Social Networks and Personal Digital Archives – it’s up to you.

Gary Gale, Director of Places at Nokia, was a keenly anticipated speaker on this years EEO-AGI seminar series.  Gary has many years experience in the world of tech and GIS having worked for Yahoo for many years before switching to Nokia in 2010.  Gary is also a self confessed geek who loves to dabble with tech.  He is even happier if that tech includes some sort of location element.

Even on the evening of the presentation, the title was still TBC and it came as a bit of a surprise that the presentation did not focus on maps or what Nokia was up to.  This may have been a little disappointing for some in the audience who were keen to discover how Nokia was going, or planned, to keep up with the battle of the maps between Google and, as referred to on the night, “that fruit based” handset maker.

Instead Gary delivered a  talk on the spiraling generation of data from social applications and explored the issue of who actually own the data.  On the issue of who own the data, he was very clear. As soon as you hit submit you are essentially uploading a copy of your original data be that a photo submitted to Flickr, Facebook or Instogram, a location uploaded to 4Square or Facebook or simply 140 characters taken from your head and submitted to Twitter.  The copy of the data is then the property of the social media network that you have uploaded it to.  Ok, you are the content creator but you have passed the data to the network.  Say it is a photo, you still own the rights to the original which should be on your phone or computer, but you have licenced the data to Flickr under the T&C’s of their service agreement.

Customer or Product?

One way to look at it is in terms of products and customers.  If you pay for a service then you are usually considered a customer.  If you get something for free then are you still a customer?  Probably not.  In the world of social networks you are most likely to be the product. Social networks are not there just to let us connect with friends, they are there to make money and that means selling data and information about their users to companies that want to sell things to us.  Flickr is a trickier one to unravel as it uses a “freemium” model.  You can use the service for free, but for a small fee ($25/year) you can get additional feature such unlimited storage for your photos and better access to your stored data. Certainly organisations, such as GoGeo’s home EDINA, would be interested in a persistent record of activity on social networks such as Twitter and would be willing to pay for a service that does it.

But where is this all going? Well, if you are an active user of social networks then you have probably documented a good part of the last 2-5 years your life in them. This record probably means something to you.  We used to print out our photographs taken on film cameras and pop them in an album that we would then show to friends when they came round for a cup of tea (how very British). Then we moved to digital cameras and printed out fewer images but could still print the special ones or organise them in an album on our computers.  Harder to pass around a group, but our friends would perhaps still pop round to see them.  Now we, according to the upload figures from both Flickr and Facebook, seem to take more pictures on our mobile phones.  Many of us then upload these to a social network which is handy as we seem to lose or break or phones with alarming frequency. And it is this that Gary is worried about.  How can you get the data that you have submitted to a social network back when the worst happens, you loose your own, original copy?  In addition, we would be naive to think that any of these social networks could be considered permanent.  They have grown massively over the last 5 years, but for every one that reaches perceived maturity, many more fail.  Gary asked how many of us remembered Gowalla.  Only a couple of arms were raised.  MySpace?  Once the next big thing, now mainly the preserve of bands. So how can you ensure that you have a back-up of all the data and information you submit to these networks?

Most of the social networks have API’s which allow you to make data requests. However, to access many of them you need to have the user ID and this is not always easy to access. Flickr, Facebook, Foursquare and Instagram all allow access to all submitted data through their API’s.  Twitter does not.  If you judge the ability to retrieve everything you contribute as minimum competence then Twitter fails.  Actually, Facebook would fail, or partially fail as  you cannot get everything out, just the recent (past 2-3 years) content.

Personal Digital Archives (PPA’s)

Fortunately there are some clever folk out there who are also concerned about this and have built applications that will archive your stuff for you and keep it safe.  Importantly, this copy will be independent of the social network it was originally posted to. These services are being referred to as Personal Digital Archives (PPA’s). Furthermore the nice developer chaps and chappesses are distributing their code through GitHub, making it publicly available.  Grab it and use it, or grab it and adapt it. Even better, grab it, adapt it and then share it. Examples of these PPA’s include:

Parallel-ogram – a web app which archives your Instagram photos and likes to make it far easier to look back at them later. The app uses Instagram’s API to monitor all of your activity on the site, both private and public, and creates your own personal photo stream.  The app isn’t hosted, you will need to install it on your own computer or a web server.

Parallel-flickr – parallel-Flickr is a tool for backing up your Flickr photos and generating a database backed website that honours the viewing permissions you’ve chosen on Flickr.

Privatesquare – privatesquare is a simple web application to record and manage a private database of foursquare check-ins.  Check-ins can be sent on to Foursquare (and again re-broadcast to Twitter, etc. or to your followers or just “off the grid”) but the important part is: They don’t have to be. You still have the record of where you were and when.

Twitter – Twitter is a bit different, no surprise there.  What you can do is set up a RSS feed from your account and then pass this into something like Google Reader.  Then archive the tweets from there. You can also do this from lists that you set up allowing you to archive tweets from other users.

Big Brother?

So why might you want to do this?  Well some people are very interested in archiving their digital history as it provides memories and triggers for memories.  But Gary highlighted how digital data is being used by government and how it can be used to prove that perhaps you were not somewhere at a particular time.  Gary gave an example of a friend who was a suspect in a nasty assault in London.  He had become a suspect because he happened to swipe into a tube station at about the right time late one evening.  Fortunately he was able to use other digital information to show where he had been, what he had been doing and what he did next.  This is not an isolated case and it seems that the authorities use digital data as fact and get you to prove or disprove it. Is this a change from innocent until proven guilty?  Certainly some of the digital data would be dismissed as coincidental or just plain wrong but the onus is on the individual to provide an alibi.

So, overall I think this was a very good talk that explored many interesting aspects of social media data and ownership.  If you want to find out more about what Gary has been upto then he can be found on twitter as @vicchi and has an active blog.  This presentation and some text to go with it can be found here.

The next EEO-AGI seminar will be held on the 23rd November and will be on Humanising Archaeological GIS and will be presented by Prof. Gary Lock.


Other cool things to look at:

Yourls – YOURLS is a small set of PHP scripts that will allow you to run your own URL shortening service (a la TinyURL). You can make it private or public, you can pick custom keyword URLs, it comes with its own API. You will love it.

Donottrack – Do Not Track is a technology and policy proposal that enables users to opt out of tracking by websites they do not visit, including analytics services, advertising networks, and social platforms. At present few of these third parties offer a reliable tracking opt out, and tools for blocking them are neither user-friendly nor comprehensive. Much like the popular Do Not Call registry, Do Not Track provides users with a single, simple, persistent choice to opt out of third-party web tracking.