A few weeks ago, Sight and Sound, a festival produced by Eastern Bloc in Montreal, ran a workshop titled Analyze Dat: TOR Visualization. Headed by someone who presents himself (or herself) as Arthur Heist, the description of the workshop suggested an internet driven by secrecy.

This workshop explored the use of natural language processing tools to analyze the goods, products and services available on online black markets, trying to reveal a faithful cartography of the dark web.

The workshop will begin with an introduction of the tools involved in accessing the Internet's black markets (Tor bundle, Bitcoins). Participants will then process these webpages to extract information from natural language to draw a map of hidden services. These tools allow the user to go from simple word frequency analysis (i.e. cloud tags) to more complex semantic comparison and statistical relationships between those networks. The goal is to be able to visualize this data in order to get a better understanding of the inner, deep feelings society keeps hidden.

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Word visualization of the hidden wiki made during the workshop. Image courtesy Arthur Heist

I knew about the stateless, encrypted online Bitcoin currency of course, i had heard of the Tor software that enables online anonymity but other than that, i felt that there was precious little i knew about the Deep Web, the vast submersed side of the World Wide Web that countless people are using in perfect anonymity every day to buy goods that neither ebay nor amazon will ever sell you and to exchange services that won't appear when you do a google search.

The more i looked into Tor and the many activities it enabled, the more intrigued i was. I thought that the easiest and fastest way to get a better understanding of the issue would be to interview Arthur Heist:

HI Arthur! How much can one discover about this underground economy ?

It is quite easy to find out about any good or hidden service available on the dark web. One just needs to know the first entry point that keeps track of these peculiar services.

Do you have to be a seasoned hacker, a super smart programmer or can any web user make interesting enough discoveries ?

The first pit stop is to go to the Tor project website and install the Tor browser for your operating system. Once installed, you can launch Tor browser and access any website anonymously. So, no need to be either a hacker or programmer to begin browsing the hidden web. A popular place where a lot hidden services are listed is "The Hidden Wiki". From there, you can even find search engines that specifically target onion websites (those with an cabalistic URL).

And how did you find about it in the first place ?

As a user, I had been using Tor for a few years to enhance my anonymity online. I like the fact that it allows you to bypass some restrictions applied unfairly by companies who want to protects their assets. In a way, Tor gives us back the net neutrality some companies or governments want to put at risk. Concerning the dark web more specifically, this whole economy emerged more recently as a result of the emergence of bitcoin currency approximately 4 years ago. Even though I did not get interested in bitcoin specifically, I was more fascinated by the whole range of services and activities made available by these new technologies.

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Screenshot of an item description page on the Silk Road Marketplace

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Screenshot of some of Silk Road's offerings, with its price marked in Bitcoins

Deep web, Silk Road, etc. Do you feel that the general public is quite unaware of the existence of this less visible part of the web ?

From a general point of view, I have never thought that the internet was much different or more dangerous than what we can experience in the real world. Let's say you are going to Toronto for the first time and you want to buy some crack cocaïne, where do you go? Who do you get in contact with? In the same manner, if you want to find illegal services on the web, it takes the same effort to know about them.

The general public has been fed what commercial companies want them to know. They have their minds locked in a narrow place for them to consume more easily, in the same way they'd go to Starbucks instead of the local coffee shop because it's not advertised on the same scale.

Were the participants like me, attracted by the description of the workshop but totally unaware of what it entailed? Or did they come prepared and knowing what they would be looking for ?

The nice thing about the participants was that they represented in their interests the whole range of topics discussed during the workshop. Some were more interested in the political issues involved, some more in the use of natural language tools. Most of them had already installed Tor on their computers.

How exactly does this online black market reflect the traditional offline black market ?

As stated above, there are no major differences between what you can find through online or offline black markets. And as a matter of fact, in the offline black market, anonymity is also the rule, going from changing your real name to wearing disguises so as not to be recognized. The main added value that the online black market allows for is the possibility to connect dealers and customers that would not have met otherwise in real life, which is also the main characteristic of online services in general too.

Does it allow for other types of transactions, activities, exchanges of goods and services?

Of course, anonymity brings a wide range of activities that you would not be able to find if it weren't anonymous. Among things you can find through hidden services are the scary contract killers who offer to kill someone, whose prices are set depending on the popularity of the person to kill. A funnier website called Tor University offers you to write any assignment or essay you need to get better grades. Another website offers to set up pranks to your friends; for example, by breaking into their house with a fully equipped SWAT team ...

I read that law enforcement agencies were struggling to deal with online black market. Why is it even more difficult to grasp and fight than, say, traditional drug traffic?

Because of the inner nature or how Tor works, by encrypting the communications being sent, all along the way through each relay (except for the last one), it is not easily possible to track down one specific user or website. Nevertheless, one famous hack was made possible on the Tor network by setting up a few Tor routers, which all relay a lot of information. Most of it is encrypted, but when the router is chosen (by the algorithm itself) to act as the last relay, then the data being transited is sent in the clear. So, if you set up your own relay, you are able to log all data transiting on your node, and thus retrieve information people have not encrypted before sending it through the Tor network. Tor network offers anonymity, not confidentiality! I read there also were some rumors that US governmental agencies may possibly run fake drug websites, so as to be able to get an alarm when some user was buying a too large amount of drugs for it to be his personal consumption.

Can the dark web (the way it operates, protects itself, etc.) teach innocent users of the internet (like me) anything ?

Blatantly, recent news about the US Prism program shows us again that giving up your personal data into the hands of big internet companies is like leaving your luggage in your hotel lobby: how trustworthy is it, you can never be sure it won't be stolen or searched by anyone. And what the Tor network (and as an extension, bitcoins) achieves is the possibility to give us back the power to build the internet as it should, free and open. Of course, mass media like to make us think the use of these tools is evil and unsafe, whereas it is indeed the safest thing to do.

What did the participants achieve during the workshop ?

The workshop was more about awareness, discussion and showing how these various tools work and how to use them in your own practice.

Thanks Arthur!

Also part of Sight and Sound, a Montreal festival which, this year, explored the rhizomatic and permeating structures of society's concealed systems: The Pirate Cinema, A Cinematic Collage Generated by P2P Users.

Sponsored by:





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Social Teletext Network

During the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, governments restricted the access to the Internet in an effort to hamper online peer networking and thus self-organization. Could other governments ever operate a similar media shutdown and cut their citizens off the internet?

What would we do if ever an Internet kill switch was implemented in our country? Not necessarily to prevent us from orchestrating riots but to protect the internet "from unspecified assailants".

At the latest graduation show of the Design Interactions department in London, Philipp Ronnenberg was showing 3 methods to prepare for the time after a cyberwar. The Post Cyberwar Series proposes an alternative open navigation system, a makeshift wireless communication infrastructure as well as a novel data storage.

The Teletext Social Network enables people to bypass network providers and governmental institutions and communicate using the analogue television broadcasting which was freed last April in the UK.

OpenPositioningSystem relies on the seismic activity, produced by generators in power plants, turbines in pumping stations or other large machines running in factories to provide an open navigation system. I interviewed the designer about it a few months ago.

Finally, Sewer Cloud is a bit more complex. The system is inspired by the current research on the storage of data into DNA. 1 gram of DNA is capable of storing up to 700 terabytes of data.

People living in urban areas could use the Sewer Cloud as a living, self-reproducing data network. This living network would be located in the sewerage system and use the algae species Anabaena bacteria for the insertion and extraction of data.

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Member using the Social Teletext Network

I contacted Philipp again to ask for more details about his project:

Hi Philipp! When i first interviewed you about the OPS, you didn't mention the kill switch. How did it go from one project about positioning system to a more complex scenario in which internet has been killed off? Were you inspired by any particular events from the recent news? I'm thinking of the NSA data collection: isn't controlling the internet and surveilling our every click enough for States?

The kill switch scenario stands for "killing" the Internet. But the Internet is only one network which is under control of companies and governmental institutions. The kill switch particularly is about the Internet, but other networks such as GPS navigation and mobile phone networks can be affected as well. In all three cases, the GPS navigation network, the mobile phone networks and the Internet, the control is in the hand of companies and governmental institutions.

I wanted to create three independent network alternatives. The body of work wrapped in the series Post Cyberwar is a reflection of how dependent we are today on the authoritarian structures of the networks we are using day to day. It is not only about surveillance and tracking down activity of users, it is also about content which becomes increasingly restricted, censored and monitored. The installation of controlling instances (i.e. kill switch) within these networks is justified with cyberwar and cyber-terrorism.
The recent news of the NSA data collection came just about right for the project. I have been working on the Post Cyberwar series since we last met. For me, it was always obvious that the NSA or any other governmental institutions are monitoring, but I was surprised about the dimension. Nowadays the perception (in the public) of surveillance has slightly changed, thanks to the main stream media and whistleblowers like Snowden. When I talked 5 years ago about surveillance and tracking, I often heard words like paranoid and being mistrustful.

Controlling the Internet and surveilling our every click is enough for getting an insight. But as we saw in Georgia, Egypt and sometimes China, shutting down the Internet and mobile phone networks (or at least parts of it), is a powerful way to prevent communication and the circulation of undesirable information.

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OpenPositioningSystem. Sensor prototype


OpenPositioningSystem

Speaking of OPS, how much has it grown since we last talked about it? Have the prototype and software improved and has the project given rise to attention and interest?

The OPS has grown a lot. First it got attention through your first blogpost and it was reblogged by some bigger blogs. I got very diverse feedback from "this comes out when art students try to be engineers (theverge.com comments)" and people asking me to get actively involved. I have 80 registered members on the website so far, but there is not much activity yet. I want to spend more time soon to bring new content on the website and therefore activate the registered members. The prototype and the software have slightly improved being more accurate and I worked on better tuning to seismic frequencies.

I gave two talks (#geomob London and W3C Open Data on the Web workshop) about the OPS so far where I tried to convince people to come on board. There is a third presentation at OHM2013 planned.
I applied for funding to bring the OPS to a working prototype stage in a small scale test area. I think, if I can build up a solid working prototype, the project will come to the next big step. There is still a lot of work to do.

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Social Teletext Network. Profile page of Zoe Johnson

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Social Teletext Network

Is the Social Teletext Network installation at the show a working prototype? Which part of the communication would it replace exactly? I can't believe it could replace all internet communication, it seems to be so rudimentary.

The Social Teletext Network in the show was showing a demo. But I have the hardware and the software ready to switch it on. The demo in the show was created with the help of the same software which is used in the real setup. Unfortunately it is highly illegal to broadcast your own TV signals, therefore I decided to show a demo in the show. I could apply for analogue (VHF) frequencies, but it is very expensive (too expensive for a student project).

It is not meant to replace the entire Internet. The technical limitations for this task are too high. The Social Teletext Network is capable to provide wireless information streaming, using the old obsolete teletext technology, which makes it harder to track or to monitor. I tried to port some comfort which we know from computer interaction to the Social Teletext Network. For example: You can zoom into specific regions on a map and visualise user locations and other information.

The Teletext specifications provide a very limited resolution and it can only display text and graphics programmed with single pixels. Overall, the strength is that you can send and receive information wireless and over a distance (5km and even more possible with the right hardware and a high antenna).

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Sewer Cloud. Stench pipes provide access points to the sewerage system

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Sewer Cloud. Accessing the sewer system and obtaining algae

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Sewer Cloud. Data extraction from and insertion into algae at the local corner shop


Algae circulation in London's sewer system

Could you explain me with more details the process of the data insertion and extraction from algae? Because if i want to retrieve some data, how do i know which algae i should fish and where?

Text, images, video and any piece of digital data is written in binary code (110011110). These 1's and 0's are then encoded to the four base-pairs of DNA (Adenine, Cytosine, Thymine and Guanine). The new base-pair string will be synthesised to a complete DNA string and inserted into living organisms. To read data out of a DNA string the base-pairs would be decoded to 1's and 0's again and from that to human readable information.
In the beginning of each DNA string, there is an address block which indicates what kind of information is in each string. With this method you could know what you will find in a specific piece of algae.

As 1 gram of DNA can hold up to 700 terabytes (700.000 gigabytes), the amount of data what you can find in a single piece is very high.

If you would insert data into algae and hide the algae at a specific site, the chance that it stays there is high. It would reproduce itself and the following generations would go on a journey. But if the conditions are good, the origin would stay at the same spot and you could still find the same data even years after you have put it somewhere. So the idea is more, that you would know by locations where you can find specific information.

More infos here: Writing the Book in DNA and Test-tube data.

Thanks Philipp!

There are countless parodies, imitations, versions of the Technoviking. The fabulous and the lame ones that you can expect Youtube to harbour. But the character has also inspired a couple of artworks: Wafaa Bilal put the head of the raver in a public park and watched it grow bigger as people were tweeting about it. And for The Marc Horowitz Signature Series, 19 performances aimed at 'improving' the lives of the citizens he encountered, Marc Horowitz reenacted the techno viking dance session in a junkyard in Walsenburg, Colorado. I saw that one a few years ago at the Espace culturel Louis Vuitton in Paris. Because technoviking knows no social boundaries. Neither does he have any mercantile limits: you can buy Technoviking action figures and Technoviking t-shirts.

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And now there might be a documentary about Technoviking. But probably not the one its many fans were expecting.

Matthias Fritsch, the artist who shot and uploaded the video has spent 3 years in a legal battle in Germany. In 2009 (2 years after 'the technoviking' became an internet hit), the raver starring in the video sued the artist for uncleared 'personality rights' and tried to remove Technoviking from the web. Not only the original video (called "Kneecam No. 1") but also all the thousands of mash-ups, copies, comics, parodies and other content uploaded online by enthusiastic users. All had to be removed. The protagonist of the video even requested that his famous fingerpointing pose be erased from the internet. At the end of last month, the judges decided that the original video would not be allowed to be shown as long as it is possible to identify the protagonist. Besides, the filmmaker has to pay the money that he had earned to the plaintiff. The earnings came mostly from YouTube ads with a few extra euros from TV-licenses and T-shirts sales.

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Kneecam No.1 aka Technoviking, 2001 (video still)

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Technoviking says Obey

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Jeremiah Palecek, painting of the Technoviking

Fritsch has started a campaign on indiegogo to raise funds for a documentary about the Technoviking story. First of all, because Fritsch has been studying and documenting the many reactions to the videos for years and the phenomenon in itself is worth discussing. But also because, as he puts it:

the documentary would be :a means to pave the way for artists and internet users around the world to be able to protect themselves against old laws that have yet to catch up to contemporary meme culture."

All this without ever being allowed to actually show the main protagonist of the story.

I caught up with Matthias online the other day...

Hi Matthias! You published the Technoviking video on YouTube in 2006 but it was not before 2009 that the mysterious man sent a legal notice asking you to stop using the video and all derivations of it. Why do you think it took him so long to write you? Was it because he wasn't aware of the phenomenon until then? Or is it because something changed in culture or laws in 2009 that made him realize that the moment had come to do something to protect his "personality"?

I can't say for sure why it took the plaintiff so long to get back to me. Already in October 2007, just a week after the video became viral, I met people in China who I had never met before and who already knew the video. Therefore I find it hard to believe that it will take somebody two years to get notice of being involved in such a big viral effect.

What happened with this trial? Is it finished? What was the decision of the law?

The trial is finished. Basic results are that I am not allowed to show the video anymore in its original form, meaning as long as it is possible to identify the plaintiff's image. If I cant show the protagonist so can't users anymore who mash up the video. According to the judgement a violation can have consequences of up to 250 000 Euro fine or up to 6 months of jail for me. Also I have to pay him all the money that I have earned since 2008 and I will need to cover 7000 Euro for my part of the fees for the trial and costs for his and my lawyers over the last 3,5 years. Since the judges didn't support him in many points of the lawsuit like the banning of user reactions like comics, re-enactments or mashups that are deemed "arty" enough (the German term is "besondere kunstgerechte Bildbearbeitung") in connection with the video's protagonist. Those should still fall under the freedom of expression. Also the judges seem to have concluded that the plaintiff is rather after the money than really trying to solve his argued personal problems in connection with the video and therefore denied him to claim further financial compensation from me. There is still a chance that the plaintiff is not happy enough with this result and files an appeal against the judgement.

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Wafaa Bilal, Meme Junkyard: Technoviking, 2012 at the AND Festival in Manchester. Photo credit: Paul Greenwood

In the indiegogo campaign you say that "The trial was not just about me and Technoviking, it pointed out the borders of free culture and user reactions and one can also conclude that we need new categories in the law how to deal with memes on a legal basis." Could you tell us what you mean by this? Where do you think the law should go? And where do you fear it might go?

I am not a specialist in law and I can just describe my "amateur" feeling after being involved in this case. Therefore I can't provide a solid legal concept yet how the law should include new forms of expression that we find in the contemporary network culture, but I realized that there is a big gap between the actual laws and how I think of this case from a perspective of logic & human spirit. What was the situation when the legal problem started and what could be changed about it by a trial? If there has been a viral Meme in the net for years, if it's been watched globally, copied, used for mash-ups, and if it got out of control - what possible result can a judgement bring in reality that by stating that it is not allowed anymore to continue with the further use? Especially since it it became a web-celebrity which is handled by users like a common piece of media that belongs to everybody?! The young generation grows up with a new understanding of how to deal with media in times of instant copy, paste and edit. And the most common effect of censoring something popular is that this makes it even more popular.

If there is no right for mash-up and fair use for cases like the Technoviking-Meme I fear that, as it is already the case in the music business, lawyers might pick up this way of easy & massive money making and start to send cease and desist letters to prosumers for violating personality rights by doing mashups or forwarding it in FB, etc.

An other interesting point is the fact that in Spain or the US the Technoviking-Claim wouldn't even have a legal basis since it all happened in public space. I would love to talk with competent people about those issues, bring them together within the film that I am planning to create and hopefully find answers and possible solutions.

But more generally, i've been wondering how your case wasn't symptomatic of what is happening more generally with internet culture nowadays, when laws seem to be crafted in retrospect and punish you now for something that wasn't illegal at all 5 or 10 years ago. With -for example- designers or artists receiving bills for copy rights of images they used online 10 years ago as part of a student project, at a time when there wasn't any law detailing what could be or shouldn't be done in terms of copyrights for online images, etc. Is this something you would like to comment on?

I think that's of course a problem and always will be one. I am not aware of those examples when a bill points back 10 years, but it points out that the images you talk about are still online. Since the web hardly forgets anything we need an awareness of what we put out there and what is still online in our own accounts. One radical way could be to cut credits completely, only focus on important content and ideas that will be published anonymous, untraceable but alive.

The Technoviking is by far my favourite meme. Yet, i do sympathize with a man who is universally ridiculed (and didn't ask for it, unlike many reality tv 'stars'). Did you try to reach some kind of arrangement with him? Some understanding which would have been less dramatic and time/money consuming than a court case?

The first thing I did was sending him a personal letter, thanking him for finally contacting me and offered that of course I'd like to share whatever I earn and that I would be open to think together about how to make both a part of living out of the meme's popularity.

What strikes me in your case is not so much that you are brought to court (i do find it sad though, don't misunderstand me!) but that you have to be held responsible for the fact that the whole technoviking meme got out of your hands (as is the case with any meme.)
Can any judge really believe that you are responsible for comics and kidrobot figurines like this one?

The judges didn't hold me responsible for user reactions and neither denied me the right of showing them in lectures or art projects as long as they don't show the plaintiff.

Matthias Fritsch, The Story of Technoviking - Indiegogo Campaign, 2013

You are planning to shoot the documentary within the legal restrictions that have been made clear by the judges. What are these legal restriction exactly?

The conditions are that the plaintiff should not be identified in the material. I also will not reveal any name, address and so on that could point out how people can find him.

You have created an archive of the different versions, creations and reactions inspired by the technoviking. It is so big that, as you write, "you would need a week to see all the versions that are out there!" So let's end on a cheerful note! If you could select 5 of these versions, which one would they be?

In the past I have created some compilations that research specific recycling strategies by fans and are real enjoyable to watch:
one is the re-enactments mash-up We Technoviking.
an other shows virtual re-enactments Technoviking Transmedia.

For the biggest part of the user-reactions, since they mash up the original video, my hands are bound at the moment because i shouldn't link directly to content that shows the plaintiff's face. So people need to find these ones themselves. But i can talk about it and it is just incredible how perfect Michael Jackson's song "Beat It" is fitting on the Technoviking clip. As if they were made for each other. There are other songs that are awesome in combination with my video but "Beat it" beats them all in terms of accidentally perfect match.

Also some collages like "the end of the vorld party" or a streetfighter like game simulation of Technoviking against Vernon Koekemoer are results of an incredible fan culture that i could have never come up with myself.

Thanks Matthias!

I do love that Beat It techno viking and Matthias might not be allowed to point directly to it, but i can!


Techno Viking, Beat It

The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, is aired this afternoon at 4pm (London time.)

Today i'm talking with Alison Craighead and Jon Thomson, aka Thomson & Craighead, a duo of artists who have been creating video, sound, installation, desktop documentaries and other online pieces since 1993. Many of their art works appropriate and recontextualise found footage, spam messages, live statistics or even local tweets to make artworks that talk about the way we perceive and position ourselves in the information age.

We'll be talking about how to handle and archive materials found on the web, the absence of any image documenting war in certain parts of the world, spam and other jolly subjects.

The show will be aired today Wednesday 8th May at 16:00. The repeat is next Tuesday at 6.30 am (yes, a.m!) If you don't live in London, you can catch the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.

Never Odd Or Even, a survey of Thomson & Craighead's work is opening on May 24 at the Carroll/Fletcher Gallery in London. There will be karaoke, Space Invaders and i'm looking forward to that one.

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Thomson & Craighead, The End, 2010

The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, is aired this afternoon at 4pm (London time.)

Today i'm talking with artists, curators, writers Ruth Catlow and Marc Garrett who, 16 years ago, founded Furtherfield, an organization with a very strong online and offline presence. Furtherfield.org is an online community where artists, theorists and activists meet and talk about art, technology and society but Furtherfield is also an art organization with a gallery located in Finsbury Park that invites the public to discover and reflect upon digital/networked media art and social changes.

The conversation has been fascinating: Ruth and Marc talked about the early days of the internet in London, about the legendary Backspace (now a Starbucks as Alison and Jon from Thomson and Craighead informed me yesterday), about how they've been curating exhibitions and events with the help and feedback of their large community for years, etc.

Finally, they discussed unmanned aerial vehicles. Their new show, Movable Borders: Here Come the Drones!, opens at the Furtherfield Gallery in Finsbury Park this Saturday afternoon. I'll be there and hope to meet some of you.

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The show will be aired today Wednesday 8th May at 16:00. The repeat is next Tuesday at 6.30 am (yes, a.m!) If you don't live in London, you can catch the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.

Movable Borders: Here Come the Drones! will open from Saturday 11 until Sunday 26 May 2013. The opening is on Saturday 11 May 2013, 2-5pm.
The following Saturday, Dave Young is organizing the workshop MOVABLE BORDERS: THE REPOSITION MATRIX.

Finally, Furtherfield has a fund raising campaign going on. I can't think of a better cultural cause to support right now.

Image on the homepage: Spinning Desktop by Antonio Roberts. I nicked it from another of Furtherfield's upcoming show: Glitch Moment/ums.

While visiting the new spaces of Medialab Prado last month, i got to discover several projects which are developed in collaboration with the Madrid-based program. One of these projects is the Citizen Cyberscience Centre, a citizen science initiative where citizens and researchers alike are invited to participate in large scale scientific projects with either some time, power from their brain or from their computer.

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Representation of the Higgs particle

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Work stations at Medialab Prado

Volunteers from around the world are welcome to participate to projects that will help the scientific community identify and mark deforested areas using high-resolution Earth imagery, research the elusive Higgs particle using a virtual atom smasher, understand the fundamental laws of the universe, or the secrets of magnetism at the molecular scale.

I met Daniel Lombraña González, a researcher and lead developer of the Citizen Cyberscience Centre (aka CCC, a partnership between CERN, the UN Institute for Training and Research and the University of Geneva), at the MLP and he was kind enough to answers my questions about some of the Citizen Cyber Science projects:

Hi Daniel! How did you get to collaborate with MediaLab Prado? What sort of infrastructure, network and support do they provide the project with?

The CCC contacted Medialab this year because we think that we have a lot in common. Medialab is an heterogenous space where science, engineering and art are mixed in a beautiful way and we thought that it could be really interesting to participate with them. Medialab will offer its connections with other collectives and we will try to provide our knowledge in citizen science events like the one that we are organizing the 17th and 18th of May.

One of the most impressive project of CCS is probably LHC@home, a platform that allows volunteers to help physicists develop and exploit particle accelerators like CERN's Large Hadron Collider, and to compare theory with experiment in the search for new fundamental particles. So how exactly can people contribute, do they have to be physicists too?

People contribute by creating an account in the project and downloading two pieces of software: BOINC and VirtualBox. BOINC is the software that allows to automatically configure the VirtualBox software, that will be used to create a Virtual Machine that will connect CERN and run the simulations. The CCC developed this aspect of the project contributing the integration of the virtualization VirtualBox software (created by Oracle) within the BOINC framework.

Once you have installed the software, all you have to do is to see how your computer and user account gets credits based on the simulations that your PC are contributing to the project and check if you are in the top 20 of the best volunteers or if you are part of the Billionaires club (users who have simulated more than 1 Billion of events!)

Therefore, as you can see, the project welcomes everyone to participate and you don't have to be a physicist at all :-)

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Billionaires club

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Checks are performed on the alignment of the magnets in the LHC tunnel. Photo: Maximilien Brice, © CERN

How important is their contribution? Does their help have a big impact on the research of the CERN physicists?

Here I'm going to quote the main researcher of the project about this specific question :-)

The place where T4T contributes is in the validation of the theoretical models that underpin the interpretation of the data. Roughly speaking, if we only had really bad theoretical models, the analysis of the real data would suffer. Given only very crude models, we would be more uncertain about what a real Higgs state should look like in the experiment, and what is merely unrelated "background". That uncertainty would translate into having to run the LHC longer, collecting more statistics, before an announcement such as the one on July 4th could be made with any confidence. The fact that we do have quite sophisticated and thoroughly tested theoretical models for the physics taking place at the LHC "sharpens" our ability to extract conclusions from the data with confidence.

Day by day, T4T volunteers are testing our theory simulations. When new versions of the simulation codes are released, we incorporate them into the T4T queues and send them out to you for testing. When new test data is released, we incorporate that data into the T4T test suite and again send everything we got out to you for testing against this new added piece of information, each piece making up a small part of the full picture of what the "ideal" simulation should look like.

Check the full message from Peter Skands here, as he explains much better the implications of the contributions of the volunteers to the researchers.

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Forest Watchers

I was particularly intrigued by Forest Watchers which invites people located anywhere in the world to monitor patches of forest that need to be protected. Now a forest like the Amazonian is extended over a very large territory so how many volunteers would its monitoring typically involve?

The current project only has 164 registered users, but almost 1000 people have actually participated in the project since its creation contributing tasks :-) (you can see the stats here). We still are in the early stages of the project, and we are starting to analyze the first results, so I cannot give you that answer for the moment. We hope to have some published paper in the future, but there is no ETA yet.

And we all know about the Amazonian forrest but how about other forests that needs to be protected? Can you give other examples, in Europe in particular?

0forestwatchers.jpgThe platform was created with the idea of allowing other countries to use it in a simple way. If I'm not mistaken Europe is well covered, due to the available human power and resources that EU has for this type of natural parks. The main goal of starting in the Amazon was because INPE, one of the main partners behind the project, are the world lead experts in deforestation assessment and they contacted the Citizen Cyberscience Centre to start the project.


Now once the location of a threat has been reported, what happens? Do government usually step in? Or non-governmental organizations?

Usually the government. However, ForestWatchers.net has not contacted the government at all, as this is a research project from INPE and CCC analyzing the feasibility of getting non-experts, citizens, analyzing deforested areas. As I said before, ForestWatchers.net is a research project and we are trying to analyze if the volunteers will be able to produce good results in comparison with the experts.

How do you verify that information provided by volunteers? How can you check that it is correct and valuable?

For every task at least 30 different persons will contribute an answer. Then, we will analyze all the reported answers statistically to be sure that there are no outliers, and that the majority of the volunteers agree on the reported results. We are in the process of analyzing the data with INPE experts to quantify the quality of these results.

Most of the projects of Citizen Cyber Science are developed in partnership with prestigious institutions such as CERN, universities in France, Switzerland and England. How open are institutions in general to direct participation of citizens? Because i always thought that science was a domain reserved to an elite of intellectuals...

It depends :-) I think there is a no clear answer here. In general the first time that we approach a research institution with a citizen science proposal, the usual answer is to be afraid of going into the open. However, after showing some of the projects that we are currently running and supporting some of these scientists see the benefits of using these approaches and they jump in. It is important also to mention that even citizens feel like you, so even though there are several citizen science projects, we are not sending the right message to you, as you think this type of science is only for an elite :-)

Thus, in summary, let's say that in general institutions are not so open due to citizen science is "grass roots movement" but it is taking pace and getting more adepts every day.

Why do you think that people contribute? What do they gain from that?

From time to time we interview the volunteers to answer that specific questions. In general, people do it because they like to contribute to the project, because they feel that science is important and this type of projects give them an opportunity to see science closer.

What do they gain? This is a really good question! Actually, we are now in an EU project called Citizen Cyberlab where we are studying actually what do they gain. In general, what the volunteers gain is a non-formal knowledge about the project where they usually learn science "by accident" :-) For example, by participating in the LHC@Home Test4Theory project, some volunteers have become "experts" in the Virtualization technology that the project uses. This has been proven, because new contributers usually get help from this other volunteers with very detailed answers :-)

Thanks Daniel!

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