A report compiled from documents published over the last year, and updated to give the latest situation.
There's a lot missing from here, especially all of the positive and constructive proposals made by various of the "horizontal" activists around website tools and communications structures designed to increase participation and transparency in the ESF process.
We know that the details of the logistics of a particular social forum tend to be the responsibily of the local organising committee / process, however there are some areas that have an impact of the very real political shape of the event, and are themselves political, and which should concern us all.
Communication structures and tools, websites, mailing lists, computers, media centres, press policies, software platforms, and licensing of media are all highly political issues, yet they have been dismissed as mere practicalities by many involved in the uk ESF process.
Indeed members of either SWP/SA/GR have gone further than this, and at different times throughtout this year long process have blocked interactivity for the official webiste, refused external links on the website, and even blocked, or tried to discourage, the use of email lists for official esf working groups:
Best Quotes 1: "I suggest me and XXX set up a small working group to investigate the feasability of setting up an email list, look at the practicalities and issues and come back and report in a couple of weeks"!!
Best Quotes 2: "Well we don't need an email list. I have a list of everyones email who has attended these meetings, so if anyone wants to send an email out to everyone, they can just send me an email and I will send it back out to everyone esle"!!
The truth is that these issues are just as political as the issues of providing good quality organic, vegetarian or halal food, or of using ethical supply or service companies, indeed more so, since some of these areas effect the way the process is built and the way people can participate in the esf - or not, as the case may be.
If Another World IS Possible, then this includes another technological world and another media world....
Below is a brief report on some of the history of the UK ESF as it relates to Communications, Media and Technology, and an update as to where things are at:
- Official ESF Media Centre to be open to community and independent media - Assurances Given
- Media Computers to run on free and open source software - Confirmed
- Computers to be sourced from community technology providers - NO
- Internet facilities available for esf participants at Alexandra Palace - ? (No Budget)
- NOMAD / Memory Project - CANCELLED
Media Centre Background:
Media activists and others have tried to put this and relatd issues onto the agenda in the UK for many months, making a set of minimum standard recommendations, but this was never taken seriously for most of the process.
See Minimum Standards For ESF Media Facilities, a document presented to the UK ESF Co-ordinating Committee back in April 2004:
Despite these lobbying efforts, in August it was announced that there had been no ESF budget planned for any IT during the event, or even a media centre!
During the process the media centre has been treated by many as non-political, some people even going as far as asking how we can deal with "this problem of indymedia people and community media wanting to use the media centre", "clogging up" any press centre at the expense of "real journalists"! Proposals have included creating a two tier system with independent, alternative and community media workers having reduced and time limited access to any media centre. Others have even suggested creating two media centres at Alexandra Palace - one for "real journalists" and one for community media.
Discussions with the GLA (since they are the ones who really decide things) earlier in the summer put forward the need for at least 50 computer terminals to be made available at the Alexandra Palace Media Centre along with space for 50 laptop connections, as well as recommending that a public use internet cafe be provided for the use of all (50 terminals) and that wireless internet hotspots be created in the main communal areas.
More recent proposals for a Media Centre at Alexandra Palace made no provision for computers at all, but simply table space to connect laptops - this was again argued against by media activists and others.
While as stated requests have been made for as many computers as possible to be made available in the media centre, it now seems that there will only be as few as 20-25 computers (with many more internet connections provided for the laptops of coporate journalists). This means the effective exclusion of many community media (ie OUR media, the MOVEMENTS media) who do not carry laptops around with them.
After much lobbying it was however agreed at the monthly ESF UK Organising Committe that the official Media Centre should be open to community and independent media.
Registration is now open for access to the official media centre at Alexandra Palace and to scheduled press conferences. While the form specifies that details of a "valid press card" must be provided, assurances have been given that community and independent media without such a card can still gain accreditation as long as they attach a covering letter explaining their publication etc
Babels have allocated up to 30 volunteer interpreters to work in the media centre, but said they will refuse if the media centre is not run in a participatory way, including allowing access to "the movement's own media".
Despite media activists and others repeatedly trying to put this onto the agenda in the UK, making a set of minimum standard recommendations, this was never taken seriously.
Some agreements were reached. The monthly UK Organising Committe agreed that where possible computers should be run on open source and free software.
The NOMAD project (see below) had sourced cheap reliable computers from a computer recycling NGO - Computer Aid - who send around 1000 refurbished computers around the world per month. Computer Aid had been ready to install open source and free software on their computers, which were more than capable of the tasks required.
However the GLA decided to source computers from another commercial provider, and for some time the question over whether open source and free software platforms and applications would be used was unclear. Again this related to the lack of information and communication from the GLA over their (legally tendered) budget and logistic decisions.
Recently at the Brussels European ESF Assembly meeting, the French and Italian delegations agreed to fund an extra plenary / seminar space (which would allow an extra 10 or more sessions). In order to provide these spaces the process had to ask the volunteer interpreters, the Babels network, if they would agree to the extra workload - they did so, but on the condition that open source and free software would be used.
Since then it has been confirmed by the GLA that open source and free software will be used for the media centre computers.
Internet Facilities for Participants
While there seems there is no budget for providing computer and internet facilities for participants of the ESF, we hope this requirement is recognised as being essential to the ESF and is prioritised accordingly.
(NB discussion and decision on budget priorities has been refused at UK ESF Co-ordinating committee meetings, since it is the GLA who gets to decide how to spend its money).
Again media activists and others tried to put this on the agenda for many months, but it was not seen as a priority. (Yes that's right, I know, this is 2004 and all that!)
Currently there are two main issues:
- general internet access for esf participants at Alexandra Palace
- office support (computer use, net access, printing, photocopying) for participants and plenary and seminar organisers
Currently it's not clear what is happening, since as stated there has been no budget allocation for providing computer and internet facilities for participants. The ESF press officer and others are currently trying to find ways around this, for example trying to get agreement for an internet cafe that could sell tea and coffee and food to be set up - which could therefore finance itself - or by looking at sponsorship opportunities, and hopes to find a solution (especially as there would be a massive demand placed on the esf media centre if it ends up as the only space at Alexandra Palace with internet connected computers available for use).
But that these efforts should be necessary in the first place is an utter disgrace.
Press Policies and Functions:
We are concerned that systems should be put into place to ensure that participant groups at the ESF have clear and equal channels of communication with the media - for example a way of submitting their printed press releases to the media centre - so that one organisation is not given priority over another.
We are also concerned to ensure that the press policies adhere to the WSF charter of principles as regards representation.
ESF Registration Conditions:
To take part in the ESF, participants have to agree to (among other things) the following:
- "No unauthorised filming, sound recording and the like are permitted at the Forum or the Forum Site."
Obviously, this is simply un-acceptable, especially when seen alongside one of the other conditions:
- "By registering for the Forum, attendees consent to being filmed and sound recorded for authorised TV, video, DVD, webcast and other public broadcast as part of the audience at the Forum or by onsite CCTV."
Assurances have been given in a CC meeting that this was not intended and would be removed or re-worded, again after several weeks there has been no progress.
Despite being raised many times there has been no data policy publicised for the website or other electronic data held. The ESF should be setting high standards and displaying best practice in all areas - the issues of ownership of data and privacy are important political factors.
- NOMAD / Memory Project - CANCELLED.
NOMAD is a model for the DIY delivery of the infrastructure necesary for simultaneous translation - using computers to stream audio as MP3 between the speaker, translators (the "relay") and the outputting and broadcast of the audio to the audience headsets, as well as archiving the source auduio and the audio from the interpreters in different languages, with the ability to both easily stream as well. NOMAD has been implemented before at differing levels, and is being implemented for next years World Social Forum in Brazil.
After a practical demonstration of the technology, it was agreed at Berlin European Assembly that NOMAD should do the "relay" part of the simultaneous translation infrastructure (but not the transmission to audience headsets) to allow for the electonic archiving of the audio for plenaries and seminars, providing that the cost would be equal or less than a commercial provider ("Budget Neutral").
After NOMAD people met with the commercial providers it became clear that they would make no significant reduction in their costs if NOMAD provided the relay part of the infrastructure. Technically they were happy it would work and were supportive and interested in the project.
Following this NOMAD people reduced the budget by over 50% to concentrate on the archiving functionality. Subsequent further reduced budgets were also presented to the GLA (since all discussions over the project and the Budget were to be done through the GLA).
The last budget presented was around £20,000, half of which was volunteer expenses since around 40 - 50 volunteers were required. All the time the budget was reducing since costs had been allocated for preperation and training and co-ordination.
Getting an answer whether the project could be approved or not was difficult. The decision was passed from the GLA to the ESF Office Working Group, who themselves could not explain why this had been passed to them!
Finaly a few weeks ago NOMAD was informed that the project was not considered a core activity of the ESF and therefore would not be funded by the UK ESF. It was also recommended that money should be sourced from the French to pay for this project.
A lot has already been discussed about the specification and purchase of the £40,000 website. To this day, the issue is still problematic with repeated requests to set up a UK web working group refused, and control of the content and access being restricted.
For note the agreement at the Berlin ESF Assembly to place a link on the official website to the already live independently produced proposal and merger website was never followed through, with the excuse being "oh we forgot about that".
The GLA website tender was at least awarded to GreenNet, a respected alternative and progressive ISP and web design organisation, and will in theory be handed over the the next ESF to be held in Greece next year - however that does not make up for the grave mistakes that occured.
For the background here's a report posted on www,esf2004.net back in May about the website debacle:
The status of the GLA (Greater London Authority) tender to private web design companies for the entire fse-esf.org website is something which has caused an untold amount of problems within the official esf process.
Shrouded in secrecy, the details of the tender have never been made public. Despite repeated attempts and requests for the status / progress reports of the private tender to be given (made in many Co-ordinating Committee meetings, and even at the Istanbul Euroepan Assembly) there has only ever been the briefest of statements made - along the lines of "it is progressing".
Also requests for a description of the functionality and features that are being included in the tender for the website have been repeatedly refused! And this from within the very heart of the UK ESF process!
The situation is that the GLA have retained complete control over the development of the ESF website tender. While GLA individuals have consulted with individuals from a few of the working groups, none of these conversations have ever been made public.
Now it looks like the tender has been finally prepared, months after starting the process, and is being sent out to a list of private web design agencies, currently this list is unknown. There's a rumour that the website will be in place by the middle of June, but again no details are public.
The person in charge of the GLA procurement and tender has failed to produce status reports and an outline of the functionality of the planned website, despite being mandated / asked to do so from the UK ESF Co-ordinating Committee, and has even failed to attend many of the meetings.
The GLA person in charge of the procurement / tender is one of three people who officially make up the Web Working Group - more people wanted to be involved but these three people along with part of the committee have insisted that they alone are the only people who can talk and consider issues around the official website.
These three people are also tasked with being responsible for putting content up onto the current (temporary) fse-esf.org website. However OFFICIALLY no content is allowed to go up onto the fse-esf.org website without express approval being given by the weekly UK ESF Co-ordinating Committee.
Since the last Co-ordinating Committee did not discuss any of the new content that has appeared on the fse-esf.org website (some of it "by mistake") one can only assume that this stipulation is either not true, or is ignored when it comes to those who seek to control the process. (There has been no official endorsement of the Media/Press Working Group from the Co-ordinating Committee, contact details for which have appeared on the website, and which do not work).
Indeed at the moment the only people who can actualy physically add content to the fse-esf.org website are GLA officials, since the website currently lives on their servers (indeed when it was transfered from the Paris ESF tech / web team, typing in www.fse-esf.org would take you strainght to the Ken Livingstone Mayor of London / GLA offical website for a period of several days!). Further all of the previous content from the fse-esf.org website which included all of the Paris ESF information and the ESF Memory archiving project is no longer either on the website, or even linked from the website!.
The main effect of this completely untransparent and secretive process has been to turn away many experienced and creative technical people and organisations from the official ESF process. It has also hampered the development of online information and prevented the development of online tools to support both outreach and the seminar proposal process. In short it has been a disaster, but one which in its core, reflects the many problems of transparency, participation and democracy that riddle the official UK ESF process.
PS apologies to aktivix for nicking the DA penguin :)