Tag Archives: open source

Chalkbot vs StreetWriter. A Nike Fail?

Nike in ‘cool new robot not cool or new’ shock.

The marketing and communications industry often find its inspiration through outreach to ‘edgy’, street or political artists. Think Barbara Kruger‘s work with Selfridges, or street artist Speto’s posters for Brahma beer. At the occasional cost of some credibility points, everybody wins: artists get funding and exposure, brands get cooler creative executions than agency ‘creative’ teams could dream up unaided.

But sometimes, ideas are appropriated for campaigns without the consent of their creators. Consent can, at first glance, seem a particularly grey area for street art, say, or activist content. After all, if you’ve gifted an idea to the commons without a clearly-stated and enforceable license in place, what right have you to complain if that idea gets spotted by an agency and used to sell, say, soft drinks. Or indeed, sports shoes?

Consider, for example, Chalkbot — a robot which writes messages in chalk on the road as it bumps along behind another vehicle. You can send Chalkbot tweets, you can text it, you can probably email it. And whatever you send, ends up on the road, writ large in chalk. Chalkbot is cool. Geek cool. As we understand it, Chalkbot was developed by DeepLocal, and, via ad agency Wieden + Kennedy, is being used by Nike as part of its brand tie-up with the LIVESTRONG campaign of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, at the Tour de France (yes this can get confusing).

We first heard about Chalkbot on Twitter today. But actually, no — we didn’t first hear of it today. We first saw the technology demonstrated a few years back, at a Dorkbot event in London. The project was called StreetWriter, and its creators were a group of highly technical activists called the Institute for Applied Autonomy (IAA). Not just cool, StreetWriter was also political. Watch the video.

Chalkbot isn’t StreetWriter. Although based on IAA’s work, Chalkbot is far from political. It’s commercial. It’s also built, in part, by former IAA members. Nothing wrong with that in itself. DeepLocal present their version of its history on their website [thanks to Nathan at DeepLocal for providing us with that link in response to my earlier shoutout on Twitter].

Crucially, however, Nike and W+K’s press releases apparently make no mention of their robot’s activist ancestry.

Our problem with that? One word: Attribution — a key concern of us commons-loving content-creators. Play, mix, mash-up, create using what we’ve made, but give credit where credit’s due: show respect to those who came before, on whose ideas you build. This is simple: even leaving aside the politics, Nike should be putting some more love out. It seems the IAA shares our views on this. In the past hour or so, they’ve issued a press release which details their dissatisfaction with Nike’s appropriation of their work. Read it. Respond as you see fit.

This story is developing. We’ll keep you posted as and when Nike or its agencies make any public response.

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Vive La Revolution!

Paris turns 175,000 schoolkids into hackers by equipping them with open source software.

ZDNet reports that Ile-de-France, the political district of greater Paris, has plans to give 175,000 schoolchildren and apprentices a USB drive loaded with open-source software. The keys will be given to 130,000 secondary school pupils and 45,000 first year apprentices at training centres at the start of the 2007 school year. The aim of the project is to give “students a tool of freedom and mobility between their school, cybercafes and their home or friends.” The operation will cost around €2.6 million [hard to see how but hey]. The president of the regional council, Jean-Paul Huchon, is a self-confessed ‘partisan of the rebalancing of the supply of proprietary and open-source software’ who previously welcomed the launch of the Firefox 2 browser and led the support for a creation of a competitiveness hub based on open source.

And if they’re doing it, why aren’t you?

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The $100 laptop

The idea: a laptop cheap enough to be supplied to every child in the world’s poorest countries.

This story actually broke last year but it’s too important to miss. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab has spun out a non-profit association called One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) to design, manufacture and distribute laptops that will be provided to governments at cost and issued to children by schools on the basis of one per child. The machines will be hardy, use open source Linux-based software and so energy-efficient that hand cranking alone can generate sufficient power for operation. They will fold up into eBook mode for reading only. Mesh networking will give many machines internet access from one connection.

According to MIT, at least 50% of a modern laptop’s purchase price is taken up by the cost of sales, marketing, distribution and profit. OLPC has none of these costs. The machine will not be available in shops, although in order to discourage a grey market they will authorise production of a commercial version, where a share of profits will be dedicated to further lowering the cost of the OLPC machine. Distribution in most cases will instead piggyback on existing textbook channels.

The remaining 50% of the cost of a laptop can be divided into roughly two equal parts: the display and everything else. The display is the real technical challenge in terms of keeping costs down. The Media Lab at MIT has therefore developed short term ways to bring the cost of the display to close to $30 per machine. Longer term solutions may be innovations like E Ink (which MIT invented) that could eventually be as cheap as 10 cents per square inch for a full colour, sunlight-readable screen with better than textbook resolution in print mode. As for the ‘everything else’ (the processor, memory and power management): modern laptops use about 75% of their own processing capacity to support hefty software applications and the operating system itself. Hence the adoption of the ‘skinny’ (and free) Linux operating system.

Nicholas Negroponte, chairman and co-founder of the MIT Media Lab, has now officially introduced the $100 laptop in The Economist saying:

Will the $100 laptop happen? Yes. When? Late 2006. Where? Certainly in Brazil, Thailand and Egypt to begin with; we hope in China too. But the ‘market’ is global, more than 1 billion schoolchildren worldwide, for whom one laptop per child is the goal.

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A Geek Writes… a rant about the future of telly

The future of TV? Who knows! The future of channels? Recent history suggests that a revolution is just over the horizon.

Ah, the big questions of life — ‘Why are we here’, ‘Is there a Higher Power’, and most importantly for those of us working in media: ‘What is the future of TV’. But what is ‘TV’? Is it that thing you lug home from Currys? Or is it something experiential ? If TV once meant Sunday 7pm+living room+sofa+family+ugly-box-in-corner, does flatscreen+bed+timeshifted Sky+ count? What about HDTV-quality video+surround sound all downloaded over the Internet and watched via an Xbox? ‘TV’ is a porous, mutable concept. By the time we’re finished asking what it is, it will have become something else (c.f.the record album‘). Perhaps at the moment there are simply too many possible futures of TV to even sensibly ask the question.

So let’s ignore TV for a bit, and think about the future of something a little more tangible — channels. Whatever TV is, channels have long been a part of it. Just as brands retain value as waypoints through a landscape of atomised experience, channels (and channel brands) help us navigate our way through increasingly diverse content.

Since the dawn of TV, channels have been made and maintained for us. We’ve tuned in or out, or (heresy!) turned off, dependant on schedules, mood and time of day. Since Sky+, the PVR-gifted amongst us have been enabled to create our own, personalised channel-of-me through timeshifting linked to EPGs: the revolution is upon us.

But step back a bit, and that revolution looks already a little stale: my PVR-driven channels-of-me are only available at my house. Crave the brilliance of my content selection? You have to come on over. Contrast with the promiscuous accessibility of the ‘channel’s emerging in other media: syndicated blogs as newsfeeds of personally cherry-picked news and views, networked iTunes playlists as ‘radio stations’ in offices. Maybe TV — even time-shifted TV — needs to get up out of the sofa and live it up a bit in the world of social networks and smart mobs. Forget channel-of-me, isn’t it time for channels-of-we? Shouldn’t the future of channels be a bit more sociable?

And you know what? We aren’t going to care about the delivery mechanism — content from online, conventional studios, the BBC archives can all fight it out for our attention. Is it TV? Who cares! While the pedants worry about the ‘death of the album’, post-‘pod, the rest of us tune into iTunes or Napster and create the soundtracks of our own lives. The future of TV? Who cares! Liberate content: dice, splice and link it up to make channels wherever, whenever we want, for an audience of one or for one million. Lets forget about TV for a bit. Let’s play with channels. Let’s have some fun.

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New Maps are Streets Ahead

Forget (just for a minute) online music: there’s a new battle underway between two of the biggest dotcom survivors. This one’s being fought over maps. The winners? Everyone.

map showing location of Tayyab Kebab HouseBoth Google and Yahoo have recently released online mapping services — given an address, they will show you the location, how to get there, and allow you to search for nearby businesses. Yahoo’s service covers just the US and Canada, whilst Google already has the UK online as well, with plans for global coverage. Want to find a curry in London E1? Easy.

So far, so dotcom — these services may look like Streetmap on steroids, but the business model is the same old same old — show some search results, and hook in some relevant ads as a revenue stream.

But shortly after the launch of Google Maps, something important happened. Hackers took the code apart, analysed how it worked, and started building their own services using Google’s data. We’re not talking just sending a friend the link to the map co-ordinates for a party, we’re talking fully-functional, complex applications based around the Google data and (gorgeous) Google Maps interface. Early efforts include Paul Rademacher’s housing map, which hooked into the Craigslist database of available rental properties across the US, and the (in)famous Chicago Crime Map, which is searchable down to individual police beats. A nice way to find a safe route home (or as a cynical acquaintance would have it, ‘a neat way to locate a dealer’).

Hackers have exploited online services in this way before — in the UK there has been a long-simmering dispute between Streetmaps and coders about the reappropriation of their data. Such repurposing has generally stripped out the ads which create Streetmap’s revenue stream. The understandable response of a traditional business to seeing its profits eroded? Call in the lawyers.

But Google and Yahoo did something altogether untraditional — impressed by the creative work being done without their permission, they formally published the programming interfaces to their mapping systems, and officially opened the system to hackers under reasonably accomodating free licenses. Crucially, they’ve done so in such a way that they can still place ads and make money from systems developed by others. It’s win-win: coders get to make cool new services, and Google and Yahoo still make a profit: a ‘very now’ business model.

But why are people so fired up about free access to good maps? In the UK at least, the answer is simple: maps cost money. Lots of it. The official UK map data is copyrighted and maintained by the Ordnance Survey. Commerical use of their data is expensive. As a reaction against such mapping monopolies, there is a worldwide movement for the development of copyright-free, grassroots-maintained cartographic data. Understandably, it’s a slow process. So the sudden availablility of excellent map data, with the bonus of complete working programming tools to harness it simply for all manner of new applications, is a godsend to developers. The only real concern is articulated by the ‘open maps’ activists: that Google and Yahoo are, after all, commercial services, and as such reserve the right to change the terms of service, or even pull them completely at any time. This is a powerful argument in favour of the grassroots approach, but for many developers, its a moot point: they have a cool idea and they want to do get it online today, not years from now when the openmappers have finished pacing out London street by street.

So far, there has been little sign of UK-specific applications built on Google’s or Yahoo’s systems. The UK is an epicentre of the open mapping movement, and many of the most impressive UK-based projects, such as Heath Bunting’s Skateboarders’ Map of Bristol are already built on free data. But as new developers get on the mapping bandwagon, that’s sure to change — ethical concerns aside, the newly licensed commerical services are easy to use, pretty to look at, and have already picked up impressive momentum.

Today you might not have access to a continuously-updated anti-gridlock site, or an at-a-glance map which will help you find an affordable property in a high-ranking school catchment, but don’t blink — give it a couple of months and the way we look at our city will probably have changed forever.

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Grassroots e-Government

Hackers and activists are exploiting the public record to add transparency and openness to UK politics.

Back in May 2003, almost twice as many votes were cast in the Big Brother evictions as in the UK’s local elections. Cue much handwringing from the press and the Hansard Society. Caught in a reflective mood, Peter Bazalgette opined thus:

‘The Commons and the Big Brother set are both ‘televised houses in which a popularity contest takes place’ [...] But parliament is failing to satisfy the demands of a generation raised on text-messaging and email, instead allowing its electorate to express an opinion on the Westminster housemates only once every few years at the ballot box.’


Fast forward to now: outside the slumber and the fury of party politics and its commentators, a number of quirky-but-effective web sites (many developed by Pledge Site creators MySociety and friends) attempt to make the parliamentary process a little more transparent, and to help voters find and engage with their representatives.

Don’t know who represents you in Parliament? Click over to WriteToThem, which can also identify your MEPs and members of the London Assembly. Click on the representative of your choice, and you can compose a letter to them online, which the system will post off automatically. WriteToThem also maintains a league table of if and how promptly representatives reply to such messages: a nice touch.

Want to keep track of what your backbencher has been saying on your behalf in the Commons? Hook into TheyWorkForYou, via which you can search all Debates, Written Answers, Westminster Hall debates, and Written Ministerial Statements since 2001, and even add comments: Hansard-as-blog. The site also tracks voting patterns on major issues. Most searches can be turned into RSS newsfeeds: it is stupidly simple to be kept informed what ‘They’ are doing for (or to) ‘Us’.

These sites concentrate on the parliamentary process itself — other hackers utilise similarly public-domain data to demonstrate the direct consequences of policy. Check out, for example, an experimental map of recent planning permission applications in Tower Hamlets. Scroll the timeline under the map to see the waves of development across the area for the last few years.

The UK political system remains archaic in form, and opaque in process. Official eGov policy is focussed more on access to public services, and the reduction of red tape, than on direct contact between voters and the elected Few. But for those of us with Internet access, there is no longer any excuse not to be informed of and involved with what’s being said and done by them ‘in our name’.

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Big News

BBC makes 500 hours of TV and radio available in latest download trial.

The BBC is to recruit 5,000 homes in the UK to participate in the first trial of its Interactive Media Player or iMP. The only stipulation will be that recipients have high speed internet access.

The corporation calls its service the ‘iTunes for the broadcast industry’ as it allows viewers to download any show from the previous week that they may have missed. Unlike PVRs like Sky+, viewers will not have to signal their chosen programmes in advance, allowing critically acclaimed shows to benefit retrospectively from favourable publicity or word of mouth.

Even more excitingly, the BBC is developing the service alongside the Creative Archive, which aims to make the corporation’s huge library of classic shows available for download. It will plans to keep costs down by taking advantage of peer to peer technology to distribute the content. Instead of storing the material itself, those who sign up will share the weight of the downloads among themselves. Inbuilt digital rights management software ensured that users cannot keep the programmes for longer than seven days, transfer them to disk or send them to friends. It remains to be seen how hacker-proof this will be.

The BBC’s interactive radio player is already live and adds millions to the radio division’s listening figures. Some shows, such as Radio 1’s Essential Selection, have as many ‘catch up’ listeners online as they do broadcast live.

The BBC was burned earlier this year by the trend for illegally downloading shows when the first episode of Doctor Who became available on Bittorrent. Conspiracy theorists suggest that the leak was a deliberate attempt to build hype and credibility for the show.

While live sporting events, popular reality tv shows (though clearly not Celebrity Love Island) and soaps still attract big audiences, broadcasters are expecting viewers to ‘time shift’ more and more programmes and watch them on demand.

There are currently over seven million UK homes with broadband whilst companies such as Microsoft are developing new devices that merge home computers with plasma screen TVs. This would solve the problem of viewers desiring HDTV versions of programming.

BBC executives are already terming the IMP service ‘martini media’ in that it gives the audience the opportunity to consume content ‘any time, any place, anywhere’. It is also perfectly fulfills the BBC’s remit as a public service broadcaster and may well see it yet survive in the age of media convergence.

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