So there is this nice guy Jeff Gilfelt, a software developer from Reading, who has made some headlines with his iPhone/Android application called ASBOromoter which gives you simple access to government data on the number of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders that were handed out and other anti-social stuff in the area you happen to be with your mobile phone.
From the material available the app looks great and it is also a nice example of what stuff citizen can do when government data is publicly available as Jeff used datasets from the recently started data.gov.uk portal. The remarkable point I want to highlight is shown in the video below when Jeff was asked by Conrad Quilty-Harper if there is a political point to his app:
The answer is a passionate “No“. Can you believe it?
Now I was not totally surprised because some years ago I wrote my MA thesis on “Political Motives of Developers for Collaboration on GNU/Linux“. While I found that a majority of the developers in my sample did actually attribute a political relevance (whatever it might be) to their coding of GNU/Linux, it was also clear from my research and that of others, that most programmers are motivated by the fun of coding. The Free Software community of GNU/Linux might be a bit of an exception given its founding principles but it is certainly not totally defamatory to expect the bunch of Web developers for gadgets like the iPhone to be less principled.
Is there something wrong with this? On the danger of over-generalising a bit too much I would argue yes. A tool like the ASBOrometer which makes transparent how screwed up your area is – this is more than just a funny app because it shows where the government has failed its citizens. Now it won’t come as much of a surprise to most inhabitants of these areas but the app gives you simple and quick access to actual numbers and compare your situation with that of others. This might well be what triggers some people to stop accepting their fate and get up to do something about being let down by society. As much as I hate to refer to the Sun to state a point coverage of the ASBOrometer in broadsheets like these certainly emphasise that is has struck a cord with people – also underscored by the fact that within two days it achieved over 80,000 downloads. Finally, lets not forget the economic dimension (and you don’t have to be a Marxist to know that little could be more political than this) as the newspapers rightly point out that this could have a huge impact on house prices in these areas.
Of course in my opinion all this makes this app all the better but I believe it is important that the people putting stuff like this together have some idea of its potential relevance. Ideally they might have an aim for this as well (I mean one relevant for the public good, not just fun for themselves) but hey, you can’t change the world every day. But the naivety with which software developer go about their work at my best of times amazes me but at other times just outright scares me.
As it says in the Spiderman comics:
In a world heavily shaped by information and its free flow in the form of bits and bytes, people with computing skills are a small elite, able to manipulate this flow and determine its outcomes. There are many examples in which our current technology vanguards are making use of their skills with the aim to create some benefits to citizens such as mySociety in the UK or Sunlight in the US to name just a few. But we need much more of this.
All of this comes back to the old debate about the ethics of science and to what degree scientists (as just one example of an expert elite) are responsible for what they do – a debate wonderfully illustrated in Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists. Of course the ASBOborometer is no atomic bomb and I’m not in any way suggesting programming should not be fun or Jeff has anything but good (or no) intentions. But I really think it is time that even software developers understand that no tool is neutral and start to take responsibility for their creation – or at least try to understand its relevance. Because code is law, code is political!
Since October 2006 I am both a DPhil student as well as a research assistant at the Oxford Internet Institute and here I share with the accidental reader my musings on different aspects of the Internet and society. Feel free to comment or simply ignore :-)
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