Talking Data Privacy in a Most-Observed UK City

A spotlight on Observed.City, a 2018 Global Sprint project

Image of Grand Central/New St Station, Birmingham: (CC) Pixabay.

Fiona Cullinan (@katchooo) is a writer/editor from Birmingham, UK — ranked as the 4th smartest city in the UK and so highly surveilled that used to hold the title of the UK’s CCTV capital (79,000 cameras in 2017). She took a part-time sabbatical last year and ended up working at The Glass Room London and MozFest. Fiona was selected to join the current round of Mozilla Open Leaders with her work on Observed.City.

I interviewed Fiona Cullinan to learn more about Observed.City and how you can help at the 2018 Global Sprint.

What is Observed.City?

Observed.City is based in Birmingham, UK, and is the city’s first e-newsletter covering data privacy, art, tech and activism. It soft-launched in March 2018 with a basic newsletter — and website, Twitter and Facebook closed discussion group.

The aim is pretty humble — to start a local conversation on data privacy and connect the dots around various activities going on in our increasingly digitally connected city. But it is also super-ambitious — I mean, how do you engage a city of a million people on data privacy?

Getting busy people who have many more important priorities interested in what is happening to their data is a very tough sell — although I have to say that Facebook and Cambridge Analytica has definitely made my life easier in the past few weeks!

Why did you start Observed.City?

Being an Ingenius at The Glass Room London and helping people to data-detox.

I’d been tightening up my own cyber security practices gradually, since Edward Snowden’s revelations about mass surveillance in particular, and had been helping others to skill up at free local ‘Cyber security in the cafe’ sessions. At the same time my husband, who is an artist, was launching a three-month ‘Instructions for humans’ exhibition about surveillance and the impacts of AI and machine learning. Dinner talk was fun!

But it was when I applied for and got a volunteer role as an ‘Ingenius’ at The Glass Room London, presented by Mozilla and curated by the Tactical Tech Collective, that I realised just how much data tracking is going on. The exhibition showed how hard it is to find out what is being done with our personal information, and how seemingly small or innocent bits of data can be aggregated to profile and score us in future, perhaps incorrectly and without any recourse. It was then I realised, this has gone beyond just getting some ads pushed at you.

I wanted to turn everything I’d been thinking about into some kind of useful action to resist the data collection juggernaut in some way and to try to get more people thinking about online privacy and security. And I wanted to do that in my own city, where any ideas could be enacted in real life and collaborations could happen more easily.

Of course, there is activity around data privacy happening in Birmingham but it felt a bit disconnected and top-down, like when a funded Cyber Security Roadshow rolled into town for a day but mostly targeted businesses. How could we be more bottom-up and responsive to the concerns of ordinary citizens? How could we make it easier for them to engage and access information?

So I set up the Observed.City e-newsletter to offer a quick-start, easy way in — a useful first step to find out what is going on locally, delivered to your inbox a couple of times a month.

Why are you starting with a newsletter?

Good timing: the newsletter launched the week the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal broke.

Probably because I’m a communicator and it’s what I know. I used to work as a freelance magazine journalist and now I have my own business working for clients as a digital content writer and editor. As a result, I see both sides of the debate — having access to data insights, such as analytics on a marketing campaign or site traffic, makes business decisions a lot easier. I also get work through Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn — these are now modern conveniences that would socially and financially hurt me to give up.

I don’t want Observed.City to take the easy option by telling people to stay off the internet or not use their smartphones or delete an account they find useful. But I do think we’ve reached a tipping point and that the internet environment is becoming toxic for a lot of users. I’m just saying let’s look at what’s happening and see if we can do better.

What challenges have you faced working on this project?

Challenge #1: I’m on my own here, at the cavewoman stage and need help to evolve this project.

I’m doing this on my own (for now) so finding the time is hard and I don’t have nice things like a properly designed logo or any editorial help as yet so things look a bit basic. That said, it’s important just to start — and I’m quite excited that working open and not being too prescriptive will lead this project to develop in totally unexpected ways. I’m also looking forward to connecting and networking with artists, activists and academics.

But the biggest challenge is how to make the topic of data privacy more engaging — enough for people to want to sign up for a regular newsletter on the topic.

I have some ideas — broadening out the scope to include art and tech, bringing in guest editors, being more inclusive and accepting submissions showing different perspectives, creating or coding some original content, interesting imagery and art crossovers. The first step is to get some feedback and collect ideas — I’m open to suggestions as the project is at an early stage.

The third challenge is to get the word out there and find more subscribers! If anyone wants to receive the newsletter or is happy to pass on the link to others who might be interested, the sign-up is here: https://tinyletter.com/ObservedCity/

What advice or resources do you have for people trying to do this in their own cities?

It was always the aim to share any knowledge gained through going through the Mozilla Open Leaders Programme and I’ve been figuring out how best to do this.

The Github repository for Observed.City contains a Roadmap section and I’m now in the process of turning this into end documentation to help others kickstart the conversation in their own areas. I’ll also turn this into a shareable blog post guide once the mentoring scheme ends in mid-May.

The guide is developing into a bulleted list showing how to get started (R&D phase), practical set-up and delivery, and then ongoing development and ideas about working open. I’m also happy for people contacting me with questions at observedcity@pm.me.

What kind of skills do I need to help you?

Feedback! I’ve had useful criticism from others in my cohort and now I’d be most grateful for some wider feedback on the newsletter itself: what do you like, what could work better, do you have any suggestions for ways to make it more engaging, is the tone ok, is anything missing? You can either email observedcity@pm.me with your ideas and suggestions, or leave comments in the Issues Tracker. The first couple of newsletter issues are available to view in the letter archive. Or feel free to subscribe!

Secondly, do you know of any Tech/Data/Privacy celebrities, or other people with a big follower count, who might be willing to write a few paragraphs on a hot data topic for the email? Basically I need all the help I can get to reach potential subscribers. If so, please email me or leave a comment in the Issues Tracker. Or just share the project via your networks — I’d really appreciate that.

Finally, I’m looking for some design input and coding help for some of the content ideas — things that would make the project look more professional. For example, a logo, or to do some data mining coding to help visualise/analyse those endless Terms & Conditions that people ‘agree’ to in order to access an online service.

How can others join your project at #mozsprint 2018?

Please visit the Github repo at https://github.com/fionacu/ObservedCity where you’ll find contributor guidelines and some more information about my project.

I’ve currently got a small handful of ideas and issues in the Issues Tracker and these are labelled for different needs: ‘mozsprint’, ‘design’ or ‘good first issue’, for example.

Thank you in advance for any time and input you can give — I really appreciate having some help to develop this project in new ways. I’ll give an attribution credit to any content/design/coding contributions and will also look at adding a general thank-you list of credits to the website post-Global Sprint (May 2018).

What meme or gif best represents your project?

Ooh, this has given me a content idea — hey everyone reading this, why not send me your best data privacy meme for a post-Sprint celebration of the newsletter? I’ll open a Github issue shortly…

In the meantime, this video pretty much sums up what you have to do to win email subscribers:

Enjoy — and hopefully see you online at the Sprint!


Join us wherever you are May 10–11 at Mozilla’s Global Sprint to work on many amazing open projects! Join a diverse network of scientists, educators, artists, engineers and others in person and online to hack and build projects for a health Internet. Register today