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Networks: Global Attention Profiles & Witness

Through Ken's post Mapping The Silence I became aware of a project called Global Attention Profiles. The idea of mapping has certainly come into prominence with social network analysis. The challenge is to develop a mapping system that is as much in people's minds as it is on a screen...

In Mapping The Silence Ken mentioned the possibility of having his students go out into the local community and use mapping as a tools to investigate zoning issues. This reminds me of a time when I sent students out to map aspects of our local community in order to generate ideas for a physical model of an ideal community we were imagining.

"I'd like to believe that we've reached a point in human history when genocide is only possible when the world isn't watching." Ethan Zuckerman

I think a project like Global Attention Profiles represents an important way of connecting technology to human rights issues. Knowing how the media is biased in terms of the proportion of stories being communicated on a country-by-country basis is useful in identifying coverage gaps. For people involved in international development, this would be a critical tool. Notice I used the phrase "knowing how the media is biased." This is a phrase that puts the onus not on search engines but on human intelligence.

The emphasis on compiling statistical information via search engines and morphing those statistics into a map is both its strength and weakness. For example, here is a sentence that appeared on a page I viewed: "The map above shows what countries Google News is paying the most attention to today." This is a sentence that falls prey to anthropomorphism. To cut to the chase, Google News can't pay attention to anything. It's a search engine, not a human mind. A search engine looks for discrete patterns of bits and bytes; a human mind seeks meaning and understanding. While the colored patterns on the map reveal frequency of articles per country (the accuracy of which is not known), they cannot be construed as a kind of "attention." We don't know what's in the articles, we have no meaning, no context. Attention is something that a person will give to the resulting map, not something the map provides.

The problem of anthropomorphism in describing technical functionality is not new. Rather than using terms to describe what actually happens when we use networked computers, we tend to assign them human qualities. In describing the method behind Global Attention Profiles we read, "The core of the Global Attention Profile project is a set of Perl scripts." I'm not a Perl programmer, but I do know you can't Perl attention. In describing the results we read, "GAPís first aim is to provide a picture of a media sourceís attention profile on a given day." The sources of the media are the human beings that create the information in the first place, not the frequency of articles across countries.

None of this is to say that Global Attention Profiles is not a worthy project, but it's durability in the long-term will be centered its ability to shed its anthropomorphic tendencies, call it what it is, and begin building in support systems that will help facilitate creative and critical thinking about what the map is really showing. Unfortunately, the proposed future steps do not seem take this fundamental issue into account.

Compare Global Attention Profiles to Witness. The Witness program also used technology to fight for human rights, but in a dramatically different way:

"WITNESS is a human rights program that attracts the eyes of the world and inspires those who see - to act.

WITNESS strengthens local activists by giving them video cameras and training in production and advocacy.

WITNESS unleashes an arsenal of computers, imaging and editing software, satellite phones and email in the struggle for justice."

To my thinking this is a much more powerful model for leveraging media coverage and for creating a deep environment to focus our attention on.

In the end, maps aren't something we merely look at and try to interpret. They aren't about directions or locations. Maps are living systems of interaction that are created through our activities on the planet. In a post called Pictures Taken For Us Ken provided an interesting quote:

"Photo images - not the staged ones, but the ones that capture life unfolding in all its unpredictability and awesomeness - are among the most powerful informers of the national conscience. Without them, we are left making only choices that have been stage managed: To vote or not, to shop or not, to see or look away." (Paul Vitello)

I suggest that the issue is no different with maps:

"Maps - not the staged ones, but the ones that capture life unfolding in all its unpredictability and awesomeness - are among the most powerful informers of the national conscience. Without them, we are left making only choices that have been stage managed: To vote or not, to shop or not, to see or look away."


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The discussion about mapping reminded me of a project called TerraVision. It's been a couple of years since I checked this out, but they have obviously come a long way:

"The GeoWeb is a vision for making all geographically referenced, or georeferenced, data available over the Web. It is the open, hierarchical, and distributed infrastructure, that we use to rapidly index georeferenced data."

"TerraVision is an Open Source distributed, interactive terrain visualization system developed by SRI International. It allows users to navigate, in real time, through a 3-D graphical representation of a real landscape created from elevation data and aerial images of that landscape."


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