I attended the “Studying Society In A Digital World” conference at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University. They just posted most of the conference slides. I took some pictures and have inserted them next to the link for slides where I had a picture (or a good one!). The conference was very useful and informative: there is a great trend towards sensor driven data sets that, in aggregate, illuminate large complex systems in detailed and surprising ways.
Talks from SenseNetworks and MIT made the vision of a continuous “trail” document assembled by location and biological sensors from every human on earth seem not so outlandish. Samuel Madden from MIT spoke about opportunistic mobile wifi connectivity in moving vehicles. MIT rebuilt the WiFi stack to enable 13ms associations instead of 13 second associations with an access point. The result is that a car with such a WiFi card can drive along Boston city streets and exchange about 200KB a minute with open unsecured access points along the way. Free bandwidth in the city. What do they do with it? They stream live telemetry of a fleet of cabs. The cabs have accelerometers on them and GPS which is reported in almost real time back to a server. Along with the engine computer’s data, they collect a ton of data about traffic and road surface quality. They can see changing patterns in the activity levels of the cabs and infer changing activity at businesses.
A major theme of several presentations was crowdsourcing for science, with talks about ebird.org and galaxyzoo highlighting a distinction between sites that enable a group to collect data (ebird) – with the associated issues of data validity — and those sites that enable a group to annotate data (galaxyzoo) that has already been expertly collected.
Matthew Salganik: Community-Generated and Community-Sorted Information In his presentation Matt made the remarkable connection between deliberative democracy and the cat comparrison site: Kitten Wars. His talk introduced a model for a kind of Am I Hot or Not for political discussions. His group built a web site that helped the student community at Princeton set its priorities for student government. The work has significant implications fo deliberation tools for organizations and enterprises. Unlike systems that simply encourage users to contribute ideas to a potentially long and never acted upon list, this system forces a comparison task that can be performed in one click but demands implicit contrasts and estimation of value. The use of the almost adictive “hot or not” style interface (or more accurately, kittenwars) allows users to decide between, for example, longer hours for the student cafeteria or expanded video rental services, and get presented with their estimate in the context of other’s choices and the opportunity to choose between two things again. After a population has run through a set of pair-wise contrasts a broader sense of the priorities of the community can be calculated.
In my talk, I focused on the idea that information want not to be free or expensive, rather, information wants to be copied. Like DNA, the goal of any string of bits is to make a duplicate copy of themselves. Several technical realities mean that while information may exist on a spectrum from private to public, it only moves in one direction (public) and almost never back. Once made public on the Internet, even if only for a moment, a photo, document, or other digital object is almost certainly to have been copied, indexed, backed up, or replicated. All efforts to delete a digital object once widely distributed is like trying to take wine out of water. This is because all cryptography become brittle over time, most bits end up exposed after they get distributed, and more events trigger widespread distribution of bits than expected (for example, linking a photo, and a location, to a tweet that gets copied to LinkedIn and Facebook, that then appears in an RSS feed and is copied from there to Friend Feed. As it travels, information looses more of the access controls that initially made it relatively private until it is effectively public.
Sadly, no picture for Luis Van Ahn’s talk: however, this presentation was a fascinating review of the capcha and re-capcha services and the new direction of providing translation services as language learning games. Luis Van Ahn invented capcha, felt bad about the cumulative human time wasted by filling out those squiggle word puzzels to get on a web site, and decided to harness capchas to a useful task: text recognition for books. To translate words from bad scans of books that the OCR software fails to recognize correctly, the garbled data is presented to humans, who, collectively, have translated millions of previously unintelligible words. Now, his new project is to expand the small user population of bi or multilingual speakers who can translate between languages. The approach applies the “Mechanical Turk” “human intelligence task” concept to language translation. His language translation service presents foreign language sentences to users with all dictionary words from a simple translation listed below. Users click on best word selection beneath each foreign word. The surprising results: pretty good translations AND users start learning a foreign language!