Inside the anti-kettling HQ

Tony Gosling tony at
Sat Feb 5 20:57:34 GMT 2011

Inside the anti-kettling HQ

A group of young computer geeks is wielding a new 
weapon in the fight against controversial police tactics at demonstrations

Patrick Kingsley  - The Guardian, Thursday 3 February 2011

The Sukey team in action at their east London 
headquarters, tracking the student demonstration 
on 29 January. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Guardian

Cairo, it wasn't. But at about a quarter to four 
last Saturday afternoon, on a crowded backstreet 
in central London, something happened outside the 
Egyptian embassy that deserves at least a 
footnote in the annals of protest history. A crowd of students weren't kettled.

In the context of recent British protests, this 
was a near-miracle. At each of the previous four 
major student protests in London since the 
Millbank riot on 10 November, police have kettled 
– or, in their terminology, "contained" – 
thousands of protesters, preventing them from 
leaving an area for several hours, and often from 
accessing basic amenities such as food, water and toilets.

Police kettle protesters supposedly to quell 
violence, but protesters arguably only turn to 
violence out of frustration at being kettled. 
Most notoriously, police trapped hundreds of 
teenage schoolchildren inside a tight grid on 
Whitehall on 24 November – and only subsequently 
did a few of them smash up a police van abandoned in their midst.

Saturday's non-kettle, then, was a victory in 
itself. But the real excitement wasn't that it 
didn't happen – but how it didn't happen. It is 
difficult to pinpoint exactly why police and 
protesters behave in a certain way at a certain 
time, but one explanation for the kettle's 
failure to form lies with a new communications 
network, which launched that afternoon: Sukey.

The brainchild of a group of young, recently 
politicised computer programmers, Sukey's main 
goal is to stop people getting kettled. On the 
day of a protest, founders collate information 
from individual protesters – tweets, texts and 
GPS positions – about what is happening on the 
ground. The Sukey team then update an online 
live-map of the protest, accessible from 
smartphones. Simultaneously, they tweet and text 
brief summaries of events to all their 
subscribers, telling them where other protesters 
are situated, and – most significantly – where 
kettles are forming. As the nursery rhyme (from 
which Sukey takes its name) aptly suggests: 
"Polly put the kettle on, Sukey take it off again."

And, in London last Saturday, that might well be 
what happened. Around 500 students coming from a 
5,000- strong anti-cuts march on Millbank joined 
the ongoing, separate protest at the Egyptian 
embassy. After around an hour and a half, a few 
demonstrators said they had overheard kettling 
tactics being discussed on police radios, and 
thought they had seen police lines closing in. 
They relayed this to the Sukey team at their 
computers in an east London office block, and the 
team quickly texted the news to their entire 
mailing list on the ground. Recipients of the 
text alerted those around them, many protesters 
left the area, and, perhaps as a result, no kettling took place.

One of the protesters who alerted Sukey to the 
potential kettle was Ben, 21, a member of last 
year's University College London (UCL) 
occupation, whose participants still form a 
fulcrum for the London anti-cuts movement. Ben is 
certain that Sukey played an important role in 
people moving quickly away from the embassy. 
"Everyone who was getting the Sukey updates was 
telling everyone who wasn't what was happening," 
he says. "It took about five minutes for us to mobilise."

There are, of course, other potential 
explanations for what happened: a genuine 
softening of police tactics; an existing 
awareness of kettling procedure among protesters; 
a police double-bluff; coincidence. It is also 
important to note that not everyone welcomed the 
presence of the anti-cuts protesters outside the 
Egyptian embassy. Sunny Hundal, editor of Liberal 
Conspiracy, argued that those protesters who had 
left an education-themed march to join a rally 
based around foreign policy were displaying a 
lack of ideological direction. This, coupled with 
the abusing of NUS president Aaron Porter, led 
Hundal to conclude that Saturday's protest "was 
when the student movement died".

Back at Sukey's secret nerve-centre in east 
London, however, the team are celebrating a 
measured success. "We'll take that as a win," 
says Sam Gaus, 19, a first-year computer science 
student at UCL, and one of Sukey's co-founders. 
There were kettles in Manchester and Edinburgh. 
But in London, for the first time in five 
marches, there was none. Coincidence? Gaus thinks not.

On 9 December, the day of the parliamentary vote 
on tuition fees, thousands of protesters were 
kettled in Parliament Square. Many of those 
present – myself included – were not aware until 
too late that they had either strayed from the 
march's designated route, or were in the process 
of being "contained". The result: students 
trapped for up to 12 hours; the supreme court 
trashed; dozens injured; 60 arrested. In London 
last Saturday, with no kettles, there were only nine arrests.

Sam Carlisle, 23, an electronics engineer who 
graduated from Durham, became politicised after 
his girlfriend was trampled in a horse-charge at 
the protest on 24 November. Outraged, he decided 
to offer his exceptional technical skills to the 
UCL occupation, where he met Gaus. To 
differentiate between the two Sams, other 
occupiers christened them "Sam the techie" 
(Carlisle), and "Techie Sam" (Gaus). Physically, 
the pair are chalk-and-cheese – Carlisle is pale 
and stocky; Gaus dark-haired and tall – but 
intellectually they seem united. The night before 
the 9 December protest, both independently came 
up with the same idea: a live, online map that 
could show people at home where protest troublespots were located.

"I came to Sam on the eighth and I said: 'I've 
got this great idea,'" says Gaus. "And then he 
showed me this flow-chart with exactly the same plan."

The map was up and running for the protest the 
next day, prompting excited praise from Guardian 
science writer Ben Goldacre and backhanded 
compliments from American security analysts. But 
though the map was an innovative development, 
because there was no way of quickly communicating 
what it showed to people on the ground, it didn't 
fulfil the Sams' ultimate goal: to help protesters avoid kettles.

So, over the next month, they set about coding 
what became Sukey: a text-based warning service 
(used to great effect on Saturday); a similarly 
successful Twitter feed; and an auto-updating map 
of the protest, accessible from smartphones, 
which users complained didn't update fast enough. 
A compass-based application for smartphones, 
which would have told users in which direction 
kettles were to be found, was not ready in time. 
It was not through lack of effort. By the time I 
arrived at Sukey headquarters on Saturday 
afternoon, Carlisle hadn't slept in a bed for a week.

Four other team members are also integral to the 
process. On the march itself was Amit, who spread 
the gospel of Sukey to every protester he could. 
Then there is Tom Bance, 22, a physicist at UCL, 
who sends out Sukey's texts. Matt Gaffen, 23, a 
freelance graphic designer, devises Sukey's 
visuals, and Bernie, a man with greying hair who 
looks too old to be a student is an IT developer – and Sam Gaus's dad.

As the afternoon unfolded, it was primarily 
Bance's job to work out what was happening on the 
ground. With Marie, another UCL student, he 
sifted through all tweets tagged with "#sukey". 
Once he was clear what was going on, he relayed 
the synthesised information back through Sukey's 
official Twitter and texts. When trouble started 
brewing at the Egyptian embassy, for example, 
Bance's text read: "LOTS of reports say a Kettle 
is about to be formed outside the Egyptian 
embassy. Stay sensible, stay safe. #sukey." If, 
as was the case, an area looks likely to be 
kettled, it is the Gauses who are tasked with 
delineating it on the online map. Carlisle, 
meanwhile, was desperately trying to finish the 
code for the compass application, and Gaffen was 
on hand to update any graphics that needed changing.

"We're like a busy newsroom," says Bernie. "We 
have to get information in, check it makes sense, 
and then get it back out again."

When Sukey's arrival was announced last Friday, 
some critics warned it would merely facilitate 
rioting, rather than help keep protesters safe. 
Tory blogger Harry Cole said in a tweet that he 
has since deleted: "Is there something 
discustingly ironic about riot organising iphone 
ap Just about says it all about this country's kids."

Some announcements made by Sukey probably did 
indirectly assist those protesters who were less 
interested in the original "A-to-B" march, and 
more interested in a new kind of protest tactic 
that has emerged in the last few months: the 
"civic swarm", which sees large groups of 
demonstrators peel off from official marching 
routes and instigate flashmobs at shops such as 
Vodafone and Topshop, but which is arguably a 
perfectly justifiable form of protest.

But the Sukey team take umbrage at the idea that 
their goal is to cause disruption rather than to 
aid safety. They see themselves as distributors 
of information rather than battle tactics. Early 
in the day, they had sent out a text reminding 
everyone about the exact route of the march; 
later, they ended every announcement with the 
suffix: "Stay sensible, stay safe." When the 
march ended, and split into three groups of 
protesters, the team had a brief debate about 
whether they should carry on texting and 
tweeting. "We aren't there to lead people to the 
palace gates for the revolution," says Gaus Sr. 
By reporting the activities of the three 
meandering groups, he feared that "effectively, 
we're not just supporting it, we are instructing 
it". Eventually, however, they agreed that it is 
exactly at those moments that protesters are in 
need of information. "We're never going to be 
able to stop people leaving," Gaus Jr points out. 
"But when they do leave, and there is trouble – 
that's when we can be most useful. We can protect 
people from those troublespots."

Sukey is by no means the finished article. Though 
the events outside the Egyptian embassy seemed 
like a genuine success, plenty of people were 
frustrated that the compass-based application 
wasn't ready, and that the live map was either 
difficult to decipher, or slow to load and 
update. Additionally, since mobile phone 
reception is often scarce at protests, some 
complained that texts took too long to filter 
through. Carlisle accepts these criticisms: "I'm 
expecting people to come back and say it's shit, 
it doesn't work." But for him, it seems Saturday 
was almost a dry-run for future, larger protests, 
such as the Trades Union Congress protest on 26 
March, which might attract hundreds of thousands of protesters to London.

But even if Sukey isn't yet working like 
clockwork, it appeared to have two effects on 
Saturday. Several activists said just the 
knowledge that such a communications tool was in 
operation made people more aware of the need to 
share information, and to keep in touch. 
Similarly, there was a sense inside Sukey HQ that 
their presence was, at least in part, making the 
police more careful about their behaviour.

It would certainly make sense for the 
Metropolitan police to pay close attention to 
Sukey: communication is not the police's 
strongpoint. On a day when students were keeping 
in touch by Twitter and mobile phone, the police 
were handing out little slips of paper. As Bance 
says: "The police don't understand Twitter. They 
might as well be shouting at the screen with a megaphone."

There is an argument going on about the part 
technology has played in recent protests across 
Europe and north Africa. But while it is lazy to 
brand these revolts "twitter revolutions", as 
Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny Morozov have broadly 
argued, it seems equally silly to deny that 
social media does not have a role to play in facilitating protest and debate.

Sukey seems a prime example, and endorsement 
comes from an unlikely source: Tim Hardy, the 
founder of a blog called Beyond Clicktivism, and 
a self-proclaimed cyber-sceptic. Six months ago, 
sick of the excesses of social media, Hardy 
removed himself from Facebook and Twitter. "It 
was difficult to know what to listen to," Hardy 
says. "As Clay Shirky says, the internet needs 
more filters." But in Sukey, Hardy thinks he has 
found one such filter. He was so impressed by 
what he had seen, that by the end of Saturday he 
had agreed to be the team's spokesman. "It's 
really being used to enable something to happen," he says.

Quite what Sukey will go on to enable is not yet 
clear. The team plan to make their coding 
available to protest-minded programmers across 
the UK, but it remains to be seen what kind of 
impact it could have in, say, Egypt, where the 
government recently cut off the two keys to 
Sukey's London success: mobile and internet 
access. To stay ahead of the curve, Sukey will 
have to find ways round these problems. 
Protesters in Egypt have already improvised by 
using dial-up connections and new "speak to 
tweet" technology, which converts voicemail recordings into Twitter messages.

Further afield, international programmers from 
the Open Mesh Project are developing a system 
that turns laptops into temporary internet 
routers, and so allows protesters to communicate 
even without a conventional internet connection. 
But Sukey is unlikely to be behind the times for 
long. The team are tight-lipped about the 
details, but two of them say they might have 
found a way of doing without mobile reception. 
"We've got some ideas," says Gaus Sr, with a grin.
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