Category Archives: Comment

Kano the Raspberry Pi go mainstream?

Since its launch the Raspberry Pi has been phenomenally  successful – with over 2 million units of the little computer sold around the world, it’s arguably kick-started a revolution in cheap, educational computing.

The only slight worry about this is how many Raspberry Pi computers have landed in the hands of kids (who it was really intended for) as opposed to 30-something computer nerds who are re-living their 8-bit computing childhoods, or networking the family toaster. Arguably there’s nothing wrong with that as the enthusiasts provide a ton of support but sometimes it’s easy to lose site of the goal of the project in the first place.

Then there’s the Raspberry Pi’s biggest competitor – the tablet computer. Many kids will be given tablets as they’re ‘educational’ devices – and given the choice of an instant on, readily usable ipad that can play games as well, the Raspberry Pi has its work cut out to avoid the drawer of forgotten devices.

So enter the Kano project – a kickstarter that raised over 1 million dollars, and effectively bundles the Raspberry Pi up with some nice hardware and some trendy design. Marketed as the computer you can build, it’s taking aim at the educational market in the hope that the kids will put down their iPads and have a go.

The Beta version of the Kano OS software part of the project launched this week so here are some first impressions.

In order to prepare your SD card Kano requires a burner program to run on a PC or Mac – although this does the job, it’s not quite as elegant as the NOOBS drag and drop method which has now become the standard for most Raspberry Pi software.

It did work on the first attempt
It did work on the first attempt

On bootup you get asked a few questions in the terminal, in the style similar to a text adventure. This is actually a rather nice touch. It neatly introduces the idea of the text interface and entering commands, and makes typing startx rather exciting (there’s a countdown!). I can imagine this being fun with a classroom of kids trying out the Raspberry Pi for the first time.

Not the command line you know
Not the command line you know

This first person theme continues as you use the computer – one nice touch is the bundled wi-fi setup app asks you to test your internet connection with the ping command (thus introducing the idea for later).

Once you get past this you’re presented with the Kano desktop. It’s beautifully designed with nice flat icons for the various apps. Chromium is the default web browser and it runs at a decent speed, and there are some bundled apps for creating programs.

Even as a Beta it feels quite polished.

Overall Kano OS is much simpler and less cluttered than other Raspberry Pi distributions and everything you really need is still there.

The tabletty desktop
The tabletty desktop

Lots of things here will be already familiar to anyone who’s used a Pi before – the command line is still accessible, so despite its user friendly interface there’s still the option to type proper linux commands.

The apps that have had the most work done to them are the programming tutorials – these allow you to mess around with a game of snake or pong using the drag and drop interface of scratch, and there’s also a split screen Minecraft app that is quite clever. It doesn’t take long at all to start really using the Pi and trying out different projects.

Here's pong with garish colours!
Here’s pong with garish colours!

It’ll be interesting to see how this software progresses – there are definitely some good points, and as something I could load onto a Raspberry Pi and give to some kids to play with it perfectly fits the bill; and it does still include the vital command line for anyone that gets curious as to what’s running their computer behind the scenes – something that a tablet computer lacks.

One thing I wonder though is exactly how the Kano kit fits in with the other Raspberry Pi distributions – I’m not sure if the aim is to get this to fit alongside the other Raspberry Pi distributions (for instance including it as part of NOOBS) or to sell it separately. Raspbian’s open source nature has led it to be massively improved over the years by the community – and it would be a shame if Kano OS missed out on this.

You can try out Kano for yourself at kano.me

The kit launches sometime this year with a custom keyboard – I’ll be reviewing that as well.

China to Cheltenham: Great Walls of Fire and Web Tempora

Here’s my post for this year’s Blog Action Day which is my geeky take on the subject of Human Rights.

Adafruit's Onion Pi
Adafruit’s Onion Pi

Privacy is one of those human rights that we take for granted. It’s listed by the United Nations as article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

 along with the freedom of expression, listed as article 19:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Since the early days of the world wide web, privacy and the freedom of expression are central, as no single person or entity controlled the chaotic sprawl of servers that spewed out opinions, information and videos of cats.

This freedom cuts both ways – the web isn’t just freedom fighters and unsigned artists, it’s also terrorists, music pirates and pornographers, but the individual was the filter, not governments or corporations. 

For years in the west, we’ve looked down at China’s great firewall that filters the internet, and  the behaviour of giants like google who meekly provide pictures of pretty gardens rather than tanks when you search for ‘Tianamen Square’ 

China now employs 2 million people to monitor the internet in a move most people in the west would regard as a creepy throwback to the cold war era.

Yet here in the UK, the government are proposing a catch all, opted-in internet filter with the noble intention of ridding the web of porn. Sadly good intentions can have unintended consequences – what makes the block list is vague at best, and could include things like ‘web forums’, ‘esoteric material’ (whatever that is) and ‘anti-blocking software’. Very little is said about who would decide what is acceptable and what isn’t, and how this would be policed. What would stop a future government blocking the websites of political parties, environmental campaigners or minority groups? how would the right to appeal a block work? would a company abuse it’s control over the block to silence criticism? could a less moderate government use this to stifle debate and eliminate opposition?

Governments do have a duty to protect their citizens – whether its from terrorism or internet nasties, but there is an issue of accountability, and trust. We need to be able to trust that government agencies are keeping an eye on the activity of people who are a genuine threat, and that this eye is accountable and itself scrutinised. It’s no longer enough to rely on the over used argument that  people with nothing to hide have nothing to fear.

Recently Chris Huhne, who was in the cabinet for two years until 2012, said ministers were in “utter ignorance” of the two biggest covert operations, Prism and (the deep fried in batter sounding) Tempora. Worrying indeed; who are these covert operations reportable to? what would stop this power being abused? 

And there is the case of undercover police officer Mark Kennedy who unlawfully spied on environmentalists – an example of an agent abusing his power in what should be a moderate country governed by a moderate government.

In any democracy, checks and balances are needed to ensure that the rapid rise in surveillance isn’t abused, or could be abused in the future by less moderate governments – 

Tony Benn put it quite well:

“What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?” If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.”

When checks and balances fail, as always, the web itself has found ways around the issue of censorship and to secure privacy:

It’s possible to use a Raspberry Pi to peek round the Great Firewall of China, and for the paranoid you can protect your privacy with Privoxy or using TOR with the Onion Pi.

I’m not reaching for my tin hat yet, but it’s good to know what’s possible just in case.

You can find out more about internet freedom, and join the campaign at the Open Rights Group.

 

 

The Power of We: the revolution will made in a kitchen somewhere

I’m a great fan of kitchen-tivism (kitchtivism?) – and by that I mean the engineers who tinker away in their kitchens to come up with solutions to various problems.

kitchen-tivism isn’t a particularly new concept – it’s been around since the dawn of modern science. One such early inventor is the astronomer Herschel who made reflecting telescope mirrors in his kitchen, and perfected a process which enabled him to measure the distance between stars, discover Uranus, and for his sister to become a celebrated hunter of comets and pioneer female scientist. You can visit the site of Herschel’s kitchen today and even see the cracked paving stones which resulted from an early failed attempt to cast mirrors in lead – the molten mixture poured over the floor and shattered the stone beneath.

Shedtivism in action: Herschels mirror polisher
Kitchtivism in action: Herschel’s mirror polisher

There are many stories of such kitchtivists – people like the Reverend Stirling, who out of concern for his parishioners developed a hot air steam engine which worked at a much lower (and safer pressure). Perhaps not all of them created their works in kitchens – some used sheds, but you get the idea.

What perhaps is different now from the past, is that where before kitchtivists worked in isolation, often replicating work or encountering problems which were insurmountable on their own, today kitchtivists have the wonderful invention that is the internet to connect them with other activists around the world. Part of the success of the world wide web is the sharing of ideas – at no cost – and without boundaries. Experts and amateurs alike can pool ideas, and create technological mashups which combine bits of experience from a wide field of people.

Take for instance Frontline SMS – a handy bit of software which connects mobile phones with the internet, which was written by Ken Banks over five weeks on the laptop in his kitchen. In keeping with the spirit of the internet he gave Frontline SMS away.

“I made it a generic communications platform that could be used for almost anything, and I made it free.”

Frontline SMS was originally developed to help help South Africa’s Kruger National Park communicate and engage with its neighbouring communities – but since it’s inception it’s been used from earthquake survival information to providing radio shows with feedback via text from their listeners. The most notable Frontline SMS mashup being the Kenyan based Ushahidi – originally created to map post election conflict in Kenya, now being used anywhere map based tracking is needed.

There are many other examples – from the open source Arduino, to the Raspberry Pi teaching computer (created in their spare time by concerned computer science lecturers) – all demonstrating that the spirit of entrepreneurial experimentation made famous by the victorian pioneers is alive and well today.

The potential for the web – still a relatively young invention to not only mobilise activists on a global scale – but to potentially provide new solutions, ideas and technologies that are just given away for free is truly mind-boggling.

I for one are looking forward to the new and exciting technologies that kitchtivists are working on – and am certain that the next revolution will probably be made on kitchen table somewhere.

This was a post for Blog Action Day 2012.

 

 

 

What the government got wrong with the new epetition system, and how they can fix it

Today the UK government launched an online e-petition system. You can sign up, create an online petition and if you get 100,000 signatures your campaign could get a debate in parliament.

How epetitions work (from government site)
How epetitions work (from government site)

There are a few provisos: the petition has to be approved (by the relevant department) and the petition can’t relate to appointments – presumably to avoid things like the ‘sack Gordon Brown’ petition which gained lots of names during the last government’s attempts at digital democracy. There are also a few rules about joke petitions, and the slightly catch all “the issue is not the responsibility of the government”.

As someone who does a lot of online campaigning, and has an interest in hacking together ideas for running online petitions, this is potentially really exciting.

But, there are a couple of issues:

  1. It’s a closed system.This is a massive issue. Charities and other organisations rely on online activism to recruit new members to their lists and encourage them to take a more active role in their campaigns (and yes, to fundraise from – but fundraising is activism too – see how the Obama campaign publicised it’s large number of donations as committed support).

    Take for instance a hypothetical example: a small campaigning organisation launches a campaign for the UK government to do something about a UK company supporting a dictator. The petition captures the public imagination, hundreds of thousands of people sign the petition. It has it’s day in parliament, but then the campaign moves out of the public eye. The small campaigning organisation can’t contact the petition signers to ask for help in moving the campaign forward.

     

    One of the big criticisms of online campaigning is that it’s low value ‘clicktavism‘, but if you have no way of capturing the details of the people who sign your petition, how can you get in touch with them and encourage them to be more involved, have tea with their MP and do some high-effort campaigning? Online petitions are often seen as the first step in engaging people with issues, and getting them more interested in politics.

    This leads me to think that a lot of campaigning organisations will ignore the system, and instead it will be used by the likes of the Sun to run campaigns like ‘Lets have the Red Arrows at the Olympics’.

    Worse still, it seems that newspapers like the Daily Mail are intent on using the petition system to launch campaigns like bringing back the death penalty. Given the current structure of the e-petition system it actually favours tabloid campaigns, since they have high circulations and don’t have to think about engaging in long term campaign work.

  2. It doesn’t tackle the big issue of how MPs respond to online campaigning.There is a massive variance in how MPs respond to being lobbied online. Some ignore email completely, others respond just to individual emails, and a few more respond to identical emails in the same way they would to letters. Recently a number of MPs have been very vocal in their opposition to online email petitions.

    Personally I believe that as our elected representatives, MPs have a duty to respond to their constituents, but at the same time appreciate that trawling through a lot of emails that are all the same might tax the resources of the average constituency office, and cause the kind of annoyance that can alienate MPs from otherwise worthy campaigns.

A proper online petition system would enable campaigners to do the things they need to do to work effectively, and at the same time give the politicians reasonable ways to gauge opinion and thus hopefully respond.

So how could it be done better?

  • Involve civil society: Involving the people who write the software that campaigning organisations use would be a good start. The e-petition system was written by a civil servant department bizarrely named ‘Skunkworks’ for £82,000.
  • Build out the e-petition system as an API – an ‘API’ allows other pieces of software to access a system – twitter uses this very effectively to allow all the tools like tweetdeck and hootsuite to send tweets. Organisations could feature the petitions on their websites and recruit activists to their own email and supporter databases at the same time.
  • Create a set of guidelines / protocols for lobbying MPs, ministers and departments and for people wanting to lobby them:

    It could be as simple as specifying something in the subject line of an email e.g. PETITION_mycampaigntitle for identical emails, and
    PERSONALQUERY_mycampaigntitle for individually-written emails. Or perhaps sending an MP a daily / weekly email informing them the number of constituents who have signed a particular petition, and inviting them to respond  (essentially taking over the task of managing the petition).

    This is a two way process: for it to work politicians would have to agree to respond if the ‘rules of engagement’ are met, and online campaigners would need to respect the rules.

  • Give campaign targets a platform to reply on – if it would encourage reluctant MPs to engage with online campaigning it would be worth offering the opportunity to put their views across.

In today’s modern world we carry out more and more of our daily activities online, banking, paying bills, buying insurance, shopping etc. It seems that providing the option to engage properly with politicians on the web is long overdue.

Thoughts? disagree with me completely? leave comments below!

Don’t retweet this to get the #newtwitter

Well it seems the new twitter is finally hitting the UK with the #newtwitter hashtag topping the trending charts, although it seems that many are falling for the “follow me / retweet me” to get access to new twitter, which sadly doesn’t work. Anyone who claims to be able to unlock the new twitter for you is a big fat liar.

Image of the new twitter page
All change here

The new layout features a 50/50 split between the twitter stream and trending, lists and suggestion columns – which should suit the more popular widescreen monitor formats. Search is more prominently sitting at the top of the page, and lists and searches are included in dropdown menus. Clicking on a tweet operates a slide out page with more information on that tweet or user.

The new layout seems to have messed up a lot of custom backgrounds although these are a bit of an ugly hack which attempt to shoehorn more contact information onto a twitter page.

In terms of new features – twitter have now launched shortcuts to a lot of the common twitter functions:

Image of twitter short cuts
Just like a twitter client

Hitting a key brings up a lightbox style popup window with the appropriate function.

Favourite tweets also have a bit more prominence as well, which is a feature I’ve hardly bothered with.

The overall feel is that twitter.com includes more of the features of the many twitter clients that are available – which in itself is perhaps a reaction to the laissez-faire attitude twitter has to it’s service: build too good an API and no-one will visit your website anymore.

A week of social media fails…

Social media:  a potentially exciting new way for businesses and organisations to have conversations with their stakeholders; a way of developing a campaign or a brand with a personal touch, or potentially a way to really stick their foot in it and magnify criticism to epic levels.

Killer KitKats

This week saw two interesting social media ‘fails’. First we had Nestlé’s reaction to a greenpeace video about their use of palm oil in KitKat.  The increasing use of Palm oil has resulted in devastating destruction of rainforests and peatlands to create vast monoculture plantations. It’s a classic ecowarriors versus evil-corporation style campaign which is gaining a lot of support. Greenpeace’s opening shot is here:

I must admit, it’s a quite horrible shock advert in the usual Greenpeace style – Nestlé’s response was to get the video taken down from YouTube citing infringement of their trademarked logo.  Almost since the beginning of YouTube what usually happens when a video is taken offline,  a copy will be almost immediately uploaded again;  and Greenpeace of course used this response to generate support for their campaign, and even made the original available for supporters to upload using their own accounts.

The effect was immediate with tweets and facebook updates being bound around mentioning Nestlé’s censorship tactics – a suitably rebellious message which is popular for users of social media to repeat and pass on.

This is a classic example of the ‘Streisand effect ‘ in which an attempt to censor or remove a piece of information from the public domain has the unintended consequence of generating more publicity than if it had just been left online.

Nestlé didn’t stop there however: inevitably as their Facebook page became the source of comments and questions about their use of Palm oil, Nestlé instead responded angrily to the use of their logo as an avatar image, again resulting in yet another deluge of tweets and status updates.

The end result was Greenpeace claiming the upper hand, and Nestlé looking out of step with the campaigners and their customers.

#CashGordon – whose fail?

The other social media ‘fail’ of the past week has been the Conservative website launched to promote the message that Gordon Brown is supported by money for the Unite Union – currently supporting a strike by British Airways workers that has divided opinion. Interestingly the CashGordon  site features an unmoderated twitter stream repeating every tweet with the #cashgordon hashtag. It’s a particularly old school concept which dates from when twitter was a relatively new phenomenon, and having anyone tweet about your site was quite exciting.

The more left wing tweeters have jumped on this hashtag with a stream of abuse – many of which are too rude to put here, but which include things like:

@fusi_loving the EPIC FAIL that is #cashgordon – they cant even get a twitter feed right, what are they gonna do with the economy? lol. #toryfail

and

@lordbonkers Write something rude about the Tories, mark it#cashgordon and they post it on their own campaign site for youhttp://cash-gordon.com/

and the rather damming:

@psbook New post –> Tory ‘Cash Gordon’ campaign designed by US anti-healthcare lobbyist http://is.gd/aSFIF #cashgordon

Interestingly however the very presence of the website, and the numerous comments on the #cashgordon hashtag has had the unintended consequence of bringing the whole campaign to the attention of a much wider audience (at time of writing #cashgordon is trending in the top ten of the UK) which itself is being claimed as a success.

Update: I’ll see if I can tally up the tweets to see who can claim victory on this one

Another Update: nope, quite clear epic fail

Anatomy of a hashtag #cashgordon
Epic fail

The power of a tweet…(but annoyingly I’m the only one that will ever know)

An interesting thing happened to me a few evenings ago. I was at one of the iTunes festival gigs in the roundhouse, which featured the eclectic line-up of Mumford and Sons (yawn), the Temper Trap (not bad) and Stephen Fry (yes, that Stephen Fry).

Stephen Fry was there in a warm-up capacity presumably because of his oft-voiced love of the iPhone which he uses to disseminate musings that range from being trapped in lifts, to jogging in New York. However, perhaps rather embarrasingly for Apple, Mr Fry decided to use his spot at the iTunes festival to have a go at the practices of the big music companies in aggressively pursuing illegal downloaders and filesharers.

my business – the film business, the television business, the music business – is doing the wrong thing

He spoke out against the ludicrous advert that compares downloading to pinching a handbag or stealing a car. He even fessed up to having bit-torrented a TV show – although covered himself by stating that he had already bought it on iTunes, and for some slightly unusual bandwidth reasons was unable to download it in the normal way.

Now this was all very interesting – and wildly popular with the crowd, however it seemed a little at odds to me. At the bottom of the pdf ticket I’d printed off to turn up at the gig was stated:

*You are not permitted to make audio or audiovisual recordings of the event

So when asked for a bit of feedback I tweeted the following:

listening to @stephenfry slagging off drm at itunes – where i’d get thrown out if caught filming him !

Which got slightly paraphrased when he read it on stage. Stephen Fry’s response was that everyone there was filming and photographing and tweeting – and that his speech would probably turn up on YouTube before the evening was out.

Sadly my fifteen minutes of twitter fame (quoted by the great Mr Fry – crikey!) went unnoticed to everyone but me. It even managed to get a blog on the bbc.

Maybe one day my shameless-self-publicity engine won’t let me down!

For more twitter excitement you can follow me at @kimondo

And yes, Stephen Fry did turn up on YouTube:

Stephen Fry talking at iTunes Live