me. We’re not living in 2008 anymore folks. Yes, governments and people use twitter and facebook [and others. Thanks for pointing it out… again. Every news story is about PEOPLE. Real people. Who are impacted by something that most of us can never really understand. We sit and go through a ton of unedited footage of the
direct impact a bomb blast has on community, on a family. It’s shocking. It’s horrific. It’s real. Stop talking about the technology. Talk about the people and the issues – this applies to every story, from war to protests to natural disasters. And I say this as someone who runs the Social Media for one of the largest news organisations in the world.
It is particularly apt for technologists and a very important thing to remember when we talk about the systems that we make. It is just as important to focus on the people behind the stories, the report behind the red dot. A reminder to empathize, and whenever possible to assist in the alleviation of suffering. As humans we seriously need to be reminded what it means to have your life suddenly turned upside down. Whatever form that might be. Be it from poverty, war or natural disaster. We’ve seen so many affected, from Haiti, Cuba, North Eastern America, to Palestine and Israel and in my current location – Kenya. We need to zoom in, care and assist someone. Start somewhereâ€¦and as Jen Pahlka of CodeforAmerica recently told me. Lets work on the hard stuff.
I am getting increasingly interested in Complex systems science, not just to understand our complex world, but also to learn what can be done in terms of collaborative problem solving. The pre-eminent organization NECSI that studies this makes a point that I think bears repeating, and points as to why we should exceedingly care about individuals when systems start breaking.
“Losing pieces indiscriminately from a highly complex system is very dangerous,” said Dr. Bar-Yam. “One of the most profound results of complex systems research is that when systems are highly complex, individuals matter.” According to Bar-Yam, understanding the weaknesses of civilization is critical to our ongoing existence. “Complexity leads to higher vulnerability in some ways,” he said. “This is not widely understood.”
Over the last year I have had the great fortune of mind melding with various people with incredible ideas. As some of you may know, I am involved in Ushahidi, an open source platform for data collection, visualization and interactive mapping. Ushahidi has gotten its notoriety in the crowdsourcing sphere, with growing adoption around the world. From Kenya to Russia, Poland, Mexico, South Africa, Italy and countless other countries; it is something I continue to marvel at while enjoying the ride of learning; with a global community of hackers from Ghana, Malawi, Netherlands, US, Kenya, Poland etc, I marvel even more.
The idea behind the platform is simple. That anyone, given a channel to say ‘This is what I see’ and send that information via SMS, email, web and twitter. With Ushahidi’s plethora of mobile apps, reporting via smartphones can also be done quite seamlessly. With the Android app SMSsync, you can be your own SMS gateway. What this means is you can run a hub from your Android phone, such that any sms’s sent to you get sync’ed with a call back URL which can be an Ushahidi deployment or another server based application. So with the channels of data collection sorted, you of course have the processing capability that is available on the cloud (Think SwiftRiver), and the visualization component which can help convey the data in a compelling way.Maps. Things are getting even more compelling with plugins such as Cloudmade (Think preety, preety maps), and bookmarklets that can overlay Ushahidi data with other data available in the open layers format. Point is, the tools to create a visual from the collected data is also sorted. Beautifully too.
Now to the Internet of things. My first encounter with this idea was from listening to Elder of the Internet Vint Cerf at Lift09. He mentioned how you can have sensors in your cellar that make sure the temperature of the wine stays constant, and does some automatic reporting via internet to you if there is an anomaly. Those sensors have IP addresses and are nodes in your network. I did not think of it in terms of ‘Internet of Things’ at the time, but looking back now, that is exactly what he was describing. Other sensors abound, from the innovative Enphase inverter for giving you information on your energy generation from solar panels to the trash tracking devices used in the MIT Senseable City lab projects. Another great way to grasp this concept is to check out the twitter account of London’s Tower Bridge, and read this account of how it was set to tweet.
Now take these two ideas and meld them in different ways. Allow me to use the word holistic. As in holistic near ‘real time sense-making‘, incorporating the internet of things, with crowdsourced data delivered through channels that encourage participation. There is an opportunity to see things dynamically and not just do after-the-fact post mortem. This could work for flash point events like the Haiti earthquake (taking data form Geiger counters etc + crowdsourced data like that available on the haiti deployment run by Noula.ht. It could also work for longer term events such as the BP Oil spill in Louisiana.
…the closer to real-time one can get the right answer and respond, the better. And milliseconds matter.
– Data from things/sensors can trigger a report online if a tracked value reaches a certain threshold or meets certain criteria. For example, the Copenhagen Wheel by MIT Senseable lab. The wheel contains sensors that monitor carbon monoxide levels in the air,NOx/Nitrogen Oxides, a measure of air pollution, noise, ambient temperature and relative humidity. The data is accessible on a mobile phone app and can be shared with friends or even the city.
– Data from people filling out a form, sending an email, SMS or twitter message. This can be qualitative in nature, and use of the Ushahidi platform provides a way for citizens to participate in data gathering, plus sign up for alerts that are relevant to their concerns. An example that can be useful to check out is the Where Are The Cuts map from The Open Knowledge Foundation in the UK.
Combining the various sources of data (Open layers can be used to distinguish various types of data/color coding points of data can help to differentiate between sensor data and crowdsourced data). A dynamic map of information can then emerge that is not so much a snapshot, but an animation.
Change is at times compelled by insight. The insight from using technologies/ideas outlined above could lead to behaviour change if we can make data relevant to an individual. Relevant to the decisions they have to make based on the information they have at the time. For an idea that mixes some of the above ideas and adds relevance, have a look at Mapnificent.
[Mapnificent] …allows you to set a point in your chosen city and a map will display the entire area over which you could travel by public transit in a given amount of time. It also allows you to see an area that is both 15 minutes away from yourself and 15 minutes away from a friend by transit, and since it is integrated with Google Maps, allows you to search destinations within that specified area.
The recent deployment of the Ushahidi platform by The South China Morning Post is one to watch. “CitizenMap starts with environmental issues, focusing on the destruction of natural beauty in Hong Kong – from illegal dumping to unauthorized development, from vegetation removal to columbarium construction.”
The reason why this could be interesting, is that it has the potential to give journalists leads that they can follow up on and gather more facts on issues such as toxic waste dumping. It is harnessing the power of the people to help make Hong Kong a better place. This feeds into the idea of changing behaviour. If individuals/corporations realize that the public is watching and able to report incidents, would they still engage in such activities?
Say we had near-real time crowdsourced data from the public, and data from sensors all in the public domain; what could we do? What kind of projects could we come up with?
During TEDxNairobi, Erik Kigada an architect with Planning Systems shocked many of us in the audience by revealing something we did not know about. The city of Nairobi does not have a coherent master plan. The city is using 1999 plans to build in 2010. This presents myriad problems for businesses and individuals who need to plan. His point was made stark by the road construction happening while the event was going on. If a master plan existed showing that a bypass was planned, the architect who built the auditorium would not have put it near the road. There is an opportunity for emerging economies, rapidly growing cities to become smart cities. They can do this by taking a cue from the Senseable city projects. Current, near-real time data can be gathered with the help of the crowd, to provide pertinent information to urban planners, academics and leaders. The hope here is that they can make well informed decisions that take into account the flowing reality of the city.
“Insight from data can be used to leapfrog.” -Assaf Biderman
There is also the opportunity for education and academia to use participatory systems to link science, data and student participation. Relating the exploration of built/urban environment to the scientific method of observation, data collection and analysis.
I am interested in your ideas on how we can use these technologies and ideas to address the many challenges facing our world in Health, Education and Environment. I am particularly interested in figuring out a joint project in Kenya, please leave a comment or contact me to explore and collaborate.
At Ars Electronica in Linz, I was struck by the amazing pieces exhibited, and more so by the Ars Electronica center. It is set very near to a bridge on the Danube river.The Exhibitions archive page uses a schematic of the center to give you an idea of what is curated where.
The outdoor space atop the main gallery and before the future lab space seems to tie the old architecture of the church to the futuristic style of the Ars Center. Click on the image below for a larger size, the church is to the left of the future lab stairs.
It is one of those buildings that people either love or hate…I loved it. At night, the LED lights that line the outer glass wall change color. Something like a nocturnal visual surprise every time you glance at it.
The festival itself is something to experience. Since its now over, i would highly recommend visiting the Ars Electronica center to see some of the pieces that formed a benchmark of the festival. Besides, I am convinced that Linz would make a perfect location for any techy, futuristic or even a good action movie. Be it Minority Report 2 or next Bond 007, I can totally vouch for the stunning imagery it would evoke if someone like Daniel Craig would rappel down the Ars Center and straight into a boat on the Danube. (Spielberg, Soderberg, Wachowski brothers and whoever produces 007 – you are welcome :-))
Ahem, pardon my digression. Back to nerds needing art.
This has admittedly been a very busy year for me, and I have to admit that I did not expect it to be. With time, I’ve realized that being in the tech space can sometimes sap your sense of wonder. Or maybe its just me. If you are one of those people who feel mired in tech and sometimes feel like the ‘wow’ factor is gone when you see new innovations…and it elicits a bland ‘hmmm’ reaction and god forbid ‘meh’ – Well you need a healthy dose of art. Attending Ars Electronica helped me marvel again at what artists, architects, performance artists and idea mongers have to share. Below I will share afew of the pieces i particularly enjoyed, and provide some links to blogposts by the other wonderful speakers and friends from the Cloud Symposium.
Quartet is a Web-interactive robotic music installation. The machine you see in the live video feed is housed at an innovative museum in Linz, Austria, ARS Electronic. Seeing the machine live, inches away is an visceral experience that shows the real power of live music… and that robots can be a part of that experience. Visitors at the museum are able to enter melodies from a laptop in the museum for immediate interactivity
You play a short melody on the site Quartet.cc then you see the music interpreted onto the machine. Try it…
Since I have a thing for mobile phones (Nokia) I greatly enjoyed the robot controlled by bluetooth.
This is a picture of the phone.
This is basically the livescribe pen on steroids. You can write and record audio which is digitized and transferable pdf docs or uploaded online. The steroids bit: The Anoto pen can be used to navigate a map, displaying relevant data on a big screen. For example, if you click on a specific point on the map of Linz, and would like to know the demographics of the region, you can tap on the legend provided on a page to give you stats on number of divorced people between the age of 21 and 45. This was preety cool because it combines maps, tactile input of using a pen and a digital display to add more data.
I got to play the loopscape game with the renowned tech journalist Cyrus Farivar. I really could claim victory, but really…it was a draw.
â€œloopScapeâ€ is an innovative video game for two players that blurs the conventional distinction between good and evil, between â€œmy sideâ€ and â€œthe opposition.â€
The action does not take place on a flat display but rather on a 360 degree band arrayed around the edge of a ceiling-suspended metal doughnut circumnavigated during play. The object is to shoot down the opponent. But be careful! If a fired missile misses its target, it continues on its trajectory and threatens to strike from behind the game figure that launched it.
This loopscape game is a form of interactive device art, and for some reason, it brought to mind the idea of participatory art. Something that Wambui, Sciculturist and I were discussing at RAMOMA gallery in Nairobi. Check out this ‘Watoto Wa Kwetu’ piece by Wambui. More pics are on this flickr set. I think the loopscape game has participatory qualities just like the Watoto wa kwetu paintings, because both pieces are best experienced with others. There are some observations that Wambui made on the Watoto wa kwetu paintings that I would not have noticed. Do note that the paintings are done by a group of children, and not one artist. So, there is that aspect too.
This is just but a sampling of what was in store at Linz. I havent even touched on the animations. I hope you enjoy the perspectives shared by the others on the Cloud Symposium blog, videos posted there and the following links too.
Kristen Taylor – Mosaics, food and the cloud If you are wondering about her cool dress, its vintage. I had to ask I am not much of a beer drinker, so her suggestion to get some Secco (Austrian white sparkling wine) with our dinner was just invaluable.
I keep digressing from this nerds need art theme, but hopefully i can tie it all together.
In the quest to not lose your sense of wonder, sometimes you need to look inward, be quiet and just think about the bigger picture. To find the creative place. If you’ve ever used the words ‘code is poetry’ ‘Math is elegant’ or ‘no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should’. There is this need to look inward, to find that inner muse and embrace the imagination. I think whenever you need to go to such a place, art can provide that gateway.
Where does inanimate material end and where does life begin? Arthur Ganson lets his â€œThinking Chairâ€ straddle the boundary between those two states. Through its movementsâ€”which resemble the gait of a human being walking on two legsâ€”the chair exhibits animate traits. Arthur Ganson had the idea that led to this work while taking a walk. Near his studio, there is a small rock outcropping on a trail, which he likes to walk around in slow circles, deep in thought. During this walking meditation, each cycle finds him back in the same physical place but in a slightly different emotional place
Juan has a research and investment firm called Biotechonomy, which invests in new genomics firms.
“Juan Enriquez thinks and writes about the profound changes that genomics and other life sciences will cause in business, technology, politics and society”
Juan gives an update on lifesciences advances that have lead to tissue regrowth, molars, ears and even bladders to replace catheter bags.
He mentions advances in robotics such as Boston Dynamic’s Big Dog robot. (check you tube for a video of Big Dog’s amazing capabilities. It can carry loads, and self corrects if it is destablized e.g by kicking it – hard)
He touches on evolution and thinks we will advance into Homo Evolutis that takes all the trends in lifesciences, robotics and evolution into something quite…well futuristic.
There is an opportunity for African authors in the RE field to contribute to the World Wind Energy Association yearbook:2009/2010
WWEA is accepting contributions from the African continent, with a goal of creating comprehensive country reports and project examples of wind energy.
The yearbook will include special reports in the following areas:
2. Community Power Approaches and Social Acceptance
3. Industrial Trends
5. Grid Connected Systems and Wind Farms Onshore and Offshore
6. Integrating Renewable Energies
7. Small Scale Wind and Hybrid Systems
8. Wind Assessment and Prediction
9. Education and Training
10. Research and Development of Technology.
Dates, Deadlines and Information
– Final abstract deadline: 11 December 2008
– Final paper deadline: 15 January 2009
– Abstract and paper format: Word-Format (unformatted)
– Final paper maximum size: Five pages A 4
Please send your abstract, further requests and the paper to:
WWEA Head Office, Frank Rehmet, Chief Editor
Tel. +49-228-369 40 80 Fax: +49-228-369 40 84 E-Mail: fr [at] wwindea [dot] org
In the September 10th 2008 issue of the Economist, there was an article about Geo-engineering, describing the ‘Transactional Analysis’ document from the Royal scientist
In the paper, the idea of planting trees was was ‘alluded to but not discussed’.
A second idea for scrubbing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, alluded to in the Transactions but not much discussed, is to plant more trees. In principle, any old trees would doâ€”although they die and rot, more forest cover would lock up more carbon dioxide. However, genetically modified trees might grow faster. Such trees are being developed to help the lumber, pulp and biofuel industries. But fast-growing forests could also be planted in order to capture carbon dioxide quickly.
Funny, this is the idea that seems doable yet it is not given much attention. Amongst other benefits, trees would help reclaim water catchment areas that are dwindling as we speak, and while we are at, why not encourage planting indigenous trees to enhance plant diversity?
It warms my heart when right wingers like Pat Robertson can sit with Al Sharpton on a setee by the beach, and proclaim that they see eye to eye on the climate crisis. The ads just point people to visit wecansolveit.org. A website will not a crisis avert. Granted they are are trying to create a community/movement, but that wont do much in my opinion. The ads would have been more effective if they pointed out one demonstrable action that people can take (I’d suggest urging people to plant trees) AND visit wecansolveit.org. Al, I love you, but please find a more practical way, or change ad agencies.
Planting trees; though quite obvious seems to make much more sense to me than giant rotating cylinders that create the ‘magnus effect’. It makes more sense that putting sulphur in jet fuel, flying in high altitudes and polluting the atmosphere so the sulphur crystals can reflect the sun’s rays off the earth. Don’t get me wrong, I would really like to believe that I am open-minded the big ideas put forth in the transactional paper. I do agree that the climate crisis is one big ginormous problem that threatens the future stability of the world, heck my grandma told me climate change is real. What is being done NOW to adapt to climate change? What are we doing to reclaim our rapidly deforested areas? Big questions. Yet, we can start with simple, yet obvious actions like planting trees.
In the quest to make it a cool thing to do (Gardeners and tree huggers are hardly rock stars) perhaps borrowing an idea from Joi Ito, he tags photos on his flickr stream with ‘freesouls’ How about we begin a tag ‘greensouls’ where you take a picture of someone/yourself planting a tree, upload to flickr, tag it and if you can, geo-tag it as ‘greensoul’?
Oh, if you can find a trader who can help monetize the tree planting to carbon credits, I would very much like to assuage my carbon guilt. I seem to have added it to my catholic guilt so now I have much more guilt than I know what to do with. It does not help that some friendskeep chiding me about my carbon footprint.
Last Saturday I had the privilege of meeting with the green bloggers in South Africa. Rafiq Phillips was the best guide anyone could ask for, a TEDster, blogger and twitterer extraordinaire I am thankful to h
Blogging about the environment is a multi-faceted endeavor, because it is such a broad topic. This was reflected in the concerns brought to the table by bloggers, and when you visit their blogs, you will see that each of them writes about the environment with a different style, and that they have varying concerns. From Green building techniques and green-tech on Carbon Smart, to reviews of eateries and films on Relax with Dax…The South African bloggers have passion for the environment and are part of the ‘green movement’ happening world wide. The question I was asked was, how come the bloggers in South Africa are the most active African writing about the environment? Part of the reason is the digital divide. The internet penetration rate in South Africa is relatively higher compared to other Sub Saharan countries. We have not seen more ‘green bloggers’ emerge in other parts of Africa in as big a way as they have in South Africa (particularly Cape town) I am no social scientist, but I do hope that as internet penetration rates increase in Africa, that we have more people writing about issues relating to the environment.
We discussed the business of blogging briefly, particularly whether to accept advertising on your site, particularly whether you can do this effectively without compromising your ‘voice’. For example if you do not condone the actions of a multinational company, yet when you have google ads, their ad could appear on your site. How do you manage that effectively? This remained an open question, though Wanda of UrbanSprout suggested having control over which ads can appear on your site with whichever method of ad service you pick.
Another issue was brought up by Rafaela of greenflavour, about using blogs for environmental activism. The resulting actions such as cease and desist letters from companies that try to sue you for stating an opinion. I did mention Eff.org as a resource, and checking the Berkman Center for Internet and Society on guidance in terms of law and free speech online.
Rory of Carbonsmart challenged all of us that we need to show transformation, to show that the environmental movement is happening, and that people are thinking about their impact on the environment and doing something about it. To this end, Rory has began a mapping project called ‘Greening Africa’. The map was mentioned on an earlier post on GV enviro.
Glen of Urbansprout is considering creating a map of the information contained in the exhaustive directory of green businesses. He and Wanda created the directory from scratch and it is currently part of the Urbansprout site. It is a good resource for the many football fans flocking to South Africa in 2010 for the the world cup. Do bookmark Greenstay.co.za, as he gets this project together.
There were so many other great conversations, but the consensus was that this was the first of many such gatherings for bloggers who share a concern for the environment to meet, exchange ideas and collaborate on various initiatives. I would like to thank each and every one of the bloggers who attended. I hope that this is but the beginning of many more meetups. I left encouraged, and inspired by the environment bloggers of the Mother City.
Links to their blogs are listed here (in no particular order).
The botanist Corneille Ewango talks about his work in the Congo to protect the forest giraffe or ‘Okapi’. He touches on the effect of the war, mentioning the mineral coltan which is used in electronics like your cellphone. Do note that coltan has fueled the war in the Congo for many years.
He also goes over his life story, which personifies courage and endurance in the face of difficult circumstances.
If you are not able to view the video, you can read a summary by EthanZ.
“Neil Turok is one of the world’s leading physicists. He could easily just spend all his time in his lab, preparing to win a Nobel Prize. But he hasn’t done that,” said TED curator Chris Anderson. “He’s in Africa, where science education is in a pretty shoddy state, and he has decided to do something about it. He’s absolutely brilliant, and he’s taken that brilliance and leveraged that in a surprising way to help other people.”
He founded AIMS – African Institute of Mathematical Sciences.
His TED dream is that the next Einstein is African. The plan is to have AIMS in more countries in Africa, expanding mathematical and scientific research. Read more about it on Ethanz’s excellent blog.
The TED Africa team was also introduced earlier during the conference. I think 2008 promises to be a great year for Africa in more ways than one. Inspiration and passion in whatever field we are in goes a long way to bringing meaning and joy in our lives, that is the reason why i love TED. Vusi Mahlasela is performing.
From his second song about the beauty of Africa, and the challenges of post apartheid SA.
Quotable: There is wisdom in forgiveness. if you don’t forgive, you are the one who is suffering the most, if you forgive you become more free. Vusi might as well have been talking to each and every Kenyan at this point in time. The road to reconciliation in Kenya is going to be long and hard; we will seriously have to look to our brothers and sisters in South Africa and Rwanda as we get back on the road to the Kenya we want.
You can watch his performance from TEDGlobal 2007 below if you didn’t catch the live event.
I was wondering what to write about for blog action day…Deforestation? possible land grabbing in Kenya? The need for recycling bins in apartment communities? the politics of climate change…many options to choose from. I happened watch wired science tonight, and they had a fascinating yet disturbing segment on ‘the garbage patch’. A flowing mass of garbage that goes with the currents spanning several oceans. Cargo that ended up in the seas, such as 80,000 pairs of Nike shoes gave the researchers some information about the flow of trash. Weirdly, a left shoe would end up on one shore and the right shoe on an entirely different shore. Intrigued? Below is the video from PBS.
As its mentioned in the video, perhaps if we see the sheer amount of plastic that is ending up in oceans and inside the bodies of countless birds and animals, we just might think twice about how we dispose of our plastic bottles.
Habib Koite of Mali has a beautiful song that captures feelings of concern about the environment and industrialization. Can we keep chugging along on the path to the new African Century without wrecking our environment?