SOCIETIES: Combining Pervasive Computing with Social Networks

SOCIETIES is a project to bring together social computing and pervasive computing into one overall framework that can be deployed to allow third party developers to provide next generation services beyond what is possible today. Pervasive computing is about making technology disappear into the background so that users can remain unaware that technology is acting on their behalf.

Pervasive computing uses information derived from the array of sensors and devices that make up the context of our digital lives. Context could be your location at given times of the day, the number of cars on the road or the weather. Any information that can be digitally discerned from our actions and interactions with our environment and that can be turned into data provides the context in which pervasive computing can work.

This context information can be combined with an individual user’s personal preferences for how they want technology to act on their behalf and how they in turn interact with technology. That enables them to make proactive decisions for the use of these services and be able to obtain a more personal and relevant experience.

The SOCIETIES project launched in October 2010 and there are sixteen partners. Eight are academic partners and eight are industrial partners. It is funded under Europe’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7.) SOCIETIES is the largest integrated project out of the fifth call for project submissions for FP7 and it is the only one that has been coordinated by an Irish academic partner. In this case the Telecommunications Software & Systems Group (TSSG) which is based in the Waterford Institute of Technology.

Kevin Doolin, Chief Engineer and Chair of the Scientific and Technical Board at TSSG, explains further, “We are merging pervasive computing with the whole area of social networking and social computing.

“The key thing in SOCIETIES is that we would be providing services that are context aware on behalf of an entire community of users rather than the individual users that have been catered for up until now.

“You have these smart phones, smart cars and smart offices but all these entities work in isolation. There is no real interoperability between the different smart environments that are out there.

“What we are doing in SOCIETIES is building a framework and bring these smart-spaces together so they can interoperate.

“You can have your own smart-space which would be you and all the devices that you own connected together. You could walk into a smart-office and your smart-space could actually connect into that smart-office environment, for example. And you can get access to various services within that office. It could also be in a supermarket or at the side of the street or anything else.

“With SOCIETIES we have taken that quite a step forward. We are dealing with communities of users and providing services for multiple users at the same time. There are many issues there. First of all, ‘How do you find the users that would form a community?’

“We could do that by social networks. We can mine data out of social networks. For example, if you go to a conference and you have an interest in pervasive computing and you’re subscribed to the SOCIETIES system we could then find out how many other people at that conference have similar interests to yourself. We could then join them to you digitally and share whatever you want to share; data, experiences, business cards, and everything would be done dynamically.”

It is not such a big step to go from the idea of technology being pervasive to the idea of it being intrusive. Privacy and security are notions that are still highly valued by many people despite claims that the Age of Privacy may be over.

As Kevin says, “Security, trust and privacy are critical issues to deal with. Everything I have said so far sounds like Big Brother, monitoring the users, following them everywhere and knowing their every move. But we can only do that if the user is happy for us to monitor them like that. We have a lot of research that has been done into users privacy requirements, security requirements and trust requirements.

“Using a social network as a context source isn’t something that is done at the moment. Combining that with personal preferences for a group of users is something that is very complicated to do. On top of that we have what we call a work package that is dealing with the personalization of services and taking proactive actions on behalf of the user. Then on behalf of the user within a community of users.

“Part of the challenge there is to actually learn about the users, their behaviours and how they interact with the technology and the services that are available.

“The integration of multiple different device types. Everything from your phone to your laptops, your digital photo frames, your fridge could potentially be integrated into this framework we are going to develop. So trying to develop an abstraction layer that will allow all these different devices to communicate and operate together is another one of the challenges we are going to face.”

Bringing together pervasive computing, the handling of data from derived from sensors in the environment and social networking technology is a daunting technical challenge. To accomplish this goal technologies will have to be created and developed that don’t exist yet. The future will have to be invented.

Zolk C: Using Mobile Pervasive Services to Enhance User Experience

Zolk C is a company that provides interpretative guides by means of handheld devices for exhibitions, museums and tour sites. It can be used wherever there is a need to enhance a visitor’s experience to a given venue. Zolk C was spun out from the Telecommunications Software and Systems Group (TSSG) in 2008 and through an ongoing innovation partnership the TSSG is driving the Zolk C technology.

John McGovern is a researcher in the area of mobile pervasive services and is Head of Technical Projects at Zolk C.

Pervasive services allow services to be seamlessly available anywhere at anytime and in any format. Pervasive is defined or utilized under a number of themes:

  • Location
  • Context: Which can be defined in three ways:
    • Where the user is
    • Who the user is with
    • What resources are available to the user
  • Sensors
  • Self-learning: Context definition and context interaction based on the ability to self-learn.

Up until recently if you went to a museum or a tourist site you could be provided with some sort of device that could only give you some audio to help guide you around the location. What a user would expect from an interpretative tour running on a mobile pervasive service would be far richer and far more extensive than just simple audio.

The National Trust for Scotland wanted revamp the visitor experience to one of their major sites of national importance, the place where the Battle of Culloden took place. They wanted to mark out locations on the battlefield that were of special interest. However for reasons of sensitivity and aesthetics they didn’t want to clutter up the site with placards and signs.

Here is a video of the technological solution to this brief that Zolk C were able to provide:

John explains further, “Context is one of the key drivers behind pervasive services. Every action and interaction that the user has on the device and with the device is monitored and logged and is being fed into the engine. So we can use this to profile and model what users are doing and what users aren’t doing.

“In that engine as well we have built a positioning algorithm that allows us to fine grain positioning indoors. We are able to take multiple sensors and augment the location information that we are able to get from that and provide a more accurate pinpoint of where you are.

“What we are then able to do for Zolk C is enable them to layer the content and rich media http://and%20image%20files%20for%20example on top of that positional information. They can then provide a bespoke interface for their client which coupled with our location engine is a really powerful tool.

“From that we can predict things. If a user has gone through a museum and has spent the morning looking at the armoury section and as a consequence missed something else in the exhibit we can raise an alert and say something like, “Did you know there was another armoury section behind door B?” for instance. We are able to tailor the experience to individuals. This is real data in real-time that would be relevant to the tour provider.”

A WiFi framework has been added which gives us the benefit of real-time communications. Previously to upgrade a device it would need to be plugged into a PC and synced. Using WiFi all the devices can be upgraded simultaneously in about twenty minutes if they are all switched on and working.

The ability to communicate leads to the possibility of networks forming and from networks communities can form. John explains, “A big thing that is coming down the road is the ability for tour operators or exhibitors to add communities and by allowing users to think they are part of a community it really increases the traction to the website.

“If you were at Culloden say, and you took pictures of your family you would be able to load them into the Culloden community site and then you can share those pictures with other communities that you may be part of such as friends or co-workers. We have been able to allow them to do that quite easily.

“We can do device to device communications and device to server communications as well. For example, if you were to spot a deer on the lawn on your tour you could broadcast out to other devices, “Come look, there’s a deer on the lawn.”

Mobile pervasive services making use of information derived from context – who the user is, who the user is with and what resources are available to the user – will become a tradable commodity for service providers going forward.

As John points out, “To be able to take the relevant data in terms of context, provided targeted advertising based on that content directly to the users will definitely be worth a lot of money.”

Reality Will Provide: The Four Cs Of Journalism

Dave Marash, a proud possessor of a press card for the last fifty-one years, came to speak yesterday at the MA in Journalism speaker series at NUI Galway. The talk was comprehensive and wide reaching. But underlying every comment and observation was Dave’s belief in the truth, and our search for the truth as journalists, scientists, artists, and as ordinary citizens filled with curiosity for the world around as a fundamental force for good.

We excerpted a section from Dave’s talk and he has very kindly rounded it out into a mini-essay for us:

I’ve tried, for the convenience of students (and myself) to boil down ‘The Standards for Journalism’ to a simply-grasped formula: the 4 Cs: These are Correctness, Context, Clarity and Communication.

Correctness means getting it right. As the great ancestor of all of us journalists, Dr. Samuel Johnson put it: a story is of absolutely no value unless it be true. Hence, always be sure that what you think you see is what you did see. That what you think you know is in fact accurate. And, of course, the way to do that is to ask another question. And with every answer that you get, that seems to make sense to you, reality test it with the next person you question. “I’ve been told thus and so, do you agree?”, ad infinitum (or at least until deadline). The principle here is, everything you think you know, test it again, test it again, test it again.

Not for nothing has it always been a basic rule of reporting that nothing exists unless it is verified by a second source (and better if verified by three, four, many sources). The new information universe of billions of single voices is the antithesis of this. The greatness of the interactivity of the ever-more-sophisticated Internet is the wealth of information that it provides. The problem is that it disables almost every way to identify the source, much less verify the accuracy of information. This is why citizen journalism, which is a brilliant addition to the information universe, especially in areas where the “legacy media” have a history of state control or reporter-corruption, is neither the same as, nor a substitute for honorable journalism in the “Old Media”.

The thing about the Old Media and what distinguishes them from the single practitioner is that they have a greater range, because they have much greater resources. They can put one, twelve, twenty-five people on the story, if a story is complex and confusing. And they can afford not to blurt it out day by day. No, they refine and digest what they know and only when they think they finally understand it, do they publish or broadcast.

Because they are institutions, they have the budget to buy time, people, and when they function, journalistic results. But equally important, they are accountable: they have recognizable names, addresses and public identities staked to their credibility. If the New York Times gets a story wrong, it can be punished. But if someone with a cellphone and a masked identity has photoshopped a picture, or misdescribed what the picture seems to show – who’s to be held responsible, or even more basically, who’s to know?

This is a very important limitation of the world of citizen journalism.

Stories are more than what’s happening. Almost everything in the present tense has roots in the past, and aims at some goal in the future. This is Context. To understand the reality of a story, one must know its antecedents, its alternatives, its likely consequences. Interrogations about what’s in front of the reporter must also include questions about what’s behind the statement or event, and where the speaker or the perpetrator thinks he or she’s going. And again, single answers rarely suffice, and even tentative judgments must be repeatedly re-tested.

When we speak of technique, we speak of Clarity and Communication. Journalism is a communications medium. It’s no good if you know all but your consumers don’t get it. So your work must be clear. Your language must be colloquial, ordinary, everyday usage. Your sentences should be short, simple and direct.

If you have to deal with ambiguity or complexity, break the grand thought into its components, and spell it out in a series of short sentences. “On the one hand this. On the other hand that.” With a full stop in between. Makes it so much more digestible. Makes it so much more accessible.

So Clarity is the obvious bold-faced point in the standard of journalism.

Which brings us finally to Communication, and by Communication I mean penetration. Did reality as you proposed it really sink in? Will the story stay with the consumer until tomorrow. We all see and hear news broadcasts many times a day. I, myself am particularly “teflonized” against weather forecasting. Even when I want to know the weather, my brain will not engage. I hear it, but then, a minute later it’s like, “Oh, what did they say?”

In news, if your audience has to ask the “What did they say?” question, it doesn’t matter how clearly you stated it and how well you researched it and how accurately you reported it. Journalism forgotten is nullified. So the effect of communication must be sustained. Make sure that you frame a story, not just in clear language but memorable language. The picture or portrait you paint must be vivid. The argument you make must be not just logical, fair-minded and accurate, but accessible, engaging, enduring.

That’s Communication, and Communication like everything in life lives in time. If your Communications have too short a half-life they might as well never have lived.

An addendum: Our lives, like our stories and their subjects exist in time. Time is the essence of reality. Time is the essence of our lives. Time is the original zero-sum game. We all only have so much of it. And everything we do with our time preempts doing something else. The seduction of the Internet, and I am a guy who spends four to six hours almost every day in front of my computer screen, takes me away from something else. Generally speaking, time spent in virtual reality is time not spent in real reality. We are in danger of developing a generation that knows a lot virtually but has very little real experience. Whose virtual concepts never really get tested in real life. So a lot of bad concepts survive long after a genuine encounter with reality would have knocked them out. Time has become the critical issue for me in journalism.

Reporting complex reality takes time. Telling truths about reality takes time. Absorbing the products of journalism takes time. In the world of 24-hour news, rolling deadlines, instant analysis, the missing ingredient is time, and the missing outcomes are truth and understanding. This is true of the journalism produced by reporters who have barely landed in a place before they are rushed in front of a camera or microphone or keyboard. This is true of the reports which purport to inform in a minute or two. And most alarmingly, this is true of video reports in which the tempo of editing prevents any frame from being left before a viewer for enough time for it to be truly mined for information. These days, we rarely get truly to see any frame, much less to discern its many zones or levels of sigificance and action. And the frames themselves are not selected for what they can reveal, but for what they can proclaim in a rapid montage. Thus instead of images full of information, we are fed a string of images which are iconic, which is to say generic, and are good only for leading the viewer to a conclusion, absent of any evidence to support it.

In other words, the rapid fire of pre-digested images invites, permits no interactivity on the part of the viewer. Not for you at home to question a story and examine its elements. This sort of journalism, and the accompanying or pre-empting contributions of “experts” enforce passivity on the audience. They can accept or reject the arguments, but usually only on the basis of competitive rhetoric and not considered information.

There is a word for what’s happening to today’s journalism: I believe that word is “auto-lobotomy.” And I believe the prevention and the cure are Correctness, Context, Clarity, and Communication.