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CMNS Professor receives significant SSHRC Public Outreach grant

March 25th, 2011

March 22, 2011

Building on a 2010 SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis grant on the use of broadband networks in northern and remote First Nations communities, Richard Smith has received a $227,675 Public Outreach grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

The grant is titled “Community-based broadband development and applications in Inuit and First Nations communities.” Smith’s colleague Susan O’Donnell, at University of New Brunswick, will be co-investigator. Rob McMahon (PhD candidate in the School of Communication) is the primary research assistant. In addition, the project is strongly supported by a group of First Nations and Inuit partner organizations, including Ontario’s Northern Chiefs Tribal Council (Keewaytinook Okimakanak, or KO), Atlantic Canada’s First Nation Help Desk, and First Nations Education Council (FNEC), based in Wendake, Quebec.

Broadband-enabled digital networks and technologies offer communities the opportunity to engage in a variety of development projects. First Nations and Inuit communities provide many examples of how technologies are used in health, education, government, and culture and language. Communities, however, need to be involved in the earliest stages of designing and implementing these technologies in order to best support local applications. It is not enough for a community to simply be ‘connected’; a community must also be connected in ways that support sustainable, locally-driven development practices.

Our research will tell the stories of local, “first mile” development practices, countering the assumption implicit in industry-driven approaches that only involve communities at the ‘last’ step in development processes. We will highlight community-based successes through short (three minute) videos about innovative community-based broadband projects made by First Nations and Inuit community researchers; and online resources for communities and policy makers. We will also facilitate national and regional online conferences to highlight stories and engage communities and policy makers. We will also create an interactive website that showcases the videos and provides digitized material that visitors can use to create their own ‘mash-up’ videos.

Surveillance = Big Business

January 1st, 2010

surveillanceadsA friend of mine has built a Flickr group for pictures of surveillance warning signs in Canada. I’ve contributed a few already, and will add more as I find them (I used to have a huge collection of such signs, but I think they are buried in some iPhoto archive that is lost/misplaced…). His note about the group arrived in my gmail box this morning and it was only when I was just about to close the window that I noticed the large list of ads that accompanied it. Gmail always (or almost always – try putting “terrorism” in your email and you’ll find gmail ad buyers run for cover…, some people even put this in their email footer just to divert the sponsor-demons) has a bevy of ads for every email message you see, but this group reminded me that surveillance is big business.

We sometimes (i.e., during this run-up to the Olympics) wonder why the security preparations are so “over the top.” For example, the airspace over Vancouver is being cleared during the 2010 games. Do people really believe a foreign power with access to aircraft will attack the Games from above? What about the reported underwater scrutiny? Are we to believe that a submarine will attack Vancouver? All of these beautifully illustrate David Lyon’s observation that we are no longer preparing for “insurable” risks, but “incalculable” risks.

Insurable risks are those that might have some measurable probability and therefore a reasonable budget can be constructed to mitigate them. Incalculable risks, of course, are … incalculable, so it doesn’t really make sense that there is an upper limit on your security spend, right? And that’s why we get a program of security that is so wildly out of control. Who is going to question your decision to spend a billion dollars (equivalent to the security budget for ALL of the airports in Canada, all year, by the way) if you tell them you have to prepare for “the incalculable“?

That might annoy the civil libertarians but it is great business for those who make the vast array of surveillance and security equipment. This is their version of the Thanksgiving/Boxing Day sales. Imagine the glee as they trot out gizmos and gadgets to police and army personnel. Imagine the festivities back in police headquarters when they learn that a) the gizmo budget is paid for by Olympic funds, not their own budget, and b) they get to take home all this gear afterward!

Here is a quote from a Vancouver City Council report: “Council is being asked to accept a grant of funds from the Province and consider requesting funds from V2010-ISU, totalling approximately $2.6 million. Doing so will assist the City in meeting its commitment to host a safe and secure Games, whilst ensuring that the cost of temporary CCTV deployment is not directly borne by the City’s taxpayers.” see http://vancouver.ca/ctyclerk/cclerk/20090326/documents/csbu7.pdf)

Back to the title of this blog post, what is the business of surveillance? How about this:

Big Brother’s Big Business – In a world of fear, American cities and corporations are spending billions on high-tech surveillance equipment. A look at the economic engine and privacy concerns surrounding ’smart cameras’ and other devices. By Jessica Bennett. Newsweek Web Exclusive (March 15, 2006). “Video surveillance has become the fastest-growing industry within the major categories of electronic security — with nearly one in four major cities in America investing in new technology, analysts say. It has more than doubled in the last five years, becoming an estimated $9.2 billion business in 2005 and expected to grow to $21 billion by 2010, says Joe Freeman, a columnist for Security Technology & Design Magazine and founder and president of J.P. Freeman, a market research and consulting firm. … The future of video surveillance, using so-called ‘intelligent cameras’ and software, is designed to function far beyond what is humanly possible.” (http://www.aaai.org/aitopics/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/AITopics/Statistics)

Vancouver Statement

November 24th, 2009

The Vancouver Statement of Surveillance, Security and Privacy Researchers about the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games

NOTE: New Transparency Project is now hosting the definitive version of the statement on a permanent page, here:

As researchers from Canada and the wider world, who are conducting research on the global security dynamics of mega-events, we agree:

  • that the Olympic Games should be a celebration of human achievement, friendship and trust between people and nations.

However, having analysed past and planned Olympics and other mega events, from a variety of historical and international perspectives, we recognise:

  • that recent Games have increasingly taken place in and contributed to a climate of fear, heightened security and surveillance; and
  • that this has often been to the detriment of democracy, transparency and human rights, with serious implications for international, national and local norms and laws.

Therefore, we ask the City of Vancouver, the Province of British Columbia and the Government of Canada:

  • to moderate the escalation of security measures for Vancouver 2010 and to strive to respect the true spirit of the event;
  • to be as open as possible about the necessary security and surveillance practices and rationales
    to withdraw temporary bylaws that restrict Charter rights of freedom of speech and assembly;
  • to work constructively with the Provincial and Federal Privacy Commissioners;
  • to respect the rights of all individuals and groups, whether they be local people or visitors, and pay particular attention to the impacts on vulnerable people;
  • to conduct a full, independent public assessment of the security and surveillance measures, once the Games are over, addressing their costs (financial and otherwise), their effectiveness, and lessons to be learned for future mega-events;
  • not to assume a permanent legacy of increased video surveillance and hardened security measures in the Vancouver/Whistler area, and to have full and open public discussion on any such proposed legacy.

We hope that these recommendations will contribute to a unique and positive Olympic legacy by which Vancouver, British Columbia and Canada will be remembered for setting the highest ethical standards.

November 23, 2009

For further information, contact:

Richard Smith, e-mail: smith@sfu.ca tel: 778-782-5116; or

Colin Bennett, e-mail: cjb@uvic.ca tel: 250 721-7495

The “signatories” for this statement include, as of 6pm November 25 (see comment on this post for additional signatures from supporters):
Read the rest of this entry »

Civility 2

April 10th, 2009



When I heard about Translink’s latest campaign to create fear and suspicion among the public, I almost didn’t believe it. Of course we hear about this happening in England and the US, but we never imagine it will happen here in sensible Vancouver. In our pre-Olympic hysteria, however, anything is possible it seems.

The ad campaign, which seeks to raise security awareness among Vancouver transit riders, has a sensible side: asking people to watch out for parcels that have been left behind, for example. But it also has its daft side: suggesting that people who take photographs of CCTV surveillance cameras are “suspicious.” In fact, by implication, anyone taking photographs is suspicious, since what is so special about the CCTV surveillance cameras? They are ubiquitous in Skytrain stations, everyone can see them. Even the other CCTV surveillance cameras, presumably, can see them.

I see some very unpleasant outcomes from a campaign like this. As with many surveillance initiatives, the most pernicious aspects are the hidden social costs, not the personal costs. Presumably someone – like me – who takes pictures of CCTV surveillance cameras can explain themselves to whoever asks, including Transit police, that he or she is taking pictures as part of a research project, or an art project, or just personal reasons. There is no law against photography and photography is perfectly legal in our society. In fact, as an expressive art, it is covered by free speech provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Leaving aside the beauty and drama of street photography, what about our political rights to speak about the things we see around us. Surely we can take pictures to illustrate our words. So there is a “chilling” aspect to a campaign like this.

Even worse, there is a dehumanizing aspect. As I said when interviewed on the CBC, who decides what “suspicious” means? Is it the colour of the person’s skin? Their dress? If we encourage people to see their fellow man or woman as a possible enemy, we promote the worst kind of corrosive behaviour in our society. A society in which people don’t trust each other is not a democracy – since we have to trust our fellow citizens to make wise choices in their voting.

To demonstrate how weird this is, just lately the tourists have started pouring into Vancouver. And, of course, many of them are carrying large cameras. The last three people I saw – and I am profoundly against the sentiments in the Translink ad – provoked a “suspicious” thought in my head. I looked at them a little differently. I wondered what they were up to. This is NOT a good thing.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Even if you think that an ad campaign needs to be run, why not focus on things that are really dangerous – like packages left under seats – and leave the people alone. There is just no way to make a link between a person taking a photograph and terrorist activities and so you vilify people needlessly.

Translink could also use part of its ad budget (the money for this initiative, sadly, comes from special funding from the Federal Government, targeted at “security measures”) to promote good feelings, community spirit, a sense of common good among people. Why not some positive messages?


April 7th, 2009

New Nintendo DSi

New Nintendo DSi

Before you read this blog post, you should probably jump to the NY Times and read their review of the Nintendo DSi. Then come back here.

This is interesting and exactly why teachers are going to have a very hard time in the coming years.

Previously new technologies that came into the classroom were only slightly less lame than the ones that came before – PowerPoint instead of overhead projectors, the web instead of encyclopaedia.

But this sort of interactivity (which is echoed online in Facebook et al and in the hands of people with mobile phones) is another thing entirely. It is WAY more engaging and leaves teachers, and their provincially mandated, slowly evolving curriculum in the dust.

Ironically, this sort of device is a genius thing for learning. But it won’t be configured, enabled, or understood by those who teach our kids. The kids will have it first and they’ll only see irrelevance among their educators.

I was interviewed three times this past week on the whole “cell phone jammer in Port Hardy” thing. The Nintendo DSi is WAY more disruptive than a mobile with texting. Imagine recording the teacher and playing him back in an alvin and the chipmunks voice. Or with his or her head on the body of a donkey. It will be done the first day kids have these things, I guarantee it.

Our only hope is to get educational activities, curricula, programs into these things and start learning how to engage with them. That isn’t technophilia or determinism, it is recognizing a sea change in how children are able to connect with the world and each other and discovering the educational potential in that. And it isn’t the gear that is so attractive it is the interactivity. That’s what spurs engagement.

UPDATE: Before I posted this, a friend asked how is this different than whispering, writing notes, and doodling? And, to be honest, I don’t have a good answer for this. It seems like technologically mediated rudeness – which is what a DSi in the classroom really is – is somehow disabling for teachers. They seem to be (or claim to be) unable to cope with the challenge of managing it. But is that really the problem of the electronic gizmos?

Perhaps we need a two pronged approach. In an earlier post on the surveillance ads that Translink it putting up, I put out a call for more attention to be paid to the honesty, good work, and generosity of our fellow citizens in this city and on our planet.

Perhaps the same could be said about student use of technology in the classroom. Perhaps it can be managed by focusing on manners. When students have a good sense of what is rude and how to behave then they are much less likely to misbehave.

This, of course, presumes that we aren’t insulting their intelligence and delivering irrelevant content. And that, I suppose, comes back to engagement. Are we creating the conditions in which our students can’t help but hold us in disrepute (as the high school principal who jammed cell phones no doubt did)? If so, we can’t help but fall victim to toys that distract students. The distraction is always FROM something and TOWARDS something else. It is time to stop being uninteresting.


April 6th, 2009

Twitter Home Page

Twitter Home Page

I collected up some twitter thoughts recently. Here is where my thinking lies right now:

I find that I now get at least half of my “new interesting links/suggestions” from my twitter connections.

I am very selective, and don’t add people I don’t know personally and I don’t subscribe to news or celebrity tweets.

Although I lapse from time to time, I try to keep my tweets at a high “signal to noise” level. And, following @kk’s advice, I am not resisting the urge to reply with @replies if the reply isn’t useful to more than the person I am replying to. For that, I use direct messages. So far, I don’t use it for teaching. I do use it to promote my students and their projects, however.

My interests are eclectic and my postings cover a pretty wide range. I have thought of splitting the feed across multiple accounts but so far have resisted.

I have a fondness for the original web client, and use that a fair bit. If I am at my desk for a while I will fire up Tweetdeck. And on my mobile (iPhone), I use Twitterfon (best of the free apps). I have recently discovered hootsuite, a tool for posting tweets to multiple accounts, or schedule them into the future. I use the “schedule” feature.

I recently moderated a panel on twitter for business. I have collected up the notes (I scribbled on the whiteboard while the panelists talked) on Flickr. (http://www.flickr.com/photos/smith/sets/72157616239382365/)

In preparation for that panel, I collected up a bunch of articles from online sources. If you want it, I’ve got it here: http://dl.getdropbox.com/u/227883/Twitter.zip. For more resources check out Birdsall’s amazing collection.


April 3rd, 2009
Nokia N82 on my desk

Nokia N82 on my desk

BC has been ablaze with discussion about a “cell phone jammer” purchased by a high school principal in Port Hardy when attempts to ban cell phones at school proved unenforceable. The students reacted by walking out of classes and reporting the principal (cell phone jammers are illegal in Canada). I was contacted by several media organizations (The Province, the CBC, and most recently CKNW at 7am on Saturday April 4) and gave interviews. [MP3]

In my interviews I mainly focused on three things: that the cell phones have a legitimate and socially acceptable role in our culture (these are not switchblades), and are here to stay, that bans and jams are ineffective and only tend to cause students to work harder to get around them, and that dialogue and discussion is required since there are legitimate concerns about the impact of distractions in teaching.

Young people have busy lives these days with multiple responsibilities. They have part time jobs, they are looking after younger siblings or grandparents, and they are juggling all that along with school. Many are traveling long distances to get to school, especially in rural areas. It might not be the best environment for learning – perhaps we should all be in boarding school – but that’s the situation, and cell phones help them manage those responsibilities and fill in the “down time” on a commute. No doubt a large proportion of their mobile usage is about parties and sex, but that doesn’t mean the other practical stuff isn’t also there and who could ever get kids to stop talking about what they want to talk about, anyway?

Jamming signals and banning phones is also problematic because it is an attempt to outlaw something that everyone is doing, even parents. Are parents and school administrators turning off their phones when they enter the workplace? When you set up rules that are not accepted by the majority of people, you end up bringing the rules into disrepute. When those students walked out of the school they were signaling that they no longer respected the rules in the school and when they lose respect for one rule they potentially lose respect for the institution and all of its rules.

Finally, there are legitimate concerns relating to mobile phone use in schools, workplaces, and social settings. These have to be addressed. If students are distracted, or distracting others, then they are going to have difficulties learning. We need to bring forward the evidence for that and work with young people – and teachers – to identify creative ways to address these challenges. To be honest, one of the biggest challenges is systemic: young people are questioning the value of their provincially mandated curriculum and the way in which is it being taught. A world of interactivity awaits them outside the classroom and even traditional media like movies and television are having a hard time competing with more engaging forms of entertainment like video games. The same applies to education. And a cell phone among the most engaging of devices there is: it is personal, it is ever-present, and it is a connection to the people who really matter to young people – their peers.

Can we create an educational environment that seems legitimate to young people, so they don’t feel the need to distract themselves? Can we use the technology – even if only in a limited way – for education? One benefit for using the technology rather than banning it is that you can then engage in a meaningful dialogue with students as you have some awareness and you are not “disenfranchised” by virtue of your denial of their choice to carry a phone. I have used mobile phones in the classroom for small things – feedback via text message, for example – and they have proven useful. This may be a starting point for further things. Even if we don’t find overwhelmingly useful things we can use this as a starting point for a discussion about the possible risks (distraction, for example) that mobiles in the classroom may pose.

Social Justice and Citizenship

February 27th, 2009

I had a very interesting morning, talking about social media with the “Social Justice and Citizenship” committee of the Institute for the Humanities at SFU.

Adrianne Burk invited me – we’ve been acquaintances since the early days of the “Writing Intensive Learning” initiative here – and she asked me to discuss social media as it might apply to issues of citizenship, and especially “witnessing.”

I went on a bit of ramble, I’m afraid, as this is a topic dear to my heart. I think there are plenty of reasons to be suspicious of social media – distraction, trivialization, factionalization are possible, for example – but there are definitely some exciting prospects.

I started with a definition of social media, which I distinguished from one to one interactive media (like the telephone, or email) as being group-friendly. Some people have even called it “group forming” software, and David Reed has famously described an algorithm for the value of such a network, playing off the earlier work by Metcalfe (see http://www.reed.com/gfn/ and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metcalfe’s_law).

This ability to form ad-hoc groups has been seen recently in Canada with Facebook groups popping up everywhere on important issues (young driver licencing in Ontario, changes to copyright laws).

I also distinguished social media from broadcast media, or “one-way” media, by pointing out the capacity for many to many, two-way communication.

Some examples of social media include Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube. All of them have their trivial and mundane aspects, but so do all other media forms. More important, from an activist, citizenship perspective, is how else they might be used. I think the real benefit will be in general upgrade in the amount and quality of conversations in society – turning us from a generation of passive watchers to a generation of engaged conversationalists.

Politicians would be well advised to take note of this trend before it runs them over. They will be valued in the future for their ability to use social media to engage people in conversations, allowing information to easily to flow upward in a democracy (although a recent study of UK politicians suggests that they aren’t “getting it” yet).

UPDATE: Howard Rheingold’s recent post on “public listening” seems like a perfect illustration of this, in many ways.

Mobile Education

February 6th, 2009

My class wiki, on an iPhone

My class wiki, on an iPhone

I’m notorious for trying new things in my classes. One of the things I have done this semester, building on a few experiments in the past, was to use my mobile phone as a tool for engaging students. I gave out my mobile number (after setting it to “silent/vibrate”) and put it on the bottom of all of my powerpoint slides. If students wanted to ask a question, or just ask me to slow down, they could send a text message.

This doesn’t preclude them from putting up their hands, but it does allow the shy person to send something in, or the person who has a comment but doesn’t manage to get it in before I have moved on to another topic. It also provides a feedback mechanism for those who are listening to the live stream of the lecture at home on the internet.

I wouldn’t call it an overwhelming success (only 4 messages that first day), but it did result in one useful comment/suggestion and one request for me to slow down, which is better then nothing. And, I did get a complement on my shirt.

In the past I have integrated the texts with my on screen display through the use of BluePhoneElite (great software, by the way), but Apple’s limited implementation of Bluetooth, and my recent conversion to an iPhone, has meant that that isn’t a possibility any more. When BluePhoneElite is working, though, it is very cool – you can have students’ texts pop up on top of your powerpoint, activate applescripts, flash the screen… all sorts of cool stuff.


Demo today

January 21st, 2009

I usually “stream” my lectures to the Internet while I am teaching. Today I’ll be doing a demo up at SFU to show how I am doing that these days.

I am using the a web-based tool called “Dimdim.” You can try it yourself by visiting their site: http://Dimdim.com

Naturally, the demo itself will be streamed live to the Internet.

Time: 12:30 PST
Place: Halpern Centre, Burnaby Campus
Stream: (event over)
Archive: http://recordings.dimdim.com/view/dimdim/162739da-3949-102c-bbd7-003048944478
Slides: http://dl.getdropbox.com/u/227883/dimdim_presentation_jan21_2009.pdf