Author Archives: Ton Zijlstra

Taking e-mail back, one user account at a time

Today I changed the way we use e-mail addresses for identification on-line.

Over time my e-mail address(es) has (have) become the carrier of a lot of important stuff. It’s not just a way to communicate with others, but also serves as generic user name on countless website accounts. And likely quite a few of those have had their security breached over time, or are unscrupulous (or even malicious) in their own right.

As part of a talk on privacy by Brenno de Winter (Dutch investigative journalist) that we went to this weekend (see previous posting), he mentioned using unique e-mail addresses (and pw’s of course) for every site you use. Or disposable e-mail addresses for sites you visit only once. That way when one site gets compromised there is no risk of your user credentials being used elsewhere, and if one site sells your email addresses on it is immediately apparent to you who did that.

I have been aware of this advice for a long time, but never saw an easy way to act on it:

  • Most disposable e-mail address (DEA) services offer a temporary e-mail address, usually enough to quickly confirm an e-mail address, after which it gets deleted automatically. This is useful for one time visits / registration at a website, but not for using unique addresses for services you use more often.
  • Some sites do not accept e-mail addresses that are clearly created by DEA type services
  • I own multiple domains, which I could theoretically use for unique mail addresses, but in practice that is much more unlikely. I would need to either create mail addresses before using them to register somewhere, through the domain’s administration panel, or use a catch-all that would simply accept any incoming mail on that domain, including tons of automatic spam flung out to randomly generated e-mail addresses.

  • What I actually need is:

  • The ability to create new e-mail addresses on the fly, simply by using them
  • The ability to both have more permanent unique addresses, as well as single use addresses
  • Using a domain that is not perceived as a DEA service and not easily associated to me (e.g. by visiting its website)
  • Using a domain that I control so I cannot get cut off from unique addresses connected to important user accounts
  • The ability to recognize any of these unique addresses in my regular inbox
  • Something that still filters out spam, while accepting any incoming address

  • So today I decided to investigate further and act on it.
    This is the solution I came up with:

  • I found 33mail.com, built by Andrew Clark (in Dublin/Ireland so under EU regulations), that allows you to create addresses on the fly, and then through a dashboard simply block the ones that get misused at some point. It also forwards to one of your actual e-mail addresses, including letting you (anonymously) reply from the unique address.
  • 33mail.com allows you to connect any other domain to their service, so that instead of using something@myaccount.33mail.com I can use something@myrandomdomain while still using 33mail. This is very useful as it helps to prevent being filtered out because of using a DEA service domain, and keeps the addresses under my control.
  • I registered two new domains, one for me, one for Elmine, and set up their MX DNS records to point to 33mail. So that anything@ourtwodomains.tld goes to 33mail. These domains are, apart from the records at the registrar, not otherwise easily associated to us.
  • I provided two unique email addresses for 33mail to forward to at two other domains I own and use.
  • I set up two auto-forwards for those addresses that 33mail forwards to, which makes it end up in one of my or Elmine’s regular inboxes. In our inbox we have filters that pick up on anything that comes from those forwarding addresses 33mail sends stuff to.

  • This is not a free solution, but it is cheap. The registration of two domains, plus a service package so I can set my own DNS settings, with our regular hoster comes to 45 Euro or so. 33mail charges 8 or 9 Euros for a premium account, which is needed to add your own domain name to their service, and I created a premium account for each of us, as we will be using two seperate domain names. Total cost: 65 Euro/yr.

    Here’s a drawing of the full set-up:

    33mail

    On Privacy and the Commons

    We went to hear an interesting talk by Dutch investigative journalist Brenno de Winter on privacy and related issues this weekend. It is part of a series of privacy related talks and workshops held in our town in this and coming weeks.

    To me, as I blogged in 2006 after that year’s Reboot Conference privacy is a gift by the commons to the individual, and not so much an intrinsic individual thing. It allows the individual to be part of the commons, to act in the public sphere. It also means to me that privacy is part of what makes the commons work: withouth a certain expectation of privacy no-one can participate in the commons, resulting in the absence of commons.

    privacy in public
    Privacy in Public, photo by Susan Sermoneta, CC-BY

    That doesn’t mean privacy can do without protection. The commons collapses easily, especially when your information is disconnected from your physical presence, as is usually the case in our digital age. Where the commons collapses, because i.e. the social distance increases, or contexts change or fully drop away, there rules and instruments are needed.

    In that light Brenno shared a few notions I wanted to capture and put in this context of the commons:

  • The “If you have nothing to hide, why bother?” argument introduces a false dilemma. It puts the onus on the individual who seeks privacy, and not on whether the other entity complies with existing privacy rules and laws (=a responsible member of the commons). It may also well be what is ok now, will carry dire consequences in the future (e.g. homophobia in Uganda) when the character of the commons changes especially radically.
  • In the Netherlands there are no consequences for disregarding privacy rules around data inside a data-using entity (e.g. staff nosing around in data they have nothing to do with, like doctors looking up medical files from famous patients they are not treating themselves). Others can act as if outside the commons without social scrutiny.
  • Whenever there is a data security breach the data holder is generally portrayed as the victim, and not the people who’s personal data it is, or who are described by the data and who’s expectation of privacy in the commons got damaged. (as well as disregarding the fact that in the EU my personal data at company x is my data.)
  • The Dutch privacy watchdog CBP has 86 staff, compared to 1 million companies and government branches they need to watch. The watch dog has no teeth. The commons is mostly undefended.
  • Privacy has weak anchors in Dutch law. The commons is mostly undefended.
  • Why are there no (routine) impact assesments of measures that erode privacy in the name of security? If erosion of privacy is to be tolerated, the damage it constitutes to the commons needs to be not just balanced but surpassed by the benefits to the commons on other aspects.

  • All of these points are relevant to the question of how to maintain or extend the commons with rules and instruments, so that the gift of privacy can be given. By making sure the ‘infringing’ party is under similar social pressures to behave. By making sure we maintain a realistic balance when privacy needs to be temporarily eroded for the sake of the commons (that is the source of privacy).

    When privacy breaks down also the commons itself breaks down, as privacy is the pathway and the trust base for taking part in the public sphere.

    Notes, notes, notes. Centuries of notes.

    We visited “O’Hanlons Heroes” yesterday, in the local natural history museum (Twentse Welle). In this exposition by Redmond O’Hanlon, in parallel to a previous tv series, he follows in the footsteps of all his 19th century explore heroes.

    19th Century Notebook
    19th century explorer’s notebook

    What jumped out for me, once again, from all the displays, is that taking notes of each and every thing is a key habit. Because you never know what will have meaning afterwards, or which patterns jump out at you when you take a step back.

    A good reminder that all those notebooks, the 20.000+ photos, all the stuff in Evernote, 12 years of blogging isn’t useless. Even if for most of the time I never look at it. It is raw material. Taking notes are for taking note.

    Making as a Communal Process vs Individual Act

    I want to redefine my working definition of ‘Making’ and ‘Makers’. To me, seeing making as literally making an object by myself, misses the more fundamental shift of what is going on with ‘making’. It’s time to look at ‘Making’ as a communal process, instead of an individual act to create a solitary object.

    My grand-dad made stuff in his shed all the time. For him making was an individual act. He made something. It was also focussed on a singular object, often a simple hack for a task at hand. He made something.

    If you take that as a definition of making, the ‘maker movement‘ is just about having access to cheaper and better machinery, DIY gone digital. Cool machines for milling, laser cutting and 3d printing, that replace or augment a range of hand tools.
    These machines thanks to digitization and open source hardware are on a path of becoming exponentially cheaper as well as better. But cheap tools do not a movement make.

    As with most things digital, the key new thing is the global high speed connectedness that internet and mobile communications give us. It’s not just having the machines, but having them while being part of a global pool of knowledge, and a global network of people.
    That immensely expands the context of making in several dimensions, away from the solitary objects my grand-dad made.

    This global knowledge pool and network adds three dimensions enormously increasing the potential of ‘making’:

  • The first dimension is that of having access to all knowledge about everything you could make with your machines as well as how to make them (including ‘just-hit-print’ designs). This is still centered around the object, but expands your creativity and hacking skills with those of everyone else. This is what is most commonly understood as maker culture.
  • Second it provides insight and knowledge on how making is so much more than just creating an object. Ideation, experimenting and probing various options, creating it, and then utilizing it in the intended context, all become part of Making. For all those aspects our connectedness can provide input. Understanding this dimension is hugely important, both disruptive innovation theory and start-ups testify.
  • Thirdly it widens the range for which we can make something. Bigger awareness of global issues and how they play out in our local community and context, allows us to come up with different things to make, that help address it. [Think hydro/aquaponics projects in derelict US inner cities]
  • When you put all of those together, ‘making’ is the local expression of global knowledge and awareness, that in turn can serve as a trigger for interaction and change locally.

    Viewed this way, making is a communal process. Communal both in its source of knowledge and inspiration, as well as in the context and rationale of where the stuff you made is put to use. Process, as in the full cycle from awareness of issues, ideation, and creation, all the way to application, impact, and sharing the resulting insights again.

    Seeing making as an individual act towards a solitary object obscures the layered richness making in the digital age is an expression of. A maker is not doing DIY, but a maker becomes a bridge or boundary spanner between his own local community and other wider global communities, as well as becomes a community hacker.

    At ThingsCon in Berlin and 3D Camp in Limerick next month, as well as at our own MidSummer Unconference ‘Make Stuff That Matters’ in June, I will take this perspective of ‘Making as communal process’ as starting point.

    Update on Local Spending Data FOIA Requests

    Four weeks ago I asked all 25 municipalities in my Province for their spending data, as reported in so called IV3 files to the Dutch national statistics office. As all municipalities use the same format, this makes it possible to compare spending and budgets across communities, for instance as is done at openspending.nl

    Because I asked 25 government bodies the same question at the same time, it also makes for interesting comparisons on how each of them deals with requests for information, and how that compares to the legal obligations in place in the Freedom of Information Act (WOB, FOIA).

    Today is day 28, and that is the end of the initial period, stated in the law, government bodies have to respond to requests. So how did the 25 municipalities do?

    As of today I have received 15 out of 25 requested data sets (60%). The shortest response time was 4 days, and the last week, as the deadline was approaching, saw most activity.
    Just over half (14 out of 25, 56%) turn out to only accept FOIA requests on paper, and not through e-mail. This is an mostly unnecessary obstructive effort to reduce the number of citizen requests received, and especially to prevent overlooking requests and thus penalties.

    Five municipalities have announced postponing their answer with (the legally defined) additional 4 weeks. Four have a few days of the first 4 weeks remaining (the days used for me responding on paper where the original e-mail wasn’t accepted). One municipality is now officially late.

    All in all a pretty good result thusfar in my opinion.

    The FabLab Truck Is Coming

    With 17 confirmed participants from 7 countries, we are now just under three months away from the ‘Make Stuff that Matters UnConference‘ that Elmine and I are hosting on 20/21 June.
    This weekend we announced one of the key ingredients: FryskLab is coming!

    bus1 klein
    Image: Frysklab.nl

    This 12 meter long truck, is a converted mobile library, and now houses maker machines. It is operated by the provincial library for Fryslan in the north of the Netherlands. Equipment for 3d-printing, laser cutting and milling is all on board and will be parked on our doorstep. A facilitator will be there to teach participants and neighbours to use the machines.

    As the FabLab bus is taking up quite a bit of space, we do still need to talk to the neighbours about using some of the parking spaces. But as they will have the opportunity to play with the machines as well, I am sure the neighbours won’t mind much to park their car a bit further away for 2 days.

    An Exercise In Freedom of Information: Local Spending Data

    I have approached all 25 municipalities in my province with a freedom of information (foia) request for local spending data. This is a little side project that serves two purposes:

  • Bringing together spending data for the entire region
  • Establishing the FOIA readiness and processes of municipalities


  • Where does my money go
    Where does my money go? The first financial transparency open data project.

    OpenSpending: getting local spending data
    The main trigger for this is the OpenSpending project which exists as a global project, but also has a separate national Dutch clone at openspending.nl by the Open State Foundation. All Dutch municipalities report their spending and revenue in a fixed format, called IV3, to the Dutch Statistics Office CBS on a quarterly basis. If this data would be available for all municipalities, it would enable great comparison opportunities. Right now, only the data for the city of Amsterdam is available.

    So last October I did a FOIA request in my home town Enschede, to get the spending data, and promptly received it within a week. That data is now findable through the Enschede city data portal. Now that openspending.nl announced it is ready for more data, I decided to try and get some for my entire region. Last Monday I sent out 24 FOIA requests to municipalities in my province for their IV3 files.

    FOIA readiness and process assessment
    Now that I have send out 24 identical FOIA requests for spending data, and have the original one as benchmark, this provides good opportunity to compare the way municipalities deal with FOIA requests. So that provides the second purpose of this exercise.

    I will track the progress of my 24 FOIA requests, and document the results. Thusfar 5 out of 24 have let me know their digital communication path is closed for FOIA, so I have posted letters to those. One (1) municipality quickly confirmed my request, properly recognizing it as a FOIA request and stating it had been forwarded to the right person internally, a handful of others automatically confirmed reception of my e-mail.

    Going To 3D Camp Limerick: Connecting Open Data and Making

    Schermafbeelding 2014-03-11 om 19.00.36

    Elmine and I will be speaking at 3DCamp in Limerick, Ireland in May. It’s the 7th annual barcamp dedicated to a “broad range of technologies that change the way we interact with computers”. At the invitation of Gabriela Avram who is with the Limerick University’s Department of Computer Science and Information Systems, and the Interaction Design Centre, we’ll be visiting the event, and might also give a workshop the day before at the University of Limerick.

    I’ve set myself the task to bridge open data and making in a meaningful way.

    I pitched it like this:
    What we make should matter, help solve and mean something for you or for others, provide a perspective for action and new affordances. In this talk, building on my experiences in both worlds, I will explore how Open Data and Making can mutually reinforce each other.

  • What data do you need, in order to decide what to make to solve a local issue?
  • How do you get that data open?
  • What can you make to gather data yourself?
  • What can you make that let’s you act on what data tells you?
  • Can we make tangible things that let us understand data better?
  • Taking practical examples from across Europe as inspiration, let’s see what we can come up with!

    I also proposed a hands on workshop on this topic. There we could hands on explore the entire process of:

  • pick a local issue,
  • map out stakeholders and data sets,
  • design actions to get or gather data,
  • ideate what type of things would provide stakeholders with perspectives for action / affordances needed,
  • decided on what to make from ideas generated, and how
  • I think this is a great way to also prepare for our own MidSummer Unconference “Making Stuff That Matters”, when Elmine and I will welcome a wide range of peers to our home to explore Making.

    You can follow 3D Camp on Twitter, for the latest on other sessions.

    Making Things Tangible

    We see and think differently with our hands than with our eyes and heads. Whenever we make something tangible it has the potential to change our perspective.

    This became tangible again for me last December when I participated in Wiro Kuiper’s ‘Lego serious play’ workshop. Handling lego stones, seeing something take shape in your hands, involves a different part of your brain while thinking on questions like “what is it that I do for clients?” as depicted in the pic below. (Add your guess as to what it means in the comments ;) )

    Lego Serious Play Workshop
    What I do for clients, @ lego serious play workshop

    Since that workshop I have been musing about how ‘making something tangible’ could play a role in more of my work situations. Without much progress.


    Tangible statistics, MAKE.opendata.ch

    Recently we acquired a 3D printer at home. Previously I have encountered 3d printing ear hangers from visualized statistics based on open data (shown above), and I discussed that idea with Elmine. She, for a little side project of her, printed the two items below.

    tangible statsElmine’s 3d printed statistics

    They are both printed statistics: the small one is the number of Germans in the Dutch border region, and the bigger one the number of Dutch in the German border region (data source). Each by itself does not mean much to me. But in combination they are very interesting again: they make differences in amount tangible. You can feel the difference when you take the objects in your hands. Tangible infographics as it were.

    Where could I apply that? And also, how to overcome my reluctance to make things tangible like this early / quickly as part of my own exploration (I tend to keep everything in text or in my head)?