Tag Archives: Wikileaks

Lections from Egypt: moving on from prediction to early warning

Daniel Kaufmann had some fun compiling a list of the authoritative commentators that predicted that – unilke in Tunisia – in Egypt the disgruntled population would not take to the street, or anyway not in such a way to threaten the regime. Everybody seems to have fallen for it, from Foreign Policy to the BBC, from Time magazine to the Economist.

Forecasting was always tricky business, and is getting more so. In a society as complex as ours, even the best analyst are lousy at prediction. In an entirely different context, David Lane and others (yours truly included) are suggesting that in some cases prediction might be replaced by a system of early warning, that spots emergent social dynamics in its early stages, when correction is still possible. This would be done by combining and filtering large masses of data, many of which collected on the web. The idea — which might ring familiar to those who use the Internet as a social filtering device for information, is that the global conversation is an entity that exists at a level superior to ours, and as such might know things that none of us, mere participants, know.

To describe this hypothetical system, David likes to quote post-marketing surveillance on pharmaceuticals after the Thalidomide scandal. This drug used to be prescribed to pregnant women in the 1950s, and it could induce terrible deformities in newborn children, but only combining in exquisitely nonlinear ways with other agents: it was cleared for rollout because the lab tests did not allow to discover the problem. It was the doctors treating the mothers of deformed or sick children that discovered, in the ocean of statistical noise, the weak signal of taking Thalidomide during pregnancy. As a consequence of this story, pharmaceutical companies now work with physicians to spot correlations to weak to be spotted in the lab, but that might be revealed by processing the mass of data obtaiend by tapping all doctors.

It is a fascinating topic, at least for me. And — going back to Egypt — it leads to an unexpected conclusion: it suggests another way that Wikileaks might be a good thing. Laks feed the global conversation, and thereby increase the probability that bloggers, citizens and activists poolf their knowledge and discover emergent trends. It has been argued that Wikileaks is nefarious, because it might hinder the work of diplomacy: but without better analysis, diplomacy cannot do an acceptable job anyway.

Accountability by access: civile servants move onto Facebook

According to the World Bank’s noteworthy PSD Blog a senior official in the Kanpur district, in Northern India, has ordered his highest ranking subordinates to create personal Facebook profiles “at the earliest”, and associate them with the page of the district’s administration.

The idea is that officials, being more accessible to citizens, feel them breathing down their neck, and therefore be prompted to respond quickly to suggestions, complaints or applause (“Citizens are going to like this, as they will be able to track their complaints”)

I like the intuition: it’s in line with what I wrote in my book Wikicrazia, particularly in the chapters on “transparency” and “speaking in a human voice”. In the actual decision there remain a few kinks to iron out: one of them is that my Facebook profile is mine, not my employer’s, public authority or not. Maybe this problem could be addressed creating multiple accounts, or using platforms where users have a much better control on what they share with whom, like Diaspora.

What I find most interesting, however, is that the Kanpur district administration initiative stands for the idea that the more transparency, the better. Which, after all, is the opinion I thought was common ground to more or less all of us, until the Wikileaks affaire kicked in and several commentators (including authoritative ones, like Shirky) started making the statement (in my opinion without proving it) that government need secrecy by default to be able to function. Who is right? At a first glance, between Ms. Clinton’s Department of State and the Kanpur district administration, the latter seems more in sync in the times. We, the people, had to rethink privacy at the times of the Internet: it seems logical that public authorities rethink secrecy as well. Frankly, I don’t see that many alternatives: Wikileaks and entities like it are here to stay, like it or not.

Note: I have not been able to find the Facebook page in question – but I am in China, and Internet access is not always straightforward, so I try to stay away from long Google searches. Should a reader find it and point me to it, I would be grateful to her or him.

Accountability da accesso: i funzionari pubblici vanno su Facebook

Racconta il notevole PSD Blog della Banca Mondiale che un anonimo alto funzionario del governo del distretto di Kanpur, nell’India settentrionale, ha ordinato ai suoi collaboratori più alti in grado di creare “quanto prima” i loro profili personali su Facebook, e di associarlo alla pagina creata per l’amministrazione distrettuale stessa.

L’idea è che i funzionari, risultando più accessibili ai cittadini, ne sentano il fiato sul collo, e quindi siano spinti a uno sforzo per rispondere rapidamente a eventuali sollecitazioni, critiche o lodi. Rispondere, naturalmente, usando la pagina Facebook dell’amministrazione distrettuale. “Ai cittadini questo piacerà, perché saranno in grado di tracciare i loro suggerimenti e i loro reclami.”

L’intuizione mi piace molto: è in linea con quello che scrivo in Wikicrazia, in particolare nei capitoli sulla “trasparenza” e sul “parlare con voce umana”. Nella decisione in quanto tale rimangono alcuni problemi, e uno è che il mio profilo Facebook è mio, non del mio datore di lavoro, anche se questo è una pubblica amministrazione. Forse si potrebbe risolvere questo problema creando accounts multipli, o usando piattaforme in cui gli utenti hanno pieno controllo su cosa condividono con chi, come Diaspora.

La cosa che mi incuriosisce di più, però, è che l’iniziativa del distretto di Kanpur ribadisce che più trasparenza c’è e meglio è per tutti. Che poi è la cosa che pensavo fosse condivisa da tutti fino a che non è scoppiato l’affaire Wikileaks, e molti commentatori (anche autorevoli, come Shirky) hanno dichiarato – ma, a mio avviso, non dimostrato – che i governi hanno bisogno di segretezza per default per funzionare. Chi ha ragione? A occhio il distretto di Kanpur mi sembra più sintonizzato con i tempi: noi umani abbiamo dovuto ripensare la privacy al tempo della rete, sembra logico che anche i governi si trovino a ripensare la loro riservatezza – anche perché francamente non vedo molte alternative. I fenomeni alla Wikileaks non spariranno tanto presto.

Nota: non ho trovato la pagina Facebook in questione – ma sono in Cina, e l’accesso a Internet è un po’ problematico, per cui cerco di risparmiarmi ricerche dettagliate in rete. Se qualche lettore la trovasse e me la segnalasse mi farebbe una cortesia.