Welcome to the web-blog of Mayo Fuster Morell postdoctoral fellow at the Berkman center for Internet & Society (Harvard University) and the Institute of Goverment and Public Policies (Autonomous University of Barcelona), and promotor of Building Digital Commons (www.digital-commons.net). Here you can find my CV, my research works and blog posts on issues such as common-base peer production, online communities governance, techno-political tools, social movements, and on my social justice and digital rights activism. I hope you find it useful!.

Data crowdsourcing projects around Sandy: Which project are able to engage the crowd?

Saturday November 3th took place a #HurricaneHackers hackhaton at the MIT MediaLab, as part of a series of SandyCrisisCam events. This event aims to build technological tools that help Sandy recovering. I (Mayo Fuster Morell) participated in the event, and it was a fantastic experience.

We were around 20 people, many of us did not know each other previously. During the morning each got a sense of the way each wanted to contribute. Most of the people wanted to developing new tools and they did great stuff. However, to me it was unclear which tools were already done, and if and how the tools developed were actually used. That is, if they actually engaged the crowd. So I though to contribute by doing a list of data crowdsourcing projects for Sandy recovery, and analyses the level and type of usage. In this post, I explain what I did.

What are data crowdsourcing projects?

I understood as data crowdsourcing projects those based in collaborative systematization of data to build a useful resources. In order for a project to be crowdsourced, it has to have the possibility to participate in the collection of the data. Actually, most of the project did not require any registration or very basic one in order to contribute in some way.

Data crowdsourcing projects tend to be conceived as civic action. For example, see the way in which Sparkrelief conceives their own action, which I found so meaningful. In their own words:

“Our Promise:
1. We see a world where people are empowered to help one another during disasters
2. We seek to replace complexity and despair with simplicity and hope
3. We promise to do our best to “Empower You to provide disaster relief” and hope you will join us in creating a better world
4. If you believe what we believe, let’s change the world together”

I adopted the term “data crowdsourcing projects”; however, there are different terms that are being used to refer to this form of collective action, such as, “peer to peer”, “online creation communities” or “common-based peer production” used in academic circles and “power of the people” used by some of the projects.

Data crowdsourcing has commonalities with crowdfunding, as both are based on aggregating contributions. However, while the first is based on contributions through providing data, the second is based on contributions of monetary donations. I actually identified initiatives based on crowdfunding (such as Occupy: Sandy Relief NYC that collected money though Wepay. However, I did not consider them for the list of data crowdsourcing projects since these initiatives were clearly crowdfunding and not pure examples of data crowdsourcing.

In total I identified more than 50 projects based on engaging the crowd for #Sandy relief. 20 projects have engaged some, even if minimal numbers, of data crowdsourcing. This is not at all a complete list, nor is it representative of one, but observing these cases could give us some insight toward approaching this phenomenon.

Typology of crowdsourcing data projects

I would differentiate four typologies of data crowdsourcing project.

1) There are crowdsourcing projects which are based on adding contributions into a common-pool. The common-pool adds value by providing a new “picture” or new knowledge of an issue. This is the case, for example, of projects based on Crowdmap (a collaborative mapping tool) where people contribute to reports added to the common map. In this type of project, the common-pool is the primary goal.

2) A second type is based on contributions of performing small tasks for archiving a very large work. This is the case of Damage Assessment HOTOSM, which provides a tool for categorizing images of building damage, allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to prioritize its efforts.

3) A third typology of data crowdsourcing results from synergistic communication. That is, individual communication practices use a common protocol, and as a side effect it results in the building of a common-pool. This is the case of Instacane , a pool of Sandy pictures based on channels from Sandy’s Instagram feed.

4) A fourth type is based on creating a tool that assists in matching needs with availability to help. In this case, the common-pool is created primarily to creating connections, not because the common-pool has value in itsself but that the value is the connections created. This is the case of a data crowdsourcing project such as #SandyAid & Sandy’s list for non-emergency assistance, based on collecting messages of help need and willingness to help.

List of data contributions projects and analysis: Typology of promoter of the tool, typology of technology, typology of contribution, and level of usage.

What did I actually do? Basically, I designed a database by listing the projects and collecting data for each project regarding typology of promoter of the tool, typology of technology, typology of contribution, and level of usage or crowd engagement.

There are very different types of promoters who set up data crowdsourcing projects, including: Local newspapers (such as a crowdmap by Delawareonline.com) and mainstream media (such as Huffington Post Sandy Stormwatch), individual citizens (such as @noneck with a map of Coworking places at NYC), networks of local citizens (such as the crowdmap of Catskill promoted by watershedpost.com), networks of hackers (which is the case of #HurracaneHackers and the tool SandyTimeline: A timeline of the key events as Hurricane Sandy unfolds), communities around citizens’ sciences (such as The Public Laboratory of Science & Technology), and university departments (such as the tool Tweak the Tweet Sandy Map of University of Washington) and government agencies (which is the case of Fairfax County Reporting Map).
There is also the case of the map developed by Google.org a corporation; however, it is not based on data crowdsourced data. It is possible to send feedback, but not possible to add data to the map.

It is also curious to observe that some of the promoters are not only linked to Sandy projects, but have also been active before, while being part of continious efforts to help in natural crisis moments; such as Crisis commons; Vtresponse, a citizen initiative from the Green Mountains (Vermount) that was previously activated for the Hurricane Irene storm, or Sparkrelief , which was created for Colorado wild fire.

In terms of typology of technology, most of the experiences are based on adopting and combining existing tools rather than developing new ones. It is also the case that new ones, such some of the ones being developed in the timeframe of #HuracaneHackers, are not yet ready to use. The tools currently in use for mapping are diverse: Crowdmap, Google Maps, SeeClickFix, OpenStreetMaps, and MapMill; or they are based on Google sheets with diverse type of interfaces.

In terms of typology of contribution, it depends on the type of crowdsourcing data projects, but basically most are based on giving the possibility to add a very restricted and guided type of data that will be inserted in a very structured environment. In other words, what can be done and contributed to the common-pool is very structured. In regard to territorial scope, a large majority of the tools have a scope for the whole Sandy area affected, while others are restricted to a particular country or city.

Finally, in terms of the level of usage and crowd engagement, I get a sense that there is a very big gap between the projects that are “data naked” (that is, there is only the tool but no data,) and “has not been used at all (not selected for my list)” and the ones that have data, even if just a little bit. The contributions of data go from few, such as 10 data points(SeeClickFix), to some, or as many as 400 (as is the case of Sparkrelief: Hurricane Sandy Relief Efforts), to many data points, such as the 1012 contributions (as is the case of Tweak the Tweet Sandy Map of University of Washington).

Which projects are able to engage the crowd?

From observing the data, the impression I get is that the localized projects are more able to engage crowdsourced data. By “localized projects” I mean that the scope of the tool is local (a town or a city, and not the overall region affected by Sandy,) and that the promoter is also locally-rooted into an existing community. In these cases, the tool is not presented “alone”, but tends to be part of or linked to a blog or other communication channels that were already active and had an audience before #Sandy.
Promotors with high visibility or trusted authority also seem to be able to engage the crowd.
Additionally, specialized groups (such as Commons Crisis and Sparkrelief which were active previously that #Sandy arrive) seem to be good promotors of crowdsourced data projects.

In sum, there is not one formula, but several formulas that seems to work for engaging the crowd.
In contrast, projects that seems to be “alone” and without connection to previously existing communities, or without association to trusted and visible actors, seem to face difficulties in engaging participation.
In other word, the institutional designs and the connections in which the projects are promoted seem to be a very relevant factor in being able to engage the crowd. Furthermore, visibility seems to be a key resource.

Effective, easy-to-use technology with a useful scope is far from being enough to engage the crowd.

Other aspects that seem to be present in the projects with more data is that the starting of collaborative data collection tends to happen after a centralized starting push effort (by one person or the promoter of the tool) to add data to the common-pool.

Hopefully this preliminary analysis provides a first taste of possible research into data crowdsourcing projects in crisis context. In the coming weeks I plan to develop a more accurate analysis of the data hoping it brings more light on the conditions that favor crowd engagement.

Here you may visit the list and see the projects, their characteristics, and the level of crowd engagement to arrive to your own conclusions and analysis. Ah! And please add new cases if you have identified them! This is a data crowdsourced project too!

Mayo Fuster Morell

P.D. Some thoughts from a bigger picture

P.D.1: Sandy has opened up the debate of State versus market in the Presidential election. Several political analysis has expressed how much #Sandy has push back an anti-state and pro-privatization discourse as Sandy created a context in which the action of the State is very present in helping citizens recover from the big hurricane. As a Spanish journalist put it “big hurricane, big state”. What about the commons as a third model of resource production and management? Certainly, common-based formats are growing in importance, as Yochai Benkler argued in his book, “The Wealth of Networks,” with examples such as Wikipedia and free and open source projects (FLOSS). Data crowdsourced in context of crisis is a new area in which we are seeing common-based peer production emerging. Still, with Sandy we have seen that citizens self-organizing supported by technology to solve common needs in crisis context has a great potential but is still in its initial stages. In the terms of several of the projects I collected, the efforts done by data crowsourcing projects can not be privileged than those of the governmental agencies such as FEMA.

P.D.2: We have seen how technology is channeling actions of helping each other in a context of natural crisis. However, natural crisis is not the only type of crisis that the USA (and my country, Spain,) is facing. Do these experiences tell us something in regards to citizens’ collaboration to recover from economic (and political) crisis? Is this a path of changing the world by helping each other?

My article: “The Free Culture and 15M movements in Spain: Composition, social networks and synergies”

Hello! Hola!

I was developing a research on the Free culture movement in Spain just the months before the 15M/Indignados mobilization in Spain started. In the interviews and my own observations before and after the 15M it became evident the influence of the free culture movement in the raise and mobilization of 15M. So with the data I collected, I analyzed 15M organizational form and the similarities and sources of impact of Free culture movement in the raise of the 15M mobilization.

Recently I received several requests about one of the articles resulting from that research. I got to know that my dear professor Howard Rheingold – which is a reference for me, and whom I admire and feel great gratitude to – mentioned and quoted the article in one of his presentations; which was a big and nice surprise for me, and might explain the increase of interest I am reciving.

The article was published in an special issue on “occupy” of “Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest”. The special issue is open access (actually it is the first time the Journal agreed to publish in open access, which was the reason I submitted there), however, the Journal asks to register in order to download the article. It is not easy to find the link to register, so here you could access to it easily.

Fuster Morell, M. (2012) The Free Culture and 15M movements in Spain: Composition, social networks and synergies. Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest, DOI:10.1080/14742837.2012.710323
Link to the Journal article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14742837.2012.710323

Key words: Organizational logic; Free Culture Movement; 15 of May mobilization in Spain; new technologies of information and communication; social movements.

Abstract: Spain has also witnessed an emerging wave of social mobilization starting on 15M (May 15, 2011). 15M movement has become the latest and greatest exponent of social network format arranged through the Internet. This article first presents the components of the 15M wave of mobilization. The 15M engaged a complex ecosystem composed of many layers: a new generation of citizens converging with housing and Free Culture Movement (FCM) created a common framework to articulate the action in a social network modality and changed the scene by generating the fire to demonstrate. However, to this first layer was incorporated, primarily in the squares, networks and skills from previous social movements (such as, education, health, alternative consumption, among others), as well as connecting with the previous generations of protesting political liberties from the transition particularly sensitive to oppression – altogether generating a virtual cycle that obtained large social support and engagement (online and off-line) with the mobilizations. Then it presents an analysis of the ways one of 15M layers – the FCM – has influenced the 15M. Our analysis revealed that there are various channels by which the FCM contributed to the genealogy of 15M – with composition, agenda, frame, and, organizational logic. The methodology is based on case studies of both the FCM and 15M between December 2010 and December 2011 in Spain. A qualitative method study – including 25 interviews (structured and unstructured), analysis of documents and audiovisual materials, virtual ethnography, and participative observation – were employed.

Video: I did a presentation at the Berkman center for Internet and society which present some of the data. The presentation is called The Spanish Revolution & the Internet: From Free Culture to Meta-Politics . If you would like to see the video you could see it here.

Comments and suggestions are welcome! Mayo

Active citizenship and peer production of contra-expertise: A growing phenomenon?

This year, as most of you know, I am a happy Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Together with other Fellows, including Eric Gordon, a great promoter of games for civic action, and others great Berkman fellows, we have a group called “Individual Networked”, where we discuss civic engagement and new technologies weekly. This week, I presented a very preliminary thought on what I would call peer production contra-expertise, and we had a great discussion that I tried to sum up here.

The new technologies of information and communication (ICTs) are being adopted in order to organize protests; the late mobilization wave in which we have observed this adoption includes cases such as Occupy Wall Street, Spanish Indignad@s/15, and the Arab Spring. The new technologies are also being adopted to organize civic action. ICTs seems to increase the ability to identify people with similar interests, coordinate with them, and report to the public by lowering cost of participation and transaction.The ICTs that expand the communication around mobilization and civic organizing have received substantial attention as a broad field. However, there is an aspect that I think has not being sufficiently considered: the way in which the adoption of ICTs has transformed the capacity of citizens to mobalize knowledge and build contra-expertise.

Privileged access to both knowledge and a system to manage it in a hierarchical manner was and still is one of the sources of power of political institutions. State access and management of the population censor was one of its sources of control. The ICTs seem to be changing this privileged access to knowledge and opening new possibilities to build expertise impacting in power dynamics between citizens and institutions.

Mobilizing expertise for political opposition is not at all new. Several generations of social movements have used experts in order to build their case. Global justice movements have mobilized experts like Susan George or, in the Spanish context, my beloved Ramon Fernandez Duran, and climate change movements have used climatologists to argue for their causes. However, here I would like to point to another type of contra-expertise, that which I have called contra-expertise though peer production.

This term refers to the building of expertise though collaborative processes among peers over an online platform. Just as people collaborate to build Wikipedia, citizens collaborating to build resources can be used to provide contra-expertise that challenges an official political position. To me this is quite unique and has great potential to increase the power of citizens. There is much debate as to whether the the adoption of ICTs has actually impacted activism and this is a issue emerge frequently in our Individual Networked group. Personally I think more than increase it or not the capacity of impact, it has transformed activism, but how much mobilization depends importantly on the activists’ agency, not on the ICTs’ ability to reduce participation costs. Another question is that utilities like Wikipedia would be extremely difficult without the support of ICTs. Similarly, we are beginning to see how social movements are using working tools, such as wikis, PAD, and others, to produce knowledge resources that would be difficult otherwise.

The following are some examples of peer production contra-expertise.

#Yosoy132 is a movement that emerged in Mexico to protest mainstream media censoring and news manipulation given the political climate during the last presidential elections. As part of the protest, citizens set up online platforms during Election Day in order to monitor the elections and managed to find up to 100 cases of fraud during the elections. They used this to challenge the official statement that elections have happened without any problems.

See the video where members of #yosoy132 explains it in Spanish here: Comunicado de la Acampada Revolución #Yosoy132

For the next presidential election in the USA, a similar idea that is much more technically elaborate has been put in place, called My Fair Election. This type of electoral monitoring and reporting of fraud is not at all a new phenomenon. Before the Internet, other technologies were used to monitor elections.

Another case. Ushahidi is a free software tool that was initially used for electoral monitoring. It was first used during Kenya‘s disputed 2007 presidential election. Interestingly, it then evolved as a tool to coordinate the response to moments of crisis, such as the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Someone might ask, “What about open data and peers contra-expertise?” Well, generally, open data makes public data that was not generally publicly accessible. In some occasions, that data generated peer collaboration around it, and, it could also be that the resulting outcomes is used as contra-expertise, but I do not know any case like this. Do you know of any case?.

The concept of citizens’ science also contains the collection of alternative knowledge. But it tents to be used to the health field, such as cases of systematizing the information that emerges from patients or challenging Western Medicine.

Even if contra expertise peer production as a phenomenon is not new (further more, the debate if something is new or not is almost never a relevant discussion), there is something about it that is novel. It is changing the scale and variety of situation in which peers production of contra-expertize is emerging. Now we can point to more frequent cases and to a large plurality of contexts than before.

Let me add here another example. During the Spanish Indignados mobilization, a group of citizens called #15MparaRato used a set of tools in order to open up an investigation against Rodrigo Rato, the former president of the International Monetary Fund and the president of the bank Bankia at that time. Bankia went dramatically wrong under Rato’s direction. Its failure is one of the reasons why Spain needs support from the European Commission and where much of the funding to save banks is going to go. Rodrigo Rato is of the government party Partido Popular and neither in the Bank nor the government found enough reasons to open up a judicial investigation of his actions and its consequences. People affected by this bank and general citizens inspired by the success in bringing bankers under investigation in Iceland decided to follow the Icelandic model. They set up a set of tools, including a Minileaks tool that allowed them to send leaks with high security, in order to collect data about him. Ex bank employees, bank clients, and so, on sent informations and the data collected was used to write up a denounce to bring him to court. Additionally, the cost to open the court case requered a substantial amount of money, so they used crowd funding called Goteo to cover that cost. The availability of collaborative working tools favored the collection of the information and knowledge that built the cause against this very powerfull banker.

Again, I am not trying to argue whether contra-expertise peer production is new or not, but, rather that it seems is expanding beyond the cases we first think of – such as elections. And more importantly, with a capacity of scalability that has been very difficult before. Just think of the Wikipedia model, for contra-expertise purposes. It should also be pointed that peer production of contra-expertise has its own peculiarities. Unlike “regular” common based peer production (such as FLOSS or wiki cases), the conditions in which contra-expertise peer production emerge seems to have a diverse energy cycle, requiring very strong “agency” moments, such as a big crisis, and then after those high attention moments they tend to wind down. In this line, several attends to keep alive collaborative communities after those hight moments seems frequenlty fail.

I have studied Wikipedia and other cases of peer production (or common-based peer production, as dear Yochai Benkler calls them) for many years. I think the results of the common-based peer production studies on previous experiences such as Wikipedia or FLOSS can provide useful insights on how peer production can applied in other fields such as building of contra-expertise. In the last couple of weeks, I have been thinking about how peer production might also be emerging in the building of knowledge by citizens to challenge powers. Any comments, suggestions, and particularly, cases you know of to keep exploring this area, would be most appreciated!

Vivan the peers! Mayo