the internet laws of the jungle

firefox-copyright-1Where are the boundaries between freedom, license and exploitation, between fair use and theft?

I found myself getting increasingly angry today as Mozilla Foundation stepped firmly beyond those limits, and moreover with Trump-esque rhetoric attempts to dupe others into following them.

It all started with a small text add below the Firefox default screen search box:

firefox-copyright-2

Partly because of my ignorance of web-speak ‘TFW‘ (I know showing my age!), I clicked through to a petition page on Mozilla Foundation (PDF archive copy here).

It starts off fine, with stories of some of the silliness of current copyright law across Europe (can’t share photos of the Eiffel tower at night) and problems for use in education (which does in fact have quite a lot of copyright exemptions in many countries).  It offers a petition to sign.

This sounds all good, partly due to rapid change, partly due to knee jerk reactions, internet law does seem to be a bit of a mess.

If you blink you might miss one or two odd parts:

“This means that if you live in or visit a country like Italy or France, you’re not permitted to take pictures of certain buildings, cityscapes, graffiti, and art, and share them online through Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.”

Read this carefully, a tourist forbidden from photographing cityscapes – silly!  But a few words on “… and art” …  So if I visit an exhibition of an artist or maybe even photographer, and share a high definition (Nokia Lumia 1020 has 40 Mega pixel camera) is that OK? Perhaps a thumbnail in the background of a selfie, but does Mozilla object to any rules to prevent copying of artworks?

mozilla-dont-break-the-internet

However, it is at the end, in a section labelled “don’t break the internet”, the cyber fundamentalism really starts.

“A key part of what makes the internet awesome is the principle of innovation without permission — that anyone, anywhere, can create and reach an audience without anyone standing in the way.”

Again at first this sounds like a cry for self expression, except if you happen to be an artist or writer and would like to make a living from that self-expression?

Again, it is clear that current laws have not kept up with change and in areas are unreasonably restrictive.  We need to be ale to distinguish between a fair reference to something and seriously infringing its IP.  Likewise, we could distinguish the aspects of social media that are more like looking at holiday snaps over a coffee, compared to pirate copies for commercial profit.

However, in so many areas it is the other way round, our laws are struggling to restrict the excesses of the internet.

Just a few weeks ago a 14 year old girl was given permission to sue Facebook.  Multiple times over a 2 year period nude pictures of her were posted and reposted.  Facebook hides behind the argument that it is user content, it takes down the images when they are pointed out, and yet a massive technology company, which is able to recognise faces is not able to identify the same photo being repeatedly posted. Back to Mozilla: “anyone, anywhere, can create and reach an audience without anyone standing in the way” – really?

Of course this vision of the internet without boundaries is not just about self expression, but freedom of speech:

“We need to defend the principle of innovation without permission in copyright law. Abandoning it by holding platforms liable for everything that happens online would have an immense chilling effect on speech, and would take away one of the best parts of the internet — the ability to innovate and breathe new meaning into old content.”

Of course, the petition is signalling out EU law, which inconveniently includes various provisions to protect the privacy and rights of individuals, not dictatorships or centrally controlled countries.

So, who benefits from such an open and unlicensed world?  Clearly not the small artist or the victim of cyber-bullying.

Laissez-faire has always been an aim for big business, but without constraint it is the law of the jungle and always ends up benefiting the powerful.

In the 19th century it was child labour in the mills only curtailed after long battles.

In the age of the internet, it is the vast US social media giants who hold sway, and of course the search engines, who just happen to account for $300 million of revenue for Mozilla Foundation annually, 90% of its income.

 

lies, damned lies and obesity

2016-07-15 11.02.43 - inews-obesityFacts are facts, but the facts you choose to tell change the story, and, in the case of perceptions of the ‘ideal body’, can fuel physical and mental health problems, with consequent costs to society and damage to individual lives.

Today’s i newspaper includes an article entitled “Overweight and obese men ‘have higher risk of premature death’“.  An online version of the same article “Obese men three times more likely to die early” appeared online yesterday on the iNews website.  A similar article “Obesity is three times as deadly for men than women” reporting the same Lancet article appeared in yesterday’s Telegraph.

The text describes how moderately obese men die up to three years earlier than those of ‘normal’ weight1; clearly a serious issue in the UK given growing levels of child obesity and the fact that the UK has the highest levels of obesity in Europe.  The i quotes professors from Oxford and the British Heart Foundation, and the Telegraph report says that the Lancet article’s authors suggest their results refute other recent research which found that being slightly heavier than ‘normal’ could be protective and extend lifespan.

The things in the reports are all true. However, to quote the Witness Oath of British courts, it is not sufficient to tell “the truth”, but also “the whole truth”.

The Telegraph article also helpfully includes a summary of the actual data in which the reports are based.

obesity-table

As the articles say, this does indeed show substantial risk for both men and women who are mildly obese (BMI>30) and extreme risk for those more severely obese (BMI>35). However, look to the left of the table and the column for those underweight (BMI<18.5).  The risks of being underweight exceed those of being mildly overweight, by a small amount for men and a substantial amount for women.

While obesity is major issue, so is the obsession with dieting and the ‘ideal figure’, often driven by dangerously skinny fashion models.  The resulting problems of unrealistic and unhealthy body image, especially for the young, have knock-on impacts on self-confidence and mental health. This may then lead to weight problems, paradoxically including obesity.

The original Lancet academic article is low key and balanced, but, if reported accurately, the comments of at least one of the (large number of) article co-authors less so.  However, the eventual news reports, from ‘serious’ papers at both ends of the political spectrum, while making good headlines, are not just misleading but potentially damaging to people’s lives.

 

  1. I’ve put ‘normal’ in scare quotes, as this is the term used in many medical charts and language, but means something closer to ‘medically recommended’, and is far from ‘normal’ on society today.[back]

REF Redux 6 — Reasons and Remedies

This, the last of my series of posts on post-REF analysis, asks what went wrong and what could be done to improve things in future.

Spoiler: a classic socio-technical failure story: compromising the quality of human processes in order to feed an algorithm

As I’ve noted multiple times, the whole REF process and every panel member was focused around fairness and transparency, and yet still the evidence is that quite massive bias emerged. This is evident in my own analysis of sub-area and institutional differences, and also in HEFCE’s own report, which highlighted gender differences.

Summarising some of the effects we have seen in previous posts:

  1. sub-areas: When you rank outputs within their own areas worldwide: theoretical papers ranked in the top 5% (top 1 in 20) worldwide get a 4* of whereas those in more applied human/centric papers need to be in the top 0.5% (top 1 in 200) – a ten-fold difference (REF Redux 2)
  2. institutions: Outputs that appear equivalent in terms of citation are ranked more highly in Russell Group universities compared with other old (pre-1992) universities, and both higher than new (post-1992) universities.  If two institutions have similar citation profiles, the Russell Group one, on average, would receive 2-3 times more money per member of staff than the equivalent new university (REF Redux 4)
  3. gender: A male academic in computing is 33% more likely to get a 4* then a female academic, and this effect persists even when other factors considered (HEFCE report “The Metric Tide”). Rather than explicit bias, I believe this is likely to be an implicit bias due to the higher proportions of women in sub-areas disadvantaged by REF (REF Redux 5)

These are all quite shocking results, not so much that the differences are there, but because of the size.

Before being a computer scientist I was trained as a statistician.  In all my years both as a professional statistician, and subsequently as a HCI academic engaged in or reviewing empirical work, I have never seen effect sizes this vast.

What went wrong?

Note that this analysis is all for sub-panel 11 Computer Science and Informatics. Some of the effects (in particular institutional bias) are probably not confined to this panel; however, there are special factors in the processes we used in computing which are likely to have exacerbated latent bias in general and sub-area bias in particular.

As a computing panel, we of course used algorithms!

The original reason for asking submissions to include an ACM sub-area code was to automate reviewer allocation. This meant that while other panel chairs were still starting their allocation process, SP11 members already had their full allocations of a thousand or so outputs a piece. Something like 21,000 output allocations at the press of a button. Understandably this was the envy of other panels!

We also used algorithms for normalisation of panel members’ scores. Some people score high, some score low, some bunch towards the middle with few high and few low scores, and some score too much to the extremes.

This is also the envy of many other panel members. While we did discuss scores on outputs where we varied substantially, we did not spend the many hours debating whether a particular paper was 3* or 4*, or trying to calibrate ourselves precisely — the algorithm does the work. Furthermore the process is transparent (we could even open source the code) and defensible — it is all in the algorithm, no potentially partisan decisions.

Of course such an algorithm cannot simply compare each panel member with the average as some panel members might have happened to have better or worse set of outputs to review than others. In order to work there has to be sufficient overlap between panel members’ assessments so that they can be robustly compared. In order to achieve this overlap we needed to ‘spread our expertise’ for the assignment process, so that we reviewed more papers slightly further from our core area of competence.

Panels varies substantially in the way they allocated outputs to reviewers. In STEM areas the typical output was an article of, say, 8–10 pages; whereas in the humanities often books or portfolios; in performing arts there might even be a recording of a performance taking hours. Clearly the style of reviewing varied. However most panels tried to assign two expert panelists to each output. In computing we had three assessors per output, compared to two in many areas (and in one sub-panel a single assessor per output). However, because of the expertise spreading this meant typically one expert and two more broad assessors per output.

For example, my own areas of core competence (Human-centered computing / Visualization and Collaborative and social computing) had between them 700 outputs, and were two others assessors with strong knowledge in these areas. However, of over 1000 outputs I assessed, barely one in six (170) were in these areas, that is only 2/3 more than if the allocation had been entirely random.

Assessing a broad range of computer science was certainly interesting, and I feel I came away with an understanding of the current state of UK computing that I certainly did not have before. Also having a perspective from outside a core area is very valuable especially in assessing the significance of work more broadly within the discipline.

This said the downside is that the vast majority of assessments were outside our core areas, and it is thus not so surprising that default assessments (aka bias) become a larger aspect of the assessment. This is particularly problematic when there are differences in methodology; whereas it is easy to look at a paper with mathematical proofs in it and think “that looks rigorous”, it is hard for someone not used to interpretative methodologies to assess, for example, ethnography.

If the effects were not so important, it is amusing to imagine the mathematics panel with statisticians, applied and pure mathematicians assessing each others work, or indeed, if formal computer science were assessed by a pure mathematicians.

Note that the intentions were for the best trying to make the algorithm work as well as possible; but the side effect was to reduce the quality of the human process that fed the algorithm. I recall the first thing I ever learnt in computing was the mantra, “garbage in — garbage out”.

Furthermore, the assumption underlying the algorithm was that while assessors differed in their severity/generosity of marking and their ‘accuracy’ of marking, they were all equally good at all assessments. While this might be reasonable if we all were mainly marking within our own competence zone, this is clearly not valid given the breadth of assessment.  That is the fundamental assumptions of the algorithm were broken.

This is a classic socio-technical failure story: in an effort to ‘optimise’ the computational part of the system, the overall human–computer system was compromised. It is reasonable for those working in more purely computational areas to have missed this; however, in retrospect, those of us with a background in this sort of issue should have foreseen problems (John 9:41), mea culpa.  Indeed, I recall that I did have reservations, but had hoped that any bad effects would average out given so many points of assessment.  It was only seeing first Morris Sloman’s analysis and then the results of my own that I realised quite how bad the distortions had been.

I guess we fell prey to another classic systems failure: not trialling, testing or prototyping a critical system before using it live.

What could be done better?

Few academics are in favour of metrics-only systems for research assessment, and, rather like democracy, it may be that the human-focused processes of REF are the worst possible solution apart from all the alternatives.

I would certainly have been of that view until seeing in detail the results outlined in this series. However, knowing what I do now, if there were a simple choice for the next REF of what we did and a purely metrics-based approach, I would vote for the latter. In every way that a pure metrics based approach would be bad for the discipline, our actual process was worse.

However, the choice is not simply metrics vs human assessment.

In computing we used a particular combination of algorithm and human processes that amplified rather than diminished the effects of latent bias. This will have been particularly bad for sub-areas where differences in methodology lead to asymmetric biases. However, it is also likely to have amplified institution bias effects as when assessing areas far from one’s own expertise it is more likely that default cues, such as the ‘known’ quality of the institution, will weigh strongly.

Clearly we need to do this differently next time, and other panels definitely ought not to borrow SP11’s algorithms without substantial modification.

Maybe it is possible to use metrics-based approaches to feed into a human process in a way that is complimentary. A few ideas could be:

  1. metrics for some outputs — for example we could assess older journal and conference outputs using metrics, combined with human assessment for newer or non-standard outputs
  2. metrics as under-girding – we could give outputs an initial grade based on metrics, which is then altered after reading, but where there is a differential burden of proof — easy to raise a grade (e.g. because of badly chosen venue for strong paper), but hard to bring it down (more exceptional reasons such as citations saying “this paper is wrong”)
  3. metrics for in-process feedback — a purely human process as we had, but part way through calculate the kinds of profiles for sub-areas and institutions that I calculated in REF Redux 2, 3 and 4. At this point the panel would be able to decide what to do about anomalous trends, for example, individually examine examples of outputs.

There are almost certainly other approaches, the critical thing is that we must do better than last time.

REF Redux 5 – growing the gender gap

This fifth post in the REF Redux series looks at gender issue, in particular the likelihood that the apparent bias in computing REF results will disproportionately affect women in computing. While it is harder to find full data for this, a HEFCE post-REF report has already done a lot of the work.

Spoiler:   REF results are exacerbating implicit gender bias in computing

A few weeks ago a female computing academic shared how she had been rejected for a job; in informal feedback she heard that her research area was ‘shrinking’.  This seemed likely to be due to the REF sub-area profiles described in the first post of this series.

While this is a single example, I am aware that recruitment and investment decisions are already adjusting widely due to the REF results, so that any bias or unfairness in the results will have an impact ‘on the ground’.

Google image search for "computing professor"

Google image search “computing professor”

In fact gender and other equality issues were explicitly addressed in the REF process, with submissions explicitly asked what equality processes, such as Athena Swan, they had in place.

This is set in the context of a large gender gap in computing. Despite there being more women undergraduate entrants than men overall, only 17.4% of computing first degree graduates are female and this has declined since 2005 (Guardian datablog based on HESA data).  Similarly only about 20% of computing academics are female (“Equality in higher education: statistical report 2014“), and again this appears to be declining:

academic-CS-staff-female

from “Equality in higher education: statistical report 2014”, table 1.6 “SET academic staff by subject area and age group”

The misbalance in terms of application rates for research funding has also been issue that the European Commission has investigated in “The gender challenge in research funding: Assessing the European national scenes“.

HEFCE commissioned a post-REF report “The Metric Tide: Report of the Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management“, which includes substantial statistics concerning the REF results and models of fit to various metrics (not just citations). Helpfully, Fran AmeryStephen Bates and Steve McKay used these to create a summary of “Gender & Early Career Researcher REF Gaps” in different academic areas.  While far from the largest, Computer Science and Informatics is in joint third place in terms of the gender gap as measured by the 4* outputs.

Their data comes from the HEFCE report’s supplement on “Correlation analysis of REF2014 scores and metrics“, and in particular table B4 (page 75):

table-b4-no-legend

Extract of “Table B4 Summary of submitting authors by UOA and additional characteristics” from “The Metric Tide : Correlation analysis of REF2014 scores and metrics”

This shows that while 24% of outputs submitted by males were ranked 4*, only 18% of those submitted by females received a 4*.  That is a male member of staff in computing is 33% more likely to get a 4* than a female.

Now this could be due to many factors, not least the relative dearth of female senior academics reported by HESA.(“Age and gender statistics for HE staff“).

HESA academic staff gender balance: profs vs senior vs other academic

extract of HESA graphic “Staff at UK HE providers by occupation, age and sex 2013/14” from “Age and gender statistics for HE staff”

However, the HEFCE report goes on to compare this result with metrics, in a similar way to my own analysis of subareas and institutional effects.  The report states (my emphasis) that:

Female authors in main panel B were significantly less likely to achieve a 4* output than male authors with the same metrics ratings. When considered in the UOA models, women were significantly less likely to have 4* outputs than men whilst controlling for metric scores in the following UOAs: Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience; Computer Science and Informatics; Architecture, Built Environment and Planning; Economics and Econometrics.

That is, for outputs that look equally good from metrics, those submitted by men are more likely to obtain a 4* than the by women.

Having been on the computing panel, I never encountered any incidents that would suggest any explicit gender bias.  Personally speaking, although outputs were not anonymous, the only time I was aware of the gender of authors was when I already knew them professionally.

My belief is that these differences are more likely to have arisen from implicit bias, in terms of what is valued.  The The Royal Society of Edinburgh report “Tapping our Talents” warns of the danger that “concepts of what constitutes ‘merit’ are socially constructed” and the EU report “Structural change in research institutions” talks of “Unconscious bias in assessing excellence“.  In both cases the context is recruitment and promotion procedures, but the same may well be true of the way we asses the results of research.,

In previous posts I have outlined the way that the REF output ratings appear to selectively benefit theoretical areas compared with more applied and human-oriented ones, and old universities compared with new universities.

While I’ve not yet been able obtain numbers to estimate the effects, in my experience the areas disadvantaged by REF are precisely those which have a larger number of women.  Also, again based on personal experience, I believe there are more women in new university computing departments than old university departments.

It is possible that these factors alone may account for the male–female differences, although this does not preclude an additional gender bias.

Furthermore, if, as seems the be the case, the REF sub-area profiles are being used to skew recruiting and investment decisions, then this means that women will be selectively disadvantaged in future, exacerbating the existing gender divide.

Note that this is not suggesting that recruitment decisions will be explicitly biased against women, but by unfairly favouring traditionally more male-dominated sub-areas of computing this will create or exacerbate an implicit gender bias.

WebSci 2015 – WebSci and IoT panel

Sunshine on Keble quad, brings back memories of undergraduate days at Trinity, looking out toward the Wren Library.

Yesterday was first day of WebSci 2015.  I’m here largely as I’m giving my work on comparing REF outcomes with citation measures, “Citations and Sub-Area Bias in the UK Research Assessment Process”, at the workshop on “Quantifying and Analysing Scholarly Communication on the Web” on Tuesday.

However, yesterday I was also on a panel on “Web Science & the Internet of Things”.

These are some of the points I made in my initial positioning remarks.  I talked partly about a few things sorting round the edge of Internet of Things (IoT) and then some concerts examples of IoT related rings I;ve been involved with personally and use these to mention  few themes that emerge.

Not quite IoT

Talis

Many at WebSci will remember Talis from its SemWeb work.  The SemWeb side of the business has now closed, but the education side, particularly Reading List software with relationships between who read what and how they are related definitely still clear WebSci.  However, the URIs (still RDF) of reading items are often books, items in libraries each marked with bar codes.

Years ago I wrote about barcodes as one of the earliest and most pervasive CSCW technologies (“CSCW — a framework“), the same could be said for IoT.  It is interesting to look at the continuities and discontinuities between current IoT and these older computer-connected things.

The Walk

In 2013 I walked all around Wales, over 1000 miles.  I would *love* to talk about the IoT aspects of this, especially as I was wired up with biosensors the whole way.  I would love to do this, but can’t , because the idea of the Internet in West Wales and many rural areas is a bad joke.  I could not even Tweet.  When we talk about the IoT currently, and indeed anything with ‘Web’ or ‘Internet’ in its name, we have just excluded a substantial part of the UK population, let alone the world.

REF

Last year I was on the UK REF Computer Science and Informatics Sub-Panel.  This is part of the UK process for assessing university research.  According to the results it appears that web research in the UK is pretty poor.   In the case of the computing sub-panel, the final result was the outcome of a mixed human and automated process, certainly interesting HCI case study of socio-technical systems and not far from WeSci concerns.

This has very real effects on departmental funding and on hiring and investment decisions within universities. From the first printed cheque, computer systems have affected the real world, while there are differences in granularity and scale, some aspects of IoT are not new.

Later in the conference I will talk about citation-based analysis of the results, so you can see if web science really is weak science 😉

Clearly IoT

Three concrete IoT things I’ve been involved with:

Firefly

While at Lancaster Jo Finney and I developed tiny intelligent lights. After more than ten years these are coming into commercial production.

Imagine a Christmas tree, and put a computer behind each and every light – that is Firefly.  Each light becomes a single-pixel network computer, which seems like technological overkill, but because the digital technology is commoditised, suddenly the physical structures of wires and switches is simplified – saving money and time and allowing flexible and integrated lighting.

Even early prototypes had thousands of computers in a few square metres.  Crucially too the higher level networking is all IP.  This is solid IoT territory.  However, like a lot of smart-dust, and sensing technology based around homogeneous devices and still, despite computational autonomy, largely centrally controlled.

While it may be another 10 years before it makes the transition from large-scale display lighting to domestic scale; we always imagined domestic scenarios.  Picture the road, each house with a Christmas tree in its window, all Firefly and all connected to the internet, light patterns more form house to hose in waves, coordinate twinkling from window to window glistening in the snow.  Even in tis technology issues of social interaction and trust begin to emerge.

FitBit

My wife has a FitBit.  Clearly both and IoT technology and WebSci phenomena with millions of people connecting their devices into FitBit’s data sharing and social connection platform.

The week before WebSci we were on holiday, and we were struggling to get her iPad’s mobile data working.  The Vodafone website is designed around phones, and still (how many iPads!) misses crucial information essential for data-only devices.

The FitBit’s alarm had been set for an early hour to wake us ready to catch the ferry.  However, while the FitBit app on the iPad and the FitBit talk to one another via Bluetooth, the app will not control the alarm unless it is Internet connected.  For the first few mornings of our holiday at 6am each morning …

Like my experience on the Wales walk the software assumes constant access to the web and fails when this is not present.

Tiree Tech Wave

I run a twice a year making, talking and thinking event, Tiree Tech Wave, on the Isle of Tiree.  A wide range of things happen, but some are connected with the island itself and a number of island/rural based projects have emerged.

One of these projects, OnSupply looked at awareness of renewable power as the island has a community wind turbine, Tilly, and the emergence of SmartGrid technology.  A large proportion of the houses on the island are not on modern SmartGrid technology, but do have storage heating controlled remotely, for power demand balancing.  However, this is controlled using radio signals, and switched as large areas.  So at 4am each morning all the storage heating goes on and there is a peak.  When, as happens occasionally, there are problems with the cable between the island and the mainland, the Island’s backup generator has to deal with this surge, it cannot be controlled locally.  Again issuss of connectivity deeply embedded in the system design.

We also have a small but growing infrastructure of displays and sensing.

We have, I believe, the worlds first internet-enabled shop open sign.  When the café is open, the sign is on, this is broadcast to a web service, which can then be displayed in various ways.  It is very important in a rural area to know what is open, as you might have to drive many miles to get to a café or shop.

We also use various data feeds from the ferry company, weather station, etc., to feed into public and web displays (e.g. TireeDashboard).  That is we have heterogeneous networks of devices and displays communicating through web apis and services – good Iot and WebSCi!

This is part of a broader vision of Open Data Islands and Communities, exploring how open data can be of value to small communities.  On their own open environments tend to be most easily used by the knowledgeable, wealthy and powerful, reinforcing rather than challenging existing power structures.  We have to work explicitly to create structures and methods that make both IoT and the potential of the web truly of benefit to all.

 

If the light is on, they can hear (and now see) you

hello-barbie-matel-from-guardianFollowing Samsung’s warning that its television sets can listen into your conversations1, and Barbie’s, even more scary, doll that listens to children in their homes and broadcasts this to the internet2, the latest ‘advances’ make it possible to be seen even when the curtains are closed and you thought you were private.

For many years it has been possible for security services, or for that matter sophisticated industrial espionage, to pick up sounds based on incandescent light bulbs.

The technology itself is not that complicated, vibrations in the room are transmitted to the filament, which minutely changes its electrical characteristics. The only complication is extracting the high-frequency signal from the power line.

040426-N-7949W-007However, this is a fairly normal challenge for high-end listening devices. Years ago when I was working with submarine designers at Slingsby, we were using the magnetic signature of power running through undersea cables to detect where they were for repair. The magnetic signatures were up to 10,000 times weaker than the ‘noise’ from the Earth’s own magnetic field, but we were able to detect the cables with pin-point accuracy3. Military technology for this is far more advanced.

The main problem is the raw computational power needed to process the mass of data coming from even a single lightbulb, but that has never been a barrier for GCHQ or the NSA, and indeed, with cheap RaspberryPi-based super-computers, now not far from the hobbyist’s budget4.

Using the fact that each lightbulb reacts slightly differently to sound, means that it is, in principle, possible to not only listen into conversations, but work out which house and room they come from by simply adding listening equipment at a neighbourhood sub-station.

The benefits of this to security services are obvious. Whereas planting bugs involves access to a building, and all other techniques involve at least some level of targeting, lightbulb-based monitoring could simply be installed, for example, in a neighbourhood known for extremist views and programmed to listen for key words such as ‘explosive’.

For a while, it seemed that the increasing popularity of LED lightbulbs might end this. This is not because LEDs do not have an electrical response to vibrations, but because of the 12V step down transformers between the light and the mains.

Of course, there are plenty of other ways to listen into someone in their home, from obvious bugs to laser-beams bounced of glass (you can even get plans to build one of your own at Instructables), or even, as MIT researchers recently demonstrated at SIGGRAPH, picking up the images of vibrations on video of a glass of water, a crisp packet, and even the leaves of a potted plant5. However, these are all much more active and involve having an explicit suspect.

Similarly blanket internet and telephone monitoring have applications, as was used for a period to track Osama bin Laden’s movements6, but net-savvy terrorists and criminals are able to use encryption or bypass the net entirely by exchanging USB sticks.

However, while the transformer attenuates the acoustic back-signal from LEDs, this only takes more sensitive listening equipment and more computation, a lot easier than a vibrating pot-plant on video!

So you might just think to turn up the radio, or talk in a whisper. Of course, as you’ve guessed by now, and, as with all these surveillance techniques, simply yet more computation.

Once the barriers of LEDs are overcome, they hold another surprise. Every LED not only emits light, but acts as a tiny, albeit inefficient, light detector (there’s even an Arduino project to use this principle).   The output of this is a small change in DC current, which is hard to localise, but ambient sound vibrations act as a modulator, allowing, again in principle, both remote detection and localisation of light.

220px-60_LED_3W_Spot_Light_eq_25WIf you have several LEDs, they can be used to make a rudimentary camera7. Each LED lightbulb uses a small array of LEDs to create a bright enough light. So, this effectively becomes a very-low-resolution video camera, a bit like a fly’s compound eye.

While each image is of very low quality, any movement, either of the light itself (hanging pendant lights are especially good), or of objects in the room, can improve the image. This is rather like the principle we used in FireFly display8, where text mapped onto a very low-resolution LED pixel display is unreadable when stationary, but absolutely clear when moving.

pix-11  pix-21
pix-12  pix-22
LEDs produce multiple very-low-resolution image views due to small vibrations and movement9.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Sufficient images and processing can recover an image.

So far MI5 has not commented on whether it uses, or plans to use this technology itself, nor whether it has benefited from information gathered using it by other agencies. Of course its usual response is to ‘neither confirm nor deny’ such things, so without another Edward Snowden, we will probably never know.

So, next time you sit with a coffee in your living room, be careful what you do, the light is watching you.

  1. Not in front of the telly: Warning over ‘listening’ TV. BBC News, 9 Feb 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-31296188[back]
  2. Privacy fears over ‘smart’ Barbie that can listen to your kids. Samuel Gibbs, The Guardian, 13 March 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/mar/13/smart-barbie-that-can-listen-to-your-kids-privacy-fears-mattel[back]
  3. “Three DSP tricks”, Alan Dix, 1998. https://alandix.com/academic/papers/DSP99/DSP99-full.html[back]
  4. “Raspberry Pi at Southampton: Steps to make a Raspberry Pi Supercomputer”, http://www.southampton.ac.uk/~sjc/raspberrypi/[back]
  5. A. Davis, M. Rubinstein, N. Wadhwa, G. Mysore, F. Durand and W. Freeman (2014). The Visual Microphone: Passive Recovery of Sound from Video. ACM Transactions on Graphics (Proc. SIGGRAPH), 33(4):79:1–79:10 http://people.csail.mit.edu/mrub/VisualMic/[back]
  6. Tracking Use of Bin Laden’s Satellite Phone, all Street Journal, Evan Perez, Wall Street Journal, 28th May, 2008. http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2008/05/28/tracking-use-of-bin-ladens-satellite-phone/[back]
  7. Blinkenlight, LED Camera. http://blog.blinkenlight.net/experiments/measurements/led-camera/[back]
  8. Angie Chandler, Joe Finney, Carl Lewis, and Alan Dix. 2009. Toward emergent technology for blended public displays. In Proceedings of the 11th international conference on Ubiquitous computing (UbiComp ’09). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 101-104. DOI=10.1145/1620545.1620562[back]
  9. Note using simulated images; getting some real ones may be my next Tiree Tech Wave project.[back]

lies, damned lies, and the BBC

I have become increasingly annoyed and distressed over the years at the way the media decides a narrative for various news stories and then selectively presents the facts to tell the story, ignoring or suppressing anything that suggests a more nuanced or less one-sided account.

BBC-news-headline-13-Feb-2015-croppedSometimes I agree with the overall narrative, sometimes I don’t.  Either way the B-movie Western accounts, which cannot recognise that the baddies can sometimes do good and the goodies may not be pristine, both distort the public’s view of the world and perhaps more damagingly weaken the critical eye that is so essential for democracy.

For the newspapers, we know that they have an editorial stance and I expect a different view of David Cameron’s welfare policy in The Guardian compared with The Telegraph. Indeed, I often prefer to read a newspaper I disagree with as it is easier to see the distortions when they clash with one’s own preconceptions.  One of the joys of the British broadsheet press is that whatever the persuasion, the underlying facts are usually there, albeit deeply buried towards the end of a long article.

However, maybe unfairly, I have higher expectations of the BBC, which are sadly and persistently dashed.  Here it seems not so much explicit editorial policy (although one hears that they do get leant upon by government occasionally), more that they believe a simplistic narrative is more acceptable to the viewer … and maybe they just begin to believe there own stories.

A typical (in the sense of terrifyingly bad) example of this appeared this morning.

After the wonderful news of a peace agreement in Ukraine yesterday, this morning the report read:

Ukraine crisis: Shelling follows Minsk peace summit

The ceasefire is due to start on Sunday, so one can only hope this is a last violent outburst, although to what avail as the borders are already set by the Minsk agreement.

The first few lines of the article read as follows:

New shelling has been reported in the rebel-held east Ukrainian cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, a day after a peace deal was reached in Minsk.

There are no confirmed reports of casualties. Both cities are near the front line where the pro-Russian rebels face government forces.

The ceasefire agreed in the Belarusian capital is to begin in eastern Ukraine after midnight (22:00 GMT) on Saturday.

The EU has warned Russia of additional sanctions if the deal is not respected.

If you have kept abreast of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and can remember your geography, then you will know that this means the Ukrainian Army was shelling rebel-held cities.  However, if you are less aware, this is not the immediate impression of the article.

First notice the passive wording of the title.  Imagine if this had been Syria, the headline would have surely been “Assad’s forces bombard Syrian cities” or “Syrian Army shell civilian areas“.  While the BBC may want to avoid flamboyant titles (although do not demure elsewhere) the article itself is no better.

The opening paragraphs mention ‘shelling’, ‘rebels’ and the EU warning Russians to clean up their act.  The emotional and rhetorical impact is that in some way Russians are to blame for the shelling of cities, and indeed when I read the words to Fiona this was precisely what she assumed.

That is, while the facts are there, they are presented in such a way that the casual reader takes away precisely the opposite of the truth.  In other words, the BBC reporting, whether intentionally or unintentionally, systematically misleads the public.

To be fair, in the earliest version of the article its later parts report first Ukrainian army deaths and then civilian casualties in rebel-held areas:

On Friday morning, a military spokesman in Kiev said eight members of Ukraine’s military had been killed in fighting against separatists in the past 24 hours.

The rebels said shelling killed three civilians in Luhansk, reported AFP news agency.

(Although the second sentence is removed from later versions of the article.)

BBC-news-early-13-Feb-2015-cropped BBC-news-later-13-Feb-2015-cropped
early and later version of same BBC story

The early versions of the article also included an image of a wall in Kiev commemorating Ukrainian army deaths, but not the graphic images of civilian casualties that would be used in other conflicts1. This was later changed to a refugee departing on a bus to Russia ((Later still the image of an armoured vehicle was also added.  I’d not realised before just how much these news stories are post-edited)), which better reflects the facet behind the article.

Of course, this is not a one-sided conflict, and later reports from the region during he day include rebel shelling of government held areas as well as government shelling.  Both sides need to be reported, but the reporting practice seems to be to deliberately obfuscate the far more prevalent Ukrainian army attacks on civilian areas.

If this were just a single news item, it could be just the way things turn out, and other news items might be biased in other directions, but the misreporting is systematic and long term.  Many of BBCs online news items include a short potted history of the conflict, which always says that the current conflict started with Russian annexing of Crimea, conveniently ignoring the violent overthrow of the elected government which led to this.  Similarly the BBC timeline for Ukraine starts in 1991 with the Ukrainian referendum to separate from the USSR, conveniently ignoring the similar overwhelming referendum in Crimea earlier in 1991 to separate from Ukraine2.

To be fair on the journalists on the ground, it is frequently clear that their own raw accounts have a different flavour to the commentary added when footage is edited back in London.

In some way Ukraine could be seen as a special case, the Russians are the bogey men of the today, just like Germany was 100 years ago and France was 100 years previously, it is hard for a journalist to say, “actually in this case they have a point“.

Yet, sadly, the above account could be repeated with different details, but the same underlying message in so many conflicts in frequent times.  Will the media, and the BBC, ever trust the public with the truth, or will ‘news’ always be a B movie?

  1. Maybe this is just deemed too horrifying; a recent Times report of Donetsk morgue includes graphic accounts of shrapnel torn babies, but does not include the Getty images of the morgue preferring an image of an unexploded rocket.[back]
  2. While ignoring the history of Crimea. which does seem germane to the current conflict, the BBC timeline is overall relatively fair; for example, making clear that Yanukovych’s election was “judged free and fair by observers“.[back]

being British? always a second class citizen

The most important reason for a ‘Yes’ vote in the upcoming Scottish independence referendum is the potential for a new nation that is a beacon of a fairer, greener and more inclusive society.  This would ultimately be to the good of the whole of the UK.

However, I’ve also noted a general lack of comprehension by many south of the border who struggle to understand the desire for Scottish Independence.

This was voiced a few days ago in a Facebook thread and this was my response as a Welshman living north of the border.:

As a Welshman I have always had a romantic nationalist edge, but also felt a strong British patriotism.

However events over the years, and not least the referendum campaign have hardened this.  Again and again Westminster politicians tell us that Scotland is better with England, as if Wales and Northern Ireland did not exist.

I have heard this language all my life: in the 50th anniversary celebrations of the second World War, in numerous debates in immigration, in company registration (registered in Cardiff, a company in England and Wales, but subject to *English* law), … and has been noted several times the Bank of England.

The difference in this campaign is that this is when politicians are supposed to be being careful of their language.  We even had the government lawyer explaining that the separated rUK and Scotland would not be equally parts of a previous single nation when looking towards external international bodies, not based on measures such as the population (reasonable), but because really and legally Scotland was never a partner country in a union, but was always amalgamated unto England.

There have been hundreds of years to sort out these things, but it has not happened yet, what chance for the next 100 years?

As a  child I was pedalled a lie.

There never was, and never will be a Britain.

As a Welshman, I am as British as Indians were in the ‘British Empire’.

Within the UK I always have been, and always will be, a second class citizen.

In contrast to this Scotland (despite sectarian tensions that erupt occasionally in Celtic-Rangers crowds) accepts incomers as was amply demonstrated in the difference between the spitting bigotry of the Westminster leaders’ debates at the last General Election compared with the far more civilised, cultured,and above all inclusive Scottish leaders’ debate, with all parties, including the Scottish Conservative leader, praising the richness through diversity and immigration.

Whether it is a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’, the shape of the UK will change fundamentally tomorrow.

If it is ‘No’, I hope the UK will eventually wake up to the fact that it is a nation of nations.

If it is ‘Yes’, then I know, that even as a Welshman far from my birthplace, I will be in a country where I can feel at home.

India and APCHI

I am sitting in the Crowne Plaza hotel in Bangelore looking down over the city spreading seemingly endlessly as far as I can see.  Here, out in the suburbs and in the heart of Electronics City, the Hi-Tech enclave, the view is a mix of green trees, concrete offices and small apartment blocks in a pastel palette of lime greens, mauve tinted blues and burnt umber.  There is an absence of yellow and red apart from the girder work of a partly constructed building and airline-warning red and white mobile antennae tower; maybe these are inauspicious colours.  A major highway and the raised highway cut across the view and the airport is presumably far out of site in the afternoon heat haze, it was a near two hour ride away on Wednesday when I arrived in the midst of rush hour, but hoping it is a shorter journey tomorrow morning when I need to catch 6am flight.

I’ve had a wonderful time here seeing many old faces from previous visits to India a few years ago, and also meeting new people.  It was especially great to see Fariza as I hadn’t realised she was going to be here from Malaysia.  It was also wonderful seeing Dhaval and spending time with his family after the end of the conference yesterday, and today reading some of his recent work at ABB on bug reproduction in software maintenance.

Seeing Dhaval’s work and talking to him about it reminded me of the debugging lectures I did some years ago as part of a first year software engineering module.  For many years I have been meaning to extend these to make a small book on debugging.  It is one of those areas, like creativity, where people often feel you either have it or not, or at bets can pick up the skills one time.  However, I feel there is a lot you can explicitly teach about each.

Yesterday was my closing keynote at APCHI 2013.  I’ve put the slides and abstract online and I am working on full notes of the talk.  It felt odd at times talking about some the the issues of rural connectivity and poverty raise by my walk around Wales given the far greater extremes here in India.  However, if anything, this makes the messages for both public policy and design more important.

As I talked both in the keynote and one-to-one with people during the conference, I was constantly returning to some of the ways that in the UK we seem to be throwing away many of the positive advances of the 20th century: the resurgence of rickets and scurvy amongst poor children, the planned privatisation of the Royal Mail, one of the key enablers of the 19th century commercial revolution, and most sad of all the depraved demonisation of the poor that is rife in politics and the media.

There were many interesting papers and posters.  Two demos particularly caught my eye as they represented different aspects of the link between physical and digital worlds, issues that Steve, Devina, Jo and I have been exploring in TouchIT and the Physicality workshop series.  One was a system that augments paper textbooks with electronic resources using a combination of computer vision (to recognise pages in the book) and semantic extraction (for example getting historical timelines from Wikipedia). The other was  a physical ‘drop box’, where you put papers into a slot and then they were copied as images into your DropBox account.  It made me think of the major scan and bin exercise I did a few years ago drastically reducing my piles of old papers.

However, the high spot of the conference for me was Ravi Poovaiah‘s keynote “Designing for the next billion” on Thursday about design for the ‘middle of the pyramid’, those who are out of abject poverty and therefore have access to basic IT and so the design community can do most about.  This does not reduce the needs of those at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’, for whom basic education and healthcare are the most immediate needs.

In the UK not only are the extremes less, few except the homeless would qualify as ‘bottom of the pyramid’, but also they tend to be more segregated. Here a modern glass fronted international retail chain can sit next to a semi-derilict (to western eyes) motorbike repair shop, with used tyres piled on the pavement.  This said, to my mind, with my aesthetic of decay that is maybe the privilege of those who do not have to live it, the latter is far more engaging.  One of India’s challenges is whether it can move through its economic explosion without the attendant dissolution of local identity, culture and family that is the legacy of the industrial revolution in the UK.

 

Walking Wales

As some of you already know, next year I will be walking all around Wales: from May to July covering just over 1000 miles in total.

Earlier this year the Welsh Government announced the opening of the Wales Coastal Path a new long distance footpath around the whole coast of Wales. There were several existing long distance paths covering parts of the coastline, as well as numerous stretches of public footpaths at or near the coast. However, these have now been linked, mapped and waymarked creating for the first time, a continuous single route. In addition, the existing Offa’s Dyke long distance path cuts very closely along the Welsh–English border, so that it is possible to make a complete circuit of Wales on the two paths combined.

As soon as I heard the announcement, I knew it was something I had to do, and gradually, as I discussed it with more and more people, the idea has become solid.

This will not be the first complete periplus along these paths; this summer there have been at least two sponsored walkers taking on the route. However, I will be doing the walk with a technology focus, which will, I believe, be unique.

The walk has four main aspects:

personal — I am Welsh, was born and brought up in Cardiff, but have not lived in Wales for over 30 years. The walk will be a form of homecoming, reconnecting with the land and its people that I have been away from for so long. The act of encircling can symbolically ‘encompass’ a thing, as if knowing the periphery one knows the whole. Of course life is not like this, the edge is just that, not the core, not the heart. As a long term ex-pat, a foreigner in my own land, maybe all I can hope to do is scratch the surface, nibble at the edges. However, also I always feel most comfortable as an outsider, as one at the margins, so in some ways I am going to the places where I most feel at home. I will blog, audio blog, tweet and generally share this experience to the extent the tenuous mobile signal allows, but also looking forward to periods of solitude between sea and mountain.

practical — As I walk I will be looking at the IT experience of the walker and also discuss with local communities the IT needs and problems for those at the edges, at the margins. Not least will be issues due to the paucity of network access both patchy mobile signal whilst walking and low-capacity ‘broadband’ at the limits of wind-beaten copper telephone wires — none of the mega-capacity fibre optic of the cities. This will not simply be fact-finding, but actively building prototypes and solutions, both myself (in evenings and ‘days off’) and with others who are part of the project remotely or joining me for legs of the journey1. Geolocation and mobile based applications will be a core part of this, particularly for the walkers experience, but local community needs likely to be far more diverse.

philosophical — Mixed with personal reflections will be an exploration of the meanings of place, of path, of walking, of nomadicity and of locality. Aristotle’s school of philosophy was called the Peripatetic School because discussion took place while walking; over two thousand years later Wordsworth’s poetry was nearly all composed while walking; and for time immemorial routes of pilgrimage have been a focus of both spiritual service and personal enlightenment. This will build on some of my own previous writings in particular past keynotes2 on human understanding of space, and also wider literature such as Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful “Wanderlust“.  This reflection will inform the personal blogging, and after I finish I will edit this into a book or account of the journey.

research3 — the practical outcomes will intersect with various personal research interests including social empowerment, interaction design and algorithmics4.  For the walker’s experience, I will be effectively doing a form of action research!.  This will certainly include how to incorporate local maps (such as tourists town plans) effectively into more large-scale experiences, how ‘crowdsourced’ route knowledge can augment more formal digital and paper resources, data synchonisation to deal with disconnection, and data integration between diverse sources.  In addition I am offering myself as a living lab so that others can use my trip as a place to try out their own sensors and instrumentation5, information systems, content authoring, ethnographic practices, community workshops, etc.  This may involve simply asking me to use things, coming for a single meeting or day, or joining me for parts of the walk.

If any of this interests you, do get in touch.  As well as research collaborations (living lab or supporting direct IT goals) any help in managing logistics, PR, or finding sources of funding/sponsorship for basic costs, most welcome.

I’ll get a dedicated website, Facebook page, twitter account, and charity sponsorship set up soon … watch this space!

  1. Coding whilst walking is something I have thought about (but not done!) for many years, but definitely inspired more recently by Nick the amazing cycling programmer who came to the Spring Tiree Tech Wave.[back]
  2. Welsh Mathematician Walks in Cyberspace“, and “Paths and Patches: patterns of geognosy and gnosis“.[back]
  3. I tried to think of a word beginning with ‘p’ for research, but failed![back]
  4. As I tagged this post I found I was using nearly all my my most common tags — I hadn’t realised quite how much this project cuts across so many areas of interest.[back]
  5. But with the “no blood rule”: if I get sensor sores, the sensors go in the bin 😉 [back]