Mozilla backs away from Persona. What might that mean for Backpack?

Earlier this week Mozilla announced that it was stepping away from developing Persona and will be transitioning the project to community ownership. Persona is a federated single sign-on identity project that Mozilla has been developing. It is used for a number of Mozilla projects, including Webmaker and Backpack.

Chances are, if you have ever earned an open badge, then you probably have a Persona account. More specifically, if you have ever stored that earned open badge in Mozilla’s Backpack, then you have a Persona account since Backpack requires users to have a Persona account. It is the authentication service that powers Backpack. Which makes me wonder how Mozilla’s retreat from Persona (the reasons frankly outlined in a Mozilla wiki page and an even more frank Hacker News conversation) may affect Backpack and, by extension, Open Badges.

Not that Open Badges per se needs Mozilla’s Backpack or Persona to work. The entire Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI) is open source and can be rolled out by anyone. But Backpack is the most high profile proof of concept implementation of a badge repository that I know of. Mozilla itself refers to Backpack as the “reference implementation of a Backpack and serves as a framework for badge repositories.” So to have a project that serves as a framework for other “backpack” like projects potentially undergo a change to something so fundamental to its purpose – as identity management is to badges – feels significant.

It may not be. I’m new to this Badges game and am just getting up to speed on the infrastructure for an internal sandbox project we are doing here at BCcampus. But in my research around backpack-like providers, I’m not finding much. And the idea of federated backpacks still seems nascent. I am not seeing a lot of open backpack projects similar to Mozilla’s Backpack, although the release earlier this week of BadgeKit might help accelerate the proliferation of backpacks and we may see the federated backpack approach take off. Federated backpacks have been called the holy grail of open badges where distributed backpacks hosted in multiple locations by multiple organizations could connect & share badge information. But in order for that to happen, those backpacks have to exist. Organizations and groups have to commit to hosting backpacks of their own (and indeed there has been a call for more open backpacks by the Open Badges community). There are people like Peter Rawsthorne who believe that, in order for those other open backpacks to flourish and for the federated backpack idea to gain traction, Mozilla may want to consider getting out of hosting a backpack altogether:

I believe the day when Mozilla could sever its responsibility from hosting an OBI instance is the beginning of when the OBI could truly be released into the public domain.This is also the day when other instances of the OBI are up and running and all these instances openly exchange information about the badges they contain. They become a federation of Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI) instances; or in other words, the federated backpack. This would also mean that Mozilla would no longer have to host an OBI instance and could focus more deeply on making the OBI code base rock solid and continue advocating for an open metadata standard for the digital badge.

Maybe Mozilla Backpack will transition to another authentication service, or maybe we are seeing the start of Peter’s vision happen and Mozilla begins to pull back from hosted services like Backpack. After all, the proof of concept has been done and it works. Or maybe Mozilla Backpack will continue to use some sort of scaled down, community driven Persona service, although with the number of identity management systems and schemes in existence already it is hard to see where the driver for another is coming from.

All in all, the transition of Persona to “community ownership” feels a bit like a Hail Mary pass. If those who have the most invested in the system (Mozilla) are backing away, then it is hard to see who might step up to fill the development shoes without there being a real, compelling need by someone for the service. It feels like Persona is faltering, and that leaves me wondering about the future of the flagship of digital badge repositories, Backpack.


Who is watching me? Shedding some light(beam) on my browsing habits

Last week, Mozilla announced the release of Lightbeam, a Firefox plugin that allows users to see not only the sites they visit, but also the third party sites that are tracking them on the web. Here is a screen shot of the last 10 sites I have visited and all the site those sites are connected to.

Lightbeam visualization

I love this tool for a number of reasons.

First, the obvious. It helps to make transparent all the sites I am actually “visiting” when I visit a website. In this day and age where privacy online is becoming more of an issue than ever before, it is important for people to know just how extensive the tracking of their behaviours is online. From what I have seen, Lightbeam doesn’t actually show you what information about you is being transmitted or tracked by those third party sites, just that there is tracking going on and with whom. But it is an important first step in understanding just how connected the web really is.

I’ll make the point, too, that just because you are unknowingly accessing third party websites while you view the web, it isn’t always to be tracked. As the development team suggests;

Third parties are an integral part of the way the Internet works today. However, when we’re unable to understand the value these companies provide and make informed choices about their data collection practices, the result is a steady erosion of trust for all stakeholders.

A tool like Lightbeam helps to make conversations about privacy and sharing of data more nuanced. Rather than painting all the third party connections with the same negative brush, I think it is important for us to have more specific conversations around the idea that maybe there are positives to having these invisible connections occurring behind the scenes. For example, many of the interactive features of the modern web require code libraries pulled from third-party sites. Is that Google connection to track you for advertising purposes, or is it to pull a font from the Google fonts collection to make the site you are on work better for you? These are important distinctions.

The second thing I love about Lightbeam is that it is a great web literacy educational tool, and extends the excellent work Mozilla is doing around web literacy by helping people understand how the web works. As building the web becomes more complicated, and the mechanisms of how the web gets built gets more obfuscated under the guise of “user-friendly” or “easy” (by no means are those neccesarily bad qualities, but obscuring qualities nonetheless), it is important that we don’t surrender the control we have over the web for the sake of convenience. Lightbeam represents a deeper dive for Mozilla into digital and web literacy than X-Ray Goggles or Thimble, but like those Webmaker tools Lightbeam exposes the inner workings of the web. Lightbeam, like the Webmaker initiative, are powerful tools to help educate people on how the web works.

Third, Lightbeam is an excellent example of an authentic learning exercise. Authentic learning (Educause PDF) exercises place a great deal of emphasis on having students work on real-world, complex problems and solutions, and I cannot think of anything more complex than the world of online privacy these days. Lightbeam was developed as a partnership between Mozilla and a research team at Emily Carr University of Art & Design in Vancouver that was made up primarily of students. They have created an important (and beautiful) tool that is relevant, timely, and has real world applications.

Finally, Lightbeam is another reminder of how powerful the iterative web enabled by open licenses can be. I’ve been jazzed lately by the idea of generativity and the generative web, and just how critical open licenses are for driving iterative, collaborative development.  Lightbeam was based on a previous FF plugin called Collusion developed by Atul Varma. It was first released as an independent project by Varma (who now works at Mozilla). Because it was released with an open source license, Mozilla and Emily Carr were able to pick up the project and build upon the excellent work of the original plugin. Open licenses made the refinement of Collusion possible.


A #Mozilla #HackJam #yyj style

It was hacktacular.

2012-06-23 10.17.13

On Saturday, 26 30 kids and half dozen volunteers converged on UVic for HackJam, and we had some fun remixing and mashing the web.

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In a nuthsell, a HackJam is a Hackasaurus event for youth where they learn webmaking skills using some of the excellent “hacking” tools developed by Mozilla, like X-Ray Goggles and Thimble. HackJams are hands on, participatory events designed to not only introduce kids to the basics of webmaking (by examining and “hacking” the underlying HTML and CSS code), but also introduce some basic digital literacy skills and emphasize the idea that the web is a space that anyone can contribute to, and create on.

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As you can see, we had a great HackJam space, thanks to Valarie Irvine at UVic. The rest of this posts is a bit more bullet point impressions of the event.

Lots of Volunteers

Not only did we have a full house of kids, but we also managed to surpass the ratio of 4-1 volunteers to kids. And I am glad we did. Once we did an initial icebreaker and Emma did the initial How to Hack presentation, the kids were off. There would have been no way to keep up with all the requests for help and guidance if we didn’t have a bunch of excellent, knowledgeable volunteers willing to work with the kids and answer their questions.

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It was a beautiful thing to see, really. Kids and adults working together as peers and mentors.

While we did have some activities planned, it was pretty well left up to the kids to decide where they wanted to go next. Self-directed learning. You need people to make that happen, and the volunteers really held it all together.

Thanks @heli_tomato (who came over from Vancouver for the event, 2 weeks for her wedding and 3 weeks away from moving to a new city and taking on a new job!), @erikvold, @sleslie, @carloschiarrella and the parents who stuck around to help.

A wide range of skills and abilities

We advertised the HackJam as ages 9-14, which is pretty wide in terms of prior knowledge. Some kids came in knowing a bit about HTML, while others struggled to spell. Again, if it wasn’t for the volunteers who were able to respond to the different skills and prior knowledge of each participant, it might have been a struggle to make it a meaningful learning experience for all the participants.

I am so glad Emma had Thimble in her back pocket for those who were more advanced. X-Ray Goggles worked for all at the beginning, but it was pretty evident that some kids came in ready to code.

The puzzle icebreaker

HackJam Icebreaker

I had this idea of doing a collaborative puzzle as an icebreaker activity, with each kid getting a few pieces of the puzzle then working together to make the bigger picture. I like the idea of using a puzzle as a metaphor for the web as it is pretty easy to grasp. A puzzle is made of pieces, so is a webpage. Some of those pieces you can see (images, text, videos) and some you can’t (the code) and then use that to bridge into the code and hacking.

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It served the purpose of getting people up and interacting and moving around, but the puzzle I made was too difficult. I thought it would be a 10 minute icebreaker, but we had to abandon it after 10 minutes. But I think it did the job, and was something that was fun for the kids.

The hacking conversation

It was clear that when Emma started talking to the kids about what hacking was, everyone went to the dark side: breaking into computers. It was early in the session and I happened to be standing in the hall with a few of the parents who were hanging back waiting to make sure their kids got settled. And I could see from the looks on their faces that they were a bit unsettled by the conversation. They eased up a bit when Emma started talking about good hacking and bad hacking, and the word hack really means tinker and try things. A word of advice: if you are organizing a HackJam, be prepared to have the hack conversation.

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Saving the hacks

This was a bit of a bummer. Up until a week or so ago, X-Ray Goggles had a great feature that allowed you to save and publish your hacks to a central server. This has been disabled by Mozilla. From what I have heard (and I might be wrong about this, but the reasoning makes sense to me) is that it is a copyright and liability thing. When we hack a site, we don’t actually hack the site, but rather the cached copy that resides on our computers. But when we publish it back and make it public, we have now altered an original site, which is most likely a copyright violation of the original site owner.

After seeing what the kids put together, I totally get why Mozilla has disabled this feature. One of our kids had hacked a famous restaurant chains website and changed the menu to read “Snot Dogs” and ‘Booger Burgers” (hey, they are 10 years old after all). But to have that posted on a public site would not fly so well with this company.

Still, we were left scrambling a bit trying to figure out how to capture the work the kids had done by the end of the session, and ended up relying on emailing code and snipping screenshots, which Emma has said she will put up on a server to share back to the kids.

So, if you are planning a HackJam, plan how you will share the results back to the kids and their parents.


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I could go on, but this is getting crazy long. But I do want to end by saying how happy I was to see so many girls hacking away at the HackJam, and a big shout out to my colleague at Royal Roads, Emma Irwin, who put this whole show together. Emma is a programmer/analyst at RRU, and a fantastic role model for girls everywhere. She believes passionately that girls need mentors in the technology field, and was the one who stood at the front of the class for most of the day, showing the girls that this isn’t just a boys club. As the dad of a daughter who is showing a budding interest in technology, I am happy that there are women like Emma out there willing to show my daughter that she can do this, too.

We're part of the summer of code


Just reading Scott and Emma’s reflections on the Hackjam. I love Scott’s point about FUN:

Indeed, there is some really great thinking going on at the Mozilla team about how to introduce some potentially complicated stuff in a way that kids can engage with it – there was very little “instruction” going on during the couple of hours we ran the jam, and very much CONSTRUCTION (of knowledge, of web pages) and most of all FUN. This tapped into one of the pieces I too often forget myself about why making and the open web are so important – yes, it’s about preserving democracy and free speech, yes it’s about freeing culture from capital; but it’s also FUN, it’s about the sheer joy of making things

And Emma’s point is one that, I am sure, many of us can relate to all to well.

The first thing I learned was that no matter how much you know about the subject you are teaching, no matter how confident you are in the words you choose… teaching is not easy, it’s not straight forward and what works for one group of kids, may not work for the other.  (I’m sure my teacher friends are laughing at me by now).

As we come to the end of a school year, that is a point we parents need to remember and take to heart. Teaching is not easy. But if there is one thing HackJam showed me is that while teaching is hard, learning is fun. And, judging from the engaged kids I saw at HackJam, there was a lot of learning going on.


Tinkering, Hacking & Jamming

I love telling the story of my Dad and his satellite dish.

In the early 80’s, my Dad inherited a used satellite dish. In those days, a satellite dish wasn’t the size that could neatly tuck under the eaves of a house like they are today. These things were stick-in-an-Arizona-desert-and-search-for-signs-of-intelligent-life-SETI size monsters.

The deal with the dish (and why my Dad got it for free I imagine) was that it didn’t have a tuner, so whenever you wanted to find a new satellite signal, you had to manually move the dish and try to fine tune the puppy. This led to a lot of  “Got a clear picture yet?” yelling from our backyard to the house.

Well, being the resourceful guy my Dad is, he hit upon an idea. To rotate the dish, all you need to do is move the dish back and forth – forward and reverse – and it will track across the horizon.  So, he grabbed an old reversible drill and started hacking.

Fast forward a week and he had constructed a “tuner”; half of the reversible drill sat beside his LazyBoy in the basement while the other half of the drill was attached (via a 50 foot cable) to the satellite dish in the backyard. Whenever he wanted to move the dish, he simple reached down from the comfort of his chair, flipped the drill switch forward or reverse, and hit the trigger. Outside in the backyard, the dish tracked across the southern sky, moving from signal to signal.

It was a brilliant hack that worked beautifully (until the satellite companies began locking the free signals, but that’s another story).

Tinker Town

My Dad was able to build this because he tinkers. Still does. And I don’t know why I am always surprised when I notice one of his traits in myself. After all, he’s my Dad. But I tinker, too. He builds canoes our of fiberglass, I play with JavaScript libraries. He tunes a Skidoo, I tweak a WordPress theme.

I tinker with the web. Which is one of the reasons why I find myself  following the work of Mozilla more closely these days. Mozilla is like Popular Mechanics for web tinkers, and (with the launch of their Webmaker site) is spreading the joy of tinkering with the web with tools like Popcorn, X-Ray goggles, and Thimble – tools that make creating, remixing and tinkering with the web fun for adults and kids.

Tomorrow, thanks to the initiative of one of my co-workers Emma Irwin, I’ll be helping out at the first of (hopefully) many kids Hack Jams in Victoria. We’ve got a full house of 24 kids joining us at the UVic lab (thanks to Valarie Irvine at the TIE lab at UVic for getting us space), and will be spending a Saturday morning hacking and remixing the web.

If you are interested in organizing an event like this, Mozilla makes it easy with some excellent event guides. Hack away!


Satellite © Copyright Colin Smith and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Tinkertown used under Creative Commons license