Prix Ars Electronica


Ars Electronica Linz & ORF Oberösterreich

Putting the Tools into the Hands of the People

Steven Clift, Andreas Hirsch, Peter Kuthan, Lara Srivastava

Imagine having a health condition that requires the use of a wheelchair to navigate the narrow backstreets of Barcelona, and your only path is blocked by careless fellow-citizens leaving their cars, goods or garbage. Imagine trying to set up a community radio station amidst the vast rainforests of Brazil with practically no budget, where even the most basic hardware and connectivity are rare, as is the know-how to put them to work. Imagine pushing your trolley down a supermarket aisle somewhere in Europe, passing shelves overly stocked with products whose packaging contains little information about the effects their contents may have on your childrens health.—You might think that these three situations have very little in common, and you are right but at the same time wrong. Despite their differences, they share a certain potential of bettering of people’s lives through the collaborative use of information and communication technologies (ICTs)—by using these in a in a courageous and creative manner to make the best of a given situation.

Inspired by the ceaseless fluctuations of the landscape of digital media in a globalized world, every year opens a new chapter in the story of the reclaiming of the internet as a social space—a story that is reflected in the category “digital communities”. While the online social spaces we look at clearly bear the marks of both technology and market forces, there is abundant room for social development and community building initiatives.

The notion of “digital communities”, and the award that bears the name, was born out of the perception of a shift in the history of the internet towards recapturing its social functions, as well as a desire to recognize outstanding efforts to help bridge the digital divide on a global basis. In this process, which is one of ambiguity and instability (not unlike world politics), a constant re-definition of the category seems to be a prerequisite of its relevance.

This year, we looked for projects that demonstrate the ability to combine several crucial aspects of what constitutes in our perspective a “digital community”. We looked for originality and innovation, both in terms of new emerging tools or smart (re)combinations of existing ones as well as in terms of social innovation. The ownership of the project, its organisational structure and the values adhered to (or created) should be based in the community itself and not be an object of easy corporate buyout. Sustainability is a third key factor, i.e. the ability to carry on beyond one season or time period of funding. We tried to identify projects that enable the sharing of knowledge and the collective creation of common public goods and projects that would help mobilize people and create a culture of participation. This includes the ability of projects to promote societal change and to serve as “best practice” examples for others, accompanied by an “open source” character of projects, which makes them realistically replicable. Held against the backdrop of such refined criteria, new characteristics of “digital communities” made their appearence and familiar ones showed significant evolution.

Knowledge and space have a complex and intimate relationship, a relationship that has also been in line with computing and digital media throughout their history. Only recently have relatively easy forms of relationship between knowledge and space (i.e. comfortable ways of mapping content and geography) been made broadly available. These offer amazing new forms of contextualization, that gain more and more importance as knowledge-based societies develop.

Innovation exists in new forms of collaboration that would not have been possible if not for digital and networkig media. The openess of code is a prerequisite for the sustainable success of such collaboration, while this applies to “code” in the factual sense of lines of programming or “code” in the more metaphoric sense of rules and structures. Notably the notion of “openness” also applies to hardware and infrastructures, thus making the creation of common public goods complete. Such processes can and will nurture the building of social capital through sharing and reappropriation. They go hand in hand with efforts at capacity building, particularly with respect to overcoming all sorts of digital divide and exclusion, be it on gender, ethnic or other grounds.

The promise of technology would be nothing in the broader context of human development if not for the appropriation of the tools—both software and hardware—by the users themselves. The story of “open source” and “economies of sharing” follows the very early history of the internet. But it is only in recent years that this culture of sharing and collaboration has seen the return of the “digital commons“, which had come under threat from restrictive legislation battles for corporate market dominance. It is only through participation and capacity building, through architectures and attitudes of inclusion that the form of social capital relevant here is nourished. Whether on the streets of Barcelona, in the most remote villages of rural Brazil or in consumerist Europe, it is the courage to create an environment of openess and active citizen participation by putting ICT tools into the hands of the everyday people, that really makes the difference. The award winners of 2006 in the category “digital communities”, together with those receiving an honorary mention, have made that difference under often difficult and sometimes even hopeless conditions. These examples should serve as an inspiration and encouragement for others around the world to firmly seize the relevant tools at their disposal, and make their own mark in our global information society.

The Golden Nica

It is in an elegant way that this project unites several of the key factors that define outstanding “digital communities“. A group of Barcelona people in wheelchairs documents road blocks and other obstacles on their way as well as the—rare—positive examples of easy access for people in wheelchairs. Doing this they make the best use of existing technology to work for change. This project tells us a lot about access in its most basic forms as well as in relation to technology and networks: it supports the fight for physical access to buildings and infrastructure for a marginalized and handicapped group of people, it promotes the awareness of their problems and takes the collaborative use of technology right in the hands of the concerned people themselves. The technology they use represents the most common form of ubiquitous computing: mobile phones with digital cameras. The web platform of canal*ACCESSIBLE serves as the binding element of this community, and maps their findings and observations to the physical geography of Barcelona. All of this is done with a simple interface, providing easy-to-use access to that constantly growing and up-to-date base of information. They will use the prize money of the Golden Nica not only for further improvements of the usability of their interface but also give it to the implementation of similar projects in countries of the global South—an investment in replicability and in bridging the global digital divide.

Awards of Distinction

Proyecto Cyberela – Radio Telecentros
Radio may be seen as a kind of media with a lot of history and little prospect for the future. Experience shows that this is not the case. Radio has lost none of its appeal and momentum especially for communities in the countries of the South and it has gained a lot of additional potential through the digital ways of production and distribution. By enabling and training women to produce independent community radio, Proyecto Cyberela makes use of radio and ICTs to bridge the digital divide also in the important dimension of gender, one that often gets overlooked. In the geographical dimension of the global digital divide especially the rural areas are demanding and deserving attention, so their work in the inclusion of remote rural areas in Brazil seems even more important. The emphasis on capacity building and training is essential to join the shift from information societies to knowledge-based societies which makes its way also to the remotest areas of this planet.

Ubiquitous computing is about bringing the information to everywhere it is actually needed. Codecheck realizes an example of ubiquitous computing that has the collaborative effort of collecting and providing consumer product information to the public where they need it most—to their mobile phones while standing at the point of sale. More than most other efforts in critical consumer information this project has the potential of building up pressure for on site accountability of corporations producing consumer goods. Critical information about the content and potential impact of products is shared and reviewed, and the current system of product identification—the bar code—serves as the key to that information, a key that will be upgraded to RFID tags, when the next generation of object identifiers reaches the stores. Prize money shall allow for application to other languages and should also help preparing for that next technological step, one which will require even more consumer awareness then ever before.

Honorary Mentions

Mapping the real word and the virtual world

Stencils as seen on many walls are an important form of political and cultural expression. Due to their position on the boundaries of legality and their character as an intervention in public and private property they represent a fleeting phenomenon. stencilboard.at is not only an encouraging community platform for people around the world dedicated to freedom of expression and the art of creating stencils, but it is also a public documentation and archive of this cultural phenomenon.

The Organic City
Cities are loaded with history and The Organic City carries this fact to a wonderful blossom of stories, mapped to the cityscape of Oakland. This can be seen as an application for living cultural memory that is replicable to other cities, especially with an open source kit coming up.

The relevance of Wikipedia has already been recognized by this award and shown an interesting development since. Semapedia maps objects in the real world to information that is contained in Wikipedia. This makes Semapedia an interesting step towards a “network of things“, which might well turn out as the next wave in communication.

Citizen Participation and Activism

Especially in a politically constrained environment as in Belarus, a platform like Charter97.org serves an important role for the development and nourishment of public space and civic action. Alternative information is a most valuable public good everywhere, but even more so in this country.

Northfield.org unites multiple online approaches to foster the creation of locally intense community content and dialogue. Citizen participation over a longer span of time is not a given, but the outcome of sustainable initiative and the best use of the avialable tools in an inclusive manner.

Pambazuka News
The weekly Pambazuka News (Pambazuka means “arise” or “awaken” in Kiswahili) not only provides for a comprehensive online update on human rights and social justice issues in Africa but also for a valuable source of inspiration and encouragement for civic action networks and eactivism.

Building social and economic capital through sharing and reappropriation

Not the hunt for the latest object of desire for geeks but recycling of seemingly outdated technical equipment is the target of MetaReciclagem. This is real ground work for social transformation and for the reappropriation of technology by the people.

The Freecycle Network
Sharing and reappropriation help building social capital. Freecycle is devoted to the exchange of free objects and does this while applying high and strict ethics in the process.

Capacity Building

UgaBYTES Initiative
Establishing and running a telecenter in Uganda is not an easy job at all and there is valuable knowledge out there that can help others to stand on the shoulders of those who have already accomplished the task. Training and capacity building play a key role in this process and UgaBYTES provides them.

Mountain Forum
The situation of mountain people around the world, their environments and cultures is a difficult and often marginalized one. Mountain Forum as a global network of individuals and organisations concerned with the wellbeing of mountain people makes the appropriate use of a digital platform to extend access to the remote areas and their ecological concerns.

Collaboration and Open Source Innovation

Collaboration among programmers of open source code is nothing new, but CodeTree offers an interesting and supportive approach to collaboration. It brings the art of open source development to a new stage.

The success of the “open source”-idea and ethics would not be complete were it not expanded to the realm of hardware. While specially supporting artistic and experimental work with sensors, Arduino serves as a wonderful example of a community which keeps our hardware “open” in the best sense of the word.

© Ars Electronica Linz GmbH, info@aec.at