At the New York Times, Patricia Cohen has written an interesting piece on how economic growth measures (e.g. Gross Domestic Product, or GDP) aren’t great at measuring some parts of the economy.
That’s because a country’s GDP doesn’t include goods or services which are ‘free’. For instance, a mother or father who doesn’t work and looks after their kid doesn’t add a dollar to GDP because they aren’t being paid — but they’re performing an immensely valuable service.
Another — increasingly important — GDP blackhole is free digital services:
The growing suspicion, however, is that in a digital world overflowing with free services like Facebook, Google and YouTube, price is an increasingly ill-suited proxy for value.
What is the worth of a free software update that protects against a nasty virus? Of the streaming service that enables you to watch shows on your computer instead of on a television? Of the hours and hours saved by looking up a fact on Wikipedia rather than having to go to a library? All have productive value but no price.
I’ve thought about this problem in relation to free/open source software too. The more people who are using open source software, the lower GDP goes, even if the user is happier than if they’d paid for propriety software.
I’ve previously written about how Facebook is a sort of quasi monopolistic utility. Part of Facebook’s status as a dominant player is that it has a huge rule in determining what news people see. A few developments in the past few months have raised interesting questions about how Facebook deals with its role as an information gatekeeper.
Humans = bad, robots = good
You have read a while ago that Facebook was in trouble for supposedly showing a left-wing bias in an obscure part of its platform which was curated by human employees. This was not the main newsfeed but a small section called ‘Trending Topics’. In response to the controversy, Facebook switched from having humans curate the topics to using a supposedly more neutral and fundamentally workable algorithm (in other words moving to a newsfeed-like model). Continue reading “What are Facebook’s responsibilities as an information gatekeeper?”
Kwame Opam wrote an interesting piece on The Verge a few months ago about Facebook’s responsibilities in the modern world (in the context of the Paris terror attacks). I thought his point that Facebook has become so ubiquitous that it’s akin to a ‘utility’ is a particularly interesting one:
Facebook is both a utility and an immensely powerful media company. The social network wields more influence than any single news outlet on the planet, serving as both a wire service and forum for 1.01 billion daily users. That means readers in search of a narrative will often turn to Facebook first. That’s an enormous responsibility, especially as the company acts out its ambitions of becoming a global portal to the internet at large. We need to ask ourselves: what should Facebook’s role be in determining the narratives that people follow?
I’ve just — finally — submitted my politics Masters thesis to the Victoria University of Wellington library, and I thought it might be interesting to note down a few things I did along the way. I’m really interesting in open source, so I thought it would be a good idea to walk the talk and make an open source thesis.
Using open source tools
One of the most obvious ways to make an open source thesis was is to use open source tools. I used LibreOffice Writer to write all 42,000 words of it. Using LO writer was an almost entirely pain free process, except for a couple of admittedly stressful times when the xml of the file got corrupted and I had to revert to old versions to rescue my work.
I also analysed my focus group transcripts using the open source qualitative data analysis tool RQDA. It was really easy and worked really well — I would definitely recommend it.
Add a creative commons licence
I chose to license my thesis under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike International 4.0 Licence. The licence basically allows anyone to share or remix my work as long as they attribute me as the creator and share their subsequent creation with the same licence (or a compatible one). While I think I’m pretty realistic about the fact that pretty much noone is ever going to look at my thesis, I think it’s cool to think that someone might come along and do something interesting with my work.
The international Creative Commons organisation has been advocating for students to license their theses since at least 2009. There must be huge numbers of theses now out there available to read, remix and build on. It’s much easier to stand on the metaphorical shoulders of giants in scholarship when everything is free to read!
Making your thesis open access
The university where I studied has a good open access repository, so I’ll be putting my thesis in the open access section so anyone can view it and download it for free. I think adding your work to the open access repository is a fantastic idea — it’s the best way to make it available so people will actually read it.
The New York Times‘ Farhad Manjoo has an interesting piece exploring the impact of Uber’s business model on work and employment in the future:
The larger worry about on-demand jobs is not about benefits, but about a lack of agency — a future in which computers, rather than humans, determine what you do, when and for how much. The rise of Uber-like jobs is the logical culmination of an economic and tech system that holds efficiency as its paramount virtue.
“I’m glad if people like working for Uber, but those subjective feelings have got to be understood in the context of there being very few alternatives,” Dr. Reich said. “Can you imagine if this turns into a Mechanical Turk economy, where everyone is doing piecework at all odd hours, and no one knows when the next job will come, and how much it will pay? What kind of private lives can we possibly have, what kind of relationships, what kind of families?”
The on-demand economy may be better than the alternative of software automating all our work. But that isn’t necessarily much of a cause for celebration.
The on-demand economy Manjoo outlines sounds hellish.
This quote in particular resonated with me:
“After interviewing many workers in the on-demand world, Dr. Reich said he has concluded that “most would much rather have good, well-paying, regular jobs.”
Rather than allowing jobs in the twenty first century to become casualised and atomised, I think we would do well to aim for decent, well paying jobs.
One road block to this atomization of labour is labour-protection laws in the United States. The Vergeis reporting that there are a couple of class-action law suits in the United States at the moment against Uber and Lyft. The class-action suits are trying to argue that the people who drive around for these companies are actually employees, which matters because employees get access to a range of benefits (such as petrol expenses) which Uber and Lyft drivers don’t currently have. It will be interesting to see what happens with these cases!
Uber sent me this email today (they also presumably sent it to all other people who are registered Uber users in New Zealand):
Recently, we have seen media coverage involving a police officer stopping Uber partner-drivers and removing riders, in some cases leaving them with no option but to walk home in the dark. This is unjustified and irresponsible. Uber has submitted a formal complaint to the Independent Police Conduct Authority.
These events have been based on the NZTA’s narrow interpretation of legislation created at a time when technology like Uber’s didn’t exist. Vested interests have also been spreading misinformation designed to scare riders and bully drivers to protect a small group of large and powerful taxi incumbents.
Uber partners in New Zealand are licensed, safe and provide a legal service in the best interests of riders and drivers. You can read more about the processes behind our operations here. We are proud to be creating new economic opportunities for licensed and responsible drivers, and bringing much needed competition to New Zealand.
IT’S TIME TO TELL THE GOVERNMENT WHY YOU WANT TO HAVE THE FREEDOM TO CHOOSE HOW YOU GET AROUND YOUR CITY.
CLICK the LINKS TO TWEET @CRAIGFOSSMP AND #CHOOSEUBERNZ OR EMAIL HIM DIRECTLY
Don’t let a few loud voices in the taxi industry bully their way into preventing you from choosing Uber. Whether taxi or Uber is your preference, you have the right to choose.
Craig Foss is the Minister responsible for these outdated regulations and he needs to hear the same feedback we do everyday. Things like..
“My Uber is 40% cheaper than a taxi, and cleaner, safer and more reliable.”
“I don’t pay a credit card surcharge with Uber.”
“Ubers are more reliable and pick me up faster.”
“I can rate the driver.”
“I feel safer in an Uber.”
….What Uber experience will you share?
Thank you for your continued support. We’re working hard with our partner-drivers to ensure Uber is the safest and most reliable ride in town.
A slightly different version of this post can also be found over at the fantastic NZ Commons site. Check it out if you haven’t already!
One thing which I’ve noticed recently is that New Zealand politicians are terrible at using creative commons licences to allow use of their photos. That’s a real shame, and in this post I’ll explore why it’s in politicians’ best interest to upload good quality photos of themselves and their activities using a permissive creative commons (CC) licence.
What is creative commons?
Creative commons is a way of making it easy for people to share, build upon and remix your creative works, while retaining copyright. There are all sorts of different licences, so you can use one which matches your needs. Creative commons licences can be a confusing business, but they’re not too complicated once you get the hang of them (and understand what all the different abbreviations mean!). Continue reading “politicians and openly-licensed photography”
Wikimedia Commons is a community-run website where people from around the world upload images, which can then be used freely by others (with certain restrictions depending on licences). As the name suggests, it’s run by the Wikimedia Foundation who run the behind-the-scenes-stuff at Wikipedia, and a whole host of other related websites. The Commons is the main storage location for all the images, videos, and audio recordings etc on Wikipedia.
The Commons only accepts images which have some encyclopedic/educational value and are licenced very permissively. The default licence is CC-BY-SA, which in a few words, means you’re free to share the item as long as you say who created the image, and share your item (either simply the original item or a derivative) under the same conditions.
The conditions make it pretty difficult to upload anything unless you’ve created it yourself and you give the go-ahead, or you track down creative commons licenced media somewhere else. But the somewhat restrictive conditions on what you can upload create this amazing resource for the world: for pretty much anything you can imagine, there’s a free image available free of charge. It’s like a giant stock photo database, except free. I don’t really understand why people are still buying stock photos when there are all these freely available images sitting there. All you have to do is follow the simple creative commons conditions and you’re fine.
Sometime earlier this year I started playing the smartphone augmented reality game Ingress. It’s basically a giant, global game of capture the flag where two teams fight for control of “portals” which can be anything from street art to historic buildings. The innovative aspect of the game is that it requires you to physically go out into the world and interact with these places – you have to be standing within a few metres of portals to interact with them, and hence the game gets you out of the house and walking around. Although you could play the game as an individual, you quickly come into contact with others on your team to coordinate, and in the process enter into a friendly community.
For me, one of the most interesting parts of the game is that quite a bit of it is crowdsourced. People who play the fame (“agents”) go out into the world and submit points of interest (POI) and a photo to the people who make the game, who then after a period of months either accept or reject your submission. You can also submit new photos of existing portals. So over time you gradually see the streets in the game fill up with more and more portals to interact with, and new interesting photos of monuments and buildings etc.
This crowdsourcing aspect of the game got me thinking of the potential for an Ingress-like game for reporting and interacting with real world objects in a way which actually benefits society. In other words, what would happen if you were to create a hybrid of Ingress and fix it apps which many councils around the world already offer for citizens to report on problems in their neighbourhood?
The basic idea would be that you boot up this app on your phone, and are immediately presented with a map of your surroundings – perhaps a few hundred metres in every direction. The data could be pulled from Open Street Map. As you move around, the centre of the map moves and you can see different things. On the map are a number of different POIs – nearby parks, town halls, etc. The types of POI visible could be changed depending on your preferences. The point is that you could select things on the map around your current location to submit to the app as problems (with accompanying photos). E.g. a street light might be out and in need or repair, there might be rubbish everywhere, plants may be overgrown and in need of trimming on public land, there might be grafiti etc. Once your problem has been submitted, it could appear on the map to others who are also around there. Other people could take additional photos, confirm the problem exists, add more details, or report that the problem had already been fixed or did not appear to exist at all.
The possibilities are pretty much limitless in terms of what you could do with an app like this. You could crowdsource photos of monuments, or create missions where people had to do a number of things around the city. I think it would be really good if it was game-ified such that people felt tangible progress as they “played” the game more. It would essentially gamify being a good citizen, and allow councils and governments to have the power of heaps of helpful people all over the place.
Existing apps which allow people to submit problems in the city, are a good start, but I think they could be way better. Obviously it would be a huge amount of work to put something like this together, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.