Crowdsourcing Obama’s inauguration


CNN, using Microsoft’s amazing Photosynth, aims to crowdsource a 3D vista of Barack Obama’s Presidential inauguration on 20th January 2009. This will be the most digitised Presidential inauguration in history, and I suspect many cable TV networks will rely heavily on the digital content generated by those present, in addition to their own content, in their coverage of this historical event. 

I’ve followed the development of Photosynth for a long time, captivated by its potential to revolutionise the way we manage and see photography. It still runs best on Windows, but a new Silverlight based plugin allows Macs to view synths. I haven’t tried Photosynth on Parallels, but I doubt if it will run better than the Silverlight plugin for OS X.

I am interested in and have briefly written on the potential of synths to capture locations of human rights violations and other sites of violence, a forensic tool crowdsourced as it were. It could be an interesting ethnographical tool for anthropologists, if one were able to distinguish photographs taken by various identity groups with a vested interested in the ownership of or access to a contested site (say a temple). 

Integrate Photosynth with Flickr, and you’ll also be able to find some interesting mashups of popular locations around the world, like the Pyramids or the Eiffel Tower, akin to the synth of the Roman Colosseum.

Seeing the world through photos in 3D – Microsoft’s Photosynth goes public

Microsoft Photosynth

Microsoft Photosynth


Less than a month after I last wrote about Photosynth (and its potential for human rights protection) comes welcomes news that it is now open to the public to upload their own photos to create their “synths”. This sadly does not yet work on Macs. A fairly high end PC is also needed to view the photo models / synths, but the results are amazing. 

One downside of the synths is that you’ll need two or three times more the storage space for all the extra photos needed to render a synth accurately. Most of the synths currently online are mundane and banal, but Microsoft’s own synth showcase the potential and power of Photosynth. 

The BBC first showcased Photosynth a year ago and already has some very impressive synths of well known British landmarks. The BBC’s Click Online programme recently showcased Photosynth in its latest avatar. 

As with Flickr which ranges from the downright dastardly to the sublime, I expect most synths to be a waste of hard drive space and bandwidth. A few however will make this amazing technology worthwhile – esp. to recreate scenes, in 3D, of places one may never see otherwise. It can also be interesting to record the evolution of places, entire cities even, over time, akin to what Google Earth does with layers. Imagine what it would be to see Jaffna from a decade ago and compare it with what it is today. The potential to create detailed, 3D, navigable picture-scapes from publicly available photo sets or those that you upload is, to the best of my knowledge, unique.

Microsoft as the search king of the single largest repository of photographic data?

UPDATE – 26 August 2008

Ars Technica has a review of Photo Synth here.

Tag Galaxy delivers Flickr photos and tags in 3D


The Solar System called Peace (click for larger image)
The Solar System called Peace (click for larger image)

Tag Galaxy is a Flash based site I came across that delivers Flickr photos in 3D. What makes this site interesting is that it renders related Flickr tags as planets orbiting a central tag. For example, enter “peace” and you get a mini planetary system of Iraq, War, Anti-War, Protest, Rally and, obviously, Bush, circling around it.

Click on any of the “planets” and you are taken to a globe with all the photos tagged with that phrase. While the animation itself is smooth and rendered beautifully, getting the photos from Flickr was a slow process on my pissant SLT broadband connection. 

I’m interested in this kind of application because it experiments with the manner in which we grapple with millions of images on the web. Microsoft’s Photosynth is the ultimate tool to date in this regard, and it’s not even fully launched yet.

Dropping Knowledge two years on – Where’s the Living Library?

I first wrote about the Dropping Knowledge two years ago (almost to date), before they had their big pow-wow in Berlin – the Table of Free Voices. I honestly thought interest in the grandiose idea peter out. However, I was surprised to note that the site still exists and is at the time of writing taking a crack at defining terrorism based on the responses to questions asked at the Table of Free Voices.  

My concerns with pre-fabricated “wisdom” as I noted in my first post on Dropping Knowledge remain. Two years on, the fact that the site and its information is still locked into a domain and associated formats that can’t easily be accessed via mobiles is quite appalling (the assumption being that everyone accesses and can access the web through broadband and PC is already egregiously incorrect). Yet, there is a significant corpus of thought here that’s worth perusing, though the huge variance in intelligence of the people who participated makes the entire initiative uneven (unlike Wikipedia, information generated by the initiative is not moderated / controlled / overseen by the commons). 

BTW, should mention that there was one Sri Lankan at the “Table of Free Voices” – Neela Marikkar. Her response to the question, “We are in the knowledge age. How can the increase in access to technology (Internet and computer) among low- income communities help to promote social and economic development?” is here. Pico Iyer also mentions Sri Lanka in response to this question, though it’s for a very different reason

Three problems with the site. One, the fact that it is not accessible by mobiles really limits the appeal and usefulness of this site to those who don’t have a PC and broadband access. Today it’s easy enough to create a simple iPhone, mobile Flash, mobile Java or even just a plain text site with all the transcripts for access via mobiles. The possibilities here are quite exciting. 

Two, the sheer scope and depth of the content on the site is hard to access. There’s no interlinkages between topics, no semantic navigation, just a search functionality. Contrary to the site’s avowed aim to create and spread wisdom, all you have are basic tools that offer basic search functionality of information. the UI of the site overwhelms. It’s not immediately evident how to get access to information – clutter and just bad information design with an over-reliance on Flash graphics (no low bandwidth version at all).

Three and importantly, where’s the Living Library? No one’s called Dropping Knowledge on this and the site now conveniently has no mention of it either.

See my original post for the Living Library’s feature set as it was proposed two years ago. The “conceptual topography of 25,000 interconnected issues” and a library “offering 3D graphic navigation” is nowhere to be found. In taking a Google like approach to access information you lose a tremendous degree of value in semantic connections between the participants, the questions and the answers. 

I wonder if they ran out of funding, programmers, interest or all three. I wish this was more like the Encyclopedia of Life

Casualties of War – Visualising the dead in Iraq

NYTimes Faces of the Dead

The New York Times features an interactive info-graphic that is a sombre reminder of the human cost to the US Armed Forces in Iraq. From J.T. Aubin in 2003 to David Stelmat a few days ago, the first tab of the special section is devoted to all in the Army who have died in Iraq, that is now a shade under 4,000.

The second tab is an interactive timeline of the deaths. The two invasions of Falluja alone, we learn, cost over 400 deaths. Over half of those dead are between 18-24 and the majority from the US Army.

This powerful visualisation is a visceral reminder that wars today, fought and reported about like computer games most of the time, is still a costly, brutal affair – sometimes necessary perhaps, but always bloody. I wonder though how many people will change, or at the very least, register a slight shift in their opinion of the war in Iraq by looking at this. Compelling it may be, but I somehow feel that those in support of the war will look at it and use it to suggest that all these deaths should not be in vain, whereas those opposed to the war will look this as grim markers of of a war that has done little or nothing to help their government’s soi-disant war on terror.

What the NY Times significantly does not show are the numbers of private security contractors and mercenaries killed in Iraq. As noted in this article written a little over a year ago:

The dangers faced by contractors working in Iraq were laid bare last night by new figures showing hundreds of civilians employed by the Pentagon alone have been killed in the country since 2003. In a graphic exposé of a hitherto invisible cost of the war in Iraq, it emerged nearly 800 civilians working under contract to US defence chiefs have been killed and more than 3,300 hurt doing jobs normally handled by the military.

The casualty figures, gathered by the Associated Press, make it clear the US Defence Department’s count of more than 3,100 military dead does not tell the whole story. 

In Sri Lanka it’s clearly a different story. As Iqbal Athas notes:

“If you add up all the figures given by the government from the beginning of the separatist war until now, it would have wiped out the population of the north twice over,” says Iqbal Athas, consultant editor and defence correspondent of the Colombo Sunday Times and correspondent for Jane’s Defence Weekly.

“Similarly if one were to adopt the figures put out by the Tamil Tiger rebels, that would have depleted the ranks of the military considerably.”

Picture that.

The ripple effect of Changents


I came across an interesting idea that brings to the screen what social change agents really do in our societies. A new web based initiative to support social change agents, Changents, has an interesting visualisation of the manner in which your support to one or many of them, as well as other actions on the Changents website such as inviting others to join, strengthens and affects the larger network and the work of the individuals concerned.

The site is heavy on Flash ad video and is designed for broadband, which is not surprising since many of those listed on it to date seem to be located in the US. My interest in the site is less about the people therein and more about how innovative ways of visualising the support given to these individuals can actually promote their work and generate support for it. So much of social change is intangible and long term that the challenge always is, for those who support the work of these folks, to see how their contribution meaningfully strengthened the work it was intended for. The 3D visualisation on Changents gives a better understanding of how one’s actions can create ripple effects of their own to raise awareness on vital issues and support individuals actively working in these areas.

It’s also social engineering. By making one’s support visual and into a sort of social game where the more interaction on and support you give  to the site enhances one’s own ripple, you actually encourage people to do more, or at the very least, visit the site more often to see just how much one’s ripple can influenced others to act.