Bryan Alexander blogs a good overview of resources to track the spread of Covid-19. We’re not in pandemic territory yet, but given current statistics, it may end up where about 50% of a country’s population gets the virus (with ~2% fatalities). The coming weeks will tell how it plays out. Bryan links to a cool global dashboard by John Hopkins (screenshot below).

With two independent confirmed cases in the Netherlands in the last 24 hours (both having travelled to the Italian areas with an outbreak), it’s a good time to check preparedness, for the company (pdf) and personally. I am already encountering impacts like production cycles getting disrupted and deliveries of things I ordered getting postponed indefinitely because the Chinese factories aren’t running at their normal levels. I am also hearing the first companies in my network cancelling international travel of their employees to events.

In my company there’s not much to prepare really, as we can switch to fully remote work easily. There may be mid-term to longer term impact on landing new projects. Specifically some work in SE Asia, foreseen for June I think might be impacted. Other projects in the pipeline also may depend on how cautious clients will get in the coming weeks depending on developments.

At home we’ve checked our stocks to ensure we can take care of ourselves for about a month. This as if you happen to find yourself in an outbreak area, like Milan currently, you will likely encounter empty supermarket shelves within 3 days. Currently the most disruptive thing likely is if public spaces like Y’s daycare get shut down, meaning she’ll be at home 3 extra days. For now we’re not anywhere near that though.

Cory Doctorow formulates something that I think can go onto every list of principles organisations I work with formulate for smart cities, as well as the many data ethics discussions I sit in on.

Don’t track people, help people track the environment to feed their decisions. This flipping of perpective fits with what I posted yesterday about Peter Bihr’s approach to smart cities. It also fits with my main irritation at the state of debate about self driving cars, where all is centered on the car itself. Self driving cars will need to tap into a myriad of sensor streams from lamp posts, road pavement, and whatnot.

Cory’s approach provides agency, the standard smart city approaches tend to take it away.

Bookmarked Imagining a “smart city” that treats you as a sensor, not a thing to be sensed | Cory Doctorow’s craphound.com

the idea of an Internet of Things that treats people “as sensors, not things to be sensed” — a world where your devices never share your data with anyone else to get recommendations or advice, but rather, where all the inanimate objects stream data about how busy they are and whether they’re in good repair, and your device taps into those streams and makes private recommendations, without relaying anything about you or your choices to anyone else.

As I’ve often written, the most important thing about technology isn’t what it does, but who it does it to, and who it does it for. The sizzle-reels for “smart cities” always feature a control room where wise technocrats monitor the city and everyone in it — all I’m asking is that we all get a seat in that control room.

The key insight I find I gained in the past months is that SDGs can be used to add a macroscope to most issues and challenges. So I think Peter Bihr definitely is on a useful track:

Peter Bihr posts about using the UN Human Right Charter, and more specifically the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as a framing for responsible IoT and Smart Cities.

2019 12 Smart City Evaluation FrameworkImage Peter Bihr, license CC BY NC SA

I find using the SDGs a valuable notion to help balance any of your activities. A while ago I listened to a conversation with Taiwanese Minister Audrey Tang (唐凤), who explicitly formulates her entire job description in terms of SDGs, and that was a very useful nudge for me. I know my friend Henriette also formulates her activities in a similar way.

I currently work quite a bit with one client on policy monitoring, indicators and measurements. One of the elements I stress is that you need to be aware how indicators can create perverse impulses if used singularly, and that you need to look at any proposed set of measurements to see what they overlook and ignore. Unexpected consequences if they impact visible stakeholders probably will get incorporated over time, but externalised costs and effects (impacting people, places and systems outside your view) usually won’t. SDGs, because they cover a wide range of topics, and acknowledge the deep interconnectness and interdependencies between those varied topics, are a helpful starting point to find a balanced and nuanced approach. So that (taking a randomly imagined example) climate, poverty and equality related elements can be meaningfully incorporated into a mobility dashboard that would otherwise maybe just stick to zoomed in things like traffic density and average speed on a highway. It’s the type of zooming in and out, around a specific challenge, out to the surrounding system(s), and in to the constituent building blocks, that is a common approach in TRIZ innovation efforts, with in this case the SDGs providing a macroscope for the zooming out while maintaining local / zoomed in context.

Herzlichen Dank, Heinz, das du uns im Blog mitnimmst in deiner Suche, und Gedanken über den eigenen und praktischen Umgang mit dem Thema Klimanotstand.

Liked Wissenschaftliche Distanz und Aktivismus—Notizen zu Will Steffen und Hans Blumenberg by Heinz Wittenbrink Web teacher and blogger, living in Graz and sometimes in Dubrovnik.Heinz Wittenbrink Web teacher and blogger, living in Graz and sometimes in Dubrovnik.

Zur wissenschaftlichen Haltung gehört eine distanzierte Perspektive auf die Zeit—sowohl auf die erdgeschichtliche Zeit, mit der es die Erdsystemforschung zu tun hat, wie auf den zukünftigen Fortschritt der Forschung selbst, in der Erkenntnisse immer wieder revidiert und weiterentwickelt werden. Diese Perspektive unterscheidet sich von der lebensweltlichen Perspektive auf die Zeit und auf historische Ereignisse, die praktisch beeinflusst werden können. Wenn die Wissenschaft aber durch ihre eigene Entwicklung mit diesen lebensweltlichen Ereignissen, und zwar mit extrem bedrohlichen Entwicklungen konfrontiert ist, dann lässt sich die wissenschaftliche Distanz nur noch zynisch aufrechterhalten. Die homogene, neutralisierte und unendliche Zeit der von der Wissenschaft untersuchten Ereignisse und des wissenschaftlichen Fortschritts lässt sich nicht mehr von der endlichen Zeit der historischen Erfahrung und der politischen Praxis trennen. Angesichts apokalyptischer Ereignisse, deren hohe Wahrscheinlichkeit sich mit der überhaupt möglichen wissenschaftlichen Sicherheit voraussagen lässt, werden die Möglichkeiten, diese Ereignisse zu verhindern, zur wissenschaftlichen Priorität.

Cornucopia
Abundance isn’t shipping containers full of stuff. (image by me, CC BY NC SA)

Last month I was at the Scifi Economics Lab, and Cory Doctorow
was one of the speakers. There was much to unpack in his talk, and he has a style of delivery that makes you want to quote a lot of things. I won’t give in to that urge, but will highlight one expression.

At some point he talked about abundance. It’s a term I’ve struggled with over the years because it’s so easy to interpret as having mountains of stuff, as per the image above. Or have everything free. A Dutch expression or rather admonition “we don’t live in the land where chickens fly into your mouth already fried” is probably an image our Calvinist culture associates with abundance: no work, but all the fruits of it. I have a sense of the meaning of abundance other than that, but never felt I had the right words to express that other perspective on abundance.

Doctorow’s metaphor for abundance was useful for me. He described back packers always having to carry a roll of toilet paper with them and that if not used it would desintegrate in your backpak, and therefore regularly needs replacement. Backpackers spent resources on replacing their toilet paper and spent mental energy on keeping an eye on still having it with them. A constant worry, and an inefficient use of resources (as you don’t use much of the toilet paper for its intended purpose, due to degradation).
Abundance then is being certain there is toilet paper when and where you need it. This is a qualitative metaphor that adds location, timing and actual need as dimensions of relevance. Abundance here is also more efficient, reduces worry, and is always there when needed. But it’s not limitless, free, or available anywhere for anything at any whim. It’s about qualitative abundance not quantitative abundance (‘heaps of free stuff’).

Hotel Room Toilet Paper Roll FoldMetaphorical Practical abundance, image by Tony Webster, license CC BY

This makes a vast number of things abundant in the society I live in, because it is there when I need it, without worry. Water, food, energy, clothing, transport, and everything else including toilet paper. (I once had a Central-Asian colleague who told me she thought, having visited, the Netherlands was totally boring because of that predictable abundance: no need to improvise anytime/anywhere.) Especially in the context of the six ways to die, abundance is an important notion, also because that abundance is often acquired by increasing the complexity of our systems. That complexity can break down.

Time, location and the context of an existing need are qualitative dimensions interesting to consider as design factors. What do you do when one or more of them are not to be counted on? Or can be counted upon, but at specific intervals? This is dealing with and designing for intermittence, as building block of both resilience and agency. That’s for another time.

Last week danah boyd was presented with an EFF award. She gave a great acceptance speech titled Facing the Great Reckoning Head-On, that contains a plethora of quotes to highlight. Exploring how to make sense of the entire context and dynamics, in which the MIT Media Lab scandal of funding from a badly tainted source could take place (which I previously mentioned here, here and here.) So it’s best to just go read the entire thing.

In stark contrast, Lawrence Lessig’s ‘exploration’ makes no sense to me, and comes across as tone deaf, spending hundreds of words putting forward a straw man that if you accept tainted funding it always should be anonymous, while saying he personally wouldn’t accept such funding. That might well be, but has no real bearing on the case. Instead of putting forward how hard it is to raise funding, he could just as well have argued that higher education should be publicly funded, and funded well to avoid situations like at MIT Media Lab. A model that works well around the globe. Lessig wrote a book against corruption, meaning the funding focus of US politics, but doesn’t here call out the private funding of higher education on the same terms, even though the negative consequences are the same.

On the other hand boyd’s speech addresses the multiple layers involved. One’s own role in a specific system, and in a specific institute, how privilege plays out. How the deeply personal, the emotional and the structures and systems we create relate to and mutually impact each other. Acknowledging and sketching out the complexity, and then to seek where meaningful boundaries are is much maturer way to take this on than Lessig’s highlighting a single dimension of a situation which seems minimally pertinent to it, and worse because of its ‘flatness’ is easily perceived to be actively denying the emotional strata involved and in dire need of recognition.

As said go read the entire speech, but I’ll pick out a few quotes nevertheless. They are pertinent to topics I blog about here, such as the recently launched TechPledge, the role of community, the keys to agency, and resonates with my entire take on technology.

The story of how I got to be standing here is rife with pain and I need to expose part of my story in order to make visible why we need to have a Great Reckoning in the tech industry. This award may be about me, but it’s also not. It should be about all of the women and other minorities who have been excluded from tech by people who thought they were helping.

I am here today in-no-small-part because I benefited from the generosity of men who tolerated and, in effect, enabled unethical, immoral, and criminal men. And because of that privilege, I managed to keep moving forward even as the collateral damage of patriarchy stifled the voices of so many others around me.

What’s happening at the Media Lab right now is emblematic of a broader set of issues plaguing the tech industry and society more generally. Tech prides itself in being better than other sectors. But often it’s not.

If change is going to happen, values and ethics need to have a seat in the boardroom. Corporate governance goes beyond protecting the interests of capitalism. Change also means that the ideas and concerns of all people need to be a part of the design phase and the auditing of systems, even if this slows down the process.

…whether we like it or not, the tech industry is now in the business of global governance.

“Move fast and break things” is an abomination if your goal is to create a healthy society…In a healthy society, we strategically design to increase social cohesion because binaries are machine logic not human logic.

…accountability without transformation is simply spectacle.

The goal shouldn’t be to avoid being evil; it should be to actively do good. But it’s not enough to say that we’re going to do good; we need to collectively define — and hold each other to — shared values and standards.

Human progress needs the the tech sector to be actively reflective, and to continuously scrutinise its ethics, the values and morals actually expressed in behaviour.