Urbanism

This weekend I participated in the first hackathon installment of the Summer of Smart here in SF. What a pleasure, such a high concentration of curious, brilliant people with backgrounds from designers & developers to artists, activists, videographers, journalists & local government folks. We kicked off on friday night with introductions and brainstorming project ideas—let me tell you it was hard to choose.

I joined a team with the focus on gathering neighborhood stories through video interviews. We produced a slick (if I may say so myself) demo site over the course of a day: two teammates rode the MUNI #24 and approached people on the street inquiring about their relationship with particular neighborhoods and really turned up some gems. I stayed at the hackspace and coded a map to organize the video clips & tell the story. See our project, “Between the Stops,” and all the others at summerofsmart.org/projects.

What I learned

Video is powerful. It just is. If you’re collecting communities’ stories and feelings about their neighborhoods, you lose a lot of expressive power by using text or even photos. I spent the day in code-land while Milicent and Jeremy roamed the city filming and had no idea what they’d come back with. It was only on stage demoing that I saw the interviews. Here’s one from the Bayview neighborhood.

Scale by curation and entrusting content to a small network. We don’t necessarily have the time & resources to travel the city & build an awesome collection of interviews. But it would make sense to approach non-profits, schools and churches, teach them how to operate a camcorder & upload videos, and have them film community members. Especially kids and underrepresented people who might have something surprising and moving to tell us.

Have a viewpoint. I didn’t want this to become “YouTube on a map” by opening it up entirely to the public. First discussions on Friday night had a crowdsourced “anyone can upload thoughts about their hood” notion. But that’s been done before, and never very remarkably I felt. Once I proposed we arrange videos along MUNI lines and tell the story of “travelling along the surface of a city oblivious to what’s just a block away” the team really crystallized around the idea and we knew we had something. We wanted a line that passed through a diversity of neighborhoods, like the 38 or 24. It helped to hang the content pieces and story on the linear structure.

Multidisciplinary teams rule. I did the programming and web design; we had a street team with interview experience, a UX guy, writer, and video editor. We worked in parallel and gathered for the last few hours to weave the pieces together. The event organizers went out of their way to encourage a “hackathon for everyone” atmosphere.

Dots are so passe. I’ve long had this opinion. Placing markers on a google map is easy and often useful but often lacks a focus or good design sense to lead viewers through a story. Living in the Map (our Detroit-based social property tool) uses a parcel-polygon base layer and it feels.. different. Organized spaces rather than a scattering of point markers. I wanted to organize Between the Stops along a chunky transit-map style line.

Don’t make me work to hear your story. In designing the page I wanted viewers to have the option of starting a video and just keep playing through to the end (instead of searching for dots and clicking them). A possible direction for the mobile experience is to weave together an audio or video “podcast” on the fly from nearby interviews. People do listen to these things while riding the bus after all.

 

Also also

Everyone loves public art. Several weekend projects centered on streamlining resource sharing for public urban art. Say a building owner has a blank wall or an empty storefront. Why not hook up with artists who could use the exposure and chance to spread beautiful work? Everyone wins. This morning on my tweetstream a message from @DetroitLIVES rolled by: “Sketch is done. Funding secured. This mural needs a home! Let’s hear your ideas for a wall to put this on, Detroit http://twitpic.com/5hqu0p” Appropriate. I mentioned this to Jerry and he pointed out that LOVELAND funded that same mural through our micro-grants. Even more appropriate. So yes, there’s a need for some kind of “dating service” for art/space exchange.

Yay Taxes. I almost joined the YAY TAXES project team because of our LoveTax experiment. Based on discussions at CityCamp and at the hackathon, and seeing this idea sprouting up repeatedly, we think there’s promise in the idea of a participatory, voluntary tax system.  The team had a very different approach to the problem and we’re still refining our model and figuring out how to make this compelling. Yay.

Thanks GAFFTA and Summer of Smart sponsors for putting on a rad weekend!

 

Nearness

I’ve been researching bits & pieces of inexpensive tech for art installations that bridge the physical/digital gap in interesting ways. In particular I’m developing tangible music ideas (moving beyond touchscreens and pixels) and integrating vision / motion capture into my realtime gfx stuff. Figure I’ll share some interesting building blocks. First, I recommend the great RFID visualization experiments and process writeups over at BERG and nearfield.org. The reader and tags are reasonably priced if you want to try.


Personally I’m into capacitance sensing for making touch-responsive objects. Here’s a technical article for beginners. If you’ve got an Arduino it’s one of the simplest circuits to build: a resistor, capacitor and, um, any piece of metal. The CapSense library‘s a great intro. Getting more advanced, the MPR121‘s a tiny, inexpensive chip that handles 12-channel touch for you. I’ve got one coming in the mail and am looking forward to tinkering. With multiple sensors you run into interference problems, but I found a neat paper on fighting these effects. (Love this spread-spectrum sensor but it’s waay more advanced to build.)


I liked this post at CDM on using the Kinect as an OSC music & video controller, lots of good starting points there. Another one shows live VJing with one using OpenFrameworks and TUIO. The NITE skeleton tracking component is available for OSX, as is the OSCeleton code. Kimchi and Chips have videos showing the promise of motion tracking + projection mapping.

New in Loveland

I have been remiss, dear readers, in documenting the ever-changing inchscape at Loveland. Once upon a time, before we started turning our attention and mapping goodies for the larger Detroital area, Mary pondered:

“I really wish that there was an interactive mapping tool for my neighborhood that would show who people are, where people are, what spaces are available, and who to contact about them….. anyone, Larry Sheradon? you got any ideas?”

And I’ve had this quote in the back of my mind as a guiding principle for what we’re building. There’s a real need for transparent property information and a simple app to help find what you need to make things happen in your Motor City neighborhood. On that note, I also return to this internetartizans post,

“Open data is not a magic recipe for righting wrongs. What will move things on is the stories that communities tell about their situations and their possible futures.”

Yesterday we got word that our Knight News Challenge grant proposal was selected for the next round of the process. We also ended ranked #1 out of almost 700 entries. :)  That storytelling is the core of our proposal and the Imagination Station.

So, an assortment of recent upgrades to the site while I remember:

  • A new look ‘n’ feel this December: we’re evolving
  • Corktown is the first neighborhood in the Loveland macro real estate world. We have browsable property info for the whole area, with ownership and other details, and it runs on the same platform as Plymouth and Hello World.
  • Aerial (satellite) imagery on the Corktown maps. It helps get a sense of context to actually see fields and houses along with the abstract property geometry
  • Place your own inches when you sign up! We the management have been pushing squares around and penciling in the microhoods til now; this is a step in giving the inchvestors more control over their land.
  • Send inches to your friends (in addition to buying them for your sweet self) as a gift
  • New audio & video on the front page including Jerry & Mary’s TEDxDetroit talk from the fall
  • Following interesting people and places to be notified of their activity. This’ll be more important as people begin contributing to the maps
  • Our remaining LOVELAND grant projects are open, and inchvestors have a choice of which (if any) to support with their inchvestment
  • The search box offers suggestions as you type again, looking through our collection of people and properties on both the micro and macro-hoods and highlighting them on the map
  • We launched a fundraising site for the Station!
And coming soon (as in, the next month):
  • An embeddable widget for any site to carry LOVELAND neighborhood mapsA way to look at Detroit neighborhoods, each with its own community discussion space to talk about Corktown as a whole or Mexicantown as a whole. I’m testing this using zip codes as a starting point (see previous post on the wily world of neighborhood bounds!)
  • Detailed property maps for the rest of Detroit
  • Post pictures, writing and videos on places to open richer channels of discussion and storytelling
  • A “Corkstarter” feature to open up fundraising channels for your projects

Neighborhoods

So while visiting the team in Detroit last week we talked about expanding the neighborhood maps beyond Corktown, and making an overview map along the lines of Interhoods. Jerry and I stopped by the Detroit city offices to pay taxes on the Plymouth microhood and ask if the city has official digital records of what neighborhoods exist. The assessors sent us next door to the GIS department. The fellow there helped us looked through their data sets, but none of them even resembled the areas that people actually talk about when they talk about their city. Mystifying legal or political block groupings from days of yore, but nothing meaningful to ordinary folk.

The neighborhoods in San Francisco, from Interhoods, with the Mission highlighted

I looked online for data sets. Zillow’s maps seemed likely but didn’t correspond to reality when I showed Jerry. Great effort and coverage though! Cityscape Detroit’s map has too many holes. Did you hear how Flickr inferred boundaries by processing loads of geotagged photos?  Very cool project; still not quite right. I came across a Wired story on the competitive, litigious world of neighborhood mapmaking – who knew?

In the end we went to the Bureau of Urban Living for a cute typographic poster along the lines of Ork’s. Sigh. The next day we had lunch with friends at Data Driven Detroit and it sounds like they’re going to help us out, so stay tuned!

Transitions

Things are afoot, readers. Today I leave the steady day job in favor of these wild, crazy, hopeful adventures we’re creating in Detroit. (No, I’m not moving there… for now. San Francisco is home. ) Energy, support and connections have been building and it’s time to devote myself full-time to building out some killer websites and supporting our team in Michigan. And document the process here. So what’s good and exciting?

“Believe in the impossible, for Rebirth is yours to accomplish. Sending best wishes, Detroit. Love, a New Orleans Girl.” –Angela

“Detroit is resurgent. Ideas combined with action will create the positive change we need. Don’t let your ideas go to waste.” –Marcel

“As a born & raised Detroiter I’m a big believer that great things can & are happening here. Thanks for letting me be a part of this project.” –Andy

“I have $197 in my checking account and I’m buying 24 frames of Lemonade: Detroit. It’s that important.” –Tyler

  • The inchernet.com site will evolve; many possibilities for making a difference in revitalizing & shrinking the city here. We received an letter from an unexpected, first field tester:

I was getting frustrated using the bid4assets.com spreadsheets to locate potential Wayne County tax foreclosure auction properties. I just don’t know the city neighborhoods/zip codes/streets well enough, as a whole, to use a huge-ass pdf fruitfully. Philip mentioned Living in the Map on inchernet.com. Then, I remembered seeing it in a TedX. Anyway, the visual really helped ferret out properties in areas I’m familiar enough with to investigate a little deeper. I picked out 78 properties from New Center to Downtown and went on a LONG bike ride yesterday. 22 miles later, I can give you an interesting review on Living in the Map. When it gives accurate data for properties, it’s indispensable. This type of mapping is long overdue.

  • There are so many goodies I want to develop for our loyal inchvestors at Loveland to get creative with their land on the web. Really leveling up the micro-city-building tools and story there. We’ve had to put this on hold in favor of all the other awesome developments and related projects. But seriously, another round of site renovations is in the works and I’d love to reward the early colonists who believed in us and staked out their inches.
  • Upcoming collaborations with Rita & Josh at the Imagination Age / Dancing Ink Productions. I met them through their early incherest in Loveland, and we’ve got exciting new projects in the works. Stay tuned, something will be revealed at TEDxNASA, November 4.

First though, a romantic weekend getaway on the coast, away from all things Internet. See you soon! <3

Making Lemonade

I’ve been working with the Lemonade: Detroit team for the last week to develop a micro-fundraising platform and make this film happen, and today we launched at #140conf Detroit. We invite people to purchase “frames” of the 90-minute film thereby becoming producers of the movie. And since there’s no limit on IMDB to the number of credits, everyone will be officially listed as such. Come see & join in at buyaframe.lemonadedetroit.com.

If you haven’t seen the trailer, please take a minute! I feel it really captures the passion and hope of the place and am very excited to see this movie take shape and be a part of it. This is the first time we’ve expanded the buy-an-inch model to another project – so far the response has been great!


Designing social spaces

Lately I’m collecting a lot of design writing — these are great posts about building community sites.

Applying “A Pattern Language” To Online Community Design. I recommend this social web perspective on Christopher Alexander’s classic study of how towns and buildings function & how we create successful shared spaces. Excerpts:

A Community of 7,000: Communities that are too large are not effective. While this doesn’t mean you should limit the size of your overall website, you should consider ways of creating smaller sub-communities within the website if it is big. Creating sub-communities within the larger whole is one way to go about this. Another option is to limit exposure to the full membership… The purpose here is to make each member feel as though they matter in the grand scheme of things. If the user sees a membership roster that includes a 100,000 names, they’ll feel like a tiny fish in a huge pond.

Your Own Home: Everyone should have their own home in the real world, a place they can go to at the end of the day that’s safe and secure. In the online world, this would be the profile page. People want to customize their home, make it their own, host friends there, put their mark on it and let people know that this is their space and that it reflects their personality. In the online world, people want to do the same thing.

Short Passages: Moving from one profile to another should be quick and comfortable. You want members to interact with one another, and so the pathways between them should be inviting. Think of ways to encourage interaction between members along these passages. One way to do this is through comments on the activities of others.

(If you dig architecture or the metaphor of websites as buildings / living space, you may enjoy Design from a Diagram.) I found good advice about applying Alexander’s methods in everyday design work in Ryan Singer’s “Designing With Forces“ talk (52 min). He suggests that instead of starting out your site / product by making a list of requirements, we look carefully at the surrounding context and think in terms of the “forces” acting on it, e.g. “I can never remember to make followup phone calls,” “I hate data entry” or “I need to pick up a teakettle without burning myself.” It’s helping me sketch a cohesive vision for a web app today.

Metafilter’s Matt Haughey wrote up great community tips I keep returning to. MeFi’s always stood up as an example of a respectful, well-managed community with a high signal-to-noise ratio. From his introduction,

hate the term User Generated Content. I never use the phrase when talking about this stuff and I’ll never use it when writing about it. I consider it a pejorative that reveals a lot about the person saying it. It makes members of your site feel like dutiful robots, crapping content that you convert into cash.

Johnny Holland’s What’s Up With Social Objects?

Which is a more accurate description of gifting on Facebook: the relationship between two friends and the practice of giving gifts on birthdays, or the graphic of the beer mug? The more accurate description of user interaction would be that which explains the practice of gift giving, the symbolic act of presenting a gift, the Facebook tradition of recognizing birthdays, and the social space in which gifts are seen by others such that birthdays create a cause for a stretch of social interaction.

And tips on applying social interaction design thinking:

All content in the world of web 2.0 is communication. Yes, it is information and it informs. But it is created and left behind by countless individual acts of communication — with the intent to communicate. If you view social web content as information you’re still in web 1.0.

Designing for Social Interaction breaks down the idea of online “friends” into several types and gives tips for designing social web apps around them.

The average number of friends on Facebook is 130, and many users have many more. Yet despite having hundreds of friends, most people on Facebook only interact regularly with 4 to 7 people, and for 90% of Facebook users, 20% of their friends account for 70% of all interactions. We also see this with phone usage. We have hundreds of people in our phone contacts, yet 80% of phone calls are made to the same 4 people.

Our social web tools must start to understand the strength of ties, that we have stronger relationships with some people than with others.

On Invention

“I just invent, then wait until man comes around to needing what I’ve invented.”
— Buckminster Fuller, quoted in Jack Cheng’s essay.

We struggle sometimes explaining LOVELAND to people. “You’re making a group buying system for houses?” they ask, or “People bid on land auctions for cheap?” in an attempt to find the nearest conceptual anchor or category. They read the website and still have no idea what it’s about. We’re still learning how to communicate the vision and the very real things we’re building (it’s actual land, made of dirt, but also online), and although some friends ‘get it’ I still feel a gap in understanding holding us back.

The problem with the Newton wasn’t any physical or technical problem. Those are easy to surmount. The problem that broke the Newton was that nobody was prepared for it. There was no mental slot in people’s heads that the Newton could glide into.

There’s a cozy, pre-existing slot in people’s brains that the iPad fills quite nicely. “Oh,” they say. “It’s a big iPhone.”

You don’t just slap a product out there and hope it will succeed. You have to prepare people for it.

— The iPad, and the Staggering Work of Obviousness, @amyhoy

Is this a game company, a charity, community development organization, a social network site, or a real-estate investment company? All of these and none. VCs scratch their heads trying to categorize us. I can relate to Mike at Crowdspring when he writes, “Our business model, and others that are popping up every day, is still so young that the milk in my refrigerator is nearly as old. A challenge faced by many of these businesses is to find a way to introduce to the market, and to their potential customers, a new-to-the-world product, service, or category.” Remember how Twitter seemed pointless to so many until it finally ‘clicked?’

I joined LOVELAND precisely because of its novelty. I had never heard of anything like it, and given the chance to create something new rather than yet another social network I jumped in. We didn’t know what would happen — heck, one of the first ideas was an augmented reality flower garden on the floor of an art gallery — but we were captivated, and so are hundreds of others. We’re making a playful platform for people to own land and gather around their shared spirit of building something where nothing was. By growing our Detroit presence we’re inviting the world’s attention and energy into a city fertile for creative reimaginings of the urban landscape. Our inchvestors all come for different reasons; go read the delightful things they’ve written so far. I’m excited to be crafting the tools and space to let them show us how big they can make an inch. We’ve profiled a few active projects happening on this technical foundation.

Come meet the gang this Saturday May 15th at the micro meetup at Noisebridge, or Tuesday the 18th at SF Beta.