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Page last updated at 06:44 GMT, Tuesday, 12 April 2011 07:44 UK

How is technology changing protests?

By Alex Hudson and Peter Price
BBC Click

Police officers stand in front of a fire lit be demonstrators after a protest organised by the Trades Union Congress

While much was made of social media's role in the Middle East uprisings, new technology that moves beyond simply social media is now threatening to change protests forever.

"A containment is now in place in Trafalgar Square. The Met Police ask that you remain calm."

Ten years ago, this would have been the sort of announcement made on a megaphone during a protest. This is actually a tweet on the Met Police's official Twitter account, which was used throughout the protests in London on 26 March.

We want to offer information so people can make informed decisions and stay safe if they choose to
Sam Gaus, co-founder of Sukey.org

Technology has always been at the forefront of policing protests, from video cameras, CCTV and now social media. But it is the protesters who are now using technology to their advantage.

Working from a London location, a group of students passed up their chance to march in order to create and run a smartphone app called Sukey which directs people away from trouble.

'Put the Kettle On'

The idea for a specialist piece of software was sparked by kettling, a controversial police tactic to contain and demoralise protesters.

Screenshot of the Sukey app
The Sukey app can direct protesters away from potential containments

Sukey, taken from the nursery rhyme Polly Put the Kettle On, collects messages, tweets and photos from protesters and tries to make sense of what is going on.

It then sends that data back to users of the app on the ground.

The app provides an in-built compass which gives an indication of the best direction to move. A red marker on the compass could point towards a police cordon or kettle so a protester caught in trouble should follow the green direction to escape.

By providing this data to those who need it, the team hoped that nobody would unwittingly be caught in a police kettle.

"It's a project to help people protesting stay safe, stay informed and stay mobile," says Sam Gaus, co-founder of Sukey.org.

"We want to offer information to people so that they can - when on the street - choose where to go and make informed decisions on that and stay safe if they choose to. And basically we're giving them information."

There isn't anything particularly hi-tech about our protests but we now have the communication tools to get the message out there
Stacy Stevens, UK Uncut

The Metropolitan Police was also trying to direct people away from trouble, by tweeting details about its cordons and "containment" plans. It had no comment to make about Sukey.

"One day we hope Sukey won't need people in a room," says Gaus who wants this information to become available autonomously.

"It'll be a decentralised thing that could be used in other countries where this kind of situation wouldn't be as easy as it is in the UK."

This means that Sukey is planning to open up this software to other protest groups in the near future.

Though, despite the possibilities for this sort of technology to work in other countries, in those areas where there is uprising against an autocratic government, the use of technology becomes a lot more complicated.

This was seen when Egypt effectively turned off the internet in January.

Flash protests

"It does feel a bit as if the tools traditionally only available to the state for things like surveillance, evidence gathering, coordination and dissemination are being democratised," said the writer and broadcaster Ben Goldacre after the first wave of student protests last year.

During the March for the Alternative on March 26, protest group UK Uncut used Twitter to announce the venue of their occupation.

In order to stop the authorities from discovering its planned target ahead of time, it was only announced after the march had started. Within minutes, hundreds of supporters had raced to occupy luxury food store Fortnum & Mason.

And while protest groups agree that new technology is important, nothing can replace good, old-fashioned hard work.

"It's a mix of old technology and new technology," says Stacy Stevens, of UK Uncut.

Protestors confront riot police in Trafalgar Square after the "March for the Alternative" demonstration against government spending cuts in London
Technology can help to find out where heated confrontations are taking place

"There isn't anything particularly hi-tech about taking books into banks [and other occupation protests] but we now have communication tools at our disposal to get the message out there.

"We use blogs, Twitter, Facebook and e-mail but these technologies mean nothing without a great deal of creativity and spirit behind them."

The web seems to have become vital to both protesters and the police. Even the UK government's Human Rights Joint Committee called on the "appropriate use of social media" from both sides to facilitate peaceful protest.

The Metropolitan Police Service calls it a "learning process" and hopes "to develop [its] use of it further to enhance the way it communicates and improve public confidence.

And many other forms of internet communication during protests have really taken off.

Liveblogging - where updates are published online throughout the day - was once the preserve of the major media organisations but union representatives , smaller organisations and even individual students are all sharing their experiences while they are there and in real-time.

"The link between liveblogging and social media is very strong," says Matt Wells, blogs and communities editor of the Guardian.

"We rely very heavily on the contributions from the participants in the event. Eyewitness testimony in the form of pictures, text or tweets is absolutely key because you can't have all your journalists at the right place at the right time.

"The one thing that we do is sift through the vast amounts of information there is and providing an accurate narrative of what's going on, which is what's lacking from Twitter and other social media."



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