As mentioned in an earlier post, the European Commission has launched the Collective Awareness Platforms for Sustainability and Social Innovations (CAPS), platforms that aim to combine data of interest to specific communities, such as social media, distributed knowledge as well as data from real environments (Internet of Things) in order to create awareness of problems and possible solutions requesting collective efforts, enabling new forms of social innovation. To this context, many CAPS projects are activated in various thematic areas, like CAPSELLA where Agroknow is a part of the project consortium. In this post, we are going to learn more about two other CAPS projects (MAZI, NetCommons) through our interview with Panayotis Antoniadis, Senior Researcher at ETH Zurich and co-founder of the nonprofit organization nethood.org.
1. Can you tell us a few things about yourself?
I have studied computer science in Heraklion, University of Crete, with a focus on distributed systems. Then I moved to the Athens University of Economic and Business for my PhD on economic models and game theory, which although theoretical aimed to inform the design of practical incentive mechanisms for peer-to-peer (p2p) systems, mostly file sharing. However, I found economics a limited tool for encouraging cooperation in this context, and during my post-doc in Paris I explored the role of social software and intrinsic motivations for building community wireless networks at a neighborhood scale, among other p2p systems.
This brought me in contact with an urban planner from the University of Southern California, Ileana Apostol, with complementary skills and interests. It was in March 2008, when we started the NetHood project as an “experimental” interdisciplinary collaboration. After one year, Ileana moved to Paris, we got married, and then moved together to ETH Zurich (myself at the engineering department and Ileana at architecture). Then we started developing NetHood as a broader project, combining research and action, through the organization of various events and the creation of a network of like minded people both from the academia and the civil society. It proved that the idea of a DIY (Do-It-Yourself) networking network facilitating contacts between people in physical proximity could act as an ideal boundary object between engineers, urban planners, sociologists, designers, artists, activists, and more.
I am very happy that this effort resulted to the founding of NetHood as an independent non-profit organization focusing on different areas of local action including communication networks, cooperative housing, complementary currencies, community-supported agriculture, and social infrastructures.
2. You are one of the founders of NetHood; what was the need that led to this organization and what do you plan to achieve through it? What is its current status?
The founding of NetHood became necessary upon the realization that academic institutions are not really open today to such experimental interdisciplinary collaborations, which require a lot of time to develop and provide measurable results. Our ambitious goal is to stay in equal distance between academia and civil society and help toward building win-win collaborations between various actors in these domains. We believe that researchers need to get closer to reality and support grassroots initiatives that aim to serve the public good and thus do not have access to venture capital and other commercially-oriented investments. Grassroots initiatives can provide on the other hand, an invaluable experimental platform for testing new technologies, scientific theories, etc. We are happy that NetHood starts its adventure with two such transdisciplinary collaborations in the context of the EU Horizon2020 CAPS call.
3. You currently participate in two CAPS Horizon 2020 projects; MAZI & NetCommons. What are their objectives and do they share anything in common?
Both projects focus on the concept of DIY networking that could in principle serve two complementary objectives: 1) to improve Internet connectivity in a certain area and 2) to support local interactions and services. Since the nodes of such networks are owned and operated by individuals, significant coordination is required around various issues: from purely technical, like the underlying networking protocols, to more social and political, like the design of the applications running on the network and the governance of the whole ecosystem (access and resource allocation, cost recovery, community support, conflict resolution, etc.). But for such interactions to be productive and fruitful, one should carefully distinguish between the two main roles of a community network, Internet access vs. local services, and their possible combinations.
MAZI (meaning “together” in Greek), takes the perspective of existing grassroots initiatives whose goals are social and political in nature, and explores ways that DIY networking technologies can help pursue them. For this, it follows a transdisciplinary methodology that brings together different aspects of design (engineering, human-computer interaction, interation design, design research, and urban design) around the development of a DIY networking toolkit as the “boundary object”, and four concrete pilot studies:
- Berlin’s urban garden prinzessinnengarten and neighbourhood academy
- Deptford’s network of local communities, organizations and activists in London
- Zurich‘s cooperative housing and living projects Kraftwerk1 and NeNa1
- the nomadic group unMonastery
netCommons, sets as its starting point the existing large-scale (wireless) community networks in Europe, such as Barcelona’s Guifi.net, which are used today mostly as gateways to the Internet. The project brings in contact these communities of mostly engineers and technology enthusiasts, with experts on legal, economic, political, and urban aspects that can help those networks to become more resilient against recent developments that threaten their existence, and more inclusive and useful for the local communities around them (beyond Internet connectivity).
4. What would you expect from your participation in these projects? What would be the benefits for an organization like NetHood?
The main ideas that are behind the projects MAZI and netCommons, express the essence of NetHood as a nonprofit organization, and thus they provide the ideal framework to disseminate NetHood’s grounding principles. They provide also the opportunity to undertake research within an activist framework that bridges knowledge with practice in the real life urban laboratory. We expect that at the end of this process NetHood will have advanced significantly its knowledge and appropriate tools to bring together researchers from different disciplines and activists, We will then be able to formulate and implement credible social learning processes that will involve both the academia and the civil society, and combine knowledge and expertise from different domains of local action, as described above.
5. Terms like open source, open access, open data are widely used nowadays; everyone seems to be talking about openness. How do you see them applying in practice, to support local communities and address their actual needs?
Not all information is the same. Data, access, code are all different case for which openness takes different forms, with different benefits and different challenges. For data, openness is good but it is dangerous when it leads to “too much information”, and even worse to “too much biased information”. So, since our time is limited, filtering and aggregation will be always needed. And the question is who manages this data and for which objective and relying on big corporations to take this role poses a big threat. For this, NetHood’s objective is to provide communities with “tools for conviviality” that can empower them to own, control, and design the ICT platforms that mediate their online interactions through bottom-up participatory processes. For software and hardware, openness as a term can be misleading. I think that the term “free” as advocated by Richard Stallman (free as in freedom, not as in free beer) is very important in this context and a key requirement for participatory design.
Finally, regarding the open access to knowledge, the current model compensates (much) more the mediators than the generators of knowledge (authors and reviewers), and promotes commercial and individual objectives at the expense of the quality of knowledge itself. However, the open access model needs to be complemented with adequate quality control and filtering mechanisms, which again need to be managed from the bottom-up.
6. Talking about open data, do you (personally or as NetHood?) face any challenges in accessing, using and sharing information/data that you need? If so, what are the main challenges?
Moving from the academia to the civil society, we faced immediately two important challenges regarding access to information: 1) paywalls for scientific papers, which made me realize how privileged I was until today working for big academic institutions, and 2) language barriers, since some of our case studies are Zurich-based and most of the existing documentation is available only in German. Then there is a theoretical tension that we will need to face regarding the collection and analysis of usage data of our envisioned DIY networking applications. How can we ensure the self-determination of local communities regarding their own data and at the same time generate knowledge that can become part of a global social learning process? There are not easy answers to this respect and it is part of the work of our projects to find the right balance between these two conflicting objectives.
7. How do you manage data that you produce or access? Any specific tools or workflows?
Until now our work was mostly theoretical focusing mostly on human interactions and bottom-up participatory processes for designing the appropriate tools that are needed in different situations. We have done various small-scale experiments but never collected the data for further analysis. The MAZI project aims to build a DIY networking toolkit that would allow local actors to setup data collection and analysis processes according to their own needs.
8. Anything else that you would like to share with us?
Although the initial focus of NetHood has been mostly on the DIY networking technology and hybrid space design, the last year we have started to get involved in other relevant domains of local action, like the Ortoloco project depicted above, which I think is a very interesting case study for Agroknow project as well. I was somehow surprised to realize that most of these successful initiatives are rather focused on their own domain, and very rarely create links between them or even co-exist in the same city (with the exception of the Zurich based cooperative housing and ortoloco). However, they all share many key principles and there are many unexplored opportunities for collaborations and exchange of knowledge and experience.
In netCommons we attempt to devise meaningful complementary currency schemes for managing large community networks like guifi.net, and in MAZI we will deploy small scale DIY networking solutions and social infrastructures like the Hybrid LetterBox in Zurich’s cooperative housing and living projects (one of MAZI’s pilot studies with the objectives of social integration and knowledge transfer). But everything started with a small EU project called COMPARE, which attempted to bring for the first some of these initiatives together. Having very limited budget, the expected results were very modest (three summary reports from three gaterings). This allowed us to engage in open discussions without stress, and freely provide and receive information without filters and constraints. I would like very much to keep the spirit of this project alive and although now operating with higher budget to organize interdisciplinary gatherings that keep the expectations for “convergence” and “results” low. I often call this process “purposeless information sharing”, because it seems to me that this attitude can be very fruitful on both scientific and social terms.
We would like to thank Panayotis Antoniadis for taking the time to reply to our questions and we hope that we will have the opportunity to feature him again on the Agroknow blog soon!