What even is Smol Data?

Dymaxion Air-Ocean World Map
Buckminster Fuller and Chuck Byrne: Dymaxion Air-Ocean World Map (1981)

I have been talking to people more about this weird side project, which has gotten more active in the last few weeks. One of the things that I get caught up on is what I imagine Smol Data will be building vs. how I want to organize a group of people to achieve those ends. Both are useful to understand, so I’ll try to summarize them here.

First the “what are we building part.” So far the project has materialized as a series of prototypes like SMS group chat, social media archiving, and offline-friendly mapping. These are all very work-in-progress, experimental endeavors. Recently I’ve been putting a lot of effort into the latter of these, the mapping software. It’s convenient for me because it coincides with what I do at my day job, and people seem to quickly understand the “why you might want it” aspect.

A 1948 Buckminster Fuller Architecture Class at Black Mountain College

The “how we are building it” is a little harder to explain. The clumsy way of putting it is: differently than Silicon Valley, or the broader “tech scene,” which has a whole range of thorny social biases that I find frustrating. I have questions like “so, who makes the thing?” and “for whom?” Or “what happens to everyone’s data when the company is purchased by an untrustworthy successor?” Increasingly, most of the tech startups I read about have disappointing answers to these questions.

But I don’t think this is a good way of explaining the project. Smol Data should be defined as a set of principles it stands for, not in opposition to. I want the project to be equitable in terms of labor policies, and to operate as a Worker Coop (see also: Feeltrain’s discussion of tech coops). It should be a vehicle for workers to address their Most Important Topic.

I want the project to have local impact, specifically addressing actual needs of people I live nearby. On the other hand, I want to work with a remote team comprised of individuals who can have impact where they happen to be.

Honestly, I am still figuring all this out. We still have not incorporated officially as a coop, but we will be working on that with students at the Albany Law Clinic & Justice Center in 2018. If you are interested in hashing out what all this might become, please consider joining our weekly office hours.

Smol Data office hours

Interested in what we’re up to at Smol Data? Have some ideas that you’d like feedback on? Join us at our weekly video chat, Sundays at 2pm ET.

We use appear.in, here’s how it works:

  1. Find a comfy place to sit and grab a pair of headphones.
  2. Join us on the online chat: chat.smoldata.org
  3. Go to appear.in/smoldata (you don’t need to install any special software) but we can only have 4 people in the room at a time, but we can swap people in and out as needed, so please post on the chat if you can’t login.
  4. If you have any trouble getting it to work, send us a heads up.

Hello, Smol Maps

For the last few months I’ve been working on a new prototype application for Smol Data. This was inspired by my participation in the Seoul Biennale for Architecture and Urbanism, where I gave a workshop on offline mapping (written up here and here). It was an intense experience, but I had a lot of fun, and I got to meet Taeyoon‘s parents, who are just as great as you might expect. Thanks to E. Roon Kang and Wonyoung So for organizing the workshop, and Achim Koh for translating my essay into Korean.

Since then, I’ve been slowly improving on the code, which I’ve been using to help navigate my way around Troy, NY (where I live now). I gave another workshop, based on the one in Seoul, for the Albany chapter of CoderDojo and then another one for Mimi’s class at Bennington College.

The upshot to all of this is that I’ve been talking about Smol Maps a whole lot lately, and haven’t been writing about much on this website. After some consideration, I’ve decided to port the code from its current PHP implementation to an in-progress node.js version.

There are a few reasons for this:

  • Porting the code will let me properly snapshot and explain how each part of the map works. Keep an eye on the releases page.
  • node.js works with Glitch, which is such a lovely project, and a great way to reach new coders.
  • I’d like to release Smol Maps as an Electron app, which runs on node.js.

The documentation is pretty minimal at this point, but give it a try, and let me know what breaks!

We have a new name

Hello friends! It’s 2017, and some time has passed since I last updated this site. We’re still scheming and building, despite going quiet for a little while. You may notice we have a new name and URL. The project started its life as “smalldata.coop,” a new platform cooperative for becoming less dependent on surveillance-supported cloud services. Things took a bit longer than expected to get started, and we realized we couldn’t call ourselves a cooperative until we got legit with bylaws and articles of incorporation.

We are now called Smol Data (smoldata.org). The change is partly to be more search-friendly, and to differentiate ourselves from other things called “Small Data,” especially from our friends over at Small Data Industries. In the coming weeks we may start calling ourselves Smol Data Cooperative, but for now just know that it’s still happening!

Is My Phone Eavesdropping On Me?

From WNYC’s Note to Self, your various microphone-enabled devices very well could be listening to you.

Do we know whether our gadgets are passively listening to us? No. We don’t know for sure, beyond what they tell us in their privacy policies. But we do know that voice recognition is what many major companies are trying to get us to start using.

Or maybe a better question is how frequently and on whose behalf are our devices listening to (and watching) us? The episode also features an interview with Walter Kirn who wrote If You’re Not Paranoid, You’re Crazy in the Atlantic.

See also this security paper from USENIX: Hidden Voice Commands

Facebook and Korryn Gaines

This is a heartbreaking story about overcriminalization, police accountability, and the effectiveness of social media as a tool to bear witness.

Gaines was using social media to broadcast the standoff, which began when officers showed up on Monday morning to serve a warrant. Police officials asked Facebook and Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, to suspend Gaines’ accounts through what police called a “law enforcement portal”, a part of the site open to certified law enforcement agencies.

At some point after that, police shot Gaines, killing her.

Is the Internet Dead?

From Hito Steyerl’s e-flux essay Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead?

In the past few years many people—basically everybody—have noticed that the internet feels awkward, too. It is obviously completely surveilled, monopolized, and sanitized by common sense, copyright, control, and conformism. It feels as vibrant as a newly multiplexed cinema in the nineties showing endless reruns of Star Wars Episode 1.

“I can’t trust cloud services anymore.”

I’m a big fan of the podcast Reply All (subscribe here). The most recent episode is about Picturelife, a photo sharing service that recently pulled all of its users’ photos offline. They just completely vanished one day. Host Alex Goldman interviewed one of Picturelife’s co-founders—Charles Forman, who sold the company—but who lost 93,000 of his own photos along with everybody else:

ALEX: And so I asked Charles, like, “What are you gonna do with your pictures from now on?”

CHARLES: I am going to save them to a hard drive on a RAID system, which means it’s, uh, it’s like physical set of disks in my apartment. I just feel like I cannot–I can not trust … I can’t trust cloud services anymore.

ALEX: As a person who founded a (laughing) cloud service that’s, like, a really big thing to say. That’s, like, a really big statement.

The story still hasn’t completely unfolded, but hopefully this kind of attention will help these users recover their lost photos sooner than later.

Listen to the episode on SoundCloud, or on Gimlet Media’s website.

The first post

Why hello there! This is the first Small Data blog post and my name is Dan. I don’t want to belabor this first post thing too much, especially since I have a video playing in another tab. But the super quick version is this: Small Data is a new cooperative. We want to make it easier to host your own data, on your own hardware. And a bunch of other things—there’s a GitHub repo with some extra info. We’ll write more here in due time.

Post-Snowden "40% of Americans now report that they have now have reduced the amount of commercial activity (they're buying less) or are watching what they say online."
Post-Snowden “40% of Americans now report that they have reduced the amount of commercial activity (they’re buying less) or are watching what they say online.”

Back to watching that video. It’s good, it’s a talk by Gillian “Gus” Andrews about how everyday people think the Internet works. You should watch it too!