Category Archives: technology

Running a Diaspora Pod

I’m planning to start running a Diaspora pod on one of my VPSs, with an aim to provide a communal space for some of our longtime friends getting more frustrated with FB but dreading the cost of leaving (such as rushing to some other platform to find no-one is there.) Diaspora is similar to Facebook and/or Twitter, is open source and set up in a fully distributed way.

Friend and fellow tinkerer Peter Rukavina and I plan to work together on this.

(btw I already have a Diaspora profile on, so if you already use Diaspora you can find me there. Ultimately I will replace that profile and host my own.)

Mailchimp Meets GDPR

Last week I received an e-mail from Mailchimp saying

Starting October 31, single opt-in will become the default setting for all MailChimp hosted, embedded, and pop-up signup forms. This change will impact all MailChimp users

When I read it, I thought it odd, as in the EU the double opt-in is needed, especially with the new General Data Protection Regulation coming next year.

Today I received another e-mail from Mailchimp that they were rolling their plans back for EU customers.

…because your primary contact address is in the EU, your existing forms will remain double opt-in. We made this decision after receiving a lot of feedback from EU customers who told us that single opt-in does not align with their business needs in light of the upcoming GDPR and other local requirements. We heard you, and we’re sorry that we caused confusion.

Now I am curious to see if they will send out another e-mail in the coming week also reinstating double opt-in for everyone else. Because as they already say in their own e-mail:

Double opt-in provides additional proof of consent, and we suggest you continue using double opt-in if your business will be subject to the GDPR.

That includes any non-EU business that has clients or indeed mailing list subscribers in the EU, as the rules follow the personal data of EU citizens. All those companies are subject to the GDPR as well.

Dutch Design Week Inspiration

Last week was the annual Dutch Design Week. A good reason to visit Eindhoven in the south, which over the past years has turned into a innovation and creativity hub as well as a city renewal hotspot. I’ve visited regularly in the past years and every time you find new endeavours on the crossroads of high-tech, design, art and science, business, and citizen activism. When we were looking for a new place to live we considered Eindhoven because of this palpable elan (we ultimately decided against it due to travel times to other areas). Instead we visit every now and then, e.g. for Dutch Design Week.

We had a pleasant day browsing through various exhibits and expositions, and enjoyed talking to the designers, engineers and craftsmen who created the things on display. For lunch we had pizza from a mobile wood fired oven, outside on a surprisingly mild day.

One of the designers showing their products is Bas Froon, whom we know since our university days. In the past few years, after a decade and a half of business consulting, he went to art academy, and now exhibited a machine he built to create products from a single material (a fiber enhanced plastic fabric) The material is soft and flexible but can become hard and very strong when heated and under pressure. It is for instance used in the automotive industry to make car bumpers. Bas built a cross between a 3d printer and a clothing iron to be able to selectively heat and harden parts of a piece of this fabric, from a digital design. That way you can make a baby carrying sling for instance from a single piece of fabric including all the clasps and fasteners and the cushions for the infant.

Dutch Design Week 2017
Bas Froon’s machine

I got some ideas about temporary furniture for a possible next unconference at home, from a project by a local packaging company challenging designers to come up with other uses for their cardboard.

Dutch Design Week 2017

Also fun to see plenty of Ultimakers in use.

Dutch Design Week 2017 Dutch Design Week 2017
Brabant Living Lab printing soundscapes, 3d representations of noise levels in the exhibition hall.

Dutch Design Week 2017Dutch Design Week 2017
local government involvement, and LoRa enable trashbins

Spotted on a t-shirt:
Dutch Design Week 2017

The blockchain links I read this week

Cryptocurrency Art Gallery
Cryptocurrency Art Gallery

I am interested in blockchain as a distributed way of organizing things through software. I have questions that center around in which situations that distributedness, having a public ledger, and having a permanent ledger is actually useful. Also in general for any defined user group, available blockchains are all global by nature. This takes away any agency that group has concerning ensuring the availability and soundness of the technology they use. This is a threat to a group’s resilience basically (e.g. when a group in northern Poland runs their transactions on something that is dominated by opaque Chinese computing clusters). So I am interested in how to deploy blockchain for a specific group (that can then run their own nodes for the needed calculations.) The potential to subvert a blockchain in such a situation is theoretically bigger, but at the same time it is also more strongly embedded in existing social relationships which provides its own robustness.

Here’s a number of links concerning blockchain I came across and read the past few days:

Explaining blockchain

  • A good read, ‘A Letter to Jamie Dimon‘, which takes as perspective that the distributedness is less effective than centralized solutions but also the key aspect for the intended user groups, as this is the only way to avail themselves of specific affordances. Distributedness is a tool to increase resistance to censorship (also read as ‘access’), and blockchain allows creating fully distributed applications.
  • A talk by Richard Bartlett at Re:Publica Dublin, on whether a blockchain is decentralizing power or not.

The ICO hype is unfolding
ICO, initial coin offerings are campaigns to sell tokens for your specific blockchain application. You can buy them usually only with Bitcoin or Ethereum. What amazes me is how much money (millions) are getting invested in short times (the term vaporware comes to mind), and that minimum investments are often in the 5.000 or 10.000 Euro range.


Measure Your City /

Now that we moved from Enschede to Amersfoort two weeks ago, we are starting to participate in local activities. Today I joined a workshop to build a sensor-hut for the ‘Measure your city‘ project. Initiated by amongst others ‘De War‘, also the people who started FabLab Amersfoort, it is a project to crowdsource measurements to track climate and climate changes inside the city.

The national metereological institute does not measure inside cities as it does not provide data that can be compared with other measurements across the country. By building a dense grid of sensors across the city it becomes possible however to track the emergence of ‘heat islands’ or see how paving over gardens or making them greener influences the city’s microclimates.

The sensor-hub I built this afternoon is based on Arduino, and uses LoRaWan, by means of the The Things Network, to communicate. It currently holds sensors for temperature and humidity, but is prepared to also measure sunlight exposure, rain fall and soil humidity / aridity. It also has a GPS antenna, to capture the location of the device correctly.

It had been a good while since I last handled a soldering iron, but following the ‘fit for all’ building instructions after a while I ended up with a ready device. After loading the right software, it became sensor 51 in the Measure Your City network. The second stage was building a hut for the sensor device, so it measures adequately: shielded from direct sunlight, with air allowed to float around it. This so it matches up with the standards that normal metereological measurements adhere to. After a few hours me and half a dozen or so others had their own sensor-hut to install at home.

the finished device

the hut for the sensors

I haven’t properly installed the device yet: the hut still needs a white coat of paint to reflect sunlight, before mounting it in our garden at about 2 meters height. It is already taking measurements however, and it can be followed through the online database of the network’s measurements. If you look at the current data for my sensor 51, you see it also hasn’t measured its location yet. If that persists as I properly mount it outside, there might be something wrong with the GPS antenna. The temp readings are still in-house readings, and do not reflect outside temperatures.

hello world: first data log entries

I will be running a The Things Network gateway in the near future (when the Kickstarter project delivers) as well, and helped initiate a LoRaWan/The Things Network group in my previous home city Enschede. Building this sensor-hut is the first foray into exploring how I will use that cheap IoT infrastructure currently emerging in the Netherlands. I am looking to add other sensors, along the lines of what e.g. FabLab Barcelona and Waag Society have created with the smart citizen kit, or this project from Freiburg measuring particulate matter in the air.

UPDATE: GPS is working now that the sensor is placed outside. Still need to paint it white though. sensorhut
Sensor hut in its intended spot in the garden

Mandatory transparency to counteract data hunger

Some disturbing key data points, reported by the Guardian, from a Congressional hearing in the US last week on the usage of facial recognition by the FBI: “Approximately half of adult Americans’ photographs are stored in facial recognition databases that can be accessed by the FBI, without their knowledge or consent, in the hunt for suspected criminals. About 80% of photos in the FBI’s network are non-criminal entries, including pictures from driver’s licenses and passports. The algorithms used to identify matches are inaccurate about 15% of the time, and are more likely to misidentify black people than white people.” It makes you wonder how many false positives have ended up in jail because of this.

At GEGF2014
Me, if you look closely, reflected in an anonymous ‘portrait’ (part of an exhibit on Stalinist repression and disappearances in Kazakhstan, 2014)

I am in favor of mandatory radical transparency of government agencies. Not just in terms of releasing data to the public, but also / more importantly specifying exactly what it is they collect, for what purpose, and what amount of data they have in each collection. Such openness I think is key in reducing the ‘data hunger’ of agencies (the habit of just collecting stuff because it’s possible, and ‘well, you never know’), and forces them to more clearly think about information design and the purpose of the collection. If it is clear up-front that either the data itself, or the fact that you collect such data and in which form you hold them, will be public at a predictable point in time, this will likely lead to self-restraint / self-censorship by government agencies. The example above is a case in point: The FBI did not publish a privacy impact assessment, as legally required, and tried to argue it would not need to heed certain provisions of the US Privacy Act.

If you don’t do such up-front mandatory radical transparency you get scope creep and disturbing collections like above. It is also self-defeating as this type of all encompassing data collection is not increasing the amount of needles found, but merely enlarging the haystack.

Using tech to flip facial recognition in video stories from Iran, at SXSWi
image by Sheila Scarborough, CC-BY

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

Dopplr Is Coming Back?

In the period 2007-2009 I was a heavy user of Dopplr, a geographic context tool. You’d add your upcoming trips to it, “I will be in Zurich January 4th”, and share it with your network “Your contact E.R. will also be in Zurich that day, and your contacts A.G., H.G. and A.A. live there.” This was helpful to spot potential face to face meet-ups with those people in your network you’d normally not bump into. It was a geographic serendipity tool, and it helped me meet up with people in my network regularly enough to make it worthwile to add my trips to Dopplr. For instance it enabled having a beer with Thomas (his and my photo of that moment). In 2007 I wrote about how Dopplr played a role in my digital routines, and in 2009 how I liked it as a contextual tool that, although geography based, doesn’t use maps.

DOPPLR: Account management for Stowe Boyd
typical messages from the original Dopplr

In 2009 Dopplr was acquired by Nokia, and similar to other useful tools Nokia bought (such as Plazes), it was then phased out. At some point (June 2013) I deleted my account, which by then had been dormant for a long time, after downloading all my data.

Ewan's Travel Report
Every year you received a beautiful overview of all your travel movements.

Now the domain is active (the original domain now hosts a site looking at legal aspects of current news) and promises to relaunch a similar service. It uses the same colors as the logo of the original Dopplr, so I will be curious to see what they offer when they launch.

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.

FOSS4G Keynote: Open Data for Social Impact

Last week I had the pleasure to attend and to speak at the annual FOSS4G conference. This gathering of the community around free and open source software in the geo-sector took place in Bonn, in what used to be the German parliament. I’ve posted the outline, slides and video of my keynote already at my company’s website, but am now also crossposting it here.

Speaking in the former German Parliament
Speaking in the former plenary room of the German Parliament. Photo by Bart van den Eijnden

In my talk I outlined that it is often hard to see the real impact of open data, and explored the reasons why. I ended with a call upon the FOSS4G community to be an active force in driving ethics by design in re-using data.

Impact is often hard to see, because measurement takes effort
Firstly, because it takes a lot of effort to map out all the network effects, for instance when doing micro-economic studies like we did for ESA or when you need to look for many small and varied impacts, both socially and economically. This is especially true if you take a ‘publish and it will happen’ approach. Spotting impact becomes much easier if you already know what type of impact you actually want to achieve and then publish data sets you think may enable other stakeholders to create such impact. Around real issues, in real contexts, it is much easier to spot real impact of publishing and re-using open data. It does require that the published data is serious, as serious as the issues. It also requires openness: that is what brings new stakeholders into play, and creates new perspectives towards agency so that impact results. Openness needs to be vigorously defended because of it. And the FOSS4G community is well suited to do that, as openness is part of their value set.

Impact is often hard to see, because of fragmentation in availability
Secondly, because impact often results from combinations of data sets, and the current reality is that data provision is mostly much too fragmented to allow interesting combinations. Some of the specific data sets, or the right timeframe or geographic scope might be missing, making interesting re-uses impossible.
Emerging national data infrastructures, such as the Danish and the Dutch have been creating, are a good fix for this. They combine several core government data sets into a system and open it up as much as possible. Think of cadastral records, maps, persons, companies, adresses and buildings.
Geo data is at the heart of all this (maps, addresses, buildings, plots, objects), and it turns it into the linking pin for many re-uses where otherwise diverse data sets are combined.

Geo is the linking pin, and its role is shifting: ethics by design needed
Because of geo-data being the linking pin, the role of geo-data is shifting. First of all it puts geo-data in the very heart of every privacy discussion around open data. Combinations of data sets quickly can become privacy issues, with geo-data being the combinator. Privacy and other ethical questions arise even more now that geo-data is no longer about relatively static maps, but where sensors are making many more objects as well as human beings objects on the map in real time.
At the same time geo-data is becoming less visible in these combinations. ‘The map’ is not neccessarily a significant part of the result of combining data sets, just a catalyst on the way to get there. Will geo-data be a neutral ingredient, or will it be an ingredient with a strong attitude? An attitude that aims to actively promulgate ethical choices, not just concerning privacy, but also concerning what are statistically responsible combinations, and what are and are not legal steps in getting to an in itself legal result again? As with defending openness itself, the FOSS4G community is in a good position to push the ethical questions forward in the geo community as well as find ways of incorporating them directly in the tools they build and use.

The video of the keynote has been published by the FOSS4G conference organisers.
Slides are available from Slideshare and embedded below: