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July 08 2011


Meet the User – Pall Hilmarsson

Our digger has been driving around colder climes by one of our star users. Icelander Pall Hilmarrson. Driving such a heavy vehicle on icy surfaces and through volcanic ash may seem daunting to most people, but Pall has not only ventured forth undeterred, he has given passers-by a lift. One such hitch-hiker is Chris Taggart with his OpenCorporates project. I caught up (electronically) with Pall.

What’s your background and what are your particular interest when it comes to collecting data?

I have a work related experience in design – I started working as a designer 12 years ago, almost by accident. At one point I thought I’d study it and I did try, for the whole of ten days! Fortunately I quit and went for a B.A. degree in anthropology. Somehow I´ve ended up again doing design again. Currently I work for the Reykjavík Grapevine magazine.

I´m particularly interested in freeing data that has some social relevance, something that gives us a new way of seeing and understanding society. That comes from the anthropology. Data that has social meaning.

How have you found using ScraperWiki and what do you find it useful for?

ScraperWiki has been a fantastical tool for me. I had written scrapers before, mostly small scripts to make RSS feeds and only in Perl. ScraperWiki has led me to teach myself Python and write more complex scrapers. It has opened up a whole new set of possibilites. I really like being able to study other peoples scrapers and helping others with their scrapers. I’ve learned so much from ScraperWiki.

Are there any data projects you’re working on at the moment?

Right now I´m involved in scraping some national company registers for the brilliant OpenCorporates site. I´m also compiling a rather large dataset on foreclosures in Iceland the last 10 years – trying to get an image of where the financial meltdown is hitting the hardest. I´m hoping to make it into an interactive map application. So far the data shows some interesting things – going into the project I had some notion that the Reykjavík suburbs with their new apartment buildings would be the bulk of foreclosures. It seems though that the old downtown area is actually where most apartments are going up for auction.

How is the data landscape in the area you’re interested in? Is it accessible, formatted, consistent?

Governmental data over here is not easily accessible, but that might change. A new bill introduced in Parliament aims to free a lot of data and make the right for citizens to access information a lot stronger. But of course it will never be enough. Data begets more data.

So watch out Iceland – you’re being ScraperWikied!

July 01 2010


WikiLeaks, iPhone Incidents Show that U.S. Needs Shield Law

The United States' global reputation as a champion of free speech is at stake. This is partly because the legal framework has not kept pace with the evolution of free speech, and also because the Freedom of Information Act is not being applied correctly. Today, the U.S. is in danger of losing its place as the bastion of free speech because other countries are stepping up and creating new ways to protect freedom of expression.

Issues With FOIA and Protecting Sources

As many people are now aware, a secret military video featuring a deadly U.S. air strike in Afghanistan that killed several civilians was published on WikiLeaks on April 5, 2010. Among the dead were Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and his driver, Saeed Chmagh, 40.

The release of the video caused a scandal and made major news. But the truth is that it should have been made public long ago. Reuters had filed a FOIA request in for the video back in 2007, but the footage was never released. According to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), it should have been. Under FOIA, all U.S. government agencies are required to disclose records upon receiving a written request, except those records that are protected from disclosure as a result of nine exemptions and three exclusions.

WikiLeaks specializes in securing confidential information from whistleblowers in return for guarantees of anonymity. This work has led its founder, Julian Assange, to fear for his freedom in the U.S.


"[U.S.] public statements have all been reasonable. But some statements made in private are a bit more questionable," Assange told the Guardian last week. "Politically it would be a great error for them to act. I feel perfectly safe ... but I have been advised by my lawyers not to travel to the U.S. during this period."

The lack of access to government information is one problem in the U.S. Another significant issue for bloggers and reporters is the ability, or lack thereof, to protect their sources. The WikiLeaks case also has implications for protecting sources.

It recently came to light that a 22-year-old U.S. intelligence specialist in Baghdad named Bradley Manning contacted a former hacker named Adrian Lamo via IM and "confessed" that he was the one who leaked the controversial video. Lamo had told Manning that he was a journalist and subsequently turned him in to the authorities.

After Manning was arrested, the story was published in Wired magazine. The bottom line was that Manning's so-called confession could not be protected by a shield law even though he thought he was speaking to a reporter. Admittedly, this is a rare situation. Usually, government officials request that journalists reveal their sources, rather than having a journalist turn someone in.

In those situations, a shield law should help with the protection of sources. But another recent incident is testing the limits of a shield law in California.

The iPhone Incident

On April 23, police carried out a raid on the California home of blogger Jason Chen, the editor of gadget blog Gizmodo. The site had obtained -- in a questionable way -- a prototype of the next-generation iPhone and published an exclusive about it, together with photos and videos, without Apple's agreement.

The state of California's shield law is one of the most protective in the country when it comes to sources and the working material of journalists. Gawker Media, which owns Gizmodo, is claiming that the police search warrant was illegal under section 1524(g) of the Californian criminal code. It is also citing O'Grady vs Superior Court, a case in which an appeal court ruled that the shield law applies to online journalists.


The courts must now decide between those who invoke the shield law's protection in the name of the right to information, and those who accuse Gizmodo of receiving stolen property.

Reporters Without Borders has been advocating for years to obtain a federal shield law when it comes to the protection of sources, but that prospect seems far off at this point.

Maybe the current difficulties in the U.S. come from the fact that the First Amendment rules that no law can be made against free speech. But what about having a specific law protecting it? What would that look like?

Is Iceland a New Model?

On June 15, Iceland's parliament unanimously approved a resolution to draft legislation for the protection of media, journalists and bloggers. It aims to create a single, holistic law to guarantee the protection of free speech.

According to the resolution, "the proposers suggest that changes be made to laws regarding the rights and duties of official employees (no. 70/1996) such that official employees be allowed to break their duty of silence in the case of extreme circumstances of public interest. Similar changes could be made to municipal governance law (no. 45/1996) regarding employees of municipal governments."

The initiative comes partly from the fact that in August 2009 the country's RUV television station was prevented from broadcasting a story about the Kaupthing Bank, which was immersed in a financial crisis. Once again, the story was based on information from WikiLeaks, which had already published information about the bank. An injunction obtained by Kaupthing Bank prevented RUV from broadcasting the item, but the station told its viewers about the injunction itself.

Now it appears as though that won't ever happen again in Iceland. The country will soon be a leader in protecting sources and freedom of speech. This kind of legislation is needed by netizens and journalists the world over. It has to spread to countries far and wide because, as of today, all the jailed reporters in the world are local ones.

Another useful feature of the Icelandic proposal is that the country will likely host websites to ensure their servers are not forcibly shut down. This law would be a legal shelter for the sources and source material of reporters, similar to the one previously set up by Reporters Without Borders.

Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the "Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents," published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

June 17 2010


June 16 2010


What will Iceland’s new media laws mean for journalists?

The Icelandic parliament has voted unanimously to create what are intended to be the strongest media freedom laws in the world. And Iceland intends these measures to have international impact, by creating a safe haven for publishers worldwide — and their servers.

The proposal, known as the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, requires changes to Icelandic law to strengthen journalistic source protection, freedom of speech, and government transparency.

“The Prime Minister voted for it, and the Minister of Finance, and everybody present,” says Icelandic Member of Parliament Birgitta Jónsdóttir, who has been the proposal’s chief sponsor. Her point is that Iceland is serious about this. The country is in the mood for openness after a small group of bankers saddled it with crippling debt, and the proposal ties neatly into the country’s strategy to be prime server real-estate.

But although the legislative package sounds very encouraging from a freedom of expression point of view, it’s not clear what the practical benefits will be to organizations outside Iceland. In his analysis of the proposal, Arthur Bright of the Citizen Media Law Project has noted that, in one major test case of cross-border online libel law, “publication” was deemed to occur at the point of download — meaning that serving a controversial page from Iceland won’t keep you from getting sued in other countries. But if nothing else, it would probably prevent your servers from being forcibly shut down.

There might be other benefits too. Wikileaks says that it routes all submissions through Sweden, where investigations into the identity of an anonymous source are illegal. Wikileaks was heavily involved in drafting and promoting the Icelandic package, and whatever your opinion of their current controversies, they’ve proven remarkably immune to legal prosecution in their short history. Conceivably, other journalism organizations could gain some measure of legal protection for anonymous sources if all communications were routed through Iceland.

All of which is to say that issues of press censorship have long since passed the point of globalization. When an aggrieved party in country A can sue a publisher in country B through the courts of country C (as in these examples), press freedom must be understood — and fought for — at an international level.

“It has not only an impact here, but in changing the dialog in Europe,” Jónsdóttir told me.

But it will be some time before the full repercussions of Iceland’s move are felt. For a start, the new laws are not yet written. Icelandic lawyer Elfa Ýir of the Ministry of Culture is leading the drafting effort, and expects to have the help of volunteer legal experts and law students. (“Iceland is still suffering from the financial meltdown,” says Jónsdóttir.) The complex legislative changes will be passed in several parts, possibly beginning late this year.

“It should be done in about a year,” Jónsdóttir said. “I’ll be following this very closely.”

And then it may be further years before we understand, from case law, exactly what an “offshore freedom of expression haven” means to journalists worldwide. Nonetheless, I hope to get a discussion started among the high-powered media law types at the Annenberg-Oxford Summer Institute next month, and we’ll see if we can get a more precise understanding of the practical consequences of Iceland’s move — and how journalists might use it to protect their work. If you have some insight, do drop the Lab a line.

Photo of Iceland by Trey Ratcliff used under a Creative Commons license.

April 16 2010




Like the Mexican pandemic flu, the volcano ashes from Iceland are becoming a nightmare.

So the Mandarins are canceling all the flights in the UK and many other European countries.

Who’s in charge in this mess?

Nobody except the Mandarins!

Look below at the last map released by the British Met Office.

As you can see, no ashes over the UK.

So why the airplanes cannot fly?


Why Jeff Jarvis was able to fly today from Munich?

Why between 100 and 120 airplanes crossed today the Atlantic and landed in Europe?

And more dramatic, in the Civil Aviation Forum, one reader says:

“The previous eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, whose ash cloud has shut down airspace over Britain, lasted for more than a year, according to an expert.”

The chaos is affecting to everybody:

The German secretary of defence was today on his way back from Afghanistan with five seriously wounded German soldiers on board (four others were killed) and it is not known where the Airbus A310 was be able to land in Germany with those medical emergencies who need urgent treatment.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be diverted to Lisbon on her return from the US today – and be stranded there until tomorrow afternoon as the crew will be out hours.

What about Obama going tomorrow Saturday to the funeral in  Poland?

April 15 2010




Good visual journalist be alert!

How do you believe in these maps when the information is not very good?

Look at the first ones and you will see how unreliable they are.

This will be a great challenge for my infographic friends.

But they will end doing a good job.

You will see.

The BBC has done this basic one:


Anoher version with the same data posted by the European edition of The Wall Street Journal website from the U.K. Met Office with an illustration of the volcanic ash dispersion from the surface to 20,000 feet, issued at 6 a.m. on Thursday.


And The Telegraph included this picture from a real-time radar image showing all aircraft movements in UK airspace at 9.30am today.

The image from www.radarvirtuel.com shows how ash from the Icelandic volcano stopped all flights in the northern parts of UK.


Lainformacion.com in Spain has a bigger map with more or less the same data.


El Pais in Madrid shows the Meteosat 9 images and this the best way to understand the size and impact of the volcanic ashes.


And in Twitter going to ashes you can see this incredibly beautiful picture


More, later.

February 26 2010


February 25 2010


Iceland update: Media freedom bill advances

Iceland’s proposal to become a free speech haven has just passed its first discussion in parliament, unopposed. The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative instructs the government to draft and enact a collection of laws relating to press freedom, source protection, immunity for carriers such as ISPs, and provisions against libel tourism.

While local legislation cannot provide complete protection for journalistic organizations even if their servers are located in Iceland, local assets and records could be immune to foreign judegments. In any case, the initiative is intended to create the strongest combination of  journalism and whistleblower protection laws in the world. The proposal now moves to committee, after which there will be a second discussion and a final binding vote, according to Smári McCarthy of the Icelandic Digital Freedom Society, who was involved in drafting the initiative. That could happen as soon as a week from now, but more likely several weeks.

Member of Parliament and proposal sponsor Birgitta Jónsdóttir has promised that “all of my effort will be to get it out of committee.” The full text of the proposal is available here, and the machine translation into English is fairly readable.

Photo of Iceland by Trey Ratcliff used under a Creative Commons license.

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