Lift07 was great. What can I say? It was an overstimulating three days, where every conversation and presentation was extra interesting. So well done. Where else will you have the chance to hear Sister Judith Zoebelein geek out with Robert Scoble about Linux PHP and Site Stats on the Vatican website. I had the opportunity to do the OpenStreetMap workshop, and you know the more you give the more you get. Looking through my notes now to pick up some highlights, ideas and people to follow up.
Lee Bryant was as usual incredibly lucid articulating on adapting technology beyond the geek ghetto. He compared Outlook to Pavlov’s Dogs, called out Homo economicus as an Autistic (along with most software), and questioned the long term viability on Wikipedia’s Neutral Point of View. His tips for dealing with organizational resistance to new communication technologies all ring true from my experience with Wikis at the UN. *Get IT on board. *Find business/organizational benefits in openness. *Start with pilot projects in small groups. *Work from the bottom up.
Stowe Boyd, self described “Software Psychiatrist”, articulated a common theme that social software works best when it addresses selfish needs first and foremost .. collective benefits are the happy byproduct of well designed search for self. He praised last.fm for building implicit social networks based around activities. Explicit social networks, most of them, are again Autistic and overly managed. The actual notion of relationship is much more fluid and based on interaction. Andreea Chelaru and I discussed how other existing systems of communication and media could be leveraged .. and I was almost tempted to hack together an app that would simply gather user profile pictures of users posted to particular tags on social sharing sites, as ad-hoc social networking, until Pipes distracted me and actually showed a better way (ie no code) to build such a mashup. Anyway, I’m now getting into building my autistic social network on Linked In.
Suren Erkman gave an incredibly interesting presentation on Industrial Ecology. Like biological ecology, it’s an attempt to account for all material and energetic flows within a system, and like a mature ecosystem, it seeks to foster limited waste of limited resources .. which is yet far off. In the mean time, it’s good to hear that at least one positive outcome of the proposed mission to Mars is that it will be impossible to bring along all metabolic requirements, so astronauts will need to “close the loop” and reuse their own waste (ESA Project Melissa), Nestle engineers have saved hundreds of tons of plastic by designing a chocolate powder granule that’s flat and can be packed more densely within containers, and that the Canton of Geneva is the first place to require an accounting of all material flows, which is 74700 tons of material a year. If we’re going to survive at all is going to require massive cleverness in small places, and that definitely means our software, but also chocolate powder.
There were many talks focused on “doing good” with technology. Perhaps this is an enlightened crowd, but in some ways perhaps the larger culture is finally clueing in (or my echo chamber is getting louder). Sugata Mitra of the Hole in the Wall Project. PCs are placed in Indian slums, without any instructions, in English, and children are giving free rein. They learn remarkably fast, and quickly develop their own “shoulder to shoulder” education network. The PC reinstalls itself fresh every two weeks, clearing out all the installed spyware but also the children’s bookmarks .. Sugata is waiting for the day when the kids find a way to circumvent the reinstall. Nathan Eagle, who I saw speak on Reality Mining at Where 2005 (the entropy of life) came to Lift from Kenya, where he’s teaching students to program mobile phones (and generally having the time of his life); the students on the verge of building breakthrough applications, like mobile medical assistance. And Motofone for this market, but Nathan says it’s unlikely to be popular simply due to the cheap cost of local phones hybridized phones.
David Galipeau deftly, and with plenty of opinion (the key I think to a lively discussion) led a follow up panel which really challenged the audience to examine why and how they address the digital divide (back to Stowe Boyd’s discovery of Self). Sugata realized that the honest answer, acceptable to the people he was helping, is that the Hole in the Wall computers could eventually produce students for his training courses. To myself, why did I lead a workshop in neogeography for the Dominican Republic Ministry of the Environment? Because if they were making best use of the tools out there, there was a better chance of protecting those wild places, and I’d have more opportunity to experience them. However, that was a limited engagement, and the realization is that technology is not nearly enough .. it takes sustained interaction in order to enact change. Perhaps this is quite a mindset change for the Lift crowd, since we’re so enamored of our loosely coupled way of doing things .. but that doesn’t work when the culture of the technology hasn’t yet taken hold. The emphasis is on education, and the technology comes second .. Sugata Mitra was critical of the $100 laptop since it focuses so much on computer networking, rather than “should to shoulder networking”. Outside the session, I enjoyed a long discussion with Craig Duncan on all this and more in his new project, PreventionWeb.
Had many discussions on OpenStreetMap. It’s highly regarded conceptually, but practically not many people have had the stomach for it. The workshops are there to address this steep learning curve, shoulder to shoulder style, but there are definitely much to be done on usability and engaging with multiple technical levels. The sparodic connectivity of the devices themselves, in Geneva’s urban canyons, had participants puzzled and it makes me realized that GPS receivers are not well designed for this at all .. they’re either for navigation or passive recording .. not the active recording of OSM. Fabien Giradin’s talk on Embracing the Real Worlds Messiness resonated strongly here .. we need to design the OSM experience to account for when it breaks, and things like the Yahoo Imagery helps greatly. Like Jan Chipchase, he has a strong eye for environmental details which reveal hidden truths, like English Sinks. As computers pervade more of life, strange interactions and broken infrastructure will become more common not less. I want to “Play with Noise and Disorder” and may draw up some maps of GPS reception strength here in Brighton. Fabien ended by comparing “seamless” design to strong AI, and asked “do we really want to live in a calm world?” (no, we seem to desire messiness).
Even though I’m enamored of the drawing on printed imagery and logical diagram method of noting metadata when collecting OSM tracks, there is a real need for an integrated mobile device client .. since something like rain doesn’t mix with paper .. guess that better be a water proof mobile device. Nick Black and folks here in Brighton have all looked into this. May try to storyboard out the process with an interaction designer or two who expressed interest. Bread and Butter Design did the most amazing job on branding for lift, and if there’s any way we can scrape together money to hire them for State of the Map it will be worth every penny. I’d like to pick John Buckman‘s brain a bit more on licensing issues for the OpenStreetMap database; John’s on the board of Creative Commons. Plenty of people saw the intrinsic value of OpenStreetMap, just as the see the value of Wikipedia. Much has been made of a comment by Florence Devouard on Wikipedia’s 3 month funding horizon. Wikipedia is of course a huge inspiration and pillar for OpenStreetMap .. so I think I’m going to start saying the same and see if that scares up more funds.
The topic I expected to see the most on .. sensors and ubiquitous computing .. was present but less in the forefront. Jacques Panchard gave a good introduction to wireless sensor networks. Got to chat a bit with Julian Bleeker about his Arduino hardware hacking. Somehow the physical world seems the most futuristic to me right now, and I can’t wait until we’re all flying weather balloons and RC airplines aquiring aerial imagery and collecting pollution data during our walk to the corner store; today we’re all amateur/professional cartographers and tomorrow we’re all .. sensors? Finally Ben Cerveny’s talk seems beyond even the future; maybe it was late in the day, but some future version of myself is going to have to watch that talk again and try and absorb it. I may try and experiment with one catchphrase “a school of fish that can see itself”, and see what group-level self awareness would do to a flocking simulation.
Coming home, there was instant resonance with the sessions on the the blur between amateur and professional, as several of Anna’s photos of the Dominican Republic have been published in a report on the DR by the German Development Agency, who I had also worked with on that Neogeography workshop. Nice, everything is connecting.