Category: Technology (page 1 of 36)

Change your launcher, change your life

Update: I’ve since found that Slim Launcher also does a great job!


There’s been an undeniable push recently to re-balance our relationship with our digital devices. Willpower alone doesn’t do it, which is why Apple and Google have introduced features into the latest versions of iOS and Android, respectively, for you to ‘take control’ of your smartphone addiction.

I’m just like everyone else in this regard, except probably more so given that I work in tech and I work from home. My ‘work’ is located everywhere I have a connection.

Light Android Launcher

Recently, after reading about The Light Phone (“designed to be used as little as possible), I mused on the fact that there’s got to be a better solution to device addiction than literally buying another device.

That’s why I had a look both at the F-Droid and Google Play marketplaces for minimalist launchers. I discovered LessPhone and Light Android Launcher. Of the two, I prefer the latter, as it’s both Open Source, and more aesthetically pleasing.

So, for the last few weeks, I’ve been using my usual launcher (the excellent, Open Source, KISS) on weekdays, and Light Android Launcher at the weekends. It’s been great. My most important apps are right there on the home screen, and I can swipe up for the full list. The whole thing is black and white with no icons, so I have to be intentional about what I do on my device at the weekend.

Try it! You might like it.


Sincere apologies to iPhone users: you’re stuck with the launcher mandated by Cupertino. You can’t customise your home screen.

Fediverse field trip

After spending a long time researching various options for MoodleNet last year, I recently revisited the Fediverse with fresh eyes. I enjoy using Mastodon regularly, and have written about it here before, so didn’t include it in this roundup.

Here’s some of the social networks I played around with recently, in no particular order. It’s not meant to be a comprehensive overview, just what grabbed my attention given the context in which I’m currently working. That’s why I’ve called it a ‘field trip’ 😉

Misskey

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Weird name but pretty awesome social network that’s very popular in Japan. Like MoodleNet and Mastodon, it’s based on the ActivityPub protocol. In fact, if you’re a Mastodon user, it will feel somewhat familiar.

Things I like:

  • Drive (2TB storage!)
  • Lots of options for customisation, including ‘dark mode’
  • Easy search options
  • Connect lots of different services
  • API

Socialhome

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‘Card’-based social network that uses a Bootstrap-style user interface. Quite complicated but seemingly flexible.

Things I like:

  • Very image-friendly
  • API
  • Data export

Pleroma

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Pleroma is a very scalable social network based on Elixir. It’s like Mastodon, but snappier.

Things I like:

  • Clear Terms of Service
  • Very configurable (including formatting options)
  • ‘The whole known network’
  • Export data and delete account
  • Restrict access

Prismo

https://prismo.news

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A new social network to replace sites like Reddit. Users can vote up stories they’re interested in and add comments.

Things I like:

  • Clear, crisp design
  • Obvious what it’s to be used for
  • Simple profiles

Movim

https://movim.eu

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Uses the XMPP protocol for backwards compatibility with a wide range of apps. Similar kind of communities and collections approach to MoodleNet, but focused on news.

Things I like:

  • Modals help users understand the interface
  • Focus on communities and curation
  • Option to chat as well as post publicly
  • Easy to share URLs
  • Clear who’s moderating communities

Kune

https://kune.ourproject.org

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Based on Apache Wave (formerly Google Wave) which is now deprecated.

Things I like:

  • Combination of stream and wiki
  • Indication of who’s involved in creating/discussing threads
  • Everything feels editable

GNUsocial

https://gnu.io/social

https://fediverse.party/en/gnusocial

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Uses the OStatus protocol and was the original basis for Mastodon (as far as I understand). Feels similar to Pleroma in some respects.

Things I like:

  • Feels like early Twitter
  • Easy to use
  • Configurable

GangGo

https://ganggo.git.feneas.org/documentation

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Built in GoLang and uses the same federation protocol as Diaspora. Still in alpha.

Things I like:

  • Simple UI
  • Vote up/down posts
  • Private and public streams

Along with Mastodon, I didn’t include Pixelfed in here because I’m so familiar with it. I possibly should have included PeerTube, FriendicaDiaspora, and Scuttlebutt. Perhaps I’ll follow this up with a Part 2 sometime?

My ChromeOS apps and extensions

I came across a pretty nifty service called Loom yesterday that allows you to record both your screen and webcam in the browser. Perfect for ChromeOS, which is the operating system I’m using most of the time at the moment.

To give it a test drive, I recorded a video showing the ChromeOS apps and extensions I use on the Chromebox in my home office.

Between this and WeVideo, I reckon everything apart from really high-end video editing can be done in the browser if you’ve got a decent internet connection. I can definitely see me using this for creating quick tutorial videos and I’ve already used WeVideo to edit green screen videos for clients!

Using Twitter as a lens for some thoughts on launching products

This week, several people have asked me whether I’m ‘nervous’ about the first test of MoodleNet, a new open social media platform for educators, focussed on professional development and open content. We’ve invited 100 people (50 English testers, 50 Spanish) to have a look and give us some feedback over a three-week period starting from next Tuesday.

To answer their question: no, I’m not. That’s not because of arrogance or misplaced optimism, it’s because of something that Baltasar Gracián talks about in The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence, a book I read from every morning:

Don’t arouse excessive expectations from the start. Everything initially highly praised is commonly discredited when it subsequently fails to live up to expectation. Reality can never match our expectations, because it’s easy to imagine perfection, and very difficult to achieve it. Imagination weds desire and then conceives things far greater than they actually are… Good beginnings serve to arouse curiosity, not to guarantee the outcome. Things turn out better when the reality exceeds our initial idea and is greater than we anticipated. (Baltasar Gracián)

I think we could sum that up with ‘managing expectations’. It’s kind of the opposite of Silicon Valley hype, and useful when you’re developing a product for the long-term.

Talking of Silicon Valley, let’s have a quick look at what Twitter looked like when it launched (start at 09:05):

They were testing a value proposition, something like: “Do people want to tell the world what they’re up to in text-message sized updates?”

The answer, of course, turned out to be in the affirmative. But it took a while. I joined Twitter in February 2007, a few months after it launched. I loved it and, as I was teaching at the time, ran Twitter workshops for my colleagues. Most of them appreciated my enthusiasm, but didn’t think it would catch on.

Twitter took about five years to go mainstream. Here’s a potted history of that time period from the Buffer blog:

  • July 2006: ‘Twttr’ is available to the public
  • October 2006: Sign up for Twitter without your phone number
  • May 2007: You can block others and Twitter gets a mobile site
  • May 2007: Twitter gets an @replies column
  • August 2007: Twitter Profile Search goes live
  • September 2007: Tracking Twitter alias #Hashtags goes live
  • September 2008: Twitter gets Trending Topics
  • March 2009: Twitter introduces “Suggested Users”
  • October 2009: Twitter launches Twitter Lists
  • November 2009: Twitter unveils the new native RT function
  • March 2010: You can now add your location to your Tweets
  • April 2010: Twitter launches “Promoted Tweets”
  • September 2010: Twitter introduces the “New Twitter”
  • June 2011: Twitter launches its own link shortening service

So let’s just stand back and look at this for a moment. The functionality that we would say was pretty core to Twitter took a good while to roll out. Another interesting fact, not really highlighted in the Buffer post, is that many of these involved Twitter responding to what users were doing or had invented.

For example, people were using ‘RT’ to manually retweet posts way before November 2009. Meanwhile, hashtags were an invention of Chris Messina, and initially rejected by Twitter as too nerdy. Users who like what you’re trying to achieve will help you reach that goal.

Before Twitter became a publicly-traded company in 2013 it was much more focused on the ecosystem it was creating. One of the best things about early Twitter was that there was a huge range of clients you could use to access the service. In fact, the ‘pull-to-refresh‘ functionality that’s in almost every mobile app these days was invented by a third-party Twitter client.

Returning to MoodleNet, the reason it’s taken a year to get to this point is because of all of the preparation we’ve done, and all of the other kinds of testing we’ve done up to this point. So this is just the next step in a long journey.

Our value proposition is: “Do educators want to join communities to curate collections of resources?” The answer might be negative. In that case, we’ll go back to the drawing board. My hunch, though, borne out through tens of hours of conversation and experimentation, is that there’s something in this, and it’s worth pursuing.

All in all, I’m excited about this next step and looking forward to getting user feedback on the fantastic work my team have done.


Image: sketch of early Twitter taken from a 2018 tweet 

A conversation with Adam Procter about Project ‘NodeNoggin’

I was pleased to have the opportunity to talk last night with Adam Procter about his PhD and Project ‘NodeNoggin’. Listen below or click here:

Notes can be found here, ways to get involved in the project are on GitLab, and you can discuss our conversation in this thread at Adam’s forum.

The fate of private social networks

I knew this had been coming for the last few years, really, but today I discovered that Path, the social network I use with my family, is shutting down. We’ve been using it since 2010 to share photos of our children growing up, and to keep each other up-to-date with family life.

Last year, I started paying for Path, as a small effort towards making it sustainable. Obviously not enough people were doing so. To be honest, the value proposition for paid versus free accounts wasn’t exactly awesome. After all, there’s only so many sticker packs you can use!

So my family will be looking for something that replaces Path. This turns out to be something that’s both of personal and professional interest to me at the moment, as I’m leading the MoodleNet project.

My first port of call when I’m looking for an alternative to some software is alternativeto.net. Their crowdsourced list of apps that could replace Path doesn’t quite do the job, unfortunately. I’ve been trying to think about why that is, so fired up Google Slides and created image at the top of this post. You can remix it if you want.

My point here is to show that there’s many kinds of social interactions. I’m focusing on what my family uses, so haven’t put MoodleNet on there, but if I had, I think we’d be looking at it being right in the middle. The small grey arrows show the direction of travel I think that each app is, or has been, on.

It would be easy to look at this and conclude that we’re living in a world where everything’s moving to being more synchronous and public, but I’m not sure that’s true. Ideally, I reckon we want the option to communicate with one another in all four quadrants here.

What do you think? Is there anything out there which would replace Path? We’ve been trying out a private Google+ community, but it’s somehow not as… fun.


Update: after a quick dalliance with Google+ we’re currently trying out Vero.

How emoji triplets could help with trust and identity on decentralised social networks

Inspired by what3words, I want to share an idea that solves some problems I’ve been thinking about in the context of MoodleNet:

  1. With services that allow users to change usernames and avatars an infinite number of times, how do you know who you’re really talking to?
  2. On decentralised social networks such as Mastodon, users on different instances can have the same username. This is confusing when trying to @ mention someone.

If what3words can describe everywhere on the globe using three words, then we can describe all users of a social network using three emojis.

As I’ve explained before, LessPass (a deterministic password generator) uses emoji triplets to simultaneously obfuscate your password while providing a check that you’ve entered it correctly.

LessPass

In addition, as my colleague Mayel pointed out when I shared the idea with him, the first emoji of the triplet could indicate which instance you’re on.

Mastodon profile

As you can see above, I’ve actually already added three emojis next to my username on both Twitter and Mastodon. I think it serves as a really nice, quick, visual indication that you’re dealing with the person you expect.

More on the mechanics of GDPR

Note: I’m writing this post on my personal blog as I’m still learning about GDPR. This is me thinking out loud, rather than making official Moodle pronouncements.


‘Enjoyment’ and ‘compliance-focused courses’ are rarely uttered in the same breath. I have, however, enjoyed my second week of learning from Futurelearn’s course on Understanding the General Data Protection Regulation. This post summarises some of my learning and builds upon my previous post.

This week, the focus was on the rights of data subjects, and started with a discussion about the ‘modalities’ by which communication between the data controller and processor, and the data subject take place:

By modalities, we mean different mechanisms that are used to facilitate the exercise of data subjects’ rights under the GDPR, such as those relating to different forms of information provision (in writing, spoken, electronically) and other actions to be taken when data subjects invoke their rights.

Although the videos could be improved (I just use the transcripts) the mix of real-world examples, quizzes, and reflection is great and suits the way I learn best.

I discovered that the GDPR not only makes provision for what should be communicated by data controllers but how this should be done:

In the first place, measures must be taken by data controllers to provide any information or any communication relating to the processing to these individuals in a concise, transparent, intelligible and easily accessible form, using the language that is clear and plain. For instance, it should be done when personal data are collected from data subjects or when the latter exercise their rights, such as the right of access. This requirement of transparent information and communication is especially important when children are data subjects.

Moreover, unless the data subject is somehow attempting to abuse the GDPR’s provisions, the data controller must provide the requested information free of charge.

The number of times my surname is spelled incorrectly (often ‘Bellshaw’) or companies have other details incorrect, is astounding. It’s good to know, therefore, that the GDPR focuses on rectification of individuals’ personal data:

In addition, the GDPR contains another essential right that cannot be disregarded. This is the right to rectification. If controllers store personal data of individuals, the latter are further entitled to the right to rectify, without any undue delay, inaccurate information concerning them. Considering the purpose of the processing, any data subject has the right to have his or her personal data completed such as, for instance, by providing a supplementary statement.

So far, I’ve focused on me as a user of technologies — and, indeed, the course uses Google’s services as an example. However, as lead for Project MoodleNet, the reason I’m doing this course is as the representative of Moodle, an organisation that would be both data controller and processor.

There are specific things that must be built into any system that collects personal data:

At the time of the first communication with data subjects, the existence of the right to object– as addressed earlier– must be indicated to data subjects in a clear manner and separately from other information. This right can be exercised by data subjects when we deal with the use of information society services by automated means using technical specifications. Importantly, the right to object also exists when individuals’ personal data are processed for scientific or historical research or statistical purposes. This is, however, not the case if the processing is carried out for reasons of public interest.

Project MoodleNet will be a valuable service, but not from a scientific, historical, or statistical point of view. Nor will the data processing be carrierd out for reasons of public interest. As such, the ‘right to object’ should be set out clearly when users sign up for the service.

In addition, users need to be able to move their data out of the service and erase what was previously there:

The right to erasure is sometimes known as the right to be forgotten, though this denomination is not entirely correct. Data subjects have the right to obtain from data controllers the erasure of personal data concerning them without undue delay.

I’m not entirely clear what ‘undue delay’ means in practice, but when building systems, we should build it with these things in mind. Being able to add, modify, and delete information is a key part of a social network. I wonder what happens when blockchain is involved, given it’s immutable?

The thing that concerns most organisations when it comes to GDPR is Article 79, which states that data subjects have legal recourse if they’re not happy with the response they receive:

Furthermore, we should mention the right to an effective judicial remedy against a controller or processor laid down in Article 79. It allows data subjects to initiate proceedings against data controllers or processors before a court of the Member State of the establishment of controllers or processors or in the Member State where they have their habitual residence unless controllers or processors are public authorities of the Member States and exercise their public powers. Thus, data subjects can directly complain before a judicial institution against controllers and processors, such as Google or others.

I’m particularly interested in what effect data subjects having the right “not to be subjected to automated individual decision-making” will have. I can’t help but think that (as Google has already started to do through granular opt-in questions) organisations will find ways to make users feel like it’s in their best interests. They already do that with ‘personalised advertising’.

There’s a certain amount of automation that can be useful, the standard example being Amazon’s recommendations system. However, I think the GDPR focuses more on things like decisions about whether or not to give you insurance based on your social media profile:

There are three additional rights of data subjects laid down in the General Data Protection Regulation, and we will cover them here. These rights are – the right not to be subjected to automated individual decision-making, the right to be represented by organisations and others, and the right to compensation. Given that we live in a technologically advanced society, many decisions can be taken by the systems in an automatic manner. The GDPR grants to all of us a right not to be subjected to a decision that is based only on an automated processing, which includes profiling. This decision must significantly affect an individual, for example, by creating certain legal effects.

Thankfully, when it comes to challenging organisations on the provisions of the GDPR, data subjects can delegate their representation to a non-profit organisation. This is a sensible step, and prevents lawyers become rich from GDPR challenges. Otherwise, I can imagine data sovereignty becoming the next personal injury industry.

If an individual feels that he or she can better give away his or her representation to somebody else, this individual has the right to contact a not-for-profit association– such as European Digital Rights – in order to be represented by it in filing complaints, exercising some of his or her rights, and receiving compensation. This might be useful if an action is to be taken against such a tech giant as Google or any other person or entity. Finally, persons who have suffered material or non-material damage as a result of an infringement of the GDPR have the right to receive compensation from the controller or processor in question.

Finally, and given that the GDPR applies not only across European countries, but to any organisation that processes EU citizen data, the following is interesting:

The European Union and its Member States cannot simply impose restrictions addressed in Article 23 GDPR when they wish to. These restrictions must respect the essence of the fundamental rights and freedoms and be in line with the requirements of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. In addition, they are required to constitute necessary and proportionate measures in a democratic society meaning that there must be a pressing social need to adopt these legal instruments and that they must be proportionate to the pursued legitimate aim. Also, they must be aiming to safeguard certain important interests. So, laws adopted by the EU of its Members States that seek to restrict the scope of data subjects’ rights are required to be necessary and proportionate and must protect various interests discussed below.

I learned a lot this week which will stand me in good stead as we design Project MoodleNet. I’m looking forward to putting all this into practice!


Image by Erol Ahmed available under a CC0 license

Destroying capitalism, one stately home at a time

This week, I spent Monday evening to Wednesday evening at Wortley Hall, near Sheffield, England. It’s a stately home run by a worker-owned co-op and I was there with my We Are Open colleagues for the second annual Co-operative Technologists (CoTech) gathering. CoTech is a network of UK-based co-operatives who are focused on tech and digital.

We Are Open crew

The ‘not unattractive’ We Are Open crew (Bryan, John, Laura, Doug)

Last year, at the first CoTech gathering, we were represented by John Bevan — who was actually instrumental in getting the network off the ground. This time around, not only did all four members of We Are Open attend, but one of us (Laura Hilliger) actually helped facilitate the event.

Wortley Hall ceiling

The ceilings were restored by the workers who bought the hall from a lord

I wasn’t too sure what to expect, but I was delighted by the willingness of the 60+ people present to get straight into finding ways we can all work together. We made real progress over the couple of days I was there, and I was a little sad that other commitments meant I couldn’t stay until the bitter end on Thursday lunchtime.

Wortley Hall post-its

People dived straight in and started self-organising

We self-organised into groups, and the things I focused on were introducing Nextcloud as a gap in the CoTech shared services landscape, and helping define processes for using the various tools we have access to. Among the many other things that people collaborated on were sales and marketing, potentially hiring our first CoTech member of staff, games that could help people realise that they might be better working for a co-op, defining a constitution, and capturing the co-operative journeys that people have been on.

Wortley Hall - CoTech landscape

This diagram helped orient ourselves within the landscape we share

There was a lot of can-do attitude and talent in the room, coupled with a real sense that we’re doing important work that can help change the world. There’s a long history of co-operation that we’re building upon, and the surroundings of Wortley Hall certainly inspired us in our work! Our co-op will definitely be back next year, and I’m sure most of us will meet at CoTech network events again before then.

Wortley Hall plaque

Each room at Wortley Hall has been ‘endowed’ by a trade union to help with its restoration

The CoTech wiki is available here. As with all of these kinds of events, we had a few problems with the wifi which means that, at the time of publishing this post, not everything has been uploaded to the wiki. It will appear there in due course.

Wortley Hall artwork

All of the artwork was suitably left-wing and revolutionary in nature

Although there are member-only spaces (and benefits), anyone – whether currently a member of a worker-owned co-op or not – is also welcome to join the CoTech community discussion forum.

New blog: Doug, uncensored

TL;DR: Head to uncensored.dougbelshaw.com or bit.ly/doug-uncensored for my new blog about freedom and decentralised technologies.


One of the great things about the internet, and one of the things I think we’re losing is the ability to experiment. I like to experiment with my technologies, my identity, and my belief systems. This flies in the face of services like Facebook that insist on a single ‘real’ identity while slowly deskill their users.

I’ve been messing about with ZeroNet, which is something I’ve mentioned before, and which gets close to something I’ve wanted now for quite some time: an ‘untakedownable’ website. Whether it’s DDoS attacks, DNS censorship, or malicious code injection, I want a platform that, no matter what I choose to say, will stay up.

To access sites via ZeroNet, you have to be running the ZeroNet service. By default, you view a clone of the site you want to visit on your own machine, accessed in the web browser. That means it’s fast. When the site creator updates the site/blog/wiki/whatever, that’s then sent to peers to distribute. It’s all lightning-quick, and built on Bittorrent technlogy and Bitcoin cryptography.

The trouble, of course, comes when someone who isn’t yet running ZeroNet wants to visit a site. Thankfully, there’s a way around that using a ‘proxy’ or bridge. This is ZeroNet running on a public server for everyone to use. There’s several of these, but I’ve set up my own using this guide.

I encourage you to download and experiment with ZeroNet but, even if you don’t, please check out my new blog. You can access it via uncensored.dougbelshaw.com or bit.ly/doug-uncensored — the rather long and unwieldy actual IP address of the server running the public-facing copy is 165.227.167.16/1PsNi4TAkn6vtKA6n1Se9y7gmVjF4GU3uF.

Finally, if you’re thinking, “What is this?! It’ll never catch on…” then I’d like to remind  you about technologies that people didn’t ‘get’ at first (e.g. Twitter in 2007) as well as that famous Wayne Gretszky quotation, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been”.

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