Aaron Swartz’s suicide over the weekend is a tragedy. His death has affected many people very deeply, including many of my friends who were very close with Aaron.

Personally, I did not know Aaron well, but I regard him as an inspiration – as much for his quiet thoughtfulness and kindness as for his amazing achievements, intellect, projects, and democratic (small “d”) ideals.

I don’t have much to add to some of the heartfelt responses many people (including Cory Doctorow, Larry Lessig, and Matt Stoller) have posted elsewhere; however, as I have thought and read about Aaron over the past couple of days, I have decided that I want to commemorate his life and work through some concrete actions. Specifically, I have made some vows to myself about how I want to live, work, and relate to people in the future. Most of these vows are fundamentally democratic in spirit, which was part of what I find so inspiring about so much Aaron’s work. Not all of my commitments are coherent enough or sensible enough to list here, but I will put one out there as a public tribute to Aaron:

I will promote access to knowledge by ensuring that as much of my work as possible is always available at no cost and under minimally restrictive licenses that ensure ongoing access for as many people in as many forms as possible. I will also work to convince my colleagues, students, publishers, and elected or appointed representatives that they should embrace and promote a similar position.

This is a very small and inadequate act given the circumstances.


The question of whether paid crowd work violates U.S. employment and minimum wage laws may finally make it into court thanks to Christopher Otey, an Oregon resident who is suing CrowdFlower Inc. for wages he claims the company owes him as an “employee.”

You can (and should) read the full text of Otey’s complaint or coverage of the story on Crowdsourcing.org or MissionLocal.

I have a few preliminary, and mostly mixed, feelings about this. However, I should preface everything by saying that (1) I have known one of the defendants named in the suit, CrowdFlower CEO Lukas Biewald, for many years through mutual acquaintances at Stanford, where we were both enrolled at the same time; and (2) I worked as a paid, independent consultant with CrowdFlower on several projects between 2008-2011. That said, I have never held, nor hold at this time, any material interest, financial or otherwise, in the company.

My initial reaction is that I can’t believe it’s taken this long for someone, somewhere in the United States to sue one of the companies engaged in distributing paid crowdsourcing work for violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Smart lawyers like Alek Felstiner and Jonathan Zittrain have been making some form of the argument that this is a major issue for Crowdsourcing for at least three years now. Felstiner even made the case in a series of posts on CrowdFlower’s blog here, here, and here in 2010. I am hardly the only person to regard as remarkable the fact that a whole venture-funded industry has sprung up around a set of activities that, on the surface, seem to resemble a massive minimum wage violation scheme.

At the same time, there are a lot of reasons to believe that crowdsourcing represents a fundamentally different sort of phenomenon than the varieties of “work” and workplace abuses the US congress sought to regulate with the FLSA back in 1938. For starters, crowd work is radically flexible – in terms of time and location – as well as minimal in terms of the commitment, skill, and obligations required of workers. As a result, it’s not clear that the relationships established between requesters and providers of work in this context are really anything like relational contracts that exist between traditional employers and employees. Crowd workers do what they for a variety of reasons, in a variety of ways, and under a variety of conditions, making it pretty hard to determine whether they ought to be considered employees of the organizations that may play a role in compensating them for their efforts (and this is potentially an important point since CrowdFlower plays something of a middle-man role between the individuals and companies that post tasks to its site and those who complete the tasks and receive compensation in exchange for their labor).

One particular challenge posed by the suit and the fact that Otey and his attorneys have chosen to seek compensation under US minimum wage laws ($7.50 per hour). Depending on the outcome, the impact of a ruling against CrowdFlower could therefore make paid crowd work as it exists today financially impractical within the United States. While such a ruling might represent a crucial step in enforcing legal, ethical, and financial standards of fairness in online environments, it might also undermine the growth of a valuable source of future innovation, employment, research, and creativity. Crowd-based systems (whether paid or unpaid) of distributed information creation, processing, and distribution have accounted for some of the most incredible accomplishments in the short history of the Internet, including Wikipedia, ReCaptcha, Flickr, Threadless, Innocentive, Kiva, Kickstarter, YouTube, Twitter, and the Google search engine.

As some colleagues and I have argued in a forthcoming paper, The Future of Crowd Work, there are many ways in which paid crowd work as it exists today does not look like the kind of job you would necessarily want your child to take on as a career.  And yet, while crowd work is very, very far from ideal by almost any standard, I would be disappointed if the impact of this case somehow resulted in the destruction of the industry and the stifling of the innovative research and applications that have developed around it. The outcome will boil down to the ways in which paid labor – even flexible, remote, and relatively straight-forward tasks that are paid only $0.01 – is regulated as compared with volunteer labor.

Following up on my last post on the tie between Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh in the qualifiers for the U.S. women’s 100 meter team, I thought I would briefly revisit the subject and, in the process, respond to Hal’s comment.

The reason I thought this story merited a second post is that, amazingly, Tarmoh withdrew from the run off, thereby conceding her spot on the Olympic team to Felix!

You can watch Tarmoh explain her decision in this highly unusual SportsCenter clip.

The video is pretty interesting – as is Tarmoh’s choice to make the statement at all! She reveals a number of additional details about her experience as well as her interactions with Felix after the race. After watching it, I came away thinking that her overall manner had suggested that she felt conflicted about her decision.

While I don’t think it makes sense to draw too many conclusions about what happened from Tarmoh’s statement, the events that have transpired since the original race suggest that it may make more sense to approach the whole situation from a game theoretic perspective (like Daniel Lametti started to do) rather than from the sort of statistical vs. moral fairness point of view I tried to articulate in my post.

That brings me to my response to Hal’s suggestion that a run off would (assuming it was announced ahead of time) represent the most “morally fair” way to settle a tie (at least more morally fair than a coin flip).

I think I actually agree with most of Hal’s points – especially, insofar as moral fairness does seem to be more important than statistical fairness when it comes to how most people view athletic contests. I should have clarified that the kind of fairness I had in mind was more statistical than moral. Given the rise of statistical tools in sports and the fact that it is possible to think of athletic contests in terms of the probabilities of particular outcomes, I think my argument is more focused on the fact that the probabilities of victory are never equal and that (at least in the case of many sports) that doesn’t seem to bother many fans.

In any event, I love Hal’s idea for a world-wide coin flip tournament! We should make sure to incorporate the descendants of Paul the Octopus somehow.


Tie goes to the runner?

June 25, 2012

Yesterday at the women’s 100 meter finals of U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon, Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh did something that was apparently unprecedented: they finished tied for third place.

Photo finish (Image from the NYT)

Usually, third place doesn’t mean much, but in this case it determines who gets to join the first and second place runners representing the U.S. in the 100 meter races during the London Olympics later this Summer.

Beyond the fact that it’s pretty amazing that cameras shooting 3000 frames per second (!) could not determine a winner, the craziest part of the story is that neither U.S.A. Track & Field (USATF) nor the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) – the two organizations in charge of managing the Olympic team selection process – had a plan in place for determining what happens next.

As a result, the USATF issued a statement yesterday evening revealing a remarkable decision: either the runners will race again in a literal run-off or there will be a coin toss.

The details of the procedure are somewhat complicated, leaving the runners with some say in the choice of which process will be used to break the tie. Basically, if neither one concedes the spot on the team outright, they can pick with method they prefer. If they both choose the same method, either procedure can be used, but if they choose different methods, there will be a run-off. If they both refuse to declare a preference, then the coin toss will determine who goes to London.

I’m entranced by all this because it’s such a classic example of how tie-breaking procedures often involve the explicit introduction of randomness into athletic competition and how that randomness contradicts many competitors’ and fans’ sense of fairness.

As anyone who has seen or read Moneyball can hopefully tell you by now, games are, by their nature, unfair and true randomness is a myth. However, part of the reason sports make such wonderful and compelling entertainment is that they involve a delicate counterpoint of meritocratic competition and stochastic noise. The distribution of resources among athletes and teams – such as money, skill, training, or equipment – determine the most likely winner in any contest, but so long as these variables are held relatively constant, upsets happen often enough and unpredictably enough that it’s still worth playing and watching the game.

Tie-break procedures can be controversial and unsatisfying because they change the rules in the interest of achieving something like a timely and fair resolution (case in point: the completely bizarro “Kansas Playoff” method the NCAA has used to settle ties in college football games since 1996). Often, this is done by introducing additional randomness through procedures like coin tosses. While this makes sense from a fairness perspective (given that the competitors have demonstrated that they are evenly matched by the time a tie-break is required) the use of coins or other transparently random methods to facilitate tie-breaking contradicts a widely held gut feeling that the outcome should be determined on the field of competition.

Ato Boldon, a former Olympic sprinter and now television commentator, captured this sentiment in his response (quoted in the NY Times story) to the Felix-Tamroh tie, “It’s like a penalty shootout in soccer: nobody wants it to be that way, but at least it’s still soccer.”

The obvious flaw in this reasoning is that coin flips and other truly random processes are far and away the most fair way to determine a winner when a race or a game ends in a tie! Penalty kicks, swim-offs, run-offs, Kansas playoffs, and whatever other overtime processes athletic administrators can dream up are, like all the games humans play, unfair at many levels.

Nevertheless, a coin flip at the end of a race or a game feels like a cheap deus ex machinaThe fact that most of us instinctively dislike the idea of using stochastic processes alone to settle a tie illustrates one of the ways in which we prefer athletic contests to be more like good theatre than anything else.

So, despite the fact that it probably isn’t really fair to either runner (and that their decisions may hinge on whether either or both of them manage to qualify in the 200 meters later this week), I hope Felix and Tamroh race again.

Kolob Reservoir, Utah (August, 2012).

For this edition of my occasional “five things” series, I’m trying out a twist on the usual theme (ideas, places, people, or things that I’ve run across in the preceding week) by discussing five things I’ll learn about next week.  So, without further ado, here are five things I am excited to encounter in the coming days…

  1. CHI and CrowdCamp – I’m headed to Austin, Texas at the end of the week to present at CHI and participate in the CrowdCamp workshop. The lineup and agenda for CrowdCamp look incredibly exciting – the plan is to rapidly brainstorm, design, and (if possible) implement crowdsourcing projects. Given the past accomplishments of many of the other people who will be in the room, I’m excited!
  2. New Zion Missionary Church (no website) – As part of my Austin trip, I hope to make a pilgrimage or two to as many of the regional holy sites of barbecue as I possibly can. In the case of New Zion Missionary Baptist Church (link points to a 2010 review on the Full Custom Gospel BBQ blog), I have heard that the slow smoked brisket can sometimes resemble a religious experience.
  3. May Day Occupy actions in New York – Tuesday marks the first of May and, so it seems, a day of rebirth for the Occupy Movement. A few friends will be attending the New York actions and I’ll try to remember to link to anything they write or photograph.
  4. The Onyx Boox M92 – Perhaps as a result of the extra attention that went to Mako’s setup a couple of weeks ago, I’ve succumbed and ordered my own e-book reader. I chose the Onyx Boox M92 because it checked all the boxes that mattered to me (linux based, large E-ink screen,  file format agnostic, vendor agnostic, and not reinforcing the Amazon empire) and because it seems to compare well against similar devices.
  5. Calibre – Mako and Alan Toner kindly introduced me to Calibre – a very widely adopted and popular piece of free software to manage e-reader libraries –  this afternoon, but I won’t really start playing with it until my reader arrives next week.

Electronika 302 Recorder - by Daniel Gallegos

Zombie trade agreements: According to some documents acquired by the organization European Digital Rights (EDRi), it appears the G8 has decided to do a Dr. Frankenstein impression and reanimate some of the most thoughtless portions of ACTA’s Internet provisions. This latest instantiation of the ACTA agreement wants control over intellectual property, technology devices, network infrastructure, and YOUR BRAINS.

An awesome experiment on awards (published in PLoS ONE) by Michael Restivo and Arnout van de Rijt – both in the Sociology department at SUNY Stony Brook – shows that receiving an informal award (a barnstar) from a peer may have a positive effect on highly active Wikipedians’ contributions. The paper is only three pages long, but if you want to you can also read the Science Daily coverage of it.

Mako’s extensive account of his workflow tools is finally up on Uses This. The post is remarkable for many reasons. First of all, Mako puts more care and thought into his technology than anybody I know, so it’s great to see the logic behind his setup explained more or less in full. Secondly, I found it extra remarkable because I have been collaborating (and even living!) closely with Mako for a while now and I still learned a ton from reading the post. My favorite detail is unquestionably the bit about his typing eliciting a noise complaint while he was in college. As a rather loud typist myself, I have been subject to snark and snubbery from various quarters over the years, but I’ve never had anybody call the cops on me!

The Soviet Union lives on! But maybe not quite where you’d expect it. My friends and former Oakland neighbors Daniel Gallegos and Zhanara Nauruzbayeva have recently moved themselves and their incredible Artpologist project to New York. Upon arrival, they found themselves surrounded by a post soviet reality that most New Yorkers or Americans simply do not know exists at all, much less in the epicenter of finance capital. Their latest project, My American New York, chronicles this “post soviet America” through photos, stories, Daniel’s beautiful sketches, drawings, and paintings (e.g. the image at the top of this post), all wrapped up in a series of urban travelogues.

Philosophy Quantified: Kieran Healy has done a series of elegant and thoughtful guest posts on Leiter Reports in which he explores data from the 2004 and 2006 Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR) surveys in an effort to generate some preliminary insights about the relationships between department status and areas of specialization.

As the Republican presidential candidates continue to duke it out in contentious primary elections around the country, I’ve started to notice the increasingly public signs that the Obama campaign is gearing up for battle. Not surprisingly, I tend to focus on the Obama re-election team’s uses of digital technologies, where a number of shifts may result in important changes for both the voter-facing and internal components of the Obama For America’s (OFA) digital operations. I started writing this post with the intent of reviewing some of the recent news coverage of the campaign, but it turned into a bit more of a long-form reflection about the relationship between the campaign’s approach to digital tools might mean for democracy.

OFA 2.0: Bigger, Faster, & Stronger (Data)

A fair amount of media coverage has suggested that the major technology-driven innovations within OFA and the Democratic party this election cycle are likely to consist of refined collection and analysis collection of vast troves of voter data as opposed to highly visible social media tools (such as My.BarackObama.com) that made headlines in 2008.

As Daniel Kreiss & Phil Howard  elaborated a few years ago, database centralization and integration became core strategic initiatives for the Democratic National Committee after the 2000 election and the Obama campaign in 2008. These efforts have been expanded in big ways during the build-up to the current campaign cycle.

According to the bulk of the (often quite breathless) reporting on the semi-secretive activities of the 2012 Obama campaign, the biggest and newest initiatives represent novel applications of the big data repositories gathered by the campaign and its allies in previous years. These include the imaginatively named “Project Narwhal” aimed at correlating diverse dimensions of citizens’ behavior with their voting, donation, and volunteering records. There is also “Project Dreamcatcher,” an attempt to harness large-scale text analytics to facilitate micro-targeted voter outreach and engagement.

For a vivid example of what these projects mean (especially if you’re on any of the Obama campaign email lists), check out ProPublica’s recent coverage comparing the text of different versions of the same fundraising email distributed by the campaign two weeks ago (the narrative is here and the actual data and analysis are here).

(Side note: in general, Sasha Issenberg’s coverage of these and related aspects of the campaigns for Slate is great.)

What’s Next: “Gamified” and Quasi-open Campaign App Development

As the Republicans sort out who will face Obama in November, OFA will, of course, roll-out more social media content and tools. In this regard, last week’s release of heavily hyped “The Road We’ve Traveled” on YouTube was only the beginning of the campaign’s more public-facing phase.

The polished, professional video suggests that OFA will build on all of the social media presence and experience they built during and the last cycle as well as over the intervening years of Obama’s administration.

Less visible and less certain are whether any truly new social media tools or techniques will emerge from the campaign or its allies.  Here, there are two recent initiatives that I think we might be talking about more over the course of the next six months.

The first of these started late last year, when OFA experimented with a relatively unpublicized initiative called “G.O.P. Debate Watch.”  Aptly characterized by Jonathan Easley in The Hill as a “drinking game style fundraiser” the idea was that donors committed to give money for every time that a Republican candidate uttered particular, politicized keywords identified ahead of time (e.g. “Obamacare” or “Socialist”).

In its attempt to combine entertainment and a little bit of humor with small-scale fundraising, G.O.P. Debate Watch fits with a number of OFA’s other techniques aimed at using digital initiatives to lower the barriers to participation and engagement. At the same time, it incorporates much more explicit game-dynamics, setting it apart from earlier efforts and exemplifying the wider trend towards commercial gamification.

The second initiative, which only recently became public knowledge, has just begun with OFA opening a Technology Field Office in San Francisco last week.

The really unusual thing about the SF office is that it appears as though the campaign will use it primarily to try to organize and harness the efforts of volunteers who possess computer programming skills. This sort of coordinated, quasi-open tool-building effort is completely unprecedented, especially within OFA, which has historically pursued a secretive and closed model of innovation and internal technology development.

If the S.F. technology field office results in even one or two moderately successful projects – I imagine there will be a variety of mobile apps, games, and related tools that it will release between now and November – it may give rise to a wave of similar semi-open innovation efforts and facilitate an even closer set of connections between Silicon Valley firms and OFA.

Is This What Digital Democracy Looks Like?

I believe that the applications of commercial data-mining tools and gamification techniques to political campaigns have contradictory implications for democracy.

On the one hand, big data and social games represent the latest and greatest tools available for campaigns to use to try to engage citizens and get them actively involved in elections. Given the generally inattentive and fragmented state of the American electorate, part of me therefore believes that these efforts ultimately serve a valuable civic purpose and may, over the long haul, help to create a vital and digitally-enhanced civic sphere in this country.

At the same time, it is difficult to see how the OFA initiatives I have discussed here (and others occurring elsewhere across the U.S. political spectrum) advance equally important goals such as promoting cross-ideological dialogue, deliberative democracy, voter privacy, political accountability, or electoral transparency. (Along related lines, Dan Kreiss has blogged his thoughts about the 2012 Obama campaign and its embodiment of a certain vision of “the technological sublime.”)

All the database centralization, data mining, and gamified platforms for citizen engagement in the world will neither make a dysfunctional democratic government any more accountable to its citizens; erase broken aspects of the electoral system; nor generate a more deeply democratic and representative networked public sphere. Indeed, these techniques have generally been used to grow the bottom line of private companies with little or no concern for whether or not any broader public goods are created or distributed. Voters, pundits, President Obama, and the members of his campaign staff would all do well to keep that in mind no matter what happens this Fall.