Emerging Technologies Archives

October 10, 2003

SETI@Home Source Released As "BOINC"

A refinement of the code underlying the popular SETI@Home distributed computing application is now available under the name BOINC -- Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing. This will allow anyone (well, anyone with sufficient programming chops and an available server) to run distributed computing experiments. In effect, it will make supercomputing power available to the masses.

But BOINC is more than the server source code. It's also a client-side program, making it possible for a single user to participate in a variety of distributed computing projects with a single application. It's currently in beta.

This makes me really happy. Not only was SETI@Home the most well-known of the various distributed computing projects, it ran on a wide variety of platforms, including some not normally included in other projects, such as the Mac and SPARC. BOINC continues this tradition, running on Windows 95 and up, Linux/x86 (possibly others to come), Solaris/SPARC, and Mac OS X.

Once BOINC is out of beta, we could see a flowering of interesting distributed computing projects. What can be handled with this method? Anything that requires mathematical analysis of lots and lots of components. Current non-SETI distributed computing projects include protein folding and climate prediction.

October 14, 2003

Public Library of Science

The Public Library of Science -- PLoS -- is a new organization focusing on making scientific literature open and available to the public. Using the Creative Commons license, PLoS journals allow anyone on the Internet to read and reproduce articles for free. PLoS currently publishes two journals, PLoS Biology and (soon) PLoS Medicine.

All very cool, but if reputable scientists and interesting research teams don't use the journals to publish their results, it might take awhile for PLoS to build up any steam. Fortunately, the second issue of PLoS Biology contains an article that has received abundant attention: monkey mind control (warning: 3MB PDF). Researchers at Duke University implanted computer connections into the brains of monkeys, allowing the team to learn the brain signals corresponding to the monkeys using a joystick to control a remote robotic arm. They then disconnected the joystick; the monkeys continued to control the robotic arm via the brain-computer connection. The monkeys quickly realized that they didn't need to move their arms to control the robots. This has obvious implications for adaptive technology for the disabled, and opens the way for more advanced mind-machine interfaces.

The article has received quite a bit of attention in the mainstream media (I mean, how could you not want to learn more about monkey mind control?!?), in turn giving an important boost to the status of open biology movement, and the Public Library of Science.

October 28, 2003

Linux Warriors

Linux -- the open source poster child -- is becoming increasingly popular in the American military. The notorious insecurity and relative instability of Windows can be somewhat more than an annoyance on the battlefield. Linux holds up better under adverse conditions, and can be found embedded in a growing number of small devices. The latest application of Linux on the battlefield is the Army's "Land Warrior" project, intended to define the capabilities, equipment and tactics of the 21st century soldier. Linux will be the OS of choice for the "Commander's Digital Assistant" package, which allows the field commander to coordinate troops, movement, and intelligence. According to an article in the National Defense Magazine, this is part of a larger move to Linux in the Army. CDA Program Manager Lt. Col. Dave Gallop is quoted as saying, “Evidence shows that Linux is more stable. We are moving in general to where the Army is going, to Linux-based OS."

Peer-to-peer, distributed systems aren't just the tools of protesters and activists. The American military has been aggressively pursuing emerging collaborative technologies to help soldiers make flexible, well-informed judgments about battlespace conditions and goals. Each soldier is conceived of as part of a system of units, real-time intelligence sources (such as unmanned aerial vehicles and "smart dust"), both relying on and contributing to "operational topsight." It's useful to recognize that, whatever advantage swarming protesters have at the moment, the military and police forces are also beginning to go emergent, too.

October 30, 2003

Opening up the Open Source concept

It's no secret that we here at have an affection for the "open source" concept*. The idea of making the inner workings of a technology or process not just visible, but accessible, is deliriously seductive to those of us who think that collaborative, democratic approaches can change the world. And, although "open source" is commonly understood to be a software-writing practice, it's clearly meant for bigger and even better things.

To wit: Thomas Goetz's piece in the November issue of Wired, Open Source Everywhere. This is one of the better articulations of just how broadly the idea of open, collaborative, distributed innovation can be used. It begins with a good, solid example of how open source works outside of the software realm, and builds a powerful case for the use of the technique across a wide spectrum of applications. Unlike many relatively mainstream articles about open source, he manages to explain the concept clearly enough for beginners without being patronizing, while still providing sufficient new material for veterans to chew on.

The sidebars to the piece are well worth reading, as well. One of the first, "The Ideals of Open Source," includes this tidbit which, to me, sums up precisely why the open source concept can be revolutionary:

Open source etiquette mandates that the code be available for anyone to tweak and that improvements to the code be shared with all. Substitute creation for code and the same goes outside of software. Think of it as the triumph of participation by the many over ownership by the few.

* Note: By using "open source," we're not taking philosophical sides in the battle between the Open Source supporters and the Free Software movement; if anything, we have a leaning towards the Free Software perspective. Unfortunately, the term "Free Software" is a bit too (a) ambiguous (hence the need for "free like beer" vs. "free like speech" distinctions) and (b) narrow ("free software biotech" doesn't really make sense, for example, and "free biotech" runs into the free vs. free ambiguity). The term "open source" packs more of a semiotic punch.

November 5, 2003


Mischief is often an engine of innovation. Figuring out how to make things do what you want them to do -- not necessarily what the designers want you to do -- is both fun and illuminating. Gibson wrote, "the street finds its own uses for things," and sometimes that use is as a medium for pulling pranks (c.f., "Flash Mobs").

Bluejacking is the latest manifestation of this desire to make mundane tools of communication interesting. In brief, it uses the "bluetooth" short-range wireless protocol built into an increasing number of mobile devices (everything from cell phones to Powerbooks) to send a short message to an unsuspecting recipient. Most of these devices are set to allow the transfer of virtual business cards and the like; "bluejacking" piggy-backs on this, putting pithy comments ("Nice shirt!" "ur cute" etc.) in place of business names and numbers. There's no way for someone to actually take over a remote device in this way -- "bluejacking" sounds more ominous than it really is -- but reactions to having odd little messages popping up on one's cell phone range from amusement to confusion.

The practice is relatively new, as bluetooth has only recently become a commonplace feature on mobiles, and seems to be more common in Europe than in the States. This is not terribly surprising; mobile phones are everywhere in Europe. It also seems to be a habit of the young.

Big Mac

So you want a top-five grade supercomputer, but you don't want to spend a lot of money? Time to call Apple. The 2200-processor cluster of dual-2GHz G5 PowerMacs installed this summer at Virginia Tech is now ranked as the third fastest supercomputer in the world, at 10.3 teraflops, after the 5180-processor Earth Simulator (35.9 teraflops) and the 8160-processor ASCI Q system (13.8 teraflops). Okay, nice, but the real kicker is that the so-called "Big Mac" cluster supercomputer cost just a smidge over $5 million dollars, compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars for #1 and #2.

[Tech aside: a teraflops translates as trillion floating-point operations per second, which is why it's grammatically correct to say "a teraflops," so don't send me email about it, okay?]

Now, not many of us have $5 million to toss around, even for the world's third-fastest supercomputer cluster. Fortunately, the notion of "grid computing" -- using distributed systems to emulate a higher-performance system -- is taking off, and Apple is apparently getting ready to jump that direction, too. The easier that distributed computing gets, the cheaper it gets, the more powerful it gets, the more ways there will be to take advantage of it to figure things out -- climate change, protein folding, etc. -- that can really make a difference.

November 6, 2003

Hive Computing

The idea of linking myriad computers across the net for distributed power is really starting to grab people. The enormous capacity of modern personal computers is wasted on mundane tasks such as web surfing and composing email, yet can be taxed when trying to do something sophisticated like system modeling or data analysis. Distributed computing -- sometimes called "grid computing" or "hive computing" -- lets machines contribute cycles or take advantage of other machines' spare power, as needed.

Robert X. Cringely at PBS has a nice, clear essay about how this all could work, and why it's important.

[...] let's think of what we could do with a hive.  For one thing, we could put a node on every desk, but instead of being limited to the power of your PC, we could have demand ebb and flow such that you could do computational fluid dynamic modeling on your desktop as easily as you could surf the web.  Hives could be cheap adjuncts to Big Iron, or they could replace mainframes completely.  A hive is a network, so why not replace all those Cisco routers with hive nodes that happened to route as needed?  Same for wireless links.  A wireless mesh hive is very interesting.  And there is no reason why we couldn't link hives together until the whole net was just an ocean of computing-on-demand.  Then every school could effectively have a supercomputer, even the high schools.

Ad-Hoc Networks

802.11 -- "WiFi" -- is cool. We love WiFi. W1r3l3ss r0xx0rs. Etc. But it suffers from an occasionally significant limitation: you have to be near a WiFi router to take advantage of it. If there isn't an open WiFi network nearby, tough luck. But... what if your wireless device could discover other wireless devices in the vicinity, which in turn know about other devices, and so forth, until you get to one within range of a WiFi router? You could then pass packets along, using this ad hoc network without actually being in range of a "real" network.

Such a day may soon be upon us. The Networks and Telecommunications Research Group at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, is building out an experimental system for combining a variety of wireless protocols into a city-wide voice and data communications grid -- the Dublin Ad-hoc Wireless Network, or DAWN. With this network, mobile devices from phones to PDAs to laptops could pass packets along a constantly-reconfigured route from user to user, including moving from the DAWN system to the fixed voice and data networks. It's all very experimental and tentative at the moment, but it certainly has some potential.

The notion of ad hoc networks isn't just a laboratory hack. The Cybiko, a $99 handheld game/MP3/PDA/chat system aimed at the teen mallrat market, uses the ad hoc network method to let up to 100 devices trade messages, music, and games at any given time, as long as the various members are within 300' of another network member. The current model doesn't connect to WiFi, requiring a serial connection to a PC to send anything to the Internet at large, but I wouldn't be surprised it that was in the next iteration of the device.

November 20, 2003

The OpenCD

We here at WorldChanging make plenty of references to Open Source Software and the wonderful crunchy goodness therein, but I suspect that most of the people reading this site have never tried out Linux on their own machines, feeling -- perhaps rightly -- that most Linux distributions are not made for mere mortals. While the most popular Linux versions have made great strides in ease-of-use and ease-of-installation, they still have the unpleasant requirement that you reformat at least part of your hard drive to give them a shot.

But open source is more than Linux. Open Source applications actually exist for Windows. Enter the OpenCD.

The OpenCD is a CD (surprise!) containing a wide assortment of useful open source applications, from professional software such as OpenOffice to internet apps such as Mozilla to various utilities for privacy and file management. Not only are they free, they're open source -- the CD contains links to the source code for every program. The latest version of the CD was just released today.

The goal of the OpenCD is to show non-technical users that a software world exists beyond Microsoft and Adobe, without requiring that they give up familiar programs and environments. Best of all, it's freely available, downloadable as an 'ISO' file for burning to CD; the makers encourage users to copy it as often as they like.

If you're curious about this whole open source thing, and want to check out some examples -- or you know someone who is -- this is a good place to start.

November 26, 2003


Diversity is good, particularly when it comes to networked computers. This was the conclusion of a report released in September at the Computer and Communication Industry Association meeting in Washington D.C., and is the subject of a new study funded by the National Science Foundation (and to be carried out jointly by Carnegie Mellon and the University of New Mexico), looking into ways to protect against viruses, intrusions, and other digital menaces.

If we apply the lessons of biology to computer networks -- a sensible approach, given that both have characteristics of complex adaptive systems -- the notion that diverse environments are more survivable than monocultural one makes a great deal of sense. A given bit of hostile code can't spread to every member of a network if the network contains a variety of different operating systems, just as a given tree disease can't spread to every tree in a stand if the forest contains a variety of different species. (Disclaimer/hype: I wrote about this very subject four and a half years ago, in Salon magazine.)

The lesson here for developers of networked, collaborative systems is to be open to diversity. A distributed network which allows varieties of devices (or operating systems) to participate can be more resilient when it is, inevitably, attacked. You may well be able to shrug off an attack entirely. Your members will thank you for your foresight.

December 3, 2003

¡Software Libre Para La Libertad!

Nice Bruce Sterling article in the current issue of Wired about the ongoing transformation of open source software (Linux, in particular) from techie darling to catalyst for regional technological opportunity. He focuses on Extremadura, in Spain:

The features may be mundane, but they add up to something quite new: a patriotic regional operating system. The emailer's logo is a stork, Extremadura's most beloved bird. The word processor is named after a famous local poet. The desktop is crammed with hallowed symbols of the homeland. Extremaduran schoolkids could stand up and pledge allegiance to this thing.

Free software has always been free for the sake of technologists, providing open range for code wranglers and server farmers. Now Extremadura is claiming it for the campesinos. Here, open source isn't about the process of collaborative development or objections to intellectual property. It's about power to the people. The LinEx stork is a direct connection to the global economy.

Unsurprisingly, the proliferation of Linux in the poorer parts of Spain bears a connection (at least in spirit) to the rise of Lula...

December 4, 2003


BoingBoing notes a new program called BadBlue, which lets you view on your work PC material proxy-loaded on your home PC, thereby evading any content restrictions and monitoring one's office may have -- it treats workplace restrictions as damage and routes around it. The main use for this is, unsurprisingly, for adult surfing. While this is of admittedly marginal WorldChanging utility (unless you work in an office which has blocked access to Slashdot), it does remind us of Peekabooty, a similar concept aimed at a very different audience.

Politically repressive regimes fear the free flow of information over the Internet, and censor it with firewalls. Peekabooty is a distributed, peer-to-peer application explicitly intended to bypass national firewalls. In short, it treats political censorship as damage, and routes around it.

Peekabooty is software run by "global-thinking, local-acting" people in countries that do not censor the Internet. A user in a country that censors the Internet connects to the ad hoc network of computers running Peekabooty. A small number of randomly selected computers in the network retrieves the Web pages and relays them back to the user. As far the censoring firewall is concerned, the user is simply accessing some computer not on its "banned" list. The retrieved Web pages are encrypted using the de facto standard for secure transactions in order to prevent the firewall from examining the Web pages' contents. Since the encryption used is a secure transaction standard, it will look like an ordinary e-business transaction to the firewall.

Users in countries where the Internet is censored do not necessarily need to install any software. They merely need to make a simple change to their Internet settings so that their access to the World Wide Web is mediated by the Peekabooty network. Installing the software makes the process of connecting to the Internet simpler and allows users to take fuller advantage of the Peekabooty network.

"Global-thinking, local-acting" people in countries that do not censor the Internet install Peekabooty, which can run "in the background" while they use their computer for their day-to-day work. It doubles as a screen saver that displays its status as well as information about human rights and censortship.

So you're all ready to go and grab a copy of Peekabooty for yourselves, right? Unfortunately, the Peekabooty Project is in a transition from version 1 to version 2 of the software, and no downloads are yet available of the new application. You can be sure that we here at WorldChanging will let you know the minute that changes...

December 8, 2003

Open Source Hardware

WorldChanging readers are well-acquainted with open source software, such as Linux. We've also mentioned other realms in which the open source model is starting to be applied. But today's Slashdot brought a nice reminder that open source can even be brought into the world of material objects.

OpenCores is a project intended to develop a set of hardware designs which would allow a chip manufacturer to build a highly-functional system without having to license expensive proprietary core designs. Finally, after three years of work, OpenCores has come up with a silicon implementation. The OpenRISC 1000 chip is a System-On-Chip microcontroller, meaning that it includes everything from CPU functions to memory interface, data I/O, and networking on a single bit of hardware. SOC chips aren't new, but a design which is completely open is.

Okay, so the OpenRISC 1000 chip isn't all that world-changing, but it is a good example of how people are pushing the open source concept into every realm where information matters. And, as more of the material world takes on characteristics of the digital world, such realms are becoming increasingly common. And that is pretty world-changing.

December 11, 2003

Wireless Net City

The city of Cerritos, in Southern California, will be one big wireless hotspot come January 1st. This means that, wherever you go in the 8.6 square miles of the city, you can be connected to the net. Cerritos is too remote to have full DSL coverage, and too ill-served by its cable provider for cable broadband. The city worked out an arrangement with Aiirnet to provide "802.11 mesh" networking, allowing a given user to remain seamlessly connected to a single network regardless of which particular wireless hub she or he is actually connected to at the moment.

While this will be the first city-wide 802.11 implementation in the United States, the idea is taking off internationally.

(AP reports that the service will be free, but a more detailed report from the Federal Communications Workers journal notes that it will cost $40/month for a 500Kb connection.)

I suspect that the good people of Cerritos are in for quite a surprise. As those of you with Wi-Fi connections at home or work already know, a high-speed wireless connection is a viscerally different experience than a hard-wired link. Rather than thinking of the Internet as something that comes in through a little plug in the wall, wireless users start to think of it as something in the air all around them. Rather than information being something you go to get, it becomes something that comes to you.

Hmmm... it seems to me that an enterprising person could set up little hand-held wireless PocketPC rentals outside of, say, a supermarket, with the devices pre-set with links to various nutrition and consumer information websites. Would immediate access to such data change buying patterns? Researchers, here's a good place to start looking...

December 13, 2003

Network Thinking for Immunization

The traditional approach to immunization policy (an appropriate concern in the U.S. right now, given the current panic over flu shots) typically involves trying to immunize as many people as possible in order to cut down a bug's chances of spreading throughout the population. This doesn't work all that well -- it turns out that, on average, you need to immunize 95% of the population if you're just getting a random sample. While it may be theoretically possible to immunize 95% of a population, the financial and logistical challenges are fairly daunting.

But human societies are not random. We have networks of interaction, easily demonstrated by checking out the various social software websites out there (Friendster and being two of the better-known ones). And when you start thinking about human behavior not as random individuals but as networks, you can come up with new ideas about immunization.

Human networks of acquaintances, computer networks like the Internet, and interacting protein networks in the body, all share a characteristic layout: most of the elements have only a few links to others, while a few individuals have a very large number of links. If one of these highly connected individuals in a human network becomes infected, she can become a "super-spreader," infecting all of her contacts and efficiently distributing the disease. This structure suggests a deceptively simple solution to the vaccination question: immunizing all the super-spreaders in a network slows or stops the spread of a disease as effectively as destroying a country's highway interchanges would stop traffic.

Reuven Cohen and colleagues at Israel's Bar-Ilan University have found that, rather than trying to immunize everyone in hopes of hitting the "super-spreaders," randomly selecting 20% of a population and asking each to name a single acquaintance, the immunizing that acquaintance, is an effective means of focusing in on those most at risk of spreading an infection to a large number of people. With a large enough population, you can even take a smaller sampling and only go after acquaintances mentioned by two or more people and still get great results.

This is a wonderful example of how thinking in terms of social networks can lead to world-changing developments.

December 17, 2003


WiFi-enabled bicycles? Worth a try. Students at New York's Parsons School of Design came up with a novel method of spreading wireless networking to otherwise unconnected locations (such underground subway stations) by rigging up regular bikes with 802.11b access points set to route bits to adjacent bikes until one has a clear Internet signal. The system is still very rough -- it doesn't seem to work when the bikes are moving, and the battery life is pretty lousy -- but I was struck at the willingness of the design students to merge seemingly disparate technologies in order to achieve what they see as a social good (that is, free wireless for everyone).

This also suggests to me that a likely element of the already-arrived (but not yet well-distributed) future is the spread of peer-to-peer systems (technologies and behaviors) into our social and physical infrastructure -- into the very bones and marrow of our societies. "Make the invisible visible" is a good Viridian motto; maybe a good WorldChanging one is "make the networks ubiquitous."

December 18, 2003

Natural-Born Smart Cyborg Mobs

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, one of the authors of the Institute for the Future's Future Now blog, has a well-written and thoughtful essay in this last weekend's Los Angeles Times Book Review, examining Howard Rheingold's Smart Mobs and Andy Clark's Natural-Born Cyborgs. (Free registration is required to get into the LAT site.)

Pang clearly understands the importance of Rheingold's argument, seeing it as more than simply a paean to cellphones and thumb tribes. Smart Mobs describes a vision of how technology changes humans as social beings. Linking it to Clark's less-well-known exploration of how human beings co-evolve with our tools it smart. Clark sees cyborgism not involving the implantation of computer chips into our bodies, but in the ever-closer interaction between human minds and information tools. Pang draws out the contrasts between Rheingold's emphasis on groups and Clark's focus on individuals, letting us see the underlying connections.

Imagine our children carrying — or just as likely, wearing — more computing power than sits on your desk today. Imagine them living with a constant background sense of being connected to family and friends; working and playing in smart mobs; pooling experiences and knowledge with trusted humans and virtual agents; and experiencing the Internet as a deep, abiding presence, sometimes on the edge of their awareness, sometimes in the center, but always there. After a time, their abilities to organize and act collectively will recede into the backgrounds of their consciousness. At this point, smart mobs become another of Clark's technologies — another tool that quietly extends the abilities of humans, shaping our thought but rarely thought about.

I read Smart Mobs earlier this year, and it's an important book. It sounds like I now have another book to get as a companion.

December 19, 2003


Ants are fascinating creatures (except when they're invading one's kitchen, in which case they are simply pests to be dealt with harshly). Individually pretty non-intelligent, the nests nonetheless display behavioral sophistication, usually associated with pheromone patterns. Complex behavior resulting from individually simple actions... could there be a lesson for software programmers?

But of course.

MUTE is a new open source file sharing application, running on Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows. It combines heavy encryption with ant-derived packet handling to allow file-swapping which cannot be tracked via conventional means. It's still rough around the edges (to be generous), but is an interesting reaction to the RIAA crackdown on music sharing.

(This is not an endorsement of music file sharing, although Tim O'Reilly's argument that Piracy is Progressive Taxation is pretty compelling...)

While the anonymized and encrypted file sharing aspects are interesting, what really caught my attention was the use of ant food search patterns as a model for packet handling. Ant searches are perfect examples of complexity theory: simple rules can lead to complex behavior (though watch out for circular mills and emergent failures). MUTE relies on this to build file sharing networks in which no given member can know both who else is on the network and what they have to share. The more participants -- even if you never share or download a file -- the better it works.

This initial version of MUTE is intended as a music file-swapping system, but the underlying logic works in any setting where obscuring both content and path of messages is important. Might be worth downloading while you still can.

December 22, 2003

Distributed Computing Revisited

BOINC, which we linked to and talked about a couple of months ago, was just written up in New Scientist, generating a fresh round of links. (BOINC is an application developed by the SETI@Home crowd as a generic distributed computing platform. It's open source, and set to be released next month.)

For those of you new to the world of distributed computing, it's a method of treating many (hundreds, thousands, even millions) of networked personal computers as a single pseudo-supercomputer. In this way, massive problems involving huge amounts of data can be inexpensively analyzed. It was initially made famous by SETI@Home, which chews on radio telescope data looking for possible signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. SETI@Home functions as a screen saver, only processing its data when your machine is idle. (Because the site lists just how many units of data any individual person has processed (across any number of computers), some folks have written viruses/worms to forcibly install SETI@Home on unsecured machines over the net!)

But BOINC and SETI@Home are not the only distributed computing projects out there. Rather than list them all, I'll just point you to's Internet-based Distributed Computing Projects website, which is the best listing I've found for what's going on, what's coming up, and what you can do to help. There's even a link to a distributed computing chess program, if your computer would rather have fun in its spare time than fold proteins or look for alien life...

December 30, 2003

Wireless for the Masses

If we're certain about anything around here, it's that the future will be wireless. These days, "information wants to be free" has little to do with cost, and everything to do with getting off the leash of an ethernet (or phone) line. Swimming untethered in the infosphere is revolutionary.

If you live in Portland, Oregon or Seattle, Washington, you're lucky: both cities have rapidly-growing open-access distributed community wireless "metropolitan area networks." Portland's is the Personal Telco Project; Seattle's is Seattle Wireless. Both have express goals to cover as much of their respective cities as possible with free (as in cost) 802.11 Internet access. Seattle Wireless describes itself as a "NYASPTWYOMB - not yet another service provider to whom you owe monthly bills."

And it's not just happening in the United States: NZWireless is setting up free community metronets all over New Zealand.

As world-changing as these efforts are, they are adding a layer of roaming information to societies which already have well-established information and communication technology institutions. But what about the developing world?

Onno Purbo, an Indonesian IT specialist, believes that wireless technologies should be part of a developing world strategy to build out both information and communication systems. In Indonesia, he has helped construct a system combining both WiFi and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technologies. Relying in part on Free Software-based servers, his system allows a rapidly-growing number of people to make cheap (or free) phone calls and access the Internet. What's more, he's made tutorial files on building a bottom-up ICT infrastructure freely available on his website (alternative link) (sadly, they're mostly in Word and Powerpoint formats).

January 5, 2004

101 Ways to Save the Internet

Does the Internet need saving? The proliferation of viruses, spam, and music-industry lawyers suggests that it does. But many suggested solutions to these (and other) online problems tend towards the top-down. Wired has come up with an only-partially tongue-in-cheek list of ways of making life better for the still-growing numbers of people getting online. They're not all winning ideas, but enough of them are sufficient compelling that somebody is going to make a fortune/be seen as a hero/both implementing them...

Some tasty examples:

4 Appoint Larry Lessig to the Supreme Court Is he a Democrat or a Republican? Who cares! Laws governing information flow are the new affirmative action, abortion, and gun control rolled into one.

17 Let a thousand Wi-Fis bloom Open spectrum is the new open source.

19 Make privacy a personal asset Canada has it already: a law that prevents firms from consolidating all customer information after a merger.

32 Build friend-of-a-friend filters Think of it as Friendster for your inbox. Everyone on our list can email everyone on yours, but outsiders have to fill out those annoying SpamCop forms.

33 Create a P2P email program We directly trade MP3 files, instant messages, and now phone calls without the bother of backend servers. So why not email messages?

42 Replace servers with P2P Too many network services - domain names, Web servers, email - rely on the old client-server model, which is vulnerable to attack.

97 Celebrate diversity With nearly every computer on the planet running Windows, Outlook, and Explorer, it's too easy for a single virus to spread everywhere.

(Via Future Salon blog)

Visualizing Connections

One of the odder little bits of a typical Google results page has to be the "Similar pages" link for every hit. Clicking on it generates a list of other sites which usually (but not always) have thematic connections to the original. The Similar pages link for, for example, quite reasonably points to Viridian Design and Weblogsky (our own Jon Lebkowksy's personal blog), but also to the Amazon link for Nick Hornsby's book High Fidelity. Huh?

Still, exploring the corridors of iterated similarity you get on Google is a good way to spend an afternoon. That's what makes the TouchGraph Google Browser so much fun. Entering a URL lets you see a graphical map of its various "Similar pages" links, as well as the pages similar to those pages, and so forth. It's Java-based, so it presumably runs on anything able to run JRE 1.3+, with typical Java alacrity.

Once you have your initial map, you can then start building out the maps of similar sites, even adding seemingly-disparate links until you find connections. Surprises are common. TGGB is an amusing way to spend the day, yes, but also a useful tool for seeing links that you may otherwise miss.

January 12, 2004

Mapping the World

The era of ubiquitous always-on wireless networks accessible through mobile personal devices (less buzzwordy version: being able to communicate and get on the web everywhere and at any time via something you carry or wear) is just beginning, and we're now starting to see glimpses of what this world will look like. One of the more intriguing emerging technologies is collaborative mapping. The notion is that people don't just want to know where something is (and how to get to it), they also want to know what other people think about it (and how reliable those opinions are).

MUDLondon is one approach to this model. It's an odd mix of very old-school text adventure ("You are in a 10x10 room. There is a door to the North. It is closed. There is a passageway to the east. You see a goblin in the room." "Go North." "The door is locked. The goblin attacks you. You have died."), WIKI, and an underground city guide. Eschewing any fancy GPS location finding, it relies on contributors to identify and update which roads lead from which parts of the city as well as what you may find in various locations. As you may expect, it's done with more than a little attitude:

the user is encouraged to connect new places to the model, augmenting it with his or her own mental map, annotating with descriptions, known postcodes (which are automatically converted and cross-referenced with other grid location data). ref erences to external URLs, reviews etc can be added and annotated in the RDF model.

MUDLondon is accessible over instant-messaging clients Jabber and AIM -- the latter meaning that a number of wireless handheld devices can talk to it.

The MUDLondon website includes links to a variety of collaborative-mapping efforts as well as to some of the underlying technology proposals. Right now, this technology is primarily text-based, but one can easily imagine how graphical maps and photo-cameras can add visual appeal in the months and years to come. Moreover, the implications of this sort of tool are pretty huge. Annotated maps and guides, layers of data about locations around you, the ability to leave messages for other visitors... and adding in cheap GPS systems gets around the more tedious aspects of entering in which roads lead where and would allow users to focus on the fun parts -- telling other people what they know.

January 16, 2004

Top Activist Open-Source Tools

Over at Many2Many, Clay Shirky points us to 10 Open Source Tools for eActivism, from the Democracy Online Newswire. The essay, written by Dan Bashaw and Mike Gifford, details a variety of programs for collaboration and communication available to people trying to make a difference in the world. They range from tools for online publishing, newsletter and mailing list management, discussion forums, even tools for quickly distributing posters. (Warning: as of the time of this posting, the links in the essay to the various tools seem to have a garbage character at the end of the URL; if you try to hit the links on the page and get an error, try deleting the "%20" at the end of the address.)

All of the programs listed are free (cost), and most are licensed under the GPL (GNU General Public License), making them philosophically "free" as well.

Free collaborative/creative tools and the activist community have a natural connection. Such applications are mechanisms for spreading news and ideas which, by their nature, also spread the ability to disseminate news and ideas to an ever-larger audience. To mangle an ancient metaphor, they are the software equivalent of giving a person a fish that, when eaten, teaches that person how to fish and where to find a fishing pole.

UPDATE: Jon Stahl's Journal links to this post, and adds some useful comments based on Jon's own experiences with some of the software mentioned in the article. He also suggests a few other useful tools, in particular a couple of non-Free but still useful membership and relationship management applications. Go read what he has to say.


I was trolling ThinkCycle this morning, and came upon an old link for Dan Luke's Radiocar proposal. It's a concept based on car-sharing, and it doesn't yet exist -- but could. The writeup of Radiocar is heavy on scenario and short on business plan, but it's still a pretty cool idea:

“Radiocars are located throughout the city, so when I need to go somewhere, I can see the location of nearby Radiocars on my GPS equipped PDA. I can reserve any available car at which point I walk over to it, use the Bluetooth on my PDA to gain access, get in, and drive away. It’s like having your own private fleet of taxis except you’re the taxi driver. But it’s more than just this. Radiocar has partnered with transit services. They’ve been able to put all surface transportation under one digital umbrella so that whenever you need to get from point A to point B, you can see the locations of not only Radiocars, but also, busses, trains, and boats. You can input two coordinates and get back data showing the most efficient way to reach your destination according to where various modes of transportation are located relative to your location when you query the system."

The scenario addresses many of the more obvious concerns about Radiocar, including privacy issues and how to make sure the used cars don't get scattered all over the place. There are elements of the scenario that seem a bit off -- the pricing is way low, for example -- but it's a nice example of how ubiquitous wireless networks could be used to promote new models of social interaction.

February 4, 2004


If you've been on the Internet for more than just this last year, you'll remember the ubiquitous and annoying pop-up ads for wireless video cameras. Advertised as a method for seeing who's at your door or providing a bit of quick & dirty security, the pop-ups often implied that what you'd really use them for is spying on the neighbors. Well, it turns out that lots of people have purchased wireless video cameras, and the dirty little secret is... they really do use them for quick & dirty security.

This, at least, is the discovery of the "warviewers," techies with the appropriate pieces of hardware to pick up wireless video signals on the run and the time and interest to actually seek out such devices. Warviewing (or, more commonly, Warspying) involves seeking out the unencrypted, unshielded broadcasts the cameras transmit, usually by walking around with an antenna, receiver, and display. So far, what the warviewers are finding in their (completely legal, if a bit odd) excursions are a lot of cameras pointing at doors, lobbies, and freeways.

Okay, so wandering around hoping to see something more interesting than the UPS delivery guy on camera isn't exactly world-changing, but it's interesting to think about the parallels between open-access wireless networks and open-access wireless cameras, especially as WiFi-based cameras begin to replace the older "X-10" type. Could it be that allowing anyone to see what the camera sees is socially beneficial? Does having wireless (and accessible) cameras mounted in semi-private/semi-public locations reduce privacy or increase our safety by letting us watch each other's backs? It may be that open-access wireless video cameras are less a tool for voyeurism and more a tool for participatory transparency. It may even become something of an update on the group Witness, which provides video cameras to people fighting for human rights.

February 10, 2004

"Feral" Robotic Dogs

A couple of years ago, I got to spend a few months owning/operating an AIBO, one of those Sony robotic dogs. It was a surreal experience -- it behaved just enough like a real dog to make me feel odd whenever I treated it like an electronic toy. As a substitute companion it wasn't all that compelling (at least for me), but as a demonstration of how sophisticated independent robotics has become, it was fascinating.

If only I had been more of a hardware hacker, I could have done something more exciting with the AIBO than let it chase a pink ball. For example, Yale engineering students use toy-robot dogs as platforms on which to build pack-based mobile environmental sensors:

The feral dogs have a simple communication system added in their adaptation, that allows the coordinate behavior of a pack. The dogs will cover different portions of a terrain (maintaining a radius) for effective space filling, but will converge if one dog gets a particularly strong signal. This functionality is intended to provide information that is displayed in a form that is legible to diverse participants i.e. the movement of the dogs. The dogs paths provide immediate imagery to sustain discussion and interpretation of an otherwise imperceptible environmental condition of interest (e.g. radioactivity; air quality issues and the re-opening of English powerstation; class-based environmental discrimination). Because the dog’s space-filling logic emulates a familiar behavior, i.e. they appear to be “sniffing something out”, participants can watch and try to make sense of this data without the technical or scientific training required to be comfortable interpreting a EPA document on the same material.

The animal-like behavior, then, becomes a mode of communication -- we interpret the actions of the pack of mobile sensors the way we would a pack of dogs.

The Feral Robotic Dog project is an ongoing series of classes, but the instructional material is all available online. If you have one of the various models of toy-robot dogs, and were wondering just how you could make it do something more than sit up and bark, here's your answer.

February 12, 2004

Unhappy Objects

Nice brief posting over at the Future Salon blog about RFID tags, the little radio-responsive chips increasingly used by companies such as WalMart to keep track of inventory. It's not a full-blown proposal, more of an insightful observation, but it does push me to think about what kind of relationship I'd like to have with my immediate surroundings:

Suppose my coffee cup had a sensor in the bottom, a battery in the handle, and the knowledge that if it starts out full of hot liquid and winds up, 4 hours later, full of cold liquid, it should be deeply unhappy and attempt to complain loudly and vociferously.

We could have an RFID-based system running in the house that looks for all the unhappy objects.

More generally, if my objects had a notion of home (or if the system had a notion of home), wouldn't life be wonderful. Suppose I could tell my house: the date/calendar book should be near the suitcase. And the suitcase should be in the bookcase near the front door.

Such a system would be quite useful for those of us who seem to have a genetic propensity towards clutter.

February 23, 2004

Flash Mob Computing

FlashMobComputing -- two great memes that taste great together. Flash mobs, as world-changers out there should know, are wireless/web-driven insta-gatherings-cum-performance art. Grid computing -- aka swarm computing or, by extension, mob computing -- combines the computational power of dozens or hundreds or thousands of small, personal computing devices into a single supercomputer. FlashMobComputing is, therefore, a random, web-driven gathering of people bringing computing devices to be used to create an ad-hoc supercomputer.


You are invited to join us in Koret Gym at USF in San Francisco from 10pm - 4pm. Bring as many computers as you can and we'll give you everything you need to jack-in and add your computers' firepower to FlashMob I, and hopefully make history. The more people that come the bigger a supercomputer we can create. Everyone who participates will receive a T-Shirt, immortality on this site, a certificate and a badge to put on your computer in recognition of having created one of the fastest supercomputers on earth. Plus they'll be prizes, contests, special guests, and lots of fun throughout the day.

PCs only, though, so my Aluminum Powerbook can't help it along...

February 24, 2004

Technical Volunteers, Design, and the Developing World

Justin wrote to tell us about a conversation at about what individuals can do in response to problems -- often very big problems -- in developing and war-torn nations. Few people have the resources or opportunities to devote their lives to helping others; Justin asks, in the comments, "is there a way to help human rights without full-scale immersion — that is, without going over there, cutting off links with your family and friends, and dedicating your life to it?"

This question turned into its own discussion at, a discussion which includes some very WorldChanging-style links to organizations dedicated to making things better one volunteer at a time. Thinkcycle -- a group we posted about early on -- is mentioned, as is a South African program for building an Open Source school administration infrastructure, SchoolTool. One of the most intriguing links in the discussion, however, is to a site called Design that Matters, a Massachusetts nonprofit which links NGOs, underserved communities around the world, and university engineering and business students.

Started at MIT in 2000, some of the projects DtM has undertaken include Cholera treatment devices, an incubator for premature infants that works without electricity, and a "Cree Talking Toy" -- a device designed to help Cree and other Native American children learn their native languages. Design That Matters is definitely a WorldChanging organization to watch -- and help out, if you can.

Thank you for the suggestion, Justin!

March 17, 2004

Digital Curb-Cuts

The Tech Bloom needs to be accessible to all users. It's not, at least not yet; Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) are an ongoing challenge for blind computer users. I worked at UC Berkeley's Disabled Students' Program for several years, providing computer support for many disabled members of the UCB community (students, faculty, and staff), and I saw first hand how the shift from DOS to Windows made life difficult for blind users, as the screen reading programs which worked very well in the text-oriented DOS world were worse than useless in the multiple-window, multiple-task Windows world. Few blind users tried Macs, as Apple's efforts to make the interface accessible to people who couldn't see were half-hearted, at best.

Although the technologies for visual-impairment-accessibility for Windows have improved in the subsequent years, the solutions are largely bolted-on, and few Windows developers have the resources (or even awareness of the issue) to purchase an expensive add-on to test software compatibility. On the Mac side, however, Apple is now (finally) working on a Spoken User Interface for Mac OS X, built into the operating system itself. It's not yet available, but is intended to be part of the next major version of OS X (which would be 10.4, likely due out early next year).

Chances are you're not blind, and you probably don't even know someone who is. Why should this be important to you? Because accessibility improvements nearly always make life better for all users, not just those with specific impairments. Just like entry ramps and curb-cuts, designed for people in wheelchairs, are great for anyone pushing a stroller or cart (or have difficulty with stairs), computer interface improvements intended for those with disabilities can be of enormous value to anyone who could make use of a different mode of computer interaction. You could have the computer read important email aloud when you're not nearby, for example, or verbally identify windows you've clicked on as a way of cutting through on-screen clutter.

For aging populations, with the corresponding degradation of visual capabilities, having a Spoken UI as an alternative will shift from a convenience to a necessity. And let's not forget the illiterate. While the Spoken UI in OS X is undoubtedly English-only for now, there's no reason why a verbal interface couldn't work in any language. I am hopeful that Microsoft will once again take a cue from Apple and begin work to build good screen reading technology into the heart of Windows.

People shouldn't have to change to accomodate computers; computers should be improved to accomodate people. And as the Tech Bloom spreads, it should be able to embrace everyone. That wouldn't just be fair, it would be positively worldchanging.

Jesse Black adds, in the comments:

I work in this field ( and could probably go on for pages, but I'll just touch on one point and offer some links. As obliquely noted in this blog, the blindness market is a small one, so that innovation in the private sector almost inevitably comes with a high price tag. It will be interesting to see how comprehensive the integrated Mac screen reader will be, because the leading resources for the PC environment (Window-Eyes and JAWS) are still very expensive ($500-$1000 I believe). There is a great company called Choice in the U.K. trying to meet the challenge of low-cost adaptive tech. Check out As with anyone trying to provide low-cost alternatives in a difficult-to-reach market, the challenge for Choice is distribution. So spread the word!

Another cool company to check out: They're thinking about access to materials online in very interesting ways including a read-it-aloud tool that works on either whole pages or just highlighted tools, a speedy convert-to-text-only tool for websites, and, coolest of all, a tool that makes your website accessible by telephone by interpreting the HTML into menus and dynamically generating them over the phone using high-quality text to speech. I never thought I'd say that an automated telephone answering service was cool!

Thanks, Jesse!

March 24, 2004

Making the Connections

Environmental sustainability. Energy independence. Information and communication technology. Development. These issues are inextricably linked. By ignoring the centralized models of the past and moving directly to the decentralized, networked models now emerging, developing nations can leapfrog -- build infrastructures which are more powerful, more efficient, and more sustainable than many of their more "advanced" neighbors. This isn't just the argument we make here at WorldChanging, it's the conclusion of a UN task force working under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme.

A United Nations Environment Programme Task Force on Information & Communication Technology and Renewable Energy for Sustainable Rural Development conducted its third meeting at the Neko Tech Center in Ada, Ghana.

Building upon its work in Paris, Delhi, and on-going field work from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the Task Force found that:

* Renewable energy enables rapid deployment of reliable affordable electricity in rural areas, a prerequisite for accelerated national development;

* Information and communications technologies are essential to enhancing rural health, education, government, entertainment and enterprise, and to participating actively in the global economy; and

* Deployed in harmony, renewable energy and information/communication technology mutually reinforce the cost effective deployment of basic infrastructure and enable new livelihoods, social empowerment, and environmental security (emphasis added).

UNEP is an interesting group. Although it clearly has its share of bureaucratic afflictions, it appears to be a startlingly useful information resource for those of us trying to integrate environmental concerns with the drive to improve conditions in the developing world. The Division of Technology, Industry, and Economics has numerous guides for businesses in the developing world (and in the developed world, too) looking to become more environmentally sustainable. The Environment and Sustainable Technologies database resource -- listing 86 different databases covering everything from an EU knowledge base on renewable energy to low-cost appropriate technologies (and that's just in the "A" section) -- looks to be weeks worth of WorldChanging postings alone!

March 29, 2004

Simputers Now Available

We've mentioned the Simputer before -- a simple-to-use, rugged, hand-held computer intended for users in the developing world -- but always with a "coming soon" caveat. Well, caveat no more: after three years of development, the Simputer is finally available.

Starting at a bit less than $250, users get a Linux-based handheld with a variety of useful built-in applications (including an RSS reader!). The screen is touch-sensitive, allowing for writing or drawing directly into programs; the mid-range and high-end versions also have a motion sensor to allow for gesture navigation, such as rocking the device to "turn the page." The tech specs are decent, if not outstanding.

What's particularly cool about it is that Simputer users can switch between English and a couple of different Indian languages. The Simputer is clearly built with an Indian audience in mind; it isn't simply a global version of Linux (or Windows) with some Hindi window-dressing slapped on. Even if the technology is neither the most advanced around nor the least expensive available, it has a good chance of success for this reason alone.

April 1, 2004

Linking Free Culture

Lawrence Lessig rocks. We've written about Lessig's Creative Commons license here before (and really should get around to getting one set up for WC), and his 2002 book The Future of Ideas reshaped my understanding of the nature of the online world. His new book, Free Culture looks like it will be equally as informative; now I just need to figure out which version to read.

Like Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Free Culture is being simultaneously released in print and online. What's more, the online version, originally a PDF, can now be found in a multiplicity of formats, including as an audio book read by bloggers. But one of the most interesting versions of Free Culture involves WorldChanging ally Taran Rampersad, of KnowProSE.

The Free Culture Link-o-Rama at takes the existing HTML version of the book and adds links within the text to pages and resources around the web. The growing list of links ranges from body piercing to Thomas Edison, with stop at the FCC, Girl Scouts, and the Supreme Court along the way. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the links go to Wikipedia; fortunately, it's a good resource.

At this point, not quite half of the chapters have been linked; more work is needed. If you're feeling like exercising your mad HTML skillz, they could use your help. At the very least, it'll give you an excuse to read the book.

April 13, 2004

Collaboration Manifesto

Eugene Eric Kim of Blue Oxen Associates has written a "Manifesto for Collaborative Tools," published both online and in the May 2004 edition of the programmer publication Dr. Dobb's Journal. In this manifesto, Kim argues for a few simple rules intended to improve collaborative software. Some are based on lessons learned from the classic work of Doug Engelbart, and some are derived from newer experiences. He gives plenty of examples of how these concepts can be built into collaborative software. But while his focus may be on the applications, his ideas apply much more broadly.

  • Be people-centric. This applies both to how we design our tools, and how we market them.

  • Be willing to collaborate. We all belong to a community of like-minded tool developers, whether or not we are aware of it. Working together will both strengthen this community and improve our tools.

  • Create shared language. Our tools share more similarities than we may think. Conversing with our fellow tool builders will help reveal those similarities; creating a shared language will make those similarities apparent to all. As a shared language evolves, a shared conceptual framework for collaborative tools will emerge, revealing opportunities for improving the interoperability of our tools.

  • Keep improving. Improvement is an ongoing process. Introducing new efficiencies will change the way we collaborate, which in turn will create new opportunities to improve our tools.

    Finally, never forget Doug Engelbart's fundamental tenet: Computers should help us become smarter and work together better. Remembering this will keep us on the right track.

  • Replace "tools" with "movements" (and "tool builders" with "activists") and Kim's argument clearly applies to not just to those who are making the technology, but also to those who are using the technology to build a better world.

    May 11, 2004

    Civic Space

    WorldChanging ally Jon Stahl encourages us to keep an eye on CivicSpace, a continuation of the DeanSpace project assembled for the Howard Dean campaign. It's an attempt to build a web toolkit for organizing grassroots action (and we mentioned its existence, but few of the details, back in April).

    They'll be rolling it out in mid-June, but the site now gives a preview of what they intend to provide to users:

    • Create a customizable community driven website with Blogs, Photo Galleries, User Profiles, Friend / Buddy Tracking, Polls, and File Storage
    • Send targeted email
    • Import and aggregate remote content, share users, and sync calendars with any other CivicSpace site
    • Manage your groups membership and contacts
    • Organize events, ride sharing, and RSVP
    • Collaboratively create, edit, and publish documents
    • Easily create discussion forum / mailing lists
    • Allow you to create forms and surveys for data collection
    • VoterID/GOTV

    It looks to be a good draft of a web-based activist movement toolkit.

    May 18, 2004

    Predicting Whiplash Climate Change

    Just in time for the release of the movie "The Day After Tomorrow," the distributed computing project has added a new experiment to its ongoing climate model work: the Thermohaline Circulation experiment.

    In this experiment we impose a reduction of the THC consistent with earlier experiments with the Hadley Centre coupled model and study the atmospheric response. The current phase of the project uses the Hadley Centre atmospheric model in conjunction with a simplified thermodynamic ("slab" ocean) which comprises a single layer ocean with prescribed heat and salinity transports. We impose surface fields which reflect the fully-coupled model's response to an imposed THC slowdown. The experiment is thus consistent with previous coupled model work with the same model at the same resolution. The essence of our THC experiment is to look at how the atmosphere would respond to such changes in the ocean, given a THC slowdown.


    Accounting for model uncertainty in climate prediction is still in its infancy, but recent years have seen considerable progress with the development of the first “perturbed physics” ensemble forecasting systems for the analysis of the response to anthropogenic (CO2) forcing. This project will be the first to extend the perturbed-physics ensemble methodology to study the role of the hydrological cycle in possible rapid climate change.

    See here for a discussion of how distributed computing works. has over 50,000 participants as of today. Unfortunately, the software they use is only available for the Windows platform. Unix-based systems (like MacOS X) and Unix-like systems (like Linux), which tend to run these sorts of apps particularly well, can't participate. Hopefully someone will put together a distributed climate simulation using BOINC!

    May 23, 2004

    Citizen Lab

    Citizen Lab is an interdisciplinary laboratory based in Toronto, Canada, looking at the intersection of digital media and civic activism. Functioning something as a DARPA for digital freedom, Citizen Lab serves as a seed-bed for a variety of very cool and interesting projects focusing on identifying, analyzing, and resisting efforts to censor and lock down information networks. Citizen Lab is the umbrella for a couple of other ongoing projects, Infowar Monitor and the OpenNet Initiative. Infowar Monitor, run in cooperation with the Cambridge Programme for Security in International Society, is a good resource if you're interested in ongoing developments in information and network-centric warfare; OpenNet Initiative, run with CPSIS and with the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, looks more closely at censorship and surveillance.

    The main site is a blog-like listing of updates about net surveillance, censorship, and the like, pulled from both mainstream and niche sources, along with links to its various projects. Aside from Infowar Monitor and OpenNet Initiative, Citizen Lab is also working on a project called "Rhizome," which will "remotely interrogate the networks of censoring countries and securely transfer the results to a database node network for analysis and storage" (responding to the fact that most filter systems, both commercial and governmental, keep the lists of what they censor secret), and a project called "Psiphon," a distributed proxy project to allow computer users in controlled regions to surf the web freely. If this latter one sounds familiar, it's because another project, Peek-a-Booty, took a similar approach. Peek-a-booty, unfortunately, appears to be dead; its site hasn't been updated since December, 2003.

    For an infowar and sousveillance geek like me, the Citizen Lab site provides hours of fascinating reading. But one of the most powerful Citizen Lab-supported efforts linked from the site has little to do with computer networks, and will be compelling stuff for many WorldChanging readers. The Kandahar Chronicles tell the story of the day-to-day life of a Médicins Sans Frontières worker in Kandahar, Afghanistan, from August 2003 through February 2004. Good stuff.

    June 8, 2004

    Chinese Wikipedia

    For the 10th anniversary of China going online, PCWorld has a fascinating report about the growth of the "Chinese Wikipedia." Wikipedia is the collaboratively-edited online encyclopedia, with over 260,000 entries in English (and over 600,000 entries across 50 languages). (We've talked about wikis and Wikipedia before.) The Chinese Wikipedia, which uses the simplified mainland Chinese characters, now has 9,000 entries, including such potentially-sensitive topics as Tiananmen Square.

    So far, the Chinese Wikipedia, which has been around since 2001, has managed to avoid being censored or firewalled off by the Beijing government. This could be because officials aren't yet aware of the project, or because the editors take great pain to keep the entries neutral in presentation.

    One reason why Chinese Wikipedia has not been blocked by Chinese censors may be the site's insistence that all entries reflect a neutral point of view, a policy that defines all Wikipedia versions in other languages. The neutral point of view is intended to avoid editing wars between contributors competing to impose their interpretation of various subjects on other readers.

    "The site is not blocked en masse at the site level because its not obviously pro or against anything because of the neutral point of view policy," says Andrew Lih, an associate professor and director of technology at the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Center.

    Perhaps. I suspect it's more likely that the government simply isn't yet paying close attention to the Wikipedia and its implications. I visited China in 1997, a time when many local officials were hungry to get their communities hooked onto the Internet. At that time, the desire to take advantage of what the online world had to offer (in both business and information) wrestled with the fear of the wild, chaotic nature of the net. In the subsequent seven years, this struggle for balance has not let up. The Chinese Wikipedia could well be a "canary in the coal mine" for Chinese online freedom, and is definitely worth watching.

    (Via Many-to-Many)

    June 9, 2004

    Free Software Is Not About Money

    Simon Phipps, Chief Technology Evangelist at Sun Microsystems, attended the just-concluded FISL conference -- the 5th International Forum on Free Software -- in Porto Alegre, Brazil. His blogged reports from FISL are brief, but interesting, and one in particular stands out: "FISL: A Government that Gets It."

    They understand the real issue - it's about sovereignty. They no longer want to funnel Brazil's wealth abroad when they have a growing and excellent software community of their own. They want local people to provide service and write software for the government and industry. They want local skills to enrich the F/OSS world and build exportable skills. They have a vision for how to both enrich the culture and skills of their country while creating a power-house for the export of services in the future. They get it.

    We couldn't agree more.

    June 11, 2004

    Personal Panopticons, Only $400

    DejaView GlassesDon't say we didn't warn you. According to C|Net, the consumer electronics company Deja View will soon begin production on a wearable camcorder design. The system constantly buffers the last 30 seconds of whatever you're looking at, and can save the buffer to permanent storage at the press of a button.

    Anyone who dismisses this item because of its obvious limitations (bulky camera and cable, clumsy belt-pack storage, 4 hour battery life, 30 second buffer, no ability to wirelessly send signals, no ability to play back recordings on the spot) hasn't been paying attention, and should be cursed to wander the Earth using circa-1990 cellular phones and video cameras. This version is ugly, ungainly, and far too limited -- but it's a harbinger of things to come. We're close to the era of "Personal Memory Assistants," and should start thinking now about what we do and don't want them to be able to do.

    (Via engadget)

    The Economist On Open Source Biology

    This week's Economist has a detailed article on the use of open source methods in the world of bio-pharmaceutical research. It's currently available without registration or subscription, and I highly recommend that you go read it.

    We've talked about "open source biotech" a number of times in the past (see in particular "Open Source Biology" and "Democratizing DNA", and more broadly "Redistributing the Future" and "Open the Future"), but this article approaches the idea from a somewhat different perspective, focusing on the (relatively) narrow issue of drug research:

    Open-source research could indeed, it seems, open up two areas in particular. The first is that of non-patentable compounds and drugs whose patents have expired. These receive very little attention from researchers, because there would be no way to protect (and so profit from) any discovery that was made about their effectiveness. [...]

    The second area where open source might be able to help would be in developing treatments for diseases that afflict small numbers of people, such as Parkinson's disease, or are found mainly in poor countries, such as malaria. In such cases, there simply is not a large enough market of paying customers to justify the enormous expense of developing a new drug.

    The article discusses the challenges of adopting an open source-style research method, from logistics to issues of patents vs. copyright (in short: copyright makes it easier to put "reciprocal openness" requirements on a collaborative creation, while patents generally work better as "public domain"), but strongly supports the idea that expansion of the open source methodology would be a good thing -- no "open source terrorist" boogeymen appear.

    It's very clear that the open source meme is taking hold in the world of bio-pharma research as symbolizing doing work that needs to be done without worrying about bottom-line demands:

    Dr Lansbury refers to the work as “not-for-profit drug discovery”, but he sees direct parallels with the open-source approach. For one thing, his group places much of its data in the public domain. Secondly, though the research is mainly happening among different research labs within the confines of Harvard at the moment, the goal is to involve other scientists around the world. Only through this sort of collaborative, distributed approach will treatments be found for these diseases, he says. As for the intellectual property that may be created, the goal is to use patents only to license treatments cheaply to pharmaceutical companies to ensure a supply of drugs at low cost. But the most important thing is to discover the drugs in the first place—something commercial drug-development seems unable to do.

    Open source, the idea, is bigger than software, is more than an alternative economic/production model. Read the article, and ask yourself: in what other realms of research and development could the open source concept be applied?

    June 14, 2004

    The Canary's Dead

    On June 8, I posted an article about the Chinese-language version of Wikipedia, the online collaborative encyclopedia. I finished the article by suggesting that its continued availability in mainland China could be due to the Beijing government not yet being aware of it, and that "The Chinese Wikipedia could well be a 'canary in the coal mine' for Chinese online freedom." Little did I know that the canary was already dead.

    According to IT, Chinese censors shut down all access to the Chinese language version of Wikipedia on June 3, and cut access to all forms of Wikipedia (regardless of language) yesterday. A Chinese contributor to Wikipedia quoted in the article says that it was probably the combination of the Tiananmen Square anniversary on June 4 and the uptick in press attention to that led the censors to crack down.

    This isn't entirely surprising. The first comment about our Chinese Wikipedia article came from WorldChanging ally David Bowers, who lives in China, indicating that he couldn't access Wikipedia, and speculating that access had already been cut. Looks like you were right, David. Do let us know, if you can, if the censors get around to cutting WorldChanging access, too...

    Update: This is precisely the situation for which Peek-a-booty is the solution. And while the project isn't yet in operation, I am pleased to say that, contrary to my earlier supposition, it's not dead.

    June 20, 2004

    Dan Gillmor on Ubiquitous Cameras

    Dan Gillmor, in today's San Jose Mercury News, has an interesting essay on the growing availability of micro-camera enabled devices such as cameraphones. (We've covered this topic ourselves in our discussions of the "participatory panopticon.") Gillmor lays the issues out nicely, and talks about both the reduction in privacy and the civil liberty implications. He also addresses how the changing world of camera-enabled technology affects how businesses operate, and suggests that one effect could be more of a move towards what we at WC call "transcommercialism":

    Businesses have trade secrets. They have private internal conversations. Digital-imaging technology inevitably lifts the corporate veil, too.

    Where we need to force more transparency on government and do more to protect personal privacy, businesses should look at the technological trends and realize that the time has come for more voluntary transparency. Some things have to be kept secret, at least for a while, but I believe companies will find advantages in hanging out more, not less, of the corporate laundry.

    The marketplace now includes a variety of constituents who need to know more about what a company is doing: employees, customers, suppliers, communities. If a company is doing its best for those constituencies, maybe that's a competitive advantage worth having.

    Definitely a must-read for today.

    June 22, 2004

    Linux in Iraq

    The usefulness of Linux for the developing world is a regular theme here at WorldChanging. We've talked about Linux use in sub-Saharan Africa, Laos, Egypt, and, of course, Brazil. Now it's Iraq's turn.

    "The World," a radio newsprogram co-produced by the BBC and PRI (Public Radio International) yesterday had a five-minute spot on the newly-formed Iraqi Linux User Group. You can download the story from this page; the direct link to the Windows Audio file is here. It's a good piece, and worth the five minute listen.

    The website for the Iraqi Linux group is in English, and is interesting reading (particularly their rationale for using English rather than Arabic). It mixes the usual discussion boards and links to Linux resources with news reports on the use of open source in the developing world and connections to local Arabic/Farsi Linux sites. They're doing good work there, and I wish them well. (Apparently the site is subject to frequent vandalism; if it's unresponsive when you visit, or the front page doesn't look the way you'd expect, try back later.)

    Government RSS Feeds

    One of the cooler bits of network tech is RSS ("really simple syndication" is probably the most common defintion; reader Frank Shearer notes in the comments that "'RSS' actually stands for 'RDF Site Summary'. 'RDF', in turn, stands for 'Resource Description Framework'"), which is a way of distributing updated site content to subscribers. For people who read a lot of websites over the course of the day, RSS is a life-saver. Most blogs (including WorldChanging) have RSS feeds, and an increasing number of news outlets do, too. But any website that publishes regularly updated information can provide an RSS feed. RSS in Government is a site dedicated to collecting and promoting the use of RSS feeds by government agencies, whether local, state, federal, or international. The main site page mixes general RSS and blogging news with specific updates on government-related RSS feeds.

    It's early enough in the age of RSS that the use of syndication links by official groups is still quite haphazard. Some states that you'd think would be technologially on the ball (California, for example) have few if any feeds, while other locations are swimming in them. A couple of US Senators -- Joe Biden (D-Delaware) and George Allen (R-Virginia -- have RSS feeds for their press releases, perhaps of interest to their constituents. More people may find a use for the RSS feeds from the US Geological Survey earthquake reports; you can get a listing of the last day's or the last week's quakes measuring over 2.5.

    I added that one to my RSS aggregator immediately.

    (Note that the RSS in Government site displays oddly in Safari, but works fine in Firefox; your experience may vary.)

    July 1, 2004

    Catching Up (Tech Bloom Edition)

    Continuing with the categorized catching-up entries...

  • Social Design Notes points us to an article at Local Government Commission entitled "Computer Simulation as a Public Participation Tool," which celebrates the virtues of using digital tools as a way of envisioning urban development projects. Interestingly, the article focuses on the visual presentation elements of simulation, such as photoshopping in a new retail complex or street design over a photograph of a city location, rather than on dynamic simulations of urban development (it's well-known that Sim City is a favorite tool of many a mayor and urban planner). I have to admit, though, that the photo simulations are pretty impressively done.

  • New Scientist reports about a WiFi-based positioning system used to augment GPS. Satellite-based positioning systems (like GPS and the EU's new Galileo network) tend to fail deep in urban environments, such as when surrounded by skyscrapers or within the bowels of a shopping mall. Researchers at the University of Washington and at Intel's labs have developed a system (called Place Lab) which can figure out a WiFi device's location by triangulating the signal strength of known base stations. Currently, 26,000 base stations in the US and UK are in the research group's database. Place Lab is currently accurate to about 20 meters, compared to 8-10 meters for GPS. The Place Lab researchers claim that the system is "privacy observant," and does not keep track of the identities of those who use it. The software is available for free at the Place Lab site, and there are versions for Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, Pocket PC, and as a generic java application.

  • John Stahl mentions that Tim O'Reilly has written a lengthy -- but fascinating -- essay entitled "The Open Source Paradigm Shift," in which he lays out not just why Free/Open Source Software is important, but why the methodology of open source is revolutionary. This is definitely a big-picture, print it out and read it a couple of times, spend several hours thinking about its implications, etc., kind of essay. If you don't have the time for the whole thing, I strongly suggest reading the section entitled "Network-Enabled Collaboration." O'Reilly is careful not to extend the argument very much past the world of computing, but as long-time WorldChanging readers know, the open source model is very much applicable outside the software realm.

  • The article Black Star: Ghana was a detailed and fascinating account of the spread of the Internet in the African nation of Ghana. Ethan Zuckerman updates us on Ghana's net situation with a report about the attempt to organize GIX, Ghana Internet Exchange. This would allow the various Ghanaian ISPs, which up to now have been using expensive satellite links to connect to the Internet, to share traffic, reduce their bandwidth bills, and link to each other inexpensively. Because Ghana's phone system is so poor, GIX will actually use multipoint radio to link the various regional and local ISPs -- a definite "leapfrog" scenario.

  • Mobile phone companies are stocking up on "COWs" -- Cells On Wheels -- for rapid disaster response, according to the Denver Post. In the case of an emergency, trucks with antennas, power generators, and routing systems can be deployed to maintain or extend the cellular network. COWs are also useful in situations where a large group of people are concentrated and will be using their phones (the article cites sporting events as an example, but expect to see COWs all over the place during this summer's presidential nominating conventions). Such quick-and-dirty networks are likely to be available far faster than landlines in a serious disaster; all the more reason to give in and just go ahead and get one (and I'm talking to one person in particular, here...). (Via Slashdot)
  • July 2, 2004


    Smart Mobs points us to WiFiledefrance, an event tomorrow (July 3) in Paris promoting "alternative and creative" uses of 802.11 wireless networks. Chief among the festivities will be Noderunner Paris, a race to find and photograph various WiFi nodes around the city (sort of a capture-the-flag for wardrivers). Network configurations and signals will also be translated into live music. Now all they need to do is get some of the bicycle-based wireless access points we talked about awhile back, and combine WiFiledefrance with Tour de France...

    July 19, 2004

    Biomorphic Software Explained

    We talk quite a bit about biomimicry here at WC. It's not simple tree-hugging biophilia; it's all about complexity. Nature has a lot of experience with building interconnected complex systems able to last for generations, adapting to changing circumstances and taking advantage of new niches. Building a 21st century economy and society based on principles gleaned from the workings of natural systems is an approach to sustainability with a great deal of potential. It is, however, sometimes a little difficult to understand.

    ACM Queue -- the journal on "tomorrow's computing" from the venerable Association for Computing Machinery -- has in its June issue a non-specialist-friendly essay describing a biomimetic approach to programming, how it works, and why it has the potential to produce results that traditional approaches can't touch. The essay, entitled "Hitchhiker's Guide to Biomorphic Software," includes a straightforward list of characteristics of biomorphic designs (which need not include all of the bullet points):

  • Collective interaction. Behavior results from the collective interaction of similar, multiple, independent units, such as in a swarm.
  • Autonomous action. Individuals act autonomously; there is no one "master" individual controlling the behavior of the others.
  • Emergence. Behavior results—emerges—from the interaction of members, rather than being explicitly designed into the individuals.
  • Local information and interaction. Individuals tend to operate from only local information and interactions. Their scope of view is spatially local, rather than global.
  • Birth and death. The addition and removal of individuals into the group (i.e., birth and death) are expected events.
  • Adaptation. Individuals have the ability to adapt to changing goals, information, or environmental conditions.
  • Evolution. Individuals have the ability to evolve over time.
  • The essay then goes on to describe a simplified example of "multicellular" software which includes characteristics which cover this list.

    As an introduction to the software side of biomimicry, the essay is terrific. It doesn't touch the application of biomorphic principles to other sorts of design, however. Nonetheless, its checklist of the advantages and disadvantages of biomorphic software applies across the spectrum of approaches which seek to echo nature:

    The desirable characteristics of the biologically inspired architectures are evident:

  • They are robust. Failure of one or more individuals does not generally fault the group.
  • They are adaptable. Biomorphic software can adapt to its environment in a number of ways, including evolving, learning, or swapping DNA.
  • They can self-organize.
  • They are distributed and parallel.
  • They are built from simple units.

    But there are problems in designing biomorphic architectures:

  • They can be difficult to scale.
  • They can be difficult to engineer.
  • They can be difficult to control.
  • They can be difficult to comprehend. Approaches such as genetic algorithms produce solutions that can be so convoluted and obscure that we are forced to accept that "it works by magic."
  • (Thanks, Ben Hunt!)

    July 30, 2004

    Wildfire Watch

    I could go on and on about how the GeoMAC Wildfire Viewer is a tool for open-source intelligence about the environment, or -- by allowing overlays of regional hydrographical, transportation, and historical fire information -- how it makes the invisible visible, or how it is the latest manifestation of Internet-accessible Geographical Information Systems (GIS)... but, really, the reason I am fascinated by this GeoMAC site is that it so damn cool.

    GeoMAC -- the name stands for Geospatial Multi-Agency Coordination -- is a US Geological Survey tool developed to help firefighters monitor the progress of wildfires, and it is available on the web as both a detailed California map or a nationwide map (each has a slightly different interface). As very elaborate javascript applications, they can be a little slow, although they're by no means the worst I've seen. They were clearly built with firefighters in mind:

    In order to give fire managers near real-time information, fire perimeter data is updated daily based upon input from incident intelligence sources, GPS data, infrared (IR) imagery from fixed wing and satellite platforms. The GeoMAC web site allows users in remote locations to manipulate map information displays, zoom in and out to display fire information at various scales and detail, including downloading desired information and printing hard copy for use in fire information and media briefings, dispatch offices and coordination centers. The fire maps also have relational databases in which the user can display information on individual fires such as name of the fire, current acreage and other fire status information. Additional data layers like fuel status information, fuel types, aircraft hazard maps, links to remote weather station data and other critical fire analysis information are currently being added to the GeoMAC application.

    Even for those of us not in charge of putting out the fires, the GeoMAC system is a fascinating tool for watching the progress of these all-too-common summertime conflagrations. Prepare to spend a lot of time playing with it.

    (Thanks to Mack Reed for pointing me to the California GeoMAC)

    September 1, 2004

    Fab Labs

    It's not often that the future reveals itself to us in the form of a pink key chain.

    The Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT engages in research on "personal fabricator" devices -- machines able to make a wide variety of physical objects out of base materials. The Center's classes "How to Make (Almost) Anything" and "How to Make Something That makes (Almost) Anything" are wildly popular. But the Center has a bigger mission than just transforming material production: they want to help people in the developing world use these advanced technologies to solve local problems.

    To this end, the Center for Bits and Atoms has developed the "Fab Lab," $20,000 worth of material design and fabrication equipment which can be used nearly anywhere. Six Fab Labs exist, each with a particular focus on local needs: South End Technology Center, in Boston (building community wireless networks); Lygen Alps, in Norway (building larger-scale wireless networks and animal collars to aid nomadic herding); Vigyan Ashram, in India (building agricultural instruments); Bithoor, in India (building 3D scanners and printers for local artisans); TEC, in Costa Rica (building educational tools); and the Takoradi Technical Institute, in Ghana. It's at the Takoradi Technical Institute that flourescent pink key chains have become the most popular fabricated item among the young students. But that's not all they build:

    Beyond key chains, the Ghana lab is working on practical projects including antennas and radios for wireless networks and solar-powered machinery for cooking, cooling and cutting. Each of these activities was developed in collaboration with local users, ranging from street children to tribal chiefs, to address the most important local needs.

    The labs are well-equipped (especially given the low cost), and the goal is for them to be able to produce the same set of equipment for another lab -- in effect, to become (very slow, human-aided) replicators:

    “Instead of bringing information technology to the masses, the fab labs bring information technology development to the masses," Gershenfeld said. "For our education and outreach efforts, rather than telling people about what we’re doing, we thought we’d help them do it themselves. We’ve been pulled around the world by the voracious demand we've found each time we’ve deployed a fab lab.” The fab labs provide an accessible approximation of the tools CBA has on campus, and over time, [CBA Director Neil] Gershenfeld said, components of the labs will be replaced with components made in the labs until eventually the fab labs themselves are self-reproducing.

    Each fab lab comes equipped with computer-controlled fabrication tools, open-source computer-aided design and manufacturing software and associated electronic components and test equipment. Capabilities include a laser cutter for 2-D and 3-D structures, a sign cutter for plotting interconnects and electromagnetics, a 3-D precision milling machine for applications such as making surface-mount circuit boards and programming tools for low-cost, high-speed embedded microcontrollers.

    The Center for Bits and Atoms was launched in the Fall of 2001, supported by the National Science Foundation. The Center's Annual Reports give a good overview of each year's efforts, both in research towards personal fabricators and in the development and deployment of Fab Labs. The three reports -- from 2002, 2003, and 2004 -- provide well-illustrated guides to the cutting-edge of fabrication technology and the uses it can have in the developing world.

    I have to say, when I first read this article, I got a bit dizzy: fabricator systems will be useful in the West, where material goods markets are well-established and relatively efficient, but they will be utterly revolutionary in the developing world. The Fab Labs are, at best, a Version 0.1 of such future fabricator devices, but the important story here isn't the hardware, it's the combination of research expertise and social intent demonstrated by the Center for Bits and Atoms. They are in the early days of completely changing the world.

    (Found via Cyborg Democracy)

    September 9, 2004

    Technological Ecology of Mobile Media

    WorldChanging friend Howard Rheingold has a brief but extremely thought-provoking essay in today's The Feature entitled Ecologizing Mobile Media. He takes Neil Postman's "Ten Principles of Technology" and applies them to mobile communication devices. The results are sure to trigger quite a bit of discussion, and undoubtedly some new ideas about how we integrate mobile devices into our lives.

    Here are some choice excerpts, but go read the whole thing:

    2. The advantages and disadvantages of new technologies are never distributed evenly among the population. This means that every new technology benefits some and harms others.

    With close to half a billion mobile phones sold just this year, I suspect the great divide is not going to remain the one between those who can afford access to phones and those who can't. Increasingly, the advantages are available differentially to those who know what those advantages are and how to make use of them -- the divide between the "know- how" and "don't-know-how" populations. It's a matter of literacy.


    5. Technological change is not additive; it is ecological. A new technology does not merely add something; it changes everything.

    More people can organize collective action with people they weren't able to organize before, at times and in places they weren't able to organize before. The ways cities are used, political demonstrations are organized, entertainment is scheduled and daily life is coordinated are already changing.


    7. Because of the accessibility and speed in which information is encoded, different technologies have different political biases.

    In Seattle, Manila, Seoul and Madrid, we've seen regimes toppled and Presidents elected because texting enables spontaneously self-organized demonstrations and get-out-the-vote. If broadcast media is biased toward centralized control, mobile media are biased toward decentralized out-of-control.

    These ten principles (from The End of Education) provide a useful metric for thinking about the impact of technology, whatever your feelings about Postman (whenever I read his stuff, I want to throw the book across the room, then scurry after it to pick it up and keep reading). Howard does a great job here of generating tentative answers to the ten questions, and the comment section in The Feature already has some interesting follow-up.

    October 27, 2004


    Dr. Joe at the bookofjoe -- the world's only blogging anesthesiologist -- has a couple of posts up this week about, a site which makes an end-run around the calcified bureaucracy of the existing United Network for Organ Sharing by letting potential organ donors and recipients find each other online. MatchingDonors likens what they do to asking in a church or community group for volunteer donors, but doing so with a worldwide audience. With upwards of 60,000 patients in the United States alone waiting for an organ donation, MatchingDonors has the potential to accelerate the process of getting organs to those who need them. Unsurprisingly, its existence is troubling to those who believe the current model is the best way to ensure fair distribution of organs.

    (more in the permalink...)

    Continue reading "Organster" »

    November 16, 2004

    World Community Grid

    Distributed computing -- sometimes called grid computing -- is very worldchanging. A bunch of PCs can chew on pieces of a big computing problem in their spare time, coming up with answers in the aggregate faster than most supercomputers. SETI@Home is the most famous of these projects, but now IBM has launched World Community Grid as a mechanism for undertaking large-scale computing projects in the public interest:

    World Community Grid's mission is to create the world's largest public computing grid to tackle projects that benefit humanity.

    Our work has developed the technical infrastructure that serves as the grid's foundation for scientific research. Our success depends upon individuals collectively contributing their unused computer time to change the world for the better.

    IBM and United Devices, the company providing the grid technology, have already had one successful project come from their efforts: smallpox drug discovery. Distributed contributors ran through 35 million potential drug molecules and found 44 strong candidates, doing in months what would have normally taken years, even decades.

    The World Community Grid is now focusing on the Human Proteome Folding project, seeking to understand how protein shape relates to protein activity. Figuring out protein folding -- which is a really hard problem -- would lead to better cures for a wide array of diseases and disorders. The Institute for Systems Biology, which is coordinating the project, has a page full of useful information here.

    The main downside with WCG is that the United Devices software they use is closed source and Windows-only. BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing), the engine running SETI@Home, is free/open source software and runs on a wide array of platforms, including Linux and MacOS X. The projects now underway for BOINC users include climate prediction, astronomical searches for pulsars, and (lo and behold!) an effort to understand protein structure.

    November 29, 2004

    Generic Biomedicine

    The American patent on Human Growth Hormone -- useful for fighting wasting diseases associated with AIDS -- expired in 2003. So why isn't there a far-less-expensive "generic" version available in the US? Because HGH is a protein "biologic" drug, and protein drugs are far more difficult to produce than "small molecule" drugs, and the FDA says it can't be certain that the generic versions are identical to the originals.

    So goes the story in the December Technology Review. Biotech companies have made substantial sums on life-saving complex protein drugs, and now the patents are starting to expire. With "small molecule" drugs (the kind regularly advertised on television and in the hundreds of pieces of spam you got today), the process of duplicating the molecule in order to create a generic version is straightforward, as are the tools for confirming that the drugs are identical. But proteins are big, complicated molecules, with varying properties depending on how they fold. Biomedical proteins aren't just conjured up in test tubes, but are often produced by reengineered bacteria. Duplication is difficult. But help is on the way:

    Continue reading "Generic Biomedicine" »

    December 8, 2004

    Personal Fabrication by EMail

    parts_r1_c2.gifI'm looking forward to the day that nanofabs make it possible for any of us to "rip, mix and burn" physical objects. In the meantime, however, more conventional fabrication techniques remain necessary for those who wish to create complex material devices. This means machine shops and tools -- the kinds of gear included in MIT's Fab Labs. But if you don't have your own machine shop, and MIT hasn't seen fit to drop a Fab Lab on your block, you have another option: the Internet.

    eMachineShop will build parts for physical objects to your specifications, using a variety of standard techniques (injection molding, milling, punching, etc.). Free (in the gratis, not libre sense) CAD software walks users through the process of designing parts, and eMachineShop will manufacture the unit in whatever quantity (including one-off). A recent article about the site notes that most of the users are either making prototype parts for new designs or recreated parts for old hardware when replacements are no longer available.

    printed_circuit_boards_lime_21.gifAnd what if your new device needs some electronic smarts? Individual electronic components are relatively simple to come by, but in order to make a real prototype, the components need to be seated on a printed circuit board. You can't just wander down to Radio Shack and pick one up, however; they need to be specially crafted. Again, the Internet comes to the rescue, with a site called Bare Bones Proto PCBs. Send 'em your design, they send you your boards.

    It's likely that many WorldChanging readers are right now going "so what?" A few of you, however, are already quivering in your seats, imagining what you'll make. These services make it possible for garage industrial design to take on far greater sophistication than before. The number of people with the knowledge and desire to do industrial design far outweighs the number who also have the requisite tools. These companies (along with the competitors who undoubtedly exist -- post URLs in the comments when you find them) are in many respects the design world analogues of the cheap editing software which opened up new worlds of video and musical creativity. Coming up with an innovative idea is terrific; being able to make that idea manifest, whether as a work of art or a work of design, can be worldchanging.

    (Thanks, Jet and CTP!)

    December 14, 2004

    Mobile Phones for Homebrew Sensors

    phonehack.jpgElectronic sensors are an important part of knowing the world. Sensor technology is pretty remarkable these days, and useful components can be both very small and very inexpensive. Scientific research and culture hacking alike already take advantage of widely available, useful sensor tech. With a modicum of understanding about how to assemble electronic devices, any student or hobbyist could be a Junior Jeremijenko in no time!

    Gizmodo points us to a Czech company called Bladox, which manufactures small circuit boards and software to plug into old mobile phones, turning them into accelerometer-based car alarms: when "unauthorized" motion is detected, the system will call the user via the old phone. While this isn't particularly worldchanging in and of itself, the idea of using old mobile phones as the communication element of home-built sensor devices is intriguing.

    Bladox makes boards and software allowing for a wide variety of inputs; better still, their applications are all licensed under the GPL. With this hardware, pretty much any kind of low-power sensor system (temperature, location, motion, air quality, etc. etc.) could be hooked up. Rigging a mobile phone as part of a sensor system takes care of one of the critical elements of any such device: communicating results. As long as there's network coverage in the sensor location, the results can be sent to anyone in the world with a phone. And the sensor-phone would still have a phone number, allowing for calling in to get results as needed. There are numerous solar panel rechargers for phones, so keeping the battery topped up wouldn't even be a big issue.

    The vast majority of mobile phone users discard their old phones long before they stop working. The fact that many mobile services "lock" the phones, making them only work with that particular service (unless unlocked, a sometimes tricky process), makes such a wasteful practice almost inevitable. There are millions of completely functional but ostensibly useless phones out there; you probably have a few sitting around your home (I know I do). While recycling is possible (and far preferable to just throwing them out, given the toxic metal content), there's something particularly appealing about reusing the phone in novel ways.

    What would you make with a system like this?

    January 2, 2005


    NetHope is a non-profit global collaboration between international NGOs seeking to use information and communication technologies as a force for good. They make a device called the NetReliefKit -- shown to the right -- which can best be thought of as "communications hub in a box" for NGOs in the field. Rugged, it can provide both voice communication and Internet links via satellite, and can be powered by a car battery. It has built-in WiFi, making it possible for a single NRK to serve an entire facility.

    NRKs are designed specifically for use by NGOs engaged in disaster relief efforts, and will be deployed in in the tsunami zone starting next week, starting with Banda Aceh in Indonesia, then in Cuddalore and Andaman in India, then Ampara and Mullattivu in Sri Lanka. This deployment is a joint project of NetHope, Cisco, CGNET and Inmarsat. NetHope has been testing the NRK in the field -- they were used in relief efforts in response to the earthquake in Bam, Iran -- and the FAQ document (PDF) reflects something of their work-in-progress.

    Red Herring has an interesting article on the use of wireless and satellite technology as a tool for disaster relief:

    “A satellite signal is particularly useful in a desperate situation,” says Julie Ask, a senior analyst with Jupiter Research. Ms. Ask says that using a satellite signal to create a core to a wireless network, and then deploying wi-fi access or extending the range through a mesh network, would be an ideal way to get information infrastructure to residents and first responders. Users could access the wi-fi connection for VoIP or data services, and because of the high bandwidth, the network could move data-rich content like maps of the terrain, schematics of buildings, or satellite photos of the landscape.

    NetHope was founded in 2001, and includes a number of well-known NGOs and IT companies as members and partners. On their webpage describing the services they provide, I was particularly pleased to see this entry:

    NetHope focuses on solutions that have major local content in terms of service and support to ensure long term sustainability of our deployments. NetHope develops in-country chapters; fosters technical interaction; and holds training courses in-country or regionally in advance of deployments.

    As we've said, leapfrogging can be key to the long-term recovery of the affected nations. It's good to see tools such as the NetReliefKit, intended for aid agencies, can also be designed to help facilitate the leapfrogging process.

    (Thank you to W. David Stephenson for bringing this to our attention!)

    January 3, 2005

    Tropical Disease Initiative

    moskito.jpgThe "Free/Open Source" model could be as revolutionary in the world of biological science as it has been in the world of software. We've the notion of open source biomedical research a number of times here, and expect the idea to be of increasing importance in the coming years. An open source approach to biological research offers significant leapfrog potential, as scientists in the developing world could participate in the research and get unrestricted access to what has been learned, and local companies and governments could produce the resulting medicines. And just as free/open source software fills niches ignored or awkwardly approached by proprietary software, a distributed, collaborative, transparent process of biomedical development can take on health challenges that pharmaceutical corporations have determined to be unprofitable. Perhaps the most glaring example of this category of medical research is the realm of tropical diseases: malaria, dengue fever, African sleeping sickness -- fatal diseases, rampant in the developing world, but for which cures offer little profit.

    The Tropical Disease Initiative seeks cures for these "orphan" illnesses using an open source research and development model. Started by Dr. Andrej Sali, professor of Biopharmaceutical Sciences and Pharmaceutical Chemistry at UC San Francisco, TDI will combine the efforts of hundreds of volunteer researchers from around the globe, focusing on the application of computational biology and chemistry on drug discovery (see the extended entry for a graph illustrating the TDI process). Dr. Sali, along with Stephen M. Maurer (professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley) and Arti Rai (from the School of Law at Duke University), details the open source research process in a new article entitled "Finding Cures for Tropical Diseases: Is Open Source an Answer?", freely available at PLoS Medicine, a peer-reviewed open access medical journal:

    Continue reading "Tropical Disease Initiative" »

    February 3, 2005

    The Urban Grid

    Now here's an unexpected combination of WorldChanging interests: AlmereGrid, a city-wide distributed computing grid. Taking advantage of the fiber-optic network installed in the town of Almere, in the Netherlands, AlmereGrid will be the first "heterogeneous city computer Grid" in the world, and will initially be used for medical and scientific research. Design began last year, and testing is now underway. Details in English are pretty slim, though -- any Dutch-speakers out there want to let us in on updates?

    AlmereGrid aims to select a number of essential and appealing applications with researchers "from the neighbourhood". The advantage is that computing time donors can establish a relationship with the ongoing research. The computing time donors will receive a programme that has to be installed on their computer. AlmereGrid will only use the processors of the connected systems whenever the owner is not using the computer.

    A design document (PDF) from July of last year gives a good overview of what the AlmereGrid initiative wants to accomplish. According to the website of the Aurora Grid group at Rotterdam Institute of Informatics Education, AlmereGrid is testing a variety of grid applications, including the open source distributed computing software, BOINC. (Aurora's grid software overview is a good summary of what's out there and how it's being used, by the way.)

    This project feels like the first tremble of a pretty big earthquake. As fiber optic networks get installed in more communities, projects like this will become easier and easier to do. The motivations for joining in on projects will vary -- some places will do so out of altruism, others will seek to rent "supercomputer" time to the highest bidder, and others will be driven to compete with neighboring towns for bragging rights over total calculations per month. And what happens when communities realize that the various computers around town (in everything from traffic light controllers to parking meters to, eventually, local information hubs) are actually "idle" for most of the time? The BOINC folks better start working on a version for embedded processors...

    February 8, 2005

    The $100 Dilemma

    osbourne.jpgAt last week's World Economic Forum in Davos, MIT technology celebrity Nicholas Negroponte announced a project to build $100 laptops for the developing world, for use as textbook replacements, information/communication tools, and the like. The idea is fairly ambitious: the proposed laptop would have a 14-inch color display, and will run Linux on AMD chips.

    [Negroponte] described the device as a stripped down laptop, which would run a Linux-based operating system, "We have to get the display down to below $20, to do this we need to rear project the image rather than using an ordinary flat panel. [...] "The second trick is to get rid of the fat , if you can skinny it down you can gain speed and the ability to use smaller processors and slower memory."

    The device will probably be exported as a kit of parts to be assembled locally to keep costs down.

    Interestingly, the reports don't mention what Negroponte plans as the network interface (modem, ethernet, or wireless), or whether such a connection would even be included in the basic design. Connectivity of some sort seems an obvious need, but the drive to cut costs might end up making that a relatively expensive option.

    A perhaps greater issue is that Negroponte seems trapped in an American-user mindset of how people will want to access information and communication resources. While laptops are wonderful tools (I'm writing this on one right now), the computer device with the largest global penetration isn't usually referred to as a computer at all -- it's the mobile phone. The number of mobile phone users worldwide is roughly 1.5 billion, and is expected to top 2 billion by 2006; current Internet use, conversely, is just under a billion, and is projected to hit 1.2 billion in 2006. Manufacturing processes for mobile phones are pretty efficient these days, and the operating systems and applications they come with are simple but relatively powerful. How would the "$100 Computer" look if it was built as a step up from the mobile phone instead of as a stripped-down laptop?

    Continue reading "The $100 Dilemma" »

    February 10, 2005

    Open Source Biotech Makes Its Mark

    sem_colour.gifWe've followed the progress of open source bioscience from early on. The logic of open biotechnology is quite compelling, and potentially very world-changing, as it can make the tools and techniques for improved health and development widely available across the developing world. Science should be a fundamental part of development policy. Open source bioscience may be one of the most important catalysts for leapfrogging we have.

    Open Biotech has now had its first big breakthrough. Researchers at Cambia, a life sciences institute in Australia, have developed TransBacter, an open source alternative to the Monsanto-patented process for transferring new genes to plants. Publishing in this week's Nature, they detail (PDF) how they developed the process and -- more importantly -- how others can get free (as in "libre") access to it. This work is part of the Biological Innovation for Open Society (BIOS) initiative, which seeks to build a broad toolkit of open source biotechnologies, and is already available as a project in the BioForge open source biotech forum.

    Continue reading "Open Source Biotech Makes Its Mark" »

    February 21, 2005

    Open Source Chemistry

    zinc.jpgWe get pretty excited around these parts at the prospects for open source biotechnology (and have even mused about what open source nanotechnology might look like), so it's good to see another field begin to embrace the open source philosophy. ZINC -- which, in the free software tradition of recursive acronyms, stands for ZINC Is Not Commercial -- is a free database of compounds for "virtual screening." That is, ZINC provides 3D models of chemical compounds in a standard "docking" format used in chemistry and biochemistry software, allowing researchers to assemble and test new chemical compositions on their computers. While useful across chemistry-related disciplines, this is particularly important for drug discovery and development -- and could be of great value to biochemistry and pharmaceutical researchers in the developing world.

    ZINC was created by Brian K. Shoichet and John J. Irwin, faculty at the pharmaceutical chemistry department of UC San Francisco, and is funded by the National Institutes of Health. Shoichet and Irwin announced the opening of the project late last year in an article published in the journal of the American Chemical Society.

    ZINC encourages users to upload information about chemical compounds not currently in the database (which already contains 2.7 million entries). Unlike BioForge, ZINC does not explicitly adopt free/open source software as a model; nonetheless, they do not try to extend copyright over submitted compounds, and emphasize both on the site and in their descriptive paper the free and open access elements of the project.

    (Via Open Access News)

    February 22, 2005

    Participatory Telemedicine

    While most of us would prefer to interact face-to-face with our doctors, that's not always an option: patients may be too remote for a doctor to reach, or a necessary specialist may not be available nearby. In the past, that meant that the patient would need to travel to receive care, or wait until a doctor or other health provider could visit. The advent of telemedicine, the examination and diagnosis of medical conditions via networked cameras and monitors, changed that. Telemedicine is increasingly used in rural areas of Western countries as a means of providing quality health care remotely, and more generally as a way for specialists to apply their knowledge globally without getting on a plane; it's also proven useful for researchers in Antarctica, where the cold and the dark of winter make travel in or out impossible, echoing the fields origins in the space programs of the 1960s.

    Telemedicine isn't widely used outside of the West, despite its evident utility for the developing world. This is due, in large part, to its technological requirements: telemedicine has come to rely upon high-bandwidth network links for the transmission of medical data and high-resolution images. As a result, the developing world telemedicine focus is often on bringing in high-end hardware. But that may soon change.

    Research at the University Hospital of Geneva, Switzerland, published in the current issue of Archives of Dermatology, tested the usability of camera phones as an approach for visualizing leg ulcerations. The researchers compared face-to-face evaluations of leg wounds to evaluations made via mobile phone pictures, under normal lighting, and sent via email.

    Continue reading "Participatory Telemedicine" »

    February 28, 2005

    EELS for Kenya

    eels.jpgWe covered the proposed $100 computer for developing world education awhile back, and one of my conclusions was that (should the plan go forward) a hand-held device was a more promising path than an American-style desktop, and that Linux should be the underlying OS, not some proprietary, locked-down system. Today comes word of a program now underway in Kenya which takes up that challenge, and gets it partially -- but not completely -- right.

    The EduVision E-Learning System (EELS) is a low-cost electronic textbook system now being tested at the Mbita Point primary school in western Kenya. Students are issued hand-held devices wirelessly connected to the EELS "BaseStation," which itself has a satellite downlink for regular content updates. Educational materials and student information are stored on the Linux-based BaseStation servers; the hand-held "E-slate" devices use Linux, as well. While the current generation EELS needs to be connected to grid power, EduVision claims that they will be adding a dedicated solar panel system in the near future for remote villages and towns.

    EELS does not appear to be an appropriate solution for regions with grinding poverty and war, but relatively stable developing nations looking for greater connection to global information networks -- that is, most of the leapfrog nations -- may be likely candidates.

    Continue reading "EELS for Kenya" »

    March 2, 2005

    Distributed -- and Interactive

    curve.jpgWe pay attention to the growth of distributed computing efforts for a few reasons: they're quite often projects with distinctly worldchanging aspects, whether trying to figure out protein folding, climate prediction, or controlling a smart electricity grid; they can be projects which promote new forms of social and economic organization, such as the "urban grid" idea; and distributed computing is a useful model for other forms of collaborative endeavors. The one downside to distributed computing projects is that they generally are passive affairs, churning away on your computer when you're not paying attention. But a new project, using distributed computing to find extra-solar planets, might just change the way people use distributed computing.

    Continue reading "Distributed -- and Interactive" »

    Biomimicry for Disaster Response

    The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has embarked on a fascinating research project to study insect group behavior and virus propagation as models for civil engineering collaboration networks in a post-disaster environment. This is biomimicry used not for design, but for understanding human use of information.

    The research team, which includes biological, computer and social scientists and civil engineers, will apply their natural-world findings to three major areas: collaboration among organizations involved in disaster-relief efforts; the use of information technology to support preparedness, response and recovery tasks; and the emerging role of civil engineers as key first responders to disasters. [...]

    [Noshir] Contractor[, professor of speech communication and of psychology,] said that one of the challenges being explored in the new research is “how first responders have to rely on local information and often work in the absence of global information.”

    “An emergency-response strategy based on complete global information being made available instantly to all responders is fundamentally flawed,” Contractor said. “Instead, we need to develop a strategy that leverages cutting-edge research in information technology to enable the rapid assembly and deployment of ad hoc, flexible networks of responders who act largely on the basis of local information. Such a strategy would be enormously helpful in helping us cope with disasters such as the recent tsunami in the Indian Ocean.”

    Continue reading "Biomimicry for Disaster Response" »

    March 4, 2005

    Sim Outbreak

    episims.jpgHow do you handle the outbreak of a highly infectious disease?

    Whether it's a terrorist use of smallpox or the Avian Flu, public health officials worldwide are fearful that we will see a deadly pandemic in the not-too-distant future. The right way to respond to such an event so as to limit deaths is a big question. Are immediate quarantines the right answer? Mass vaccinations? Vaccination efforts targeting only the "super-spreaders" who have a multitude of social connections? Epidemiologists often have little more to go on than theory and best-guesses. Researchers Chris Barnett, Stephen Eubank and James Smith at the Los Alamos National Laboratory decided to take a page from urban planning and crafted a simulation system called EpiSims, which maps the spread of infectious diseases and models different containment plans. They wrote about their findings in the current issue of Scientific American.

    EpiSims is a program based on TRANSIMS, an urban planning/transit system simulation. The software models the behavior of residents of a virtual city, following their movement and contacts, building maps of their social networks, then charting the spread of infection based on different containment scenarios. TRANSIM was based on Portland, Oregon, and the first EpiSims research (on the spread of smallpox) also used that city. EpiSims followed 1.6 million virtual citizens traveling to over 180,000 different destinations, and determined how the disease would spread through the city. The image to the upper right is from a movie available at the EpiSims website tracing a smallpox attack under two different scenarios.

    Continue reading "Sim Outbreak" »

    March 7, 2005

    You Own Your Own Genes. Now What?

    dnadirect.jpgAs biomedical technologies get cheaper, it becomes easier for non-specialists to get access to them; as the technologies get "smarter," it becomes easier for non-specialists to use those them. We see this happening with devices such as inexpensive defibrillators, now standard issue on many airplanes, which are sufficiently automated to allow people with no medical knowledge to save the lives of heart attack victims in mid-air. This is pretty clearly a good thing. But we're also now seeing this happen with genetic testing, and whether or not it's for the good remains to be determined.

    DNA Direct is a San Francisco company founded by Ryan Phelan, who started the website which became WebMD. For a couple hundred dollars, DNA Direct will send you a kit to let you take a sample (typically a cheek swab) and send it back for anonymous testing for genes predisposing you to a variety disorders including, starting this week, breast cancer. Counseling is included with the results, which are delivered via the web. No information gets added to your medical records, no insurance companies get notified. The logic here is straightforward: fear of genetic discrimination could make people avoid taking tests which could help them make lifestyle choices to avoid potential problems. Anonymous testing side-steps that problem neatly.

    Continue reading "You Own Your Own Genes. Now What?" »

    Participatory Panopticon Update

    Omron.jpgSeveral stories popped up over the last week of relevance to the continued evolution of the participatory panopticon:

    • Camera and network-enabled mobile devices can be a real thorn in the side of people in positions of authority, as they allow the surreptitious capture of evidence of abuse. This is as true for local authorities as it is for national or global powers, especially when those who are victimized by the powerful tend to have their complaints ignored. An example from just last week: a New Jersey high school student used a video-enabled mobile phone to capture images of a teacher screaming at students for not standing during the national anthem, then pulling the chair out from under one of them.

    Unsurprisingly, the student was suspended and the board of education plans to ban cell phones from the school, refusing to state whether the teacher will be punished in any way. Not that it will stop kids from bringing them in, or using them to make a record of abuses.

    Continue reading "Participatory Panopticon Update" »

    March 16, 2005


    STEGSM.jpgSave the Elephants is a conservation group working to protect elephants in the wild. In February 2004, they launched the Save the Elephants GSM Animal Tracking Project. Working with equipment donated by the Kenyan mobile phone company Safaricom, they developed elephant collars outfitted with GPS tags and GSM communicators set up to send text messages -- SMS -- with the pachyderm's current location. The system is cheaper than trackers relying on satellite phones, and more useful than those relying on VHF radio; GSM is easily brought onto the Internet, allowing the tagged elephants to be tracked and monitored via the web, helping researchers figure out elephant ranges and movement patterns.

    A June 2004 report (PDF) lays out some benefits which will emerge from the expansion of this project:

  • Better fence positioning to lessen animal-human conflict in high risk zones;
  • Re-routing animals or humans to forestall a human-animal conflict;
  • Faster detection and action response times against potential threats;
  • Enhanced early warning systems to detect changes in poaching levels;
  • Better definition of sites for potential reintroduction of animals.
  • A woefully-devoid-of-details article in the UK's Inquirer suggests that the first of these may already be underway, with farmers near elephant migration routes given warning of nearby herds, so that the farmers can head off damage to crops.

    For obvious anti-poaching reasons, the elephant location information is not available to the public. Still, this is a wonderful example of how inexpensive, ubiquitous communication technology has applications beyond simple human interaction. Save The Elephants is looking to expand the GPS-GSM project to other endangered wildlife species, such as Grevy's Zebra, the black rhino and even the big cats.

    In late February, the project won the GSM Association's "Mobility in the Environment Award."

    (Via Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends, which has some more details and a link to a terrific Safaricom advertisement talking about this project.)

    March 23, 2005


    reprappump.jpgLast week, Alex wrote about the Future that Fabbing Suggests. Some of what he talked about is still some years off -- but some is a bit closer than you might think.

    RepRap is a design for a Replicating Rapid-Prototyper ("rapid prototyper" being a more common industry term for fabber). While it hasn't yet been built, nothing in the design is outside the realm of what's currently possible. The designer, Dr. Adrian Bowyer of the University of Bath's Centre for Biomimetic and Natural Technology, sees it as a way to kick start the fabbing revolution. Bowyer intends to put the entire design, when completed, on the web for free download under the GPL -- he's already made the software for a RP-built robot available. The RepRap would work in a manner similar to ink-jet printers (its syringe pump is shown here), and would be able to embed conductive wires within plastic shapes. The RepRap would not technically be self-replicating, as it would only be able to produce its own parts -- some assembly would be required.

    What's really interesting, though, is the question of what happens if RepRap works.

    Continue reading "RepRap" »

    March 29, 2005

    The Mine Dragon

    dragon.jpgThe Mine Wolf is a good piece of landmine-removal technology, to be sure -- fast, relatively inexpensive (at least for de-mining equipment), and able to be refitted for agricultural work after landmines have been removed. But it has one problem: it removes mines by breaking them up or by detonating them. Exploding landmines, even to remove them, can be dangerous for people nearby, and can spray toxic chemicals around the landscape.

    Enter the Dragon.

    Designed by de-mining specialists Disarmco and explosives experts at Cranfield University in the UK, Dragon is a pyrotechnic torch able to destroy landmines by burning them out instead of detonating them. They've also developed a portable production system able to make Dragons in the field using local materials.

    The tubular shaped pyrotechnic device directs a very hot flame at the munitions to achieve the deflagration effect. It can be placed either on the ground next to the munitions or directed at the landmine mounted on a simple wire frame.

    The torches are made in situ in the portable unit and do not require any specialist knowledge or expensive training in order to be used safely by local communities employed in decontamination efforts.

    Professor Ian Wallace, Head of the Department of Environmental and Ordnance Systems at Cranfield University, explained: "Working with the Disarmco team, we've created a new formulation based on low-cost materials which are readily available around the world. Local communities – with little training – can use the portable production unit to manufacture the thousands of 'Dragons' required to deal with landmines and UXOs [unexploded ordnance]."

    Christopher Le Hardy, Director of Disarmco, added: "Burning is a more effective and scientifically safer way to dispose of certain types of landmines and UXOs compared with high explosives that are inherently more dangerous."

    The BBC notes that Dragon prototypes were tested in Lebanon in 2004, and will be used in Cambodia in May of this year. Although the Dragon does not have the same kind of broad utility that the Mine Wolf has, it makes up for it in low cost, easy use, and (as noted) greater safety for both people and the environment.

    April 5, 2005


    psp.jpgWhile the dust is still settling on the implications of "Podcasting" -- the semi-automated distribution of web content intended for use on digital audio players -- a new distribution medium is rising.

    The PlayStation Portable (PSP) is Sony's new portable gaming device. Sony built in the ability to play a variety of media types, including video. But while Sony may have intended that feature to be used to play movie disks, people have already worked out ways to let the PSP play standard web video formats. Some are using this to play ripped DVDs or "TiVo to go" files, but others are setting their sights on something far more interesting: PSPcasting.

    Continue reading "PSPcasting" »

    April 8, 2005

    The Blair Watch Project

    The Blair Watch Project is an effort, coordinated by the UK newspaper The Guardian, to keep tabs on the UK's Prime Minister Tony Blair as he goes about campaigning around the country. The project was prompted by the Labour party's decision to limit Blair's media exposure on the trail; now it looks like he'll be covered by more cameras than ever. On one level, it's another example of networked citizens acting as journalists, providing information to other interested citizens, with some help from traditional media; on another level, however, it's a telling example of the growing power of the participatory panopticon in the realm of politics. Although professional photojournalists cover political campaigns, they can't be everywhere, or cover every angle. Now, every citizen with a camphone can be a reporter, capturing the inadvertent gesture, quick glance or private frown. The lack of cameras snapping away can no longer be an opportunity for public figures to relax.

    The Guardian is using the digital image site Flickr to host the submitted photos, and will republish the best. It's likely that 99.99% of the images will be (at best) dull, but there's always the slight chance that the right person in the right place at the right time will capture something that can reshape the election. Keep your camphones charged and your signal strong...

    (An aside: Whoever came up with the name for the project should be given a hefty bonus, even if they came up with it long ago and held it until the perfect opportunity came along...)

    (Via Smart Mobs/Ben Hammersley)

    April 11, 2005

    SBML and the BioModel Database

    SBML.jpgToday sees the opening of BioModels, an online database of annotated open biological models. BioModels is a collaborative effort of the UK's European Bioinformatics Institute, the Keck Graduate Institute in the US, Japan's Systems Biology Institute and Stellenbosch University in South Africa, along with the Systems Biology Markup Language (SBML) team. SBML is a standardized, open source language for describing the behavior of biological systems, allowing biologists to share models and results easily.

    Even the simplest living organisms perform a mind-boggling array of different processes, which are interconnected in complex ways to ensure that the organism responds appropriately to its environment. One ofthe best ways of ensuring that we really understand how these processes fit together is to build computer models of them. If a computer model behaves differently than the real organism, we know that we've neglected an important component of the system. Quantitative models can also reveal previously unappreciated properties of complex systems, paving the way towards new drug treatments.This approach, known as ‘computational systems biology,’ is becoming increasingly popular now that scientists are accumulating detailed parts lists for many organisms, thanks to genome sequencing projects and other efforts to comprehensively document the components of living entities.

    This is a good example of how open standards and open access can facilitate scientific understanding. SBML can function as a Rosetta Stone for bioinformatics, translating the results of research across myriad modeling packages, making it possible for researchers around the globe to share in each other's work. The BioModels database, in turn, parallels the work at BioForge in making tools for discovery freely and openly available.

    Computer modeling is widely used in the natural sciences; translational markup languages and model repositories would clearly be of value across a wide spectrum of research fields. We have quite a few readers doing scientific research -- do similar efforts exist in other fields?

    April 14, 2005

    From Silicon Valley to the Silicon Village

    fab_book_gershenfeld.jpgNeil Gershenfeld, physics professor at MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms and the creator of the Fab Labs, is touring to promote his new book, Fab: The Coming Revolution On Your Desktop.I have his book, and will have a review in the coming days. He's speaking tomorrow night at the Bay Area Futures Society meeting in Palo Alto, but I got a preview of his talk tonight at my old stomping grounds, GBN. I won't try to relate everything that he said -- his talk relies on the visual presentation, and was a bit more wide-ranging and fast-moving than I could capture in my notes -- but I do want to pass on a couple of important observations.

    [I encourage you to tune in tomorrow night to the streaming video of his talk. (Unfortunately, in order to support the anticipated demand for the stream, they're putting it out in Windows Media format. Good luck.) The talk is definitely worth paying close attention to; if he uses the same presentation at Friday's talk he used tonight, be forewarned that the beginning can be a bit confusing, but it all becomes clear later.]

    The underlying logic of the Fab Labs is this subtle observation: "For all the attention to a digital divide, there's an instrumentation and fabrication divide that's even larger." It's important to make access to information as widespread as possible. But as we noted here the other day, innovation -- the application of new ideas -- is the critical development catalyst. Without tools for making real the new ideas access to information inspires, recipients of inexpensive computing devices and cheap access to the Internet are little better off than before.

    Gershenfeld related the roadblocks he's encountered while trying to bring Fab Labs to more places around the world. Research funding doesn't support development aid; aid funding doesn't support research. The World Bank, the National Academy of Sciences, even the Pentagon all found the Fab Labs fascinating and clearly valuable, but ultimately not in their purview of support. For Gershenfeld, the catalyst for their spread will have to be bottom-up, in the marriage of microfinance (which functions as a bank, and tries to minimize risk) and venture capital (which actively seeks out risk, but with great potential upside). These "micro-venture" outfits would (like VCs in the developed world) provide financial seeds for risky start-ups, but would (like microloans in the developing world) only need to put out relatively small sums of money. Gershenfeld called it "Silicon Valley at the scale of the village."

    Welcome to the era of the Silicon Village.

    April 15, 2005

    Satellites for Everyone

    clearcuts.jpgWe've been talking about the proliferation of satellite images for public consumption here at WorldChanging for awhile now, but Google's recent integration of their mapping application and the recently-acquired Keyhole satellite data has brought the topic back into the limelight.

    Most evocative are the "memory maps" which use the system's ability to add pointers and links to the satellite maps. Creators of the memory maps annotate the images, describing their own histories and lives, illustrating them with the photos from space. The memory maps are then posted to the image site Flickr; the memory map category has (as of this evening) 379 photos. The annotation feature is part of Flickr, not the Google maps, but one can easily imagine Google adding it -- being able to share comments and observations along with map URLs is quite useful.

    But people aren't just using the Google satellite maps for nostalgia.

    Continue reading "Satellites for Everyone" »

    April 18, 2005


    loband.jpgIf the explosion in leapfrog-world information devices comes via built-up mobile phones instead of cut-down PCs, as I suspect, one big challenge will be making sure that websites are usable via such a medium. This boils down to two broad issues: layout and bandwidth. Most websites these days are built assuming that the user has a relatively wide screen; a screen hard-coded to 800 or a thousand pixels wide will be nearly unusable on a tiny screen, either shrunken down illegibly or requiring unacceptable amounts of scrolling to just read a sentence. The bandwidth issue applies to more PC-like devices as well: modem speed connections can choke on some of the big pages built assuming access to broadband.

    Loband offers a solution to both problems. Built by humanitarian information technology group Aidworld, loband is explicitly intended as a way for people in the developing world, using machines on slow connections, to access the full range of the web. Loband is technically a proxy system, in that visitors browse via entering URLs at It then displays the page stripped of images and complex layout (but keeping font changes such as size, italics, etc.); the resulting page can be ready easily on pretty much any kind of display. This allows people browsing via slow connections or size-limited systems a much more usable experience. In addition (and possibly unintended by loband's creators), complex pages can be easily output by text-to-voice screen readers.

    Continue reading "Aidworld/Loband" »

    April 20, 2005

    Location-Based Services, Making the Invisible Visible

    The possibility of receiving informational messages on one's mobile phone based on one's location holds a combination of fascination and horror for many of us. For every message about an interesting new exhibit at a small museum one is passing or blocked sidewalk up ahead, there would be dozens -- hundreds -- of spam-like messages imploring the recipient to eat, buy, consume, spend at whatever establishments are nearby. No thanks.

    But Vodafone in Germany has come up with an interesting service which may be compelling enough to pick up some users. For a monthly fee, users with allergies can receive pollen level alerts based on their current locations. The "Lorano Polleninfo" service...

    ...provides individualised pollen alerts that take into account both the current location and the allergy profile of the user, i.e. the pollens that the user is allergic to. The relevant pollen forecasts, in accordance with the personal profiles provided by the service users, are sent to their mobile phones.

    Continue reading "Location-Based Services, Making the Invisible Visible" »

    May 10, 2005

    Sensing the World

    smartdust.jpgOne of the subjects that's close to our hearts here at WorldChanging is the use of sensor technology to understand the environment. Whether urban sensors for detecting pollution, ice probes for monitoring changes to glaciers, solar-powered autonomous underwater vehicles for monitoring the ocean, nanobiosensors for monitoring chemicals, even "feral" robotic dogs acting as mobile ecomonitors, swarms of cheap sensors networked together are increasingly among the best ways to keep tabs on environmental changes. Alex's pair of essays on Knowing Nature Through Technology (part 1, part 2) detail the massive utility of sensors as tools of environmental science.

    The New York Times has finally caught on, and science writer William Broad provides a lengthy account of the current state of ecological monitoring systems:

    Continue reading "Sensing the World" »

    May 16, 2005

    BioDASH and BioHacking


    Systems Biology Markup Language.

    Open Source Biomedical Research.

    We are rapidly moving into a world where biology can be as manipulable as data. After all, DNA is code; life is information. The new tools and methods we're developing for bioengineering reflect this parallel, and the philosophies underlying the "hacker" ethic (in the original sense of someone devoted to exploration, invention and discovery) are being absorbed by the biological disciplines.

    But whereas the original software hackers had to settle for the primitive tools of the 1970s and 1980s, today's biohackers can take advantage of far more sophisticated networks and collaboration tools. The latest example of the infusion of the information society into biological engineering is BioDASH -- "a Semantic Web prototype of a Drug Development Dashboard that associates disease, compounds, drug progression stages, molecular biology, and pathway knowledge for a team of users." As the announcement notes, this is the first step of a work-in-progress, and the developers hope that as people get more familiar with using the Semantic Web for life sciences, more applications will emerge.

    (What is the Semantic Web?

    The Semantic Web provides a common framework that allows data to be shared and reused across application, enterprise, and community boundaries. It is a collaborative effort led by W3C with participation from a large number of researchers and industrial partners. It is based on the Resource Description Framework (RDF), which integrates a variety of applications using XML for syntax and URIs for naming.

    "The Semantic Web is an extension of the current web in which information is given well-defined meaning, better enabling computers and people to work in cooperation." -- Tim Berners-Lee, James Hendler, Ora Lassila, The Semantic Web, Scientific American, May 2001

    ...That is, it's an emerging standard making information sharing and collaboration across disciplines and organizations simpler and consistent.)

    Why is this important? Because, as Rob Carlson notes in the current Wired, the tools for doing sophisticated biological research are getting incredibly inexpensive, and more people -- in the West and in the leapfrog nations -- will be experimenting with biohacking. And standardized ways of sharing information and applications greatly reduces the risk of accident.

    Carlson writes: "The advent of garage biology is at hand. Skills and technology are proliferating, and the synthesis and manipulation of genomes are no longer confined to ivory towers." The development of information systems like BioDASH will make that garage biology simpler -- and safer -- than ever before.

    (Via Open Access News)

    May 20, 2005

    Watching Each Other, Watching Your Food

    docomo.jpgIf the Participatory Panopticon is heading our way, it will almost certainly hit first in Japan. Concerns about privacy manifest differently in Japan than in the US or Europe, and Japanese mobile phone makers and networks are experimenting with a growing array of new applications for high-speed wireless networks. Picturephoning points us to a couple of recent developments that definitely put Japan furthest along the road to the sousveillance society.

    First is the production of a "television pocket" for video phones, a mounting and movement system allowing them to function in a manner similar to webcams. The text translated from the packaging is somewhat, um, abstract, but the accompanying illustrations -- showing one person keeping an eye on a sick parent and another keeping in touch with a pet left home alone -- make abundantly clear the utility of the hardware. What's notable about this is the underlying assumption that video streams will be widely and inexpensively available from handheld phones. This is as much a policy issue as a technology problem: carriers hoping to charge users even to send a cameraphone image over bluetooth to a local computer are going to be hard-pressed to allow flat-rate video bandwidth.

    Second, and with much bigger implications, is a new English-language report (PDF) from NTT DoCoMo (the biggest and arguably most innovative mobile phone carrier in Japan) on the use of cameraphones as bar code readers for the purpose of checking on food quality control. The bar codes cover...

    Continue reading "Watching Each Other, Watching Your Food" »

    May 23, 2005

    Simming the City

    chicagocrime.jpgIf the Sim is not the City, can the City be the Sim?

    Regular players of SimCity will recall that the map of the town where you see the buildings and the little people going about their business is actually not the most important map in the game. The data maps -- showing crime rates, pollution distribution, traffic and the like -- are far more critical tools for figuring out where to put that police station, wind farm, or subway. But what if you could have similar maps for real cities?

    The first steps along that path have already been taken, and rely on Google Maps. is a freely browsable database of reported crimes in Chicago. That could be interesting to Chicago residents and visitors, to be sure, but what really sets this site apart from other crime blotters is the integration of Google Maps, showing the exact locations of the reported crime scenes. The data is pulled from the Chicago Police Department's website, the maps from Google's site -- and the combination doesn't look precisely like a SimCity window, but it's certainly evocative of it (the image to the right is an excerpt from the map of attempted robberies between May 1 and May 10).

    Similarly, the SimCity map of housing values is evoked by the HousingMaps site, which pulls real estate info from Craigslist and layers it onto Google Maps of US (and some Canadian) cities. And there's a site taking an RSS feed for traffic info and making a Google Map of traffic conditions in a bunch of different cities. Pollution information doesn't seem to be quite granular enough yet to link to city maps -- but this seems an ideal interface for data from pollution-sensing bicycles. And, as we noted recently, there are people scouring the Google satellite maps for environmental damage (another candidate was spotted recently, what appears to be waste runoff into the ocean in Mexico).

    With the SimCity model in mind, a wealth of new ideas for GoogleMap applications spring to mind, both directly taken from the game and simply inspired by it. School ratings, fire scenes, public transit outages, Critical Mass events, recent store closures (perhaps mapped against big box retailer locations), LEED-certified and registered buildings... A key step to making a change to a system is seeing its underlying patterns. GoogleMaps may well turn out to be a critical tool for recognizing where action is needed as we reinvent our urban environments.

    May 24, 2005

    Do It Ourselves

    metropolis.jpgFortune profiles the "Amazing Rise of the Do-It-Yourself Economy," with a look at some of the people and groups making it possible for home inventors and innovators to design, make and sell unique and novel products. The article focuses on a guy designing a music player that looks like a Pez Dispenser as well as a few other similarly-quirky ideas. It's a good intro to an up-and-coming movement.

    And it completely misses the big story.

    Fortune is spot-on when highlighting the effect of design software and the various online services connecting developers to manufacturers. And the analogy they draw, between this new generation of inventors and other pathways to digital creation (blogging, podcasting, even mash-ups) is a good one. But they miss the signal difference between previous waves of "DIY" innovation and the present: collaboration. The Internet doesn't just enable cheap advertising and fabrication-by-email, the Internet makes it possible for disparate, distributed groups to connect up and share designs, tools and ideas. Open software is about to meet open fabrication.

    Continue reading "Do It Ourselves" »

    June 8, 2005

    Participatory Panopticon Update, June Edition

    bloodtestmobile.jpgExamples of mobile technologies used to monitor ourselves and our environment -- what I've come to call the Participatory Panopticon -- are coming out fast these days, and it seems simpler to me to just collect recent tidbits and present them all at once. Here's what I've run across lately...

    Cellular-News reports that Uppsala BIO, a Swedish biotechnology research group, has developed a blood testing device to be used with cameraphones. According to the description at the Uppsala BIO website:

    The chip will be constructed from a polymer, a piece of “plastic”, and will have narrow channels and small compartments. The compartments will hold the solutions and reagents needed to detect the biomarker and to generate light. [...] If the searched biomarker is present, this will trigger a series of chemical reactions that will generate light. The whole process takes place on the surface of a small particle, a nano particle. Antibodies and enzymes are bound to the nanoparticle to recognize and bind the biomarker, and to catalyze the reaction that gives rise to light. The nanoparticles are used to enhance the efficiency of the light generating process and to enhance the contrast between light and no light. Light is generated in the same way that it is generated by fireflies, and can be recorded by a standard camera, such as the ones that are present in most mobile phones. The recorded image is readily communicated to a doctor or other expert for interpretation.

    See the illustration at right. Telemedicine via cameraphones is a rising phenomenon. The Swiss researchers have determined that, at least in certain circumstances, diagnoses via cameraphone images can be comparable to in-person examinations. The Uppsala BIO mobile phone blood test, however, is designed specifically to be used with digital cameras and cameraphones. It won't be the last one.

    Continue reading "Participatory Panopticon Update, June Edition" »

    June 14, 2005

    Rob Carlson on Open Biology

    Open Biology and Open Source Biotech are favorite subjects around here, and were among the very first topics we posted about. The free and unobstructed development of biological science has worldchanging implications, not least for the developing world. Various tools and support systems for open biology have been built, and the philosophy is gradually gaining more adherents.

    Rob Carlson knows better than just about anyone the value of open biology. As research fellow at the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley from 1997-2002, he first started writing about the idea of open source biotech, and has long been one of its most vocal proponents. He takes strong issue with those who would resist opening up biosciences in the name of security, arguing that we're more secure in an open research regime than we would be if official work was restricted and censored. He elaborates on that idea in a commentary in the latest Future Brief:

    Continue reading "Rob Carlson on Open Biology" »

    June 15, 2005

    Open Source Flyer

    heli-xpad.jpgGet ready for homebrew swarms.

    Cheap, flexible mobile sensor platforms have a great deal of utility for understanding the environment, whether out in the wilderness or deep in the city. Cameras, chemical sensors, pressure meters, biosensors, and more can be even more useful when put on a platform that's able to move around, sending signals back via radio. Mobile platforms that travel on the land or in the water are definitely useful, but most intriguing are those that fly.

    Small robotic flyers have a variety of potential applications, from environmental monitoring to security to disaster recovery. Most commercial manufacturers of "unmanned aerial vehicles" (UAVs) cater to the needs of the military, however, and the products are priced accordingly. But if you're not interested in a UAV to travel halfway around the world (or shoot something with a Hellfire missile...), it's possible now to build semi-autonomous microbot flyers using material from the local hobby store and free/open source software. And in the not too distant future, it will be possible to build a group of flyers able to communicate with each other and coordinate movement.

    Continue reading "Open Source Flyer" »

    June 17, 2005

    Invention Resource Database

    inventiondb.jpgThis is what the future could look like.

    The Invention Resource Database (or InventionDB) is a database of open-source hardware projects, designs and information. The entries vary greatly in complexity, detail and completeness. The projects range from the straightforward (a web-controlled LEGO base for a webcam) to the unexpected (a system using tactile feedback to keep singers on-pitch). The resource listings are equally varied, from lists of components and vendors to links to green building sites. The site has a blog, as do some of the entries.

    The InventionDB describes itself as:

    an online application designed to help people create web entries about their project, help people find and learn about neat resources, and to help people manage group projects. [...] InventionDB is designed to do three things well:

    Continue reading "Invention Resource Database" »

    June 22, 2005

    InstantSOUP for the Fabricator's Soul

    netbell.jpgInstantSOUP -- Instant Satisfaction Potentially Useful Objects (the acronym reversal is, um, amusing) -- is hardware and software toolkit designed to introduce people to "physical computing." It uses a beginner-friendly input/output board and programming language called "Wiring," which in turn is based a visual programming language called "Processing." All are open projects, intended to grow as they gain more users and developers from the broader community. They're also aimed at people who wouldn't normally think about learning to program computing hardware.

    InstantSOUP projects, or "recipes," include: SoundPad, an introduction to wiring and output); Etch a Sketch, which uses hand-built controllers to draw on your computer screen; TinkerToy, where you build a remote-control car; and the NetBell (shown), which taps a glass to make a gentle tone whenever someone visits a given website. While none of these lessons may be immediately applicable to one's art or design projects, they teach larger lessons about how digitally-controlled hardware functions and is crafted. Discussion forums and workshops are available, as well, to help users learn the environment.

    I'm particularly happy to note that Wiring and Processing are available for MacOSX and Linux, as well as Windows.

    Hit the extended entry for more details on each of these projects.

    Continue reading "InstantSOUP for the Fabricator's Soul" »

    July 6, 2005

    Portable Sousveillance

    wifihotpack.jpgMike Outmesguine's guide to assembling a wearable WiFi hotspot is getting a bit of attention, and it's not hard to see why. His setup allows a full, relatively high-speed Internet connection; putting it all in a solar backpack, used to recharge the batteries, adds a nice Bright Green tint to the package. The system uses the "Junxion Box," an off-the-shelf WiFi gateway device -- there's little real hackery involved -- and relies on the growing EV-DO high-speed cellular network. It's not cheap to build, probably running a bit more than a thousand dollars (not counting network connection), but definitely not too difficult of an at-home project for many.

    While most folks would probably use this for checking email in the middle of a park or web browsing for directions while driving, I see it as a particularly useful piece of what I call the participatory panopticon.

    Imagine this scenario: it's a near-future national election, and protesters are out in force. Wanting to be able to (a) make a record of the event, and (b) keep track of troublemakers among both the police and the crowd, organizers distribute cheap wireless webcams to a number of participants. The webcams are routed through a backpack like this one (although probably with a longer life, whether due to more efficient components or a bigger battery), so that what they see is immediately sent out over the Internet, viewable by anyone and easily archived in dozens of different locations anywhere in the world. Additional backpack routers mean wider coverage for webcams.

    In time, the hardware to do this will get smaller and require less electricity, just as solar panels will continue to become more powerful; expect to see a similar set-up able to operate 24/7 within a few years. The real wildcard in this is the availability of high-speed cellular networks. EV-DO is not universally available, and is incompatible with the GSM "3G" system slowly being rolled out in Europe. I'm sure it will all be worked out eventually...

    July 7, 2005


    CAP_xml.jpgIn the aftermath of the December tsunami, we posted a variety of articles about the idea of a distributed emergency alert system. Such a system should be able to work over a variety of media, without being tied to a proprietary network or format. It should be open, so that it could be modified to meet local needs and new requirements. And -- most importantly -- it should be embraced by existing emergency networks and first responders, and not simply serve as an idealized model. Such a system now exists: the Common Alerting Protocol, or CAP.

    CAP is an open, standardized alert information format usable to collect and disseminate warnings and reports of hazards and disasters, natural or otherwise; it's XML-based, so it's usable on a wide assortment of devices and media. CAP notes, documentation and commentary can be found at the wiki-based "CAP Cookbook." The protocol has been in development since 2001, but the tsunami seems to have accelerated its adoption. The April, 2005, draft of the v.1.1 protocol is available online (PDF).

    The underlying value of CAP is the standardization of message format:

    CAP defines a single message format with the essential features to handle existing and emerging alert systems and sensor technologies. This standard format can replace a range of single-purpose interfaces among warning sources and disseminations channels. CAP addresses the concerns about compatibility and operational complexity that have been stifling development. [...]

    Continue reading "CAP" »

    July 8, 2005


    flockbot.jpgThe open-source swarmbot concept continues to spread.

    We've touched on the subject before, but a recap may be fruitful: in order to better understand changing local environmental conditions (for agriculture, conservation, health, etc.), it helps to have a multiplicity of sensors providing data streams; those sensors can cover more area if they're mobile; rather than having to control each individual mobile sensor, "swarming" or "flocking" behaviors allow the bots to position themselves to maximize coverage yet retain local communication; by making the project free/open-source, people in low-income or resource-restricted communities can still take advantage of the system's capabilities.

    The Flockbot Project, at the computer science department of George Mason University, is an attempt to design mobile, swarming robots able to perform useful actions, all at a (relatively) low cost.

    This website describes an open design for a small, $800 robot suitable for "swarm"-style multiagent research, robotics education, and other tasks. Our goal is to get as much functionality as possible from $800 per robot, replicate the robot many times to create a small collaborative swarm, and document the results to make it easier for you to do the same. We hope to foster collaboration in the wider community and, ultimately, lower the entry-level costs for building such robots.

    The robot design is remarkably complex, given the limited resources. It combines a Linux-based computer, wireless networking, a camera, a gripper, and multiple IR sensors, all on a 7" diameter wheeled platform. Future modifications include a move to a smaller control system, better mobility, and a price cut to below $500.

    The Flockbots site focuses on the design and construction, with little information about actual experimental use. But the online materials are more than sufficient for hobbyists and hackers to follow in their footsteps. Who will be the first to use garage robot swarms in the field?

    July 14, 2005

    Orphan Diseases, Collaborative Biology and Sequencing Parasites

    trypanosoma.jpgAn international team of researchers from over 20 laboratories worldwide have sequenced the genomes of the parasites leading to some of the worst diseases in the developing world: African sleeping sickness, leishmaniasis and Chagas disease. What they found was startling -- and has given new hope for a cure. It turns out that all three pathogens share about 6,200 genes, giving them far more in common than differing, despite being ostensibly only distantly-related species. This, in turn, opens the door to the possibility of new treatments able to target all three of these illnesses, which have otherwise been essentially ignored by major pharmaceutical companies because the victims are almost all in the poorest countries of the world.

    Continue reading "Orphan Diseases, Collaborative Biology and Sequencing Parasites" »

    July 16, 2005

    Ad Hoc Network Leapfrogging

    meshnetwork.jpgCUWiN -- the Champaign-Urbana community WIreless Network -- brings together a bunch of worldchanging ideas into one useful package: Free/Open Source software to create ad-hoc municipal wireless networks using recycled old PCs. The software -- which can be downloaded from -- just needs to be burned onto a CD, which can then be used to boot a PC (even something as old as a 486) with a wireless card. Once the system boots, the software configures itself, looking for other nodes to connect to; the CUWiN system uses "ad hoc networking" principles to link machines together to reach the computer that's actually connected to the Internet.

    CUWiN [...] exceeds the functionality of many proprietary systems. They want to bring ubiquitous, extremely high-speed, low-cost networking for every community and constituency. Following in the footsteps of Linux and Firefox, CUWiN has focused on creating a low-cost, non-proprietary, user-friendly system. CUWiN's software will share connectivity across the network, allowing users to buy bandwidth in bulk and benefit from the cost savings. CUWiN networks are self-configuring and self-healing -- so adding new wireless nodes is hassle-free, and the system automatically adapts to the loss of an existing node.

    The CUWiN system is suitable for the developed and developing world alike; the only costs are the old PCs, the wireless cards, the single broadband connection at the root of the network, and electricity. What's particularly appealing is that this model gives new life to functional-but-obsolete pieces of computer hardware, keeping them (and the toxic metals they contain) out of the garbage dump.

    (Via W. David Stephenson)

    July 21, 2005


    inveneo.jpgHonestly, it's hard to imagine a story that's a better example of what we're all about here at WorldChanging.

    Inveneo is a San Francisco-based non-profit organization that is bringing information and communication tools to remote villages in the developing world. These tools are based on free/libre/open-source software, and rely upon voice over IP (VoIP) and WiFi to connect multiple remote locations to each other and to the broader Internet and telephone networks. Moreover, the equipment at the stations operate via batteries charged by a combination of solar cells and bicycle generators. In short, Inveneo is using open source technology and renewable power to improve the lives of the global poor through better access to communication.

    This isn't just a fantasy, a "we're hoping to do this soon" sort of project, either. With the assistance of the NGO ActionAid, Inveneo has deployed its system in rural villages in Uganda:

    At 11:10am PST on June 8th, with a VoIP phone call from the Community Knowledge Center to the village of Nyamiryango, Inveneo's first solar and pedal powered communications system went live in the Bukuuku sub-county, Kabarole district of Western Uganda. This successful deployment was completed in partnership with ActionAid, and enables villagers to use a phone, computer and the Internet for the first time ever, empowering them to use communications and technology to improve their lives dramatically.

    Continue reading "Inveneo" »

    August 6, 2005

    Technology and Development

    Recent pointers to research by UC Berkeley computer science graduate student R.J. Honicky had a familiar ring to them. Honicky's efforts to use mobile phones as inexpensive distributed platforms for mobile sensing, while clearly novel and worthwhile, are evocative of similar proposals and projects we've talked about on WorldChanging. As a result, I was more interested in some of Honicky's other projects -- and the growing student interest in the use of information technology in the developing world.

    Continue reading "Technology and Development" »

    August 16, 2005

    Design, Innovation and World-Changing

    Luke Wroblewski, at Functioning Form, has written a brief-but-important comparison of different concepts of strategy and innovation, based in part on recent analyses of the role of creativity and design by Tim Brown, Roger Martin and Richard Florida.

    Wroblewski compares the "Business" Approach to strategy and innovation to the "Design" approach. Here are a few key examples:

     “Business” Approach“Design” Approach
    CompletedCompletion of strategy phase marks the start of product development phase.Never: continually evolving with customers.
    Tools used to communicate strategic visionSpreadsheets and PowerPoint decks.Prototypes, films, and scenarios.
    Described throughWords (often open to interpretation).Pictorial representations and direct experiences with prototypes.

    The full list is clearly aimed at those who think about design from a customer-product perspective, but I think it can be abstracted into a comparison of linear vs. complex approaches to a variety of worldchanging issues. Replace "customers" with "citizens," for example, and think about this as a prism for understanding political processes. Or replace "customers" with "species" for a model of understanding ecosystems.

    Taking a different angle, Wroblewski's list makes me wonder if there's a third column that needs to be added. If the "Business" approach is past its expiration date, and the "Design" approach is ascendent, what kind of approach is waiting in the wings? My first pass at what that might be is in the extended entry.

    Continue reading "Design, Innovation and World-Changing" »

    August 22, 2005

    Genetic Algorithms and Plumbing

    Genetic algorithms are sort of the ur-biomimetic process. While other examples of biomimicry can emulate certain aspects of natural design or the functions of particular organisms or ecosystems, genetic algorithms reproduce evolution -- arguably the core biological process.

    Genetic algorithms have been used to make some pretty unusual products, and we often think of GAs as a way of coming up with solutions for otherwise intractable problems. But genetic algorithms can have some fairly down-to-earth applications. And those applications, in turn, suggest some pretty radical possibilities for the Bright Green future.

    Continue reading "Genetic Algorithms and Plumbing" »

    September 6, 2005

    Dencity and the Augmented Environment

    dencity.jpgI'd seen a few references to the denCity project in the various sites I read, an effort to build an emergent urban augmentation system by creating barcodes which, when photographed with a cameraphone and compared to a phone-accessible website, return detailed information about whatever is tagged by the barcode. I find such location-based technologies to be intriguing, and the use of the cameraphone as the interface for capturing local tags has obvious connections to my ongoing examination of the Participatory Panopticon. DenCity struck me as interesting, but somewhat derivative of other projects such as Yellow Arrow, the New York-based art project, which also allows users to create their own notes for given locations. At present, the denCity system works only in the city of Aachen, Germany.

    Curious about the genesis of the project, I wrote to the creators of denCity, Philipp Hoppe and Kai Kasugai, asking them about what they had in mind. Philipp and Kai were kind enough to reply, and to allow me to quote them on WorldChanging. Their answers, although brief, got me thinking about what these kinds of urban meta-tagging tools might really mean.

    Continue reading "Dencity and the Augmented Environment" »

    KatrinaHome by WAP

    katrinahome.gifWe mentioned the website the other day -- it's a site designed to match people with available space with evacuees from the hurricane zone. This is exactly the kind of offering for which the web is ideally-suited: a bottom-up provision of assistance to strangers, mediated by decentralized networks. It's such a good idea that started, providing similar connections, the very next day!

    But KatrinaHome founder Rod Edwards (who also runs WorldChanging ally has taken the site to a new level, and has done something very, very smart: now has a WAP interface for access via cellular phones. (WAP, or Wireless Access Protocol, allows for simplified web pages to be sent over standard cellular networks.) allows people with mobile phone connections but no computer -- almost certainly a not-insubstantial number of the evacuees -- the ability to access the housing database. Although some advanced mobile phones can run full-blown web browsers, a far larger number are limited to WAP-based sites. By making available over WAP, Rod has dramatically expanded the number of people who could take advantage of the match-making service.

    This is something worth talking about more widely, and if you're running a weblog or mailing list -- or even just conversing with your circle of friends about the hurricane aftermath -- consider giving it a link.

    (Edit: And, as David says in the comments, thank you, Rod. This is truly wonderful work on your part.)

    September 15, 2005

    Open Technology Roadmap

    roadmapleaf.jpgOpenness is at the heart of truly worldchanging systems. Transparency of process, connections and results make open systems more reliable, more accessible, and better able to be connected to other systems; it also encourages collaboration and the input of interested stakeholders. This is perhaps most tangible in the world of technology, particularly information and communication technology (ICT); open ICT systems are increasingly engines of innovation, and are clear catalysts for leapfrogging across the developing world, via reduced costs, potential for customization, and likely interoperability with both legacy and emerging technologies.

    Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society has just published something they call the "Roadmap for Open ICT Ecosystems" (PDF), a guidebook for policymakers, business strategists and technical specialists looking to implement open information and communication technologies around the world. The Roadmap doesn't focus on any single type of open ICT, but on the greater value of the open approach, and the ways in which open systems encourage collaboration and innovation using "a potent combination of connectivity, collaboration and transparency."

    One aspect of the Roadmap that I find particularly compelling is that, although it speaks only to information and communication technology needs, the majority of the principles and ideas considered could apply more broadly -- to other kinds of technologies (such as biotech and nanotech), and even to political and social systems (such as voting methods and urban planning).

    Continue reading "Open Technology Roadmap" »

    October 4, 2005

    The Information City

    airqindic1.jpgWorldChanging contributor Régine Debatty regularly posts fascinating links over at her main website, We Make Money Not Art. A couple of recent posts, however, stood out for me as terrific examples of a theme we return to regularly at WorldChanging: the integration of information networks and the urban experience. What made these two entries so compelling is that, together, they demonstrated that the relationship between information and urbanity is two way. With the first item, networked information systems are used to enhance one's experience of the city with frequently-updated pollution data; with the second, one's experience of space and layout in the city is used to make digital urban planning simulations more accessible to non-specialists.

    Continue reading "The Information City" »

    October 6, 2005

    "Disaster IT" and the Shelter Computer

    katrinacomp.jpgAs we become increasingly dependent upon the Internet and digital information sources in our societies, the more we need to have reliable information technology tools available in times of crisis. Disaster shelters try to have plenty of phone lines available; in the disasters to come, it will be equally if not even more important to have networked computers for evacuees. But the PCs used in shelters are often donated, with varying capabilities and functionality. Relief workers can't count on them having all the necessary tools and applications emergency users might need, and won't likely have the time to download applications and configure each PC perfectly.

    But there's a solution: a so-called "LiveCD," a bootable CD-ROM configured to have all of the necessary pieces of software. Because it's bootable, the underlying OS is secure from viruses and abuse, and each machine using the CD can have the exact same configuration and applications. Ars Technica, one of the better websites for technical information and analysis, has published a useful discussion of what is required for setting up a LiveCD for use in relief shelters entitled "Download, Burn, and Boot." The author, Jon "Hannibal" Stokes, worked in Louisiana in the weeks following Katrina, assisting in the development and maintenance of computer labs for evacuation shelters; the LiveCD for Disaster IT idea emerged from his experiences.

    Although a discussion of a CD-ROM may seem like geeky minutiae, it's actually an exercise in thinking about the needs of evacuees. One of the lessons that Stokes learned was that it's important not to assume that the needs of evacuees will be obvious:

    Continue reading ""Disaster IT" and the Shelter Computer" »

    October 7, 2005

    Neighbourhood Satellites

    nesa.jpgThe idea of portable environmental sensing is becoming a relatively common one among design and engineering students, but Neighbourhood Satellites, a Masters Thesis project by Myriel Milicevic at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea, takes the concept in a new direction. Rather than make the detection of pollution an act of social or environmental responsibility, Milicevic instead makes it an act of enjoyment, linking the data pulled in by the hand-held unit (which looks like a satellite) to an interactive video game. Although the goal remains the same -- the accumulation of environmental knowledge -- the form of interaction arguably makes it more likely that the technology will continue to be used.

    As Natalie Jeremijenko's work shows, good emergent activism technologies often use a bit of whimsy to connect people to the results. There was no need to use robot dogs as the platform for her chemical sensors, for example, but doing so gave the project both a cool name ("Feral Robotic Dogs") and a grounding in recognizable aspects of Western culture (the use of dogs to search out scents, whether for tracking criminals or gathering truffles). By connecting his sensors to video games, Milicevic strikes a similar balance:

    Going around and measuring the levels of air pollution in your city seems to me an exciting thing to do. However, not being a scientist, I wonder for how long those numbers will keep my attention and, even more important - how can that surveying endeavour become an engaging activity for a greater group of city people?

    Continue reading "Neighbourhood Satellites" »

    October 10, 2005

    Collaborative Response to Disaster

    200px-AF-aid2.jpgThe tsunami of December 2004 made us all pay more attention to the need for collaborative, distributed tools for disaster response. These could piggy-back on mobile phone networks, take advantage of RSS and other web standards, even take advantage of existing measures such as ham radios. Each new disaster brings fresh reminders of how much more needs to be done -- and how difficult it is to assemble these tools in places most at risk.

    The Kashmir earthquake managed to kill, over the course of a few minutes, more people than have been lost in all of the hurricanes so far this season (including Hurricane Stan, which hammered Central America, killing at least 2,000 as a result of flooding and mudslides). As has become a standard (and welcome) response to large-scale disasters, a website was set up shortly after the quake to track news reports and centralize information on assistance; the South Asia Quake Help weblog was assembled by the same people who put together the South East Asia-East Asia Tsunami site. But as WorldChanging ally Taran Rampersad notes, there are still basic communication problems in the aftermath of the quake:

    Continue reading "Collaborative Response to Disaster" »

    October 13, 2005

    Environmental Wisdom of the Crowds

    hurricanemarket.jpgPrediction markets, like Yahoo!'s recently opened "Buzz Game" -- a "a fantasy prediction market for high-tech products, concepts, and trends" -- are pretty interesting, but occasionally controversial. Most of you will remember the US Defense Department's Policy Analysis Market project, which allowed (in effect) bets on the likelihood of coups, assassinations and mayhem in the Middle East. The Buzz Game isn't quite so provocative; players can buy and sell "stock" in various tech-related concepts, such as operating systems, rumored items, online maps, even massively-multiplayer games, receiving dividends based upon the frequency of searches on the term on Yahoo! (all the money is virtual, so no real cash changes hands).

    It may not be provocative, but it is inspiring. In looking at the Buzz Game, the folks at Network-Centric Advocacy came up with a good idea:

    Continue reading "Environmental Wisdom of the Crowds" »

    October 18, 2005

    Disaster Response in a Box, Revisited

    mps2.jpgJeremy gave a quick pointer to SkyBuilt Power's Mobile Power Station (MPS), and it really does look like a WorldChanger's dream: combining modular solar panels, wind microturbines, batteries, and plug-ins for fuel cells and biofuel-friendly diesel engines, the MPS can generate a constant 150 kilowatts, can operate both off-grid and in parallel with grid power, is rugged enough to be dropped via parachute, and requires so little maintenance that a solar/wind unit has been operating continuously without being touched for over a year.

    The MPS and the inevitable competitors will see abundant use in the post-Katrina era. But thinking of the MPS solely in terms of stand-alone power misses its greater potential. The MPS is the final component needed to create the distributed disaster response kit. If we put the pieces together, we could have a system that provides both short-term and long-term support for a disaster-struck community's power, water and communication.

    We've covered a number of the other components before, and they're worth linking to again:

    Continue reading "Disaster Response in a Box, Revisited" »

    October 28, 2005

    ICSMD In Action

    Shortly after the December 2004 tsunami, we posted about the ICSMD -- the International Charter: Space and Major Disasters -- a treaty facilitating access to satellite information in the event of a natural or human-caused disaster. Most of the major space-faring states are party to the charter, which makes it possible for nations without access to their own satellites to have up-to-the-minute images and maps of affected disaster zones. The charter was called upon again after the Kashmir earthquake earlier this month; the European Space Agency has now published a detailed description of the materials and access the regional governments received through the ICSMD.

    The first maps of the affected region were produced using archived satellite data within 24 hours of the disaster. They were made available to search and rescue teams directly in the field the following day via the NGO Télécoms Sans Frontières who were on the scene to set up a satellite-based communications infrastructure so the maps could be downloaded for printing and distribution.

    Continue reading "ICSMD In Action" »

    October 31, 2005

    Hospital in a Box

    hospitalinabox.jpgIt's getting so that we may need a separate " a box" category. At last week's British Invention Show, medical technician Alexander Bushell and consultant Dr Seyi Oyesola unveiled a portable medical system intended to provide core surgical support in inaccessible areas. Designed to allow a team of three doctors to carry out common surgeries (including treating burn patients), the "Hospital in a Box" won the show's Invention of the Year award.

    Weighing in at around 150lbs, the unit is light enough to be dropped by helicopter into stricken areas, but contains anaesthetic equipment, a defibrillator, a burns unit, plaster-making facilities, surgical equipment and a built-in operating table. It even comes with its own tent to create an ad hoc field hospital.

    The system is powered by a truck battery, and is made to be readily recharged via solar panel. The basic kit, minus battery, costs about £14,000, or roughly US$25,000; additional modules provide support for an extensive selection of drugs and more specialized medical treatments (including orthopedic surgery).

    According to New Scientist, Bushell is working with groups in Nigeria to test the unit in remote areas. The system has a website with a few pictures but very little information.

    So at this point we have functional examples of medical support, renewable power, water purification, and networking/telecommunication gear, all "in a box" and usable for relief and emergency situations. We're getting close to a complete disaster response center able to fit on a flatbed truck.

    (Thanks to David Foley for the tip)

    November 1, 2005

    Hacking the City, Creating Community

    ilesansfil.jpgMichael Lenczner wrote to me suggesting that I check out a recent post on his weblog about some of the larger issues raised by his work at Ile Sans Fil, a Montreal community wireless project. It's a provocative piece, as he compares the value of free community wifi to that of more traditional centers of community activity (such as neighborhood soccer fields). I'm not sure we're seeing that model in too many places, but I heartily agree with his underlying point: the use of these networked technologies by artists and non-profit organizations can fundamentally reshape the way that citizens experience their built environments.

    We are hacking the built city.

    This statement is based on the idea that as wireless devices and services proliferate and ubiquitous computing becomes a reality, the physical environment (especially the built city) is rapidly becoming enhanced space or mixed-reality. The supposedly seperate existences of off-line and on-line are intersecting and overlapping - most rapidly in cities. [...]

    Continue reading "Hacking the City, Creating Community" »

    November 2, 2005

    Galileo Masters

    vulog.jpgGalileo is a satellite-based positioning network similar to -- but more accurate than -- the well-known Global Positioning System (GPS). GPS, put into space by the United States, originally limited civilian accuracy but gave the military full access; as noted in the comments by read Jim Studt, since 2000 all GPS users have an accuracy of about 2 meters. Galileo, a European Space Agency system, uses the same overall protocols as GPS (and therefore accessible using the same hardware), but its readings will be accurate to less than a meter. Galileo is set to be operational by 2008. The European Union, in an attempt to encourage innovative uses of Galileo, holds an annual Galileo Masters competition, and this year's winners have a distinctly green aspect.

    The top prize went to VU Log, a French company building a satellite-monitored electric car sharing network. As the BBC describes it:

    The transport application devised by the Vu Log company in Sophia Antipolis, France, envisages a fleet of "green" vehicles on city roads. Each electrically powered mini-car would be equipped with instant and highly precise positioning equipment. Commuters could use the internet or their mobile phone to find the nearest vehicle, jump in and start it with a smartcard, and then drive it to their destination.

    Continue reading "Galileo Masters" »

    November 16, 2005

    DIY Cell Phone

    phoneparts.jpgIt's not uncommon for technically-inclined folks to build their own PCs out of basic parts; although it's not necessarily cheaper to do so, one can build exactly the setup one wants, with exactly the components and function. In addition, we shouldn't discount the satisfaction of having put together a useful device with one's own hands. But are cellular phones significantly harder to build than PCs? What would it take to make a homebrew phone that would still work on standard networks? A handful of hackers want to find out.

    Surj Patel and Deva Seetharam, in the UK, and Casey Halverson, in Seattle, Washington, are all trying to build GSM-network mobile phones out of readily-available parts, to meet their own particular needs. In both projects, however, the core of the phone will be a tiny Linux computer. This isn't all that surprising; aside from issues of even getting access to proprietary phone operating systems, only Linux would offer the enterprising phone hacker the flexibility needed to get the phone to do something new.

    This "something new" could be integration of phone addresses with social networking software to create active phonebooks:

    Continue reading "DIY Cell Phone" »

    November 21, 2005

    Mosquito Magnet

    proproduct.jpgCompact, quiet and effective up to one and a quarter acres (around 5,000 square meters), the Mosquito Magnet is apparently one of the better devices out there for mosquito abatement. The system puts out simulated "breath" with a mosquito-attractive scent, then sucks them in and dehydrates them -- no insecticides are involved at all. The system has real worldchanging elements -- the manufacturer, American Biophysics, sees the Mosquito Magnets as having real benefits for preventing the spread of malaria, and the biggest system even has a solar panel to charge the battery.

    Moreover, the devices are about to become parts of a smart wireless network:

    Now AmBio, as the company is commonly called, is upping the ante with a "smart" mosquito net, or computerized defense system, to serve the corporate and public health sectors. By the first quarter of 2006, AmBio executives hope to have finalized sophisticated software to control a network of magnets--forming a kind of wide-scale fence--which will be able to communicate with a central network through wireless 802.11b technology.
    That way, the system will be able to efficiently ward off bugs from golf courses and resorts, or even help mitigate cases of malaria in third world countries, according to [AmBio CEO Devin] Hosea."

    But there's a catch:

    Continue reading "Mosquito Magnet" »

    November 29, 2005

    Free Computer (At A Price)

    icon_pc_s.jpgHong Kong company Asiatotal is set to release"iT" -- a computer intended to be given away for free to users in the up-and-coming parts of the developing world, starting this month with Brazil. Unlike the One Laptop Per Child project, it's not meant as a tool for education; the iT computer is very much meant as a way to connect users to retailers. In fact, the iT is in almost every respect the Bizarro-world opposite of the $100 Laptop -- and a provocative challenge to those who would bypass the market to bring information tools to the global poor.

    Here's what's known about the iT: it's a desktop design, and can only run on external power; it uses WindowsCE as its core operating system; it includes a variety of basic utility applications, but users cannot load new programs onto it (preventing virus attacks); it has no hard drive, using instead smart cards to store user data, and a small (7") flat screen; it has a modem for connecting to the Internet, and possibly an ethernet port (based on a photo on the site), but no wireless connection. In short, it's less-capable than a typical "normal" PC, arguably less-capable than the $100 Laptop design, and definitely less-open than either. It is being given away for free, however, and is not likely to generate the kind of black market that the OLPC design surely will.

    But the most controversial aspect of the iT has to be the quick-connect sponsorship keys:

    Continue reading "Free Computer (At A Price)" »

    December 13, 2005

    Cellular Telemedicine, Revisited

    bc1.gifIsraeli doctor Nitzan Yaniv had an idea: since infrared imaging can be used to detect early stages of cancer, particularly breast cancer, why not make home self-examination as easy as snapping a picture with a cameraphone? Taking the idea to Israeli phone company Cellcom, Yaniv discovered that not only would this be possible, it might actually be easy.

    By installing new software and adding a basic infrared camera, a mobile phone could be transformed into a highly-effective diagnostic tool, offering far more accurate results than the self-checks many women do themselves, the Haaretz daily reported.
    Dr Nitzan Yaniv, who developed the technology, said the results of the scan could be immediately transferred to a medical laboratory for analysis, which could determine whether further checks were necessary. [link added]

    The Soroka medical center is also testing the technology as a way to detect early stages of heart disease, which also has a tell-tale heat signature.

    This is not the first time that cameraphones have been proposed as diagnostic tools. In June, I pointed to a report about Swedish biomedical firm Uppsala BIO's work on a blood testing setup relying on cameraphones, and last February, I discussed research by Swiss dermatologists showing that diagnoses via cameraphone image could be nearly as good as in-person diagnoses for many skin conditions.

    In all three of these examples, the readings taken by the phone must be transmitted to a medical center for analysis -- this isn't a doctor-in-your-phone quite yet. Still, these provide ample evidence that the technology for capturing images through a handheld networked device is far more important than advertisements extolling the ability to send photos of potential dates to one's chums would suggest. From environmental monitoring to location-based-services to homemade sensors, we're only beginning to see the utility of these mobile information, communication and observation devices.

    (Via MedGadget)

    December 16, 2005

    The Synaptic Leap

    synapticleap.jpgLet's say you're an eager young bioscientist, ready to use open source models for your biomedical research and development. How do you do it? Well, you could put some of your work up on Bioforge, or try to hook up with a group like BIOS... but where are the enabling systems to make open source, collaborative development straightforward for researchers who don't want to be computer techs in their off-hours?

    The Synaptic Leap wants to be that enabling system.

    The Synaptic Leap is a start-up nonprofit led by Ginger Taylor of PeopleSoft (most of the group's employees, in fact, come from PeopleSoft). The Synaptic Leap describes itself as "dedicated towards providing a network of online communities that connect and empower scientific and medical researchers to conduct open-source style research." What that means in practice is the provision of online tools to allow researchers to coordinating efforts and exchange knowledge.

    Their first project is a big one: Malaria, in coordination with the Tropical Disease Initiative (TDI). (We wrote about the TDI back in January of 2005.) Sometimes considered an "orphan disease" because of the lack of major pharmaceutical projects, much of the current effort to fight malaria focuses on blocking or eliminating the carrier, mosquitos. The TDI intends to find medical treatments to prevent and cure malarial infection; there is still much work to do, and much of what Synaptic Leap intends to accomplish is the efficient organization of the work among the international collaborators:

    Continue reading "The Synaptic Leap" »

    December 21, 2005


    firstaidpod.jpgI'm always fascinated when a medium initially intended as purely for entertainment transforms into so much more. We've seen this happen with digital music players like the iPod; although meant just to play music, they've triggered the development of a new form of information presentation, the podcast. Now there are signs that the medium is taking another leap: the iPod may become a tool for emergency response.

    FirstAidPod is an organization that provides emergency instructions as podcasts. The idea is that, while few of us carry around printed medical guides, many of us carry music players; if a medical emergency occurs, users can open up the correct audio file and listen to step-by-step instructions for handling common -- but life-threatening -- problems. Currently-available first aid podcasts include Infant CPR (.m4a) and Child CPR (.m4a), with Adult CPR coming soon. Future podcasts include instructions for handling choking, drowning and bleeding. (If you download these podcasts directly from these links, please also download this Publisher's Note (.m4a) with basic information about use.)

    Continue reading "FirstAidCasting" »

    December 22, 2005


    bioroot.jpgIn Open Source Biology, what typically gets shared is information, whether manifest as the sequence of a microbial genome or a process for transgenic biotech. This is why sites like The Synaptic Leap and BioForge are so useful: they provide a medium for that information sharing, with clear rules and methods. This more or less parallels the world of free/open source software. But unlike programming, bioscience requires more than information and basic equipment: it requires materials with which to work. Antibodies. Plasmids. Microbial strains. And most of the time, these materials cost money. This is where BioRoot comes in.

    BioRoot is a free online database service for biolabs with two primary goals: it provides a powerful web-accessible lab materials database, allowing scientists to better keep track of what they have and what it can do; and it allows participating labs to list what they have that they don't need, and would be willing to share.

    Continue reading "BioRoot" »

    January 16, 2006

    Software Libre in Venezuela

    venezuelalinux.jpgBrazil has some local competition.

    We've long celebrated Brazil's efforts to encourage the proliferation of Linux and other free/libre/open source software (FLOSS) as a tool for leapfrog technology development. Brazil has come up with some really interesting ideas, but the results have been mixed. Nonetheless, the concept of "software libre" as a catalyst for economic growth outside of the "Washington Consensus" has definitely taken root -- but it's one of Brazil's neighbors that may well take the concept even further than Lula and company could have dared hope.

    This month, Venezuela's open source law goes into effect. This law mandates a two year transition to open source software in all public agencies. Jeff Zucker at the O'Reilly Radar blog has the details:

    This massive undertaking will involve the training of hundreds of thousands of government employees and migrating of the software that runs not only their public agencies, but also their oil industry (which accounts for 70% of the country's economy and is one of the largest business enterprise in Latin America). [...]

    Continue reading "Software Libre in Venezuela" »

    January 19, 2006

    Fighting Pandemics with Mobile Phones

    biohazrdphone.jpgIt's not just wild-eyed social networking evangelists and telecom industry types talking about using mobile telephones as tools for disaster preparedness -- now the US Centers for Disease Control are getting into the act.

    We talk a lot about the ways in which mobile network devices like cell phones can be used to alert people to health problems (such as allergens or pollution) or imminent environmental disasters. Typically, this takes the form of centralized systems sending out SMS text messages to a select group of users; there's already a protocol available for just such a system. The CDC wants to take this further, however, with a mobile phone-based tool for alerting people to potential pandemic risks:

    At the Center for the Advancement of Distance Education (CADE) at the University of Illinois at Chicago, researchers are helping the CDC to develop an emergency alert system that would rely on the Global Positioning System (GPS) features built into many of today's mobile handsets. In areas hit with an outbreak, people who carry GPS-enabled mobile phones and are subscribed to the alert service would receive an emergency alert text message with instructions about where to go or what to do during specific emergencies, such as an outbreak of anthrax or bird flu.

    Continue reading "Fighting Pandemics with Mobile Phones" »

    February 3, 2006

    Earth Witness

    razrearth.jpgThe idea of the emerging participatory panopticon scares a lot of people. That's not surprising; after all, there are numerous ways in which a world in which millions of us carry always-on, mobile networked recorders could lead to invasions of privacy, harassment of the powerless, and an increased coarsening of public discourse. But if we accept the notion that the participatory panopticon is a likely consequence of otherwise desirable improvements to communication and information technologies, it becomes incumbent upon us to think of ways to use it as a tool for good.

    I've long admired the Witness project, which provides video cameras to human rights activists around the world in order to document violations and abuses. I was particularly happy to see the recent news that Witness plans to open up a web portal to enable users of digital cameras and cameraphones to send in their recordings over the Internet, rather than just as hand-carried videotape. While thinking about that development, however, it occurred to me that a similar model might work well for a "second superpower" army of networked environmentalists: imagine a web portal collecting recordings and evidence of ecological problems (human-caused or otherwise), environmental crimes, and significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions. It would be, in essence, an "Earth Witness" project.

    Such a project wouldn't need to be limited only to problems. In the best WorldChanging spirit, the "Earth Witness" site (or "Environmental Transparency Project," or "Smart Mobs for Natural Security") could also serve as a collection spot for data about conditions around the planet. The data could be tagged with geographic information and, once uploaded, mashed-up with online maps for easy viewing and analysis.

    Continue reading "Earth Witness" »

    February 6, 2006

    Up, Up and Away!

    space_data.jpgOne of the reasons why mobile phone technology is so appealing to the leapfrog nations is that it's far less expensive and time-consuming to erect cellular towers than it is to pull miles of copper or fiber optic wire. But what if there was a solution that would be even cheaper and faster? Arizona-based Space Data and North Dakota's Extend America have developed a system using inexpensive balloons with cellular routers to provide wide-area coverage of sparsely-populated areas. North Dakota is set to be the test site for the system, which will use three balloons to provide coverage equivalent to 1,100 cellular towers. The balloons, once launched, would rise to a height of 20 miles, well above flight paths and transient weather conditions.

    This isn't the first lighter-than-air communications network idea we've posted about; the Stratellite concept uses an airship to provide WiFi access across a wide area. What makes the SkySite concept different is that it uses cheap, disposable weather balloons as a platform, relying on a constant flow of launches and retrievals (the cellular hardware drops off and parachutes down after the maximum range is passed, and the balloon bursts at higher altitudes). The Sky Site system requires more frequent attention than a Stratellite or cellular tower network, but carries out its tasks at what should be very low cost.

    I'm not sure that this will work out as a full-time replacement for towers, but it has obvious applications in both the developing world and in places recently struck by natural disasters. Inflation and release of cellular balloons can in principle happen very quickly, and can happen even during storms. We're generally disinclined to support systems that rely on disposable components -- recycle and reuse, people! -- but this has enough interesting potential that I'd like to see some effort go into figuring out how to make it a less wasteful process.

    (Thanks for the tip, John Maas)

    February 7, 2006


    reactome.jpgReactome is an open source, online knowledge base and map of biological processes in humans, including basic metabolism, hormonal signalling, and the cellular pathways that make infection possible. The Reactome map includes sections for each of the 23 processes it currently covers; the arrangement of reactions is reminiscent of a map of constellations, giving the map the nickname "starry sky." Late last month, the Reactome group released the newest version of the map, including for the first time the Influenza and HIV infection cycles -- as well as an entirely new way of visualizing the biological reactions.

    [Reactome] is intended to teach scientists about parts of the influenza lifecycle they might not be familiar with, and to help researchers look at specific reactions and figure out ways to block them. [...] The influenza pathway component and a simultaneous HIV database going online mark the first time Reactome has displayed interactions between an infectious pathogen and its host, Dr. Scheuermann said.

    Continue reading "Reactome" »

    February 10, 2006

    Open Source Microcredit, Revisited

    panaceatamilweb.jpgSteve Jobs once said, "real artists ship." He meant that no matter how elegant or useful the computer code, the only way it has value is if it gets into the hands of users. We could say something similar about open source software for NGOs: real activists ship. No matter how important or beneficial the software, the only way it has value for the people who need it is if those people can use it. In fact, nothing is more depressing for a digitally-empowered activist than to stumble across a brilliant piece of software, only to find that the web page hasn't been updated in a year and the code itself remains both unusable and unavailable. And nothing is more exciting than finding that another solution is available.

    Way back in August of 2004, Alex pointed us to the Microfinance Open Architecture Project, an open source effort to develop tools for NGOs trying to manage microcredit services in the developing world. The developers understood the needs of the users, and had the right philosophy around the value of open source. Potential users of the code may have grown more excited at its potential when the Grameen Technology Center adopted the code (PDF), renaming it Mifos -- the Microfinance Open Source project -- in January of 2005. Work progressed through September of last year... then stopped. There's no software yet available, only a quiet Sourceforge site.

    Let me be clear: this is not a criticism of the Mifos project. Stuff happens, and all-volunteer efforts are often difficult to sustain for reasons that have nothing to do with dedication. Grameen clearly has not forgotten about Mifos, as they listed a job opening for a Software Development Manager for the project at the end of January 2006. But the fact remains that a project that seemed to have enormous potential a couple of years ago has yet to get into the hands of people who need it.

    Fortunately, there's another option -- one that also happens to be open source. This one comes from a part of the world that has seen the value of microcredit: Tamil Nadu, India.

    Continue reading "Open Source Microcredit, Revisited" »

    February 14, 2006

    Climate Prediction, by way of the BBC, one of the largest distributed computing projects going, has started a new forecast in concert with the BBC. As before, users download code that runs in the background, allowing thousands of computers around the Internet to process parts of the whole project. In this new effort, is looking at the changes to come over the next 75 years, but this time its model -- based on the climate and weather forecasting code used by the BBC -- includes a "fully dynamic ocean," allowing for a more complex interaction between the atmosphere and the seas. garnered a bit of attention last year when researchers presented its first set of findings -- which included results showing that the range of temperatures towards the end of this century could be substantially higher than the IPCC baseline case.

    Interestingly, rather than each participating computer working on a small chunk of the overall process, every computer in this BBC/ project will have its own version of Earth to examine. The simulation starts at 1920, and pauses at 2006; if the result is inaccurate (such as an iceball or runaway greenhouse Earth), it then ends. If the 2006 result is more-or-less comparable to the real world, the project continues, mapping out changes through 2080. estimates that the whole process will take 3-4 months. How many Earths you chew through in that time depends upon the speed of your computer and how idle you leave it.

    What makes this version of the software particularly fun is that the "screensaver" mode shows your current Earth model in action, and has shortcuts for looking at current temperatures, cloud cover, and rainfall, among other bits of info. Since the software runs in the background, that's the extent of the interactivity -- but still, you do get to see "your" planet evolve.

    (A minor annoyance: the BBC/ software is only available for Windows and Linux. Given that the core code remains the open source BOINC, and both BOINC and the previous project supported the Mac, I can only presume that the current processor architecture transition at Apple has delayed the new code's introduction.)

    February 28, 2006


    widens.jpgLet's see... we've covered open source ad hoc communications networks, disaster/relief "in a box" networks, and easy to deploy combination data and voice networks... seems to me that we need something that does all three.

    Enter WIDENS.

    WIDENS (WIreless DEployable Network System) is a system developed by the "Information Society Technologies" group of the European Commission, intended to provide rapid set-up voice and data communication for disaster response, using ad hoc networking technologies.

    “There is a clear need for such a system,” remarks Dr Vania Conan, project coordinator for WIDENS. “In emergency and disaster relief applications, there is a demand for using video-images and cameras to help monitor the operations – for instance, infrared cameras mounted on the helmets of firefighters. Although more of an extreme case, rapid deployment of a communications infrastructure – after a large scale earthquake or flood for example – is not possible with present technology,” he says.

    Continue reading "WIDENS" »

    March 7, 2006

    See SPOT. See SPOT Sense. Sense, SPOT, Sense!

    sunSPOT.jpgSensor devices able to keep tabs on what's happening to the world around you will play an important role in the Bright Green Future. The rapidly-changing global (and local!) environment require us to pay closer attention to current and emerging conditions. More information doesn't always lead to better decision-making, but it's better to choose to discard information you have than to lament the information you don't. At the same time, collaborative, DIY technologies will also play an important role in the world we'd like to see. More participants doesn't just mean more of a chance to spot problems -- although that's true -- a greater number of participants offers a greater opportunity for diverse innovation.

    Sun Microsystem's research department is set to roll out something that could bring these two concepts closer together: small programmable object technology, or SPOT.

    What makes SPOT interesting is the program's emphasis on sensing devices as the primary purpose of this tiny, low-power, ultra-programmable system:

    By simplifying the development of wireless transducer applications, the Sun SPOT System from Sun Labs will help transform the potential of wireless sensors into real-world products.

    Continue reading "See SPOT. See SPOT Sense. Sense, SPOT, Sense!" »

    March 8, 2006

    Letting Objects Tell Their Stories

    fractaluniverse.jpgJulian Bleecker's paper A Manifesto for Networked Objects — Cohabiting with Pigeons, Arphids and Aibos in the Internet of Things (PDF) -- also known as Why Things Matter -- should be required reading for every WorldChanging participant, contributor or reader.

    The essay looks at the rise of what Bleecker calls "blogjects" (objects that blog), precursors to Bruce Sterling's more complex "spime" concept. Simply put, these are networked objects that document on an ongoing basis their locations, their histories, and their purposes -- in essence, telling us their stories. On the surface, Bleecker focuses on the evolution of this technology, but in reality, he's really talking about a catalyst for bringing about the Bright Green future. These are some of his examples:

    [Blogjects tell us] about their conditions of manufacture, including labor contexts, costs and profit margins; materials used and consumed in the manufacturing process; patent trackbacks; and, perhaps most significantly, rules, protocols and techniques for retiring and recycling [them].
    ...With Kundi, connected Things (they were, in this case, webcams capturing images of the real world) could have their content tagged as "hot" and draw in attention from anyone on the Internet. ...there is one usage scenario I've heard Mike mention more than once — a Kundi Cam placed in a refugee camp where rape and murder are routine. Now imagine that the Blogject version of the Kundi Cam has a visible indicator showing how many tens of thousands of people around the world are watching at any given moment. Behaviors change, threatening space edges towards safe space because Things are enrolled in the social web thicket.

    Continue reading "Letting Objects Tell Their Stories" »

    March 15, 2006

    Collaborative Defense

    Two people we link to regularly here -- David Stephenson and John Robb -- have both had pieces come out in mainstream publications over the last few days. These articles cover ostensibly different topics, responses to bird flu and the rise of networked guerilla movements. At their core, however, they are each about the very same issue: how do we adopt collaborative, bottom-up tools for our own protection?

    This question is familiar to long-time readers; we've talked about the role open collaboration can play in our responses to crisis for quite a while. What is new is the degree to which these ideas are starting to trickle into the mainstream. The idea of using participatory tools as a fundamental means of protecting ourselves and our societies from natural and unnatural disasters has the potential to become a rallying point across numerous issues. It's important that we start to shape the discourse now, so that as this notion moves into the common debate, we've already established our leadership in the discussion.

    The early 21st century has seen the rise to prominence of three broad types of threat: pandemic flu; terrorism; and environmental disruption. As we've discussed here numerous times, these three cannot be entirely separated, as each has the potential to make the others more deadly. Stephenson talks about flu in his article, while Robb talks about security. The environment is the missing section in each (although Robb touches on it briefly), but we've talked quite a bit ourselves about the use of collaborative tools for environmental defense.

    The key question is, can we unify our responses? If so, how? Is it possible that some of the same tools, and some of the same ways of thinking, can help in our broad civil response to all three of these potential disasters?

    Continue reading "Collaborative Defense" »

    March 16, 2006

    RFID Viruses: A WC Perspective

    The technoblogosphere is abuzz with the news that a group of computer scientists at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam have determined that RFID tags could be used as carriers for computer viruses. The reportage on this study has been fairly overblown, a problem exacerbated by the researchers titling their report "Is Your Cat Infected With A Computer Virus?" (PDF). The real problem is both less frightening and more interesting than these reports suggest.

    The extended entry contains a non-technical explanation of what the fuss is all about.

    This research is an important reminder than any digital device that is both on a network and able to have its data changed by external action (even something as simple as receipt of an email) is a potential virus host. By and large, we've become accustomed to thinking about viruses on our desktop and laptop computers, but as previously "dumb" devices pick up networked smarts, we will have to broaden our awareness of a sometimes-hostile digital ecosystem. I would like to see all future discussions of (for example) "blogjects" acknowledge the virus issue, even in passing. If your refrigerator is on the Internet, somebody's going to try to write a virus for it.

    Things will get even weirder as we move into the fabrication future. As we develop more sophisticated fabbers, it will be very important that we also develop the kinds of digital "immune systems" that would prevent the introduction of harmful code into the product design files. Not just to prevent the propagation of viruses on those computers, but to prevent the introduction of malicious (and hidden) hardware into the printed objects themselves! For example, imagine printing out a chair using a design that's been hacked to include hardware in the seat that could scan nearby credit cards and send them off over the network...

    It looks like one of the unexpected results of the emergence of an "Internet of Things" is the need to think about the health of our material goods.

    Continue reading "RFID Viruses: A WC Perspective" »

    March 29, 2006

    Can You Copyright the World?

    boundbylaw.jpgDocumentary filmmakers are in a particularly difficult position in terms of intellectual property, as most documentarians focus on lives of real people -- and modern life, especially in the US, Europe and Japan, is inundated with logos, music, background video and myriad other trademark and copyright concerns. Bound by Law?, a discussion of the intersection of fair use, public domain, copyright and documentary film -- done in a comic book format -- illustrates both the complexities that documentarians face and the broader struggle over how we can record modern life in all of its forms for posterity. Created by Keith Aoki, James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins at the Duke University Center for the Study of the Public Domain, Bound by Law? is well-worth reading by anyone trying to understand how intellectual property rules affect our lives. Although it looks only at American regulations, many of the concepts it covers apply far more broadly.

    The ongoing evolution of copyright laws in the industrialized world has served both to protect and to stymie creative artists. On the one hand, stronger and more explicit protection of copyright assures emerging artists that larger corporate entities can't simply take the artists' work; on the other hand, aggressive assertion of rights over material that is part of our common culture has a demonstrable negative impact on the creative abilities of artists. Although much of the debate online focuses on American laws, digital era copyright laws in Europe and Japan have evoked similar arguments, and the role of intellectual property laws in the relationship between industrialized and developing nations remains controversial. The solutions offered by groups like Creative Commons can go a long way to making the situation more reasonable, but they require positive action on the part of artists.

    Continue reading "Can You Copyright the World?" »

    About Emerging Technologies

    This page contains an archive of all entries posted to WC Archive in the Emerging Technologies category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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