“Galway Is A Mini San Francisco”: 091 Labs Nurtures Creativity In Another Bay Area

We have become used to the idea of innovation coming from corporate R&D divisions and university research departments. We seem to have forgotten that some of the key life-enhancing breakthroughs have come from the grassroots level. Particularly in technology.

Apple came about through the participation of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in the Homebrew Club back in the mid-seventies. Hewlett Packard was formed in a garage (picture above) in Palo Alto. Not only did the work in this garage give birth to the large well-known company that is HP today, but in its immediate environs it created the greatest testbed and launch pad for innovation that the world has ever known. The work that was done in this shed led to the creation of Silicon Valley. Not bad for a couple of guys with soldering irons.

Every Tuesday night, except for the one evening a month reserved for a guest speaker, ten to twelve people get together at the Galway Bakery Company to share ideas, tinker with equipment and software, and create the possibility of a new, exciting future.

This community of innovators and experimenters goes by the name of 091 Labs (091 is the area code for Galway). It was instigated by Declan Elliott after being inspired by a newspaper article about TOG, a Dublin-based facility created to give “shared space where members have a place to be creative and work on their projects”.

The growth of these facilitation spaces has skyrocketed over the last eighteen months, from roughly 40 such places to over 400 now. Noisebridge in San Francisco and NYC Resistor (“we learn, we share, we make things”) in New York are probably the most recognizable names in this movement, and a movement is very much what it seems it is.

“The future is all about geeks with soldering irons,” says Declan, who is actively looking for a 50-square metre site in Galway City to cater for expanded interest. “091 Labs is like a garden where we plant the seed and nature will do the rest.”

But 091 Labs is not confined to the technorati. Anyone with a creative project, the need for space and the willingness to work with and alongside others is welcome. This creates new possibilities for the cross-fertilization of ideas.

While motives for coming along to 091 Labs may vary – some need space that they can’t get at home, some may need to bounce ideas off other people, others may want to give their ideas a reality check – there is a singular philosophy under-pinning all this activity: DoOcracy.

With the right attitude, Declan says “you can get started with nothing.” All that is required is that you simply do it. It is this thought that drives the creativity in this environment. People gather, share and work in an “ecosystem of the arts, tech and science community.” As Declan points out “Galway is a mini San Francisco in many ways given its rich and diverse creative communities, so all the ingredients are here.”

Anyone can participate every Tuesday night at the Galway Bakery Company, or in any other place in Ireland or the world where you can grab some space and organize some folks to come along.

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What If Your Car Could Tweet (Twitter Annotations)

I was preparing some slides for a talk this evening on the Social Semantic Web, and with recent announcements from Facebook regarding the Open Graph API and also from Twitter about their Annotations extension, I added some more content to a previous slideset to reflect some of these emerging topics.

Twitter Annotations will allow people to attach arbitrary metadata to tweets, within a certain size limit. There have already been some interesting ideas for this service. In an effort to show what kinds of annotations you could add to a tweet, I mocked up a scenario based on that good old eighties TV show Knight Rider.

Picture the scene. Our hero is in peril, and calls on his pal KITT for help using his Twitter-enabled wristwatch. KITT replies, but he also automatically attaches some information reflecting his current status: location, speed, gas reserves, mood, etc. The response from KITT is also filed into a container called “KITT Alerts” (for emergencies, rapid response updates, etc.) that can be monitored by Devon and the good folks back at the Knight Foundation for Law and Government (AKA FLAG, yes, I know way too much about this show).

In the hypothetical case above, Michael is reassured to know that his trusty sidekick is on the way, and all ends well. If the fuel level was at 10%, perhaps too much information could be a bad thing for our hero!

In DERI at NUI Galway, we’ve been working on the SMOB (semantic microblogging) idea for some time now, and attaching more metadata to tweets is something that Alex Passant has added in to version 2. You can find out more about this project at the SMOB page.

Wanted: “Joined-Up” News Search For Grown-Ups Via Linked Data

All the information in the world and beyond falls into one of three categories.

  • What we know
  • What we know we don’t know
  • What we don’t know we don’t know

    Sounds very much like the poetry of Donald Rumsfeld, but the idea of separated knowledge predates him all the way back to the time of Plato‘s Dialogues. When it comes to the news – the information updates that inform our knowledge of the world and our specific interests – there are two other conditions to take into consideration: the expected and the unexpected.

    Expected news is the regular features and updates that we get from feature writers, blogs that share our views, and is largely a comforting place to be: something new to consider on a regular basis but in a familiar continuum of form and style. Updates aren’t really more news, but just more information on a topic. Our knowledge is expanded in a staged manner, a bit like taking a walk along an unfamiliar path in a familiar piece of countryside.

    We all subscribe to blogs, tweets, Facebook pages, etc., because they give us more of what we want to know. Very often, the information is new but rarely is it a break from the past. We are mildly stimulated and feel comforted because we feel abreast of the times.

    This is the stuff we know about.

    The unexpected news item, by definition, comes as a huge surprise. In the traditional media, huge surprises tend to be huge, bad surprises (the Haiti earthquake being the most recent). They tend to arrive at irregular and unwelcome moments and usually have a moral, physical or spiritual affect on us: for those of us who care anyway.

    We can never predict these big stories and the most that journalists around the world can do to prepare for them is to keep a ‘crash bag’ by the door full of travel essentials.

    This is the stuff we don’t know about.

    What these two categories have in common is the presence of an awful lot of information. Either a large database of information accrued over a period of time or large amounts of information generated in a very short time. What both content providers and content consumers really want is a well-told and relevant story. Turning information into stories makes things easier to comprehend, easier to remember and perhaps easier to learn from. Making information meaningful is what a journalist does.

    Relevance is the true promise of the Semantic Web. Profium and the Open Calais project from Thompson Reuters are just two of the increasing number of Semantic Web efforts that promise better and more relevant information. Profium applies Semantic Web technology to the massive ever-filling databases of news agencies, and links that information in a meaningful way to produce wire-copy that can then be sold on to their news publishing clients. This timely relevance means that conflicting reports can be avoided and accuracy enhanced.

    Open Calais (nice overview here from Lullabot) can be used to convert great lumps of text into something meaningful and relevant through predesigned taxonomies, classifications and preassigned tags. Slate magazine has News Dots which is a very interesting application of Semantic Web technology to news reports.

    This powerful pre-filtering and tagging means that a journalist on the wrong end of a lot of text information (which is most of the time) now has a significantly useful tool for making sense of the incoming data. On the Lullabot page there is a link to an Open Calais viewer. Drop a lump of text in there, this article for example, and see what comes up. It becomes immediately obvious how useful this technology can be.

    Through their Open blog, the New York Times, in their usual wonderfully innovative way, have given us the opportunity to build our own API to retrieve and assemble information from the NYT archives that we think might be relevant to us. The demos here use the info boxes from Wikipedia that were converted to linked data by DBpedia. But the awesomeness is there for all to see. (Tip: The code looks even easier if you squint your eyes.)

    This is joined-up search for grown-ups where we can bring ideas together by the means of linked data. Contrast this to the block-letter searches of Google where many items are returned but few of them are relevant and none are related to each other in a meaningful way.

    The hold up for semantic technologies is in implementation. Things will really speed up once data is stored in ways that make searching and finding quicker and more accurate. The momentum is alreadhy there and will only increase exponentially over time.

    So that leaves us with the the third part of the statement to resolve: what about the stuff we don’t know we don’t know? Well, by definition it’s unknowable, but linked data gives the possibility of throwing up a surprise or two.

    Perhaps separate pieces of data that we thought up until now as having no relation to each other are perhaps related by unknown connections hidden away from our awareness. Through the magic of the Semantic Web we have the possibility of increased serendipity and the making of vital life-enhancing connections, in the same way that talking to a complete stranger can reveal a mutual acquaintance.

    We may never be able to get rid of the big nasty surprises, but having lots more fun small ones will always be welcome.

Available Information Is Not The Issue: Making Sense Of It Is

Newspaper clipping services have traditionally been the much derided poor cousins to newspapers proper, but all that may be changing and changing very rapidly.

The Open Source Center (OSC) was set up in 2005 and has as one of its prime functions the assignment of putting together information packages that contain clippings of local news and other items that may be of interest to government workers in all roles. The service was originally a supplemental service based on the assumptions about a given worker’s ability to access information. It is solely for government workers and contractors but there is a website where individuals not associated with the government can request access to the material.

In the old days, as in a couple of years ago, one could have assumed that to be well-informed would consist of reading the newspaper in the morning on the way to work and catching up with the nightly news broadcast on television in the evening. All the information to make sense of the world would have been present in a condensed and slickly-packaged form to enable the quick assimilation of important news from home and abroad.

The decline in newspaper sales is well-documented, and so little money is invested in television news that it is a wonder that anything of worth gets reported at all. The immediate reflexive response would be to say, “not to worry, we have the Web.” Since we have the Internet with all its news aggregators and the now very important Twitter, we can make a reasonable argument that we don’t need these archaic information distribution models anymore.

But for those with more than a passing interest in news and who are expected to be well-informed individuals as a requisite for their jobs, RSS and status updates are a massive time-suck. As wonderful as real-time bulletins are on the modern Web, trying to fit things into a context or being able to take a big picture look at a given situation can be quite a bit of work.

Now the emphasis has changed. Due to the decline of the newspaper sources, the task of the OSC to supplement daily news literacy has now morphed into being a primary source of news literacy. This is a big job. The most recent figures show that there are 1567 channels of news and information (N&I) worldwide. In the EU, there are 167 N&I sources. That is just television. Newspapers plus all the videos on YouTube need to be monitored too.

In Pakistan, which for obvious geo-political reasons is very important to monitor what is being said and shown, there are 8 N&I channels. Four in Urdu, two in English, and one each in Hindi and Pushtu. Available information is not the issue. Making sense of it is.

These changes in working practices, from the packaging of information being a primary function rather than supplemental form, means that the need still exists for the packaging and presentation of information into intelligible and digestible chunks. One consequence is that there is still a market of sorts for trained journalists and experienced editors.

If the US government sees a need for it than it can’t be too long before other governments and large corporations, institutions, universities, etc., will see the need for a similar service to keep their own people educated and informed about the world around them. All the decisions we make are in the context of wider worldwide picture and the better informed we are the better choices we can make either at home and at work.

3DTV: Not A Marketing Gimmick, Rather An Awesome Viewing Experience

I am writing this as a convert. Just a few days ago if anyone has asked me what I thought of 3DTV I would have grimaced a little, murmured a few niceties and ended my answer with a sentence containing the words “marketing gimmick.” They can only make televisions so much bigger and so much flatter, and an old boxy TV with a cathode ray tube is now a rare sight in places both public and private. So 3DTV technology must have been a godsend to the manufacturing executives. Another fad to generate more cash. Blu-ray never became a must-buy. Just something you thought about upgrading to when your DVD player needed replacing. It was only better, not different and better.

But now having seen a demonstration of 3DTV in action I can honestly say that this is not some incremental change in technology, but has all the signs of being a complete game changer. For a start, it works. And it works really well. You put on your goggles and away you go. In a way that’s it. You are now having a three-dimensional viewing experience in all its awesomeness. To be fair, I am not a great TV watcher and I didn’t watch this long enough for the novelty to wear off so I admit to bias, but if I had watched it for longer I would have been very disappointed to have to go back to a 2D viewing experience. During the demo, we did switch from 3D to 2D for comparison. Saying the picture looked flat is as jokey and dismissive as it sounds.

One of the great problems with all these new developments is the library of material available for viewing. But Dreamworks have been leading the way and the additional production costs will be reduced with widespread use. Sky are also planning a 3D channel later this year. Also you can check this page at the 3D@home consortium for a list of available 3D films. Enough to get you through many a winter evening methinks.

The technology for sourcing images is also proceeding rapidly. Panasonic will have a low-budget 3D camera available soon. The most interesting thing about it is the parallel lenses making it almost like a regular camera. It also records on SD cards. (Note: Because of my day job I have to add here that I am not endorsing Panasonic products.) It will not be long before documentaries, soap operas, chat shows and other mainstay programmes of traditional television will be recorded on 3D. Whatever 3DTV may be, it is certainly not a fad. There is now a clear inevitability about its future in the home.

The goggles themselves were rechargable and had an internal shutter rate to match the film. In this case it was 60 Hz. They were lightweight plastic items that were big enough to fit over regular spectacles. I found them very comfortable but it would be a drag if they slipped behind the seat cushion and got crushed. That, as far as I could tell, would be the only real downside of the technology.

The price of the package I saw was just under four thousand dollars. But prices after the early adopter phase always seem to drop and I don’t see why it would be different for this viewing system. Gadget Republic are reporting that sets should arrive in Ireland as early as April this year. This is a bit early in the game for me but I think I might be looking forward to what will be in my Christmas stocking for 2011.