Honoring the history of Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church on Wikipedia

The tragedy that unfolded in Charleston this week is practically beyond words: a racist gunman committing what can only be described as an act of terrorism, taking the lives of nine people who had just invited him into their bible study community. Many people have spoken much more eloquently than I’m capable of about the white supremacist system that allows, encourages this kind of violence.

Because yes, as horrible as these murders are, they are best understood as a symptom of a larger environment than some terrible anomaly. And other symptoms are less obvious, but profoundly tragic.

Wikipedia articles are, for better or for worse, a metric with a disproportionate impact on people’s perception of what is valuable. Thanks to its aim to be an encyclopedia of all human knowledge and its ubiquity at the top of search results, many people use it as a shorthand evaluation of importance. This isn’t a new observation—the organizers of the Art + Feminism Editathons, for example, have pointed to studies about how article lengths reflected gender bias on the site.

Before Wednesday’s shooting, the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston had no Wikipedia page. It’s a monumentally historic place—the oldest black church in the south, co-founded by Denmark Vesey, and has hosted the likes of Booker T. Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And yet, its absence from the Wikipedia belied that significance. Worse, it has knock-on effects: journalists absolutely refer to Wikipedia articles to quickly get up to speed on issues, and pundits look to it for context. The history of racist violence at Emanuel AME is critical context to this week’s news, but to Wikipedia readers it might as well have not existed.

Putting the page together was one way I that could contribute positively to that conversation, and—importantly—that I could do so without centering my own voice. Wikipedia authorship is imminently knowable but generally unknown.

On Wednesday night I started the article and asked on Twitter for people to help. Really, my contributions were minimal—I started a stub, found a picture, and put in some references. Over the last two days, over 40 different people have made over 150 edits to the page, and it is now a real and impressive article. Peter Murray, a library technologist in Columbus, made this amazing visualization of the page’s growth over just a few days. It’s not there yet, but it’s getting to be the article that such a beautiful and historic site deserves.

And in the last two days alone, the page has been viewed 36,000 times. This stuff matters.

Slow Chopin productivity music

When I’m writing, it’s nice to have music that won’t try to distract me. Unfortunately that rules out lyrics and sometimes even melodies. One trick I like is slowing down nice, existing music to the point where it is more of a texture than a song.

Here’s a public domain recording of Chopin’s “Anhang,” funded by the Musopen Kickstarter campaign to release free recordings of his entire oeuvre, slowed down by a factor of eight with Audacity’s paulstretch plugin.

When I went to upload it, I wanted a cool cover graphic. I took one of the only known photos of Chopin, and glitched it manually with a hex editor, entering new values, copying and pasting, and deleting things sort of at random. This was my first time glitching an image like that, and I relied heavily on tutorials from Doc Pop and Steen for how to do it. I couldn’t really get anything to work with a PNG, but once I converted to JPG I was able to get something like this.

Freddie Glitched

Oakland’s awesome public records request system

Oakland’s employee compensation database is the kind of public record that should be proactively available, even with historical versions, without requiring a formal public records request. But since I couldn’t find it online, I filed a request, and got to interact for the first time with Oakland’s very cool RecordTrac system for handling those requests. RecordTrac is a Code For America fellowship project that launched a year and a half ago, and it ensures the entire process is online and publicly available, so users can see every request that gets filed and what response it received.

The value of that system becomes obvious pretty quickly after you start using it. For example, when I started looking through the compensation database, one fact that jumped out immediately is that some Oakland police officers make significantly more than their base salary in payment for overtime work. In fact, the highest paid Oakland government employee in 2014 is a police officer who got some $165,000 in overtime pay. What could possibly be going on with overtime at OPD?

Searching through the public requests database turns up another person’s request, specifically covering OPD and overtime. Those documents were released in the last few days and are immediately available to me and any other interested member of the public. That’s incredibly helpful to both me and the city. I get the records I’m looking for much faster, and can send follow-up requests without waiting for another round trip, and Oakland doesn’t have to process as many duplicates.

It also comes in handy where there are no responsive documents. Traditionally those requests don’t see a lot of publicity because, well, there are no documents to report on. But sometimes their absence is an interesting data point itself. Take, for example, this request for agreements between the Oakland Public Library and law enforcement on disclosing patron information. It would be a much larger story if there were agreements like that, but it’s nice, too, to be able to refer to the request turning up no responsive documents.1

If all this seems familiar, it may be because services like Muckrock, where I’m a frequent user, have implemented the same kind of thing on the requester end. Every request gets a permanent URL, where all associated documents are connected and made publicly available. Like RecordTrac, it keeps the status of requests updated, and notifies requesters when new information has come in.

Muckrock definitely makes the public records experience better, and has built an impressive collection of returned documents. But there’s an emergent property of the agencies themselves putting all that information online in the first place.

Oakland was lucky to pilot this program, and the avalanche of requests related to Occupy likely taught the city a lesson about handling them efficiently.

RecordTrac is already free software, and as of about six months ago, the developers rolled the software into a hosted product called NextRequest(UPDATE: the main RecordTrac developer reached out to clarify that NextRequest is not affiliated with the original team. Apologies for the error, and I too hope governments embrace the more open solution.) Hopefully that means more pickup by agencies and governments, bringing a much-needed update to the public records requesting process’s usability and transparency. It can be funny to see Muckrock joke about how dated much of our country’s FOIA infrastructure is. But it’d be better to see it fixed.

  1. After I tweeted about this request, the Oakland Public Library reached out to emphasize its opposition to that sort of agreement. []

Emoji history of US copyright

The number of kinds of works covered by copyright has increased a lot over the years. The first copyright act, in 1790, covered just books, maps, and charts. Subsequent laws have added things like music, photos, and film. For a real history you can check the Copyright Office circular, but here’s an emoji timeline.

1790: 📚🌎📈
1802: 🐾
1831: 🎼🎶
1856: 🎭
1865: 📷
1870: 🎨
1897: 🎤
1912: 🎥
1972: 💿
1990: 🏠
1998: 🚤

And a selection of Supreme Court cases:

1903: 🎪
1984: 📼
1991: ☎📚

(By the way, WordPress now supports emoji. Go WordPress!)

The original racist emoji issue

Over at Ratter, I’ve written about how the unrecognized character symbol is showing up in an unfortunate context with the new emoji-of-color, and how this all relates to an Ur-issue of emoji racism. In my opinion, the moment this became an issue was when Apple exported emoji that mostly looked white to us.

After all, the Unicode Consortium only provides the list of possible emoji to platforms like Apple, Android, and Twitter — it’s up to the platforms to actually draw them. Platforms like Apple got a descriptions from the Unicode Consortium like “HAPPY PERSON RAISING ONE HAND” or “POLICE OFFICER” and they created the pictures we’re all familiar with. Because Apple was one of the first platforms to draw emoji, their versions — which feature mostly white faces — became the canon.

This was harder to write than I expected, but I think it’s an interesting and surprisingly convoluted issue. Hopefully this explanation helps people understand some of the forces at play here.