Crowdsourcing political activism

politicalactivistThe Arab Spring was largely touted as the dawn of a new age of social media driven activism, whereby people would no longer require official channels to communicate and co-ordinate their efforts, with social and mobile platforms giving them a speed and reach that was hitherto unavailable to them.  Alas, despite the fanfare that heralded the Arab Spring, the movement kind of petered out, with results far from those expected at the outset.

As with many new ages however, a new and better equipped version may evolve in its stead.  Central to this is a new platform created by Advancing Human Rights.  The tool, called Movements.org, provides a website whereby dissidents and activists can tap into a network of lawyers, publicists, advocates and journalists to help them on all manner of tasks.  For instance, activists can obtain support publicising their endeavours or in seeking asylum in another country.

The project began with seed funding from Google, and aims to be a game changer in areas such as human rights activism.

“It’s like a whole new world,” former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky said. “A dissident can connect himself to practically all the world. In two seconds, a dissident can give all the information he wants to give but also to make connections and to reach to the right advocates in the free world. If we had this tool back in my day, I think the Soviet Union would not have been able to exist as long as it did, because they had to control all of this kind of information.”

Despite the site still being in testing a number of activists have already signed up.  David Keyes, executive director of Advancing Human Rights hopes that the site will perform a valuable role in removing the need for a middle man.

“There’s an awful lot of human rights activists and dissidents who are desperate for help and this platform can play a key role in helping connect those most in need with individuals with skills,” he said. “Engaging individuals around the world in standing up for dissidents around the world can be a force multiplier to protect and advance human rights in closed societies.”

Now, it goes without saying that central to the premise of the site is the ability of activists to navigate their way around censors to the site in the first place, which may be no mean feat in itself.  Once on the site however it will hopefully provide them with a ready and accessible network of support to help them in their endeavours.

How to transmit power through your words

powerfulcommunicationIt’s easy to believe that power and influence can be communicated via your status within your oganization, or perhaps the salary you earn.  A new study suggests however that power can be something much more under our own control.

The study explored how the way we communicate with one another can signal our explicit and implicit power.  The study wanted to look specifically at how specific we are when we speak.  The research built upon previous studies that have suggested that powerful people tend to use more abstract language, such as in vision statements for instance.

The researchers conducted a number of experiments, whereby participants were presented with a variety of speeches given across a variety of contexts.  They were asked to evaluate the individual making the speech on each occasion according to traits such as their power, warmth, competence and thinking style.

One study for instance saw participants reading quotes made by political candidates about current events, such as for instance the state of the economy or the situation in the middle east.  The participants were then asked to give their opinion of the politician, who was unnamed, based upon the style used when communicating rather than the message itself.

Across all seven of the experiments, those who had communicated using abstract language that covered the broad sense of an event rather than its exact details were regarded by those who read their message as more powerful.  Interestingly however, there was much less consensus over traits such as warmth and competence.

The researchers suggest that the findings could provide some important insight to people in business, as well as politics, who want to project a powerful image. Speakers who use concrete terms to show off their knowledge will likely come across as less powerful, and therefore less able to lead.

“Rather than focusing just on speaking to the right kind of people, or covering the right topics, we suggest it is important to think about the words one uses,” they conclude.

Parking spaces and the crowd

parking-spaceThe application of crowds for the efficient allocation of car parking spaces has been something of a hot topic in recent weeks.  Central to the hubub has been a stir created by peer to peer apps MonkeyParking and ParkModo, who have both been embroiled in legal issues surrounding their operations.

If you haven’t heard of the apps, they both attempt to improve the information surrounding parking availability.  MonkeyParking for instance, allows users to bid between $5 and $20 to secure parking spaces that are about to be vacated by fellow users.  The fuss around their operation revolves around whether they are selling an asset that does not belong to them (the parking space), or merely information about that parking space.

San Francisco’s city attorney Dennis Herrera is currently firmly in the former camp, and has ordered the company to cease operating on the city’s streets or face a lawsuit.  There has been much debate about the veracity and suitability of such apps, but one thing that does appear clear is that they are servicing a need in areas where prices are often below their market clearing level.

A study, published recently by researchers from the University of Florida, explored this issue in its analysis of crowdsourcing applications for the location of vacant car parking spaces.  Their experiment requested that users browse parking spaces on the campus and tag them as either full, half empty or empty.

This data was then fed into an algorithm, which would combine with the trustworthiness of each user to predict the vacancy of a particular slot.  Central to the experiment was the creation of a smartphone app that would allow users to report on the occupancy level of parking spaces.

The San Francisco courts may put a stop to MonkeyParking, but it seems that innovation in this area is inevitable, as the availability of parking spaces throughout the urban landscape is likely to remain a problem for sometime to come.

Would a self service cafe work near you?

juist-self-serveEarlier this year on a trip to the Czech Republic with my other half we visited a friend near Cesky Raj (Czech Paradise).  The area is beautiful by the way and is typified by multiple stone columns carved out of the landscape over the years that are equally popular amongst sightseers and rock climbers alike.

Anyway, in one of the villages nearby was a kind of self-service beer garden.  It had a couple of beer pumps and a grill for cooking sausages (and buns to put them into).  There were a range of sausages in the fridge to choose from, and washing facilities to make sure you had a clean glass to drink from.  There were no staff to be seen, with patrons provided a recommended price for their food and drink, but no means of enforcing that.

Suffice to say, the place was one of those hidden gems that is only really findable if you are friends with a knowledgeable local, as it certainly doesn’t appear in any tourist guides.  Anyway, the place was nice and busy when we were there, and it all worked like clockwork, with people paying the recommended amount, washing up after themselves, and generally being very good ‘guests’.

Similar ventures are beginning to spring up around the world.  One of the latest being The Vault, in North Dakota.  It’s a cafe without any staff, which runs along the same lines as the bar I mentioned earlier.  Customers have to make their own drinks, and pay whatever they like.

The coffee is made via a Keurig K-Cup machine, and the venue also offers soft drinks and packaged snacks.  There is no limit on what customers can consume, with the recommended price board the only guidance given as to how much they should pay for their fare.  As with my Bohemian example, and indeed similar honesty based ventures around the world, it’s typically the case that people pay at least what is recommended, with the average payment being 15% higher than the prices given on the menu.

In a world where cynicism can often pervade, it’s nice to see examples such as this springing up around the world.  Long may they continue.

Eli Lilly bring gamification to drug development

destinationdiscoveryThere have numerous initiatives aiming to deploy gamification principles to scientific endavours in recent years.  I’ve written about a few of these games on the blog before, with Phylo produced by McGill in a bid to increase the understanding of genetic research.  Eyewire is a similar effort, this time produced by MIT, that aims to further understanding of neuroscience.  Both have proved pretty successful, generating well over 100,000 players each in a short space of time.

Arguably the most powerful however is a game called EteRNA that aims to get citizens carrying out experiments on the folding behaviours of RNA molecules.  This game is unique in that it connects gamers with an actual biochemistry lab.

What each of those efforts have in common is that they use games to engage players in proper scientific research, with the results significantly boosting understanding.  A slightly more light hearted use of games in the scientific world emerged recently courtesy of pharma company Eli Lilly, who released an online game called Destination Discovery.

The game is less about helping scientific research as supporting understanding of the research process.  Players begin the game by receiving background information on the drug development process.  Once they have selected their character from the six available, you are on your way, charting your journey across the board via rolls of a dice.  After each turn you answer a question about the drug development process, with each one accompanied by links for the player to learn more on the topic.

It isn’t the most challenging of games, and the shelf-life of playing it may be rather short, but it might provide a relatively easy and simple way for people to gain a bit more insight into the drug development process.

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