Category Archives: Learning

Of Maps and Landscapes, of Relics and Geo-Data

Peter Rukavina regularly sends us printed artefacts. The most recent one was a map of Europe. On it Peter printed “A map is the greatest of all epic poems”, quoting Gilbert Grosvenor, founding editor of National Georgraphic.

Maps in 1975-1980
Maps have always been highly fascinating to me. As a kid I endlessly pored over maps, and drew them and copied them at different scales as a pass time in primary school after having completed the regular work. I remember being shocked as a kid that maps could change more or less arbitrarily. I saw them as rock solid descriptions of how things were and would remain. When Rhodesia changed its name to Zimbabwe in 1980, it all of a sudden meant that the world map on the classroom wall and my lighted globe and atlas at home were incorrect. The horror. Those changes I now see as what makes maps fascinating, and turns them into epic poems in the words of Grosvenor.

A map from 1918-1940
Take the map Peter sent us for instance. At first glance it’s a basic map of Europe, but upon closer inspection it’s a map of Europe valid for just a short time.

The map Peter sent us, photo by Elmine, CC-BY-NC-SA

It shows Austria and Hungary apart and Iceland independent, so it must be from after 1918. But it also shows Istria as part of Italy and the Baltic states as independent, which both place it after 1920. It also shows Yugoslavia, a name officially adopted in October 1929.

The map can also not be more recent than 1940, as it as stated shows Baltic independence. That Lviv, currently in Ukraine, is shown as Polish (and Poland being further to the east than now), places it before September 1939. That it shows Austria, which by 1939 was part of Nazi Germany, means it dates from before March 1938. It mentions the Irish Free State, which dates it to before December 1937. But wait, it shows Istanbul as being named Constantinopel. Istanbul was officially renamed in March 1930.

So this map represents the geopolitical lay-out of Europe as it was between October 1929 and March 1930. It was a valid representation for a mere 6 months!

A map in 2018 isn’t one from 1929
In my current work geographic references are as important as ever, as they make it possible to combine and thus make useful a myriad of other data sources. Almost everything we as humans do has a significant geographic connection. Maps famously are not the same as the terrain. Yet in digital times, the map is not only not the terrain, the terrain isn’t what it used to be anymore either.

Useful geographic data in the digital era are more and more fluid, and increasinlgy invisible to the user. When I grew up we mostly used maps while we were on the move long distance, figuring how to drive from the Netherlands to the Austrian alps in the summer for instance. Nowadays if I e.g. look at my location history in Google maps, the most eye-catching movements are the least informative. Large movements are like taking an underground, you sit down in a chair with no leg room in one city and are spewed out at the other end in another, with no notion of the fly-over country in between.

A random month worth of my travel. The most striking lines are the least informative, the dots are more important

Key has become hyper-localized geo-referenced socially contextualized information: where in this city that I find myself today can I find good coffee, according to my network, within 350 meters? For that type of movement maps become part of the engine under the hood, but often no longer are necessary to display. My phone vibrates in my pocket, short long short short, or L in Morse code, at a left turn, and short long short, or R, at a right turn, while I make my way to the coffee place with the confident swagger of a local.

Peter’s map is a relic, and not just because it was only correct for 6 months in 1929-1930 to begin with. Still just as fascinating though as it was to me as kid in the 1970’s.

Crap Detection is a Critical Digital Literacy

Abraham Lincoln famously said in the 1860’s “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.“, and he’s right of course. George Washington already warned us a century earlier that “the greatest thing about Facebook is that you can quote something and totally make up the source.” Add to it the filter bubbles that algorithms create around you on Facebook, fake news and the influencing that third parties try to do, and you can be certain that the trustworthiness of internet is now even worse than it was in the 19th or 18th century.

Sidewalk Stencil: Abraham Lincoln
“Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.”, Abraham Lincoln hit the nail on the head in 1864 already.

Dealing with crap on the internet however sometimes seems something only for professionals. Facebook should filter better, or be more transparent. Online forensic research like Bellingcat does is the only way to disprove online deception. The problem is that it absolves you and me way too easily of our own responsibility in detecting crap. If something seems too funny, coincidental or too conveniently fitting into your own believe framework, it should trigger us into taking a step back. To take time to determine for ourselves whether Lincoln really said that, whether a picture was really taken where and when it is claimed, and if a source really exists or can be determined as trustworthy.

To be able to detect crap on the internet, you need crap detection tools. My Brainstorms-friend Howard Rheingold and others have put together a useful list of crap detection tools (of which I very often use the reverse image search tools like Tineye, to verify the actual origin of a photo). The list is well maintained and growing. The listed tools help you quickly check-up on things before you share something and reinforce a vicious cycle making more and more social media platforms toxic.

Not spreading dubious material is a civic duty, just like cleaning up after yourself in a public space. This makes crap detection a critical digital information skill. Download or bookmark the list of crap detection tools, add some of the mentioned tools as plugins to your browser, and use it to your advantage.


Playing With Q-GIS

Most of my open data work is with government entities to help change their processes, routines and perceptions to ensure steps towards open by design. I almost never really work with open data itself during those activities. So I decided to accept the challenge we ourselves issued with the launch of the Frisian Open Data Platform.

The challenge was to “find out what the planting year was of the monumental tree that is nearest the street light with the provincial ID number 696502”. Finding that out needed to be done by using data from the Frisian Open Data Platform.

Figuring out which data to use was easy. There is a provincial data set that contains the position and ID’s of all street lights for roads where the province is responsible (other roads can be the responsibility of a municipality, or the national government). There is another data set of the city of Leeuwarden that contains all trees of interest within the city limits. If the street light with the right ID is within city limits, it should be possible to answer the question with the tree data set of Leeuwarden.

So what I did was first look in the provincial data set for the right ID. I copied the coordinates that data set gives for that ID into Google Maps, to see where it is on the map, and it turned out to indeed be within Leeuwarden city limits. So the Leeuwarden tree list contains the answer I’m looking for.

Then I started up Q-GIS, which is an open source geo-data viewer (and in fact, a very capable open source GIS *editor* too, as Peter says in the comments). It is possible to connect a CKAN data portal, such as the Frisian platform is, to Q-GIS. Under the menu-option Plugins in Q-GIS one can install a CKAN plugin, which gives you a CKAN logo button in Q-GIS. Pressing that prompts a dialog in which you can specify the right address for the CKAN server you want to use. This was specified on the Frisian platform as I also needed to add a default folder that can be used to keep necessary files.

Now I could search within all the Frisian open data platform data sets right within Q-GIS, using that plugin. I first loaded a map of the Netherlands (the TOP10NL map, which is the most detailed map the Dutch Cadastre provides, as a zipfile of 2GB). I used the PDOK Dutch open geoportal for this, for which I had already previously installed the PDOK plugin, in similar ways as the CKAN plugin). Then I added the Provincial street light list, and the Leeuwarden tree list as layers on the map. I then scrolled the map to the location I had previously checked out in Google Maps.

In the screenshot below you see green dots on the red road. Those are provincial street lights. The rightmost green dot is the one we’re looking for. A bit further to the right you see a row of purple dots. Those are the trees, and one of these is nearest our green dot. Now, I visually judged which purple dot is the nearest, although you could calculate it from the coordinates in the data. Also there is some room for error, as most of the trees in that row were planted at the same time as it turns out. By clicking on one of the dots in Q-GIS you can see the data fields and labels attached to it, and that gave me the year of planting.

The map of Leeuwarden, with the street lights as green dots on the red road in the middle, and the monumental trees as purple dots.

At the top you see the depicted map layers (Dutch map top10nl, trees in ‘bomen’, street lights in ‘provfriesland’), below that, when you highlight a specific purple dot, under identification results (‘identificatieresultaten’), PLANTJAAR is the field with the year of planting.

Unexpected Great Feedback

Earlier this year I worked closely with the Frisian Library Service to create the project ‘Impact through connection, at school‘ together. At the core was my model of agency and a process I designed to guide a group towards exploring using both technology and methods to address a local issue. Today I had a conversation with Jeroen de Boer, of the FryskLab team, who had involved me in putting my idea to practice, at a primary school with a group of 10 year olds. We talked about what came after the project that took place in January to March.

Group photo with the class
The class and our team in front of the Frysklab truck last March

That’s when I received some awesome feedback.

“Your experimental process has basically become the way we work now during workshops and with groups”.

He also had heard from the teacher of the class we worked with that “the pupils said it was the best thing in the entire school year”.

The project was partly financed by the Dutch Royal Library and they indicated it was “one of the most inspiring projects they helped finance this year”.

That sounds like a great starting point to explore what else we can do together next year.

More Fun Than Annual Class Trip: Making at School, Some First Observations

In the past weeks I’ve been part of a team working with a class of 10/11 year olds, as an experiment around increasing agency with 21st century digital skills, under the title Impact through Connection. In this I’m partnering with the NHL (university of applied sciences), and the regional Frisian library BSF, with some funding coming from the Dutch Royal Library as part of their Vision Mediasavviness 2016-2018 program. The experiment centered around helping the group to identify communal issues, situations they would like to change, and then to develop ideas and realize them. So that the group ‘gets’ that with various making and other machines and instruments, they have the agency, have the power, to change their surroundings for themselves as a group.

Since January we’ve been meeting with the school’s team, and then weekly 6 times with the class of 22 children. It was loads of fun, not just for the kids involved. The highest compliment we received was that one of them said “this is more fun than the annual school trip”. Another remarked feeling sorry that all other classes had to work, while they were making stuff. We pointed out that they too were working very hard, but differently, and that having fun does not mean you’re not working.

Yesterday we’ve had the final session, ending with presentations of the things they built (such as phone covers for phone-types that aren’t otherwise available, a way to look under water, a class room MP3 player for audiobooks, games, computer controlled door locks, a candy machine, a robot to counteract bullying, websites documenting the process, and a money system for the school).

Afterwards I returned home and jotted down a list of observations to reflect on. We plan to do a similar experiment with a group of adults from the same neighborhood as the school serves, as well as will aim to replicate it for other school classes.

First, for context, the order of the sessions we did.
Session 1: group discussion about the children’s environment, things they would like to change, ideas for making things they had. Resulted in a ‘wall of ideas’, ordered from ‘looks less hard to do’, to ‘looks harder to do’.
Session 2: getting to know maker machines (3d printers, laser cutters, electronics, etc.), by bringing the machines to the class room, and parking the Frysklab Mobile FabLab out front.
Session 3: getting to know programming (using Micro:bits, all the children got one to keep)
Session 4: Diving deeper in to the idea now they have a notion of what is possible with the machines and material available, using a canvas to think about what the idea solves, whom it is for, what part of the idea to zoom in on, and who in their own social network could help them realize it.
Session 5: building prototypes (again with Frysklab parked outside)
Session 6: building prototypes and presenting results

In non-specific order here are some of the raw observations I made in the past weeks, that we can further elaborate and chew on, to create the next iteration of this experiment.

On the process (time, time time!):

  • The school team school was extremely supportive, and the teacher showed enormous flexibility. She rearranged her normal class schedule extensively to ensure we had more time than we thought possible.
  • The process we designed worked, but we could have spent more time and attention to several parts of it.
  • The process worked in the sense that we got everyone to make things, and have them dive deep beyond the initial magic and wow of 3d-printing and laser cutters
  • We asked them to map out the groups they belonged to, and both their own and their classmate’s skills. We spent too little time to do that properly and to use it fruitfully in the process afterwards
  • We didn’t succeed in our original plan to bring the group to defining one or a few projects that were less person and more group focussed (except for the kid that designed a currency system for the school), and then select parts of that on which individuals or small groups could work. It seems we would need to spend more effort in the run-up to the cycle of sessions to do that properly
  • Working with a pool of people with specific domain knowledge that we could bring in when needed worked very well and strengthened the results
  • I used a canvas to help the group get to better defined projects, and while it worked, the steps in filling the canvas could have been better defined. Now some raced ahead, without key information for the next bits, while I worked with others to take the first few steps
  • The overall process hasn’t become clear to the group as a distinct shape, I think. Although that would enable them to design their own projects on their own (more on that later)
  • Having the children present their work to the group at the end was fun, useful and a good way to bring everything together again

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Two filled out canvases

On our team and the teacher

  • When we look at Making, we see how it is different from what was before, how all of a sudden ‘anyone’ can do things that took specialised machines and factories earlier, and how that changes the dynamics of it all. The children don’t see it that way, because they don’t have that history. Although that history is the source of our own fascination it is not the fascination you can confer to the children, as it is by definition a meaningless comparison to them.
  • Our large pool of people to help out was necessary to be able to provide adequate guidance. Even if adding 5-7 adults to a classroom feels like a lot.
  • More clearly articulating to the group which roles team members help might be helpful (e.g. I don’t know my way around the Frysklab truck, but still got asked a lot by the kids about it. I solved it by saying, I don’t know either, let’s go find out together)
  • The teacher could likely have a more defined role during the sessions (other than trying to keep a semblance of order), maybe also in building the bridges to other parts of the curriculum in the run-up?
  • We had several preparatory meetings with the teacher and others inthe school
  • There’s a lot I can’t do (too little experience with the machines to have internalized all routines, my own thinking is often too little visual and too much textual) It’s partly a pro as well (as it makes it easy for me to led the child lead the thinking proces, as I don’t have answers either)

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At work in the FabLab truck, and 3d printers chugging away

The path the children took

  • Large differences within the group, also in self-image, means very different speeds within the process (‘I don’t think there’s something I am really really good at’)
  • Finding out that the path from your fantasy to making it tangible reality contains disappointments (what is possible, what is realistic within time given, how does a result compare to what you imagined at first), and finding or not finding ways to surmount that disappointment
  • Not everyone was able to visualize from their ideas towards the parts that make up the whole, or different aspects and steps
  • Enormous richness in ideas, but sometimes very narrowly focussed
  • It is very important to build a bridge from the classroom project to at home (“can I take this home” “but this is something I can’t do at home”). Part of the empowerment lies here. (Also as they proudly told and partly mobilized their parents for their ideas as well)
  • They willingly left us their projects so the Frysklab team could show them on a national conference the day after the last session, after promising to return their projects soon

Visible impact and affect during the sessions

  • Really listening to ideas and trying think them through, remembering what they said about it 3 weeks earlier, is a boost in empowerment for the kids in itself
  • Children don’t have as many experience based associations and ‘hooks’ to listen to our stories, so examples are needed
  • Examples from ‘nearby’, such as the kid with a 3d printed hand prosthetic living in the neighbouring province are therefore very valuable. We need to collect many more of them.
  • Such appealing examples may also aid in bringing across the process and thinking model itself better
  • Giving everyone a Micro:bit during the process therefore turned Jeroen into a hero of everyone in the room (loud cheers!)
  • Taking things home is a source of pride
  • Other classes were jealous of this group
  • The group quickly build attachment to the team (where is Ton? Cheers when a team member arrives a bit late)
  • Concepts like ‘prototyping’ are hard, and zooming in on something small and maintaining attention is too

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Some of the created projects

The making itself

  • Robots! At first almost everyone wanted to build robots (to clean their room e.g.)
  • Things for yourself, versus things for the group. As said, before the making we likely need to build a ‘ramp’ towards more communal oriented projects
  • The realization for the chidren that things take time, can be complicated. That it isn’t magic but actual work
  • The dawning notion that programming means cutting everything into tiny ‘stupid’ steps (‘like explaining it to my 3 yr old sibling’)
  • Software is equated to computers and phones. That things that don’t look like computers can be programmed, and that hard- and software are getting merged more and more (cars, IoT, robots) takes time to land
  • Likewise ‘making’ is connected to hardware, objects and software mostly. Creating ‘systems’ or ‘processes’ is a novel concept (except for the currency making project). Challenging systems is like a fish changing the water it swims in.
  • Similarly for most, their actual environment (the street, the neighborhood, city etc, are also like ‘water’ and mostly perceived as immutable. Measuring things in your environment and acting on it was notably absent in the ideas
  • The attention span needed to zoom in on a small part at a deep enough level to be able to apply it is pretty hard to maintain
  • Building websites to document projects is an essential part the children came up with themselves. Needs to become a standard component of the process.

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Presenting results

Other circumstantial elements

  • Searching online for examples and useful material (like code snippets) can be a stronger part of the process (as answer to the frequent question “but how can I do that?”). Means paying attention to searching skills.
  • The mentioned websites can contribute to that by collecting links to resources etc.
  • Data collections didn’t play a role (likely as there were no ‘sensing’ projects), but could be a resource in other iterations
  • E-mail is not available to all children (not allowed to, don’t want to give out their parents e-mail), but often needed to register for online coding and making tools, or to create a website. Providing throw-away e-mails, like I personally do with 33Mail, is something to add to our toolkit.

Gathering the group for the final group picture

(more pics here in this Dutch language posting by the Frisian library and Frysklab team)

New Experiment: Working on Agency in a School Class

In the coming weeks I will be working with a Dutch school class (group 7, so 10/11 yr olds), in collaboration with the Provincial Library Friesland and their FryskLab team (a mobile FabLab).

Last summer I wrote a series of postings on how I see a path to significantly increase agency for various group in various contexts, if we succeed in lowering the adoption threshold for existing technologies and techniques. Then any group can recombine those technologies and techniques to create a desired impact in their own contexts and environment.

With a little bit of funding from the Dutch Royal Library, the Provincial Library Friesland and me will work with a school class of the Dr. Algraschool and later with people in a neighborhood to put that model to the test.

In collaboration with the NHL, a university for applied sciences, we will use the results of the experiment to propose a follow-up project as part of the NHL’s lectorate on ‘agile craftsmanship’.

The first session is Wednesday, where we will start with the class to discuss the type of things they would like to change or improve around themselves, and what capabilities they feel they themselves and classmates have. In a follow-up session we will combine those ideas and their talents with the facilities of FryskLab, and then work with the children to build their own prototypes, solutions and projects.

I’m looking forward to it. It’s been a long time since I worked with primary school kids. Back in 2007 I worked with 12 primary schools to integrate digital literacies in their regular lessons, where we explored what children were already doing online, and how schools could help guide that, and build on it in their lessons. And it will definitely be a pleasure to work with the FryskLab crew (who were such a great addition to our 2014 Make Stuff That Matters birthday unconference)

Frysklab in da house!
The FryskLab mobile FabLab, parked in front of our home, 2014

Shaking Trees: Changing the World, in the Face of Death

My friend Niels is dying and is celebrating life. Today he gave his ‘Last Lecture’ (viewable here in Dutch, Niels’ lecture starts at 42:00), following the example of Randy Pausch in 2008, in front of 400 people. He made us laugh, he made us think. He made us connect. So we can continue on after he’s no longer here. He turned us into his torch bearers, fakkeldragers in Dutch. That #fakkeldragers was the number 1 trending topic on Twitter in the Netherlands this morning, even as a major storm passed over and we like nothing more than discussing the weather, tells you a little something about Niels.

'Last Lecture' Deluxe @shakingtree #fakkeldragers
400 people in the audience

I met Niels 10 years ago. He reached out to me online to ask me a question. Today he said to realize your dreams you have to start by asking a question. He asked me about learning online. He was a student then, and despite assurances to the contrary he could not access the univ’s buildings with his electric wheelchair and fully participate in the curriculum (Niels has spasticity and requires daily care). Undeterred he set out to arrange his own education online. We explored Second Life together, and we hung out in knowledge management fora, on blogs and social media. Only some 3 years later we finally met face to face, on a Mobile Monday meet-up in Amsterdam. Later we were both active in the topic of complexity management, and worked together to help build up a new company around participatory narrative inquiry. He married, and became a father, and despite every Kafkaesk requirement the ‘system’ threw at him he cut out his own path and became an entrepreneur. “He does not think it is impossible he’ll hold a regular job” someone wrote in his case file once. Another that he was a difficult patient to work with as “he keeps insisting on creating his own plans”.

His sense of humor not only keeps him sane, but also is his primary ‘weapon’ to create a space to be heard in health care and social care discussions and systems that are mostly accustomed to deciding or talking over him. “My case file never mentions the happinness of our family or the joy I find in my work” as key to personal wellbeing. That also drives him as an entrepreneur, where ever he goes he brings together those stakeholders that normally don’t enter into a proper conversation, and in those conversations plants the seeds to make the social and health care system work better. To replace faceless bureaucracy with a human face. To align the sometimes bewildering logic of the system with the logic of actual life. To make the system more efficient as well as more effective that way. Niels his last name roughly translates into English as Shaking Tree, and that became his brand. Shakingtree Interventions shakes things up. All trees in the Netherlands shook today, because of the mentioned storm, and it seems a fitting tribute.

A testament to him shaking things up is that the Secretary General of the Ministry of Health Care was an opening speaker today. He launched the annual ‘Shakingtree Award’ and presented the first one to Niels himself. At the same time he asked Niels, as he is wont to do anyway, to set the criteria for the Shaking Tree Award. Those criteria center around having experience with the health care system, being able to shake things up, and having a sense of humor.

'Last Lecture' Deluxe @shakingtree #fakkeldragers
The Shakingtree Award Statue, a tree of touching hands

Even if this maybe, hopefully, isn’t his real last lecture, “I hope I will have cancer for a very long time”, it was a great day to call upon 400 friends, colleagues and strangers to step up and be a torch bearer, a #fakkeldrager. That message, even without his personal shout-out to me to ‘fix this already’ (to use maker spaces to create cheaper tools and adptations), was loud and clear to all I think. Niels wants us to learn how to “dance with the system“, that was his lesson for us today. He is launching a ‘social domain lab’ to continue teaching that.

Today was a good and a fun day, despite the reason why it was organized. Or as Niels quoted Pema Chödrön “We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” Over the past 18 months in my personal life I’ve learned (again) that to me beauty resides in that space where such layeredness is allowed to exist. Today reinforced it once more. Thank you Niels.

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How to Leave Evernote?

How to deal with the green elephant in the room?

After I quit using Gmail earlier this year, Evernote has become my biggest silo and single point of failure in my workflow. I have been using it since October 2010 with a premium account, and maintain some 4500 notes, about 25GB total in size. With my move away from Gmail, my use of Evernote has actually increased as well. Part of my e-mail triage process now is forwarding receipts etc to Evernote, before removing them from my mail box.

As with leaving Gmail, there are no immediately visible alternatives to Evernote, that cater to all convenient affordances I have become accustomed to. This was already apparant when I quit Gmail, when Peter Rukavina and I exchanged some thoughts about it. So in order to make the first steps towards ditching Evernote, I will follow the recipe I derived from leaving Gmail, as I presented it at the Koppelting conference in August.

Why do I want to leave?

  • It’s a single point of failure for both private and work related material
  • It’s on US servers, and I would like my own cloud instead
  • It’s not exportable in a general format

What I don’t like about Evernote

  • No easy way to get an overview or visualisation of my notes (although notes are easy to link, those links are not visible as a network)
  • No easy way to mine the total of notes, aside from regular search for specific notes
  • No way to let Evernote use my own cloud / server for storage
  • No reliable way to share with others who are not Evernote users themselves

What I like about Evernote

  • Really everything can be a note
  • It’s cross device (I consult material on my phone, and store e.g. boarding passes there during travel)
  • It has good webclippers for most browsers (allowing choosing the destination notebook, tags, and add remarks)
  • I can easily share to Evernote from most apps on my phone
  • I can e-mail material to it, while indicating destination notebook and adding tags
  • I can automate Evernote stuff with Applescript (I e.g. integrate Evernote with my other core tools Things (todo lists) and Tinderbox (mindmapping)
  • It makes handwritten stuff, images, and scans searchable (even if it doesn’t convert everything to text)

Next steps will be coming up with viable solutions and alternatives for each of those points, and see if I can then integrate those into a coherent whole again. Terry Frazier pointed me to The Brain again today on FB. The Brain is a tool I heavily used from 18 to 13 years ago. It turns out this mindmapping/note taking tool is still around. It currently works cross-device and has Android and iOS apps, and allows attaching files and navigating links in a visual way. It comes at a hefty price though, and still looks like it really is from 1998. Will explore a bit if it might fit my needs enough to give it another try.

Koppelting – Session on Leaving Gmail

This weekend the grassroots FabLab conference ‘Koppelting‘ is taking place in Amersfoort, Netherlands. Together with Dirk van Vreeswijk I’ll be doing a session this morning on how to leave Gmail and other walled gardens.

In this session I try to summarize the way I constructed my path out of Gmail in such a manner that it becomes a guide that may enable others to act for themselves. The talk explains why I wanted to leave Gmail, how I finally found a way, and what the replacement solution(s) are I now use. It ends with a ‘recipe’, based on how I found a way out of Gmail, to help you think about what keeps you in your own walled gardens, so it becomes easier to explore alternatives.

Outline and slides
Setting the scene:

  • Using gmail since July 2004
  • 250.000 conversations, across 770.000 messages. 21GB total.
  • 12 years the central hub for all my personal and work e-mail

Why I wanted to leave

  • In part: everything was on US servers
  • In part: because Google with my Gmail and all other data has a very extensive profile of me
  • But most of all: Gmail was a single point of failure. Losing access would mean losing everything concerning mail communications

How I left Gmail

  • From early 2014 started seriously considering it
  • Getting to action was hard as it is extremely easy to use what you have, to stick in your routine. Ease of use keeps you locked in
  • Finding “The Alternative” seemed impossible. Until I thought about the specific aspects that made Gmail so easy for me
    • Multiple addresses into 1 inbox
    • Cross device availability
    • Great filtering and tagging
    • A generic mail address as throw away mail
    • Spam filtering
    • Large free storage space
    • Great search
  • Two core things stood out after making the list
    1. GMail makes it easy to be lazy (piling not filing). I needed to treat myself to a better process: spend a few seconds now (delete, file, delegate), to save more time on search later
    2. What made Gmail great to me in 2004, is now widely available functionality and technology

What I have now
This is described in more detail in my earlier posting that triggered this session. For each item that made Gmail attractive to me I searched for an alternative. Recombining them into a new workflow is a viable alternative for my Gmail usage as a whole. Apart from the technology replacements, key part is up front contemplation and more continuous reflection on my working process. I’m a piler, not a filer, but adding a few seconds during e-mail triage to at least decide putting it in a pile that is not my Inbox, makes all the difference.

The slides are available in PDF on this site, and will be embedded below (currently upload is failing).

Leaving a walled garden planning aid
Although the path for me leaving Gmail took quite a bit of time, I think the journey can be abstracted into a recipe to make it easier to spot your own path out of a walled garden (Gmail, Dropbox, etc.)
The basic steps are:

  1. Pick the walled garden you want to leave
  2. List all the things that make it so convenient for you
  3. Reflect on what that list tells you, about your process and your tools
  4. Find replacements for each element, then recombine them into your new workflow
  5. Share what you found and did, so it is easier for others to follow in your footsteps

The outline and collaborative notes from the session are online on one of the etherpads of the Koppelting conference.

About Koppelting
Koppel is an old Dutch word for communal fields, Ting a Germanic word for a meeting of the free. Organized by the Amersfoort FabLab, a fully opensourced bootstrapped FabLab, Koppelting is the annual grassroots festival about peer production and free/libre alternatives for society.

Germanische-ratsversammlung_1-1250x715Germanic Ting, after the Marcus Aurelius column in Rome, public domain

On Agency: Summary and My Manifesto

Now that I’ve formulated my overall perspective on Agency (part 1 on distributedness, part 2 on defining networked agency, part 3 on technology needs), this is a summary of the key points and their consequences. Half of these are general insights, condensed from what I’ve been exposed to and absorbed in the past 10-15 years or so. These points are why it matters. The novel combinations I think I contribute (marked in bold) provide the ‘how’ to that ‘why’ by delivering the agency towards increasing our agency. These points form my manifesto to act upon.

The key points in summary are:

  1. The agency deficit and potential.
    There are many issues where many people recognize they need or should find different solutions, because existing structures are failing, but do not see a viable path towards action for themselves. This is the current agency deficit. At the same time many existing tools and instruments are underused because of barriers to entry or the form in which they are currently available. This is the agency potential.
  2. The potential of distributedness.
    Distributed digital networks are similarly structured to human networks. Hierarchies and hubs superimposed on a distributed network are rigid edge cases that don’t fully use the flexibility distributed networks can provide. Human networks can more successfully use technology when the same type of flexibility and fluidity is present in the technology used. This is the path to agency.
  3. The relevant unit of agency is a person plus related group in context
    The unit of agency to consider is not the individual on her own, nor a general ‘target’ group, but the combination of a person and the subset of meaningful relationships for a real and given context. Agency is networked. That way both the individual’s capabilities and perspectives as well as those of the relationships involved can be leveraged. This means that to discuss agency it needs to be done for specific contexts, and with knowledge of the relationships involved. No generic answers are possible, although examples are.
  4. Networked agency is the sum of striking power, resilience and agility
    Because your context does not exist in a vacuum but in a global network of other contexts and connections, agency is not merely about what you can do in your context (striking power), but also how you can mitigate (resilience) or leverage (agility) the consequences of things propagating to you from outside of it
  5. ‘Hard’ and ‘soft’ technology need to be always used in combination
    Methods and processes that take human networks as a given in how we act, organize and learn (community building, networking, complexity management etc), in combination with distributed hard technology / science is the relevant scope of technology to consider. Not just ‘real’ tech. This combination is how you create the needed bridge and conduit between the digital and us humans, out of the combinations agency emerges.
  6. Technologies need to be ‘smaller‘ than us, barriers lowered
    We need to seek out, recombine, or create expressions of that technology that allows the context specific user group involved to deploy, alter, and trust or control it, without barriers to entry based on money, expert knowledge, or time consumption. This often means making the technology truly distributed, such that local expressions of it are independently possible in an interdependent global network. There is a range of promising technologies on this path that however need an extra push.
  7. Reasoning from a desired specific impact, not from technology features
    It is necessary to reason from the desired impact. Issues that cannot be solved by a single individual, nor on a general level by a group or mass, but only with the active involvement of the group of people it concerns are the ones to focus on. Issues are context specific, so is impact.
  8. Making it specific creates a design aid
    Putting a (list of) specific contexts (person plus meaningful relations) at one end, and a (list of possibly) desired impact on a specific issue at the other, with the lists of potential hard and soft technologies in between, such as in the image below, can be used as thinking aid and design aid.
    It allows you to explore possibilities based on selecting varying combinations of certain technologies, or specific combinations of technologies already available in the involved context, to see how to provide agency to contexts/groups towards desired impacts. This provides agency towards creating agency.

Agency by Ton Zylstra