New media & new ways


It’s over a year since I posted a note (8th January 2007) on this initiative for online learning in developing countries, so I thought I’d check how it is being implemented on the ground. Contrary to the pessimistic views of some within the IT and education sectors, the evidence so far suggests very positive results when the laptops are in the right hands.

Two examples caught my eye. The first project in Peru is in the village of Arahuay (Altitude 2600 metres) with a total population of 742 people. The village is about 100 kms from the capital Lima and the school has just forty six students and 3 teachers. The account of the experience contains substantial detail about implementing the project in June 2007. This includes the opening event when the XO laptops were handed out, the attitudes of staff and parents, the motivation of the children and technical issues, etc. It makes fascinating reading.

What struck me most were the technical and social hurdles that have to be overcome in remote rural settings likke this and the enthusiasm of the teachers – an essential ingredient –  who were supported in the initial phase by the OLPC team.

The other example was a set of photos from Ulaanbataar, Mongolia where pairs of children (see below) were concentrating on using the XO machines on  a project which had just been started.
Two chiildren in Mongolia sharing the use of a XO laptop.

Peter Warren writing recently in Technology Guardian (7th February) warns that security experts fear a growth of spam and internet crime in the developing world through the spread of botnets infecting these cheap PCs like the XO. But haven’t we made it bad enough already in the developed world?

The case studies above from Peru and Mongolia represent very different cultures where the OLPC scheme is being implemented, but they have in common a search for how technology can develop the skills and knowledge of young people for the benefit of their local communities.

If they also provide further opportunities for cybercrime, we indeed need to make sure that computer security issues are addressed worldwide and not just in and for the benefit of the richest developed countries.

[Digital nations in the making: Update Pages 11 & 32 – Use of mobile phones]

When making grant applications for IT and web-based projects, I’ve always been a tad hesitant when it comes to answering the environmental benefits question. Can I really claim, hand on heart, that the intended activities will really bring benefits – for instance by reducing participants’ travel and thus lowering their carbon footprint?

Well, recent studies in Japan – where I have been this month – have come up with some fascinating findings. A survey of 1000 people for Gulliver International, a major used car dealership chain, comparing 2007 with 1997, found that their major areas of interest were now the Internet [74%] and the keitai (mobile phone) [56%].

Details are in an article “Interest wanes in cars” in the Asahi Shimbun (30 January) and include another survey by the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association (JAMA), which showed the numbers of 20-25 year old young men, not owning a car had risen significantly in just four years from 1 in 5 in 2001 to 1 in 3 in 2005 (21% to 32%).

Costs of car ownership, congestion, more urban living and good public transport were all likely causes as well, but the findings show that the car is losing out as a ‘must-have’ status symbol with the young.

On the plane coming home, I did an informal survey myself on these results with two young women, Mikiko and Ayaka, who were in their first year at university studying nutrition. All twenty students in their group had keitai and some like Mikiko had two. No doubt there about the importance they attached to this communication tool for the social networking generation.

“What about the decline in car ownership?”, I asked them. They smiled and nodded in agreement. I could see them asking themselves, “When you’ve got a cool keitai, who needs a car?”

Maybe I can answer those environmental questions now with a clearer conscience!

NOTE: For more on the use of keitai in Japan, see my blog posting exactly a year ago, “Setting standards in the Land of the Rising Sun”

I’ve been offline for blogging for the last three months, but a visit to Seattle and the West coast over the New Year has got me moving again. Moving also between different online and offline communities – united by their close involvement with and use of the web to maintain their activities and lifestyles.

Seattle car drivers I know make good use of online road reports to avoid traffic jams; but in winter the skiers join in, piling into their cars as sites like the North West Avalanche Centre  provide detailed forecasts and hourly data about snowfall, temperatures and risks in the Cascade resorts of Snoqualmie, Stevens Pass and Crystal Mountain, all within reach even after a day’s work.

If you’re not so keen on snow-clad bare mountains, the continent’s West coast has warmer attractions too, as the photos below of sunrises for the first 6 days of 2008 show. (Taken in La Ventana, 30 miles south of La Paz). Day temperatures were up to 27° C.

Five separate sunrises in La Ventana, Baja Peninsula, Mexico in the first week of January 2008.

Visiting Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, a two hour flight from Los Angeles, I met up with members of two partly overlapping communities – the surfers and the windsurfers/kiteboarders. Critically reliant on the power of the waves and the winds, both groups are highly dependent on good advice on weather & wind patterns and accurate websites for up to date information.

 All you need is a laptop or a mobile internet device.  www.Iwindsurf.com for instance provides live windcams  and realtime wind speed and direction graphs for selected areas; while surfline.com carries crucial information on the arrival of swell trains travelling across the Pacific. Both sites have forums and gear sections.

Surfers it is said are a bit more cagey about where to find the best conditions as there is only one ‘sweet spot’ on a breaking wave and will go to great lengths to find uncrowded breaks. The world of windsurfers and kiteboarders seems more open. There’s a hard core of them, very relaxed, who are always meeting up according to Marie-Christine Leclerc, a kiteboard instructor, who winters down south in Baja and travels north for the summer to run her Elevation Kiteboarding School, at Nitinat Lake, north of Victoria on Vancouver Island.

Back in Seattle after the New Year break, the pace is much brisker, at least in the internet start up sector, as I found out when invited to a briefing event at LiquidPlanner.  They are building some innovative online project management and scheduling software with integrated collaborative and social networking tools and were meeting with potential investors. LiquidPlanner aims to capture the uncertainty inherent in projects through the use of ranged rather than point estimates – an idea explored in more detail by Bruce Henry, the company’s “Director of Rocket Science” in a recent blog posting.

“Project management is a social exercise.” Charles Seybold, LiquidPlanner’s CEO told us. “The key for our product is to help people manage uncertainty.” That sounded familiar and not so different from the world of education!  With a fair wind behind them, it will be interesting to see where Charles and his team have got to in 18 months’ time. In the meantime they are launching the product at the DEMO emerging technologies conference in California at the end of this month.
 
 

[Digital nations in the making: Update Page 132 – Search technology]

I wrote in my last blog (9th September) about the use made by Google and others of algorithms in search technology. But wouldn’t it be useful I thought, after completing it, to have a straightforward article explaining exactly what algorithms are and do.

Well I wasn’t the only one because last week’s Economist (13 September) provides exactly that in its three page article, Business by numbers. From distributors to retailers, from airports to booksellers, from carriers to call centres, organisations are using algorithms to crunch masses of data to come up quickly with answers to complex questions.

If amazon.com can use algorithms to tell me other books I might like to buy, maybe adult education bodies or universities could use algorithms to inform their learners of other courses or books they might be interested in after entering a chosen subject.

It’s not happening yet, but don’t let this put you off. With so much data out there, algorithms are ‘bound to take over the world’, according to Mike Lynch, head of software developer Autonomy, which specialises in automated personalisation. Find out more before it happens!

[Digital nations in the making: Update Page 132 – Search technology]

I’ve spent three days this last week at ALT 2007, the annual conference for learning technologists working primarily in higher education. With 196 papers, posters, presentations and workshops to attend, there were plenty of signs of ingenuity and creativity in the sector. The event was well planned and organised by the ALT team, though I was sorry they had not managed to attract more participants from further and adult education.

There were compelling keynote speeches from Michelle Selinger, Cisco’s Global Education Strategist and from Dylan Wiliam, Deputy Director of the Institute of Education on Assessment, but the one that had caught my eye before arrival was the concluding one, “Learning in an Open World” by Peter Norvig, an acknowledged expert in Artificial Intelligence and Director of Research at Google, where he oversees a range of their cutting edge research initiatives. [Update16/9/07: There’s some comment on the details of these keynotes by ALT’s CEO Seb Schmoller in his fortnightly mailing – together with a link to an upcoming interview with Peter Norvig.]

I was interested to hear Peter’s views on current developments in search strategy and algorithm generation, as there’s been quiet beating on the tom-toms on this theme over these last three months. Google claims that it ‘stands alone in its focus on developing the “perfect search engine”‘, but in a New York Times article, ‘The Human Touch that may loosen Google’s Grip’ (June 24th), Randall Stross reported a host of small start ups were kicking at Google’s heels.

He highlighted in detail the case of Mahalo, which is developing a search technique with human editing for improved and more focused results. This was picked up by Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Webspam team who indicated that changes were in the air at Google and was himself reflecting comments earlier in the week from Marissa Meyer, Google’s Vice President (Search Products and User Experience) [Guardian blogs].

In the event the point wasn’t covered in Peter’s speech, so I asked him at the conclusion if he thought user generated content could help to improve and refine their search algorithms, the key instruments of this $160 billion company, now the largest media company in the world. His answer, interesting for its rationale and conclusion is below.

“I think the problem that there is too much information is that there really is that much information. It’s not just a problem of overloading people with the presentations …… No one really cares that there’s a million resolved and they’re not going to go to the end and look at that.

“So the results are up there and really the question is how much time do they have to investigate this area and how much time are they willing to put in; and can we find the good stuff for them in that allocated amount of time.

“And given that, I think there is room for user generated commentary to help that process. To an extent Google has always been driven by user generated content – so there are users who happen to be web masters who publish material, there are other users who are web masters who link between the materials; and that provides sort of codes, that we go on, to judge appropriateness.

“We also go by looking at our users’ address activity to judge what is important and so on. So it’s done by algorithms but all these algorithms have, after inputs, actions that offset the punts of the user.

“Now I think we can use additions to those sources that we’re already using. We can use some more explicit ones – people loading ‘Yes – This is a good site for this topic, or for this keyword, or for this area’; and getting more people than just people who traditionally have had access, network access to try to open up that form to democratise it more, so that other people can put in their voices as well. So that’s an area we are certainly looking at”.

The Economist’s recent article, ‘Inside the Googleplex’ (1 September) chose to use “The Simpsons” TV programme portrayal of Marge Simpson typing her own name into a Google search engine as a sign of the company entering mainstream US culture, but her amazement to find 629,000 results doesn’t quite hit the right note now. Companies like Amazon, epinions and Trip Advisor have been using UGC with marked success for a good few years, so it will be fascinating to see how quickly Google follows the trend and moves in this new direction.

You usually have to be quick off the mark to get tickets to watch the best of Edinburgh’s festival events, but the prize for fast footwork must go this year to South Korea’s B-Boys. Voted a “Fringe First”, this stunning group of dancers was performing an amuse-gueule demo of their art in The Meadows for free last Sunday; and attracted a huge crowd.

Their skills, stamina and acrobatics were stunning. Breakdancers require strength and precision for their breath-taking windmills, towers. locking, freezes, pikes and L-kicks, but what intrigued me most was their synchronised routines – choreographed by Choi Yuh Yeop – of short, rapid body, leg and arms movements. Wasn’t I really watching a speeded up version of one of those early computer animations?

The Ballerina who loves a B-Boy runs til August 24th. So get a ticket if you’ve time as you won’t see such a dazzling display of breakdancing techniques again west of Seoul for a long time.

Two six-footers’ heads and a pop-open mobile phone camera part obscured my view at The Meadows, but you can get a good idea of the B-Boys’ act from the video below.

I’d not been since the 1960s to Crete’s Samaria Gorge, with its history of human settlement stretching back to the 8th century BC. So when our son Barney, who’s taking some time off after 8 years working with the travel company Expedia, agreed two weeks ago that he could join me for some high mountain hiking there, it was a great chance to escape rain-soaked England for a few days.

Only 24 hours out of Manchester we were en route for Omalos in the west of the island. At 1100 metres this mountain plateau is the springboard for the magnificent 16 kilometre descent of Europe’s longest gorge to Agia Roumeli on the south coast and we were eager to be off.

Then came the shock when we stopped at a local taverna. Serving us our lunch, Maria reported that they had just found that morning the bodies of two members of an escorted group of 31 Polish tourists. There had been a massive search of the Gorge for 4 days but without water, the 37 year old brother and his 40 year old sister had been unable to survive the temperatures of up to 45 C.

The walk through Samaria Gorge is strenuous and hot but the 5-7 hour route is obvious enough, with steps and railings, WCs, resting and water points, a medical centre and even a helipad – all provided with the aid of generous EU grants for setting up this National Park.

How I wondered could people in a guided group die or even get lost and we found ourselves piecing together the story and events from people we met and from newspaper accounts. Rumours and theories were initially rife, but over the next 6 days we built up a consistent picture of just what had happened (though a coroner’s report is still awaited).

  • The group leader failed for two days to report that the two were missing.
  • The authorities were told the two were seen in the Samaria Gorge itself; and because of this 4 days were wasted on searching the wrong area.
  • On 26 July the brother was found still just alive by a Greek walker who had decided himself to climb above and away from the Samaria Gorge to the more westerly and dangerous Tripiti gorge.
  • The two made no contact via mobile phone to seek help during their 6 day ordeal – presumably because there was no coverage available.
  • The Greek walker had climbed higher in order to use his mobile phone to get news back to the cafe at the head of the Gorge.
  • The resulting search party found the two bodies early on 27th July after a long night climb; and helped the Greek walker back to safety.
  • It’s a tragic story but will lessons be learnt about support and emergency procedures, staff training, registration and group sizes? Basic mountain craft procedures of counting the group in and out of the Gorge were simply not used and there were the other obvious failings (identified above).

    Nor do the Park’s own control systems appear to have been put in place for checking off all successful descents at the southern exit point of the Gorge. Our own exit control counterfoils (See No 24753 below) were not checked or requested from us by the Park officials at the exit gate despite our early descent on 28 July being only a day after the bodies of the two walkers had been found.

    Ticket for Gorge with counterfoil, not removed.

    Finally there’s a key question about the deployment of mobile phone technology. With up to 800 people being bussed daily into the Samaria Gorge (and perhaps 50,000 in a full season), this is big business and a major income generator for the whole island.

    This area of the White Mountains is no ordinary remote wilderness, but a place of mass tourism where the vast majority of people will not be experienced mountaineers but will have a mobile phone.

    A phone mast on the top of Mount Gigolos above the Gorge at 1964 metres (See photo below) wouldn’t stop mistakes being made, but it would provide coverage for emergency calls for most of the area. Is this too much to ask for to lessen the risks to life in this wild and wonderful walkway?

    Mt Gigolos above the Samaria Gorge - a suitable site for a phone mast for SOS calls.

    Perhaps the EU Commission should be asking this question when next it comes to consider an application for a tourism development project for Crete. In the meantime though if you’re travelling abroad, check out the emergency number you need to use for the relevant country on this website. The number 112 is widely used in Europe but it’s worth checking the details before you go.

    Sadly it would not have helped Marek and Danuta Sawicka last week.

    POSTSCRIPT – 10 August 2007

    Yesterday Polish Radio announced that prosecutors in Wroclaw, capital of Lower Silesia, were investigating the deaths to discover if the travel company which organised the trip had put the two walkers into unnecessary danger.

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