A Week of User Rights and the Tools to Support

What a crazy week. This has mostly been typed on a plane back to Boston, where I get to be for a few days before heading to DC and then home to visit. When I landed to SF a week ago, I had plans to see friends, to lounge a bit, to enjoy a city I love so much. Instead, and just as happily, it was a whirlwind of jam-packed braining and action around user rights and the methods and tools to support those rights.

Countersurveillance DiscoTechs

With the Codesign Studio I TA with the Media Lab, a series of Discovery Technology (DiscoTech) Workshops were put on. The ones in Bangalore, Ramallah, Mexico City, Boston, and San Francisco were all inspiring. You can see more about the projects, art, and progress over on our hackpad. Some examples were stories from Venezuelan activists, face painting to deter facial recognition (so hard!), long-time surveillance on poor communities in America, and spoofing DNA.

And seriously. Take a few minutes to go through the partner pages for this. Need a bit of morning outrage? Think everything’s going pretty ok in the world? Nope!

UI/UX for Crypto Tools Hackathon

The second usability hackathon with OpenITP went incredibly well, and repped as the San Francisco DiscoTech as well as its own thing.

It was utterly luxurious to work on large team of people. Ciprian had logistics covered, solidly. Gus knew the projects inside and out. Bex had notes and tone in beautiful competence. Anytime I would think “oh, we should..” it was already in progress. All I had to do was herd the kittens, which was absurdly fun.


It was really nice to completely surrounded by the people I usually see when we all jam into the one or two sessions at any tech or policy event which involve both. But that overlap was the whole conference, so we were able to dive in much deeper, see more nuance, and see next steps. I learned about funder motives, and the initiatives which backed tech in atrocity prevention/detection/accountability, and about many many tools used to amplify the voices of marginalized people. I drew a lot, and I hugged even more.


Full set on bl00viz.

Typed Notes!

I typed notes for two interactive sessions for sake of formatting. One was a review of the the UI/UX hackathon the weekend before, the other was stories from the field and suggestions for how to be better trainers. Those can be found over on the Civic blog.

Responsible Data Forum

Thursday I trekked out to Oakland to participate in Engine Room‘s Responsible Data Forum, as hosted by the inspirational Aspiration Tech. Again, I was spoiled by being surrounded by an impressively diverse set of people interested in the same fulcrum of concern and change. We skeletoned out plans for checklists before collecting data, and workflows that include project death, and illustrated how data moves through a company. We talked hosting and coercion resistant design and informed consent. We also talked about context-based privacy in disasters. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes of the day.


CatCon happened last weekend. An unconference for systems thinkers from varied disciplines, it was an experiment in format as well as in topic. The invite list was small, and it was not publicized outside of that group. Invitees were encouraged to invite another 1-3 people, but a very small percentage of the attendees were new to me. The Media Lab provided the 6th floor for a relatively small fee (custodial and set-up services), and attendees chipped in for food.

Of course I second guess how it went. Of course I over analyze what could have gone better. But the one thing that someone said during closing appreciations made me think that maybe we’re on the right track:

This is the only time I’ve seen the web of trust work.

Unionizing the Revolution / Web of Trust

We read about inspiring things that people are up to fairly often. But rarely do we know the folk behind it, nor do we see how what we do can bolster them (and visa versa). If we’re going to “win,” as I think we should, we should be supporting each other. We should have each other’s backs, and we should call each other (lovingly) on bullshit. We should have focus on what we do, but we should know who else is on our team. The problems the humans on this planet face are huge and complex, and so our responses to them must be as well. This event was an experiment in that.


We took the first day to get to know one another, lots of ice breakers and running around. We asked questions of each other, and tried to get a feel for what the weekend would be like. Some hadn’t been to an unconference before, and I haven’t been lead on facilitating one before. But everyone was patient and good natured, and we made it through. The sessions for Saturday were curated, based on a conversation I had with Gunner (who has agreed to mentor me in facilitation, zomg!). The arc went over the course of the day from big picture, to meta endeavors, into focused projects, into designing projects. Tracks tended to be in education, interpersonal, economics, security, and co-ops. The goal was to get to know what everyone was working on, and share brain juices. Sunday was dedicated to work, to getting started on linking projects together.

Code of Conduct

So much of this event was about attendees getting to know one another. We needed conflict, and love, and trust. So we had a Code of Conduct. I kind of love writing these. Here’s one of my favorite parts:

Human being are sexual organisms, just like anything else. Harassment happens where there is a lack of consent. At Catalytic, that extends to enthusiastic consent. Act like adults.

Stages of Attendees’ Projects

One thing which was difficult was having such a wide range of expertise in the room. This was further complicated by having many different stages of projects. At most events, you share a common language of discipline with other attendees. Here, we had to learn what people were saying as well as where they were at. From a conversation with Ella Saitta, most boiled down into the following four groups:

  • Full-steam-ahead: I have a few questions that the expertise in the room can help answer, but really not up for shifting what they’re up to nor taking on new tasks.
  • Looking to scale: Project is plugging along, but could use some tweaks or some links.
  • Planning stages: I think my project looks a certain way, but need feedback, advice, assistance.
  • Open to signing on: I am super awesome! I have skills, but don’t currently have a project. How is yours?

What’s Next?

So next is figuring out if it should be done again. The rest of it is solidly in the hands of the attendees – disseminating notes and figuring out what (if anything) to publish for public review and feedback. But I’m considering if it’s worthwhile to do again, and will base that mainly on the feedback of the attendees. Also talked to Tim Maly about different formats, based mostly off of the Toronto Theater unconference. A bit more structured. Excited to try them out.

Diversity, Nepotism, Inclusion, and Quality Control

The thing is, if this happens again, of how to do the invite list. My own wariness of nepotism and ego have been rebutted throughout the past few days with conversations in good faith because “I knew the person I was talking to was awesome and kind because Willow had invited them.” But most of the people I know are fairly well-off white dudes (whom I adore), and that’s not a revolution I want. So, I’m thinking about how to handle that. Suggestions are requested. The last thing that this world needs is another echo chamber. Well, it needs other things far less, but this is pretty present in all of those issues.

Growing a Community

One thing I think about is, if this takes off and grows into a Thing, is how to maintain accountability in a growing group of people. Nothing drastic went wrong at CatCon (except for when we ran out of coffee), and those failure points are when you see how strong your community and its standards are. I worry about the first time accountability has to be maintained. But I also trust in the links being made to withstand and facilitate that.

RHoKNOLA and Capes

In an impromptu flurry of activity, Random Hacks New Orleans was official 10 days before the event. I had never been to New Orleans before, but the components were in order and we were go for launch – at LaunchPad! Some lovely folk I had barely met offered an amazing amount of assistance. Datawind sent us some tablets to work on their AppsToEmpower project. LaunchPad offered to host and promote. CODEMKRS reached out to offer to help with PR. Lanyap and Susco offered sponsorship. Katy, and Kate, and Travis were especially amazing in all this. It was pretty incredible, especially as I was at wit’s end from the first organizing team rescinding their ability to help – in an email written in comic sans 11 days before the event.

And then something new happened. People got pissed off.

New Orleans has a long and torrid history. Many parts of it are downright ugly and awful (with of course the strange beauty that only emerges out of such awfulness). And one of the current, deep concerns is around the gentrification of the city, including the entrepreneurial scene. That, coupled with the long history of people coming in, capes on, to “save” the locals, means there are some pretty sharp tensions to be navigated. I morally and academically understand and advocate for the listening to the affected population, the designing for the end user. We’ve done a pretty good job of it in the past, and in helping other groups do this. I hadn’t messed this up before (or heard about it, if I had). But I had become arrogant, at least to some degree, and I hadn’t noticed (which I assume is a key component for arrogance). This was amazing in that it was reflected back in my face (and of the whole National Day of Civic Hacking) with humor and assertion via National Day of Hacking Your Own Assumptions and Entitlement.

We have the ability to use new tools in service. As technologists, we are not here to solve problems, we are here to help people help themselves and each other, if they want our help. As amazing person and dear friend Dr Eric Rassmussen says, “there are no solutions, we can only hope to leave things less messed up than when we came.” Technology is not a band-aid to be slapped on human problems and history. It is a tool with which we can bridge long standing gaps and address inequality. It can also be use to aggravate those issues. Appallingly often, we do the latter while thinking we are doing the former.

The Event


The attendees of #RHoKNOLA have done a great job of building a tool for NOLAforLife, pushed forward by members of CODEMKRS. It’s called StopBeef, and it’s about linking people trapped in a cycle of violence with someone they both respect, who is willing to mediate. This is an initiative that has happened on a small scale, and the hope is to make it propagate further by digitizing the matching aspect. It’s lovely to see people apply their skills towards something they think will make the world suck less. I’m still not sure it’s what’s needed, or that it will actually help. I’m worried about the security they have with it, but am glad they have long-term implementation plans for that as well as the platform itself. But I do know that people feeling empowered, and that new people learning to work together means we’ll have an easier time of helping ourselves in the future. Let’s just be sure we’re helping those around us as well.

If the platform works out well, it can also be deployed as a part of the Apps To Empower platform. Conflict resolution is something which is useful in many places. Another question for another entry is around local productions being transferred or scaled to other locations. What can be considered here is the template of the idea, and if it is usable in other places. But always, always, only if people want it.

And while you’re at it, do please follow @NOLAtrep. Utterly amazing.


There’s something about the fantastic Saving The Hackathon blog post on TokBox, that gets to the crux of the cognitive dissonance around hackathons. People expect the next technological tool or application that will change the world to come out of these. Sometimes they do, but rarely. (Insert side-rant about the expectation of perfectly-formed tools, objects, or people appearing from anywhere; as specifically articulated in my comments to this blog post). As I’m sure we’ve talked about before, I deeply believe that technologies only amplify human intent. I have yet to see anything that contradicts this. When it comes to disaster and humanitarian response hackathons, they get a lot of press. But what is the tangible output? What expectations can we set for ourselves and attendees?

So far as tools which can immediately be deployed in the field, not much. Not to say it doesn’t happen at all, but it is rare. The amount of forethought and digging which must happen to find the specific pain point which tech can help ease or automate is not something the affected population or the responders really have time to deal with while they are also doing response. Even when something appropriate is built, you have to worry about dissemination, training, and failure modes. Thus why the most useful things come out of things like Random Hacks of Kindness and CrisisCamps are awareness building and warm fuzzy feelings.

Yes, both warm fuzzies and awareness are legitimate, useful things. Too often, as technologists, we are separated from our world. We spend time behind screens, acutely aware of crises and issues but detached from the response and ownership of those situations. Civic media is an exceptional example of how technology has helped to close that detachment rather than deepen it. I see the same reclamation of involvement at the heart of the maker movement also at the heart of digital humanitarian work. No, this is not something we can leave up to some organization that we don’t know about, that isn’t accountable to us, and that doesn’t have mechanisms for listening to the very people it claims to serve. This is something we must do ourselves, calling upon the institutional knowledge and resources of those large organizations as needed. The things we create, which work, including processes, need to be codified. Sometimes into consensual hierarchies, sometimes into bureaucracy (both of which can be useful, as painful as that might seem). These assumptions of interaction allow us to operate at the next higher level, just as a language allows us to converse more easily, and a shared word set (for a discipline, say) allows us to have even more specific and deep conversation.

rhythmic tapping will solve everything!

rhythmic tapping solves everything

And on the institutionalized side of another false dichotomy, the awareness and warm fuzzies remove the mysticism of tech. People in traditional sectors all too often see applications and networks as some ruby slippers, easily deployed and perfectly aligned if you just knew the right phrase. And the same fear that goes along with a belief in such power, the misunderstanding of a very real (but also not ultimate) power. It’s not just developers who think the thing they build will be the next big thing – it’s also the people in response-based orgs not knowing that they need one section of a workflow automated, not a geotagged photo sharing platform (we already have those).

So response hackathons are a great place for the amplification of human intent and desire to assist the rest of humanity. That’s great. Now – how do you make those intentions deployable? IE, now that you’ve had the cancer walk, who’s doing the research and implementation? That’s a smaller group of people, who are willing to take the risk of plunging into work that doesn’t pay like the rest of the software world. That’s a small group of people who are willing to suffer the heart break and soul crushing that seeing the horrors of the world can cause, in order to see your tiny steps (maybe) make way against that. That’s an even smaller group of people who also understand how to support and care for themselves while they do that work, to find sustained income (sometimes from the people you are wanting to help most – which is still a cognitively sticky bucket for me), so they can keep going. And the fight isn’t just to make things better, it’s also about how that exists in the current world, with policy and with culture.

Response hackathons absolutely have a place in this system of engagement. But it’s one part. Without the continuation programs like Geeks Without Bounds and SocialCoding4Good, we all just pat ourselves on the back and go home. We start to wonder if it’s even worth going to the next one. But accomplishment takes hard work, and sometimes working on the fiddly bits. And that means deep learning and conversations with the user. That means advance work, and continued work. Which I believe you can do. Don’t just create in response to things going pear-shaped. Build things to better understand them. Create to make the world better. Make with purpose. The disasters and obstacles we face in the near future are unpredictably complicated and massive. We have no way to train for them. But we also have massive untapped resources in the sharing of our brains and hearts, brought out when we create, and share, and build.

It is with all this in mind that I am excited about how Geeks Without Bounds is starting to look at how we will interact with OpenHatch, in an effort to contribute to (and learn from) the open source community. It is with all this in mind that I am excited about DataWind, and AppsToEmpower, and shipping low-cost tablets into developing area pre-loaded with useful tools. It is with these things in mind that I am excited about the continuation of EveryoneHacks, and how it creates space for new creators.

OpenITP San Francisco: FOIA Club

Geeks Without Bounds helped facillitate the Open ITP Club meeting at the Noisebridge iteration in San Francisco. We’ve compiled the resources gathered at the event, including videos of the talks and our notes on the event.

Nate Cardozo from EFF spoke on the process of the Freedom of Information Act, commonly referred to as FOIA (note: the first rule of FOIA club is that you must FOIA). Check out his presentation below, and follow along with the slides here.

Important Points
Who can I get the information from?
FOIA is applicable at the federal level, and is not the same as state-level “sunshine acts.” Information must be requested from the appropriate agency (i.e., don’t ask for FBI records from the Dept. of Agriculture). Agencies must respond within 20 working days. Sue after 20 days of inaction, and you MUST appeal if they refuse to release records.

Things you will not get:

  • Classified materials
  • Internal rules or procedures
  • Items excluded by outside laws
  • Trade secrets
  • Intra-agency memoranda and drafts
  • Privacy-related items
  • Law enforcement information
  • Financial records
  • Information on landmines

How do you ask for the records?
The request has to be regarding specific records referencing what you want to know, not the actual question itself.

The 1996 FOIA amendment says that records must be in the best available or native format (Example: The photo itself instead of a photocopy). You can appeal to the DOJ if it is indicated that records are not eligible or don’t exist.

You must send a request to a specific agency/field office to obtain records. Describe your request in detail and for a lay audience. Include any references to records in the media. Ask for expedited processing and reduced fees (if appropriate). Often agencies will work with you to narrow search parameters.

Asking About Yourself: FOIA vs The Privacy Act
Request your own information using the Privacy Act to keep your records from becoming public. A right is everyone’s right, therefore if you FOIA yourself, the waiver you sign makes your records a part of the public domain. In terms of your medical records, HIPAA medical record laws only apply to medical agencies, not other agencies. It allows other agencies to refuse, but does not mandate refusal. The deceased have no privacy rights, but familial survivors have those rights and can block information from being released.

Flash Talks
Immediately following Nate’s presentation were the flash talks on related topics:

Check out the official technoactivism notes on the Open ITP site, and Willow’s visualization of the EFF FOIA talk. Join at the next event March 18th. A participating list of cities is available here, and we’ll be helping with the one in Boston!


Landed in Port-au-Prince a few hours ago. Have had a nap, and a salad, and a tour of where we’ll hold the hackathon. I waited for Marco, our driver (green car), by the hotel’s road, prolonged looks from passers-by and giggles from children. Marco assures me it’s because my hair is so different, not because I am stumbling blatantly in any social way.

I’m here for a gender-based-violence hackathon put on by Digital Democracy – Schuyler linked us up. The call center which Kovaviv has going for victims of gender-based violence, to get them medical and psychosocial and legal help, is in need of some scaling and shoring up. (We’ll be using #HaitiHack for the event.) We’ve called together an international team and a local team to get the work done, housed out of a university with a charming leader obsessed with perrier. I drank coffee out of a tiny cup while we explored the space we’ll have access to, and ran into some folk from NetHope – the social singularities continue even here.

Everything is bright, and covered in hand-painted advertisements, and it is hot. High ceilings and open windows allow heat to pass through, vast empty rooms cooler than the crowded outside. I feel unhappy but grateful for the luxuries of the hotel they have put me up in – A/C (should I want it), hot water (should I want it), and wifi (definitely want that). There is teasing about my wilted demeanor in the heat, and I tell them about Seattle and the overcast and how people wear all greys and blacks and drink a lot of coffee. The traffic is chaotic but predictable, reminding me of driving in New York, but more so. Taps on the horn for communication, not anger. People walk and ride with assurance tempered with awareness.

Flocks of children recently released from schools, far enough from origin to have their uniforms mix together, some bands still holding strong. We talk about how a school uniform means if a student is found but the parents can’t for the moment, the school is a place to return to for safety and waiting. Marco is incredibly patient with me while I try to ask how attendance is determined – based on the ability to pay, not location. Cognitive leaps I barely get away with among native English speakers will not do here.

Guards with shotguns watch soccer alongside students, everyone piled into the cafeteria, ignoring the vista to cheer their team. It seems all the infrastructure (not just architectural, but also social, and network, etc) are either under repair or being built afresh. I wonder if this leads to a predictability which can be assumed, or means nothing is so stable as to built upon (hearts, dreams, and mortar). I imagine I will be in awe either way.

In a few hours, we’ll go to a restaurant-bar quietly owned by the same folk behind an LGBT advocacy group here. While not a “gay bar” (the backlash here would still be too great and violent), it is a safe space and a welcome meeting place. My utter lack in the language and many of the social cues prevent me from interacting much beyond planned meetings, but those few are with people who express mild curiosity and quick smiles. Tomorrow the rest of the crew arrives, but today I’m still trying to get some kegs picked up in San Francisco and my belongings shipped from Seattle to Boston. It is an interesting world.

September happenings

August 28-31 : Burning Man : DPW Camp
September 1st : High School Reunion : Indiana
September 7th : Journey to the End of the Night : Seattle

The city spreads out before you. Rushing from point to point, lit by the slow strobe of fluorescent buses and dark streets. Stumbling into situations for a stranger’s signature. Fleeing unknown pursuers, breathing hard, admiring the landscape and the multitude of worlds hidden in it.

For one night, drop your relations, your work and leisure activities, and all your usual motives for movement and action, and let yourself be drawn by the attractions of the chase and the encounters you find there.

September 8th : CyborgCamp : Seattle

CyborgCamp is an unconference about the future of the relationship between humans and technology. We’ll discuss topics such as social media, design, code, inventions, web 2.0, twitter, the future of communication, cyborg technology, anthropology, psychology, and philosophy.

September 14-15 : Education hackathon : Dallas, TX
September 21-23 : H4D2 hackathon : Birmingham, England

Aston University and the University of Warwick are happy to announce the Hackathon for Disaster Response, a 2-day event to bring together software developers and emergency management experts to hack out solutions to disaster-related problems. We will focus specifically on data available via social media, and on structured data (open data, linked data) available from a variety of sources. This event is sponsored as part of the Disaster 2.0 project

September 29 : CrisisCamp Ireland : Galway

First half of October I’ll be on the East Coast bouncing between DC, Boston, and NYC.

Please come out and participate!

Maker Faire Maker Faire

Ok, so a bit of a braindump:

Going to SFO! Yay! Doing makery things while there!

Speaking at Noisebridge’s Five Minutes of Fame on where School Factory is at. You should come – Thursday at 20:00.

I’ve curated an area at Maker Faire San Mateo for all the attending hacker and maker spaces. It’s called SpaceCamp, and you should come check it out. We’ll be in the main hall Fiesta Room A.

Also modding a panel on Sunday at Maker Faire on the Innovator’s stage at 13:00

I actually have Tuesday morning/afternoon pretty open if anyone wants to hang out.


World Maker Faire

Maker Faires always make me happy. The passion inspired among geeks when you say “Look! Look at this thing I have done!” is like Christmas always should have been. It’s also affirming to all of the effort it takes to operate the brass tacks of maker and hacker spaces. You see the people who have toiled oer their projects for weeks finally show the finished product with a flourish and an adoring audience. The hours of effort, the stress of paying the bills on the space, the stupid drama that inevitably must be mucked through when eccentric people are brought together… that all fades away in the face of joy, collaboration, and SCIENCE.

I had the honor of moderating a panel at Maker Faire NYC. Leigh Honeywell, James Carlson, Jordan Bunker, Christina Pei, Eric Michaud, and Psytek joined me as panelists. We talked about what makes spaces sustainable – everything boiled down to money and community. Make sure people are happy and communicating, and make sure your bills are paid. That’s it. We all had different ways of doing that, with meetings and accounting methods, and making sure the passion remains.

We also talked a lot about education, and the impact that these spaces can and already have on our educational systems and communities. We talked about charter schools, project-based credit, passion-based learning, and inter-generational teaching. Change is in the air. And we’re making it.