Keep UK public data open to drive innovation

October 26th, 2011

The UK government is consulting on how to use and make money from data sets managed by the Land Registry, Ordnance Survey and Met Office. Deadline for comments on the proposed new Public Data Corporation is Friday.

Prompted by the Open Rights Group, I wrote and submitted some comments:

I am very concerned that it seems the government is taking a short-term, cash cow view of how best to use the public data resources of the Land Registry, Ordnance Survey and Met Office.

The Public Data Corporation does not and cannot know what socially useful and/or profitable uses these raw data sets will be put to. It’s not your job to (inadvertently) constrain the business and social models that will emerge to use the data in as yet undreamed of ways. It IS your job to make that data available to the greatest number of people and organisations to create the greatest possible amount of social and economic ultility.

Let me give you an example.

Have you heard of Ushahidi? It is a Kenyan IT platform (free for anyone to use and develop) that allows people to use mobile phones to gather real time data in times of emergency and send it to a distributed network of people who tie that data to publicly available maps. It has demonstrably saved lives in the Haiti earthquake, the Chilean earthquake last year and, less so because the government just could not get its data-sharing act together, the Pakistan flood disaster. It’s being rolled out in Thailand this very minute.

Ushahidi and a network of people supported by The World Bank and Google (and many more) saves lives using publicly available open data sets tied to user technology. This is not science fiction; it just sounds like it because it’s something no one could have imagined before it was created.

If you cut access to raw public data sets, you will kill off emerging technology and data innovations, kill off jobs created by innovation, and shut down the ability of distributed users and technology to do things you cannot yet dream of.

Please act now to support innovation and creativity. We literally cannot imagine when we might need the data to save not just jobs but human lives.

Useless book reviews in the FT

July 27th, 2011

My weekly treat of the Saturday FT is becoming less and less something to look forward to. It’s not just that the fashion shoots are as gauche as those of newspapers everywhere, or that the odious ‘How to Spend It’ bizarrely channels a middle class aspiring to be hot Russian money in London. Nor that Mrs Moneypenny has irrevocably (i.e. on television) revealed herself as a bit of an empty vessel. Nor, even, that my beloved Secret Agent is running out of things to say about the property-acquiring super rich. (I guiltily admit I loved him more when he was melancholy, and still daydream of fixing him up with a friend.) No, my ability to pleasurably drag out the reading for more than an hour is vexed by the increasingly uninsightful and plain old poor value for money that has begun to mark the fiction reviews.

The increasing Americanisation of the FT now has writers review books by their brothers and sisters in arms. The British tradition of publishing book reviews by people who are real-life critics and not part-time cheer leaders and quarterbacks may be nasty, discomfiting and sometimes unfair to writers – and for this I blame editors – but it gives a reader a much clearer view of the essential question; ‘Is it any good?’. I imagine it’s also costing unsung book reviewers their living as money is thrown at superstar writers at the top of the pile.

Case in point: this week’s review by Annie Proulx of a novel, ‘Irma Voth’, by Miriam Toews. Without the name recognition of Proulx, it’s hard to imagine the review being published anywhere except, perhaps, a town newspaper wishing to fill up space and appear cultural by inviting the doyenne of the local book club to write a little something. Proulx dedicates 800 of her 1000 words to describing the plot of the novel from beginning to end; 800 tedious words of ‘this happens and then that happens’, and then a final 50 to more helpfully add that Irma Voth is a parable of redemption with a decent pay-off. It’s just not a very good piece, and yet it is given star treatment.

Proulx’ review occupies the most prominent real estate in the sadly pared back FT book review section, and has an apparently custom-ordered illustration to go with it. The picture alone takes up the same amount of space on the page as 6 of the mini-reviews that comprise the meat of the section. What a waste of space! The books editor may have imagined a gloriously co-branded vista, with the joint intellectual capital of Proulx and the FT expanding geometrically as far as the eye can see. What’s ended up on the page is a colossally wasteful exercise in winner-takes-all back-scratching that is unworthy of either party.

Which is not to say writers don’t have anything interesting to say about books. (And Lionel Shriver’s reviews for the FT are much better than those of Proulx.) Where would the LRB be without writers talking to and about other writers? However, a weekend book review section is for readers, and editors booking puff pieces from rock stars to add to squeezed book sections the illusion of mass would do well to remember this.

First published on Crooked Timber on 14 June, 2100

Sunnyside II – Count no man lucky until he is dead

July 27th, 2011

On first reading, Sunnyside seems to be a picaresque with a sting in the tail. In the best spirit of Chaplin’s films, this rambling story of World War I and the movies uses slapstick and pathos to wring out tears of laughter and sadness. Many readers set it down, bemused, scratching their heads, wondering what, if anything, it was all about. Some reviewers said it was an ambitious failure. Sunnyside is a book you need to live with for a while as it unwraps itself. Or not. Like the best comedy, it’s a response, though not an answer, to the despair of the human condition. And it’s very, very funny.

What does it mean to ‘get’ a book, or at least to think you have? It’s something that happens in a reader’s mind when the characters, story, feelings and ideas of a novel unite into something greater than their sum, becoming a complete world of their own, a world that teaches true things about the world we live in. A good book that sits uncomfortably in its own era resists understanding just as it teaches you how to read it. Sunnyside is the sort of book you think about for a long time after reading, and will probably come back to again.

The first time I read Sunnyside, I zeroed in on its theme of whether life has any meaning. In a romp about war and movies, fame and money, cartels and kaisers, fairytale princesses and schoolgirl brides, performing dogs and Parisian whores, the questions are asked again and again; in this crazy, violent and speedy world, does life have a meaning? Can stories give it any? Does history repeat itself? And if it does, so what? Read the rest of this entry »

Garret FitzGerald, RIP

July 27th, 2011

Garret FitzGerald, Ireland’s Taoiseach in the 1980s and a beloved family friend, died early this morning. Politically, I think of him as the man who took Thatcher’s condescension on the chin to create the Anglo Irish Agreement, and the man with the courage to call time on the Catholic Church’s unquestioned dominance of social policy and moral thought in Ireland. Personally, while I can appreciate that Garret had what we call a good innings, wasn’t ill for very long, and enjoyed a final few hours of joyous clarity with some of the people he loved the most, I both wished and believed that he would go on and on.

People think of Garret as a dizzy academic, and not the resolutely calculating man he could be when it came to tallying odds and gaming a scenario. This was the man who coolly reckoned at the beginning of his career that while he was constitutionally more suited to the Labour Party, he would achieve less at the head of it, and so joined Fine Gael. His first job was writing the timetable for Aer Lingus, long before there was software for that kind of organisational nitty gritty. He had an extraordinary memory for this sort of thing; on a walk near Cahersiveen a decade ago, he explained to me the old train route there, the stations it called at, the time of each train and effect on the local economy. He giggled when I said we should call him Rainman. Read the rest of this entry »

Sunnyside Seminar with author Glen David Gold

July 27th, 2011

A year after I first trailed it on Crooked Timber, we published a seminar on Sunnyside,
by Glen David Gold, who also wrote Carter Beats the Devil. Sunnyside is a vast, shiny, dark and funny novel about Charlie Chaplin, the birth of modern celebrity, America’s diffidence and then wild enthusiasm for World War I, two genius puppies and their fame-seeking GI owner, an apple-cheeked criminal prodigy, and a Detroit devotee of Ruskin’s attempt to rescue three Russian princesses from the Red Army.

I’m a little nervous of the pronouncement that this novel is about the themes it evokes and the questions it implies, not least because it might lessen the fun of reading it and hitting on these questions yourself. But I want to stake very firmly the claim that this book needs to be gobbled up, because picaresque is serious stuff.

Sunnyside made me laugh out loud in public and on my own, pepper Wikipedia with historical queries, plague family and friends with its insights and asides, and cry the embarrassing, heaving sobs of true loss, not the fictive kind. And, annoyingly, in the middle of a grand World War I narrative where faceless millions perish mostly off-screen, Sunnyside made me care very much if the dog makes it.

Three writer/critics from London and New York have very patiently born with me while we pulled this seminar together:

Read the rest of this entry »

The hollowing out of ICANN must stop

July 27th, 2011

Last week, I did something I never expected to do. At the ICANN meeting in San Francisco, I stood up in front of several hundred people and the ICANN Board of Directors and delivered a full and frank criticism of the management of ICANN’s current CEO, Rod Beckstrom.

The response to this speech was overwhelmingly strong and supportive, both in the immediate and lengthy applause and, since then, in a constant stream of handshakes, twitter and facebook shout-outs, and emails – many of which were privately sent by current members of the ICANN staff. I am re-producing my comments here so that they may be more widely available and spark further public debate.

I know the Internet community well enough to say that this is not a popularity contest, and the support I’ve received for my comments isn’t personal. There is a widely shared and profound disquiet at how this organization has been managed, horror at the near-vandalism of the damage done, and a growing sense that it must stop.

“My name is Maria Farrell. I am a member of this year’s Nominating Committee, appointed by the NCUC (Non Commercial User Constituency), and I was previously a member of theICANN staff.

I have the distinction of being the first of a mass exodus of staff from the ICANN organization, in a series of forced departures which continue to this day.

I have kept silent and not spoken about this out of loyalty to the organization and respect for the leadership, and also my desire not to make a difficult situation worse for the ICANN staff. But my profound disquiet about how the organization is operationally being managed has moved me to speak to the Board today.

There has been a vast hollowing out of expertise, of relationships, of institutional memory, and of goodwill for this organization, and I believe the impact on ICANN ’s operational effectiveness has been profound. The impact on the international reputation is also quite an issue.

There is a climate of fear stalking the ICANN staff. People are afraid to speak frankly internally, and to speak unpalatable truths behind closed doors, the sorts of things that need to be discussed to allow the organization to function efficiently.

People are afraid of losing their jobs by doing their jobs.

The collegiality that we knew as former ICANN staff seems to have evaporated as we have hemorrhaged talent over the last year or so. The culture of collegiality has made way for one of managing up and managing expectations, rather than serving the community.

Operational planning is in some disarray, as budgets are made up as we go along, priorities change, and internal communication is nonexistent.

I believe also that ICANN’s relationships that have been cultivated around the world over many years and with much assiduity have been trashed.

This hollowing out of the expertise of the ICANN organization, of goodwill, and the trashing of its international reputation has come to such an extent that I believe it requires urgent board attention.

These are very harsh words. I don’t deliver them with any sense of ease or happiness, but I do believe although the board doesn’t wish to be involved in micromanagement, that it needs to pay attention to these issues.

Thank you.” Read the rest of this entry »

IPv4 endgame; following the money

March 17th, 2011
As part of its campaign to be able to buy and sell IPv4 addresses in the profitable end game of numbering availability, Depository Inc., a US company led by David H. Holtzman (formerly of NSI) has written to ICANN complaining about the US regional Internet registry, ARIN. Depository wants bulk access to ARIN’s IP Whois in order to ensure accuracy of its own records, and says it doesn’t intend to use the database for direct marketing. ARIN rather unconvincingly argues that Depository’s stated use would contravene the community-developed acceptable use policy. Without bulk Whois, it’s hard to see how Depository can reliably sell routable address space to its own putative registrants. But how could a private firm with no obligation to the multi-stakeholder process or global Internet community get its hands on addresses and legitimately sell them on?
Many of these initial allocations were enormous; giving rise to the oft-stated complaint a few years ago that MIT had far more IP addresses than China. Initially, Internet address blocks were doled out to techies ‘in the know’ and in countries that got their Internet acts together quickly. In the early 2000’s, the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – which had initially ignored the Internet or railed against it – started clamouring to be the numbering authority. ITU’s argument that a closed shop of rich country engineers could not be allowed to divvy up the global public pool of address space resounded strongly with its largely developing country membership. But those interested in developing the Internet itself, and not simply using IP addresses as a communications ministry cash cow, agreed that the while the ITU proposal might arguably be fair, it was far from efficient.  Something had to be done. Read the rest of this entry »

Music to live by – Sophie Coyle from Galway

March 10th, 2011


Just landed in Edinburgh and with no plans in mind and a mind full of curtains and kitchen fittings, I got an email out of the blue from my Galway cousin, Sophie Coyle, about a gig in Banshee Labyrinth last night. What a fabulous performance – I just wish I’d caught more of it. It’s always impressive to see someone you know, someone family, re-making themselves as something you also know but in an entirely different realm – as a professional musician.

My first job with Hummingbird Films meant spending a lot of time around gigging musicians, and I’m proud to say Sophie is the real deal. Beautiful songs, which I’ve been enjoying properly on CD today. Magical, addictive stuff.

Also playing was Dundalk punk-poet Jinx Lennon. I have to admit the term ‘punk-poet’ would normally have me reaching for the Ovaltine and TV Times, but Jinx had such a way of combining words, guitar, samples & choruses with wit and passion that I was instantly hooked.

Sophie’s music can be downloaded at Yesterday morning as I was driving into John Lewis, calculating curtain sizes and how much house the wedding vouchers will adorn I wondered if I was feeling to old to go to Oxegen or Electric Picnic this year. Last night’s reminder of the magic of live music  says maybe not!

ICANN’s 2011 Nominating Committee

December 17th, 2010

I’ve recently been appointed by the NonCommercial Users’ Constituency to ICANN’s Nominating Committee. The job of the committee this year is to appoint two Board Directors, three members of the At Large Advisory Committee, two GNSO Councillors and one ccNSO Councillor. This year’s committee, chaired by Adam Peake, has decided to grab the transparency bull by the horns and set up its own blog.

Over the years, NomCom has been criticised for being too secretive about what it does. Picking Board Directors and other key leadership positions is a touchy business. People send in very detailed applications for these roles and are assessed by an appointed committee of their peers. It’s not surprising that the community wants privacy for applicants, on one hand, and to understand what’s happening and when, on the other.

To me, it’s pretty clear that as a committee we can communicate a lot more about what we’re doing on, say, recruitment, or when we’ll meet and broadly what we’ll be doing – while keeping complete confidentiality for the candidates. That’s where the blog comes in. It’s not an ‘official’ communications channel. For formal announcements of deadlines and such, will always be the authoritative place to go. But for talking to and hearing back on, for example, how we can do recruitment better, there’s no better place.

Where improved transparency gets a bit knotty is in developing and using black and white selection criteria or very detailed role descriptions to make the final decisions. This is one of the recommendations of the draft ATRT report, and is a good idea on the face of it.But the fact is that selection priorities change from year to year. One year, the Board may need geographic diversity from a particular region, the next; management expertise is the priority. And the perennial dilemma of continuity versus change will always be with us. To accommodate the reality of different priorities in different years, we could end up with document so broad as not to be terribly useful, either practically to the NomCom, or reassuringly to the community we come from.

Checklists and box-ticking are extremely useful in highly formalised operations where the decision tree is complex, but nonetheless finite and well understood. Like, say, open heart surgery or flying a plane. These approaches are of less value if applied strictly to the NomCom situation where, let’s be honest, it’s decision-making by committee in a politicised environment where no one even agrees on what success looks like, apart from having a slate of agreed candidates by the end of June 2011.

Fundamentally, it’s a question of trust, and trust has to be earned. Being open about what we do and how we go about it is an essential step. Developing and adopting selection criteria is one part of that. Taking action to communicate about the NomCom and listen, consider, discuss and act on what we hear back will be the hallmark of this year’s committee.

As someone who was staff support to the 2009 committee as a member of Paul Levins’ team (who created and pushed the transparency and accountability agenda within ICANN), and is now a member of the 2011 NomCom, I am really happy to continue playing this one forward.

Wait wait, don’t tell me: my interview on Chicago Public Radio about Internationalised Domain Names

October 7th, 2010

Back in June, I was interviewed on Chicago Public Radio’s foreign affairs program, Worldview. The topic was internationalised domain names and why they’re such a big deal for much of the world. I have to admit it was a bit of a thrill to be on the same station as the flagship program ’This American Life’. You can listen to the interview here.