Category Archives: society oriented design

German publisher Heise Verlag is an international curiosity. It publishes a small number of highly influential computer-related magazines that give a voice to a tech ethos that is at the same time extremely competent in the subject matter (I’ve been a steady subscriber to c’t magazin for over 15 years now, and I am still baffled sometimes just how good it is) and very much aware of the social and political implications of computing (their online magazine Telepolis testifies to that).

Data protection and privacy are long-standing concerns of the heise editors and true to a spirit of society-oriented design, they have introduced a concept as well as a technical implementation of a two-step “like” button. Such buttons, by Facebook or other companies, have of course become a major vector of user-tracking on the Web. By using an iframe, every button loads some code from Facebook’s server and sends the referring url (e.g. as an information. The iframe being hosted on the domain, cross-site privacy protections can be circumvented, the url information connected to an identifier cookie and, consequently, to a user account. Plugins like the Priv3 project block these mechanisms but a) users have to have a heightened level of awareness to even consider installing something like this and b) the plugin interferes with convenient functions like Google search preferences.

Heise’s suggestion, which they already implemented on their own sites, is simple: websites can download a small bit of code that implements a two-step procedure: the “like” button is greyed out after the page first loads and there is no tracking happening. A first click on the button loads the “real” Facebook code, and the second click provides the usual functionality. The solution is very simple to implement and really a very minor inconvenience. Independently from the debate whether “like” buttons and such add any real value to the Web, this example shows that “social” features like these can be designed in a way that does not necessarily lead to pervasive user tracking.

The echo to this initiative has been very strong (check the Slashdot discussion here), especially in Germany, where privacy (or rather Datenschutz, a concept less centered on the individual but rather on the role of data in society) is an intensely debated issue, due to obvious historical reasons. Facebook apparently threatened to blacklist at a point, but has since then backpedaled. After all, c’t magazin prints around 600.000 issues of every number and is extremely influential in the German (and Dutch!) computer landscape. I am very curious to see how this story unfolds, because let’s be clear: Facebook’s earning potential is closely tied to its capacity to capture, enrich, and analyze user data.

This initiative – and the Heise ethos in general – underscores that a “respectable” and sober engineering culture does not exclude an explicit normative stance on social and political issues. And is shows that this stance can be translated into technical models, implemented, and shared, both as an idea and as code.

While riding my bike today, I listened to a very thought-provoking and enjoyable talk (LSE site / YouTube) given back in may at the LSE by Harvard law professor Gerald Frug, entitled  “The Architecture of Governance”. The argument basically revolves around the actual “design” or “architecture” of governance/government structures and, more precisely, the complicated relationship between local and central governments. While this is not a talk about technology, there is much to learn concerning how to think about the design of (political) systems – mechanisms for organizing collective decision-making – beyond the petty moralizing and finger-pointing that seems to have taken hold of large parts of public debate today in much of the Western world. What I find quite intriguing is that Krug pays so much attention to the particularities of how seemingly consensual ideas (“power to the local”) can be implemented with rather different potential outcomes. In that sense, “parameter details” and fine-print may have a much larger impact than one might think and it’s worth-while to talk about them and not just the grand questions of “participation” vs. “representation”, and so on. Good fun!

After having sparked a series of revolutions mostly on it’s own – socioeconomics is a thing of the 20th century anyways – Twitter is looking to finally make some money off that society-changing prowess. One of the steps in that direction are the new regulations for developers, or rather, the new regulations for those who want to develop a Twitter app but are no longer welcome to do so. As this Ars Technica piece describes, apps that provide similar features as Twitter applications are no longer allowed; existing programs will be allowed to linger on, but new ones will be blocked. Ars cites a mail by developer  Steve Streza on the twitter-dev mailing-list, here in full:

Twitter continues to make hostile and aggressive moves to alienate the third-party developers who helped make it the platform it is now. Today it’s third party Twitter clients. Tomorrow it’ll be URL shorteners and image/video hosts. Next it’ll be analytics and ads and who knows what else. Maybe you guys should spend some time improving the core of the service (uptime, reliability, bug fixes, etc.) rather than ingressing on the work of the thousands of developers who made Twitter an exciting place to be.

The story itself is not new. APIs are a great way for a company to experiment with new features and ideas without having to take any major risks themselves. Google led the way with Google Maps, slowly adding features to its service that had been pioneered by third party developers and deemed viable by users. Legally, there is not much to do about these practices (it they want to, companies can simply close down their web services, too) and it’s quite understandable that Twitter wants to control a value chain that promises to be quite profitable in the end. But for users and developers the reliance on private companies and closed systems is a big risk indeed. I’ve been working on a research project using Twitter data for over a year and while everything seems to be OK for the moment, what if our team suddenly gets locked out? Hundreds of hours down the drain?

When using proprietary services, you should be prepared for such things to happen but when I look at the role Twitter did play in recent events in North Africa and the Middle East – it was a mayor conduit after all – and I think about that one company’s (well, there’s Facebook, too) ability to simply close the pipes, I can’t help but feel worried. While the Internet was presented as a herald of decentralization, its global span has actually allowed for a concentration and system lock-in that is quite unique in the history of communication.

I think I’m just going to stick to email after all…

Arstechnica is one of the reasons why I believe that there is a future for quality journalism online. Not only because they produce great copy but also because it is one of the few places on the Internet where I don’t want to start maiming myself when I accidentally stumble over the article comments. Ars talks about technology, sure, but there is more and more content on science and really great, well researched pieces on wedge topics (“wedgy” mostly in the US, but spreading) like climate change and evolution. In this article on the basic conceptual differences between studying weather and climate, I stumbled over a comment that I would like to (and probably will) frame and hang on my wall. User Andrei Juan writes:

Regarding the author’s remarks made in the first few paragraphs of the article about comments and commenters, it seems to me that the number of people who post comments to online articles is (perhaps to a lesser extent here on ArsTechnica) usually much larger than the number of people whose education — formal or not — allows them to understand the article well, let alone make meaningful comments.

This is, I think, but one manifestation of many people’s tendency to express themselves in many more situations than when they have something to express. Turned into habit, this leads to confusions like the one discussed by the article, which are IMO a natural outcome of situations in which people who barely passed their high school math and physics tests develop their own opinions (or parrot those of their peers) about topics like dynamic systems. Moreover, put this together with the openness of an online “debate” — which lures people into feeling welcome to discussions where they’re utterly out of their depth yet don’t realize it — and another interesting specimen appears: the person who’s opinionated without really having an opinion.

On soccer fields, we hear these people blowing in vuvuzelas; in the comment sections of online articles though, that option is unavailable, so they’re only left with (ab)using the “Leave a comment” option. Could we, perhaps, eliminate most meaningless comments by adding a button labeled “Blow a vuvuzela” next to the one that says “Leave a comment”?…

In that sense, the highly disturbing “like” and “retweet” buttons one can find on so many sites now may actually have the boon to prevent some people from posting a comment. Not the sophistication of Slashdot‘s karma based moderation system but potentially effective…

When it comes to search interfaces, there are a lot of good ideas out there, but there is also a lot of potential for further experimentation. Search APIs are a great field for experimentation as they allow developers to play around with advanced functionality without forcing them to work on a heavy backend structure.

Together with Alex Beaugrand, a student of mine, I have built (a couple of month ago) another little search mashup / interface that allows users to switch between a tag cloud view and a list / cluster mode. contextDigger uses the delicious and Bing APIs to widen the search space using associated searches / terms and then Yahoo BOSS to download a thousand results that can be filtered through the interface. It uses the principle of faceted navigation to shorten the list : if you click on two terms, only the results associated with both of them will appear…

Since Yahoo recently ~sold its search business to Microsoft (see this NYT article for details) a lot of people where asking themselves what would happen to the Yahoo search APIs, which are in fact some of the most powerful free tools out there to built search mashups with. As Simon Wilson indicates in this blog post, some of them (Term Extraction and Contextual Web Search) are closing down at the end of August. Programmable Web lists 33 mashups that use the Term Extraction service and these sites will either have to close down or start looking for alternatives. This highlights a problem that can be a true roadblock for developing applications making heavy use of APIs. My own termcloud search and its spiced up cousin contextdigger use Yahoo BOSS and quite honestly, if MS kills that Service, these experiments (and many others) will be gone for good, because Yahoo BOSS is the only search API that provides a list of extracted keywords for each delivered Web result.

If service providers can close APIs at will, developers might hesitate when deciding whether to put in the necessary coding hours to built the latest mashup. But it is mashups that over the last years have really explored many of the directions left blank by “pure” applications. This creative force should be cherished and I wonder if there may be a need for something similar to creative commons for APIs – a legal construct that gives at least some basic rights to mashup developers…

This spring worked on an R&D project that was really quite interesting but – as it happens with projects – took up nearly all of my spare time. La montre verte is based on the idea that pollution measurement can be brought down to street level if sensors can be made small enough to be carried around by citizens. Together with a series of partners from the private sector, the CiTu group of my laboratory came up with the idea to put an ozone sensor and a microphone (to measure noise levels) into a watch. That way, the device is not very intrusive and still in direct contact with the surrounding air. We built about 15 prototypes, based on the fact that currently, Paris’ air quality is measured by only a handful of (really high quality) sensors and even the low resolution devices we have in our watches should therefore be able to complement that data with a geographically more fine grained analysis of noise and pollution levels. The watch produces a georeferenced  measurement (a GPS is built into the watch) every second and transmits the data via Bluetooth to a Java application on a portable phone, which then sends every data packet via GPRS to a database server.

heatmapMy job in the project was to build a Web application that allows people to interact with and make sense of the data produced by the watches. Despite the help from several brilliant students from our professional Masters program, this proved to be a daunting task and I spent *at lot* of time programming. The result is quite OK I believe; the application allows users to explore the data (which is organized in localized “experiments”) in different ways, either in real-time or afterward. With a little more time (we had only about three month for the whole project and we got the hardware only days before the first public showcase) we could have done more but I’m still quite content with the result. Especially the heatmap (see image) algorithm was fun to program, I’ve never done a lot of visual stuff so this was new territory and a steep learning curve.

Unfortunately, the strong emphasis on the technological side and the various problems we had (the agile methods one needs for experimental projects are still not understood by many companies) cut down the time for reflection to a minimum and did not allow us to come up with a deeper analysis of the social and political dimensions of what could be called “distributed urban intelligence”. The whole project is embedded in a somewhat naive rhetoric of citizen participation and the idea that technological innovation can solve social problems, in this case matters of urban planning and local governance. A lesson I have learned from this is that the current emphasis in funding on short-term projects that bring together universities and the industry makes it very difficult to carve out an actual space for scientific practice between all the deadlines and the heavy technical demands. And by scientific practice, I mean a *critical* practice that does not only try to base specifications and prototyping on “scientifically valid” approaches to building tools and objects but which includes a reflection on social utility that takes a wider view than just immediate usefulness. In the context of this project, this would have implied a close look at how urban development is currently configured in respect to environmental concerns in order to identify structures of governance and chains of decision-making. This way, the whole project could have targeted issues more clearly and consciously, fine-tuning both the tools and the accompanying discourse to the social dimension it aimed at.

I think my point is that we (at least I) have to learn how to better include a humanities-based research agenda into very high-tech projects. We have known for a long time now that every technical project is in fact a socio-technical enterprise but research funding and the project proposals that it generates are still pretending that the “socio-” part is some fluffy coating that decorates the manly material core where cogs and wire produce tangible effects. As I programmer I know how difficult and time-consuming technical work can be but if there is to be a conscious socio-technical perspective in R&D we have to accept that the fluffy stuff takes even more time – if it is done right. And to do it right means not only reading every book and paper relevant to a subject matter but to take the time to reflect on methodology, to evaluate every step critically, to go back to the drawing board, and to include and to produce theory every step of the way. There is a cost to the scientific method and if that cost is not figured in, the result may still be useful, interesting, thought-provoking, etc. but it will not be truly scientific. I believe that we should defend these costs and show why they are necessary; if we cannot do so, we risk confining the humanities to liberal armchair commentary and the social sciences to ex-post usage analysis.

After having finished my paper for the forthcoming deep search book I’ve been going back to programming a little bit and I’ve added a feature to termCloud search, which is now v0.4. The new “show relations” button highlights the eight terms with the highest co-occurrence frequency for a selected keyword. This is probably not the final form of the feature but if you crank up the number of terms (with the “term+” button) and look at the relations between some of the less common words, there are already quite interesting patterns being swept to the surface. My next Yahoo BOSS project, termZones, will try to use co-occurrence matrices from many more results to map discourse clusters (sets of words that appear very often together), but this will need a little more time because I’ll have to read up on algorithms to get that done…

PS: termCloud Search was recently a “mashup of the day” at

Programmable web just pointed to a really interesting mashup competition. Sunlight labs announced the Apps for America contest and the idea is to attract programmers that will use a series of data APIs to “make Congress more accountable, interactive and transparent”. Among the criteria two stand out:

  1. Usefulness to constituents for watching over and communicating with their members of Congress
  2. Potential impact of ethical standards on Congress

The design goal is accountability and that indeed is a perfect case for society oriented design. While people in Europa love to scold the US for their lack of data protection and privacy laws, just looking at the APIs the contest proposes to use makes me salivate for something similar in France. If you look at the Capitol Words API for example, just imagine the kind of discourse analysis one could build on that. Representations of what is said in Congress that make the data digestable and bring at least some of the debate potentially closer to citizens. The whole thing is just a really great idea…

Winter holidays and finally a little bit of time to dive into research and writing. After giving a talk at the Deep Search conference in Vienna last month (videos available here), I’ve been working on the paper for the conference book, which should come out sometime next year. The question is still “democratizing search” and the subject is really growing on me, especially since I started to read more on political theory and the different interpretations of democracy that are out there. But more on that some other time.

One of the vectors of making search more productive in the framework of liberal democracy is to think about search not merely as the fasted way to get from a query to a Web page, but to think about how modern technologies might help in providing an overview on the complex landscape of a topic. I have always thought that clusty – a metasearcher that takes results from Live, Ask, DMOZ, and other sources and organizes them in thematic clusters – does a really good job in that respect. If you search for “globalisation”, the first ten clusters are: Economic, Research, Resources, Anti-globalisation, Definition, Democracy, Management, Impact, Economist-Economics, Human. Clicking on a cluster will bring you the results that clusty’s algorithms judge as pertinent for the term in question. Very often, just looking on the clusters gives you a really good idea of what the topic is about and instead of just homing in on the first result, the search process itself might have taught you something.

I’ve been playing around with Yahoo BOSS for one of the programming classes I teach and I’ve come up with a simple application that follows a similar principle. TermCloud Search (edit: I really would like to work on this some more and the name SearchCloud was already taken, so I changed it…) is a small browser-based app that uses the “keyterms” (a list of keywords the system provides you with for every URL found) feature of Yahoo BOSS to generate a tagcloud for every search you make. It takes 250 results and lets the user navigate these results by clicking on a keyword. The whole thing is really just a quick hack but it shows how easy it is to add such “overview” features to Web search. Just try querying “globalisation” and look at the cloud – although it’s just extracted keywords, a representation of the topic and its complexity does emerge at least somewhat.

I’ll certainly explore this line of experimentation over the next months, jQuery is making the whole API thing really fun, so stay tuned. For the moment I’m kind of fascinated by the possibilities and by imagining search as a pedagogical process, not just a somewhat inconvenient stage in accessing content that has to be speeded up by personalization and such. Search can become in itself a knowledge producing (not just knowledge finding) activity by which we may explore a subject on a more general level.

And now I’ve got an article to finish…