Social media and The Truth (The Guardian)

Yes this is a bit about Europe too. But it’s to flag up an important Long Read article from The Guardian which looks wider, and perhaps begins to explain why we have arrived at Brexit without a clear idea what it will look like.

Katharine Viner, the Guardian’s editor, starts with a story that has nothing to do with the referendum, and outlines how a story supported by no actual evidence, that was carefully published by a mainstream newspaper as an “allegation”, ended up being trended on social media and probably believed by many people even now.

She then moves on to look at the pro-Leave claims and the way they were speedily dumped after the result (no, not £350m; no, we probably can’t reduce immigration – the two claims that probably won most votes). I’ve seen these on Facebook myself, persistently re-trailed even when challenged. Clever, inspirational campaigning trumped [sic?] a continual appeal to facts and evidence.

Facebook, Viner says, is now the dominant news source for many people. Well, I remember being really pleased when my sons were taught history at school: they were taiught to look at different sources, assess the reporting and the agendas as well as what was said, and come to a conclusion. I was trained to teach similarly myself as an Open University tutor. So maybe there’s hope; but read the Guardian article for yourself.

• How technology disrupted the truth, Katharine Viner, The Guardian, 12 Jul 2016

What about the EU?

In the aftermath of the vote, there are some instant comments around in the IT sector as elsewhere. Outsell, for example, have mailed an analysis for the information industry (though not related to our IT analysts about whom more anon, perhaps).

A couple I know a little about.

First: research and development will shortly lose access to a significant source of funding, especially for pre-market development; and to the wide-ranging academic and industrial collaboration that the EU research programmes are intended to – and do – foster. World-leading many of our research centres undoubtedly are; our IT provider companies less so.

Second: data protection. Let’s take EU-wide data protection standards (unified, more or less effective and collaboratively developed) to stand for the EU regulations which are somehow supposed to cease to trouble UK industry. Will UK companies have to (probably separately) demonstrate their compliance to EU data protection standards before they can do business? Or will the UK have to set up something like the UK Safe Harbor arrangement, before ditto? One or the other; and surely more of a burden, more of a cost, than at present when just operating from the UK provides de jure compliance.

Oh, and a postscript. In today’s daily paper there’s a splash advert from one of the mobile phone companies: “Travel to Europe with no roaming charges!” We all know that’s the result of a European negotation and agreement with the providers, and a bit of big stick from the regulators; it’s not the provider’s initiative. Watch out for their re-introduction, somewhere down the line. Will the UK have the independent clout to keep them at bay? Will Europe care? Not a chance!

The human face of Facebook hoaxing

It’s accepted that scams happen on Facebook. Take notice, for example, of Facebook’s own recent warning about tear-jerking fraudulent stories about terminally ill children. If you say Amen to one of these, and share it, you may be helping a real child rack up their ten thousand Likes; but you may not. You may, perhaps more likely, be helping fraudsters to build up lists which can then be used to post further scams, or misrepresent the popularity of their product. Images are usually stolen from elsewhere on the web, to add to the misrepresentation. No, they don’t enable people to take over your Facebook account itself. But it is better not to respond. See the Hoax-slayer article, indexed below, for a route into more accurate information.

But there’s a new slant on this problem in a “long read” article in The Guardian last week. This profiles a US hoax investigator, Taryn Wright, who initially looked into one particular hoax in depth. What caught her attention was simply the number of problems attributed to the same family – childhood cancer, fatal car accidents, murders. There was no tie-up with reporting in any other media, despite the human interest aspect to the tragedies which would (in this country) be a natural for the tabloids or at least local press.

She found she could identify the original sources of many of the pictures used on the posts. With the help of contacts through a blog, she could follow through IP addresses to identify the source of the stories. And this is where this story diverges from what you might expect.

She didn’t find financial scams or promotional hoaxes. She found a real person with genuine social problems, who’d created the ficititious family and all its problems, over more than a decade, to gather the community of friends, contacts and support that her real life had denied her. And Taryn Wright created a real, supportive friendship from the contact; a pattern she has repeated in other cases too.

But also: among the investigative group that spontaneously gathered, many were more inclined to a vigilante-style approach than to compassionate response. Taryn Wright had to close down most of her group, working with only a handful who share her approach. And of course there has been internet abuse and some physical threats too.

It’s a story well worth reading. Form your own opinion!

• Facebook Posts Asking You to Type ‘Amen’ To Help Children or Animals Are Like-Farming Scams Not Hackers, Hoax-Slayer, 24 Nov 2015 (or search Google for “Don’t say Amen on facebook“)
• Cancer cons, phoney accidents and fake deaths: meet the internet hoax buster, Rachel Monroe, The Guardian, 18 Feb 2016

Crowdfunding again: a personal request

Readers will remember I’ve blogged in the past about crowdfunding with the headline “Not just for geeks”. I’ve contributed myself to a couple of things: a board game based on the history of Oxford, and an early music opera (La Liberazione de Ruggiero …) which was triumphantly presented recently at this year’s Brighton Early Music Festival to stunning reviews.

Now a new one, and this time I’m asking for your help. Since I did my own university research, decades ago now, the funding system has changed out of recognition and it can be near impossible to find a scholarship or a fellowship or simply money to fund the laboratory costs of worthwhile research. Not least because the utilitarian view of science prevails in the public purse and there’s a strong bias away from primary research. If there isn’t a directly marketable product at the end of the process ( what was called near-market work when I was involved in European Community IT projects), forget it!

In medical research, there is arguably no more important issue than the increasing prevalence of obesity and its frequent consequence, diabetes. It isn’t just a lifestyle issue, though in some cases it can be. Prevention and control currently rest on expensive drug treatments or highly invasive surgical intervention. But the body may have its own mechanism built in, if we can figure out how to activate it.

This is where I run off the end of my understanding as a non-medic (albeit one who worked in pharmaceuticals for many years). We have two kinds of fat: white fat stores energy, but brown fat consumes it. If the brown fat mechanisms can be successfully activated, a new and effective treatment is on the cards. But this is primary research, not near-market work.

My son James Law, who is a senior Registrar in the Nottingham NHS and a member of staff at Nottingham University, working in the Queen’s Medical Centre, is undertaking research in this area. He needs your involvement through crowdfunding. Please visit the link to his own pages, and help if you can.

• Crowdfunding: not just for geeks. Help Free Ruggiero. ITasITis, 21 Nov 2014
• Ruggiero reviews: see Brighton Early Music on Facebook
• Click here to participate: Activating brown fat to improve diabetes and obesity, James Law & Michael Symonds, on

On news, social media and responsibility

The Guardian this morning is published under a new editor. Katharine Viner takes over from Alan Rusbridger, and she takes charge of an institution which is very different from the one Rusbridger inherited from Peter Preston in 1995.

Rusbridger yesterday published a farewell to his readers: now no longer just readers, but also both members and contributors to the conversations which The Guardian facilitates. In the internet age, some papers instituted paywalls: Rusbridger cites Murdoch’s Times, which claims around 280,000 daily readers. The Guardian took the opposite stance, opening up its content to an international readership. It is now the second most widely read online Enlish-language news “paper” worldwide: around seven million people read it online. For myself, I still subscribe to the paper edition: but the smartphone app has taken over from the website as my preferred means of access when, as recently, I am overseas. Even the BBC is not so accessible from abroad.

But the point of this post is to encourage you to read Rusbridger’s farewell in its entirety (and it’s quite long). It contains thoughtful, stimulating analysis of issues such as the place of the social web in interactive journalism – bringing forth a new role, combining journalism with the skill of forum moderation. There’s the continuing role of ethical reporting in holding people to account (including, as seen recently, its own industry peers). Illustrating the trend to online, there’s a comment that the new presses, bought when the paper changed format, were “likely to be the last we ever bought”.

He recalls The Guardian‘s first website, which “didn’t fall into the trap of simply replicating online what we did in print”; in my own career I led my company’s strategy towards the Internet and the emergent World-Wide Web, and I recognise these issues. In due course the paper has developed its interactive model, opening up for response and comment from its online readership as an important part of continuous publishing.

Wikileaks, the phone hacking scandals, Edward Snowden and more; recognition, through the Pulitzer Prize; and successes such as the curtailment of News Corporation’s monopolistic ambtions and, more recently, that the US “phone dragnet hat had secretly violated the privacy of millions of Americans every day since October 2001” has been shut down. Interesting sideline: the link to this in Rusbridger’s article is null, and I couldn’t find a recent news article but, in the interactive Comment is Free section, there’s a discussion from the American Civil Liberties Union dating from April 2014.

I’ve scratched the surface. For those of us looking at the ethics as well as the potential of information creation and sharing – and we are all publishers now – Rusbridger’s farewell should be required reading.

• ‘Farewell, readers’: Alan Rusbridger on leaving the Guardian after two decades at the helm, The Guardian, 29 May 2015
• Obama is cancelling the NSA dragnet. So why did all three branches sign off? Jameel Jaffer, American Civil Liberties Union, in Comment is Free, The Guardian, 25 March 2014
• other references in the articles

Nepal: an IT response

As well as the straightforward humanitarian agencies involved in relief following the now twin earthquakes in Nepal, this morning’s inbox alerted me to another important effort.

I’ve used Mapbox, in tandem with Google Maps, to provide the venues map for the Brighton Early Music Festival. Google Maps got a lot more complex at the last upgrade, and the development interface even for a simple published map is not so easy or friendly. Mapbox can import output from a Google map (which was my starter) and creates, to my mind, a simpler and clearer map with a more useful marker capability: the flags on the map can be numbered or lettered at will (where Google’s can only be in a simple sequence), to link to a list published alongside. With this map linked to a stand-alone Google map which provides the usual directions, search nearby and so on, I think our concert-goers have the best of both worlds.

Mapbox, or Open Street Map, is an open source project. Today’s email flagged up its role in providing fast-response mapping for disasters such as Nepal. The email tells me:

Within just hours of the earthquake in Nepal the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) rallied the OpenStreetMap community. Over 2,000 mappers quadrupled road mileage and added 30% more buildings. We designed print maps to aid post-earthquake relief efforts, chronicled satellite imagery collection over the area, and used Turf.js to identify the hardest-hit buildings and roads.

This is the strength of Open Source as a community effort. It can mobilise people for this kind of task on a scale that a commercial organisation cannot. You don’t have to be in Nepal; the work is to digitise satellite imagery, and the Nepal project wiki can get anyone established in the team.

Oh, and of course the resources (particularly servers and software) come under strain. So if you are not minded to donate to the Disasters Emergency Committee or one of its agencies, perhaps you can contribute time or a donation to support OSM’s Humanitarian OSM Team in this work.

• 2015 Nepal Earthquake page from the Open Street Map wiki
• BREMF venues (Mapbox embedded map, with link to Google) for Brighton Early Music Festival
• Mapbox and OpenStreetMap
Why I hate the new Google Maps, ITasITis, 17 Apr 2014

Location services move indoors: Apple’s iBeacon

An incidental headline in Outsell’s information market monitoring email brought my attention to Apple’s new iBeacon technology, announced last year.

We’ve long been used to the idea that the smart devices we carry around with us might/can detect nearby things of interest: for example, alerting us to an offer from a store nearby. Location services, based on GPS, on your current WiFi connection, or on triangulation from your mobile signal, do this. So can active RFID.

But indoor location is difficult. Current technology is an updated version of the old nautical dead reckoning. It notes where you are when you lose your accurate GPS/cellular/WiFi positioning, and uses motion sensors to track.

iBeacon is different. It’s a nearer-proximity application and is based on Bluetooth detection of your smartphone. Apple says: Instead of using latitude and longitude to define the location, iBeacon uses a Bluetooth low energy signal, which iOS devices detect. So you need Bluetooth turned on as well as having an appropriate app loaded. This leaves you a modicum of control, I guess.

What alerted me was Outsell’s note that London-based online community specialist Verve has added Apple’s iBeacon technology to its Community Panel app, allowing it to track individual members as they travel into and around stores fitted with the iBeacon device. The report, from “MrWeb”, is firmly in the market research space. This is very much a retailer’s app; it tracks the device in detail through a store, identifying where the user spends time – and how long they stay there – and possibly triggering instant marketing surveys on that basis.

Verve is a newish (2008) company. They describe themselves as “The community panel for research”. Their business is the creation of community panels, acting as consultants to companies needing consumer-focussed research. There’s no  indication, therefore, of what incentives are offered to users to join panels; but one might assume instant offers would be the least of it. There is some client information in their “About Us” section (but one client is T-Mobile, which hasn’t existed independently since around the time Verve were formed, so one wonders …).

Apple’s developer website suggest a range of applications:

From welcoming people as they arrive at a sporting event to providing information about a nearby museum exhibit, iBeacon opens a new world of possibilities for location awareness, and countless opportunities for interactivity between iOS devices and iBeacon hardware

A link will take you through to a video from the 2014 WorldWide Developers Forum. This is awkward to get at: unless you’re using Safari on a recent MacOS you will need to download the file to play it. But it’s worth it; it takes you on a journey from existing RF triangulation, adding motion sensors when indoors and out of effective range, to the new beacon-based technology. And on the way it suggests more user-oriented applications, such as finding your way roung Heathrow Airport; or through an unfamiliar hospital on a family visit. Watch about the first 15 minutes, before it routes to coding stuff for developers.

Technically, interesting; a new twist on location services. Practically useful; but watch out (as always) for what it may do to your privacy. As they say: enjoy!

• iOS: understanding iBeacon, Apple
• iBeacon for Developers, Apple Developer website
• Verve Adds iBeacon Tech to Panel App, Mr Web Daily Rresearch News Online, 5 Mar 2015
• Verve: community panel research
Taking Core Location Indoors, Nav Patel, Apple WWDC, June 2014. Page down to find the expanded link