Monday, 30 March 2009

Take part in an experiment

I'm posting an email message here from a colleague looking for help from any of University of Sunderland readers:


For PhD research in media arts using affective computing, we need participants who can give 20 minutes of their time.

You will be asked to listen to the Sentic Cycles by Manfred Clynes. In short, this is a 15 minutes sound sequence where the participant is asked to feel various emotions.

During this cycle, we will capture your heart rate and GSR (Galvanic Skin Response) in a non-invasive way and use this data to train a classifier which will be used in an artwork.

  • Wed the 1st of April 2009 between 2-4 pm, or
  • Thursday the 2nd of April between 6-8 pm, or
  • Friday the 3rd of April between 10 and 12 am.
University of Sunderland, St Peters Campus, The Media Centre, room 139, studio 4

If you are interested in participating in this study, please contact Adinda van ‘t Klooster on

More information on previous works by the artist can be found on:

Adinda van ‘t Klooster is an AHRC funded PhD student part of the CRUMB research group

Friday, 27 March 2009

Panic in the streets of Mumbai

Gave a short (20 min) paper at the University of Sunderland post-graduate research day on the use of Twitter in the Mumbai terrorist attacks context (Nov 2008). Will post slides and more details here soon

Slides should be available from here soon

Monday, 16 March 2009

Google's behaviour based advertising and how to avoid it

In the past week Google announced that it was going to make 'ads more interesting' by launching a behavioural advertising programme that will monitor browsing patterns and deliver personalised and tailored adverts to surfers. It sees this as a much better way of making advertising more relevant to consumers, and it will certainly be more advantageous to advertisers in that their messages will hopefully compete for the right eyeballs.

However, not everyone is happy with this. The CDD (Centre for Digital Democracy) raised flags at the partnership between Google and DoubleClick which preceded this current action back in January. The real sticking point is that Google has decided to make this an 'opt-out' rather than an opt-in policy. Some have seen this service as a little intrusive and feel like it encroaches on their anonymity (a somewhat problematic concept given how browsers actually function but never mind), and have been keen to opt out. Follow this link to opt out.

You might want to think of this change of direction as having a little in common with the Phorm debacle that raised it's ugly head about a year ago. Phorm were proposing much the same thing as Google, but they were planning on working at the server side for companies like BT and Virgin Media until public feeling turned a little hostile. This was also initially an opt-out service.

If you would rather not have personalised adverts targeted at you Google has provided a solution - one which is far from ideal. In order to block the service you can download a cookie from Google. Of course, this is less than ideal if you regularly run anti-spyware/malware software which regularly cleans cookies from your browser. You'd have to reinstall the cookie each time you run the software or create a software dependent exception.

If you want to download the cookie then follow this link. It works on all RC versions of Firefox from 1.5+. I'm not sure if it works on the Mozilla Flock browser which is essentially a reskinned Firefox, but I can't see why it wouldn't. Mac user running Mozilla's Camino might want to try the same link. Google have created a version of the browser cookie for Safari users, but they do advise that Safari comes prefigured to block most cookies by default anyway - far from ideal.

Of course, many long term users of browsers like Firefox (this also works for Flock), Camino and Opera can bypass the problems associated with Google's privacy creep by installing Ad Block Plus or using the inbuilt 'content blocker' found in the settings. The use of Adblock has the added advantage of enabling web-pages to render a little quicker and saves battery life on laptops if you regularly visit sites with Flash animation embedded.

This is just another example of Google gathering more and more personal data on its users...


I noticed an improved Firefox extension was being discussed in The Register this week. They claim that 'privacy crusader Christopher Soghoian is offering a single Firefox plug-in that maintains your opt-out on 27 separate behavioral ad networks' and that you can get that from here. There are implications to using this plug-in so be sure to read the author's blog.

Monday, 2 March 2009

An era of mass collaboration?

This week's MAC281 Cyberculture lecture raised the subject of 'wikinomics' (Tapscott & Wiliams, 2006; 2008) or crowdsourcing (Howe, 2006; 2008) - the the act of taking a task traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people or community in the form of an open call. Different people have called it different things. At one point folksonomy - the social tagging of data that helps large groups of people classify material (eg Furl, Flickr, Digg, Delicious, etc) - was pretty popular.

The general claim was that this form of collaborative production is one which will be come to dominate 21st century organisations, and move us away from what Clay Shirky (2008) identifies as the legacy of the 20th century: large scale projects driven by the efforts of the state or by businesses competing in the marketplace. The slides I used in the session are below:
Several writers have clamoured to talk about this type of behaviour as having the potential to affect change, often for the better. Businesses can harness the power of the crowd and their collective intelligence in order to innovate; culture will benefit from a democratic sense of inclusiveness whereby everyone who has something to contribute to a topic can do so.


In the area of research and development (R&D), the ability to bring in more ideas from a wider community of interested parties may seem attractive. Many companies still rely on internal R&D departments for innovation, which can become hindered or obscured by the bureaucratic processes of established institutional behaviour. Opening up to new ideas can breathe a lot of life into a company. Indeed, Tapscott & Williams (2008: 97-108) identify a number of examples whereby the creation of 'ideagoras' have had a positive impact on a business's growth.

Take Innocentive for example. Founded in 2001, they connect:
"companies, academic institutions, public sector and non-profit organizations, all hungry for breakthrough innovation, with a global network of more than 160,000 of the world's brightest minds on the world's first Open Innovation Marketplace™"
Using an established network of geographically dispersed 'thinkers; they are able to find innovative solutions to a variety of different problems

This kind of behaviour doesn't have to be restricted to the realm of business. A few weeks ago the BBC carried a story whereby the wisdom of crowds were being tapped to sort out data consisting of images of far off galaxies. The project is part of the Galaxy Zoo 2 project - dubbed 'citizen science' - where amateur astronomers can identify different physical features of heavenly bodies. The spacial recognition project is more effectively undertaken by humans than by computers.

This is not the first time humans have been a better alternative to machines - I recall reading how Charles Arthur blogged about humans being used to defeat anti-spam 'captcha' fields on websites back in 2006. Humans can solve visual tasks like this a lot quicker and more effectively than computers.
Many companies have integrated the open source operating system, Linux, into their business work flows. This has saved them money in the guise of expensive enterprise licences for things like Microsoft Vista, but also has the benefit of a huge collective pool of programmers and developers frequently eager to solve problems.

There are also suggestions that the ability to harness the wisdom of the crowd will bring about an era of mass innovation via information exchange, with a reciprocal pay off for democracy.


There may be some perils involved in this type of behaviour. Companies might see the benefits in crowdsourcing and choose to cut their expensive overheads (read: staff) in order to make a greater profit, especially in these economically testing times. Farming ideas or tasks out to the crowd can seem like a cost effective process especially when financial incentives for the crowd may be lower than established methods of getting things done.

Of course, there is a very famous phrase which has become an Internet meme in and of itself: 'Never underestimate the power of very stupid people in large groups'. Theories surrounding public choice suggest that the majority are never as effectively organised as powerful minority interests (eg the RIAA or MPAA versus file-sharers). Some critics of the Web 2.0 revolution such as Andrew Keen are quick to suggest that large scale access to new social tools doesn't always guarantee an enriched cultural domain - how many videos of dogs on skateboards do we need to see?

Whether or not we are living in an era of mass collaboration is contentious. There may well be examples of peer production in many quarters - from the collaborative production of knowledge in the guise of Wikipedia; the creation of products for avatars in virtual worlds like Second Life; the efficient use of empty CPU cycles across distributed computing networks a la folding@home; etc - but to what extent is this truly symptomatic of a sea-change? How inclusive is this 'mass'? Wikipedia may be editable by anyone, but there are indications that a minority of users are regular contributors. This seems to be more like a self-selected hierachy than a 'flat' form of organisation.

In a different context Raymond Williams once claimed, 'There are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses'. Is there not a similar thing occurring here? Might there be a broader danger in assuming that what appears to be a mass is not already a form of collective intelligence based on a meritocratic principle? There is no doubt that the Internet has enabled for a variety of different voices to find an outlet for expression, but I have some reservations about group-think activity being a 'new' mode of organisation; might it not resemble other forms of collective behaviour? Groups have, on occassion, been swayed to think along conservative lines. I'm thinking here of focus group studies in audience research whereby certain characters and opinions might come to dominate and sway a session.

This may not seem to happen in contexts such as Linux development where code is written on a functional basis, however that doesn't mean that there aren't philosophical questions to be asked about the relative appropriateness of the decision making process which informed the construction of one aspect of software functionality over another. Form and function are not separate from each other and what works for one might not work for another.