I come from a world where there is no web, only apps. The app I use the most is a social network in which there are discussions about different topics. I also often use an to see news, and another app to enter a multiuser role-playing game.

This world of apps is extremely flexible and varied. Each app can have its own interaction design, its own fonts and colors, and its own graphics. For instance, the last app I installed, the one from the bank, is really great.

In terms of functionality it has all the typical things, look at the balance, transfers and payments, etc. but visually, it is much nicer than other apps.

The app from the bank doesn’t only show text in different colors, but it also has some graphical elements, such as the bank’s logo. Also, the interaction is much easier because you can use the mouse instead of keying each command with a number. I imagine that over time the other apps also will be like this one, obviously. In the future there will be more and better apps, perhaps one app for every thing!

The year is 1991, and while the geeks of the world enjoy of this world of “apps”, Tim Berners-Lee has already written the first web server and the first browser.

Over the next 4 years, our world of “apps” will implode and disappear. Our world of “apps”, that were actually called BBS (Bulletin Board Systems), will be replaced by the web.

The black background will be replaced by a gray background, and then by a white background. Mono-spaced fonts will be replaced by proportionally-spaced ones. Modems of 9,600 bits per second will be replaced by ADSL modems and more. The world of online information systems will be completely different.

The BBS of the early 1990s were, in some sense, much more than the web, and also, much less than the web.

The BBS were much more than the web because behind each BBS there was a person or organization that was clearly identifiable (by a phone number!), including a system operator (sysop) who usually would give his/her real name. Also, connecting to a BBS was really “entering” a new place: the BBS was able to completely take over a part of your screen and design an entirely new interactive experience there. To “enter” a BBS could be a much more engaging experience than “visiting” a web site.

The BBS were much less than the web because if a BBS wanted to reference information on another BBS, they had to give you a phone number and a series of instructions (call number X, then chose option 3, then 1, then search for “user manual”). There was no uniform way of referring to an information resource, and there were no universal search engines indexing all of the information that was available. It wasn’t easy to interact with more than one BBS at the same time. Also, even when there were some free tools, to create a BBS was a project that could only be undertaken by a company or a really serious geek.

The BBS world allows us to imagine how the world would be if the web were to be replaced by apps, a world that has been announced countless times in the last years, and in every possible way. To me, this speculation on itself is not a problem, the death of a technology is usually announced hundreds of times, some technologies are notoriously resilient (e.g. the radio), and in the end, their death, when it arrives, is seldom because of the anticipated reasons.

The problem of the conversation about “the web is dead, long live to the apps” is, I think, that the levity with which we analyze a possible post-web world shows that we are not even paying attention to the name of what we are analyzing: the web. A web of information in which anyone can add a new thread and connect it to the rest of it, with a simple link. A world of apps, no matter how colorful, interactive, and animated, would be a huge step back.

We know what it means to have higher entry barriers for those who want to offer online information, more difficulties to locate information, and more fragmentation of the user experience. They were called BBS, and we left them behind more than 20 years ago.

MicroMappers is a partnership between the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI), the Stand By Task Force (SBTF) and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA).

MicroMappers is currently contributing to the response to Typhoon Hagupit/Ruby in the Philippines. You can check this blogpost detailing the call for help and the efforts

The Guardian covered the results which include a crisis map of needs, damage, and aid provided; plus a map of images depicting mild and severe damage.

The next step will be to crowdsource the annotation of aerial images.

More information: MicroMappers.org.

(Disaster)Contrary to what seems to be the norm in Hollywood movies, people don't run in circles screaming and shouting when facing an emergency situation. The immediate, widespread, and ineffective mayhem so often portrayed in disaster movies is to a large extent a plot device, not very different from typical scenes in horror films in which people irrationally split and run straight into danger.

Sociologists of disaster, some of whom have researched these situations for decades, tell us a different story. When faced with a sudden crisis, people quickly try to gather as much information as they can from the sources most available in that moment: people around them, radio, television, or the internet. Based on this information, they evaluate the different alternatives, and take cover, flee, or act in a usually life-saving way. While panic can sometimes get in the way of safety, in most cases people's reactions are fast, calm, and more importantly, effective.

For example, in 2008, Qantas Flight 30 suffered an explosive decompression in midair due to a cargo door that "popped out", creating a hole the size of a small car. Passengers heard a loud noise, oxygen masks fell, and the aircraft rapidly started to drop in altitude to equalise air pressure. Little panic followed, and a passenger described the scene as: "No one panicked, there was no screaming. It was not your typical television movie. Everyone listened to the cabin staff."

People are not only effective saving their own lives, but also saving others. Most of the rescues in the immediate aftermath of a disaster are not done by fire brigades or professional emergency responders: It is the people directly affected by a disaster who take decisive actions and are indeed, the first responders.

With all this in mind, it is only natural that as social media spread and flourished in the past decade, it gradually took an important role in people's lives during emergencies, including natural and man-made disasters.

'Command and control' vs 'engage and listen'

Despite these realities, the "command and control" approach to disasters is fairly prevalent. In this framework, official authorities are expected to provide instructions to an uninformed and passive population. Indeed, this is the most common way in which social media is seen by government officials, as simply one more channel to push information out to the public.

While new and emerging volunteer organisations are often tech-savvy and native of online spaces, governments and formal non-governmental organisations that actually engage with and listen to affected populations through social media are still an exception rather than the norm. The American Red Cross was one of the pioneers, by creating a Digital Operations Center to monitor social media and to answer questions from the public, as well as disseminating life-saving information. The United Nation's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs was another pioneer in the field which cofounded the Digital Humanitarian Network to extract information from social media to monitor a developing situation on cases of disasters.

At the government level, the disaster response strategy of both the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the US and the Philippines' government includes social media, the latter even chooses an "official" hashtag to be used for every large crisis event. At a more local level, the Twitter accounts offices for emergency management of both New York (@NYCOEM) and San Francisco (@SF_Emergency) often answer questions from the public through Twitter (my co-worker Patrick Meier has blogged extensively about these efforts, and similar initiatives).

The social media data deluge

Social media activity flares up in areas affected by disasters, often reaching up to thousands of postings and hundreds of photos per minute. Facebook data scientists have measured such bursts of activities during earthquakes. Others have even proposed (jokingly, but accurately) that tweets posted immediately after an earthquake come so fast, that in theory you could read a tweet about an earthquake before the seismic waves actually reach you.

The huge data volume and velocity makes it hard for everyone to make sense of social media data, but this is not the only problem. There are other concerns regarding the authenticity and veracity of messages, as social media is assumed to be less trustworthy than traditional media, mostly due to the anonymity users enjoy.

Also, rumours online are to a large extent self-correcting, and people question and correct social media news they consider dubious or false.

There are many problems with this assumption. In general, there is no reason to blindly trust everything anyone says, independently of whether it is online or offline, and independently of their credentials or performance in the past. Nobody is above making mistakes, including traditional media (such as CBS when it recently reported a "sideways tornado"). Particularly during emergencies, false rumours are often spread by well-intentioned people who simply weigh in the risk associated with not sharing potentially life-saving information, which may or may not end up being true.

The fact that many users share information without verifying it first may be a disadvantage of participative and social media, but it is also what makes social media so fast. Forbidding users from spreading "false news" can be dangerous in the face of a crisis, as it might also discourage them from spreading true news. In reality, being able to spread unverified information during an emergency is a key capacity of social media and one that can save lives. During a crisis, people don't take important decisions based on a single source, but instead contrast information from different sources. Also, rumours online are to a large extent self-correcting, and people question and correct social media news they consider dubious or false.

Crisis computing

Computational methods can contribute to rapidly filtering, sorting and aggregating vast volumes of social media during disasters. By a recent count, over 150 research articles have been published on algorithms for processing social media during crises.

These have focused on methods for collecting crisis-relevant data, detecting events and subevents, georeferencing information, determining information credibility, classifying information into categories, visualising the needs of affected populations in time and space, and even automatically generating summaries and timelines of a developing crisis from millions of postings - all this in the short time frame available during an emergency.

Interestingly, the key to a new wave of computational methods for processing social media data are people themselves. Hybrid methods combine human and machine intelligence by employing digital volunteers along with artificial intelligence (machine learning) methods. These methods are able to make sense of ambiguous data, something humans do much better than machines, as well as dealing with large volumes of data in a deterministic and reliable way, something machines do much better than humans.

For a researcher, to be able to use computer science to help in problems of societal value, such as emergency response and in general data science for social good, is a great opportunity and an invitation to participate in some of the most interesting challenges of applied computing.

The author wishes to thank research collaborators Muhammad Imran, Sarah Vieweg, Alexandra Olteanu, Hemant Purohit, Fernando Diaz and Patrick Meier.

Published in Al Jazeera: How tweets and algorithms can save lives »
December 5th, 2014.

IDD (I Don't Dance) Mixtape — November 2014, with huge kudos to Gui Boratto and Yamil Colucci.

If I remember correctly, the last mixtape I made was 20 years ago :-)

IDD (I Don't Dance) Mixtape — November 2014 by Chato on Mixcloud

Download: IDD (I Don't Dance) Mixtape - November 2014.mp3 [67 MB]

Made with SeratoDJ + Pioneer DDJ SX1. Also available in Mixcrate.

Note: I live in Qatar since 2012, working for a local research institution as a computer scientist specialized in social media. As everything in this blog, my personal opinions do not reflect the position of the institutions I'm part of.

Despite widespread criticism, Qatar authorities have promulgated a new "Cybercrime Prevention Law". The law basically addresses three very distinct topics. The first topic (Chapter 1) is related to unauthorized access to computer systems, stealing or deletion of data, electronic fraud, etc. which together conform what is usually considered "cybercrime," i.e. crimes that involve a computer or network.

There is, however, a second topic (Chapter 2) that is not cybercrime but what the law refers to as "Content Crimes". Content crimes include helping terrorist organizations or disseminating child porn, both punished with up to 3 years in prison and a fine of up to 140K USD (500KQAR). It also includes electronic forgery and blackmail.

Prison for "false news" or violating "social values" online

Between the articles about terrorism and the ones about child pornography there is a vague provision regarding "false news" that basically extinguish freedom of press in Qatar, which is guaranteed in article 48 of its Constitution:

Article 6.- A sentence of not more than three years and a fine of not more than QR500,000 (~140K USD), or either of these penalties, shall be imposed on any person who through an information network or an information technology technique sets up or runs a website to publish false news to threaten the safety and security of the State or its public order or domestic and foreign security. A sentence of not more than a year in a prison and a fine of not more than QR250,000, or either of these penalties, shall be imposed on any person who promotes, disseminates or publishes in any way such false news for the same purpose.

Next, between the article about child pornography and the one about blackmail, there is an article that ends freedom of expression in Qatar, which is guaranteed in article 47 of its Constitution (emphasis added):

Article 8.- A sentence of not more than three years in prison and a fine of not more than QR100,000 (~27K USD), or either of these penalties, shall be imposed on any person who, through an information network or information technology technique, violates social values or principles, publishes news, photos or video or audio recordings related to the sanctity of people’s private or family life, even if the same is true, or insults or slanders others.

Additionally a third major topic (Chapter 5) establishes a maximalist view of intellectual property, in which copyright infringement is punished with up to 3 years in prison and a fine of up to QR500,000 (~140K USD). This is approximately the fine that the US law provides, which is one of the largest in the world (up to 150K USD per infraction), with the addition of jail time. Copyright law has been repeatedly used in the past in several countries to censor expression; for instance reproducing a past speech of someone without his/her authorization has been construed as a copyright violation.

What does it mean?

Personally, I find this extremely disheartening and a tremendous setback for a country that in many fronts is progressing.

The opinions of anybody are likely to challenge, in some way or another, the values or principles of somebody else.

As an atheist who believes in the separation of church and state, a vegan who abhors animal sacrifices including religious ones, a pro-LGBT right that considers inhumane the laws that punish homosexuality, a person who is pro-legalization of drugs for adults, that defends freedom of expressions and a sharing economy of knowledge, etc. I feel that most of my opinions (and those of anyone except drones!) challenge in some way the values or principles or other people. To me, challenging other people's views is part of cosmopolitanism; the opposite (ignoring each other's positions completely) has nothing to do with living together.

As a scientist who has researched extensively in social media credibility, I have to say that false news and rumors are inevitable in social media (and of media in general), particularly in times of crises. At the same time, there are mechanisms that correct false rumors in the sense that in a typical crisis misinformation is actually hard to find! Most people broadcast information that ends up being erroneous moved by a desire to help. Discouraging people from posting information in social media unless it is verified is dangerous: it creates a blind spot in the awareness that we can get from it during a crisis situation.

Finally, and here I echo what Amnesty International has said on the matter, a key issue is vagueness. The law defines "user", "provider", "network", etc. but does not define false news or what are the social values that people are not supposed to challenge through social media. In that sense, this law has an incredible potential for abuse and will have a chilling effect on the development of information technologies in Qatar.


See: unofficial translation to English [PDF] of the law promulgated on September 15th, 2014. Twitter bird and scissor: Carlos Latuff.

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