A surprise email

I got an email about fifteen minutes ago, from no less than the CEO of the hosting company Wikinewsie.org uses. This weekend saw a major upgrade for them, which anyone who runs an online service will know, can be a process fraught with risks. Some of the services on Wikinewsie were down over the weekend, but the ticket I raised was bumped to 3rd-tier support almost-immediately, ditto when I reopened it due to putting out a “brush fire” somewhere else bringing down something else.

I thanked the techies I dealt with, largely frontline people, only grumbling a little about not having access to the master ticket and more-of-a-clue as-to which of our services we should be testing, when we should re-check them, and being able to provide more-rapid feedback to those third-line folks.

But, after the hell that was Godaddy, this is a breath of fresh air:

Hello Brian,

 Thank you very much for your assistance offer, it was passed on to me from our support team.

 I would like to personally thank you for your offer and assure you that we’re doing the best we can in order to reduce those recent issues, the overall website performance will increase as we finalize and iron out the little details left.

Thank you very much for your cooperation and have a good day.

Regards,

Mohammed Naser

CEO

Would I recommend Vexx now? Yes, I would. They’re a low-cost hosting solution, in a well-connected data centre. And the above, from which I’ve dropped the direct-dial and extension number off, shows they’ve a CEO who cares about their customers. I’ve had the good-fortune to work a few places like that; you don’t mind calling off going for a beer, and grabbing a keyboard to stamp out the brush fires with companies like this. I even spent most of the odd evening or two stuffing mobile phone bills into envelopes when a prior employer’s printing company had their equipment break down. That’s where good management stay late too; not to manage, mind. To go get the pizza, Chinese takeaway, or whatever other fuel it takes to keep the people who know the systems well-enough going. The only management decision needing taken is telling people “Go home, you’re exhausted. We’ll see you when we see you.” Or, if all ends resolved at a civilised hour, buying the first round.

The alternative is ‘Tesco value hosting‘, and I experienced more than my fill of that with Godaddy. They made it out to be our fault when they’d left our services to rot on an under-powered shared server. It was quite obvious anyone there dealing with a ticket had targets to close as-many-as-possible with zero technical appraisal. By virtue of what I do, I’m part of third-line support on a few business-critical systems for a selection of companies, and organisations, which are household names – either globally, or in their own countries. I pay Vexx less than 10 Euro per month, customers of my employer pay a good-deal more. I appreciate Mr Naser’s email all-the-more, I can easily see ‘our Dave‘ writing the self-same email. Companies that care about good service, and making sure their staff can afford to give you that service when you most-need it, putting that far-ahead of any “brand recognition” or advertising budget and “acceptable churn level” deserve customer loyalty.

The Wikinewsie Group

It’s only a ‘working title‘, it could-well end up being the Wikinewsie Association, or Agency. But, this is a rather modest proposal to provide a support group, or back-end cum back-office to help Wikinewsies on the ground.

The various language Wikinews editions face many similar technical hurdles. Those which have opted for a submission -> peer-review -> publication model struggle to migrate the reviewing gadget from English, it being what the author describes as “scary” javascript. We’ve another tool, used to maintain the lead articles on the main page. That could do with a complete rewrite to allow us to push lead updates to portals. Submission itself could-well do with a guiding wizard, such might at-least reduce the issues seen with submissions and help people to think about the presentation of a news story.

It’s not the software, as some might say of using MediaWiki to host a news site. It’s just the content management system, and all it needs is purpose-specific extensions, such-as calendaring, the ability to define a workflow and move an article around in that relatively easily.

Then there’s the things we’ve looked at in the past. Credentials. Accreditation. At one point we even tried running a hotline. Luckily, we’ve not as-yet had a journalist in legal difficulties, but that is a risk we do face whenever we report on a protest march or ask questions people take a dislike to.

“Facts don’t cease to be facts,” and we’ve needed this for a long time now, “but news ceases to be new.” What’s new here is the opportunity to affiliate with the WMF. Bringing the needs of the Wikinews project – regardless of language they publish in – under one banner, has to be a good thing. Together we’re far more-likely to be heard.

Wikipedians! Thousands of ’em!

There’s a small, but particularly noisy and obnoxious, bunch of people over on Wikipedia who do not like Wikinews. Not one bit. And, they have too much power. They’ve their own little fanzine which is a jumble of fawning adulation for the constellation of celebrities in the Free Knowledge world, a grab-bag of petty personal vendettas, and an aptitude for muckraking through the obscure corners of Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) websites.

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-ZLDzYp53gRI/UB8Ha5XccoI/AAAAAAAARl0/2WQLe5Wfa0w/s640/Rothermere.jpg
The Daily Mail has had some history with well-dodgy political figures. Much of The Signpost’s editorial board would fit right in.

The few amongst these malcontents who have tried to contribute to Wikinews have made such a mess, demonstrated such an incredible inability to read and follow policies, that nobody but the editors of Heat, Hello!, or The Daily Mail could love them.

If anything needs shut down, it’s The Signpost. Quickly too, before the motley crew in charge expose the WMF to genuine grounds for libel action. Yes, that’s how inept they are; and, Wikinewsies have had the guts to call them on it. They’ve a shared belief-set with Paul “double-cunted” Dacre, who deserves that nickname based on leaks from The Daily Mail‘s newsroom to Private Eye.

Oh, good grief! I’ve not even provided a link to what I’m ranting about.

It’s this. Yet-again, those who can’t do, try to appoint themselves as public censors. They need taken to task, and their platform to agitate pulled out from underneath them. Yes, Tony, I’m talking about you and your friends.

Draft Communications Bill

Apparently, everyone who expressed an opinion on the UK’s Draft Communications Bill hates the idea.

No surprise there. Even Jimmy Wales and Sir Tim told the Joint Committee it’s a bad idea. For real entertainment, the Joint Committee’s summary of the public consultation (PDF) is well-worth reading. Over 19,000 said stuff your stupid Snoopers’ Charter. They concluded:

“[…] we have not seen a single email supporting the draft Communications Data Bill, or even agreeing that there may be a case for the security services and law enforcement agencies having greater access to communications data than they do at present.

With the Ministry of Truth working overtime, the above summary document has ‘vanished‘. You’ll also note a remarkable number of “corrected” evidence documents; which, when you open the PDFs, state:

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House.

Irony. They didn’t correct the statement saying the document is uncorrected. In other news, War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is Strength.

What I’d draw people’s attention to is the evidence of Professor Ross Anderson; he highlights what the real goal is here, by pointing to a paper from the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI).

The game plan that becomes apparent from the ETSI document is that, on the one hand, they want a lot of deep-packet inspection equipment so that they can look at communications which go via services to which they cannot get back-door access, but they would greatly prefer it if they could get back-door access to the services that we use to communicate.

And, his remarks on current Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) snooping:

At present, BT has DPI capacity on about 100,000 lines; let us say 1% of the total. The other four or five big providers probably have been told to install something similar. With this capacity, in my view, you could have a regime of targeted communications data preservation, in that the software in the boxes that provide service to the 200,000 or so most suspected individuals in Britain could, right now, harvest communications data and retain it for later use. There is absolutely no reason why that cannot be done right now by GCHQ. Therefore, I argue that there is absolutely no need for this Bill and the considerable expenditure of public money attached to it at a time when we are cutting police numbers. Yes, DPI can be used to collect comms data and, yes, we have the capacity to collect industrial quantities of it at present on hundreds of thousands of households simultaneously.” (Emphasis added.)

Most-damning of all, since the system will rely on automated querying of black boxes installed at communication service providers’ (CSPs) premises:

It introduces an almost complete lack of accountability. It creates an enormous difficulty for CSPs that hand over the data if they have to account to anybody outside the jurisdiction. In the case of BT and TalkTalk, that may not be an issue. Parliament may pass a law saying, “You cannot sue BT”, and BT may say, “Thank you very much” and hand over the data. But perhaps Facebook is not in such a lucky position.

So, when Facebook gives the UK government access to our communications data, and you send a few private messages to someone outside the UK, that person can sue Facebook for breaching their privacy.

Why isn’t this bill dead already?

Need something done? Recruit a Dalek to exterminate your problems!

Dalek.wikinewsie.org
Not defeated by the stairs, just chose a good vantage point for taking pictures.
Unveiling of autographed Australian Olympic Team flag.
Unveiling of autographed Australian Olympic Team flag.

We’ve added some new tech to the Wikinews arsenal, something you don’t want to argue with. At all.

There have always been issues with the toolserver that runs for all Wikimedia projects, the most-common gripe being that we’d get a nice automated tool set up, and the user who’d got it going would abandon their toolserver account. Eventually, such accounts on that server get shut down due to a lack of logins.

Well, now we’ve got dalek.wikinewsie.org on our side. And, it’s based exactly where we, eventually, want to move all of our accredited reporter/original reporting tools and services – green-powered Iceland.

An environmentally friendly Dalek? Surely some mistake?

The datacentre where it’s hosted runs off geothermal power, and we’re using 1984hosting.com as a home for this Virtual Server. Given the current brouhaha over Sweden seemingly being a stepping-stone to getting Julian Assange into the United States, it seemed high-time we got serious about using Iceland’s International Modern Media Initiative.

Today saw its first real-world use, leading to a photo-essay on the Australian Olympic Team’s return home and parade through Sydney. We’re using Dropbox, a ‘cloud-type’ personal document sharing application. Reporters in the field, or on the streets of Sydney, simply put images, audio, and/or video, into the right Dropbox folder and they’ll show up on Wikinews as fast as the Dalek’s plunger can move them over. Non-free formats for audio and video are converted by Dalek prior to upload, so these are somewhat slower than we’d like getting to the wiki. Most people who use Dropbox will know it for use on PCs, but they’ve branched out into mobile apps – you can pop things in Dropbox directly from your iPhone or Android smartphone.

It’s not likely that we’ll stay with Dropbox in the longer-term. The open-source ownCloud tools look better for what we need; there’s no need to go through an intermediate service, they’re developing a lot more flexibility than a mere ‘file dump’; and, are looking at collaborative editing tools inside the client-apps.

Freedom of Information – A useful right

By-and-large, use of Freedom of Information legislation is now an indispensable tool for journalists, and concerned citizens alike. What you might not know is how easy making a request can be. Coming up with a good request, and sending it to the appropriate government department, can be a cathartic experience—rather than feel powerless at a planned piece of legislation, get typing and ask some serious questions.

Home Secretary Theresa May impersonates Wallace's girlfriend Wendolene
Home Secretary impersonates a blonde Wendolene

That’s what the UK’s crazy, crazy plans laid out in the draft Communications Data Bill prompted me to do. No good looking nonplussed Ms May, if you want to know what web pages we visit, then we want to know what web pages you visit!

As I say, a well-written Freedom of Information request can be most satisfying. The cheery Wendolene-lookalike to the left is Theresa May, the current UK Home Secretary. Her department is responsible for plans to monitor everyone we communicate with online, and every web page we look at.

The ‘nerve centre’ of the UK’s Home Office is 2 Marsham Street, so let’s ask what web pages have they been looking at since the current government came to power?

To Whom it May Concern:

I am writing to make a request under the 2000 Freedom of Information Act.

Data being sought is for the period from the current administration taking office to present-day, or as close-to as is reasonable.

Broken down by month, I request a tabulated list of all Internet web pages accessed from non-public computers within the Home Office buildings which make up 2 Marsham Street, each page given with a number of visits or ‘hits’ for that month.

This information is preferred in electronic form, and the collation across the entire site ensures that this is not information which can be tied to any individual staff member. Additionally, this is a request readily completed within the allowed budget/timeframe as relatively trivial analytics.

Referring to the terms of the 2000 Act, I expect this information to be forthcoming no later than 17th July 2012.

Should any aspect of this request need clarification, please contact me at the earliest possible opportunity to enable this request, clearly in the public interest, to be fulfilled in a timely manner.

If you’ve never seen, or never tried to submit, a freedom of information request, you might want to bookmark this blog entry. With the UK legislation, they’ve 20 working days to respond. They can drag their feet by simply delaying asking for clarification and/or more information just at the 20 days limit. That resets it to another 20 days. So, you’ve got to define the scope of your request as follows:

  • What period are you seeking data for?
  • How do you want the data presented?
  • Define the requested data as unambiguously as possible.

As long as you meet these criteria, and take into account that they will not spend an infinite amount of money completing your request, then you should get what you’re looking for.

Do pop back on the 17th and see what’s been forthcoming. Near-identical requests were also submitted for the Houses of Commons and Lords. Between the three of them I’m sure someone will have been looking at things they should not be using taxpayer-funded resources to access.

Can Wikinewsies make a difference?

Who pays the penalty
Penalty clause, or politicians in the penalty box?

We’re supposed to be citizen journalists. Does that mean we can make a difference? I’d argue it most certainly should!

The query to the left is a letter which the Scotsman graciously published when I put it to them. Alas, not a single politician responded. But, things need not end there.

Edinburgh is coming up for a local election, councillors face defending their seats, and – those brave enough – will be appearing at local hustings. Can they answer the question in front of a large public audience of potential voters? I’ve every intention of finding out, and our local “stirrer”, as the Broughton Spurtle bills themselves, are keen to join in with the challenge.

I spoke to one of their reporters earlier today, and will be joining them on the front bench to make life uncomfortable for candidates. The lesson everyone involved with Wikinews should learn? A simple one: Taking an active interest in political matters, and putting challenging questions to political candidates does not make you non-neutral. Just because nobody else has come up with the question does not make it non-neutral. You’re not softballing politicos of a certain persuasion, you’re asking them something that someone else should have come up with, but didn’t.

They work for us, remember? Make their life difficult, and make them think, and think hard, about what being a representative means. If they can’t answer this simple question, would you trust them with your granny’s bus pass, or your neighbour’s leaky roof?

I wouldn’t, and my vote will be based on who can actually give, and hold to, a sensible answer to this question.

If the question hurts, then I want to know who funded them standing for office – was it, perchance, the people who took Edinburgh for fools and promised a tram system at an undeliverable cost?

Writing for Wikinews for the first time

In early December 2011, I had the pleasure of meeting Brian McNeil at GLAM Camp, Amsterdam where I was representing the History of Paralympics in Australia GLAM project. At the time, we were busy working on finalising the details for Wikimedians to the Games (W2G), an opportunity for two Wikimedians to attend the London Paralympics with behind the scenes access to the Games in order to cover them for Wikipedia and Wikinews courtesy of a press pass. This project was to be funded by the Australian Paralympic Committee and Wikimedia Australia, with the credentials being provided by one of these two organisations. To my knowledge, it was the first time a GLAM project had heavily involved Wikinews in a collaboration incentive programme. Certain types of GLAMs lend themselves better to Wikinews, Wikisource and Wiktionary than Wikipedia, and this was just such a case. No one else has really done this. Thus, terribly exciting for me and others inside Wikimedia Australia and the Australian Paralympic Committee.

We built into the W2G a requirement that participants write an article for Wikinews. In the process of meeting Brian at GLAM Camp and further conversations, I was even more excited. Reporter accreditation is seriously cool in terms of providing additional incentive to participate, especially for photographers. News stories go to Google News when published. You can cover topics in ways different and more meaningfully than you can on Wikipedia. The writing process as described is rather accessible for those who aren’t used to or don’t like Wikipedia’s formalistic, citation heavy editing style. It has useful help pages that don’t require digging 20 subpages into to find out how to edit within policy. The admins are accessible to request editing assistance from. This makes Wikinews accessible to a greater audience. I’m sold. I love using Wikinews for W2G and plan to encourage members of Wikimedia Australia to contribute. I plan to leverage Wikinews when I work with Australian sporting organisations to get them involved with WMF projects, because Wikinews is very useful tool.

Have I mentioned I loved Wikinews with out having published a story on Wikinews? About two and a half weeks ago, I decided to change this. I had permission to bring a photographer to test matches between Australia’s women’s national water polo team and Great Britain’s team. I bought a very nice camera after the second of five matches. I had notes I’d taken during these matches that included the score, attempts to identify player numbers by what other match attendees had told me, had several conversations with people attending the matches about what was going on. I could not record who scored how many goals and this information was not on a scoreboard.

After the fourth of five matches, I started drafting the article. I finished writing after the fifth and final test match. Writing for Wikinews felt as easy as I thought it would be. There were a few bumps along the way because I didn’t clearly read the instructions: Titles should be short, neutral and in active voice. Ooops. I moved changed the title after I created, and it was changed twice again to make sure it conformed with policy. The lead sentence is very important. It should be, according to the guidelines, interesting and answer the who, what, where, when, why and how questions. This was difficult for me. I required and received help from two other editors to get the lede into shape. The article needed to be three to four paragraphs long. I focused the first paragraph on answering the W questions. I used the last paragraph to provide box score information for all five matches. The second paragraph was a problem. I did not know what to say. I asked for help on the article talk page, on a user talk page and in the IRC channel. People told me I could write about how well the team performed. The second paragraph included these details. With the help of the regular writers, the lede paragraph became two paragraphs. The article finished with four paragraphs. I double checked the text to make sure it matched with policy: The text was written in active voice. Dates were expressed as yesterday, Sunday, last Tuesday instead of 21 February 2012. I created links to Wikinews and Wikipedia pages for relevant topics on the article.

Laura Hale's first Wikinews article, as-featured on the site's main page
Laura Hale's first Wikinews article, on the site's main page

In preparing the article, I did original reporting. I read the policy page, asked for more help on the talk page and followed the directions. I tagged the article with original reporting. I wrote reporter notes on the collaboration page. No scanning of hand written notes was required. I wrote down notes from my iPhone, paper and pictures I took. I wrote these notes in about 10 minutes.

In preparing the article, I also relied on other sources. On Wikipedia, you source every fact after you write the fact. On Wikinews, you source facts at the end of the article and fewer are required. Individual scoring information came from sources I used. This was cited at the bottom of the article.

On English Wikipedia, you include an image with out citing who took the picture. As I went through the final checklist, I discovered I need to attribute the photographer in the image caption. I did that. Everything on the checklist looked good. I clicked the submit for review button. I went to bed. I woke up and found the submission had been approved. The article appeared on the main page.

Writing for Wikinews is easy. Follow the guidelines. Request help if you are not sure. If you do this, you should be able to get your news article published.  Here’s my article, slap-bang on the main page; try getting that sort of exposure on Wikipedia!

Wikinews: You CAN copy us

One of the goals in creating Wikinews was providing a syndication source. If you still have a local newspaper, ask them how painfully expensive reproducing articles from The New York Times or Tribune Media Services is; similarly, the main wire services Reuters, Associated Press, the Press Association and Agence France-Presse make dents in any publisher’s pocket-book.

Wikinews: The free news source you can copy
Wikinews: The free news source you can copy

If you care about news and, even casually, follow developments in news production, you will know many larger city papers find themselves forced to close foreign bureaux. If your nearest big city paper no longer has a correspondent in Paris, and another in Auckland, how can they provide you with quality international news?

They can’t. Well, they can’t — unless they pay a syndication source or wire service.

Once you understand this dynamic of news, you can start to see that the apparent explosion of news availability brought by the Internet is, largely, “smoke and mirrors“. Only the really, really big players will have a correspondent in Moscow; your coverage originates with them, right across the dozen or so news sources you might consult.

Wikinews, amongst other things, seeks to address this shift of power.

You could be the ‘correspondent in Auckland‘, or Paris, Moscow, London, Edinburgh, even Seoul, Tokyo, or Santiago. The learning-curve for new contributors is quite steep, but thankfully short. Getting some of our established contributors to go over the issues they met is something for another post. It’s about seven or eight years since I started contributing, so my memory is a little hazy; not to mention, Wikinews was a lot wilder, lacked the all-important formal review, and wasn’t listed in Google News.

But, what about the other side? If Wikinewsies are trying to fill a few of the gaps left by long-gone foreign bureaux, to offer high-quality alternate coverage with a focus on neutrality and integrity, is anyone actually using it?

In recently getting Google News to correct how their spider scans Wikinews, this starts to become more-apparent. I found a few examples in the week or-so since the listing update. As should please a couple of contributors, this includes a “real” newspaper; their writing was syndicated — albeit not for print use.

This afternoon I emailed The Raleigh Telegram, expressing delight at their syndication of Wikinews coverage of current U.S. Presidential campaigns. Their article, Mitt Romney Easily Wins Nevada, Florida Primaries, combines two from us: Mitt Romney wins 2012 Nevada caucuses and Mitt Romney wins 2012 Florida primary.

Moreover, they credit Wikinews clearly and right at the top of the published copy. Although they did mis-capitalise Wikinews, it was important to reach out to them and let them know we’re happy to see our work going to a wider audience. My opinion is it was a smart move to exploit our lack of a “no derivatives” clause in the license we use for publication; they could, with little work on their part, provide a quality report for their readers.

Romney, as covered in some Wikinews reporting, isn’t finding the public universally accepting and adoring him. This is where we find another reuse, or at least citation, of our coverage.

Over on Examiner.com, they’re ‘Spreading Romney‘. Accompanied with an amusing dog photo, and highlighting the 25-thousand strong Facebook group “Dogs against Romney“, they draw from our Valentine’s Day report Santorum neologism spreads to Romney. For those who’ve not seen this fun side of USian electioneering, Romney is in the dog-house over his record on animal rights. The story is, in 1983 Romney and family were making a 12-hour drive from Boston to Ontario; lacking space for the family’s Red Setter inside the car, Romney strapped Seamus’ crate to the car roof.

The neologism? Poor Seamus crapped all over the car windscreen during the marathon drive. Romney, apparently, simply stopped at a gas station and hosed both car and dog down. So, the verb form of Romney is being defined as: To defecate in terror.

Leaving behind the madness of politics in ‘The Land of the Free‘, and looking eastwards for news, we find The Nelson Daily reusing our Egyptian story: Egypt struggles to recover tourism, investment. Scratch that “eastwards” bit; Nelson is a sub-10,000 population town in British Columbia, Canada. However, it makes the point about people wanting quality international news.

It would be interesting to know how many people subscribe to The Nelson Daily. Assuming they carry local coverage, announcements and so on, a double-digit percentage of the local population may look at it on a semi-regular basis. And, if you search their site, you discover they’ve been quietly reusing Wikinews content since at least May 2010. Excellent! Just what we’d hope to start finding more sources doing.

Perhaps a few might even start contributing; you could, if you care about news.