Silos: Good for Grain, Bad for Information

Tim Berners-Lee–the guy who invented the World Wide Web–wrote the best explanation of why net neutrality and open source are important and closed systems like Facebook and iTunes are bad for the future of the Internet:  Long-Live the Web: A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality, Scientific American Magazine, December 2010.  These two paragraphs from the article’s introduction summarize Berners-Lee’s thesis:

The Web evolved into a powerful, ubiquitous tool because it was built on egalitarian principles and because thousands of individuals, universities and companies have worked, both independently and together as part of the World Wide Web Consortium, to expand its capabilities based on those principles.

The Web as we know it, however, is being threatened in different ways. Some of its most successful inhabitants have begun to chip away at its principles. Large social-networking sites are walling off information posted by their users from the rest of the Web. Wireless Internet providers are being tempted to slow traffic to sites with which they have not made deals. Governments—totalitarian and democratic alike—are monitoring people’s online habits, endangering important human rights.

It will be required reading in Internet law, it’s addresses important topics, and its short.  Why not read it now?

Tufts, Ushahidi, and the Haitian Earthquake

Today’s Globe has an interesting, detailed article about the creation of the crisis-response map immediately after the earthquake in Haiti by Tufts University graduate student Patrick Meier.  The map employed Ushahidi, a platform developed in Kenya and discussed in this post, and hundreds of volunteers to translate SMS messages from earthquake survivors, geo-code the nature and location of the help requested, and post the information to be used by rescue and relief personnel.  It’s an inspiring story.


Today’s New York Times reports on Ushahidi--Swahili for testimony–an open-source platform for user-generated content.  Or, to put it less generically, Ushahidi is social networking for humanitarian relief, a disaster-witness wiki.

Ushahidi was developed in Kenya to respond to the violence that followed the 2007 election.  Kenyan lawyer and blogger Ory Okolloh

posted online the idea of an Internet mapping tool to allow people anonymously to report violence and other misdeeds. Some technology whizzes saw her post and built the Ushahidi Web platform over a long weekend.  The site collected user-generated reports of riots, stranded refugees, rapes and deaths. It collected more testimony — which is what ushahidi means in Swahili — with greater rapidity than any journalist or election monitor could. Ushahidi had found a quintessentially 21st-century way of bearing witness.

Recently Ushahidi was used to respond to the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes and in the D.C. area to “Snowmageddon.” People on the ground reported  by SMS message about persons buried in rubble or snow-blocked intersections to a central location that mapped the reports.  A single report does not have much weight–people lie, exaggerate, misreport addressesses–but veracity increases as the site receives more reports from separate cell phones, some accompanied by photos.  The response depends on the situation.  Following the earthquake in Haiti Ushahidi coordinators at Tufts University relayed incident information to rescue personnel in Haiti.  Snowmageddon coordinators sent snowplows, or volunteers monitored the site to find nearby locations that needed help.

The Times says Ushahidi represents

a new paradigm in humanitarian work. The old paradigm was one-to-many: foreign journalists and aid workers jet in, report on calamity and dispense aid with whatever data they can get. The new paradigm is many-to-many-to-many: the victims are re-imagined as agents who supply on-the-ground data; a self-organizing mob of global volunteers translates the text messages and helps to orchestrate relief; journalists and aid workers use this information to target the most pressing problems.

But Ushahidi also represents a new frontier of innovation . . . Because Ushahidi originated in crisis, no one tried to patent and monopolize it. Because Kenya is poor, with computers out of reach for many, Ushahidi made its system accessible by cellphones. Because Ushahidi had no venture capitalists backing it, it had to use open-source software and was thus free to let others remix its tool for their own projects.

This is the best Internet application I’ve encountered in a long time.  Read the whole article.

Open Source 1, Proprietary Software 0

I bought a new HP laptop this week after my old one died.  I decided on the HP after looking at Macs, Dells, Lenovos, and a few others.  I was tempted but couldn’t justify the extra expense of the Mac, both for the computer itself and for the Windows XP or Vista I would need to run the PC-specific software I use.  The HP dv3 weighs about 4.5 pounds and has all the space, speed, and features I need from a laptop.   Like most PCs these days it came with software pre-installed that I immediately including  Norton Anti-Virus and a demo edition of Microsoft Office Suite.  I’ve committed to weaning myself from Word, Excel, and Power Point and using the OpenOffice Suite.  It is open source, opens documents created in Microsoft Office, saves documents in multiple formats including .doc and .xls, fully-featured, and free.  I’ve been using it on my desktop PC for about a month.  Its menu is similar to Word but not identical, so there is a learning curve.  After 20 minutes trying to format and print labels I put that learning experience aside and printed them from Word, where I know all of the steps.  I’ll conquer that task another day.  It feels very good not to pay Microsoft–or any company–the hundreds of dollars I would spend on Office 2007.

Classic Lawyer’s Mistake

The SMG website features an interesting 7-minute podcast from colleague Marshall Van Alstyne, Associate Professor Information Systems, on IP and Open v. Proprietary Systems. Among other things he advises “don’t make the classic lawyer’s mistake” and equate “maximum value with maximum protection,” which he illustrates with a discussion of the birth of Google mashups. In a world of digital technology openness can enhance value.

Lawyers too often care more about not being wrong than about being right. We are trained to protect clients by erecting fences and installing padlocks, and overcoming that training requires conscious effort. Last week I had dinner with a friend who is in-house counsel for the regional branch of a retail mall development company. He wants to convince his client to save tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees by abandoning the typical, paragraph-by-paragraph slash-and-burn lease negotiation and focusing only on the narrow range of business and legal terms that go to the heart of each deal. “Why spend thousands of dollars negotiating condemnation and casualty provisions? They almost never matter.” It’s the “almost” that causes the problem. The company’s general counsel, back at HQ, will never agree to Steve’s proposal, which flies in the face of every lawyering-by-numbers manual and would require the company to change it’s risk-assessment culture.