Mozilla Open Leaders: You’re in, now what?

The next round (Round 6) of the Mozilla Open Leaders programme is now open to applicants. You can find out more about it and how to apply here. But if you want a more personal read, here’s my experience of the ups and downs for the record…

First off, I heartily recommend it. I’ve recently completed what I call MOLP, launched my project (click the logo below to join my data privacy email) and received my certificate of achievement. It’s given me skills in project launch and management, working open, Github, online and IRL communities, and mentoring.

Given my project idea, I’m also happy to hear that the next round will feature a ‘Data and You’ theme. So, if you’re creating tools or raising awareness about personal data, you should apply. You have a very good chance on being accepted.

I have to admit, I wasn’t really sure what I’d got myself into before I started. I just knew I wanted to get my idea off the ground. So what was the MOLP experience like?

You’re in! Now what?

After the elation of having your project idea accepted by Mozilla Open Leaders Project comes the realisation that you have to follow through. Now comes the work: 12-14 weeks of commitment. That’s always a tough moment. Ideas are easy.

I can’t start without a name…

Some names come quickly, some take forever,  some are a compromise that sticks. Someone telling me ‘you can always change it later’ was very freeing. In the end the lack of a name was holding up the project and there came a point when it was all I could think or even dream about. Each week I promised my mentor I’d have a name. It was very frustrating not to click with anything but it also felt important to get it right. Ultimately, my project name (Observed.City) arrived about three weeks in during some date night banter. It was unexpected and perfect.

The long and winding roadmap

The name of the project wasn’t actually holding anything up. I was. Procrastination is a given so at least try to procrastinate in useful ways. I read a book on data privacy. I went to some events. I started a data reading group. It’s amazing what you can achieve when you’re avoiding work.

Slay your demons

Start at the beginning – or the end – but just start. Listing your tasks and goals is useful but these can always change. Mine were too rigid: two weeks on finding contacts and doing research, two weeks on creating content, two weeks on infrastructure and set up, leaving two weeks to launch. No no no! This didn’t work. What worked was addressing my demons, ie, too much thinking and not enough doing.

So I turned everything on its head and put out the first issue of my newsletter within a week – for better or worse. I realised that it only needed to be basic because I didn’t actually have any subscribers. I wasn’t launching a perfect product, I was launching a minimal viable product. The pretty pictures and structure and subscribers could come later, once I figured out what I was doing.

Under pressure

Fear of failure can stifle a project but just stick with it and something will happen. A few MOLP projects drop out because their scope is too big for a 12-week programme or people underestimate the time it will take – if it’s too much, reduce the scale of it or shape it so it fits your time and resources.

One thing I realised from getting my minimal viable product out in half the time was that it then gave me the space to focus on learning how to work openly, improving my Github and being available for the Q&As and project demos.

The pressure also came off when someone said to me: “No one cares as much about this as you.” So very true!

Create serendipitous ripples

Early on in the programme, everything is in your head and there’s a lot of work in learning how to articulate your project and your mission to others. By the end, though, you’ll be so confident about your one-sentence elevator pitch, you won’t even have to think about it.

Just by talking about your project, you create ripples: your own and then those of the people you talk to. Be direct in what you want, tell lots of people, ask for help and connections, offer to help, let serendipity occur…

There are many mentors

Having a mentor was a new thing. I thought, what can I learn from a radio astronomer? But it’s not about learning, it’s about being mentored: having someone to be answerable to, to encourage and support you, to give feedback, someone to check in with each week and talk over any issues. You’ll always be the expert on your project but your Mozilla mentor is there to help keep things on track and get your project set up for open working.

In fact, there are many available mentors when you’re mid-project. There are others in your Mozilla cohort – an academic in Addis Ababa and a New York technologist helped me quite directly on my Readme file and other Github pages, for example. I got feedback from Birmingham Open Rights Group on my approach. Even my family were mentors because calls to action such as ‘Just get on with it because I’m sick of hearing about it’ are actually incredibly valuable in helping you get on with the bloody thing.

Just nod and say yes

I was pushed out of my comfort zone a few times, for example, when presenting an online demo of my project. This was optional and so I was very tempted to ditch out and just watch others. My mentor sent me a long and encouraging email telling me exactly what was involved and said we could rehearse the tech side if I tuned in early. She added that if I could face it it would be a useful learning experience that would make me feel so much more confident after.

She was 100% right and, despite getting quite anxious when public speaking, I’m proud to say that I’ve now done two webcasts talking to a potential global audience.

It’s over!

The newsletter is out there, it’s set up on Github for collaborators to join as and when, and I fully enjoyed and will miss meeting and talking with others from around the world as we all went through our projects together. I won’t lie, I was also happy to get my Tuesday cohort time back.

I feel a sense of achievement and it was much more enjoyable to go through a project launch as part of a wider group. Would I have done this on my own anyway? Maybe, but it wouldn’t have had a deadline and could easily have lapsed. And I wouldn’t have had a clue how to set it up for inclusivity and collaboration. And the positive vibes of the Mozilla community were great for encouragement during the down times.

I’m much more comfortable with working open now so the Mozilla open learning framework has opened up the options for collaboration as well as how to structure future projects. I also understand a bit more about mentoring and how to address bias and diversity issues. So it’s all good.

A new hope…

This is a journey that started at Mozfest last year, which was an eye-opening event in many ways, particularly in how we can help each other and share knowledge with the aim of a healthier internet and inclusive society.

It’s an unusually positive environment, and one that I would recommend on to anyone thinking about attending Mozfest or applying to be a Mozilla Open Leader or who wants some positive feedback for a change.

So that’s it. The link to apply for the next round, which starts in September 2018 is here. Applications open mid-June.

For more info, I’ve blogged a bit more about MOLP and my project here.

Thanks for reading.

How to start a data privacy conversation in your city – a bulletpoint guide

This guide forms the end documentation for my recent Mozilla Open Leaders project which culminated in launching a regular data privacy email for Birmingham, UK. If you want to do this in your city or region, I hope it will be useful info to get you started. And if you have any follow-up questions as you go, email me at observedcity@pm.me and I’ll do my best to answer and update the guide.

NOTE: You don’t necessarily have to follow all the steps below but I really do recommend starting with an Open Canvas as a way to unpack the ideas in your head into something more practical and workable.

Image: (CC) Michael Coghlan/Flickr

Short term (research & development)

  • Fill out an Open Canvas outlining your aims for the project, the problem you are aiming to solve, the needs and resources, and target users and contributors. Here is an example showing the open canvas for ObservedCity
  • Content calendar – compile list of events and online activities in your area (data privacy, data research, art, tech, activism). Place events under each month on a calendar doc; extract interesting people and organisations for potential contacts. Subscribe to newsletters that are relevant to your project.
  • Contacts/network list – find everyone you should connect with in your area who are working with data/privacy in some way or run relevant events: university researchers and academics, privacy activists, digital artists, curators and galleries, a local Open Rights Group, Meetup.com groups, Chamber of Commerce, local government initiatives helping businesses with big data, ‘smart city’ groups, police and neighbourhood alerts, potential contributors, hacker groups, coding clubs, local Mozilla Campuses, tech drinks and meetups, open data groups, relevant social enterprise startups, ImpactHub, collectives and coops, event organisers.
  • Research email providers – how will you distribute your email? I looked Mailchimp and Tinyletter’s pros and cons. I chose Tinyletter for a more personal curated feel and an easy introduction to email setup; I may move to Mailchimp if I change the tone or go in a new direction with the content.
  • Decide on the title of your newsletter – does it need to work across other platforms, such as a website or social media? If so, check the name is available for use in these environments. Look for a name that suggests the content, eg, Observed.City suggests surveillance, privacy and that I’m looking at what is happening in my city. Try to choose a memorable and engaging name – maybe avoid the word ‘data’ as this can make for a dull word that turns people off subscribing. If you want to keep it hyperlocal, add the name of your area or city into the title of the newsletter; if you want to potentially reach a wider audience, this may be limiting. Sometimes you don’t know what your project is going to be until you start – it’s ok to change the name later; the important thing is to start!
  • Decide on regularity – this will depend on your resource/time but you could do a shorter email weekly, a medium email monthly, or even quarterly. I’m aiming for every 3-4 weeks and trying to keep it shorter
  • Expertise, experience and mentors – if you don’t know how to start a newsletter or how to build a community of subscribers, find and talk to people who have done it. For example, I took the editor of IChooseBirmingham listings email (17,000 weekly subscribers) for coffee and learnt more in an hour than I ever could have learned online (thankyou Tom!). You may even be able to find a mentor of whom you can ask questions as you go along. Meeting people in real life both helps build community and gets experienced people on board with your project.

Medium term (set up, soft launch)

  • Consider setting up a new email account if you want to keep your newsletter project separate from your personal/business email. I used Protonmail and the name of the project: observedcity@pm.me – unfortunately this caused some delivery issues in Tinyletter as Protonmail is very tight on its privacy and was triggering spam alerts, so I had to change it to an alternative email that did work.
  • Set up a newsletter account with your chosen service – go through all the account settings and fill in any blanks.
  • Set up related accounts, eg, a Twitter, Facebook page and website for your project – these may form your future discussion/comment/feedback areas and somewhere to upload blog content. You can keep it basic for now but it still takes some time to set up, to write the about/bios, add links to your project, upload a picture or logo, and cross-link between these different sites.
  • Decide on the format of email and content to include – what kind of things do you want to write, what does your target audience want to know, how will you make it engaging and easy to read, do you need images, do you want to have an informal conversation tone or a more professional corporate style, what do you like in the newsletters you receive, what makes you open these?
  • If working open (as I did on this project), create your Github repo or shared Google doc, and start to document your project – what it is about, how people can contribute, how the work is licenced, issues you need to resolve, etc. Here is the ObservedCity repo so you can see and fork/duplicate the content.
  • Start to build community – both users and contributors – start to connect and follow your contacts list through social media channels, subscribe to their newsletters, network at events, tell people about your project, email people directly if you think they will be interested, consider arranging a coffee meet with potential contributors.
  • Logo/header – basic design – there’s a lot you can do with editing software, such as Preview and Photoshop, to get a look/feel for your newsletter’s title. You can also source Creative Commons images for use in your headers/banners, for example, I used a great free image from Pixabay in return for buying the photographer a virtual coffee.
  • START! Do a first draft so you can visualise what your newsletter will look like and how much time it takes to create it. Send yourself a test email. Get a friend to read it over with their fresh eyes. Amend, check links work and finalise. At this point, if you like what you’ve done – why not send it out and start to get feedback and subscribers? You could also do a soft launch where you send it to a small group of people – friends/family – to get their feedback. Getting the perfect newsletter takes time – months and years even to build up a community of readers. Don’t get too bogged down in the set-up phase – you can iterate and improve as you go.
  • Note: I have a background in publishing so I have a basic understanding of media law around issues such as copyright, plagiarism and defamation (libel), and data protection. I recommend you read up on these and your country’s laws around publishing in order to protect yourself.

Long term (launch and beyond)

  • Update and monitor Github repo – submit project and requests for help to hackathons: the Global Sprint, Hacktoberfest, etc.
  • Logo/header – outsource design for a more professional look (try posting this request as an issue for open working during #mozsprint or other hackfests – that’s how I got logo suggestions/design help).
  • Populate online content areas – ideas for content, attend and review events, seek editorial contributors, ask for help via social media, create original content.
  • Refine/improve launch email – ask for feedback and iterate.
  • Remember to thank your contributors!
  • Community building / outreach work – how can you get your newsletter to interested people and reach different communities in your city? Consider adding a guest section and asking for different voices and perspectives.
  • Scale – sign up for similar newsletters in other cities, start to connect as a network. Talk to local media, offer a help feature on data privacy.
  • Sustainability/governance – find guest editors and proofreaders, check resource/times, regularity of email.

Launching Observed City and learning to work open with Mozilla

Click to view (opens in new tab) – my short demo starts at 3 mins 20.

I’m very proud to say that I’ve just graduated as a Mozilla Open Leader. In a nutshell this means that I’ve spent the past 14 weeks learning how to work openly and inclusively as part of a cohort of 20 projects from around the world. The next round of Mozilla Open Leaders will be opening in June and I highly recommend applying if your project fits the criteria. Here’s why…

For me, some of the best things about the programme were working with an experienced mentor (mine was a radio astronomer from Jodrell Bank!), dedicated access to experts in topics ranging from cybersecurity to community building, and being in online breakout rooms with other project leaders from North America, Europe, Asia and Africa.

There’s really something quite humbling and amazing about getting feedback on your Github Readme page from a professor in Addis Ababa or an activist in Hungary.

Of course, it also provided much-needed forward momentum and weekly mentoring deadlines to bring my idea to fruition (background and how it all started here).

To that end, I’m pleased to say that Observed.City – a new data privacy newsletter for Birmingham, UK – is now up and running. If you’re based in Birmingham or the wider West Midlands, working with data in some way as an academic, artist or activist, or just want to know more about data privacy and how to stay safe online, please subscribe here.

Observed.City soft-launched in March 2018, in the week of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, just as the issue of mass data collection was propelled into the mainstream. It comes out every three to four weeks and highlights a small number of data stories and privacy issues of individual-local-national-global interest, as well as listing relevant events happening in the city.

I’m now working on Issue 4 and already have several contributors, as well as a guest section so that I can bring different people, experiences and voices into the mix.

Want to get a copy? Here is the sign-up link.

Want to contribute? Here is the project repository, which tells you all about the project in the ReadMe file and lists open Issues where I’m looking for help. Or you can email me about the guest slot or with any local event details at observedcity@pm.me.

The project also launched at Mozilla’s Global Sprint hackathon/helpathon in early May, where people from around the world were invited to contribute to the project in a number of ways. As a result, I now have a logo design and am in the process of turning the experience in a more general how-to guide for kickstarting the data privacy conversation in other cities. Update: it is here!

Ultimately the aim is to keep working openly and perhaps start to pass the project on in a few months to other interested writers and editors who can help it develop in new ways. That should keep it interesting.

Career ideas on a postcard

Potential future office view from El Nido

I guess I should do an update of the post-sabbatical kind since I’m 18 months on from wanting to change my work/life, and six months on from the End of the sabbatical.

I haven’t touted for more screen-based writing/editing work (yet) so I’m still figuring out what to do for money – you’ll know when I start earning properly again as I’ll cut my ridiculous hair off – but I’m a lot fitter than I used to be and my work-life balance is much healthier now that I’ve halved my desk-based work.

Sabbatical hair.

The natural consequence of all the cyber security stuff has been to set up Observed.city data privacy email via the Mozilla Open Leaders project. There’s no income in that but it is in some small way campaigning for a better, less-1984-like path in our increasingly quantified and machine-judgmental world.

Subscribe here…

I seem to have started writing a blog post so my next big aim is to be more of a digital nomad, working from different cities occasionally and maybe even a surf beach in winter to escape the SAD and work on my Point Break moves.

Winter boogie

First, I have to figure out what that work will be. Maybe it’s time to resurrect my failed Thai Massage business ( ‘No Pain, No Gain’). But more likely it will involve some kind of digital comms or editing work, given I now have 30 (!) years’ experience in journalism and online content – just not too much! Or some other skill as yet unknown.

Ideas on a postcard, preferably to somewhere nice.

Best of Brum at Spring Fair 2018

I’ve attended various events at the Birmingham NEC over the years – for both journalistic and digital marketing purposes – but none so ginormous as ‘the UK’s largest home and gift show for the retail industry’ held earlier this month.

In stats… Spring Fair 2018 featured 14 show sectors, 19 exhibition halls and 2,500 UK and international exhibitors. It’s so big they added Autumn Fair a few years ago to help spread the load. Personally, I got a whole lot of exercise  in – clocking up 18k in Fitbit steps – just by visiting those exhibitors based in or around Birmingham

I wanted to do a pick of the Brum-related products that may be appearing in a store (or zoo or Birmingham art gallery) near you in 2018, and to make a few local connections and contacts. Here it is – I have to say I love the randomness of the products and stories on offer…

1. Bloom and glow

Electric flowers won’t be to everyone’s taste but the Blossom Collection’s products were surprisingly nice to look at. The company launched following a sourcing visit to China and has blossomed (!) ever since. If you have a black wall in your house (I have two), it’s the perfect backdrop for glowing roses, tulips, orchids or Blossom’s best-selling calla lilies.

2. Puns to make you cry over your chopped onions

I’m a little chilli but do nut worry…  Why oh why can’t I get a job writing food puns for chopping boards?

I was excited to meet Zodiac, a kitchen equipment company based in near to me in sunny Selly Oak, but a bit disappointed to find out that they are actually the UK arm of a Chinese company and not a local family business. But, hey, Cadbury’s…

As a content marketer, I have to say Zodiac had one of the slickest sites of all the Spring Fair exhibitors I visited, with related recipe and other support content around the kitchenware, an up-to-date news section, a listening/feedback area and a busy CSR section.

Tasty marketing chops.

3. An elephant memento never forgets

“It started with an elephant,” Kiran Chohan of Wildtouch says of his business handcrafting souvenirs, gifts, jewellery and other accessories for zoos, aquariums and other heritage sites around the UK.

The original elephant went to Twycross zoo and the company has since grown into a niche business supplying zoos and other leisure attractions with animal souvenirs from meerkats to monkeys, clown fish to killer whales.

Kiran also has his own range of jewellery and the firm is based in Birmingham’s famous Jewellery Quarter.

4.  Hanging tin

Jo Willis co-started Red Hot Lemon in 2014 after working as a sales manager at a metal sign firm that closed. She says the array of licensed metal signs attracts the rare  male buyer demographic with the VW Campervan one of their bestsellers. They have also expanded into selling a range of other tin products with that ever-popular retro-vintage feel.

5. Made in Sunderland (for Brummies)

My World may be based in Sunderland but Brum is their biggest client with a range of regional cards, prints, mugs and fridge magnets sold in BMAG, the Town Hall and the Library of Birmingham. Pretty surprised Brummies didn’t corner this market, though, especially since Created In Birmingham shop surfaced a lot of local artists a few years back. But it’s all fine and the Birmingham skyline print is a winner.

6. Cactus drinks jar for your mojito?

MD of KitchenCraft Matthew Canwell explained how the design and development (alas not the manufacture) of more than 4,000 kitchen and homewares products is done in Birmingham.

The company has been in Brum for 168 years and was founded by a local man named Thomas Plant on Edgbaston Street. The name only changed from Thomas Plant to Kitchen Craft in 1996 and the company has since grown to become part of Lifetime Brands inc, a global kitchenware provider supplying leading department stores and 80 countries worldwide. Another slick website – kitchenware is the place to be for content marketing.

7. ‘Winter is coming’ – fill your goblets!

AE Williams is possibly most famous for supplying its pewterware goblets to Game of Thrones but, says Stephen Johnson, a partner in the firm, there just isn’t room to show them at Spring Fair. In the absence of a GoT goblet, this whisky decanter stood proudly as king of all the Digbeth-based manufacturer’s exhibits

8. A subtle celebration of your memories

Charlotte Lowe graduated in 2009 and this is her seventh year at Spring Fair, showing jewellery made in her workshop in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. I like the way she encapsulates personal memories (pets, children, simple moments, photos) into items of bespoke jewellery that are obviously personal to the individual but not at all sentimental in their design.

9. A perfectly potty invention

I liked Pot Pal because it represents the dream of being an inventor – and bringing a product to market. Pot Pal is a vertical plant holder that evokes narrowboat paraphernalia with its colours and design. It was invented by Brett Cattlin, who started out making pet products in wood. Recently he partnered with Firstpress (Plastic Moulders) Limited of Ladywood, Birmingham to design, manufacture and distribute ‘Pot Pal’ products in a lighter, more cost-efficient plastic. The product has only been out since January ready to catch some spring/summer buying.

10. ‘Mini me’ tweeds

The husband and wife team behind Chand Textiles were lovely and we chatted for ages about everything from Tamil Nadu to digital photography. Based in Highgate, they were showing their range of tweed jackets, gilets and peaked caps for children that are perfect for a country set ‘mini me’.

11. A fluffle of bunny goods

Kate Sproston from Nuneaton – that counts as greater Birmingham, right? – drew me in with her range of rabbit-embroidered goods, including a Rabbit Egg Cosy shortlisted for Gift of the Year 2018. Kate also has a number of equally lovely collections that aren’t about rabbits but the law of small animal owners is that all talk must revert to pets so I introduced her to Profession Bunminster Fuller, Clementine Bundango and Joy (yes, we our pets have a website) and in turn she told me about their guinea pigs Frankie Valli and Alan Turing (from Hutch 6). Top punnage there.

12. See this cat? He’s a bestseller

Wolverhampton-based Dean Morris has the honour of being regularly demonised by the tabloids for his low-brow comedy cards (cries of irony!) but ‘smut, filth and swearing’ just sells so very well to the great British public (as any tabloid fule kno). Dean has been keeping it rude since 1999 and was the first to offer ‘Keep calm and carry on…’ cards. This one took me back to my days working for Moonpig just as they launched in 2000. Cards are a competitive business so fair play to Dean for his success.

Fiona Cullinan works as a digital content producer, editor and copywriter mostly for B2B clients. For further information, please visit The Subs Desk.

Birthday surf and bodyboard in Europe’s Hawaii

It’s true, a few Atlantic Islands claim to be Europe’s Hawaii but Fuerteventura does lay a good claim to it as the north shore has massive waves and really does catch that laidback surfie vibe.

This was the whole reason I wanted to go to FV for my 50th – to bodyboard some waves. But I have to say I was pretty nervous, even though we were going out with a local surf school. The winds had been up for days and only a few brave souls were in the water.

Protest Surf School took us to Piedra Playa, south of El Cotillo – a well-known surf spot with long wild beaches and big fat Atlantic waves. We pulled up on the hill above the beach a few times before the boss settled on an area where we wouldn’t get too mashed.

I did try surfing a few times – but I really can’t do that Point Break ‘pop’ up on to the board. Never have been able to. Even when they showed me the sneak’s way to stand up (all fours first), I was just too tired to stay up. So I reverted to Plan A, which was to get my bodyboarding on, thanks to previous training at Bodyboard camp.

Despite the rips and strong undertow parallel to the beach,  I caught a few high-speed rides in on powerful white waves (the green ones were way too far out). Two hours of ‘woo’ and I felt fantastic. Swimming twice a week for the past eight months has really helped my fitness, even if my upper arms have a way to go yet.

It was fab to be in the surf in February in the sunshine, with Atlantic rollers rising up and breaking in the distance and regular ridable sets coming in. The last time I did this was Brexit Referendum result day – and like then, the overall physical commitment of surfing was enough to completely empty my mind of anxiety and bad stuff. I guess this is why surfing is such a spiritual sport.

I was a bit jealous of the surfers but I reckon I caught way more rides. Here’s one of them (pics by Pete Ashton). Hey surfer, no dropping in on my ride!

Awesome!

Fuerteventura crater walk

 

I don’t know why –I suspect it is something to do with being brought up on 1970s disaster movies – but I love volcanoes and volcanic islands. Visiting Keli Mutu in Flores, Indonesia, in 2002 probably tops the list of my volcanic visits. Since then I’ve mostly been getting my fix in the Canary Islands.

So far I’ve visited La Gomera and Lanzarote, and been very impressed with both. This year for my 50th birthday we went to Fuerteventura and on day two decided to walk around 10km from Lajares to Corralejo along four or five craters and volcanic badlands, and also climb the Hondo caldera.

We hitched a quick ride from a friendly French surfer to get to the camel parking (!), then began our hike. We had to turn back from the non-official route up to the Hondo crater because it was too steep and slippy, and Fuerteventura was delivering some of its famous 40mph winds. There was a grave on the way up so I think it was the right decision not to push ahead. I turned back at the rock circle.

Instead we walked a contour line around the back of the crater and up to a viewing platform that was overrun with chipmunks. Chipmunks and camels, who knew FV’s fauna was so unusual?

The drop of 70m down into the crater was pretty dizzying, and we could see two people dots on the opposite steep slope, giving it ridiculous scale. You’d have to zoom in to see them.

In the other direction we could see vigorous Atlantic rollers crashing along the wild north-west shore. I’d be bodyboarding in that tomorrow, I thought, with a fair bit of trepidation.

The colours are all shades of warm brown, peach and orange, making FV kind of glow in the sun. Although the wind is relentless but you can usually find a sun-warmed lava rock shelter of some kind – and a herder’s hut is where we stopped to have our bocadillo picnic. It really is beautiful.

The journey back took us along a dirt track road via a few more craters and badlands, with goats straying along the sides. It was pretty deserted – we saw one runner and one car on our three-hour walk through the peaceful but desolate scenery.

In the near distance we could see Corralejo and its two large wind turbines spinning fast from the north wind on Bristol Playa but the distance was like a desert oasis illusion – the more we walked, the further away it got.

Our city legs were seizing up by the time we hit the final Bayuyo Crater and walked into town, but those rooftop beer sundowners were some of the best beers of the trip.

 

How do you engage a city of a million people on data privacy?

Tl;dr:

I’m using my Mozilla Open Leadership Project to find activists, artists, data researchers and other collaborators in Birmingham, UK, to connect and kick-start activity around online privacy and security issues. The aim is to build a collaborative community offering citizens greater digital literacy so they can take charge of their online lives.

I’m working open so that the project can develop in new ways, scale and be sustainable. End documentation will guide other regions how to kick-start their own hubs of activity.

I’m also asking for help and subscribers. Update: project is now up and running here: Observed.City.

***

Mass data collection is a reality that many are not aware of. Through our daily digital interactions, information is being collected about us, stored, sold and used to profile us in an increasingly ‘quantified’ world. Humans and machines are making decisions about us based on this data – some benign, some dangerous. The details of what information is collected is buried in the small print of terms and conditions and gained through our ‘consent’. Our connections with the internet feel less open and healthy than they did.

What this means for us as individuals and as a society, both now and in the future, and what we can do about it isn’t always clear. For most people, it isn’t even a topic of conversation.

I’m an editor, not a technologist, but my own experiences with data privacy and cybersecurity projects over the past year have taught me that, for the average person, cybersecurity is at least on the ‘to do’ list, while data privacy feels like much less defined with less obvious impacts and, consequently, it is easier to push aside.

I’ve heard people say things like ‘I’m not important enough to be surveilled’,  ‘I don’t want to live in paranoia’ or ‘I don’t care if they read my emails and serve me some targeted ads’. At least these people are having a conversation about it.

I’ve also seen fantastic debates buried in Facebook comment threads – ‘why do people willingly install commercial surveillance equipment in their houses?’ and ‘is it ok for parents to post pictures of their kids on Facebook without their permission?’ and ‘why does the Parkmobile app need my full name, gender, DOB and full address as well as my licence plate and payment card details?’ – and I wonder how can we bring these discussions out into the open where more people can join in?

Raising awareness is a massive hurdle. Everyone is busy. Everyone is shouting. Everyone wants your attention. As well as the ‘I don’t have time’ response, there is also the ‘I don’t care’ factor. Data privacy needs to be a lot more engaging and a lot less overwhelming.

Much of this work is London-based with many free or funded talks, projects and exhibitions available for people to attend, and large privacy groups, such as Privacy International, Liberty and Big Brother Watch, based there.

In the Midlands, we have 2.5 milion population – 1.1 million in Birmingham alone – who would benefit from knowing how they are affected by the data economy and how to navigate it. There is some great work going on by the Open Rights Group and others but the topic is huge and outreach is hard for reasons already stated. How can we engage more people and build on this in the second city?

These are the questions that I’ve been thinking about since my training and experience working in The Glass Room London last October. Curated by Tactical Tech and produced by Mozilla, The Glass Room was a three-week pop-up store on the Charing Cross Road with a data privacy twist. It hosted over 40 objects in a gleaming white high-tech store, with an accompanying programme of talks, workshops, film screenings and tours attended by nearly 19,000 visitors. Physical and interactive exhibits let people come to the topic on their own terms and draw their own conclusions. It had people queuing to get in the door and look into their online lives more deeply, while most of the free talks and workshops ‘sold out’.

That level of engagement was a real eye-opener.

The experience made me realise that people DO care about their data privacy – if suitably engaged – and that there needs to be WAY more opportunities to have a conversation about this stuff and its implications.

So… I applied to Mozilla’s Open Leadership Project with the idea of trying to find other collaborators, connect the dots and maybe try some new things in my home city. Two weeks ago, I was amazed to read an email saying I’d got a place on the programme.

I’m not a campaigner or an activist. I’m a communicator who is fairly average internet user and who just wants to ask the dumb questions about this stuff and hopefully, as a result, make better choices in my own online life.

To do this, my initial plan is simply to start gathering information and events around data, arts, tech and activism in the city, and collate them in some way, most likely as a regular email out to an online community. (UPDATE: the first issue has now gone out – see Observed.City for details] This will involve building connections with people who are working in this space and from there I hope ideas and collaborations may start to bloom and grow.

One project has started already through discussions with music academic Dr Craig Hamilton – a data reading group called The Interrogang is starting at Artefact Cafe in Stirchley next Tuesday 27 February from 7.30-9pm. The next one will be held on 28 March, and at six-weekly intervals after that, each covering a different data-relevant theme. The reading for next week will be around the use of our data in advertising by services such as Netflix and Spotify – and has been posted up on the group’s Twitter: @theinterrogang

And if you are interested in the Mozilla project an new data privacy newsletter, this is now up and running. Info and subscribe details below:

Sign up for the ObservedCity newsletter

Also:
Follow @ObservedCity on Twitter
Join the ObservedCity Facebook discussion group
Website (work in progress): Observed.City
Get in touch: observedcity@protonmail.com

Finally, in the Spirit of #WOLO (work open, lead open), perhaps you are interested in helping the project develop. This is the first week of a 14-week project so it is at an early stage but if you want to be involved, I envision needing some editorial help and people willing to attend and write up events. I’ll also be collecting listings of data-related events in the city from April/May onwards so if you are involved in running an event, workshops, talk or other activity, please get in touch via Observed.city.

Mass data collection and surveillance is one of the biggest issues of our age – the least we can do as its key human products is have a conversation about it.

Photocollage: @editoriat

Words from a woman who lived in the wild for six years

I got this book for Christmas as a surprise gift and while personally I don’t even like camping, it has been interesting to live vicariously through someone who has gone off the grid and lived as a pretty wild woman.

The story… Miriam, 34, a PE teacher originally from Holland, and Peter Lancewood, 64, former NZ university lecturer, met while travelling in India and later lived for six years in New Zealand’s wilderness. They also walked the 3000km Te Araroa trail traversing the length and breadth of New Zealand.

While Miriam’s book ‘Woman in the Wilderness’ doesn’t contain the thrills or the personal overcoming of adversity of Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’ (or Strayed’s writing skills – something Miriam freely admits), theirs is a quieter, ongoing feat which downplays the endurance side and spearheads the lifestyle change and how living in nature affects how they think and feel.

In the process of becoming a modern nomad, Lancewood became a hunter (from being a lifelong vegetarian), faced down her fears, learnt to be still and see things more slowly and deeply, and of course became adept at survival in the wild.

I figured it was worth documenting the learnings of someone who has so completely dropped out of human society and influence – and how this has affected their world view. I didn’t dog-ear many pages – it’s not a big book of philosophical musings – but here are some of the quotes from the ones I did.

The nature of fear

Lao-tzu: What you want to destroy you must first allow truly to flourish. So I took a deep breath and let the fear come. I was inviting the very ghost I was afraid of… Nothing happened at all. I lay in the silence and saw that it was, in fact, the unknown I was afraid of. Somehow this simple discovery made me feel unmeasurably better. … My fear was caused by my throughts. Is that always the case? I wondered.

…I had learned to look at fear and surrendered to my shadows on the wall. I wasn’t afraid to look again and again.

What is beauty?

We saw a chamois 20 metres behind us. I was mesmerised: I had never seen one up close before. … It was magnificently elegant, and it watched us with shy curiosity.

While looking at its eyes, I understood that beauty does not come through becoming, but only with being. The chamois was not working towards a better version of itself, it just lived. I, on the other hand, was always trying to become nicer, better, stronger, smarter and prettier, which caused me to lose my authentic self. I understood that the process of becoming disfigured my being. This chamois showed me, in that moment, that being is the most beautiful form of existence.

Western civilisation is broken

The future of many of these (indigenous) cultures was under threat. … ‘We’re in a bizarre position,’ Nick said. ‘In the West, we’ve ended up with a civilisation that is focused on progress and development, but is in fact an appalling make-believe on a gigantic scale. It encourages – almosts insists upon – distraction at any cost. In the public sphere we see violence, venality and greed. There is dishonesty, propaganda and obsession with the trivial… The list goes on and on. The system in which we live is a forced consensus of a self-created monster.’

What happens when you return to nature?

‘My sight and smell have become better and other intuitive senses I never knew existed have come back to life… I also feel more open. If I look at the person I was, say, 10 years ago, then I must say I feel more connected. Not only with nature, but also with other people. …What has happened to you in the last six years of living in nature?’ I asked him.

‘Compared to 10 years ago, I’m physically a lot stronger. It’s a great feeling to be fit and flexible enough to sleep on the ground and sit on rocks… In the world of academia, thought, concepts and ideas are quite overwhelming. It almost becomes more real than the natural world. But I don’t think there is order to be found in an abstract world. Even though outwardly the wilderness looks chaotic, I think it is within the natural realm that we find true order.’

What is the most important thing in life?

‘Courage is more important. Humankind evolved and survived through courage, not through fear… What do you think is most important?’

‘Maybe clarity,’ I said after some time. ‘You need a clear mind in order to see what is important. You need clarity to know what you are going to be courageous about, and you need clarity to question reality.’

Miriam and Peter are currently walking across Europe to Turkey.

On becoming a Glass Room Ingenius

I RARELY LOOK at email newsletters, even the ones I’ve subscribed to, but in September I opened ‘In The Loop’ from a Berlin technology collective called Tactical Tech, and inside was a dream opportunity to build on work begun during my sabbatical.

BE AN INGENIUS FOR THE GLASS ROOM LONDON
The Ingenius is the glue that holds The Glass Room together. We’re recruiting individuals who we can train up with tech, privacy and data skills in order to support The Glass Room exhibition (coming to London in October 2017). As an Ingenius you’d receive four days of training before carrying out a series of shifts in The Glass Room where you’d be on hand to answer questions, give advice, run workshops, and get people excited about digital security.

Having spent the first eight months of 2017 studying cybersecurity and cleaning up my own online practices, I had started offering free help sessions in our local café. Engagement was poor – it turns out that free infosec sessions aren’t in demand because busy people tend to put these things on the backburner and just hope they don’t get hacked in the meantime.

Francis Clarke, who co-runs the Birmingham Open Rights Group which campaigns around citizens’ digital rights, warned me that topics like infosec and data privacy were a hard sell. Friends and family confirmed it with ‘I don’t care if I get sent a few contextual ads’ or ‘I have nothing to hide’.

So how do you get people to become aware and start to care about their online practices?

Answer: The Glass Room.

***

The Glass Room – presented by Mozilla and curated by Tactical Tech – in every way resembles a bright, shiny tech store inviting passers-by in to check out its wares. Yet another shop on a busy London street. But the items on show are not gadgets but exhibits that help people look into their online lives and think more critically about their interactions with everyday digital services.

To be honest, I mostly saw The Glass Room as providing a readymade audience who were up for talking about this stuff because talking would enable me to get everything I’d been learning out of my head and also level up on my own understanding of the issues.

I didn’t think I would stand a chance of being selected but I applied anyway. I’ve listed some of the questions from the application and my (short version) answers for a bit more context on why I started on this journey – otherwise feel free to skip ahead.

Why are you interested in becoming an Ingenius? (provide 3 reasons)

Individually – I was blown away by Edward Snowden’s revelations and the Citizenfour documentary. I have been data detoxing and self-training in infosec, and I’m very interested in the engagement tools and workshop resources.

Locally – I’m involved in several campaigns. I want to help individuals and campaigners know how to keep their data and communications private and secure.

Nationally/internationally – I’m concerned with the normalisation of surveillance (both governmental and commercial) and how the line is constantly being redrawn in their favour. I would like to understand more about the politics of data and how to think about it more equitably in terms of the trade-offs concerned with policing, sensitive data sharing, commercial data capture and the individual right to privacy.

What do you think about the current state of privacy online?

I have concerns both about privacy clampdowns by governments and mass surveillance by commerce. I love the internet but find the fact that I have to jump through so many hoops to avoid being tracked or identified worrying. I feel I am part of some subversive resistance just to have control of my own data and this is intensifying as I have a writing project that I want to keep anonymous (almost impossible I since have discovered).  I’m also concerned that enacting the paths to anonymity may flag me on a list and that this may be used against me at some future point, especially if there is no context in the data.

I think our right to privacy is disappearing and the biggest issue is getting people to care enough to even talk about that. We seem to be giving up our privacy willingly because of a lack of digital literacy about how our information is being used, the dominance of data brokers such as Google and Facebook (for whom we are the product), the lack of transparency about how algorithms are processing our data, and so on. The issue feels buried and those who control information too powerful to stop.

How would you take the experience and learning as an Ingenius forward?

I’ll be taking it into my local community through advice surgeries in cafés and libraries. There seems to be little privacy/security support for individuals, activists, campaigners and small businesses. I also hope it will give me the wider knowledge to become more involved with Birmingham Open Rights group, which operates at a more political level.

Finally, I aim to connect more widely online around these topics and investigate options for setting up something to help people in Birmingham if I can find suitable collaborators.

***

I’M IN!

This is one of those things that will completely take me out of my comfort zone but will also likely be one of the best things ever.

***

THE GLASS ROOM when it ran in New York City saw 10,000 come through the doors. In London, on the busy Charing Cross Road, just up from Leicester Square, the figure was close to 20,000.

I was fretting  about all sorts of things before my first shift, mostly about standing on my feet and talking to people all day – normally I sit at a desk and say nothing for eight hours that isn’t typed. I was also nervous that despite the excellent four days of Glass Room training, I wouldn’t know enough to answer all the random questions of ‘the general public’, who might be anything from shy to panicked to supertechy.

But it was fine. More than fine, it was exhilarating, like the opening night of a show you’ve been rehearsing for weeks. If anything, I had to dial it back so that visitors would have a chance to figure things out for themselves. The team were lovely and the other Ingeniuses supportive and funny. Most importantly, the visiting public loved it, with 100-strong queues to get in during the final weekend of the exhibition.

It must be a complete rarity for people to want to come in, peruse and engage with items about wireless signals, data capture and metadata. But by materialising the invisible, people were able to socialise around the physical objects and ask questions about the issues that might affect them, or about the way big data and AI is affecting human society.

Day after day, people wandered in off the street and began playing with the interactive items in particular: facial recognition to find their online lookalikes, nine volumes of leaked passwords to find their password, newsfeed scanning to find the value of their data, the stinky Smell Dating exhibit to find out who they were attracted to from the raw exposed data of three-day-old T-shirts (c’mon people – add some metaphorical deodorant to your online interactions!).

They also spent time tuning into the trailers for highly  surveillant products and brands, and watching an actor reading Amazon Kindle’s terms and conditions (just under nine hours, even in the bath).

And they gathered en masse around the table-sized visualisations of Google’s vast Alphabet Empire that goes way beyond a search engine, Amazon’s future Hive factory run mostly by drones and other robots, Microsoft’s side investment into remote-controlled fertility chips, Apple’s 3D pie charts of turnover and tax avoided, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s House where you can buy total privacy for just $30 million.

***

THERE WERE THREE themed areas to explore inside The Glass Room, with three further spaces to go deeper and find out more:

  1. Something to hide – understanding the value of your data and also what you are not hiding.
  2. We know you – showing what the big five of GAFAM (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft) are doing with the billions they make from your online interactions with them.
  3. Big mother – when technology decides to solve society’s problems (helping refugees, spotting illegal immigrants, health sensors for the elderly, DNA analysis to discover your roots), the effect can be chilling.
  4. Open the box – a browsing space on the mezzanine floor full of animations to explain what goes on behind the screen interface.
  5. Data Detox Bar – the empowerment station where people could get an eight-day Data Detox Kit (now online here) and ask Ingeniuses questions about the exhibition and issues raised.
  6. Basement area – an event space hosting a daily schedule of expert talks, films and hour-long workshops put on by the Ingeniuses.

During the curator’s tour by Tactical Tech co-founder Marek Tuszynski, what impressed me most was the framing for The Glass Room. This is not a top-down dictation of what to think but a laying out of the cards for you to decide where you draw the line in the battle between convenience and privacy, risk and reward.

I handed out kit after kit to people who were unaware of the data traces they were creating simply by going about their normal connected life, or unaware that there are alternatives where the default isn’t set to total data capture for future brokerage.

Some people needed talking down after seeing the exhibition, some asked how to protect their kids, others were already paranoid and trying to go off the grid or added their own stories of life in a quantified society.

***

THERE ARE THREE LESSONS I’ve taken away from my experience in The Glass Room to apply to any future sessions I might hold on these topics:

  1. Materialise the invisible – bring physical objects (art, prototypes, kits, display devices) so that people can interact and discuss, not just read, listen or be told.

2. Find the ‘why’ – most people are unaware of, or unconcerned about, the level of data and metadata they produce until they see how it is aggregated and used to profile, score and predict them. Finding out what people care about is where the conversation really starts.

3. More empowerment and empathy, less evangelism– don’t overload people with too many options or strategies for resistance, or polarise them with your own activist viewpoint. Meet them where they are at. Think small changes over time.

***

IT’S BEEN A MONTH SINCE The Glass Room and I’m proud of stepping up as an Ingenius and of overcoming my own fears and ‘imposter syndrome’.

As well as doing nine shifts at The Glass Room, I also ran two workshops on Investigating Metadata, despite being nervous as hell about public speaking. There are eight workshops modules in Tactical Tech’s resources so it would be interesting to work these up into a local training offering if any Brummies are interested in collaborating on this.

I wrote a blog post for NESTA about The Glass Room – you can read it here: Bringing the data privacy debate to the high street.

I did the Data Detox Surgery at an exhibition called Instructions for Humans at Birmingham Open Media, and also set up a mini version of The Glass Room with some pop-up resources from Tactical Tech – there’s a write-up about that here. The Ingenius training gave me the confidence and knowledge to lead this.

Leo from Birmingham ORG has also had Glass Room training so we will be looking for opportunities to set up the full pop-up version of The Glass Room in Birmingham in 2018. Get in touch if you’re interested– it needs to be a place with good footfall, somewhere like the Bullring or the Library of Birmingham perhaps, but we’re open to ideas.

There’s also a more commercial idea, which arose at the Data Detox Surgery, to develop this as an employee engagement mechanism within companies to help make their staff more cyber-secure. If employees learn more about their own data privacy and can workshop some of the issues around data collection, then they are more likely to care about company processes around data security and privacy. In short, if they understand the personal risks, they will be more security-conscious when working with customer or commercial data.

Update: In March 2018 I launched a data privacy email for my home city – you can read all about it here.

As ever, watch this space, or get in touch if you think any of this should be taken to a coffee shop for further discussion and development. You can also connect with me on Twitter if you want to follow this journey more remotely.

Thanks for staying to the end.