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May 30 2013

11:00

Activist Campaign Successfully Targets Facebook's Advertisers

Last week I wrote up the #FBrape campaign's strategy: to hold Facebook accountable for the misogynistic content of its users by pressuring advertisers. Only seven days after the open letter was published, Marne Levine, Facebook's VP of Global Publicy Policy, published a response agreeing to the campaign's demands to better train the company's moderators, improve reporting processes, and hold offending users more accountable for the content they publish.

facebook-logo.jpg

The campaigners say they generated 5,000 emails to advertisers, and convinced Nissan to pull its advertising from the platform. This is great initial traction for a social media advocacy campaign, but it represents a miniscule percentage of Facebook's users and advertisers. For people interested in shaping what kinds of speech social media giants allow, the #FBrape campaign quickly confirmed the relative value of targeting companies' revenue sources rather than directly petition the corporations. The #FBrape campaign also had a clear moral high road over the terrible instances of speech it campaigned to censor. But the results are still illuminating, as we struggle to determine how much power companies like Facebook wield over our self expression, and the organizational processes and technical mechanisms of how that power is exterted.

Continued attention will be required to hold Facebook, Inc. to its promises to train its content moderators (and an entire planet of actual users) to flag and remove violent content. Facebook has also promised to establish more direct lines of communication with women's groups organizing against such content. This is the kind of personal relationship and human contact groups have clamored for (see WITNESS and YouTube's relationship).

'fair, thoughtful, scalable'

Technology companies have tended to avoid establishing such relationships, probably because they require relatively large amounts of time in a venture that's taking on an entire planet worth of communications. Facebook itself lists its preferences for solutions to governing speech that are "fair, thoughtful, and scalable." Given the crazy scale of content uploaded every minute, Facebook might look into algorithmic solutions to identify content before users are exposed to it. YouTube has conducted research to automatically categorize some of its own torrent of incoming user content to identify the higher quality material. According to their post, Facebook has "built industry leading technical and human systems to encourage people using Facebook to report violations of our terms and developed sophisticated tools to help our teams evaluate the reports we receive."

This is unlikely to be the last we hear about this. By publishing an official response, Facebook gave 130 media outlets and counting an excuse to cover the campaign, which few had done prior to the company's reply. And whether they relish the position or not, social media companies like Facebook have positioned themselves as arbiters of speech online, subject to the laws of the lands they operate within, but also comfortable codifying their own preferences into their policies. Kudos to Facebook for taking a minute to respond to some of the messy side effects of connecting over a billion human beings.

Matt Stempeck is a Research Assistant at the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab. He has spent his career at the intersection of technology and social change, mostly in Washington, D.C. He has advised numerous non-profits, startups, and socially responsible businesses on online strategy. Matt's interested in location, games, online tools, and other fun things. He's on Twitter @mstem.

This post originally appeared on the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.

April 16 2012

14:00

Minmini News Uses FrontlineSMS to Share Women's Social Knowledge in Sri Lanka

This post is a guest column written by FrontlineSMS user Ananda Galappatti, editor of Minmini News, a women's news network in Sri Lanka.

Minmini News.jpgMinmini News is a local SMS news service for women in the Batticaloa District of Eastern Sri Lanka. Batticaloa is the poorest district of Sri Lanka, still slowly emerging from the destruction of a three decade-long civil war that ended in 2009.

Throughout the war, and following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that struck Batticaloa's coastline, women played a crucial role in responding to the difficult circumstances that their families and communities had to endure. The same is true now, during the difficult recovery period after the war. However, the important concerns and remarkable experiences of women in Batticaloa are rarely reflected in the mainstream media that reaches their towns and villages. The news they receive, it seems, is not produced with them in mind.

Developing a model

In mid-2010, a small informal group associated with women's groups in Batticaloa decided to trial a model for sourcing, producing and sharing news relevant to women of the area. This model was tested through two pilot-testing phases in 2011, with small groups of 15-30 readers, who also served as the sources of news.

The data from the pilot phase showed that not only were readers overwhelming positive about the service, but that it exposed them to novel and useful information, and had some influence on their perspectives. Minmini Seithihal (translation: Firefly News) went public in August 2011.

The model tested continues to be used, and is directly based around sourcing news from the strong network of women community workers in different parts of the district. News information is collected, fact-checked, and written up in text messages by a central "news team" of one or two women. The prepared news messages can then be reviewed by an editor, and between one and three messages are sent out to readers (who subscribe to the service via text message) through FrontlineSMS each day.

Bringing meaning to events

Minmini News delivers a broad range of content to its readers. It provides information about public services relevant to women, as well as information relevant to livelihoods and cost of living. Minmini News also covers local crises, such as flood disasters or local conflicts between neighboring communities. In addition, it reports on services for gender-based violence and challenges faced by women in post-conflict recovery.

In all its coverage, Minmini News has tried to highlight the meaning that the events or processes have for the lives of women -- often drawing attention to individual stories to convey this. Rather than provide explicit editorial commentary on issues, typically a series of thematically related SMS stories are used to provide a series of factual reports for readers to interpret themselves. Stories are sourced from the team of volunteer "reporters," and also from readers.

The impact on readers and women

Independent interviews with readers and the women who have contributed to Minmini News have shown that the service is appreciated, and that it has changed relationships to consumption and sharing of news and information. One reader said, "It is difficult for me or others to go out and get news in our environment. Now we all have mobile phones in our hands, so it is good to get news from where we are [located]."

In another remarkable case, after hearing a news story via Minmini News, a community worker assisted a family to file a report on a woman who had been missing in the Middle East for over a year. When she was traced, it was found that she had been severely maltreated, and she was repatriated for care and recovery at home. Many of the effects of Minmini News are more subtle than this, but it's clear women subscribing to the service feel that the way they've engaged with mainstream media has changed, and they are more sensitive to issues related to women's lives and rights.

Learn More

Minmini News is now entering a new phase, with active recruitment of women readers in rural communities in Batticaloa, bringing new opportunities in terms of prospects for broader sources of news -- but also new challenges. To learn more about the model of this mobile news service, see some examples of content, and hear more about Minmini News' plans for the future, visit the FrontlineSMS blog.

Ananda Galappatti is a medical anthropologist and a practitioner in the field of Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in situations of emergency and chronic adversity. He is a co-founder of the journal Intervention, the online network mhpss.net and the social business The Good Practice Group. Ananda lives in the town of Batticaloa on the East coast of Sri Lanka, where he volunteers as an editor for Minmini News.

May 04 2011

13:30

MIT management professor Tom Malone on collective intelligence and the “genetic” structure of groups

Do groups have genetic structures? If so, can they be modified?

Those are two central questions for Thomas Malone, a professor of management and an expert in organizational structure and group intelligence at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. In a talk this week at IBM’s Center for Social Software, Malone explained the insights he’s gained through his research and as the director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, which he launched in 2006 in part to determine how collective intelligence might be harnessed to tackle problems — climate change, poverty, crime — that are generally too complex to be solved by any one expert or group. In his talk, Malone discussed the “genetic” makeup of collective intelligence, teasing out the design differences between, as he put it, “individuals, collectively, and a collective of individuals.”

The smart group

First is the question of whether general cognitive ability — what we think of, when it comes to individuals, as “intelligence” — actually exists for groups. (Spoiler: it does.) Malone and his colleagues, fellow MIT researchers Sandy Pentland and Nada Hashmi, Carnegie Mellon’s Anita Williams Woolley, and Union College’s Christopher Chabrisassembled 192 groups — groups of two to five people each, with 699 subjects in all — and assigned to them various cognitive tasks: planning a shopping trip for a shared house, sharing typing assignments in Google Docs, tackling Raven’s Matrices as a group, brainstorming different uses for a brick. (For you social science nerds, the team chose those assignments based on Joe McGrath‘s taxonomy of group tasks.) Against the results of those assignments, the researchers compared the results of the participants’ individual intelligence tests, as well as the varying qualities of the group, from the easily quantifiable (participants’ gender) to the less so (participants’ general happiness).

And what they found is telling. “The average intelligence of the people in the group and the maximum intelligence of the people in the group doesn’t predict group intelligence,” Malone said. Which is to say: “Just getting a lot of smart people in a group does not necessarily make a smart group.” Furthermore, the researchers found, group intelligence is also only moderately correlated with qualities you’d think would be pretty crucial when it comes to group dynamics — things like group cohesion, satisfaction, “psychological safety,” and motivation. It’s not just that a happy group or a close-knit group or an enthusiastic group doesn’t necessarily equal a smart group; it’s also that those psychological elements have only some effect on groups’ ability to solve problems together.

So how do you engineer groups that can problem-solve effectively? First of all, seed them with, basically, caring people. Group intelligence is correlated, Malone and his colleagues found, with the average social sensitivity — the openness, and receptiveness, to others — of a group’s constituents. The emotional intelligence of group members, in other words, serves the cognitive intelligence of the group overall. And this means that — wait for it — groups with more women tend to be smarter than groups with more men. (As Malone put it: “More females, more intelligence.”) That’s largely mediated by the researchers’ social sensitivity findings: Women tend to be more socially sensitive than men — per Science! — which means that, overall, more women = more emotional intelligence = more group intelligence.

Which, yay. And it’s easy to see a connection between these findings and the work of journalists — who, whether through crowdsourcing or commentary, are trying to figure out the most productive ways to amplify, and generally benefit from, the wisdom of crowds. News outfits are experimenting not just with inviting group participation in their work, but also with, intriguingly, defining the groups whose participation they invite — the starred commenters, the “brain trust” of readers, etc. Those experiments are based, in turn, on a basic insight: that the “who” of groups matters as much as the “how.” Attention to the makeup of groups on a more granular, person-to-person level may extend the benefits even further.

The group genome

But where Professor Malone’s ideas get especially interesting from the Lab’s perspective is in another aspect of his work: the notion that groups have, in their structural elements, a kind of dynamic DNA. Malone and his colleagues — in this case, Robert Laubacher and Chrysanthos Dellarocas — are essentially trying to map the genome of human collectivity, the underlying structure that determines groups’ outcomes. The researchers break the “genes” of groups down to interactions among four basic (and familiar) categories: what, who, why, and how. Or, put another way: what the project is, who’s working to enact it, why they’re working to enact it, and what methods they’re using to enact it. (So the “genetic structure” of the Linux community, for example, breaks down to relationship among the what of creating new tools and shaping existing ones; the who of the crowd combined with Linus Torvalds, and his lieutenants; the why of love, glory, and, to an extent, financial gain; and the how of both collaboration and hierarchical ordering. The interplay among all those factors determines the community’s outward expression and outcomes.)

That all seems simple and obvious — because it is — but what makes the approach so interesting and valuable from the future-of-news perspective is, among other things, its disaggregation of project and method and intention. Groups form for all kinds of reasons, but we generally pay little attention to the discrete factors that lead them to form and flourish. Just as understanding humans’ genetic code can lead us to a molecular understanding of ourselves as individuals, mapping the genome of groups may help us understand ourselves as we behave within a broader collective.

And that knowledge, just as with the human genome, might help us gain an ability to manipulate group structures. When it comes to individuals, intelligence is measurable — and, thus, it has a predictive element: A smart kid will most likely become a smart adult, with all the attendant implications. Individual intelligence is fairly constant, and, in that, almost impossible to change. Group intelligence, though, Malone’s findings suggest, can be manipulated — and so, if you understand what makes groups smart, you can adjust their factors to make them even smarter. The age-old question in sociology is whether groups are somehow different, and greater, than the sum of their parts. And the answer, based on Malone’s and other findings, seems to be “yes.” The trick now is figuring out why that’s so, and how the mechanics of the collective may be put to productive use. Measuring group intelligence, in other words, is the first step in increasing group intelligence.

Malone and his colleagues have identified 16 “genes” so far, as expressed in groups like Wikipedia contributors, YouTube uploaders, and eBay auctioneers. “We don’t believe this is the end, by any means, but we think it’s a start,” he said — a way to rethink, and perhaps even revolutionize, the design of groups. Organizational design theory in the 20th century, he noted, generally focused on traditional, hierarchical corporations. But as digital tools give way to new kinds of collectives, “it seems to me,” the professor said, that “it’s time to update organizational design theory for these new organizations.”

Image via ynse used under a Creative Commons license.

October 05 2010

14:12

Need to use full potential of mobile networks to improve essential services

The use of mobile phones has been soaring in Africa. In certain rural areas  this has also improved healthcare, by permitting health centres to call the hospital for an ambulance in order to refer a patient needing emergency medical care. 

However mobile phones  are also costly and ways must be found to make networks more accessible so they can be used to promote access to health care across the rural sector where long distances and bad roads makes it all the more essential to provide a timely referral system for patients suffering complications.

read more

08:11

How mobile phones help improve health services

The use of mobile phones has been increasing at an accelerated rate all over Africa. 

In some regions we have seen the impact on health systems, where health centres are now able to call hospitals for an ambulance when there is an emergency. Similarly, in conflict areas, we've seen family members who are separated and displaced by fighting who are able to find each other again easily and warn other friends and family of danger. It has changed the way people manage their survival in the most extreme situations.

However, mobile coverage comes at a cost, and resources are not available to all. 

read more

December 03 2009

09:15

#WANIndia2009: Women editors-in-chief and women readers – should we be having this discussion?

“When I walk into an editorial meeting, I am an editor, just an editor – that’s it.”

So said Champika Liyanaarachchi, editor-in-chief of the Sri Lankan Daily Mirror, as part of a panel at the World Editors Forum (WEF), running alongside the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) conference, asking if more women editors-in-chief means more readers.

The discussion ranged from how a growing number of female readers should impact traditional newspapers to whether there were still preconceptions about what types of story male and female journalists should cover.

Ferial Haffajee, editor-in-chief of CityPress newspaper in South Africa, said newspapers had for too long only looked at their existing audience demographic and sought new readers within this mould. Choices made by such newspapers reinforce these reader types. We cater for them in a lacklustre way and select columnists and topics that reflect or reinforce their views, she said.

Many female journalists, in a bid to resist being pigeonholed as only good for ‘women’s issues’ stories have pointedly refused to cover such areas, she added.

“I edited unashamedly into my niche. I took great pride in covering the stories that in the 21st century we often turn our faces from (…) Growing women readers meant not patronising them with ill-conceived women’s pages, but in creating media paltforms in which they were treated as equals.”

“As an editor I’m totally against this idea of compartmentalising issues as male-centric or female-centric,” added Liyanaarachchi.

Commenting on the situation in India, Bachi Karkaria, consultant to the Times of India, said while a male club still existed as a barrier to women reaching the highest editorial positions, new, young female journalists have the opportunity to change this.

“We are the dinosaurs and they are the rhinocerouses with the horns to push forward and the hides to take criticism (…) You don’t have to follow the old paradigms of ambition,” she said.

But should we be following the old paradigms of debate? If we can do away with female journalist or male journalist-only stories, then can we stop asking questions suggesting that women editors will automatically attract women readers?

As Haffajee neatly summised, it’s not about this – it’s about diversity: “Create diversity in your newsroom and then you will attract a wider readership.”

All coverage of #WANIndia2009 from Journalism.co.uk can be found at this link.

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