Corridors of Power: Constitutional Power and Architecture

Delivered a short presentation today to the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom office in Colombo on ‘Corridors of Power’, an exhibition I curated with Channa Daswatta and Asanga Welikala that explores Sri Lanka’s constitutional evolution through architecture.

The exhibition was first shown late 2015, and in 2016, was again shown in Colombo, in addition to Jaffna, Kandy, Batticaloa and Galle. The presentation, made for those visiting Sri Lanka from FNST’s headquarters in Berlin, Germany, gave an overview of the exhibition, the amazing responses to it and around constitutional reform writ large from outside of Colombo (covered here) as well as plans next year to build on it, including a new website, taking it to more places around Sri Lanka and also developing the original idea into a more democratic, web based model that can result in citizen-driven models around perceptions of constitutional rule that can be scaled even to the level of public parks.

Fake news in Myanmar: Social Media verification workshop

Cross-posted from the ICT4Peace Foundation website.

###

WhatsApp-Android-e1441334577402.jpg

An informal workshop on verifying news and information spread across social media was held recently at Phandeeyar in Yangon, Burma, led by the Foundation’s Special Advisor, Sanjana Hattotuwa. Amongst the confirmed participants were:

Media and Media Support Organizations
  • Irrawaddy
  • BBC Media Action
  • Kumudra and Modern Journal
  • Democratic Voice of Burma
  • Myanmar Journalism Institute
Civil Society Organizations
  • PEN Myanmar
  • People in Need
  • Burma Human Rights Network
  • Myanmar ICT Development Organization
  • Center for Diversity and National Harmony
  • Women Peace Arakan Network
Funders, Researchers, INGOS
  • Andaman Research and Advisory
  • Peace Support Fund
  • The Swedish Burma Committee
  • Fortify Rights
  • Humanitarian Dialogue Center

Covering Google, Error Level Analysis for images, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and other topics, the workshop was anchored to the source evaluation module of a longer course run by the ICT4Peace Foundation on the use of new media in crisis management. The workshop also drew on Sanjana’s experience of countering-rumors and violent extremism in Sri Lanka. Participants were alerted to several leading social media verification guides, frameworks and best practices from the likes of the BBC, Columbia Journalism Review, Nieman Reports, First Draft news and other sources.

Those attending had a range of questions around content, technical issues, platforms, apps and use case scenarios, at a time in Myanmar where the spread of misinformation and disinformation campaigns and content is rife. Sanjana’s workshop ties in with activities done with Phandeeyar in the recent past around countering violence extremism online and the production of counter-speech to combat the rise of hate and dangerous speech in the country.

President, PM, Parliament, MFA, Cabinet, Central Bank & News.lk: Searching via Google

screen-shot-2016-11-06-at-11-38-57-am

Created a new Google custom search engine (after the reception to the first made yesterday) covering key government websites.

Access it here.

The search engine indexes everything on:

  1. President’s Media Division – http://www.pmdnews.lk
  2. Official Website of the President – http://www.president.gov.lk
  3. Presidential Secretariat – http://www.presidentsoffice.gov.lk
  4. President’s Fund – http://www.presidentsfund.gov.lk
  5. President’s Wikipedia entry –
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maithripala_Sirisena
  7. PM’s Wikipedia entry – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ranil_Wickremesinghe
  8. PM’s Office – http://www.pmoffice.gov.lk
  9. Cabinet Office – http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.lk
  10. Parliament of Sri Lanka – http://www.parliament.lk
  11. Official Web Portal of the Government of Sri Lanka – https://www.gov.lk/welcome.html
  12. News.lk (official news portal) – http://www.news.lk
  13. Central Bank of Sri Lanka – http://www.cbsl.gov.lk
  14. Ministry of Foreign Affairs – http://www.mfa.gov.lk

Whereas the reason for creating the custom search engine for the Government Printing Department was the fact that the search functionality on that site was dodgy at best, here it is because, for example, the President of Sri Lanka has no less than four official websites. These four have content updated at different intervals, covering different issues – what’s on one, isn’t what’s on the others. This was brought into sharp focus when after the President’s speech to the UN General Assembly, three different versions of the speech were on three different official websites.

The custom search engine also searches all the images on these sites. It will benefit journalists and researchers the most, and others including the diplomatic community who want to search through the myriad of PRs, speeches, statements, announcements, reports and other material in Sinhala, Tamil and English. The custom search engine also searches within PDFs.

Department of Government Printing: Searching via Google

screen-shot-2016-11-05-at-9-57-06-am

Sri Lanka’s Department of Government Printing website is a trilingual resource for Gazettes, Extra Gazettes, Bills, Acts and other information, including official Tenders, since 2004.

A major site redesign in 2016 made the site easier on the eye, but seriously impacted discoverability of information on the site. The search functionality on the site isn’t uniform, is really badly implemented and not very visible.

The site is regularly visited by lawyers, academics, students, researchers and others who frequently search for and need this information. To help them, I’ve created a Google Custom Search Engine that indexes all the content on the site, across Tamil, Sinhala and English.

Access the search engine here.

screen-shot-2016-11-05-at-10-00-10-am

Everything that you do on Google, you can do here. All the content on the Printing Department can now be searched based on relevance or date, and in Sinhala or Tamil as well. A short video of the custom search engine at work is embedded below.

Please pass on to others who may find this useful!

Drone journalism in Sri Lanka: Footage and key examples

The event was aimed at journalists from the programme and also from outside, including the Sri Lanka College of Journalism, mainstream media, freelance journalists and civic media, around the ethical, rights based use of drones for journalism, also in compliance with the Civil Aviation Authority’s regulations from February 2016.

The Q&A session after the presentation focussed on rights, the ethics around the use of content and footage, the tensions between public interest versus private property and the right to privacy, the technical capabilities of consumer grade drones, specific points of the CAASL regulations and indeed, as has been previously noted, the lack of awareness amongst journalists of how best to use a drone in their reporting.

As I tweeted,

As award winning journalist Amantha Perera tweeted soon after,

As part of the presentation, a short video, showcasing some of the best footage from a recent OneSriLanka Fellows field trip to Polonnaruwa, Welikanda, Batticaloa and Kattankudy, was shown. This footage has to date been used in Lankadeepa, BBC Sinhala, Daily Mirror, Roar.lk reports in Sinhala and English, amongst other sites and publications.

These are the first reports in Sri Lankan media that use drone footage in a manner that sets an example for others, across the media landscape, to follow.

Digital transformation and the role of civil society in Sri Lanka

screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-11-58-14-am

The Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit Regional office South Asia organized a regional seminar on “Promoting Liberty Digitally” in Sri Lanka from 15th to 17th October 2016. I was asked to speak on “Digital transformation and the role of Civil Society in Sri Lanka” and to be present at a group discussion on “Civil rights and the Internet”.

My presentation covered how technology in general, and social media in particular, had been leveraged by civil society around a range of issues related to elections, democracy, rights and governance in Sri Lanka. Looking at Facebook statistics in Sri Lanka, and also CPA’s own social polling data around Consumption and Perceptions of Mainstream and Social Media in the Western Province, I noted how designing and developing for mobiles first was essential if CSOs and NGOs wanted to engage with digital natives, who in Sri Lanka are also the most politically active and fall within the 18 – 34 demographic / 1st, 2nd or at most, 3rd time voters.

Noting the results of CPA’s social polling, I flagged that,

  • Not everyone needs to be connected to web to be influenced by it.
  • The influence of content on social media in particular, and online content in general, extends to groups well beyond those who are directly connected to, and participating in these online networks.
  • This also puts to rest the often quoted myth that since Internet penetration is relatively low in the country, content shared online has little to no footprint in the larger public consciousness.

I also flagged key changes, as I saw them, brought about by the ever increasing adaptation and adoption of technology by civil society (and indeed, government),

  • Ubiquity of two way communications
  • Addressable peoples, even those who IDPs or refugees
  • Disintermediated models vs. traditional media model
  • People as producers
  • Low resolution, hyperlocal helps focus and granularity
  • Aggregation of low resolution helps macro analysis and strategy

I then looked at specific apps and technologies and how they had been used in Sri Lanka (e.g. Abdul Halik-Azziz on Instagram, or Groundviews on WhatsApp).

I then looked at how technology helped remember the inconvenient, harking back to my more detailed presentation on this topic at Colomboscope 2016 (‘Remembering is Resisting‘).

Groundviews has pioneered long-form and responsive web based storytelling on platforms like Adobe Spark, Atavist and Shorthand – I flagged these as important to embrace in light of the fact that so many consumed content over mobiles and smartphones.

Flagging the path-breaking Change Sri Lanka campaign leading up to the General Election in 2015, I also noted how infographics, the web and mainstream media were leveraged to capture opinion from a broad section of the public in English, Sinhala and Tamil.

I also flagged drone journalism, immersive VR content (360 degree videos for use with the likes of Google Cardboard) and the many aspects of Facebook, ranging from Notes to Facebook Live video, as ways to communicate and engage with more effectively target audiences.

Finally I flagged some questions around identity, safety, security, information overload and ‘slacktivism’ – noting that increasing digital advocacy and activism also meant opening oneself, and institutions, to greater more pervasive surveillance, especially in South Asia which remains colored by a democratic deficit.

screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-11-57-37-am

I also said that the biggest challenge facing the greater adoption and adaptation of technology for advocacy was not a paucity of apps, platforms, tools or services, but a crisis of imagination in civil society itself – noting that civil society is usually unable and unwilling to think outside the box.

Presentation at Shape South Asia 2016 on ‘Corridors of Power’

screen-shot-2016-10-07-at-9-56-04-am

I was invited by the WEF GlobalShapers Colombo Hub (see Facebook page here) to showcase the ‘Corridors of Power‘ exhibition again and also to speak on it.

The exhibition, first held in 2015 at the JDA Perera Gallery, was unlike any other project combining design, architecture and constitutional theory. It occupied a very large floor space, which wasn’t available at the GlobalShaper’s venue this year. I had to then compress the entire floor plan and as much as I could of the background into two high-definition, which ran on a loop on very large LCD screens. The four models representing the ’72 and ’78 constitution as well as the 13th and 18th Amendments, were displayed at the venue.

###

Interrogating constitutional power (between centre and periphery) through architecture, as a design venture that sought to engage citizens to think more about how they are ruled, has never once been attempted before, anywhere in the world. The project brought together one of the country’s foremost architects, one of its leading constitutional theorists and I in a three way, over year long conversation culminating in the exhibition, anchored to architectural principles, design, aesthetics and constitutional theory.

‘Corridors of Power’ interrogates 40 years of Sri Lanka’s constitutional evolution, through architecture. What is a constitution? What place and relevance, if any, does it have in the popular imagination? Do citizens really care about an abstract document most would never have seen or read, when more pressing existential concerns continue to bedevil their lives and livelihoods, even post-war?

Led by the input of Asanga Welikala and in collaboration with Channa Daswatta, ‘Corridors of Power’ through architectural drawings and models interrogates Sri Lanka’s constitutional evolution since 1972. The physical exhibition, held first in late 2015, critiqued Sri Lanka’s tryst with constitutional reform and essentially the tension between centre and periphery. The original exhibition output included large format drawings, 3D flyovers, sketches, and models reflecting power dynamics enshrined in the the 1972 and 1978 constitutions, as well as the 13th, 18th and 19th Amendments.

The exhibition clearly demonstrates the futility of even more amendments to a constitution that since conception 1978 was deeply flawed. It highlights the outgrowth of authoritarianism, and the illusion of stability. It gives life to the phrase, “the centre cannot hold”. Through errors thrown up by the architectural programme Autodesk Revit, significant flaws of our present constitution are clearly flagged. The models will collapse over time. The drawings are increasingly grotesque.

The architectural output makes abundantly clear the failure of our constitutional vision.

All this, we countenanced. All this, we could have opposed. All this, we voted in, defended or were silent about.

‘Corridors of power’, as with all my exhibitions previously, is an invitation to reflect on what we have been hostage to in the past in order to imagine a more just, inclusive, open future. Spaces to meet, reflect and react need expansion. The checks and balances of power need firmer foundations. Centripetal tendencies in design must be eschewed in favour of centrifugal development. We need open spaces instead of closed sites, grass to walk and play on instead of just to admire. Easy access to key locations. Light, more than shadow and shade too, where needed.

In sum, we need to be the architects of the change we want to see. It is the essence of citizenship. It is what gives life to a constitution worth having. Worth knowing.

Worth defending.