PopTech Blog

Community, Innovation and a Nairobi Tech Hub

The end of this year brought some major changes to both Ushahidi and my life. By the beginning of December I moved back to Kenya with my family (where my wife and I grew up). That’s a big change, and you only make those kinds of change for big reasons. In this case, it was for increased community activity in the Nairobi tech space.

In specific, Ushahidi received some major funding from the Omidyar Network in November of 2009 and Hivos in December 2009. This allows us to do some things that we’ve been wanting to do for a while, and are important for both us and the tech community in Nairobi that helps make the platform what it is. 

A Nairobi Innovation Hub

Of all the things I’m excited about, the iHub ranks right at the top. The goal here lies not in creating something that we control, but a space that serves the needs of the local tech community, of which we are a part.  In a city like Nairobi, with a lot of great tech talent, there still is no central nexus point for groups to meet and individuals to collaborate.  That’s what this space is for.

The hub will serve as a physical space to host Ushahidi activities and volunteer developers in Nairobi, as well as a community space for the local tech community.

We’ll be using it as our Kenya base of operations, working with a number of local organizations to deploy Ushahidi for purposes ranging from crime and corruption tracking to Kenya’s AIDS organizatons.  The programmers and user community around the Ushahidi project will have a place to meet and collaborate on the platform together.  Kenya is currently the only country in the world where we will have over a dozen installations of Ushahidi running by the end of 2009. This offers a unique opportunity to track what happens when you have an “ecosystem” of Ushahidi installations in a particular geographic location

Just this week we found a location that looks perfect.  Here’s a short/rough video that I took using my phone (in other words, my apologies for the low quality):


iHub First Look – Nairobi’s Tech Innovation Hub from Ushahidi on Vimeo.

Skeptical Science and the Rise of AppTivism

Editor’s note: You can nominate candidates for the PopTech Science and Public Leadership Fellows until April 1, 2010; more information on the nomination page.

This year, as PopTech is putting together its inaugural class of Science and Public Leadership Fellows, we’re spending a lot of time thinking about new ways to create public engagement around the sciences. Like everyone these days, science communicators have to fight to be heard amid a fractured and fractious media landscape. But they also carry another burden – to accurately convey nuanced, complex and occasionally politically charged truths, while working to prevent or debunk mischaracterization and oversimplification of those very same truths. It’s no easy feat, especially in country where more people believe in haunted houses than in global warming.

One strategy is to work with the media ecosystem itself – to embrace and leverage new platforms, rather than see them as part of the problem. That’s just what Australian solar physicist John Cook, of Skeptical Science, has recently done.

Skeptical Science app
Image: Skeptical Science.

Cook exhaustively catalogued more than 90 climate-change criticisms, arguments and complaints, and then linked to what the science actually says on each of these topics. He has now made all of this material available in an extremely user-friendly iphone application (link opens in iTunes store), which is designed for use in conversation with someone on the opposite side of the debate.

Skeptical Science
Image: Skeptical Science.

The app allows you to quickly surf through the most common anti-climate-change arguments and get meticulously researched links to the underlying science. More interestingly, the app allows you to send in “field reports” of anti-global warming arguments appearing in the wild, providing important metadata about which anti-climate-change arguments are spiking in the public discourse.

Skeptical Science
Image: Skeptical Science.

There are hugely important lessons here for anyone interested in social engagement, namely:

1.) embrace the most relevant channels,
2.) make it useful, social and fun and
3.) provide social feedback loops so that the effects of each engagement can be measured in real time, and improved in the future.

As (somewhat hilariously) reported by the Guardian, the arrival of Skeptical Science has sent some activists in the anti-global-warming camp into paroxysms, calling for the creation of a anti-global-warming app to combat it. Whether we will see one or not is an open question, since the rhetorical style of the anti-global-warming activists, much like those of anti-Evolution activists, is to try to pick at the edges of arguments, rather than take them head on – which makes them less amenable to Skeptical Science’s approach. But either way, we certainly are entering an age where political activism of all stripes will be expressed as much in software code as much as in the content of messages.

Welcome to the Age of AppTivism.

Secondary Incentives in Social Entrepreneurship

Today’s young techologists dreaming of a future in social entrepreneurship are more culturally sensitive than ever before, says Manish Bhardwaj, the CEO and co-founder of Innovators in Health. Even undergraduates recognize that their projects in the developing world must be “culturally sensitive, infrastructurally sensitive, and economically sensitive”: they must take into account the values of the local community, not presume the existence of electric power in a village that might have none, not create a product that the local population could never afford.

Innovators in Health biometric demo
Biometric demo. Credit: Innovators in Health.

All the more bewildering for these aspiring technologists, then, when they create clever solutions to urgent problems, being sensitive at every turn—and still their projects flop.

“The intriguing thing is that once you put down all the check marks for sensitive, appropriate technology, even if the customer seems willing and happy, even after that point, a lot of technology doesn’t have the impact you want it to,” says Bhardwaj.

It’s a humbling fact, and if Bhardwaj’s advice has a theme, it is that technologists can afford to be humbler. Your new technology may not be as revolutionary as you think; your customers may not want it; and it may not fix the problem by itself. Bhardwaj delivered these harsh truths—which he means as encouragement—in the form of a talk this month to students at MIT, where he recently earned a doctorate. (MIT’s ten-month-old Dalai Lama Center for Ethics & Transformative Values, where Bhardwaj is a fellow, hosted the event.)

One misunderstanding, says Bhardwaj, is that your creation is bound to be embraced because nothing like it has ever existed before. Perhaps you would like to set up Internet kiosks in villages or reshape farming practices using sophisticated atmospheric equipment. You may think that your competition is another technology company and define your product in relation to that competition, when in fact there may be imperfect but adequate solutions already in force that have history and familiarity on their side. Your Internet kiosks may be competing with a man on a bicycle who relays information from village to village. Your farming technology may be competing with a local sage who has been predicting the weather for years. For your product to succeed, you will not only have to persuade your customers that your technology is better than other technologists’ but better than longstanding local practices.

Even if your product will save lives, you may well have to prove its worth. Bhardwaj mentions a memorable article published in The New Yorker last December describing efforts in Africa to replace soot-producing home stoves with clean-burning ones. The old stoves contribute to various diseases, as well as climate change, but local people thought of the smoke as an annoyance that could be tolerated and were reluctant to make a change. (As Bhardwaj points out, someone can always produce “an 80-year-old grandma who has been cooking over that stove forever.”) This problem is not specific to the developing world, of course: it is the reason that, despite knowing about lung cancer and traffic fatalities, we still smoke cigarettes and text while driving.

The solution is to find new ways to communicate the importance of your product, and also to create what Bhardwaj calls “secondary incentives.” For instance, a major project in the 1980s built free or highly subsidized toilets in India to improve sanitary conditions and clean up the drinking water. But because these new toilets were such a luxury, local people used them to store grains, to store poultry, even for religious rituals. (“Think of a mud hut, and then think of a beautiful new structure,” says Bhardwaj. “Are you going to defecate in the nicest part of your house?”) One strategy that wound up working there was sending NGO workers to local villages, where they would take a glass of water, add a drop of fecal matter to it, then pass the glass around to see if anyone would like to take a drink. When people were aghast, they said, This is what you do every day.

As for secondary incentives, one NGO created a range of options (priced between $7.40 and $74) and hired local people to encourage their neighbors to buy toilets (and offered these “motivators” commissions). This helped people to see toilets as fitting organically into their communities—as status symbols, even. When people were not persuaded by the idea of preserving their own health, they were reminded that their children’s health was at stake, and their community’s. “You have to appeal to people’s idealism and vanity both,” says Bhardwaj.

Innovators in Health smart pillbox
Priyanka Kumari and Shashi Pallwal test the uBox in Dhanarua, Bihar. Credit: Innovators In Health.

In the end, one of the toughest lessons for the technologist is that not all problems can be solved through technology. Bhardwaj’s organization, Innovators in Health, has developed high-tech products that it hopes will combat tuberculosis in India: a fingerprint logger that can reliably establish when patients receive medicine from providers and transmit that information wirelessly (developed with Microsoft Research India); a smart pillbox that reminds patients to take their medicine and keeps track of when they do (developed with Abiogenix). But these innovations would be useless, says Bhardwaj, if their partners in the region (Operation ASHA in Delhi and the Prajnopaya Foundation in Bihar) had not already developed largely successful TB treatment programs.

“We can only make a program that is good, excellent; we can’t make a program that is bad, good. If you go to an area where no programs exist, you have to be honest: in this region, what we need to do is start a treatment program, and if that’s not our primary focus or competency, we need to bring in others,” says Bhardwaj. “If you want to change the world, you have to be very honest about what needs changing.”

New Videos: Kacie Kinzer and Jonah Lehrer from PopTech 2009

Two more talks from PopTech 2009, both on the unexpected—Kacie Kinzer tells us how robots can make humans act more like humans, Jonah Lehrer gives evidence that in some instances, outsider intelligence may be the most valuable.

Watch Kacie Kinzer on robots and acting human (Vimeo).

Designer Kacie Kinzer recently released a cardboard robot in New York City bearing a flag that read, “Help me!” Its mission? To safely cross an area park by relying on strangers. With the help of 29 passersby, the robot made the journey in 42 minutes, reminding us of the importance of small acts of kindness.

For more on the tweenbots, visit the tweenbots site, Kacie’s portfolio, and read what the NYT Freakonomics column thinks about the the interactions the bots enable.

Watch Jonah Lehrer on outsider intelligence (Vimeo).

Author (How We Decide, Proust Was a Neuroscientist) Jonah Lehrer has made his career writing about the subtle science of the mind. We tend to hand out tough problems to experts, yet Lehrer suggests that, paradoxically, lacking expertise on a subject can reveal solutions to otherwise intractable problems.

For more, visit Jonah’s personal site, his The Frontal Cortex blog, and read his recent Wired article.

What do you think about the tweenbots and outsider intelligence?

Link List for February 12-16

A few articles from the past week:

“The World’s Cheapest Cell Phone” by Andrew Price on GOOD

“Vodafone has made what it’s describing as the “world’s cheapest phone.” The Vodafone 150 will sell for less than $15…This is good news. By providing people in the developing world with access to banking and healthcare services, mobile phones can have a dramatic and positive impact on people’s lives. The M-Pesa money transfer system, Frontline SMS:Medic, and Project Masiluleke are just a few examples. Of course, we still have to work out that e-waste problem though."

FrontlineSMS: Medic‘s Founder Josh Nesbit is a PopTech Social Innovation Fellow (see his PopTech 2009 talk; nominate a Social Innovation Fellow). Find out more about PopTech’s Project Masiluleke.

“Non-Profit Design” by John Emerson on Social Design Notes

“You might be surprised to learn that the largest charity in the world is not run by Bill and Melinda Gates, but is one that promotes and supports innovation in the field of architectural and interior design. That’s the ”http://www.economist.com/businessfinance/displaystory.cfm?story_id=6919139">Stichting INGKA Foundation, the Dutch Foundation that owns IKEA.

…In my survey of design-centric non-profit organizations here are some I thought were notable. This list is not exhaustive (for instance, it does not include some amazing educational institutions, museums, or documentary projects) and the examples here are all US-based, but take a look."

PopTech is delighted to be included on this list.

“Is There a Master Metric for Evaluating Public Media?” by Jessica Clark on MediaShift

Each of these elements represents a measurable category of activity that helps media projects convene publics around issues:

* Reach: How many people encounter the project across various screens and streams: TV, radio, streaming audio, blogs and websites, Twitter, iTunes, mobile applications, and more?
* Relevance: Is the media project topical within the larger news cycle? Is it designed to stay relevant over several news cycles? Is it particularly relevant to targeted publics concerned with a specific issue, location, or event?
* Inclusion: Does the project address a diverse range of targeted audience, not just in terms of race, but in terms of gender, age, class, geographical location and beliefs? How open is the architecture for participation, collaboration and discussion?
* Engagement: Does the project move users to action: to subscribe to a site, contribute material, to write a letter in response, to pass on a link, donate time and money, sign a petition or contact a leader?
* Influence: Does the project challenge or put the frame on important issues? Does it target “influentials”?Is it it “spreadable” or buzzworthy?

Nuances in metrics and impact to help organizations decide what and how to measure from two researchers—applicable beyond public media.

“10 Free Things Every Social Entrepreneur Should Have” by Halle Techo on Social Earth

A good overview of ten areas social entrepreneurs should pay attention to immediately upon deciding to realize their idea.

Other good articles and posts on social innovation that you’ve noticed this week? Let us know in the comments.

Ready for a Close-up

Perhaps the most recognizable sign in the world, the 45-foot tall letters of the Hollywood sign symbolize the industry that keeps Los Angeles going, provide a sense of history and nostalgia, and, for one group of community activists this week, provide a huge canvas for protest.

To gain support against a condo development firm threatening to build on the land, which is owned by the L.A. Chamber of Commerce, a group called The Trust for Public Land is raising awareness (and they hope, money) by draping a sign that says “Save the Peak” (for Cahuenga Peak, the 138 acres behind and to the left of the sign) over the letters.

Save The Peak
CC image from Flickr user Gelatobaby

But unlike other highly visible protests on iconic buildings, like protester Alain “Spiderman” Robert who climbed the Eiffel Tower, this one is sanctioned by the LAPD and has been endorsed by local media, including the LA Times. According to the AP, the organization currently has about $7 million of the approximately $12 million needed to buy the land back.

LAist editor Zach Behrens says that part of the success of the protest stemmed from piquing the community’s interest before the LAPD released the campaign details. “It was a fun afternoon. It had this nice little mystery, like something cool was going to happen. A lot of pressure came upon the powers that be.”

It’s hardly the first time the sign’s been exploited. It’s long been a haven for pranks from neighboring universities, and Behrens noted that Disney once tried unsuccessfully to paint black Dalmation spots on it to promote its “101 Dalmations” movie in the mid-nineties. And more recently pop star Ke$ha made a YouTube spoof where she takes over the sign.

“When you change something so iconic, that picture will make its way around the world," Behrens said. "This isn’t a community sign that only locals now about. It gets destroyed in movies and shown on postcards. If [the Trust for Public Land organizers] don’t get the money to purchase the land next door, what you see is going to change.”

What do you think about this campaign?

PopTech Reads: Connected (and a new video with James Fowler)

I met up with PopTech 2009 speaker James Fowler (video of his PopTech talk, his “Colbert Report” appearance) last weekend in Los Angeles to find out what’s happened since October with Connected, the book he co-authored with Nicholas Christakis, how the research is being used, and the danger of not thinking of ourselves as part of networks:

Convinced? Let’s find out if we can grow stronger as a PopTech network.

Join PopTech staff as we read Connected during the rest of February.

You can buy Connected on Better World Books or find an independent bookseller on Indie Bound and join discussion about the book on the Goodreads community site.

We’ll ask if you have questions about the book in early March and follow up with James. (If you have questions now, please leave them in the comments.)

Know a great book we should read together in 2010?
Drop us a recommendation: hello [at] poptech [dot] org

Video: James Fowler and Dean Ornish

How long should you walk during a week to grow brain cells? Can your friends’ friends impact your health?

We’re releasing two videos this week from PopTech 2009 on how networks affect personal health: Dr. Dean Ornish and James Fowler.

Thoughts? Let us know in the comments.

For more than thirty years, Dr. Dean Ornish has demonstrated the power of a healthy lifestyle as the best kind of preventive care. These choices, Ornish reveals, can "turn on” disease-preventing genes and “turn off” genes that promote illness. Dr. Ornish has published a number of best-selling books on the subject; the most recent is The Spectrum.

- Dr. Ornish on WebMD, on Facebook, and Twitter @DeanOrnishMD.
- Attend Imagine Solutions conference with Dr. Ornish, Feb 22-3 in Naples, Florida.
- Visit Preventative Medicine Research Institute forums (Dr. Ornish is Founder and President).

Can your social network make you fat? Affect your mood? Political scientist James H. Fowler reveals that social networks have clusters of happy and unhappy people within them. With Nicholas A. Christakis, Fowler recently co-authored, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.

- Visit the Connected book site, buy a copy on Better World Books, and join the discussion on Goodreads.
- Check out a recent video interview we conducted with James.
- Learn more on James’s co-author Nicholas Christakis’s Harvard site.

FLAP Videos from a Navajo Reservation

Editor’s note: For more on the FLAP off-grid solar project, see the PopTech FLAP page.

One might think of living at the “base of the pyramid” as an unimaginably difficult situation confined to those in the developing world, but there are plenty of people living at the base right here in the United States in the 21st century—people like Pat Boone.

I met Pat Boone just outside of a ceremony his community was holding in order to heal his brother’s abdominal pains after traditional medicine failed to provide relief. Pat is a tiny man with laughing eyes that are partially blind, leaving him unaware that his white shirt was caked with the dust that his boots and the wind had stirred up.

“Grandpa” as we were told we could call him, invited us to interview him in his home – a small hogan with a dirt floor, a kerosene lamp, and an outdoor latrine, located twenty-five miles down a cracked and rutted dirt road.

Pat lives in the Cameron chapter on the Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona, where he cares for his elderly sister and looks after his sheep and his goats. Many elders here, like Pat and his sister, are living in poverty.


There is an important distinction between those living at the base of the pyramid in the United States and those in the developing world: not far from where Pat Boone lives, there are people with running water, electricity and indoor plumbing, all fixtures which he would consider unthinkable luxuries.


Pat was one of many home visits my colleague Cordelia and I made this past Fall on a Navajo reservation to test the FLAP solar bag (we have also tested it in Haiti and Africa). With introductions from PopTech Social Innovation Fellows Emily Pilloton and Heather Fleming, Cordelia and I traveled the reservation landscape, seeing miles of land in all directions dotted with hogans belonging to Navajo elders who, like Pat Boone, cling to tradition while striving to make a living. Cordelia was here to see how the FLAP project might benefit this community, and I was here to document the fieldwork.

Rather than waiting for power to come to those without it, the FLAP project distributes power where and when people need it, although the bag sometimes requires explanation—our taxi driver Gater wanted to know immediately what it was:

Once explained, everyone finds their own uses for the bag. We met Clay Bigman on one of our home visits a few days before his 90th birthday, and this former WWII Navajo Code Talker (he transmitted messages by phone and radio in his native language, a code that the Japanese never broke) was hoping for a chocolate cake:

Leena’s son had just moved off the reservation to find work. She now lives alone, and more than anything she wants a security light. Our local guide, Dorothy Lee, felt that the FLAP bag would be useful to her in the meantime:

Kee Cody was sent to the Phoenix Indian School, a Federal boarding school originally founded in 1891 to assimilate Native American children through education. He graduated in 1955, and the school closed thirty-five years later, in 1990:

Huge shout out to the extremely talented and generous folks at lullatone.com for donating music to the project.

For more about the FLAP project on the reservation please see Cordelia’s blog post on Fast Company.

And if you know of communities in need of portable light and would like to help us get prototypes into their hands, please email Cordelia at [her name] at PopTech.org.

Paving a Nuanced Path for Online Privacy

Make no mistake: the privacy debate is hotter (and louder) than ever. The recent uproar over Facebook’s new Terms of Service – and then, even more recently, Twitter’s new service terms – is all about privacy, says Helen Nissenbaum, an associate professor in NYU’s Department of Culture and Communication and a Senior Fellow of the NYU Information Law Institute.

But what people really care about today when they complain that their privacy has been violated, Nissenbaum says, is not the fact that their personal information has been shared, but that it’s been shared inappropriately. Information, she says, ought to be distributed and protected according to social context—what’s appropriate, say, in the context of a workplace, or a medical clinic, or a social network, or a school, or among family and friends.

According to Nissenbaum, today’s privacy policies and rules are not nuanced enough; we have tended to adopt “one size fits all” protections that either go too far by ignoring these distinctions or fail to go far enough.

“The rapid adoption and infiltration of digital information technologies into virtually all aspects of life, to my mind, have resulted in a schism — many schisms — between our experience of and expectations for privacy today,” says Nissenbaum, the author of the just-out Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life. During an interview Wednesday in her NYU office just off Manhattan’s Washington Square, Nissenbaum said these schisms have produced in society “a kind of radical shock, and we need some new ways to talk about privacy.”

Privacy in Context

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation:

Marcia Stepanek: In Davos last week, during a rare meeting of social media company CEOs at the World Economic Forum to discuss the impact of social networks on society, LinkedIn CEO Reid Hoffman told the group that “all these concerns about privacy tend to be old people’s issues” – that transparency and accessibility are two reasons why so many teenagers and young adults put their mobile phones on Facebook or MySpace. He said the value of being connected and transparent is so great, that privacy is not so much a concern to young people. What do you think? Is privacy an “old people’s issue?”

Helen Nissenbaum: [Laughs.] Reid, actually, was one of my students at Stanford, years ago. But no, I totally disagree with those kinds of critiques that say young people don’t care about privacy. Some people say privacy involves withholding information or is the right to control information. But when I see people getting into a flap over privacy, I don’t think that’s what they’re really after. People want to share information; what they care about is the appropriate flow of information. They want the right information to go to the right people and under the right circumstances. They want this “contextual integrity” for the information going around about them. Everybody is interested in privacy under that definition.

Teenagers yell if their parents read their diaries; I have 18- and 20-year-olds in college coming to me all the time, saying, “Oh my god, my 12-year-old sister wants to friend me on Facebook! That’s awful.” I think these are all expressions of a desire for privacy. A number of years ago, at Princeton, where I used to work, I had an alumni event, with an audience of all different ages. I asked those assembled, “How would you feel if you were in a job interview and as a condition of that, you had to yield your medical records?” There was a huge difference in the responses. Older people were much more indignant about that request but many of the younger people said they wouldn’t mind. Does that mean they don’t care about privacy?

MS: You say that individuals shouldn’t be able to control the flow of information.

HN: That’s right. The nuts-and-bolts of my theory says that privacy depends on the social context of information being shared and what’s appropriate for those contexts. Right now, we take information and divvy it up into public information and private information, sensitive or non-sensitive – and then have two different ways of dealing with it. I think that’s problematic. People then get all wrapped up in knots trying to figure out if their IP address is personal or not. I know the EU is struggling with questions like these right now, and it’s a non-starter. Privacy isn’t ‘one-size-fits-all.’

We really need to be much more nuanced and descriptive, and to open ourselves up to the diversity of categories of all types of information and the range of social contexts for that information – and then act appropriately in each situation.

You and I are in structured situation at the moment. I know, more or less, what you expect of me in this interview and you know what I expect of you. These things are governed by social norms. So much of what privacy is depends on the nature of the information at issue and what our roles are as individuals within a certain social context. And then there’s something called the constraints on the flow of information. You could check out my Web site, for example. And then you could ask a whole lot of people to give you some information about me. And then you could go to Checkpoint and pay them to write up a whole long report on me. In each of these cases, the way you’re getting information about me is governed by certain information flows and different constraints on the flow of that information. You could ask me some questions directly about myself, and I could choose not to answer some of those questions.

So there are circumstances in which people should control the information about them. But in other instances, this may not be appropriate. Let’s say you’re under investigation for having committed a murder and the police are investigating you, and they want to find out where you were on Friday night at 8 p.m. They may ask you, but ultimately, they must — behind your back — verify where you were at that time. And in this society, we’re not going to allow you to control that piece of information. We want the police to actually ferret out that information by any means. Nobody would say the police violated your privacy in this case, because we understand their need to get it independently of you. I think it’s intuitive.

MS: Why did you write this book?

HN: Too much time has been wasted deciding whether this or that piece of information – or this or that place – is private or public. What people really care about is whether information is shared appropriately, within the social context of any given situation.

MS: Are you proposing a set of rules that would lead to public policies that could more intelligently codify these distinctions – to honor what you call this “contextual integrity” of information?

HN: Yes and no. We depend on entrenched social norms for guidance, so there are a lot of people who know already what should be public and private, particularly in the realms of the family. In the workplace, on the other hand, we need to be told what the rules are, and this is where information technology has been a radical shock. There, it’s not good enough just to have implicit behavioral norms, like those which tell you how you should behave at a cocktail party. If you screw up there, it’s not so terrible. But if you’re a doctor, it’s probably a good idea to be required to write down what your responsibilities are when it comes to somebody else’s information.

MS: What is contextual integrity – the theory you put forward in this book?

HN: There are two parts to it. The first asks us to identify the places where people are getting freaked out about information flow and privacy issues and recognize the kinds of challenges that we’re confronting with technology. And then, the second part, is the moral part of the theory that says that not all change is bad. The first part says here’s how we recognize the nature of the change on our expectations about the flow of information. The second part says look, we have much better medical monitoring devices and using them, we can now save lives, so that’s fabulous.

There are a lot of ways that we’re being monitored that are good and all to our benefit, and there are other ways that aren’t so great. Information that previously was available to your doctor is now being made available to entire consortiums of research institutions and insurance companies and so forth. We need to map these flows and how they’re changing. We need a way of looking at what types of information flows are appropriate so that we can start talking as a society about what works and what doesn’t – or what should. We need to be talking about all of this more intelligently.

MS: Why now?

HN: What got me into this whole area of privacy is that there are now things we can do with technology that we couldn’t do before – but that we, as a society, never really stopped to think about whether we should do.

When suddenly we become confronted with something like Google Street View, we now have the possibility of surveillance cameras, if you will. Back in the day, it was considered okay if I saw you, so long as you could see me. But now, with Street View, we now have a surveillance image that gets posted on the Web and suddenly, this completely challenges our expectations of how some information flows, and is supposed to flow. Suddenly, there are people who can view you and you have no clue.

So my theory of contextual integrity really pushes for society to map out these technology changes, these points of radical shock where suddenly, information flows in highly unexpected ways and it challenges us. We freak out because it’s so unexpected. And no matter what you say about being in a public place so you should have no expectations, the truth is that you do have expectations – because that’s how life and (information) flow were governed for years and years. My book seeks to acknowledge the changes that information technology brings to our expectations, characterize the changes, and then advocate for us all to get on to discussing whether these changes are good or bad. Who are the winners and losers? Can we regulate the flow of information, or should we?

I mean, first you recognize the changes – such as the massive databases that can be aggregated from distinct sources, and then be used to mine different kinds of information and create profiles that can be used to make decisions about an individual. These are the types of radical, unexpected shifts in the flow of information that my theory seeks to address.

MS: Hasn’t the legal environment been able to help add clarity to some of this already?

HN: U.S. law has been heavily critiqued because it’s sectoral; it’s based on different sectors. You have, for example, financial privacy and communications privacy and video privacy, and so forth. People have said this is problematic, but I think the U.S. approach has merit because it has in mind particular contexts in which the information flow is occurring. I’m not saying that U.S. law is perfect: Choicepoint and Lexis-Nexis, for example, are out of control and highly problematic because they bring information from all different kinds of places, take it out of context and fail to respect the norms out of which it was shared with other actors – and then make that information available in contexts and under constraints that are inappropriate. This is an area in which the law, hopefully, will catch up. But I think we can do better.

It’s not hopeless. When the FTC, for example, was asked to create privacy rules for the financial industry, I think they did a pretty good job because they were able to focus on very specific types of information relevant to different contexts. For instance, there was an argument about whether your name and address, shown above the line in a credit report, should be public. Credit companies argued that it should be because it’s not financial information. But the FTC said it should be private, because it appears in the context of a financial action. The FTC went to court over it and won, and I thought that was fabulous. When laws are made correctly – with information flows and social contexts in mind – I think it could serve us all well.

MS: Wouldn’t this all be easier if we simply put limits on what data could be archived, an approach raised by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger in his recent book, Delete? Should all the information about us be allowed to exist in digital perpetuity?

HN: I do think information should be deleted, but again, to argue for deletion, you could say even that is a sort of arbitrary move. To restrict access to information may, in some cases, require deletion but the word that a lot of legal scholars use is that we’d want to tailor that deletion appropriately. There may be some instances where we decide there’s a whole lot of information being kept somewhere that should just be wiped out. But we want those constraints to be subject to the specific individuals and the context of given situations.

MS: Some of the new mobile devices – from PDAs to the new iPad — are creating completely new contexts for the flow of personal information. Does the mapping of real-time, geographically-specific behaviors demand a new definition of privacy?

HN: There’s an interesting re-configuration going on about what we think of as social space. People see their social space differently as a result of social networks and location-aware devices. I think we’re just now being forced to confront the question of geo-location. It’s now becoming a new aspect of information available about people that’s going to force us to start asking these same sets of questions around.

MS: On FourSquare, for example, some people feel that by playing, they’ve already given their implicit permission to give up their personal information.

Nonsense. I think that before we start going around saying that anything is implicit in this way, we ought to explore whether it should be. What should the rules be? If you had to sit down and read every privacy policy on the Web or for every device that you bought, it would take you – and I’m making this up – two and half years, right? [Laughter] Ultimately, a lot of great work in privacy has been written about constraining the flow of information one way or another. But what I want to add to the mix of our discussion about privacy in society is the notion that we have to look at the contexts, themselves, to determine what’s appropriate, and under which circumstances. Thinking about privacy in this way leads us to ask much bigger questions.

I like working with computer scientists. Together with them, I’ve created a bit of subversive software, such as TrackMeNot, which is committed to privacy in Web search terms.

We’ve also created something called Adnostic, which is supposed to help against online behavioral targeting. And there’s another project we’re working on about court records and placing them online in certain circumstances.

So many of our questions about privacy and what’s appropriate when we’re creating this software takes us back and forces us to ask what are the functions of our institutions in society. Because of technology’s challenge to previous flows of personal information, we find ourselves almost having to go back to these first principles, even saying, what are the purposes of the court? What are records? That sort of thing.

For example, with the courts, if you don’t take care and dump everything onto the Web, including the names and addresses of jurors, for example, maybe the next time you get asked to serve on a jury, you will struggle hard to avoid it, and that won’t promote the values of the court. It will make the courts function worse, forcing us to reach back all the way to consider the roles of the institutions, themselves.

Very delicate considerations need to be embedded in these technologies.

MS: Where has technology changed the tradition flow of information most radically, to what you refer to as “shock status?”

HN: One is in monitoring and tracking. This isn’t visual anymore. It’s online and it can happen when you’re interacting with your supermarket. Second is this arena of aggregating information and analyzing it. It’s all behind-the-scenes and it’s driving a lot of the monitoring, so people are not so obviously aware of it. Sometimes, some little surprising thing happens and you think, hmmmm, I wonder how they knew that? And then, if you’re thoughtful, you realize that somebody has a database somewhere. But it’s not in your face.

Third, there’s the worry about communications and media because this is not just about information that sits in a database somewhere. It’s about distribution. This is Twitter and Facebook and blogs and email. In information science, this whole notion of aggregating information from different sources and then using it to profile people – to see if they’re terrorists or good mortgage prospects – it’s very cutting-edge stuff, involving statistical techniques and operations research. But here’s the problem. It’s not directly experienced except in the ways your bank will reply to you.

MS: Are you hopeful about the future of privacy?

HN: My hope level is in constant flux. When I think of the vast backend of information aggregators interacting directly and indirectly with personal information, such as Google, Choicepoint, ISPs, government agencies, and financial conglomerates, I fear the worst. I worry that the landscape of incentives will swamp just about any moral consideration we might bring to bear. At the same time, I’m buoyed by the growth in size and quality of privacy scholarship and practice, the guile, brilliance, and insubordination of computer hackers and NGO players. And sometimes, watershed events can be enormously important; grim as it is, the Google/China debacle may turn a few heads.