Technology Ecosystems

time

I feel a bit embarrassed having only secured one single blog post in 2013 . My mentor Martin Weller would be ashamed of me. Interestingly though, according to my annual feedback, my blog received almost as many visits in 2013 as 2012 (around 3000 visitors). Is that a reflection that the content is becoming more valuable as time passes?

Reflecting on 2013, for me it’s been the year of turning aspirations into products. For the iSpot project for example I created what I called a “Technical Roadmap”, which is really a grand way of saying that we had so much to deliver from a total of four different funders, we also been involved in BBC TV series (The Great British Year) and in the OU’s first Futurelearn MOOC on Ecosystems. (Which I took part but sadly became a drop-out!)

As a consequence we needed to ramp up the technical management of the project for what was an extremely challenging year and the Technical Roadmap helped us to keep our sanity (most of the time). Richard Greenwood has created a project blog about the main technical work during 2013.

Here are a some of my highlights:

globe1. Internationalisation/Community (the link takes you to the UK and Ireland community)- This is by far the biggest technical feat of the year for iSpot. The system now supports numerous communities organised according to geographical or taxonomic criteria. Richard Greenwood worked very hard on the functionality, which uses polygon mapping to calculate areas (and use multiple polygons so a region such as the UK, or Eastern Europe can be mapped out). The difficulty was providing communities without destroying the taxonomy (species dictionaries) as these sometimes span many areas. With the UK is was simple but now there are multiple dictionaries (one for Global iSpot) that need to be used in the correct places. Richard therefore couples the taxonomies to the observations locations, but decoupled it from the community (polygon) model, thus allowing freedom to create communities without having to use a dictionary that wasn’t relevant to their locale. The technology used is MariaDB and Open Street Map for creating polygons (and Google maps for displaying them). Richard also implemented Geo-IP to direct people to the correct community be default and the system will also allow people to move to different communities. Communities don’t have to be countries (we now have a budding Chilean community on iSpot for example ). Communities have their own News items and maps which are centred on their geographical region, and observations relevant to that community. Communities don’t just have to be geographical, they can also be around organisations or species or in fact anything that can be filtered against within iSpot, this makes the feature potentially very powerful.

species surfer2. A species surfer – The species surfer (or ID tool as it was originally called) allows anyone on iSpot to browse the species dictionary (taxonomy) using images to represent the main categories and sub-categories. Within a sub-category people can look at the variety of types to track down ones that are similar to their own observations. We know from talking to users that this is something they’ve been interested in having. Many people use Google and other sites to try to find out more about their observations and we thought that since iSpot has over 250,000 observations, the majority of which have been accurately identified, we should use that feature and draw it to people’s attention. It also acts as a learning tool and we hope it will be useful for field studies and research, from novices through to experts. This has only just been released so we still have further work to do to improve it but we want to get feedback from users since we know that there is still more work to do on this. The iSpot team have  provided  help information to guide people in how to use it correctly.

quiz13. Intelligent quiz - The existing crowdsourced identification model within iSpot, rewarding improvement in ability to identify observations, provides some of evidence that people are learning and improving their understanding of nature through iSpot, however it isn’t full-proof. For example a person may gain reputation through identifying very common species and without expanding their knowledge of other species. We therefore require empirical evidence of improvement in people’s ability to identify a greater variety of observations as their reputation improves; the iSpot intelligent quiz is designed to test this knowledge. The quiz was launched in July 2013, since then around 350 people per week have taken one or more quizzes, so an average of around 50 people per day. The quiz is tailored to the level and subject area that people request when they start a new quiz on iSpot. The reputation level that iSpot provides is a good indicator of the level that people should take but there is no restriction on the level so, for example, a level five expert could take  a level 1 quiz and vice versa. The data from the weekly logs shows however the people are averaging about 7 out of ten for quizzes across the skills levels which suggests that people are naturally finding a level which challenges them.

The quiz has a number of different types of question that test a range of knowledge within a specific domain, some questions are multiple choice and others are about entering the correct name or type of observation, some examples are shown below:-

quiz2

The quiz is largely image-based and relies on people correctly identifying observations. The quiz is open to both visitors to the website who have not yet registered, and also to registered users. Registered users have the benefit of being able to look back at previous quizzes they have taken to compare results. As part of the intelligence the quiz tries to select images which have been agreements and ones which are non-contentious, for example it will attempt to filter out hybrid types. In the example below people can use the button in the right hand corner of the image to expand it and see additional detail.

quiz3

Certain questions prompt people to enter correct names associated with an image, they are based on the names given within the species dictionary on iSpot. The system will look up the dictionary and offer suggestions for entries that match, or which are very similar to, the name entered by the user.

quiz4

We collect overview information about the quizzes on a weekly basis, including information about preferred groups, as you can see from the chart below birds consistently prove to be the most popular category for people taking the quiz.

quiz5

quiz6

The weekly statistics show us that the percentage of visitors who take quizzes compared to registered users varies from week to week.

For example during w/c 16th September 2013 about three quarters of people taking the quiz are registered users as indicated in the following diagram.

Interestingly during the previous week the ratio was more like 60/40 in favour of registered users so this seems to be indicating that as time passes the quiz may be becoming more popular with registered users however this will require further data analysis.

quiz7

Each quiz has up to ten questions so the table below shows that during the previous week there is an 80.7% completion rate.

The completion rate for the previous week was 89.1% and completion rates seem to fall consistently within 80%-89% percent range.

quiz8We are tracking the average scores of people who take the quiz and the results show us that there is only a very slight variation in score between people who class themselves as novice and take a level 1 quiz and people who class themselves as expert and take the level 5 quiz.

There is a slight decrease from 7.5 to 6.5 going from level 2 to level 3 and beyond however it is worth bearing in mind that the quiz provides novice users with up to three “lifelines” to use to help them (a lifeline is typically where two of the four choices are removed to make it simpler for people to find the correct remaining answer).

We have yet to analyse the raw data coming from the quizzes and because the service is relatively new we need more time before we can start to get useful trend data to help us demonstrate that people are increasing in their knowledge of nature through using iSpot.

In particular we need to understand the relationship between the amount of time people have been using iSpot and the level of knowledge they have attained. The data already indicates that people who use iSpot are gaining knowledge about nature and over the next few months we will be conducting further data analysis to understand exactly how this is being achieved.

These are just a selection of some of the new features in iSpot (I have at least 24 more to share with you!). I am very interested in how these systems evolve over time and the nature of the co-evolution of the technology and the people using that technology.

The Facebook we see today is very different from the first iteration of Facebook.

People are generally much more technology aware, and use technologies frequently for “selfies” and to share with others in a connected way. Systems must therefore evolve to support the changing perceptions of users to technology and iSpot can naturally support learning using images and photographs that people nowadays naturally want to share.

I’ve summarised some of the latest iSpot features that explain this co-evolution process in a presentation that I gave in December. We “technocrats” rely heavily on the community, and the subject experts to help us create services that are useful and provide mechanisms of learning and improvement.

I will be continuing  over the coming months to give examples of the richness of the  systems that we’re working on the Institute of Educational Technology. Working in partnership with the Science Faculty and Open Media Unit and the 36,000 users of iSpot.

Star Trek Tech

 

Back in 2006 I attended the Star Trek exhibition at the London Science Museum (here’s a photo of part of the exhibit).

It wasn’t just some nerdy event (!) but also a way of demonstrating how far we have come in meeting the challenges of creating the kind of Science Fiction tech that we see in Star Trek. At the time it was pretty impressive, from the medical through to communication and analysis tech we had come a long way. However the world has moved forward since then obeying Moores Law quite accurately.

I was therefore interested last week to see that they now invented a ‘cloaking device’  - the first step on the path to a 3-D invisibility cloak. Cool. So here are some others…

Start Trek                                                    Equivalent

1. “Phaser to Stun”                                        Tazer

2. “Phaser to Kill”                                           Laser guided weapons

3. “Communicator”                                       Mobile phone

4. “Tricorder”                                                  Mobile Phone or PDA

                                     (possibly with Sciencescope attachments)

5. “Medical Tricorder”                                 MRI scanner

6. Holodeck                                              3-D holographic projection

                            (immersion suits, immersive VR environments)

7. Replicator                                                   Replicator (3-D) Printers

8. Universal Translater                               iPhone app

                                                            or Phraselator (U.S. Military tech)

9. Scalpel Free surgery                               Laser surgery

10. Jordy’s visor                                            digital cameras and

                                                           tongue devices help blind see.

11. Communicator earpiece                      Bluetooth headset

12. Force Field                                                Plasma bubble

We live now in the world inspired by the Science Fiction depicted in the early Star Trek. I hope however that as we ‘boldly go’ forward we continue to explore the macro as well as the micro and to be pushing outwards as well as exploring the inward workings of our world. I worry that we’re using technology as a crutch for everyday living rather than as tools to project us to new and rewarding (off world?) experiences.

Bio Feedback Technology

We’ve just purchased a set of Bio feedback technology that has been used by other research to look specifically at emotional responses to gaming. The product is ProComp Biograph Infniti and we’ve bought it with a number of different sensors to pick up things such as  Surface Electromyography, Skin Conductivity and EKG heart rate monitoring.

This rich data can be provided alongside other types of data and we’re therefore going to use it with our purpose built Research Labs along with eye tracking technology and other video data that we capture during our testing work. This should allow us to get a much more detailed picture of the level of engagement and immersion within game play and indeed other forms of online interaction such as within virtual worlds and other online web environments. I’m really looking forward to trying it out. We’ve got plans to also extend this work beyond the labs themselves so we can look at monitoring people in their own social contexts and seeing if this makes a difference.

We are also considering developing a joint research bid with the Speckled Computing people again extending the work we do in the labs out into the real world and looking at how to use the ‘intant feedback’ that this technology provides to assist people in both how they work and in their personal and social lives. I’m very excited about the possibilities that these technologies provide.  

Some quick example or two to explain what I mean.

1. We can use Bio feedback to assist people in dealing with stressful situations and conflict. We can use VR or video simulations to mock up events and work through issues with individuals in a ‘controlled’ way, for example training social workers.

2. We can use Bio feedback and speckled computing at assist with rehabilitation, and with improving balance in people who have mobility issues, for example those who have had hip replacement surgery to learn to walk correctly again and improve freedom of movement.

3. We can assist with pandemic outbreaks by sending ‘specks’ to affected people to gauge whether or not they have the illness and to monitor their recovery. This avoids having to involve expensive health care practitioners and it also allows us to accurately measure the spread of a pandemic.

There are many more, Sports Science, Gaming etc.. the possibilities are many and varied and the opportunity for using this technology to benefit our society is very much within our grasp.

What I did in my holidays (mind control)

I’ve had a break from blogging but no bad thing really as I wanted to get my head around some technology both of the traditional variety and of the IT sort. I’ve been reading the mind control headsets articles with interest. In particular BBC Focus magazine did two articles in the last edition relating to gaming and future tech. One was to do with the Olympics in the future and things like augmented reality, wearable technology to enhance athletes performance, bionics, and simulation. Interestingly the Korean team used simulation gaming combined with sports psychology as a method to train from Archery and similar ‘repetitive’ type sporting activities during the 2008 Olympics earlier this year and this seemed to be proven as a good method of learning to perform better (tuning you brain to practise and achieve results then the body will follow). This is also a method adopted by F1 drivers to practise racing around circuits, they use a PS2 and then learn the right breaking points and entry to corners etc. before actually getting in the car.

I bought myself a compound bow to take up archery again after a long break and I was amazed at how many new gadgets are available to enhance the archer and improve the shot, when I did target archery as a kid it was a much simpler sport in many ways and I think that technology does give an advantage and improve the shot but I had a lesson from the three times world compound bow champion over the summer and he is very much into the psychology of the sport and made us shoot blind (using the ‘afterburn’ image of the target gold to find our shot). This was very interesting and a quick way of training our brains into ‘knowing’ the gold and blocking out all other visual distractions.

So back to mind headsets, two are coming out next year by all accounts, the EPOC which is the gaming one and should be very interesting to try out and there’s another one which is going to be used more for interactive T.V. work, where the headset will pick up moods and adjust the programming to suit you. (I told male friends about this one and they were all concerned that the T.V. would constantly be flicking to the porn channels!). I guess we’ll need to wait and see how good it is at getting moods and also at dealing with situations with multiple users (with different moods!).

Anyhow I’ve been up to checking out several eBook readers (iliad and BeBook) and we have the Sony eBook on order so I’ll blog about them soon…then there’s Spore which has just been released I could say a lot about that but I’ll save it for another blog! - Lots of exciting new stuff coming online now so I’m setting myself up for month of exploration.

Web 3.0 – I don’t think so.

I’ve been reading several articles recently about the semantic web including one in last week’s Computing magazine. The article cited Tim Burners-Lee as espousing the benefits of the semantic web for the past decade and now it seems some progress is being made, albeit in small areas.

The latest to roll off the shelf is Powersets semantic search service. It searches wikipedia only at the moment but is set to go further soon. Importantly it searches via conversational techniques and is supposed to provide a more intuitive experience. So this is the future of the web, already being tagged web 3.0.

I was rather hoping that web 3.0 would be a little more than a sensemaking tool, not that it’s not useful but I imagined web 3.0 to include neural interfacing and total immersion, webTV and augmented reality. Speaking of which I saw the bionic eye technology (actually a bionic contact lens) being developed in Seattle by UoW. They showed a working demo of the technology in action on a recent episode of click.

Mans work…

I’ve been enjoying a week off work this week, the weather has been lovely and I’ve been out in the garden cutting down trees, rolling my sleeves up and getting on with lots of jobs that need doing. It’s very refreshing and I’ve even managed to keep away from technology for a while.

I did however sneak a look at the new Google Earth offering (as it’s not anything to do with work as such). This one could very well blow my mind. My father-in-law loves google earth and was zooming in on my new house before we’ve even moved in and was telling me all about the size of my plot compared to my neighbours (it’s a bit larger) and how the road goes down to the local church etc. He is almost obsessed by it and spends most days google ‘unearthing’ (tm?) facts about places we’ve been to on holiday or places we may possible go in the future…

That leads me back to the new bit of Google Earth which is that you can now do a search of the sky and you’ll get some very precise charts showing you how the sky looks from your location. You can do other fab things like searching for different start systems or constellations and you can zoom and even track the movement of different planets through a time period to see where they’re going to be. It’s a fantastic looking tools. I’ve only just downloaded it and I’m looking forward to playing with it. I’m not much of a star gazer myself but Jordan really loves the stars and we’ve just bought him a telescope so this will be the perfect tool to accompany that.

Arthur C Clark and Bletchley Park…

There is no connection between Arthur C Clark and Bletchley Park other than they’re both in my thoughts at the moment. I’m reading one of Clarks books at the moment (Times Eye) and I still find him to be one of the best SF authors around. He understood the science, in a similar way to Asimov, which really helped him to predict or at least imagine how things might progress. Clark predicted communications satllites, space shuttle, super-computers etc. and inspired others. In 1940 he predicted that we’d reach the moon by the year 2000 an idea dismissed by others at the time. He said he never patented his idea for satellites because he never thought it would happen in his lifetime. I think these things happended directly as a result of him and his like. He inspired people to go out and make these things happen.

Bletchley Park is an inspirational place to visit. It’s a nerd heaven with the first computational device ever invented and a slate statue of Alan Turing (the father of computing) who worked there during the war. Ian Fleming (creator of James Bond)also worked there and during our short escorted tour we met the guy who has spent the past twelve years restoring the computer (Colossus) back to working order.  He did it using drawings and photos as all the original scematics were distroyed. All the valves are taken from ex-telecom exchanges and some of them date back to the second world war themselves. His anecdotes were my favourite part of the tour. he decribed the inventiveness that the code breakers used to decypher the messages passed by the Germans and the crazy ideas they came up with to try to capture a cypher machine. Ian Fleming had an idea of flying a German plane back to Germany pretending to be returning from a raid, crash it in a strategic place and then once there remove a device and return to England. It was decided that that idea was too risky but may others like it were tried. The way they cracked the codes is fantastic too. I went there with the delegates from the Microsoft Silverlight event, these people are some of todays IT industry experts but when we visited Bletchley Park my colleagues and I shared a sense that the real inventiveness took place all those years ago and we are just a pale shadow of that. Bletchley Park is the proof that necessity breeds invention.

Morph (nanotechnology)

I’m not sure if this will interest anyone apart from myself but I do feel that some of the nanotech research taking place is leading us in a very interesting direction. Take the Nokia funded Morph project for example, I’ve read several articles about it including the one I’ve linked to which comes from the BBC website. In other articles there’s talk about the sensory and morphing stuff being only a matter of about seven years away and the nanolectronics (the ability to get power directly from the environment in new and interesting ways) being possible within 11 years. These could even be conservative estimates with the rate of change. I’ve said before that if they could crack the ‘ambient power’ issue with mobile devices and also get ‘always on’ mobile networking totally cracked then things like electronic paper become much more desirable objects. (there’s a lot of if’s there) – but I think it’s only a matter of time.

I also saw a nice quote today from  SF writer William Gibson  “the future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed”

Aliens, Wifi and nasties…

Three odd things happened in the past few days (well probably more but three that I’m aware of) – Firstly a report I read in the Independent from a senior medical advisor to the UK government saying that wifi could be as dangerous to people as asbestos. This has sparked a huge debate with many people saying that there’s no proof of any issues. In May the BBC reported that scientists had concluded there were no health risks.

Secondly there is a report out this week proving that there are no short term health issues associated with the use of mobile phones for adults however there may be a risk over a long term (the report didn’t cover children who may be at higher risk) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/6990958.stm

 Thirdly a meteorite fell in Peru and caused a mystery illness http://www.guardian.co.uk/space/article/0,,2171920,00.html

Where does this leave me? – I don’t know what’s killing me. Last year I was told banana’s (one of my favourite foods) cause cancer. I think that almost everything is carcinogenic and that perhaps scientists should spend a lot more time researching things, but more importantly the media shouldn’t pounce on one persons opinion or unpublished papers and tout them as proof. It’s highly irresponsible.

I’m off to my bunker now to escape from all these rays!

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