensional geography maps through color and three-dimensional topography graphics through peaks and valleys.

Spikes of tweets tower over New York.

Spikes of tweets tower over New York. Screenshot from Twitter blog. (Click image to see original.)

Foursquare created a zoomable map of 500 million check-ins and time-lapse videos of check-in data from New York and Tokyo. For the introspective or quantified selfers, a company called Etch will create a personalized map of individual Foursquare users’ check-ins.

Yelp used keywords from reviews on its site to visualize restaurant types in various cities. (For patio dining in Boston, head to Harvard Square or the Back Bay and prepare to run into hipsters.)

This visualization technique extends beyond real-time social media data. The New York Times mapped user suggestions of quiet spaces in the city. The Guardian displayed an interactive map of global protests that occurred this year. Last year, University of Illinois researcher Kalev Leetaru mapped the sentiment of Wikipedia articles to show emotions around history over the past two centuries.

A map of global protests in 2013.

Global protests in 2013. Map by John Beieler and Josh Stevens, screenshot from The Guardian. (Click image to see post.)

In his book Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, Ethan Zuckerman compares infrastructure maps, which show what’s possible, to flow maps, which show what occurs. Unsurprisingly, most of the data shown on these maps hews closely to physical borders and man-made developments such as roads. But these maps also reveal the contours of behavior: where people like to announce their presence or grab a bite to eat.

Such maps can help us better understand cities, society, and human behavior, said Visualizing.org founder Adam Bly in a 2011 South by Southwest Interactive presentation. Comparisons of where tourists and locals snap photos help urban planners, business owners, or local chambers of commerce interested in economic development. Mapping fast food and healthy food locations offers insight to public health officials, teachers, and policy makers who want to ensure access to nutritious food. Analyzing mobile phone data and realizing that human movement is 93 percent predictable influences where public transportation or energy grids should go.

Visualization of photos taken in Boston

Visualization of photos taken by locals (blue) tourists (red) and both (yellow) in Boston. Eric Fischer/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

As cheap data storage abounds and visualization tools proliferate, maps offer a window into how humans live, in addition to guidance on how to get around.

“Surveillance Camera Man” Draws Ire, Provokes Questions About Recording in Public

Imagine walking down the street. Above, you see a surveillance camera mounted on a pole. Would you worry? What if a person walked over and filmed you, no questions asked?

An anonymous man in his late 20s has posted five “Surveillance Camera Man” videos in which he films people on Seattle streets and inside cars, stores, and classrooms, to the ire of those on camera. The videos raise questions about expectations of privacy in an age where institutions and individuals can easily and legally record others. Removal of the videos on various sites also highlights free speech and copyright concerns.

The cameraman and a friend began filming others as a social experiment, but he went solo after his friend couldn’t keep a straight face, according to an email interview posted on the blog Photography Is Not a Crime. His first video included forays into classrooms at the University of Washington. He posted the video on Vimeo, but the site took it down after a complaint from the university, the cameraman said. He expressed nonchalance at people calling the police on him, saying he doesn’t care about the legality of his actions. (He appears to care about copyright, as video embeds on GeekWire, BoingBoing, and Laughing Squid are unavailable due to copyright claims.)

When people in the videos asked what he was doing, the cameraman often remained quiet or said, “I’m just taking a video.” When they asked why, he occasionally responded, “Why not?” His casual tone and terse responses quickly frustrated and angered people, some of whom hurled expletives or tried to cover the camera. Several threatened to call the police; the cameraman left only when some began dialing. He also left if people became aggressive, often telling them to calm down as he backed away.

Some articulated their feelings without resorting to profanity. “I may be in a public space, but I feel threatened by you,” said one man wearing what resembled a guard or law enforcement uniform. And while the cameraman appeared to do nothing more than hold the camera and occasionally speak, GeekWire reported that YouTube took down one video based on a policy that prohibits material meant to “harass, threaten, or bully.” YouTube appeared to reverse the decision, as the video is now accessible.

Some people mentioned they did not consent to the taping. “You didn’t ask me if you could take a picture of me sir,” one woman said. “You still have me on camera, and that’s not OK with me. That’s an invasion of my privacy and my time.” The cameraman occasionally referenced the prevalence of surveillance cameras, but he didn’t belabor the point, which was, “blurred by the fact that he sometimes invades his subjects’ personal space, making it unclear whether the discomfort they exhibit comes from having a person standing right by them, or whether it’s the camera they object to,” wrote Cory Doctorow.

The cameraman’s actions appear to be legal. People can typically record in public areas such as sidewalks and parks without consent since no general expectation of privacy exists in public, according to the Digital Media Law Project. The same usually holds for recording activity that occurs on private property but can be observed from public space. Washington’s Supreme Court has ruled that someone can visibly record conversations in public that others can hear.

While the law may not protect people from recordings in public, people clearly distinguish between who’s doing the recording. Canadian filmmaker Rob Spence, who has a bionic eye with a camera, told Reuters in 2009, “In Toronto there are 12,000 cameras. But the strange thing I discovered was that people don’t care about the surveillance cameras, they were more concerned about me and my secret camera eye because they feel that is a worse invasion of their privacy.”

This comment from Spence, who calls himself the Eyeborg, brings to mind Google Glass, which has already captured an arrest on camera. But since Glass doesn’t explicitly alert people when it shoots video, perhaps Surveillance Camera Man is inciting a much-needed conversation by forcing people to face the uncomfortable feeling they’re being recorded.

#imweekly: July 1, 2013

North & South Korea
Hackers brought down several government and news websites in North and South Korea on June 25, the anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Online security company Symantec traced parts of this attack, as well as four years of cyberattacks on South Korea, to the DarkSeoul Gang. Symantec could not determine where the group is based, but a South Korean government investigation points to North Korea. It is unclear who is responsible for the attacks that hit North Korea on Tuesday, but the hacker group Anonymous had said via Twitter it would attack sites in that country, according to the New York Times.

A Bahraini court sentenced 17-year-old high school student Ali Faisal Alshofa to one year in prison after accusing him of posting a tweet that insulted the country’s king on the account @alkawarahnews. Alshofa denied affiliation with the Twitter account, which appeared to keep operating while he was detained and on trial. Over the past year, courts have sentenced twelve people in Bahrain to a total of 106 months in prison for information posted to social network sites.

Taiwanese netizens are protesting several amendments that could make it easier for the government to censor online content. A Copyright Act amendment would allow Taiwan’s IP office to review content reported as infringing copyright and order ISPs to block it. A National Security Law amendment would encourage people to report content they think harms national security. An amendment to the Telecommunications Act would also require ISPs to remove content that “disturbs public order and decent morals.” Bloggers compared these measures to the U.S. SOPA bill that Congress proposed in 2012 as well as the U.S. Department of Justice’s  investigation into Aaron Swartz, surveillance of the Associated Press, and prosecution of Bradley Manning.

Several provisions in a communication law that Ecuador’s National Assembly passed in June worry journalists and others concerned with freedom of expression. One article appears to lump together every type of media organization (e.g., public, private, and community organizations that provide any type of mass communication that can be replicated online) under the same regulations. Broad interpretation could hold a tweet to the same standards as a radio broadcast. While the law prohibits censorship, it also tasks a Superintendent’s Office for Information and Communications with overseeing the media. Finally, the law holds third parties accountable for comments posted on their site unless site owners monitor comments or require users to identify themselves.

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