Category: Transparency

Things I learned in 2015

31 December 2015

Disclaimer: some of these are more confirmations of obvious-sounding things, and others, you might disagree with. I’m open to changing my mind on lots of these, but wanted to write them down at least for posterity.

I learned that…

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Open communities vs closed communities - what's more inclusive?

08 October 2015

I’m a big ‘open’ advocate, and inclusivity and diversity are very important to me. Over the past few months, though, I’ve been wondering more about “closed” communities - and, I have to say that I’m seeing more and more benefits of them. Somewhat counter-intuitively, I’m finding more and more that closed communities are actually more inclusive than many open ones. Let me explain why.

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Chaos Communication Camp: on belonging, and fighting together

21 August 2015

Last week saw almost 5000 people converge on an old brick making factory just outside of Berlin, for the Chaos Communication Camp. It takes place only every four years - so it was a big deal for the hacker community.

It was a hacker camp, and I’m not a hacker. I work and spend time with hackers, activists, technologists, civil society groups, researchers who study technology and society - lots of people who are on the peripheries of hackerdom, but I’m not a hacker, and initially, this worried me slightly. I wondered whether I would feel out of place, and even though I had a talk accepted to speak at the camp, I wondered whether people there would be interested in what I had to say.

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Representing marginalised communities in data: CCCamp

16 August 2015

This week, I had the pleasure of attending and talking at the mind-blowing Chaos Communication Camp. I’ll write something more in detail about camp, but for posterity, here are the slides I used, and the video recording of the talk which is up online spectacularly quickly.

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Collusion Episode 3: Food

16 August 2015

The third full episode of Collusion is online! This episode, we looked at food: the role that food played in colonialism in the past, things that happen now that echo the power structures that we see in colonialism, like food speculation, and new technologies aimed at addressing world hunger.

I also came across a transcript that the crew at OpenTranscripts kindly did of the episode: it’s online here - along with our other episodes too, in full.

Links to research for the latest episode are up on the Tumblr - during the research for this episode, our main source of information seems to have been media articles and NGO reports rather than academic papers, so thankfully we didn’t have too many problems of important papers being behind a paywall.

As always, comments and criticism on the episode are welcome - we hope you like it!

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Datengarten: tech and data in international development

26 July 2015

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to speak at Datengarten, the Chaos Computer Club Berlin’s (CCCB) monthly meet up. I decided to talk about technology in international development; partly because it’s a topic I feel comfortable with, but also because the narrative and general conversation among the development sector is a world away from what I imagine CCCB to be talking about.

One of the biggest issues I’ve come across with those working in international development, or ICT4D, is low levels of technical literacy. People are keen to tout the benefits of technology, but they have little training or critical perspectives on the potential consequences around security, data (mis)management, and more. The audience I was talking with at CCCB are, in a way, the polar opposite of this - all very, very technically literate, but potentially with not as much exposure to people in vulnerable situations, for whom technology could have big benefits.

The video of my talk is below, along with the slides I used. It’s also the first public talk I’ve done in German, which was a nice milestone to reach - especially as it happened to be on my 4 year anniversary of arriving in Berlin! It was great to have such a friendly audience for the talk, and some interesting questions afterwards, too.

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The dark net, victim blaming, and dangers of the internet

21 July 2015

Hidden in the darkest and deepest corners of the web are secrets beyond what most of us would believe possible. Jamie Bartlett’s book, The Dark Net, dives into these secrets, and gives us a guided tour - the fora that many of us never frequent, the places where you can place a bounty upon someone’s head, or order illegal substances and have them delivered to your door.

But Bartlett’s attitude to many of these online spaces and the resulting behaviour, is largely uncritical, perhaps in his attempt to be a neutral and objective guide to the space. Take this statement about a Reddit community whose aim was to “troll” other community users, “generating laugh at someone else’s expense”, as he puts it.

Game of Trolls was eventually banned by Reddit; a highly unusual step for the otherwise liberal site, but testament to the pervasiveness and persistence of the Reddit trolls.

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Collusion, Episode 2: Water

06 July 2015

The second episode of Collusion is now up, focusing on the theme of water. In it, I talk about how the British used water technologies as a key part of colonial policy in former British India, and Luiza, my co-presenter, talks about current day examples from Palestine and Brazil. This time though, we produced two versions: the regular one, and a “closed access version”, which I explain more about below.

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The privilege of civic life

02 July 2015

Last week, I was invited for an interview with Civic Radio. We talked about what it means to participate in civic life, and the role of civic technology. For me, civic life is closely connected to participation - and this made me wonder, who has the opportunity to participate in public life?

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Algorithms: what are we actually talking about?

14 June 2015

Algorithms. We’re all talking about them, but how many of us actually understand what they are? Tech critics, researchers and academics are sounding warning bells that an increasing societal dependence upon algorithms is potentially very dangerous. Data scientists that I follow, though, are excited by the possibilities that algorithms hold for society. These conflicting views can be confusing - so let’s go back to basics, and consider what exactly we mean when we talk about algorithms.

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Responsible Data in the IATI process

02 March 2015

Last week, I joined the Responsible Data for Humanitarian Response meeting in The Hague, where I had the pleasure of moderating a session on civic data streams, as well as talking about the International Aid Transparency Initiative process, together with Roderick Besseling of Cordaid. Roderick talked more about the specifics of using IATI within Cordaid, and it was really impressive to see how they are actually using internally the data they publish to IATI - while I talked about IATI data from a more general perspective.

I’m planning to write up the notes from the discussion very soon, but in the meantime, here are the slides I used for the discussion.

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In defence of shiny tools...

10 February 2015

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about how civic tech tools need to be “less shiny, and more useful”. I got some good feedback about this - most people agreeing with the general premise behind it, but some people spoke out in defence of ‘shiny’:

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Developing effective technology tools: less shiny, more useful

25 January 2015

This week, I had the pleasure of joining a group of about 100 people working on topics around ‘following the money’ at a two day workshop in Berlin. There was a mixture of people at this workshop; technologists, activists, journalists, and funders. One of the first ‘spectogram’ questions that was asked was regarding ‘shiny tech tools, and whether they are useful or not.

I found this statement, and the reactions that followed, particularly interesting - for the last year, I’ve been looking closely at how data is put online by international development organisations - normally, through “shiny” data portals, which seem to be used very rarely. The statement, and the rest of the workshop, got me thinking about what we makes an effective and useful technology tool.

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On the importance of recognising cultural diversity in understanding online behaviour

16 March 2014

Over the past couple of years I've heard and read numerous media items about the internet and its effect on linking our previously disconnected societies, on networks and their effect on our relationships, and on cyberpolitics and culture. Sadly, many of them have left me incredibly frustrated, and here's why.

I've noticed what I think might be a pattern and here is my (obviously, generalised) hypothesis: when the speaker or author is from the US or Europe, they present information as though what they're saying is applicable throughout the whole world, while actually only talking about the issue with regards to 'Western' countries. They use examples primarily from the US or Europe itself, occasionally mentioning massive events in passing like the Arab Spring, but overwhelmingly considering only points that have affected people in high-income countries such as their own.

This has been annoying me greatly in other spheres too; as I've written about before, using public platforms to discuss issues under such a narrow lens, while presenting them as though they are they are true everywhere in the world is incredibly reductive and offensive, not to mention purely factually incorrect on many levels. It was frustrating me so much that at the last talk I attended where I noticed this phenomenon, I asked the speakers whether they truly considered the issues they were discussing to be 'global' as they kept mentioning, and if so, if they could come up with some examples from outside the US and Europe, as they had all been thus far in the presentation.

Their answer: that they did consider it to be as global as they were describing, but then couldn't come up with any examples. One said it was in part due to not wanting to misappropriate others experiences, but then admitted that she didn't have experience in other cultures outside the US and Europe. This combination of answers felt unsatisfactory, to say the least. I felt like asking – but didn't – then, why use phrases like “across the world” or “globally” etc, when what you really mean is “In high-income countries like the US....”. Either way, I hope my comments made them think, if even just a little.

But then, came a book which has, happily, has restored a lot of my faith in privileged researchers and internet commentators, and makes me throw that hypothesis out of the window – “Now I know who my comrades are”, by Emily Parker. The book, which is subtitled Voices from the Internet Underground, takes a deep dive into online and offline politics and activism in three very different countries; Cuba, China and Russia. I came across it originally through an article by Mario Vargas Llosa ([en], [es]) which was already high praise, as he is one of my favourite authors.

In the book, Parker looks at how the internet has helped activists in the three different countries organise themselves and build movements, despite facing huge offline political barriers, with some only becoming activists almost by coincidence due to their online activities. What impressed me the most about the book is the author's clear and extensive experience with the three cultures in question. She didn't just parachute in there for a couple of months each to write a chapter on some activists – she lived in each of the countries (some, multiple times over), speaks the languages and really built up relationships with people there, over a period of multiple years. It's also impossible to imagine how she could have carried out such research without being caught out by the authorities without a deep understanding of how each of the cultures work.

This is, I feel, what has been missing in the work by many other internet commentators: a genuine understanding of the offline culture in the countries they're talking about, and an appreciation for how the offline society and politics affects the way people use the internet. Even on a practical level, Parker talks of “the Russian internet”, or “the Chinese internet”, making it clear that these “internets” are very different to those in other countries. Primarily, of course, due to censorship – but also in terms of most popular sites, ways that people share information, and ways that they access the internet.

I really wish that other prominent internet commentators would make the time and effort that Emily Parker has done to actually visit and learn about other cultures before making sweeping statements; yes, the internet can connect us across offline borders, but in order to really understand online behaviour, it is crucial to recognise the importance of diverse cultures and societies on people's behaviour.

The overwhelming message from the book is that the internet has allowed previously separate or disconnected people to know that there are others out there – to find out who their comrades are. The actions that people have taken as next steps (both online and offline), however, has been vastly different depending on their cultural background and their political situation. I thoroughly appreciated Parker's emphasis on the contrasts between the activists' online actions; finally, proof, research and a well-written book to back up my frustrations of 'the internet' being overwhelmingly talked about as a holistic, homogenous entity!

* If there are other books out there really analysing how diverse societies and cultures have affected online behaviour, I'd love to have recommendations of what to read next!

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The Conservatives' (attempted) deletion of history

15 November 2013

Earlier this week, the UK Conservative party deleted press releases and speeches from their website from the years 2000-2010, ie. until just before they were elected into government. 


Alex Hern sums up their actions brilliantly in this article; suffice to say, the Internet is not amused. As a key player in UK political history, it is their responsibility to archive the role they have played, the promises they made, and their supposed intentions for when they got elected.  They've also tried to delete their Youtube videos, including an up close and personal web series with Cameron, imaginatively named 'Webcameron'. 

It's ironic that some of the deleted speeches outlined their intention to use the internet to be more transparent and to encourage accountability; my favourite quote so far comes from George Osbourne's speech 'Open Source Politics'”;

We need to harness the internet to help us become more accountable, more transparent and more accessible - and so bridge the gap between government and governed.

The democratization of access to eroding traditional power and informational imbalances.

No longer is there an asymmetry of information between the individual and the state, or between the layperson and the expert.

...well, there might not be if you didn't delete it, George. The New Statesman has collected a great selection of such quotes here. 

But surely the Conservatives removing the videos, speeches and press releases from their site can't really mean that they've gone forever? Let's see.

They may have taken the step of stopping the Internet Archive from taking snapshots of their site, and getting rid of the ones it already had, as Computer Weekly (who first reported on this whole story) explain but it appears as though this didn't affect their site being captured by the UK Web Archive.

A former colleague of mine also pointed out that any speeches made in formal fora would likely have been recorded in the minutes of sessions and meetings, and as such, might be available under the UK Freedom of Information Act

So, despite their best attempts to delete their (and our) history, what do we still have? Aside from the grand total list of 19 speeches that are now still listed on the Conservatives website (!) - there are a couple of other ways round it. (hat tip to this Guardian article for pointing these sources out- I just wanted to set the links out more comprehensively) 

Are there any more sources out there? Ping me @zararah!

And other sources of internet humour on this topic; Labour making the most of the Conservatives' mess (screen capture below); BuzzFeed's 6 speeches the Conservatives don't want you to see. 


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The garment industry in Bangladesh - exploitation, or empowerment?

02 September 2013

Last week, by a massive stroke of luck, I had the chance to meet Professor Mohammed Yunus, together with Transparency International founder Peter Eigen, talk about a new initiative of theirs, the Garment Industries Transparency Initiative. Details of the initiative are still being worked out, but it was Professor Yunus' speech about the effect that the garment industry has had on Bangladesh that left me thinking.

The story we've all heard is one of exploitation. Especially since the recent and tragic factory collapse at Rana Plaza, which left over 1,100 people dead, hundreds still missing, and devastated the lives of thousands more – injured survivors, dependent family members, and those in mourning, there are (justifiably) negative connotations that come with any item 'Made in Bangladesh'.

But as Professor Yunus insisted, the garment industry hasn't been a source of only evil in the country. The hard facts:

It's difficult to comprehend how these awful working conditions could bring anything other than unhappiness to those involved – but actually, for millions, the garment industry has been a source of empowerment and social advancement.

Professor Yunus made the strong argument that actually, the garment industry has been a catalyst for positive social change in the country. It has, in an otherwise traditional culture where women play the role of housewife and mother, and men are the breadwinners, provided a culturally acceptable alternative.

This opportunity for employment has provided millions of women with their one opportunity to leave their village, to earn their own living, and even to send money back to support their family. That is, in effect, the definition of empowerment. The conditions, however, are the epitome of exploitation.

The challenge now is to keep the first, while getting rid of the second. Pressurising companies to leave Bangladesh and stop employing these women is not the solution – this leaves them again with nothing. Professor Yunus' point was that the global community should encourage foreign companies to keep investing in Bangladesh, while improving working conditions for the workers, not simply giving up on them.

So what does that mean for us, the consumers? We could try and hold companies accountable for their actions. We could ask them to be transparent about where they are sourcing their clothes from. Or, if the Garment Industries Transparency Initiative goes ahead as Mohammed Yunus and Peter Eigen suggested, we could pay an extra dollar or two to make sure that the clothes we are buying were not made with slave labour.

I'm in.  

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Understanding Contracts booksprint - how did it work?

13 November 2012

This blog first appeared on

As you may already have seen, our “Understanding Contracts” booksprint was a success, and the book is now available for download from the OpenOil site. I had the chance to see the sprint from the start, and as you can imagine, it was a fascinating process.

One main point from the week was that, among the melting pot of experience from the authors, we brought together a group of people who would rarely (if ever) get the opportunity to pool all of this experience and work together, rather than simply remaining within their area of expertise and having a passing coffee at industry conferences.

This is a key point; it seems as though frequently the development world around extractive industries remains entirely separate to the industry world around extractives. As one of the authors commented; often, in terms of governance, all of the extractive industries (oil, gas, mining) are lumped together in one programme. However, this classification would never happen on a technical level; the number of companies that work in both oil and mining is very few, and on a more human level, I would guess that it is impossible to find someone who is both a petroleum engineer and a mining engineer.

Within the booksprint participants, we had a third whose experience lies heavily in the industry side of extractives; not CSR representatives, but oil and gas specialist lawyers, and an environmentalist who is consulting now to a large mining company. I like to think that this inclusion and genuine engagement of the industry in such a project gives it much more depth and value. It is great to see discussions of how to engage industry have become much more mainstreamed in initiatives such as EITI, through the multi-stakeholder group, but it’s also important to include technical experts from within the industry, not just social responsibility representatives.

The booksprint provided a great opportunity for people from these two ‘worlds’ to actually sit down and work together, and feedback from the participants showed that this was one of the aspects of the week that they most valued.

On another note, seeing the 10 participants work in such an untraditional method, which must have been quite a change to workshops that they are used to, was also very interesting to watch. It was facilitated by Adam Hyde, founder of, who has now completed some 50 sprints, but none until now around the extractive industries. Some of the main principles of the book provided quite a departure from more conventional work ethics – for example, that nobody ‘owned’ their writing. Watching your writing being cut, edited, re-edited, and moved around, meant that any sense of proprietorship towards it had to be got rid of fairly quickly, to avoid being offended by future (or immediate!) edits.

The fact that all decisions had to be consensus driven also provided for some interesting discussions, but I’m pleased to report all fistfights were successfully avoided. Of course, those with expertise in certain areas took temporary ownership of writing certain sections, but once those were written, ownership was transferred and the chapters went through a thorough procedure of editing and re-editing. The collaborative software, Booktype, that we used for this was great too, as it allowed everyone to see what others were working on, as well as comparing back to previous ‘versions’ of specific chapters with coloured highlights of what exactly had been changed.

My role as ‘target reader’ for the book taught me a lot, and gave me the liberty to sit down with the authors of particular sections, ask for detailed explanation of complex issues within sections, and request rewrites, or in some cases simply rewrite it myself. However, my experience at OpenOil gave me a slight headstart to the actual imaginary target reader for the book, so to get this level of non-knowledge, we brought in someone with absolutely no experience of the industry.

It was great listening to complicated contract terms, or industry basics, being explained to him (with many questions!) – until they were in simple enough words for him to understand. Then, we would sit down and rewrite the section to a level that he understood, and voila, you have a guide for the non-specialist.

Of course, there are some sections (fiscal terms, for example) which are undoubtedly complex. With these, we had to accept that complex ideas need a lot of explanation, but I can testify that upon reading the section a couple of times over, and looking through actual contracts themselves, it does actually sink in and your understanding will deepen as you go along.

Having an illustrator in the room through the booksprint provided one (fun) way to try and explain complicated issues. Lynne’s method of asking people to come up with a title for their graphic before going into detail with her what it was about, was an efficient way to make sure that actual concepts were being explained in an easier way, rather than simply pictures to break the text up. And seeing an idea being turned into a beautifully illustrated graphic is great motivation to keep going!

As the pdf you can download now is the very first version of the book, complete with the occasional typing and formatting error, we ask everyone to bear with us while we go through the final copy editing procedure. Not all of the lovely graphics are included quite yet, but the final version will be released on November 30th.

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