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Why Wireless Cities Matter
[Part 2] Urban creativity and social networks
Gregory Daigle (gdaigle)     Print Article 
Published 2005-11-30 10:41 (KST)   

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Why Wireless Cities Matter (1)
Why Wireless Cities Matter (3)


This second part of a three-part article reports on discussions at the first Wireless Cities ... Community Context conference. The conference looked beyond e-government services to explore how community members enhance their everyday lives through wireless.

Wireless Arts and Culture

Like politics, all art is local. Artists use local subjects to convey universal topics to a wider audience. Whether Monet depicts a garden foot-bridge or a Hmong troupe performs traditional dances, they both convey local experiences to a universal audience.

Artists who employ wireless technology similarly connect local cultural and social experiences to an international audience. But wireless also allows the audience to alter the experience through feedback and mediated participation.

Wireless is fast becoming the choice of performance artists. First there were performances employing flashmobs, a term made popular by Howard Rheingold. Mobilizing large groups of people via cellphones to participate in a one-time, coordinated action not only shows the power of wireless but also makes tangible an otherwise invisible technology.

When computer chips became embedded in automobiles, keys, refrigerators, wallets, even light bulbs, the talk was of pervasive computing. Now artists talk of exposing the technology and making it more visually apparent on the street. Making the invisible visible demystifies and exposes the underlying technology.

Outdoors public celebrations of mobile wireless such as New York's Spectropolis are established around invisible technology made physical. Examples include digital projectors suspended by balloons projecting imagery received over a wireless link, or riding bicycles that receive text messages and print them onto sidewalks.

Those same embedded chips in objects make possible greater mobility ... and mobility makes possible the immediate documentation and sharing of news and events in real time. Citizen journalists are now able to upload video or photos immediately from wireless cameras to hyperlocal news sites. Combine wireless with video blogging and you have story content made available from your locale to any location on the globe in near-real time.

Traditional Performance Made New

For nearly a decade collaborative online novels and other online literary works have been available on the Internet. In these works writers collaboratively contribute sections later edited into a whole piece of fiction. Recently there was a fictitious video game world "Epic Legends of the Hierarchs" created extemporaneously by dozens people over the period of just four days. Creative collaboration has always existed in the arts, but now the rate of collaboration is fast approaching that of performance art.

The Spark Festival of Electronic Music and art challenges both the traditional outcome and process of making music. One organizer is developing wireless instruments allowing interactivity with his listening audience. By making musical riffs available through Wi-Fi his local audience will be able to "jam" with him by modifying and sending the riffs back to be included in the ongoing musical performance. The audience becomes collaborator in the performance.

Similar real-time collaborations could be applied to dance performances, poetry slams, even live theater. For example, say an experimental theater group was developing a thematic play on vacations at the Grand Canyon. They would advertise that ticket holders load their Wi-Fi laptops with vacation photos and bring them to the performance. The stage manager could then select and arrange the photos, projecting them onto the scenery backdrops to accentuate moments in the play. The value is in connecting audience members to the production and to each other. Wireless gives that connection immediacy.

Location Services and Social Networks

Social applications are the focus of the next generation of the Web, known as Web 2.0. These applications focus upon open participation and the ability to create as well as consume content. They support people connecting to others for a wide range of purposes both through the Internet and locally.

This ability to provide location-based services is another way that wireless can save us time. Technology associated with Wi-Fi can identify your proximity to wireless nodes using a technique similar to locating cell phone signals. And several applications are taking advantage of this capability.

PlaceMail is currently proposed as a location-based cell service. In its individual user mode it's like sending an email to yourself, but instead of specifying a recipient you choose one or more delivery locations. When you find yourself near that location the message is delivered to you (e.g. "pick up cat food"). The social version for PlaceMail allows you to share a grocery list with family members or share a list of grocery items with neighbors assisting other homebound or handicapped neighbors.

Geographic searches through online services usually provide results that are very general and which favor only the search firm's business partners. Searches may not reflect offers by local small business, specific activities at locations (e.g. YMCA classes), or other details relevant to your needs. For example, you are at your daughter's hockey game in northwest Detroit and her hockey stick breaks ... where is a nearby place to get another one? PlaceMail can also be used to aid local support groups, plan play dates, civic meetings, etc. It can even enhance a visit to the area by business travelers, tourists, or residents new to your city.

Placeopedia [*Please note correction below -- Ed.] is a Wikimedia project making use of the wiki engine. Wikis are openly editable Websites where anyone can edit (almost) any page. Placeopedia links Wikipedia articles to Google Earth maps. So if you're reading a wiki article about the islands of Svalbard you can link to its Google maps. It also allows site visitors to add their own connections to other articles and maps.

WikiCities was also established under the Wikimedia Foundation. Started in 2004 it currently hosts around 600 wikis representing neighborhoods, parks, towns and cities, and provides a more local approach than Wikipedia.

Online social networking tools like Meetup or Friendster allow people with common interests to identify each other, chat online, even meet in person. Collaborative tools such as Net Meeting or Groove Workspace allow users to share and edit files simultaneously, chat, teleconference and share calendars. Other online communities employ dynamic location-sensitive technologies.

Social networking through your pets
©2005 SNiF labs
Jambo Networks is a peer-to-peer social matching service that works through Wi-Fi. It compares user biography items to match people in both offline (through your laptop's own Wi-Fi radio) and online modes. Its services are similar to hotspot based Project PlaceSite, a service to connect people and which uses the metaphor of the "village well".

Jambo searches the local network to find other Jambo users nearby. It also offers a slider bar to determine how close a match a non-friend needs to be before you will be visible to each other. You can use the slider bar to narrow down the list to the people who have the most in common with you such as the school your kids attend or the pets you own.

Pets are family members too. The technology of SNiF (Social Networks in Fur) allows pet owners to interact through social networks for pets ("petworks"). It keeps track of your dog, his dog pals and their activities through infrared and radio technologies in the collar and leash. A Web-based, online community provides access to more static information pertaining to pets and owners. During walks in public spaces the collar and leash system allows for real-time input and output. It helps you to meet and stay connected to neighborhood dog owners, even letting you know when a friend and their dog approach your local park.

Location-based social networking through Wi-Fi
©2005 Jambo Networks
Distinguishing between friends and non-friends is important in online communities, especially when you share information about your family. You want to make sure that only trusted friends received that information. If one measure of the life of communities is how well they protect their children then one of greatest potentials of a wireless community network is the ability to augment that protection.

One possibility suggested by the technology of SNiF is tracking children through their interactions with pets. Since children often know and interact with the friendly dogs in a neighborhood, contacts between kids and dogs can be logged and tracked. Though tracking children is still a very controversial social issue, SNiF could provide a point-to-point method for doing so.

For older children wireless communities provide many opportunities for parents to connect to their student's progress in school. This may include checking on homework assignments during your lunch break, reviewing teachers' reports while you commute, and accessing information on school meetings while at the grocery.

Teens could also leverage the local wireless community by meeting resources in their own neighborhoods. They could find out who in the neighborhood has odd jobs for hire, such as leaf raking or car repair to be performed. They could even datamine the oral histories of elderly in the neighborhood for their school writing assignments.

New capabilities inherent in wireless mean that users need to renegotiate social norms. Who will bring the laptop to the block party or Night Out? Will it be the leader of the neighborhood association or a local teenager who plays the role of change agent? New opportunities mean new rules and new public discussions about arts, services, schools and other topics of local control.

Perhaps the first step is to put forward a wireless community benefits agreement for your neighborhood. Get commitments from local resource people to articulate the benefits of wireless and how you plan to incorporate it at the neighborhood level into the wireless plan for your city. Then present it to your city's CIO (chief information officer) as a draft of how to improve the network for the benefit of the citizenry.

... in Part 3, The urban divide.
(*)Correction (Dec. 6) - Placeopedia and Wikicities are independent projects, not run by the Wikimedia Foundation which runs Wikipedia. Placeopedia doesn't actually use a wiki engine, but uses some other software that ties in Google maps with links to Wikipedia articles. Wikicities can be on any topic - not just ones with a geographical focus. For example, the largest Wikicity is one on Star Wars. My thanks to Angela Beesley for pointing out these corrections.

This article was developed with the assistance of Prof. Brad Hokanson of the University of Minnesota.
©2005 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Gregory Daigle

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