The Best $24.95 MoveOn Ever Spent

If you're a typical fan of Flickr, the community photo-sharing site that was recently bought by Yahoo, then you are undoubtedly already familiar with Flickr's tagging system, which allows anyone who uploads a photo to the site to add his or her own topical notations to each photo. One of the site's best features is its main tags page, where not only can you see some of the hottest tags in the last few days (snowday and lennon being two example), but you can also browse the site's most popular tags, which are arranged in a "tag cloud" that shows each word (beach, birthday, cameraphone, japan, me, vacation) and indicates its relative popularity by the word's type size. Click on any tag and you're taken to a stream of recent public photos with that tag.

But if by some chance you stumble onto one Flickr member's home page, you'll discover a very odd-seeming list of tags in its cloud, led by antiroverally, approved, candlelight, cindysheehan, faceamerica, great, memberadded, mothers, photopetition, and vigil.

Welcome to the public Flickr account of MoveOn.org. With little notice, the giant liberal advocacy group has dipped its toes into the social networking slipstream, and so far it's quite enthralled with the experiment.

Says MoveOn CTO Patrick Michael Kane, of the firm We Also Walk Dogs, "Flickr has got to be the best $24.95 we've ever spent. We've been able to review, organize and make available over 11,000 photos to MoveOn (and Flickr!) members." In November alone, he says, the group uploaded over a gigabyte of photos, and it has been able to make photos from campaigns available in real time.

As far as I know, this is the first major use of Flickr by a political campaign. Individuals have attempted to make use of the site's free service and simple tagging feature to express a collective point; for example the writer Rob Walker has spawned a haunting series of photos that are all tagged Mlkblvd to bring together photos of the many streets and boulevards across America that have been named for Martin Luther King Jr., quietly illustrating how far the country has to go before King's vision of equality is realized. People have also spontaneously tagged their photos of political events, there are plenty of provocative photos that people have tagged "politics," and Flickr does support the formation of groups around pictorial themes. But so far these efforts are very scattered.

Sharing the work

MoveOn came to Flickr in large degree because its own internal system for receiving members' photos of events, reviewing them and posting them wasn't very functional. MoveOn has long used photos to show its members that they are part of something much larger; after the group helped spawn thousands of grass-roots candlelight vigils across America just before the invasion of Iraq, its staff put together an amazing page of photos showing how the events went worldwide. But managing the flood of photos that come in around each MoveOn event, Kane says, was complicated.

"Finding the best photos was difficult and the sheer number of photos meant that we often had to take photos offline to save disk space," he explains. "The system was also very campaign-oriented -- it provided ways to get at photos in the context of a certain campaign, but not a great way to look at all the photos that MoveOn members had taken over time."

Meanwhile, Kane says, he had been using Flickr to manage his personal photos and loved it. "So in March and April of this year, we started talking to the guys over at Flickr about the idea of building a distributed photo approval and storage application around their API." An API -- application program interface -- is a bit of software that enables different programs to talk to each other. "The goal," he says, "was to allow users to upload and view photos from any MoveOn event, while making sure that inappropriate pictures got filtered out."

The system they built has two main parts: an email based photo uploader and a distributed photo approval application. It works like this, according to Kane:

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Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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