Bjelkeman's travel notes

Travels with the cloud in my pocket.

Law is hard. Code is harder. Why new internet and software architecture will define the future of society

From left: Lawrence Lessig, Vinay Gupta, Srikant Nadhamuni. Picture of VInay by @charmermar, the other two by me.

Something which Vinay Gupta said the other day brought together several strands in my head. Vinay called it Foreign Policy by Internet Protocol. It is short enough to be quoted in full:

Foreign Policy by Internet Protocol
1. 5.1 billion cell phones, soon to be 7 billion smart phones on 3G networks
2. increasingly valuable services delivered over international borders, like Google
3. global shared knowledge bases like wikipedia or satellite maps
4. telemedicine, tele-engineering, micro-consultancy, social media and so on as the tools spread into new areas of life

Non-state actors conducting FPIP include WikiLeaks, Appropedia and many other groups. Currently it’s not at all clear that any state has begun to effectively deliver FPIP.

Vinay Gupta, Foreign Policy by Internet Protocol (2011) [1]

If you combine the thought that our communications infrastructure is going to start dictate how we think about the world with what Laurence Lessig says: “The Code is the Law”. Then a number of things which are going on in the world today can be seen in a very different perspective than what you see in your average newspaper opinion piece.

Of course, Lessig was years ahead of me thinking about this, in his piece The Code is the Law from 1999 he says [2]:

“The single most significant change in the politics of cyberspace is the coming of age of this simple idea: The code is law. The architectures of cyberspace are as important as the law in defining and defeating the liberties of the Net.”
Lawrence Lessig, The Code is the Law (1999)

The Code is the Law

Consider the example of copying of copyrighted works. You break a multitude of rules and laws if you copy a copyrighted work. Some countries are trying to implement some pretty draconian laws to stop copying over the internet, like the three strikes and your are cut off laws [3], which are met with quite a lot of resistance at the moment. But that hasn’t really stopped anyone from actually breaking these laws. The flow of information over peer-to-peer (P2P) networks is increasing and new laws seem to have short term effect on peoples behavior [4].

Google holds billions of images on their giant server farms with caches of images from web sites. According to the letter of the law they are breaking the copyright law when doing that. YouTube’s HTML 5 trials made it possible to download every video on YouTube to your computer (they seem to have disabled that again) and there is an enormous amount of material which breaks the copyright laws and rules on YouTube. There are some ongoing big lawsuits against Google, who owns YouTube, but in essence, for most people and companies YouTube is more useful than it is a threat, despite what the law says. Add to this that the function of the internet requires that you make a copy of a web page or a picture to actually view it on your computer, and it is trivial to copy it from the web browser cache to save it for later.

In short, the architecture of the internet has a stronger influence on how people behave than what the law says, as long as the majority of the people see a significant benefit.

The extension of this is that software architecture starts defining how our society behaves. Furthermore, I think that internet architects and coders who build useful systems, may in the long run, have a bigger influence on our future society than politicians and the traditional power-brokers have. Why do I believe this?

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Filed under: India, ITC technology, Social and economic policy

Identifying more than a billion Indians, another take on Gov 2.0

Image: Gireesh G V for Forbes India

Srikant Nadhamuni, tech lead for the Indian UID project. Image: Gireesh G V for Forbes India

The Indian UID project is very interesting to me, as the work they are doing is done on an enormous scale. There are other systems which reach this scale, and arguably are more complex than this (Facebook for example), but it is still impressive.

“By 2014, the government wants half of India’s population to be allotted UID numbers. To do that, the Authority will photograph a staggering 600 million Indians, scan 1.2 billion irises, collect six billion fingerprints and record 600 million addresses.”

Read more in this rather good Forbes India article. Another article about this was published on the Economist yesterday (although together with my friend Gabriel I am still pondering what the 14 billion transactions per second actually mean).

Whilst a country like Sweden, where I live, is struggling with a hodge-podge of identification services to be used online as well as offline, India isn’t only going to launch an online system of staggering scale, it is also going to leapfrog our old systems in a giant leap. Once they are up to speed with issuing IDs they could issue biometric IDs to the Swedish population in just over a week. At peak they expect to issue 1 million IDs per day.

Srikanth and my wife Anke taking a break during the bicycle ride on the outskirts of Bengaluru, buying some coconuts from a street vendor. January 2010.

A friend of mine, Srikanth Nadhamuni, leads the technical development from the Indian government side and it is really rather interesting to talk about the implications for this system with him.

One aspect which doesn’t get much coverage is that they are going to use the UID system to facilitate very inexpensive money transfers for people. This is in a country where a lot of people, maybe even most of them (hundreds of millions of people) don’t actually have a bank account at all today.

Another aspect which is interesting is that the team started the development in a way which would be very familiar to many Hacker News readers. They worked out of an apartment in Bangalore, where several team members lived as well as worked, in a true startup atmosphere. Software companies, like MS and Goggle would show up with teams and end up sitting around the kitchen table or on the spare bench from the hallway to participate in sessions where the project was being discussed.

They have software volunteers, expat-Indians, coming in from all over the world to work on the project, the top level people behave just like any other software startup entrepreneur you would expect, sitting up to 4am in the morning doing code reviews, walking into a room and asking: How’s it going? Not the usual bureaucratic India you would expect.

If I wasn’t working on what I work on right now I would probably have been a volunteer on the project myself, if they would have had me that is. 🙂

Edit: I have written about the UID project before, but it was quite short.

Filed under: India, ITC technology, Social and economic policy

Video conferencing for better virtual organisations

A few of the Akvo team using EVO during a meeting.

I work in a virtual organisation, called Akvo Foundation. The Economist describes virtual organisations as having “an almost infinite variety of structures, all of them fluid and changing”. Some virtual organisations have no or few employees, others have no offices, premises or physical assets, some are not even formal organisations but groups of organisations or people working together. Akvo technically has no office and no staff, but we are 12+ people who work for Akvo and some of us sit in offices. (I did describe how this works in some detail in an earlier post.) This can be somewhat of a challenge at times, especially when you can’t see each other face to face.

Several in the Akvo team have worked together previously in other organisations. Ten years ago we had people in San Francisco and Stockholm at times, and we used AXIS web cameras and speakerphones to get something which resembled a video conference. The hardware was relatively expensive and the result was not great. But it made a difference to be able to see the people you were talking to, despite the video quality being really poor most of the time. In fact, it made such an impact on us that I have been hunting for the perfect “virtual office video wall” tools ever since. With a vision of having a video wall which constantly shows the other offices.

Since we started Akvo in 2007 we have been using iChat and Skype for video conferencing. iChat when you need 2-4 computers hoooked up and Skype when you only want to do two computers. Our experience with this is somewhat mixed. iChat, which we use with AIM accounts (as we don’t have to pay for them) often has trouble with the central servers for setting up standard text chats, but we feel that the user interface for the chat client is better, than say Skype, so we persist in using it. iChat often also has trouble setting up video connections, which I think is related to the uPnP services in the routers we are using. It is not surprising that Apple seems to have decided to retire the iChat software and replace it with Facetime instead, which is now available on both the iPhone/iPad/iPod Tourch and in beta on the Mac. Skype tends to be more reliable, but alas, is only available on the Mac for two party conferencing today. (Skype is beta testing multi-part video calls at the moment, but alas, it is only on Windows.)

So on and off I have been looking at a number of different alternatives, most which were not really very attractive for a small non-profit like ours. Many video conferencing systems cost an arm and a leg and require dedicated hardware, like those from Cisco and Tandberg. Others want a monthly services fee for a service which often isn’t better than Apple’s iChat, which is free.

One intriguing alternative was AccessGrid, which is open source software used by a number of academic institutions for large scale video conference solutions. However, AccesGrid isn’t really suitable for us, as you need multi-cast capability at every node to really take advantage of the tools AccessGrid offers, which the ISPs we use don’t offer. There are multi-cast bridges you can use, and recent versions of AccessGrid have unicast tools, but they are not ideal. Add to this that the AccessGrid development for Mac OS X is rather slow to put out functional versions, which is our main desktop/laptop OS at Akvo, this turned out to not be an attractive solution.

Recently we have been using EVO from Caltech. EVO is free, runs on a number of different operating systems (it is developed in Java) and can do multiple party video conferencing. I don’t actually know of how many, but we have been connecting up to seven nodes so far. Echo cancellation for audio in EVO isn’t great, so we are using Skype for the audio part of a meeting. EVO has a text chat function too, but we didn’t like it much. In fact, we are using iChat for the text back-channel, Skype for the audio and EVO for the video section. It is kind of messy, but it works. Every morning one of us creates a new private “room” in EVO for Akvo (they last until midnight unless you extend them for 24 hours, but then they go away). We log in with three dedicated computers every morning. One in the Akvo Hague office, one in my home office and one in the Akvo London office. Each computer has dedicated monitor for the video conference. Anyone else in the team can check in at any time, either just looking or also turning on their camera as well. It is a bit like someone coming up to the meeting room you are in and looking through the door.

It actually makes a big difference to our virtual office environment, where I can just glance over at the big screen, which I have at one end of my office, and see if the Dutch contingent has gone for lunch yet or if they are still working. It changes the dynamic how I interact with my colleagues a lot, in a positive way. It is easier to understand that someone is busy and doing good work, when you can actually see them. However, I don’t think it is the same for all of us. Generally our programmers could have EVO on and running most of the time, but they tend to only use it during our weekly meeting. I also turn the big monitor off quite a lot, even though I leave the camera running, as a way to not be distracted by what is going on in my peripheral vision when I am working on something.

But overall, adding a permanent video feed to our virtual office has been a positive step forward. If you have colleagues you work with a lot, but would like to see more often, I would recommend that you experiment with it. The only thing you need is a computer with a webcam (any recently new Mac has one, and you can buy one for a PC for 30 Euro). EVO is free, for now.

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Filed under: ITC technology

Crowd-sourced books, a passing fad?

SSWC-boken at Sweden Social Web Camp 2010

“SSWC-boken at Sweden Social Web Camp 2010 by bisonblog, on Flickr

Most recently I have been participating in two crowd sourced books and picked up the results of a third. The first one I got prompted to contribute to is The Future We Deserve, @theFWD, which is organised by Vinay Gupta, @leashless. TheFWD essays are supposed to be about the future and about 500 words long, with a goal of 100 essays in 100 days. TheFWD has not been published yet, but you can help make it happen.

The second book, which I contributed to, got delivered into my hand at Swedish Social Web Camp #SSWC over the weekend. The book is called SSWC-boken 2010/The SSWC-book 2010. The contributors were mostly people who went to the #SSWC un-conference, who could contribute something new or something old which they had published before. The goal was to have the book available by the time #SSWC started. The initiative for the SSWC-boken was taken by Mattias Boström, @mattiasb, who works for the publisher Piratförlaget, @piratforlaget.

The third book, that I didn’t contribute to, which I was given a copy of at #SSWC, is called Intangible Artifacts. The brief for this book was loose, but focused around the urban environment. It was worked on by a number of people but the instigator was Martin Palacios, @palace, who works at Veidekke Bostad, a property developer.

Intangible Artifacts

"Intangible Artifacts" delas ut av @palace #sswc #digitalstorytelling

The three books have been put together using rather different approaches. The brief about Intangible Artifacts went out to the community that follows the #SSWC event, probably a couple of thousand people, with a narrow brief with, what I feel, an implicit goal of getting some quality essays written. The result is a slick book in full colour, with good essays following the subject matter around the urban landscape, with a fairly strong connection to social media. Resulting in 24 essays covering 78 pages. The quality of the production is what you would expect of a fairly edgy print magazine. They had a “zero” budget for the book, but I think Veidekke paid for the printing. The books were given away for free. Supposedly there are still some copies left. Otherwise you can read it online.


The brief for SSWC-boken was a lot wider. Essentially a short piece written by yourself. Again the call for essays went out to the community that follows #SSWC. The result is a thick book, with 180 essays making up 590 pages. The book is printed on-demand in black and white, it demonstrates to me how far the on-demand printing business have come, it feels solid. I haven’t read much of it yet, but people who have tell me that it is both serious and laughter inducing, and feels like a good cross-section of what the social web is like in Sweden in 2010. Piratförlaget paid for the printing, and asked everyone who wanted to buy a book at #SSWC to pay the printing cost, 100 kr, about 10 Euro. They are now selling the book online for 125 kr plus shipping. Go on, it is the Swedish social web book of the year, buy it!

The Future We Deserve

The Future We Deserve had in many ways a much narrower brief than both of these books. Writing a meaningful piece about the future in 500 words is pretty hard. This essentially meant that most people had to write something from scratch, or condense some earlier writing. I also think that the context means that people think carefully about what they write. These 500 words will follow you around for a long time and show how wrong you were. 🙂 #TheFWD is still being assembled and the funding for putting together the book is being crowd-sourced via Kickstarter. I would encourage you to contribute to the book, either with an essay, a couple of bucks or both. I know it is going to be worth it!

Different approaches

I think the main difference between these books were that TheFWD is worked on by a group of people that are unlikely to see each other in the flesh anytime soon. The SSWC-book and Intangible Artifacts were both written with a goal in mind, a meeting, #SSWC, where you could actually both see and get the book and meet the people who contributed. I think that put a lot more urgency onto the production and encouraged people to contribute in a more hands-on way.

A passing fad?

Are crowd-sourced books a passing fad or something which we will see a lot of in the future? I am not sure. Do assemblies of of essays make sense if you can’t package them nicely? After all, the blog part of the web is like a giant assembly of essays in many ways.

The hard copy version of the book, is it an echo from the past, where us born after the revolution the web represents, still value our words in bound print? I suspect it is. As soon as I had some decent bandwidth I downloaded the ePub version of SSWC-boken to my iPad and I expect I will read most of it there, rather than in hardcopy. The hardcopy book is heavier, doesn’t have search or lots of bookmarks (without getting messy) and can’t be synced with my iPhone when I am on the move.

But there is an intense pleasure to read a good book in hardcopy, not mentioning all the benefits of dead tree books. Which my home attests to, by having five wall covering book cases, with several thousands of books.

I think collection of essays, whether they are crowed-sourced or not, are here to stay. But hard copy versions of them are going to be more like the LP or the CD in the future, or even the hand written bible. A rarity, even if you can on demand print it. My books will age with me, clearly showing that I started reading before the revolution that is fast approaching our bookshelves. But their replacement is a thing of joy, rather than sadness, as never has as much been written before as today, and that is something to celebrate.

Picture credit for the Intangible Artifacts, Jan Videren

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Filed under: Books, Crowd-sourcing, Culture, ITC technology, SSWC

Working remotely, a session at #SSWC 2010

Stora tältet

Last weekend I was at a most excellent unconference, Sweden Social Web Camp, #sswc. A lot was said and a lot of really interesting stuff happened there, (all of it in Swedish, except for maybe the “allsång“).

One of the sessions which I attended was called Working remotely, with a subtitle of, How do you live in Thailand and invoice in Sweden?

Now, I don’t actually have a picture of the grid with the real title, so I may well be off a bit there. And I didn’t take notes during the session, so this is all from memory, which is pretty flaky at the moment. So rather than trying to account for what happened, other than in a short summary, I will discuss how me and my team work, as not many have the privilege to work in a distributed organization the way I do.

Summary of the discussion

What the session was wanting to investigate were aspects around working remotely, away from your normal office. The discussions wandered through practical things like: How do you make your employer understand that you are effective, even if you are not at your desk? What are tools and practices you use? Where are you wanting / going to work? Through to discussions around specifics around taxation.

The key things I think we all agreed on were:

  • It is hard to convince a traditional employer that it is a good idea for you to give up your office and work from… anywhere.
  • The tools are there to get the job done.
  • People didn’t have a strong reason to work in any specific remote location. It was more a feeling that the traditional office is stifling creativity and restrictive.
  • Nobody seemed to care much about specific tax avoidance issues, even though the discussion dwelt on the specifics quite a lot.

How we at do it

Akvo is a small foundation, 12 people, running internet and mobile services for development aid organizations. We develop open-source software and use this software to run our services.

Even though we are only 12 people we are spread over nine physical locations. We have a shared office in the Hague, Netherlands, where four people work. One shared office for one person in London. The other seven all work from home. Two in Stockholm, one in Gothenburg, two more in London and two in San Francisco.

The four people who work in the Netherlands are actually employed by another organization, and then seconded to work for Akvo. Akvo started out as a project of this organization, but we are in the process of separating the organizations to make Akvo independent, now when the foundation is able to stand on its own.

The other eight people are all sole traders and independent entrepreneurs, contracted to work for Akvo. Even I, who is an executive director of the foundation isn’t employed by it, but contracted in. We essentially are independent organizations a tax and invoicing point of view, what is called in Sweden “F-skattesedel”. This is the easiest from a tax and central administration point of view, but places some burden on the individual.

The EU may have an open market and freedom of movement of a worker, but the regulatory framework is hopelessly behind in a context where a person works for an organization in one country and lives in another. So the easiest way to solve it is as described above. This also takes care of issues like pension plans and health care. Each individual is responsible for their own cost and selection of services. If you, like me, live in Sweden, the choice is easy. You take 50% of what you have invoiced and send to the taxman, and they sort you out. (Well, mostly.)

We use a lot of tools to make our work possible. I presume you probably use most of them in your own work, the following is an incomplete list:

  • iChat for four-way video chat (yes, we are all Mac-heads). We use this a lot.
  • Skype for voice conferences, when we are five or more, and one on one video when iChat doesn’t want to work.
  • Google Docs, for shared documents
  • Google Wave, for shared simultaneous editing (maybe Etherpad as a replacement)
  • Dropbox for a shared document repository
  • Twitter, for a public backchannel and sometimes front-channel, to our work.
  • Mediawiki for shared public documentation

Benefits and drawbacks

The mission critical benefit we derive from this setup is that we wouldn’t have set Akvo up if we couldn’t get the right team. The right team had people in Sweden, UK, Netherlands and the US. This automatically also gives us an inherently international outlook.

We are a distributed organization, so there is no way for me, or anyone else, to have a particular strong check on who is working when. This is an advantage, as it means we get self driven individuals who take responsibility for their work. We have several who have children, who can take care of them, take them to daycare or school when they would normally be sitting at an office desk. They compensate by working other times. The primary thing in our team is that you get the work done. But, everyone is so dedicated and passionate about the work I don’t think a single one works the minimum hours we expect, except during shorter periods. (Here I am, soon midnight, and I am blogging about work. See what I mean?)

Being used to remote working also means that we are able to let people travel for shorter periods (up to a couple of months) and work remotely.

The major drawback is that we are not sitting in the same office. No quick answers to questions (well, people often have iChat/Skype up, so not all is lost), but it is also easy to work without interruption. No easy brainstorming sessions when you drag in everyone or anyone you need.

It can also be hard to communicate well, which make misunderstandings are harder to avoid. It is also easier to get angry at someone who isn’t in front of you. Email and chat, even voice conferences hide many cues which we use to avoid conflict. So heated discussions happen more often than if we sat in an office together.

The timezones are hard to deal with as well. The US crew has to be up at 07.00 for a 15.00/16.00 Euro-time team meeting, or the EU crowd is up at 07.00 for a 22.00 Pacific-time team meeting.

Does it work?


Do I wish we sat in the same office? Yes, sometimes this would be very nice.

Don’t hesitate to ask any questions. I’ll answer when I manage to get away from this late night conference call with the US…

Filed under: ITC technology, SSWC, Travel

Research tools

Something important to me when doing research and writing is to have a good set of tools, which don’t get in the way, when you are trying to write or learn about new things.

Beyond a web browser and a fast internet connection, which has become ridiculously important, I primarily use a reference database and a writing tool. The reference database is Bookends and the writing tools I am experimenting is Scrivener. I also do a fair amount of data visualisations in MS Excel.

The last couple of days I have spent trying to figure out whether Scrivener will actually work for me, I think it may do. But time will tell.

I have a bunch of reference documents which I have started entering into Bookends. This will get me reading again on what I have on the subject I am researching.

Filed under: ITC technology, Research

India Water Portal review

I had promised to review the India Water Portal and discuss what I found together with the team before I left India. I was a bit scared that I would run out of time, but I managed to get some time in on Monday to actually dive into the content on the site and understand what they have there. Maybe my ideas and feedback will help a little in improving this great resource.

The India Water Portal is probably the only one of its kind at the moment. It is a fabulous effort and it is surprising that there are not more like it. I mean, it isn’t like Bangladesh or Brazil couldn’t do with something like it, right?

Filed under: Arghyam, India, ITC technology

Quick chat with Niteen about Water Information System

Niteen Shastri, manager of technology, Arghyam

Today I had a short but very effective talk to Niteen Shastri, who is the manager of technology at Arghyam. He has been working on a design and the idea of a Water Information System for India, which I talked to Sunita Nadhamuni about last year. There is much data about water which isn’t tracked or shared properly in India, and this team has taken on the task to try to define how can one track water data and make it really useful at the gram panchayat level (local elected government, 5-10 rural villages).

The rest of the day has essentially been a day of preparations for the rest of the week. Among other things there is a review of the India Water Portal which I have promised to do for Friday, which I spent much of the day doing. We have also been packing for the travel tomorrow.

Filed under: Arghyam, India, ITC technology

An unlikely meeting

“Great dinner surprise with @bjelkeman , @leuteren , @ahminotep and lot of new ideas”

Today was mainly travel back from Ahmedabad to Bengaluru.

But something really interesting happened at a nice dinner which Anke and I were invited to at Vijay. When we get there there we were introduced to Parolkar who I hadn’t met before (nothing strange there) but he turns out to be someone I “know” from Twitter, just from the day before.

Parolkar has moved in as a neighbour to Vijay recently and they had only talked briefly to each other about what they do. Parolkar had heard that Vijay was working with the India Water Portal and he mentioned to Vijay about as he had been looking at what we had been doing, because of our brief tweet contact the day previously. So Vijay invited him for dinner too. We had a lot of stuff to talk about in common, Vijay, Parolkar and I. Maybe it wasn’t such an unlikely meeting after all…

Filed under: India, ITC technology

The biggest IT project ever?

Srikanth and my wife Anke taking a break during the bicycle ride on the outskirts of Bengaluru, buying some coconuts from a street vendor.

This weekend we spent time with Srikanth and Sunita Nadhamuni. Srikanth runs the technical part of the Unique Identification (UID) project for India. This must be the most ambitious people identification system project and quite possibly one of the largest government IT projects ever. Creating a biometric identification system for 1.1 billion people, where the majority have no identification papers at all is a major challenge, but would also hugely beneficial for the Indian people. The project is very ambitious and I had several long talks to Srikanth about the project and are considering writing a longer article about this later on.

Filed under: India, ITC technology

About Bjelkeman

Co-founder/director: Akvo Foundation

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