Recent blog entries for louie

Public licenses and data: So what to do instead?

I just explained why open and copyleft licensing, which work fairly well in the software context, might not be legally workable, or practically a good idea, around data. So what to do instead? tl;dr: say no to licenses, say yes to norms.

"Day 43-Sharing" by A. David Holloway, under CC BY 2.0.
Day 43-Sharing” by A. David Holloway, under CC BY 2.0.

Partial solutions

In this complex landscape, it should be no surprise that there are no perfect solutions. I’ll start with two behaviors that can help.

Education and lawyering: just say no

If you’re reading this post, odds are that, within your organization or community, you’re known as a data geek and might get pulled in when someone asks for a new data (or hardware, or culture) license. The best thing you can do is help explain why restrictive “public” licensing for data is a bad idea. To the extent there is a community of lawyers around open licensing, we also need to be comfortable saying “this is a bad idea”.

These blog posts, to some extent, are my mea culpa for not saying “no” during the drafting of ODbL. At that time, I thought that if only we worked hard enough, and were creative enough, we could make a data license that avoided the pitfalls others had identified. It was only years later that I finally realized there were systemic reasons why we were doomed, despite lots of hard work and thoughtful lawyering. These posts lay out why, so that in the future I can say no more efficiently. Feel free to borrow them when you also need to say no :)

Project structure: collaboration builds on itself

When thinking about what people actually want from open licenses, it is important to remember that how people collaborate is deeply impacted by factors of how your project is structured. (To put it another way, architecture is also law.) For example, many kernel contributors feel that the best reason to contribute your code to the Linux kernel is not because of the license, but because the high velocity of development means that your costs are much lower if you get your features upstream quickly. Similarly, if you can build a big community like Wikimedia’s around your data, the velocity of improvements is likely to reduce the desire to fork. Where possible, consider also offering services and collaboration spaces that encourage people to work in public, rather than providing the bare minimum necessary for your own use. Or more simply, spend money on community people, rather than lawyers! These kinds of tweaks can often have much more of an impact on free-riding and contribution than any license choice. Unfortunately, the details are often project specific – which makes it hard to talk about in a blog post! Especially one that is already too long.

Solving with norms

So if lawyers should advise against the use of data law, and structuring your project for collaboration might not apply to you, what then? Following Peter Desmet, Science Commons, and others, I think the right tool for building resilient, global communities of sharing (in data and elsewhere) is written norms, combined with a formal release of rights.

Norms are essentially optimistic statements of what should be done, rather than formal requirements of what must be done (with the enforcement power of the state behind them). There is an extensive literature, pioneered by Nobelist Elinor Ostrom, on how they are actually how a huge amount of humankind’s work gets done – despite the skepticism of economists and lawyers. Critically, they often work even without the enforcement power of the legal system. For example, academia’s anti-plagiarism norms (when buttressed by appropriate non-legal institutional supports) are fairly successful. While there are still plagiarism problems, they’re fairly comparable to the Linux kernel’s GPL-violation problems – even though, unlike GPL, there is no legal enforcement mechanisms!

Norms and licenses have similar benefits

In many key ways, norms are not actually significantly different than licenses. Norms and licenses both can help (or hurt) a community reach their goals by:

  • Educating newcomers about community expectations: Collaboration requires shared understanding of the behavior that will guide that collaboration. Written norms can create that shared expectation just as well as licenses, and often better, since they can be flexible and human-readable in ways legally-binding international documents can’t.
  • Serving as the basis for social pressure: For the vast majority of collaborative projects, praise, shame, and other social nudges, not legal threats, are the actual basis for collaboration. (If you need proof of this, consider the decades-long success of open source before any legal enforcement was attempted.) Again, norms can serve this role just as well or not better, since it is often desire to cooperate and a fear of shaming that are what actually drive collaboration.
  • Similar levels of enforcement: While you can’t use the legal system to enforce a norm, most people and organizations also don’t have the option to use the legal system to enforce licenses – it is too expensive, or too time consuming, or the violator is in another country, or one of many other reasons why the legal system might not be an option (especially in data!) So instead most projects result to tools like personal appeals or threats of publicity – tools that are still available with norms.
  • Working in practice (usually): As I mentioned above, basing collaboration on social norms, rather than legal tools, work all the time in real life. The idea that collaboration can’t occur without the threat of legal sanction is really a somewhat recent invention. (I could actually have listed this under differences – since, as Ostrom teaches us, legal mechanisms often fail where norms succeed, and I think that is the case in data too.)

Why are norms better?

Of course, if norms were merely “as good as” licenses in the ways I just listed, I probably wouldn’t recommend them. Here are some ways that they can be better, in ways that address some of the concerns I raised in my earlier posts in this series:

  • Global: While [building global norms is not easy](http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3038591/), social norms based on appeals to the very human desires for collaboration and partnership can be a lot more global than the current schemes for protecting database or hardware rights, which aren’t international. (You can try to fake internationalization through a license, but as I pointed out in earlier posts, that is likely to fail legally, and be ignored by exactly the largest partners who you most want to get on board.)
  • Flexible: Many of the practical problems with licenses in data space boil down to their inflexibility: if a license presumes something to be true, and it isn’t, you might not be able to do anything about it. Norms can be much more generous – well-intentioned re-users can creatively reinterpret the rules as necessary to get to a good outcome, without having to ask every contributor to change the license. (Copyright law in the US provides some flexibility through fair use, which has been critical in the development of the internet. The EU does not extend such flexibility to data, though member states can add some fair dealing provisions if they choose. In neither case are those exceptions global, so they can’t be relied on by collaborative projects that aim to be global in scope.)
  • Work against, not with, the permission culture: Lessig warned us early on about “permission culture” – the notion that we would always need to ask permission to do anything. Creative Commons was an attempt to fight it, but by being a legal obligation, rather than a normative statement, it made a key concession to the permission culture – that the legal system was the right terrain to have discussions about sharing. The digital world has pretty whole-heartedly rejected this conclusion, sharing freely and constantly. As a result, I suspect a system that appeals to ethical systems has a better chance of long-term sustainability, because it works with the “new” default behavior online rather than bringing in the heavy, and inflexible, hand of the law.

Why you still need a (permissive) license

Norms aren’t enough if the underlying legal system might allow an early contributor to later wield the law as a threat. That’s why the best practice in the data space is to use something like the Creative Commons public domain grant (CC-Zero) to set a clear, reliable, permissive baseline, and then use norms to add flexible requirements on top of that. This uses law to provide reliability and predictability, and then uses norms to address concerns about fairness, free-riding, and effectiveness. CC-Zero still isn’t perfect; most notably it has to try to be both a grant and a license to deal with different international rules around grants.

What next?

In this context, when I say “norms”, I mean not just the general term, but specifically written norms that can act as a reference point for community members. In the data space, some good examples are DPLA’s “CCO-BY” and the Canadensys biodiversity initiative. A more subtle form can be found buried in the terms for NIH’s Clinical Trials database. So, some potential next steps, depending on where your collaborative project is:

  • If your community has informal norms (“attribution good! sharing good!”) consider writing them down like the examples above. If you’re being pressed to adopt a license (hi, Wikidata!), consider writing down norms instead, and thinking creatively about how to name and shame those who violate those norms.
  • If you’re an organization that publishes licenses, consider using your drafting prowess to write some standard norms that encapsulate the same behaviors without the clunkiness of database (or hardware) law. (Open Data Commons made some moves in this direction circa 2010, and other groups could consider doing the same.)
  • If you’re an organization that keeps getting told that people won’t participate in your project because of your license, consider moving towards a more permissive license + a norm, or interpreting your license permissively and reinforcing it with norms.

Good luck! May your data be widely re-used and contributors be excited to join your project.

Syndicated 2016-09-26 15:00:12 from Blog – Luis Villa: Open Law and Strategy

Copyleft, attribution, and data: other considerations

Public licenses for databases don’t work well. Before going into solutions to that problem, though, I wanted to talk briefly about some things that are important to consider when thinking about solutions: real-world examples of the problems; a common, but bad, solution; and a discussion of the motivations behind public licenses.

2013-bullfrog-map-unavailable
Bullfrog map unavailable“, by Peter Desmets, under CC BY 3.0 unported

Real-world concerns, not just theoretical

When looking at solutions, it is important to understand that the practical concerns I blogged about aren’t just theoretical — they matter in practice too. For example, Peter Desmet has done a great job showing how overreaching licenses make bullfrog maps (and other data combinations) illegal. Alex Barth of OpenStreetMap has also discussed how ODbL creates problems for OSM users (though he got some Wikipedia-related facts wrong). And I’ve spoken to very well-intentioned organizations (including thoughtful, impactful non-profits) scared off from OSM for similar reasons.

On the flip side, because these rules are based on such flimsy legal grounds, sophisticated corporate legal departments often feel comfortable circumventing
the requirements by exploiting loopholes. (Needless to say, they don’t blog about the problems with the licenses – they just go ahead and use the loopholes.) So overreaching attempts to create new rights are, in many ways, the worst of both worlds: they hurt well-intentioned cooperation, and don’t dissuade parties with a significant interest in exploiting the commons.

What not to do: create new “rights”

When thinking about solutions, it is unfortunately also important to say what isn’t a good idea: create new rights, or override limitations on old ones. The Free Software Foundation, to their great credit, has always consistently said that if weakening copyright also weakens the GPL, they’ll take that tradeoff; and that vice-versa, the GPL should not ask for rights that go beyond copyright law. The most recent copyleft licenses from Creative Commons, Mozilla, and the FSF all make this explicit: limitations on copyright, like fair use, are not trumped by our licenses.

Unfortunately, many people have a good-faith desire to see copyleft-like results in other domains. As a result, they’ve gone the wrong way on this point. ODbL is probably the most blatant example of this: even at the time, Science Commons correctly pointed out that ODbL’s attempt to create database rights by contract outside of the EU was a bad idea. Unfortunately, well-intentioned people (including me!) pushed it through anyway. Similarly, open hardware proponents have tried to stretch copyright to cover functional works, with predictably messy results.

This is not just practically wrong, for the reasons I’ve explained in earlier posts. It is also ethically wrong for those of us who want to see more data sharing, because any “rights” we create by fiat are going to end up being used primarily to stop sharing, not encourage it.

Remembering why we do share-alike and attribution

Consider this section a brief sketch for a future post – if I forgot something
big, please let me know, but please don’t roast me in comments for being brief
or reductive about your favorite motivation.

It is important when writing about public licenses to remember why the idea of
placing restrictions on re-use is so intuitively appealing outside of software.
If we don’t understand why people want to do less-than-public domain, it’s hard
to come up with solutions that actually work. Motivations tend to be some
combination (varying from person to person and community to community) of:

  • Recognition: Many people want to at least be recognized for their work, even when they ask for nothing else. (When Creative Commons assessed usage after their 1.0 licenses, [97-98% of people chose attribution](https://creativecommons.org/2004/05/25/announcingandexplainingournew20licenses/).) This sentiment underlies many otherwise “permissive” licenses, as well as academic norms around plagiarism and attribution.
  • Reducing free riding: Lots of people are afraid that commons can be destroyed by people who use the resource without giving back. Historically, this “tragedy of the commons” was about [rivalrous](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rivalry_(economics)) goods (like fisheries), but the same concern is often raised in the context of collaborative communities, whose labor can be rivalrous even when their goods are non-rivalrous. Some people like share-alike requirements because, pragmatically, they feel such requirements are one way to prevent (or at least reduce) this risk by encouraging people to either participate fully or not participate at all. (If you’re interested in this point, I’ve [written about it before](http://lu.is/blog/2014/12/02/free-riding-and-copyleft-in-cultural-commons-like-flickr/).)
  • “Fairness”: Many people like share-alike out of a deep moral sense that if you take, you should also give back. This often looks the same as the previous point, but with the key distinction that at least some people focused on fairness care more about process and less about outcomes: a smaller, less productive community with more sharing may, for them, be better than a larger, more productive community where not everyone shares perfectly.
  • Access to allow self-help: Another variation on the previous two points is a use of copyleft that focuses less on “is the author helping me by cooperating” and more on “did the author give me materials I can then use to help myself”. In this view, increased access to raw material (like source code, or data) can be good even the authors are non-cooperative. (To those familiar with the Linux kernel discussions, this is essentially “I got a lousy driver, and the authors hate me, but at least I got *a* driver”.)
  • Ethical: Many people simply think data/source should never be proprietary, and so will use any means possible, like copyleft, to increase the amount of non-proprietary code in the world.

All of these motivations can be more or less valid at different points in time, in ways that (again) deserve a different post. (For example, automatic attribution may not have the same impact as “human” attribution, which may not be a surprise given the evidence on crowding out of intrinsic motivations.)

Finally, next (and final?) post: what solutions we’ve got.

Syndicated 2016-09-21 18:22:38 from Blog – Luis Villa: Open Law and Strategy

Copyleft and data: databases as poor subject

In my last post, I wrote about how database law is a poor platform to build a global public copyleft license on top of.  Of course, whether you can have copyleft in data only matters if copyleft in data is a good idea. I no longer think that is the case, because the way databases are used in the wild makes copyleft impractical even for good-faith users who want to share back. As with the last post, when we compare software (where copyleft has worked reasonably well) to databases, we’ll see that databases are different in very significant ways that impact whether or not we can expect copyleft (and to some extent other standardized public licenses) to work.

Card Puncher from the 1920 US Census.
Card Puncher from the 1920 US Census.

How works are combined

In software copyleft, the most common scenarios to evaluate are merging two large programs, or copying one small file into a much larger program. In this scenario, understanding how licenses work together is fairly straightforward: you have two licenses. If they can work together, great; if they can’t, then you don’t go forward, or, if it matters enough, you change the license on your own work to make it work.

In contrast, data is often combined in three ways that are significantly different than software:

  • Scale: Instead of a handful of projects, data is often combined from hundreds of sources, so doing a license conflicts analysis if any of those sources have conflicting obligations (like copyleft) is impractical. Peter Desmet did a great job of analyzing this in the context of an international bio-science dataset, which has 11,000+ data sources.
  • Boundaries: There are some cases where hundreds of pieces of software are combined (like operating systems and modern web services) but they have “natural” places to draw a boundary around the scope of the copyleft. Examples of this include the kernel-userspace boundary (useful when dealing with the GPL and Linux kernel), APIs (useful when dealing with the LGPL), or software-as-a-service (where no software is “distributed” in the classic sense at all). As a result, no one has to do much analysis of how those pieces fit together. In contrast, no natural “lines” have emerged around databases, so either you have copyleft that eats the entire combined dataset, or you have no copyleft. ODbL attempts to manage this with the concept of “independent” databases and produced works, but after this recent case I’m not sure even those tenuous attempts hold as a legal matter anymore.

  • Authorship: When you combine a handful of pieces of software, most of the time you also control the licensing of at least one of those pieces of software, and you can adjust the licensing of that piece as needed. (Widely-used exceptions to this rule, like OpenSSL, tend to be rare.) In other words, if you’re writing a Linux kernel driver, or a WordPress theme, you can choose the license to make sure it complies. Not necessarily the case in data combinations: if you’re making use of large public data sets, you’re often combining many other data sources where you aren’t the author. So if some of them have conflicting license obligations, you’re stuck.

How attribution is managed

Attribution in large software projects is painful enough that lawyers have written a lot on it, and open-source operating systems vendors have built somewhat elaborate systems to manage it. This isn’t just a problem for copyleft: it is also a problem for the supposedly easy case of attribution-only licenses.

Now, again, instead of dozens of authors, often employed by the same copyright-owner, imagine hundreds or thousands. And imagine that instead of combining these pieces in basically the same way each time you build the software, imagine that every time you have a different query, you have to provide different attribution data (because the relevant slices of data may have different sources or authors). That’s data!

The least-bad “solution” here is to (1) tag every field (not just data source) with licensing information, and (2) have data-reading software create new, accurate attribution information every time a new view into the data is created. (I actually know of at least one company that does this internally!) This is not impossible, but it is a big burden on data software developers, who must now include a lawyer in their product design team. Most of them will just go ahead and violate the licenses instead, pass the burden on to their users to figure out what the heck is going on, or both.

Who creates data

Most software is either under a very standard and well-understood open source license, or is produced by a single entity (or often even a single person!) that retains copyright and can adjust that license based on their needs. So if you find a piece of software that you’d like to use, you can either (1) just read their standard FOSS license, or (2) call them up and ask them to change it. (They might not change it, but at least they can if they want to.) This helps make copyleft problems manageable: if you find a true incompatibility, you can often ask the source of the problem to fix it, or fix it yourself (by changing the license on your software).

Data sources typically can’t solve problems by relicensing, because many of the most important data sources have different structures. In particular:

  • Governments: Lots of data is produced by governments, where licensing changes can literally require an act of the legislature. So if you do anything that goes against their license, or two different governments release data under conflicting licenses, you can’t just call up their lawyers and ask for a change.
  • Community collaborations: The biggest open software relicensing that’s ever been done (Mozilla) required getting permission from a few thousand people. Successful online collaboration projects can have 1-2 orders of magnitude more contributors than that, making relicensing is hard. Wikidata solved this the right way: by going with CC0.

So what to do?

So if data is legally hard to build a license for, and the nature of data makes copyleft (or even attribution!) hard, what to do? I’ll go into that in my next post.

Syndicated 2016-09-14 13:00:42 from Blog – Luis Villa: Open Law and Strategy

Copyleft and data: database law as (poor) platform

tl;dr: Databases are a very poor fit for any licensing scheme, like copyleft, that (1) is intended to encourage use by the entire world but also (2) wants to place requirements on that use. This is because of broken legal systems and the way data is used. Projects considering copyleft, or even mere attribution, for data, should consider other approaches instead.

Hollerith Census Machine Dials, by Marcin Wichary, under CC BY 2.0
The original database: Hollerith Census Machine Dials, by Marcin Wichary, under CC BY 2.0.

I’ve been a user of copyleft/share-alike licenses for a long time, and even helped draft several of them, but I’ve come around to the point of view that copyleft is a poor fit for data. Unfortunately, I’ve been explaining this a lot lately, so I want to explain why in writing. This first post will focus on how the legal system around databases is broken. Later posts will focus on how databases are hard to license, and what we might do about it.

FOSS licensing, and particularly copyleft, relies on legal features database rights lack

Defenders of copyleft often have to point out that copyleft isn’t necessarily anti-copyright, because copyleft depends on copyright. This is true, of course, but the more I think about databases and open licensing, the more I think “copyleft depends on copyright” almost understates the case – global copyleft depends not just on “copyright”, but on very specific features of the international copyright system which database law lacks.

To put it in software terms, the underlying legal platform lacks the features necessary to reliably implement copyleft.

Consider some differences between the copyright system and database law:

  • Maturity: Copyright has had 100 or so years as an international system to work out kinks like “what is a work” or “how do joint authors share rights?” Even software copyright law has existed for about 40 years. In contrast, database law in practice has existed for less  than 20 years, pretty much all of that in Europe, and I can count all the high court rulings on it on my fingers and toes. So key terms, like “substantial”, are pretty hard to define-courts and legislatures simply haven’t defined, or refined, the key concepts. This makes it very hard to write a general-purpose public license whose outcomes are predictable.
  • Stability: Related to the previous point, copyright tends to change incrementally, as long-standing concepts are slowly adapted to new circumstances. (The gradual broadening of fair use in the Google era is a good example of this.) In contrast, since there are so few decisions, basically every decision about database law leads to upheaval. Open Source licenses tend to have a shelf-life of about ten years; good luck writing a database license that means the same thing in ten years as it does today!

  • Global nature: Want to share copyrighted works with the entire world? Copyright (through the Berne Convention) has you covered. Want to share a database? Well, you can easily give it away to the whole world (probably!), but want to reliably put any conditions on that sharing? Good luck! You’ve now got to write a single contract that is enforceable in every jurisdiction, plus a license that works in the EU, Japan, South Korea, and Mexico. As an example again, “substantial” – used in both ODbL and CC 4.0 – is a term from the EU’s Database Directive, so good luck figuring out what it means in a contract in the US or within the context of Japan’s database law.

  • Default rights: Eben Moglen has often pointed out that anyone who attacks the GPL is at a disadvantage, because if they somehow show that the license is legally invalid, then they get copyright’s “default”: which is to say, they don’t get anything. So they are forced to fight about the specific terms, rather than the validity of the license as a whole. In contrast, in much of the world (and certainly in the US), if you show that a database license is legally invalid, then you get database’s default: which is to say, you get everything. So someone who doesn’t want to follow the copyleft has very, very strong incentives to demolish your license altogether. (Unless, of course, the entire system shifts from underneath you to create a stronger default – like it may have in the EU with the Ryanair case.)

With all these differences, what starts off as hard (“write a general-purpose, public-facing license that requires sharing”) becomes insanely difficult in the database context. Key goals of a general-purpose, public license – global, predictable, reliable – are very hard to do.

In  upcoming posts, I’ll try to explain why, even if it were possible to write such a license from a legal perspective, it might not be a good idea because of how databases are used.

Syndicated 2016-09-12 17:22:31 from Blog – Luis Villa: Open Law and Strategy

Free as in … ? My LibrePlanet 2016 talk

Below is the talk I gave at LibrePlanet 2016. The tl;dr version:

  • Learning how political philosophy has evolved since the 1670s shows that the FSF’s four freedoms are good, but not sufficient.
  • In particular, the “capability approach” pioneered by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum is applicable to software, and shows us how to think about improving the capability of people.
  • There are a bunch of ways that free software, as a movement, could refocus on liberating people, not code.

I did not talk about it in the talk (given the audience), but I think this approach is broadly applicable to every software developer who wants to make the world a better place (including usability-inclined developers, open web/standards folks, etc.), not just FSF members.

I was not able to use my speaker notes during the talk itself, so these may not match terribly well with what I actually said on Saturday – hopefully they’re a bit more coherent. Video will be posted here when I have it.

image from talk

Most of you will recognize this phrase as borrowed from the Wikimedia Foundation. Think on it for a few seconds, and how it differs from the Four Freedoms.

free-as-in-what- - 02

I’d like to talk today about code freedom, and what it can learn from modern political philosophy.

free-as-in-what- - 03

Last time I was at Libre Planet, I was talking with someone in a hallway, and I mentioned that Libre Office had crashed several times while I was on the plane, losing some data and making me redo some slides. He insisted that it was better to have code freedom, even when things crashed in a program that I could not fix without reading C++ comments in German. I pointed out, somewhat successfully, that software that was actually reliable freed me to work on my actual slides.

We were both talking about “freedom” but we clearly had different meanings for the word. This was obviously unsatisfying for both of us – out common language/vocabulary failed us.

This is sadly not a rare thing: probably many of us have had the same conversation with parents, friends, co-workers, etc.

So today I wanted to dig into “freedom” – what does it mean and what frameworks do we hang around it.

free-as-in-what- - 04

So why do we need to talk about Freedom and what it means? Ultimately, freedom is confusing. When card-carrying FSF members use it, we mean a very specific thing – the four freedoms. When lots of other people use it, they mean… well, other things. We’ll get into it in more detail soon, but suffice to say that many people find Apple and Google freeing. And if that’s how they feel, then we’ve got a very big communication gap.

free-as-in-what- - 05

I’m not a political philosopher anymore; to the extent I ever was one, it ended when I graduated from my polisci program and… immediately went to work at Ximian, here in Boston.

My goal here today is to show you that when political philosophers talk about freedom, they also have some of the same challenges we do, stemming from some of the same historical reasons. They’ve also gotten, in recent years, to some decent solutions – and we’ll discuss how those might apply to us.

Apologies if any of you are actually political philosophers: in trying to cram this into 30 minutes, we’re going to take some very, very serious shortcuts!

free-as-in-what- - 06

Let’s start with a very brief introduction to political philosophy.

free-as-in-what-07.png

Philosophers of all stripes tend to end up arguing about what is “good”; political philosophers, in particular, tend to argue about what is “just”. It turns out that this is a very slippery concept that has evolved over time. I’ll use it somewhat interchangeably with “freedom” in this talk, which is not accurate, but will do for our purposes.

free-as-in-what-08.png

Ultimately, what makes a philosopher a political philosopher is that once they’ve figured out what justice might be, they then argue about what human systems are the best ways to get us to justice.

free-as-in-what- - 09

In some sense, this is very much an engineering problem: given the state of the world we’ve got, what does a better world look like, and how do we get there? Unlike our engineering problems, of course, it deals with the messy aspects of human nature: we have no compilers, no test-driven-development, etc.

free-as-in-what- - 10

So before Richard Stallman, who were the modern political philosophers?

free-as-in-what- - 11

Your basic “intro to political philosophy” class can have a few starting points. You can do Plato, or you can do Hobbes (the philosopher, not the tiger), but today we’ll start with John Locke. He worked in the late 1600s.

free-as-in-what- - 12

Locke is perhaps most famous in the US for having been gloriously plagiarized by Thomas Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness”. Before that, though, he argued that to understand what justice is, you have to look at what people are missing when they don’t have government. Borrowing from earlier British philosophers (mostly Hobbes), he said (in essence) that when people have no government, everyone steals from – and kills – everyone else. So what is justice? Well, it’s not stealing and killing!

This is not just a source for Jefferson to steal from; it is perhaps the first articulation of the idea that every human being (at least, every white man) is entitled to certain inalienable rights – what are often called the natural rights.

free-as-in-what- - 13

This introduces the idea that individual freedom (to live, to have health, etc.) is a key part of justice.

free-as-in-what- - 14

Locke was forward-thinking enough that he was exiled to the Netherlands at one point. But he was also a creature of his time, and concluded that monarchy could be part of a just system of government, as long as the people “consented” by, well, not immigrating.

This is in some sense pretty backwards, since in 1600s Europe, emigration isn’t exactly easy. But it is also pretty forward looking – his most immediate British predecessor, Hobbes, basically argued that Kings were great. So Locke is one of the first to argue that what the people want (another aspect of what we now think of as individual freedom) is important.

free-as-in-what- - 15

It is important to point out that Locke’s approach is what we’d now call a negative approach to rights: the system (the state, in this case) is obligated to protect you, but it isn’t obliged to give you anything.

Coming from the late 1600s, this is not a crazy perspective – most governments don’t even do these things. For Locke to say “the King should not take your stuff” is pretty radical; to have said “and it should also give you health care” would have also made him the inventor of science fiction. And the landed aristocracy are typically fans!

(Also, apologies to my typographically-sensitive friends; kerning of italicized fonts in Libre Office is poor and I got lazy around here about manually fixing it.)

free-as-in-what- - 16

But this is where Locke starts to fall down to modern ears: if you’re not one of the landed aristocracy; if you’ve got no stuff for the King to take, Locke isn’t doing much for you. And it turns out there are a whole lot of people in 1600s England without much stuff to take.
So let’s fast forward 150+ years.

free-as-in-what- - 17

You all know who Marx is; probably many of you have even been called Marxists at one point or another!

Marx is complicated, and his historical legacy even more so. Let’s put most of that aside for today, and focus on one particular idea we’ve inherited from Marx.

free-as-in-what-18

For our purposes, out of all of Marx, we can focus on the key insight that people other than the propertied class can have needs.(This is not really his insight; but he popularizes it.) I

free-as-in-what 19

Having recognized that humans have needs, Marx then goes on to propose that, in a just society, the individual might not be the only one who has a responsibility to provide those needs – the state, at least when we reach a “higher phase” of economic and moral development, should also provide.

free-as-in-what- - 20

This sounds pretty great on paper, but it is important to grok that Marx argues that his perfect system will happen only when we’ve reached such a high level of economic development that no one will need to work, so everyone will work only on what they love. In other words, he ignores the scarcity we face in the real world. He also ignores inequality – since the revolution will have washed away all starting differences. Obviously, taken to this extreme, this has led to a lot of bad outcomes in the world – which is what gives “marxism” its bad name.

But it is also important to realize that this is better than Locke (who isn’t particularly concerned with inequality), and in practice the idea (properly moderated!) has led to the modern social welfare state. So it is a useful tool in the modern philosophical toolkit.

free-as-in-what- - 21

Fast forward again, another 100 years. Our scene moves down the street, to Harvard. Perhaps the two most important works of political philosophy of the 20th century are written and published within four years of each other, further up Mass Avenue from MIT.

John Rawls publishes his Theory of Justice in 1971; Robert Nozick follows up with his Anarchy, the State, and Utopia in 1974.

free-as-in-what- - 22

Rawls and Nozick, and their most famous books, differ radically in what they think of as justice, and what systems they think lead to the greatest justice. (Nozick is the libertarian’s libertarian; Rawls more of a welfare-state type.) Their systems, and the differences between them, are out of our scope today (though both are fascinating!).

free-as-in-what- - 23

However, both agree, in their ways, that any theory of a just world must grapple with the core fact that modern societies have a variety of different people, with different skills, interests, backgrounds, etc. (This shouldn’t be surprising, given that both were writing in the aftermath of the 60s, which had made so clear to many that our societies were pretty deeply unjust to a lot of people.)

This marks the beginning of the modern age of political philosophy: Locke didn’t care much about differences between people; Marx assumed it away. Nozick and Rawls can be said, effectively, to mark the point when political philosophy starts taking difference seriously.

But that was 40 years ago – what has happened since then?

free-as-in-what- - 24

So that brings us to the 1990s, and also to 2016. (If you haven’t already figured it out, political philosophy tends to move pretty slowly.)

The new-ish hotness in political philosophy is something called capability theory. The first work is put forward by Amartya Sen, an Indian economist working with (among others) the United Nations on how to focus their development work. Martha Nussbaum then picked up the ball, putting in a great deal of work to systematize it.

free-as-in-what- - 25

When Sen starts working on what became capability theory, he’s a development economist trying to help understand how to help improve the lives of his fellow Indian citizens. And he’s worried that a huge focus on GDP is not leading to very good outcomes. He turns to political theory, and it doesn’t help him: it is focused on very abstract systems. John Locke saying “life, liberty, property” and “sometimes monarchs are OK” doesn’t help him target the UN’s investment dollars.

So his question becomes: how do I create a theory of What is Just that actually helps guide decisions in the real world? Capability theory, in other words, is ultimately pragmatic.

free-as-in-what- - 26

To put it another way, you can think of the capability approach as an attempt to figure out what effective freedom is: how do we take freedom out of textbooks and into something that really empowers people?

free-as-in-what- - 27

One of the key flaws for Sen of existing theories was that they talked about giving people at worst, negative rights (protecting their rights to retain property they didn’t have) and at best, giving them resources (giving them things or training they couldn’t take advantage of). He found this unconvincing, because in his experience India’s constitution gave all citizens those formal rights, but often denied them those rights in practice, through poverty, gender discrimination, caste discrimination, etc.

free-as-in-what- - 28

And so from this observation we have the name of the approach: it focuses on what, pragmatically, people need to be capable of acting freely.

free-as-in-what- - 29

Some examples may be helpful here to explain what Sen and Nussbaum are getting at.

free-as-in-what- - 31

For example, if all men and women have the same formal access to education, but women get fewer job callbacks after college than men with identical resumes, or men refuse to care for children and aging parents, then it seems unlikely that we can really claim to have a just society.

free-as-in-what- - 33

Somalia, circa 1995-2000, was, on the face of it, a libertarian paradise: it gave you a lot of freedom to start businesses! No minimum wage, no EPA.

But it turns out you need more than “freedom from government interference” to run a business: you have to have a lot of other infrastructure as well. (Remember, here, Locke’s “negative” rights: government not stopping you, v. government supporting you.)

free-as-in-what- - 34

These examples suggest that answering political philosopher question #1 (“what is justice?”) requires more than just measuring access to resources. What you want to know to understand whether a system is just, you have to measure whether all people have the opportunity to get to the important goals.

In other words, do they have the capability to act?

This is the core insight that the capabilities approach is grounded in: it is helpful, but not enough, to say “someone has the natural rights” (Locke) or “some time in the future everyone will have the same opportunity” (Marx).

(Is any of this starting to ring a bell?)

free-as-in-what- - 35

Capability approach is, again, very pragmatic, and comes from a background of trying to allocate scarce development resources in the real world, rather than a philosopher’s cozy university office. So if you’re trying to answer the political philosopher’s question (“what system”), you need to pick and choose a few capabilities to focus on, and figure out what system will support those capabilities.

free-as-in-what- - 36

Again, an example might be helpful here to show how picking the right things to focus on can be important when you’re aiming to build a system that supports human capability.

free-as-in-what-37

If you focus on only one dimension, you’re going to get things confused. When Sen was beginning his work, the development community tended to focus exclusively on GDP. Comparing the Phillippines and South Africa by this number would have told you to focus your efforts on the Philippines.

free-as-in-what-38

But  one of the most basic requirements to effective freedom – to supporting people’s capability to act – is being alive! When we look at it through that lens, we pretty quickly see that South Africa is worth more energy. It’s critical to look through that broader lens to figure out whether your work is actually building human freedom.

free-as-in-what- - 39

This is, perhaps, the most contentious area of capability theory – it’s where writing is being done across a variety of disciplines, including economics, political philosophy, sociology, and development. This writing has split into two main areas: the pragmatists, who just want to figure out useful tools that help them improve the world, and the theorists, who want to ground the theory in philosophy (sometimes as far back as Aristotle).

This is a great place to raise Martha Nussbaum again: she’s done the most to bring theoretical rigor to the capability approach. (Some people call Sen’s work the “capability approach”, to show that it is just a way of thinking about the problem; and Nussbaum’s work “capability theory”, to show that it is a more rigorous approach.)

free-as-in-what-40

I have bad news: there is no one way of doing this. Some approaches can include:

  • Local nuance: What is valued and important in one culture may not be in another; or different obstacles may exist in different places and times. Nussbaum’s work particularly focuses on this, interviewing people both to find criteria that are particularly relevant to them, but also to attempt to identify global values.
  • Democracy: Some of Sen’s early research showed that democracies were better at getting people food than non-democracies of similar levels of economic development, leading to avoidance of famines. So “what people prioritize based on their votes” is a legitimate way to understand the right capabilities to focus on.
  • Data: you’ll almost never see a table like the one I just showed you in most political philosophy! The capability approach embraces the use of data to supplement our intuitions and research.
  • Old-fashioned philosophizing: it can be perfectly appropriate to sit down, as Richard did, and noodle over our problems. I tend to think that this is particularly important when we’re identifying future capabilities – which is of course our focus here.

Each of these can be seen as overlapping ways of identifying the best issues to identify – all of them will be useful and valid in different domains.

free-as-in-what- - 41

Shared theme of that last slide? Thinking primarily about people. Things are always a means to an end in the capability approach – you might still want to measure them as an important stepping stone to helping people (like GDP!) but they’re never why you do something.

free-as-in-what- - 42

There is no one right way to pick which capabilities to focus on, which drives lots of philosophers mad. We’ll get into this in more detail soon – when I talk about applying this to software.

free-as-in-what- - 43

Probably the bottom line: if you want to know how to get to a more just system, you want to ask about the capabilitiesof the humans who are participating in that system. Freedom is likely to be one of the top things people want – but it’s a means, not the end.

free-as-in-what- - 44

So now we’ve come to the end of the philosophy lecture. What does this mean for those of us who care about software?

free-as-in-what- - 45

So, again, what do political philosophers care about?

free-as-in-what- - 46

The FSF’s four freedoms try to do the right thing and help build a more just world.

free-as-in-what- - 47

If you don’t have some combination of time, money, or programming skills, it isn’t entirely clear the four freedoms do a lot for you.free-as-in-what- - 48

The four freedoms are negative rights: things no one can take away from you. And that has been terrific for our elites: Locke’s landed aristocracy is our Software as a Service provider, glad the King can’t take away his right to run MySQL. But maybe not so much for most human beings.
free-as-in-what- - 49This brings us to our second question – what system?

Inspired by the capability approach, what I would argue that we need is a focus on effective freedom. And that will need not just a change to our focus, but to our systems as well – we need to be pragmatic and inclusive.

free-as-in-what- - 50

free-as-in-what- - 51

So let me offer four suggestions for free software inspired by the capability approach.

free-as-in-what- - 52

free-as-in-what- - 53

We need to start by having empathy for all our users, since our goal should be software that liberates all people.

free-as-in-what- - 54

Like the bureaucrat who increases GDP while his people die young, if we write billions of lines of code, but people are not empowered, we’ve failed. Empathy for others will help us remember that.

free-as-in-what- - 56

Sen, Nussbaum, and the capability approach also remind us that to effectively provide freedom to people we need to draw opinions and information from the broadest possible number of people. That can simply take the form of going and listening regularly to why your friends like the proprietary software they use, or ideally listening to people who aren’t like you about why they don’t use free software. Or it can take the form of surveys or even data-driven research. But it must start with listening to others. Scratching our own itch is not enough if we want to claim we’re providing freedom.

free-as-in-what- - 57

Or to put it another way: our communities need to be as empowering as our licenses. There are lots of great talks this weekend on how to do that – you should go to them, and we should treat that as philosophically as important as our licenses.

free-as-in-what-58

I think it is important to point out that I think the FSF is doing a lot of great work in this area – this is the most diversity I’ve seen at Libre Planet, and the new priorities list covers a lot of great ground here.

free-as-in-what- - 58

But it is also a bad sign that at the new “Open Source and Feelings” conference, which is specifically aimed at building a more diverse FOSS movement, they chose to use the apolitical “open” rather than “free”. That suggests the FSF and free software more generally still have a lot of work to do to shed their reputation as being dogmatic and unwelcoming.

free-as-in-what- - 59

Which brings me to #2: just as we have to listen to others, we have to be self-critical about our own shortcomings, in order to grapple with the broad range of interests those users might have.

free-as-in-what- - 60

At the begining of this talk, I talked about my last visit to Libre Planet, and how hard it was to have a conversation about the disempowerment I felt when Libre Office crashed. The assumption of the very well-intentioned young man I was talking to was that of course I was more free when I had access to code. And in a very real way, that wasn’t actually true – proprietary software that didn’t crash was actually more empowering to me than libre software that did crash. And this isn’t just about crashing/not-crashing.

free-as-in-what- - 61

Ed Snowden reminded us this morning that Android is freely-licensed, but that doesn’t mean it gives them the capability to live a secure life.

free-as-in-what- - 62

Again, here, FSF has always done some of the right thing! You all recognize this quote: it’s from freedom zero. We often take pride in this, and we should!

But we also often say “we care about users” but only test what the license is. I’ve never seen someone say “this is not free, because it is impossible to use” – it is too easy, and too frequent, to say “well, the license says you can run the program as you wish, so it passes freedom zero”. We should treat that as a failure to be humble about.

free-as-in-what- - 63

Humility means admitting our current. unidimensional systems aren’t great at empowering people. The sooner we admit that freedom is complex, and goes beyond licensing, the quicker we can build better systems.

free-as-in-what- - 64

The third theme of advice I’d give is to think about impact. Again, this stems from the fundamental pragmatism of the capability approach. A philosophy that is internally consistent, but doesn’t make a difference for people, is not a useful philosophy. We need to take that message to heart.

free-as-in-what- - 65

Mako Hill’s quantitative research has shown us that libre code doesn’t necessarily mean quality code, or sucessful projects. If we want to impact users, we have to understand why our core development tools are no longer best-in-class, and fix them, or develop new models to replace them.

free-as-in-what- - 66

We built CVS, SVN, and git, and we used those tools to build some of the most widely-used pieces of software on earth. But it took the ease of use of github to make this accessible to millions of developers.

free-as-in-what- - 67

Netsplit.de is a search engine for IRC services. Even if both of these numbers are off by a factor of two (say, because of private networks missing from the IRC count, and if Slack is inflating user counts), it still suggests Slack will have more users than IRC this year. We need to think about why that is, and why free software like IRC hasn’t had the impact we’d like it to.

If we’re serious about spreading freedom, this sort of “post-mortem” of our successes and failures is not optional – it is a mandatory part of our commitment to freedom.

free-as-in-what- - 68

I’ve mentioned that democracy is one way of choosing what capabilities to focus on, and is typically presumed in serious analyses of the capability approach – the mix of human empowerment and (in Sen’s analysis) better pragmatic impact make it a no-brainer.

A free software focused on impact could make free licensing a similar no-brainer in the software world.

free-as-in-what- - 69

Dan Gillmor told us this morning that “I came for the technical excellence and stayed for the freedom”: as both he and Edward Snowden said this morning, we have to have broaden our definition of technical excellence to include usability and pragmatic empowerment. When we do that, our system – the underlying technology of freedom – can lead to real change.

free-as-in-what- - 70

This is the last, and hardest, takeaway I’ll have for the day.

free-as-in-what- - 71

We’ve learned from the capability approach that freedom is nuanced, complex, and human-focused. The four freedoms, while are brief, straightforward, and easy to apply, but those may not be virtues if our goal is to increase user freedom.

free-as-in-what- - 72

As I’ve said a few times, the four freedoms are like telling you the king can’t take your property: it’s not a bad thing, but it also isn’t very helpful if you don’t have any property.

We need to re-interpret “run the program as you wish” in a more positive light, expanding our definitions to speak to the concerns about usability and security that users have.

free-as-in-what- - 73

free-as-in-what- - 74

The capability approach provides us with questions – where do we focus? – but not answers. So it suggests we need to go past licensing, but doesn’t say where those other areas of focus might be. Here are some suggestions for what directions we might evolve free software in.

free-as-in-what- - 75

Learning from Martha Nussbaum and usability researchers, we could work with the next generation of software users to understand what they want, need, and deserve from effective software freedom.

free-as-in-what- - 76

We could learn from other organizations, like UNICEF, who have built design and development principles. The graphic here is from UNICEF’s design principles, where they talk about how they will build software that improves freedom for their audience.

It includes talk about source code – as part of a coherent whole of ten principles, not an end in and of itself.

free-as-in-what- - 77

Many parts of our community (including FSF!) have adopted codes of conduct or similar policies. We could draw on the consistent themes in these documents to identify key values that should take their place alongside the four freedoms.

free-as-in-what- - 78

Finally, we can vote with our code: we should be contributing where we feel we can have the most impact on user freedom, not just code freedom. That is a way of giving our impact: we can give our time only to projects that empower all users. In my ideal world, you come away determined to focus on projects that empower all people, not just programmers.

free-as-in-what- - 01

Ultimately, this is my vision, and why I remain involved in free software – I want to see people who are liberated. I hope after this talk you all understand why, and are motivated to help it happen.
Thanks for listening.

Further reading:

Image sources and licenses (deck itself is CC BY-SA 4.0):

 

 

Syndicated 2016-03-23 19:12:26 from Blog – Luis Villa

The All Writs Act on Wikipedia v. legal academic reach

Legal friends! The world needs you. Here’s the graph of readership of All Writs Act on Wikipedia:

Pageviews Analysis-All Writs ActThat’s 45,035 reads yesterday (by humans, not bots).((Big thanks to the tech team for figuring out how to differentiate – not something we could do until fairly recently, at least for public stats!)) That would put it 5th on SSRN’s all-time legal download list, right between William Landes and Cass Sunstein. Not bad company! Or in other words: anything you fix in this article in the next day or two is likely to be the most-read thing you ever write.

The article has been edited 39 times since the Apple letter was published. So it is a lot better than two days ago. But it could still use a lot of love – history, applicability outside of the Apple situation, etc. Contribute!

Since lawyers are particularly concerned about citation, it is worth mentioning that the editing experience especially when adding citations has become vastly better in the past year – in most cases for articles on SSRN, simply dropping the link into our citation editor will get you a fully-fleshed out and formatted citation (with thanks to our friends at Zotero!)

 

Syndicated 2016-02-18 19:09:09 from Blog – Luis Villa

Reinventing FOSS user experiences: a bibliography

There is a small genre of posts around re-inventing the interfaces of popular open source software; I thought I’d collect some of them for future reference:

Recent:

Older:

The first two (Drupal, WordPress) are particularly strong examples of the genre because they directly grapple with the difficulty of change for open source projects. I’m sure that early Firefox and VE discussions also did that, but I can’t find them easily – pointers welcome.

Other suggestions welcome in comments.

Syndicated 2016-02-10 16:13:14 from Blog – Luis Villa

Software that liberates people: feels about FSF@30 and OSFeels@1

tl;dr: I want to liberate people ; software is a (critical) tool to that end. There is a conference this weekend that understands that, but I worry it isn’t FSF’s.

Feelings are facts, by wrote, CC BY 2.0

This morning, social network chatter reminded me of FSF‘s 30th birthday celebration. These travel messages were from friends who I have a great deal of love and respect for, and represent a movement to which I essentially owe my adult life.

Despite that, I had lots of mixed feels about the event. I had a hard time capturing why, though.

While I was still processing these feelings, late tonight, Twitter reminded me of a new conference also going on this weekend, appropriately called Open Source and Feelings. (I badly wanted to submit a talk for it, but a prior commitment kept me from both it and FSF@30.)

I saw the OSFeels agenda for the first time tonight. It includes:

  • Design and empathy (learning to build open software that empowers all users, not just the technically sophisticated)
  • Inclusive development (multiple talks about this, including non-English, family, and people of color) (so that the whole planet can access, and participate in developing, open software)
  • Documentation (so that users understand open software)
  • Communications skills (so that people feel welcome and engaged to help develop open software)

This is an agenda focused on liberating human beings by developing software that serves their needs, and engaging them in the creation of that software. That is incredibly exciting. I’ve long thought (following Sen and Nussbaum’s capability approach) that it is not sufficient to free people; they must be empowered to actually enjoy the benefits of that freedom. This is a conference that seems to get that, and I can’t wait to go (and hopefully speak!) next year.

The Free Software Foundation event’s agenda:

  • licenses
  • crypto
  • boot firmware
  • federation

These are important topics. But there is clearly a difference in focus here — technology first, not people. No mention of community, or of design.

This difference in focus is where this morning’s conflicted feels came from. On the one hand, I support FSF, because they’ve done an incredible amount to make the world a better place. (OSFeels can take open development for granted precisely because FSF fought so many battles about source code.) But precisely because I support FSF, I’d challenge it, in the next 15 years, to become more clearly and forcefully dedicated to liberating people. In this world, FSF would talk about design, accessibility, and inclusion as much as licensing, and talk about community-building protocols as much as communication protocols. This is not impossible: LibrePlanet had at least some people-focused talks (e.g.), and inclusion and accessibility are a genuine concern of staff, even if they didn’t rise to today’s agenda. But it would still be a big change, because at the deepest level, it would require FSF to see source code as just one of many requirements for freedom, rather than “the point of free software“.

At the same time, OSFeels is clearly filled with people who see the world through a broad, thoughtful ethical lens. It is a sad sign, both for FSF and how it is perceived, that such a group uses the deliberately apolitical language of openness rather than the language of a (hopefully) aligned ethical movement — free software. I’ll look forward to the day (maybe FSF’s 45th (or 31st!) birthday) that both groups can speak and work together about their real shared concern: software that liberates people. I’d certainly have no conflicted feelings about signing up for a conference on that :)

Syndicated 2015-10-03 06:22:27 from Luis Villa » Blog

Wikimania 2015 – random thoughts and observations

Random thoughts from Wikimania, 2015 edition (2013, 2014):

"Wikimania 2015 Reception at Laboratorio Arte Alameda - 02" by Jarek Tuszynski,  under CC BY 4.0
Wikimania 2015 Reception at Laboratorio Arte Alameda – 02” by Jarek Tuszynski, under CC BY 4.0
  • Dancing: After five Wikimedia events (not counting WMF all-hands) I was finally dragged onto the dance floor on the last night. I’ll never be Garfield, but I had fun anyway. The amazing setting did not hurt.
  • Our hosts: The conference was excellently organized and run. I’ve never had Mexico City high on my list of “places I must see” but it moved up many spots after this trip.
  • First timers: I always enjoy talking to people who have never been to Wikimania before. They almost always seem to have enjoyed it, but of course the ones I talk to are typically the ones who are more outgoing and better equipped to enjoy things. I do hope we’re also being welcome to people who don’t already know folks, or who aren’t as outgoing.
  • Luis von Ahn: Good to chat briefly with my long-ago classmate. I thought the Q&A section of his talk was one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. There were both good questions and interesting answers, which is more rare than it should be.

“More than half of @duolingo‘s engineers work on figuring how to engage our users.” –@LuisvonAhn #Wikimania2015 pic.twitter.com/RU3nCqHoDY

— Moiz Syed (@MoizSyed) July 18, 2015

  • Keynotes: I’d love to have one keynote slot each year for a contributor to talk about their work within the movement. Finding the right person would be a challenge, of course, as could language barriers, but it seems like it should be doable.
  • US English: I was corrected on my Americanisms and the occasional complexity of my sentence structure. It was a good reminder that even for fairly sophisticated speakers of English as a second language, California-English is not terribly clear. This is especially true when spoken. Verbose slides can help, which is a shame, since I usually prefer minimal slides. I will try to work on that in the future, and see how we can help other WMFers do the same.
  • Mobile: Really hope someday we can figure out how to make the schedule legible on a mobile device :) Good reminder we’ve got a long way to go there.
  • Community engagement: I enjoyed my departments “engage with” session, but I think next year we need to make it more interactive—probably with something like an introduction/overview followed by a World Cafe-style discussion. One thing we did right was to take questions on written cards. This helped indicate what the most important topics were (when questions were repeated), avoided the problem of lecture-by-question, and opened the floor to people who might otherwise be intimidated because of language barriers or personality. Our booth was also excellent and I’m excited to see some of the stories that came out of it.
  • Technology and culture: After talking about how we’d used cards to change the atmosphere of a talk, someone deliberately provoked me: shouldn’t we address on-wiki cultural issues the same way, by changing the “technology” used for discussion? I agree that technology can help improve things, and we should think about it more than we do (e.g.) but ultimately it can only be part of the solution – our most difficult problems will definitely require work on culture as well as interfaces. (Surprisingly, my 2009 post on this topic holds up pretty well.)
  • Who is this for? I’ve always felt there was some tension around whether the conference is for “us” or for the public, but never had language for it. An older gentleman who I spoke with for a while finally gave me the right term: is it an annual meeting or is it a public conference? Nothing I saw here changed my position, which is that it is more annual meeting than public conference, at least until we get much better at turning new users into long-term users.
  • Esino Lario looks like it will be a lot of fun. I strongly support the organizing committee’s decision to focus less on brief talks and more on longer, more interactive conversations. That is clearly the best use of our limited time together. I’m also excited that they’re looking into blind submissions (which I suggested in my Wikimania post from last year).
  • Being an exec: I saw exactly one regular talk that was not by my department, though I did have lots and lots of conversations. I’m still not sure how I feel about this tradeoff, but I know it will become even harder if we truly do transition to a model with more workshops/conversations and fewer lectures, since those will be both more valuable and more time-consuming/less flexible.
  • Some day: I wrote most of this post in the Mexico City airport, and saw that there are flights from there to La Habana. I hope someday we can do a Wikimania there.

Syndicated 2015-07-23 03:12:54 from Luis Villa » Blog

What tools are changing our world next?

Quick brain dump after a bike ride home: free software took a huge leap in the late 90s and early 00s in large part because of non-ideological advantages that the rest of the world is now competing with or surpassing:

HDR automatically created from old pictures of Muir Woods by Google Photos.
HDR automatically created by Google Photos from my old pictures of Muir Woods. Not perfect, but better than I ever bothered to do!
  • Collaboration tools: Because we got to the ‘net first, our tools for collaborating with each other were simply better than what proprietary developers were doing: cvs, mailman, wiki, etc., were all better than the silo’d old-school tools. Modern best-of-breed collaboration tools have all learned from what we did and added proprietary sauce on top: github, slack, Google Docs, etc. So our tools that are now (at best) as productive as our proprietary counterparts, and sometimes less productive but ideologically agreeable.
  • Release processes: “Release early/release often” made us better partners for our users. We’re now actively behind here: compare how often a mobile app or web user gets updates, exactly as the author intended, relative to a user of a modern Linux distro.
  • Zero cost: We did things for no (direct) cost by subsidizing our work through college, startups, or consulting gigs; now everyone has a subsidize-by-selling-something-else model (usually advertising, though sometimes freemium). Again, advantage (mostly?) lost.
  • Knowing our users: We knew a lot about our users, because we were our biggest users, and we talked to other users a lot; this was more effective than what passed for software design in the late 90s. This has been eclipsed by extensive a/b testing throughout the industry, and (to a lesser extent) by more extensive usage of direct user testing and design-thinking.

None of these are terribly original observations – all of these have been remarked on before. But after playing some with Google Photos this weekend, I’m ready to add another one to the list:

Worth asking what your project is doing that could be radically changed if your competitors get access to new technology. For example, for Wikipedia:

  • Collaborating: Wiki was best-of-breed (or close); it isn’t anymore. Visual Editor helps get editing back to par, but the social aspect of collaboration is still lacking relative to the expectations of many users.
  • Knowledge creation: big groups of humans, working together wiki-style, is the state of the art for creating useful, non-BS knowledge at scale. With the aforementioned machine learning, I suspect this will no longer the case in a (growing) number of domains.

I’m sure there are others…

Syndicated 2015-06-06 15:00:06 from Luis Villa » Blog

705 older entries...

New Advogato Features

New HTML Parser: The long-awaited libxml2 based HTML parser code is live. It needs further work but already handles most markup better than the original parser.

Keep up with the latest Advogato features by reading the Advogato status blog.

If you're a C programmer with some spare time, take a look at the mod_virgule project page and help us with one of the tasks on the ToDo list!