WBS: KillerApp: Take Four, The Lafayette Survey

What’s Being Said Department

KillerApp’s blog has posted a fourth in its series about Geoff Daily’s visit to Lafayette. This one focuses on André Comeaux’s efforts to get someone, anyone, to sponsor a survey of Lafayette’s current broadband usage and needs. Daily lauds Comeaux saying:

In his mind, we can’t know where we’re going and/or how far we’ve gone without knowing where we came from, and in order to understand that we need to have a fuller understanding of how, and if, the Internet is being used today.

I think he’s spot on in his focus on this area, especially in a community like Lafayette that stands on the verge of making a major investment in its fiber infrastructure. I say this not only as a way to hopefully justify the cost of the fiber down the road, but also because of Andre’s savvy belief that if they can chart where they are today and then compare that to where they end up tomorrow, they’ll then have hard data that can be used to spur government officials into action, either through championing the successes that have been realized or stepping up to more fully support underachieving areas.

Andre’s not alone in understanding the need to get more information about how people are using the Internet today.

André is right, and Daily is right to cheer him on. André has done a tremendous amount of work and the entire package pretty much made up. He’s secured the right to use the wording and the methodology of the USC Annenberg School’s “The Digital Future Report.” This prestigous national study has been done yearly since 2000 and basing our survey on it would both insure that we had 1) a good, credible baseline, 2) way to compare ourselves with the national norms, and 3) and a way to compare ourselves going forward. He also has a solid proposal in from the firm that does the survey for the Annenberg school to do ours. All that is lacking is the necessary institutional support and the money. And the money, quite likely, could be minimized if we could get some folks from ULL to kick in a little support.

André is following up on work done by the original Digital Divide Committee whose “Bridging the Digital Divide” document, as approved by the City-Parish Council, made such a survey a central part of the local commitment to bridging the digital divide. He picked up the cause as a member of Lafayette Coming Together after the fiber fight and pursued it vigorously, trying to bring in folks ranging from LEDA to UL to the Chamber of Commerce.

We need that survey pretty badly. Five years down the road the Lafayette Network will just be hitting its stride and I expect it to be doing well. But unless we have some way to track our achievements the perennial naysayers will always denigrate the system, saying that private companies could have done better (though they refused to do it all) or that the publicly owned network hasn’t really made a difference (though they’ll have no evidence they’ll say it anyway and we’ll have no solid way to disprove them). Even more critically, LUS and Lafayette will have no way to measure their accomplishments except by the same metrics that private for-profit companies use—subscribership and “profits”—and LUS is NOT trying to meet the same goals that private corporations are trying to meet. LUS will be run as a utility and its goals will be to lower prices (and hence profits) and to increase the utility and use of the service. Those are the sorts of metrics we should be using to judge our success and without a survey taken before the network starts up we will never have a good baseline against which to judge our success. I expect LUS’ entry into the market to fundamentally change the market making it cheaper, faster, and hopefully more useful. More people will use the local network/s (public and private) and they will use it for different things. Without a way to track that change, and compare it to what is happening in other places it will be impossible to disprove unfair attacks like the ones we saw during the long fiber fight leading up to the referendum victory.

Thank are due André for his effort and thanks are due Geoff Daily for reminding us of what we have in such citizens. Here’s to hoping someone besides André will step up to the plate.

Congressional Policy & Lafayette

Dick Durbin, Senator from Illinois, has been holding a nightly public forum on telecom policy issues online over the last three nights and tonights question is: “What do we need to to do to encourage investment in broadband infrastructure?” Lafayette’s network is being featured as an example:

Tonight, I’d like to focus on other ways to provide incentives to build broadband networks. Public/private initiatives like Connect Kentucky have achieved success where the market alone has failed. Other projects like Lafayette, Louisiana’s Fiber for the Future and Utah’s UTOPIA project have also made significant steps.

Durbin also features Lafayette as an example on the video lead-in to the forum:

(Sorry, video no longer exists on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/v/Ca4ioHHaBYs).

Louisiana is being mentioned in the same light as Connect Kentucky and the Utopia Projects—both state-wide efforts that have garnered a lot of positive comment in Washington and on the net. Each night has featured well-known national experts and advocates of broadband. Tonight’s features Jim Baller, who aided LUS and Lafayette during the fiber fight, Paul Morris of Utopia, and Andrew McNeil of Connect Kentucky.

Lafayette’s Partisan’s might want to attend the forum at 6:00. Durbin is hoping to draft new law on broadband availability and this discussion is a chance to talk to a major policy maker directly. Federal legislation is one of the few forces that might get AT&T and Cox off LUS’ back. The format is a “Live Blog” done in what I think of as “Drupal Style” –meaning that there is a long string of responses and responses to responses and anyone can pitch in with their remarks. The first three nights have been interesting and this last one, with its exploration of real, in-the-world alternatives, promises to be even more contentious and useful.

NOTE: the active forum has opened up at a new URL. Go to: http://openleft.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=451

Tidbits: Fiber Budget News & Wireless Police

Two Tidbits from recent news accounts that focused on topics other than Lafayette’s network but included interesting bits about it…

The Daily Advertiser coverage of the city-parish council meeting yielded this bit after news about the budget:

The proposed 2007-08 budget is not expected to include funding for the fiber-to-the-home network because bonds to build the project were issued after Lafayette Utilities System submitted its budget, LUS Director Terry Huval said Monday.

A special budget amendment will be considered by the council, probably at its Aug. 7 meeting, to address the capital needs of the project, Huval said.

A second budget amendment to address the operations and maintenance of fiber-to-the-home, will be submitted prior to adoption of the 2007-08 budget Sept. 27.

And, related:

LUS is accepting bids to temporarily lease warehouse space to house the material needed for the FTTH enterprise.

LUS soon will be taking bids on the warehouse and head-end building that will permanently house the FTTH equipment, Huval said. Construction is expected to begin before the end of 2007.

Everything is moving down the tracks.

A bit more on the wireless network LUS is anticipating building from the Advocate’s news briefs “Around Acadiana.” Note that it is framed in terms of using these cars “no matter where they are in the city.”

Each of the units is also fully equipped with wireless equipment. Since the city is expanding its citywide wireless network for public safety workers, it won’t be long before police units will have wireless capabilities no matter where they are in the city.

I’m looking forward to universal coverage.

Local Government Fair Competition Act Dead…in North Carolina

Following a state-wide outcry North Carolina’s version of the lobbyist-written “Local Government Fair Competition Act” died today according to a local report. (Previous LPF coverage: 1, 2, 3)

Opposition from the likes of North Carolina’s Leauge of Municipalities, Google, Educause, Intel, Tropos, and user groups finally killed the embarrassing telecom-sponsored bill in the state that prides itself on having successfully courted high-tech in its widely admired “research triangle.” The victory didin’t come easy and the incumbent corporations enjoyed several successes before being derailed in the House finance committee. Louisiana’s legislature, regular readers will recall, passed such a law and it has proved the bane of Lafayette’s effort to build the network the citizens voted for every since by spawning seemingly endless lawsuits. In North Carolina legislators were helped to see the light by the disaster produced by the previous year’s telecom -sponsored–a state-wide video franchise law. That made it a little harder to treat the earnest entreties of the incumbents as credible. (In Louisiana the ongoing mess produced by the Lousisiana Local Government Fair Competition Act was no doubt instrumental in inducing our governor to veto our state-wide video law when that giveaway was proposed here. You can fool some of the people…)

Congratulations are due to an aroused North Carolina citizenry. Only one thing trumps the money the incumbent corporations have to spread around at election time: the votes they had hoped to buy with it.

Louisiana needs to repeal it’s own version of this odious (un)Fair Competition law. It puts stunningly unfair restraints on competition, restricts the people’s rights to act in their own behalf, and has the now demonstrable effect of leaving local governments mired in legal battles that serve only to delay the expressed will of the people. It robbed the citizens of New Orleans of their municipal wifi system after the storm and came close to derailing Lafayette’s project. It is not likely that any other municipality in the state will have the resources or the will to pursue serving their citizenry in this way until this law is repealed.

North Carolina shows the way.

WBS: “Eyes on Lafayette Fiber”

What’s Being Said Department

From Broadband Reports comes an interesting piece of speculation: that Lafayette’s fiber may become more of a bellwether for the advocates of municipal networks now that the bloom is off the rose of muni wi-fi:

Lafayette, as you might recall, had to fight incumbent broadband providers Cox and BellSouth tooth and nail in order to deploy the project. On the heels of the very sudden press realization that citywide Wi-Fi isn’t magic pixie dust, we’ll expect that municipal FTTH will see greater attention, with Lafayette’s $110 million dollar project a major litmus test.

Here’s an even more speculative thought: that LUS will be in a position to salvage what can be salvaged of the muni wi-fi movement by deploying a wireless system that actually works as advertised. As we’ve tirelessly repeated here the root of the difficulty with most WAN (Wide Area Network) wifi systems, muni or not, is that they are undersupplied with bandwidth and very “gappy.” Both issues arise not from technology but from economics: suppliers are motivated to minimize costs and the number of connections to a full-strength backbone is a direct determinant of cost—and available bandwidth. LUS, because it owns a full-throttle fiber backbone, will much less motivation to minimize the number of those connections. Doing it right is an upfront cost, not a continuing expense.

Users will find Lafayette’s fiber network 10 to 100 times faster than what they’ve been experiencing. There’s no reason why the wifi network shouldn’t be that much more powerful than the typical WAN.

All eyes on Lafayette.

WBS: KillerApp: Take Three

What’s Being Said Department

Geoff Daily’s third installment in his series on Lafayette came out today in the AppRising blog at KillerApp.com. This one focuses on his tour of the LITE center and examines that unique facility. (Not quite so unique as LEDA says, however. It’s not “the world’s first six-sided digital virtual reality cube” even if it is one of the very few that are publicly available.)

Geoff’s pretty clearly wowed by the experience. I took the tour recently and know how he feels. It’s pretty cool to draw in 3D—not draw a 3D representation on a 2D device but actually draw in 3D. It is also cool to walk around in 3D immersive environment, as you might well imagine.

Geoff Daily does us the courtesy of providing his video of the tour online as an aid to your imagination. But you should really go yourself. It’s fun; it’s free; and it’s pretty much only available in Lafayette. (Well you could go to Sweden or Germany but wouldn’t you rather make an appointment down at the egg?)

LITE will also be opening its doors to the public every first Wednesday of the month for 30-minute tours. For information or reservations, call (337) 735-LITE (5483).

YES! Poles Being Surveyed for Fiber

There are two guys outside my house right now surveying the pole across the street to make sure that there is enough room to run the fiber down the street.


They’re in nifty white trucks that say “Atlantic Engineering” on the door with a magnetic stick-on sign that proclaims they are “contracted by LUS.” They’re walking down the street with a monstrous big yellow extension measuring stick and a clipboard marking the distance between the ground and each wire. One of ’em has a neat little yellow sighting device that marks the distance between poles.

I went over and talked to ’em briefly (didn’t want to be the cause of any delay!) and they confirmed that they were surveying for the fiber that LUS was going install—”the fiber that the people in the city voted for a while back.” One fellow talked briefly about making sure it wasn’t too close to a power line in a comfortingly familiar Cajun accent. I smiled big, thanked ’em and scuttled out of the way.

Now I live off a major thoroughfare and they didn’t survey all the poles on my side street so my guess is that this is sort of sort of a spot check for laying out a major trunk. (Meaning I’m not getting my hopes up. 🙂 )

Men working. Boots on the ground, it’s amazing how reassuring that is.

Made my day.

Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong….Lafayette?

Google, the US’ premier internet company, is testing new designs for its search page and its igoogle homepage…bu only in places where big bandwidth is available. According to a PC World article Sergey Brin, Google co-founder and president of technology, said:

“We’re actually now experimenting with trying new kinds of homepages, for example in Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, that are a completely different type than we’ve tried before on our U.S. site…

“We think [the new design] will be more appropriate for the local cultures, and their context, and their broadband connections, which, for example in Korea, are extraordinarily fast,” Brin said, adding that response to the new site designs had been “quite positive.”

Google has been famous for NOT crowding its basic search page with extraneous (and self-serving) ads or cross-promotions. As a consequence their search page has a reputation for loading quickly and cleanly. Apparently, having gobs of extra bandwidth encourages Google to experiment with changes that include animated icons though the additions are still modest by anyone else’s standards. (Check out the Korean search page.)

Google’s user homepage system, iGoogle, gets an upgrade in faster places as well. Tabbed “gadget boxes” are a staple of the new design in fiber-rich locales and small animated graphics are featured as well. (Taiwan’s)

iGoogle has fascinated me for awhile now. It is similar to a system envisioned nearly 3 years ago by Lafayette’s Digital Divide Committee as a way to make localized information available and to allow users to customize the page by choosing the modules they were interested in. In that vision you could get the feed from your church, or the sports feed, or find local computer repair or babysitters… The hope was encourage more extensive use of modern networks by making the net more useful for local tasks. Back then it was pretty much a pipe dream. Each box on the page (what Google calls a gadget) would have been pretty much handbuilt and the whole system would have to have been backed up with a locally created and maintained server and programming team. Changing the box’s placement on the page columns would have to have been mediated by an awkward panel. It’s amazing how fast the future comes in some areas: with the maturation of RSS feeds and the arrival of easy to use tools like Yahoo Pipes and Google Gadgets that project is now conceivable as something a single competent programmer (or a determined neophyte) could tinker together using those tools and end up with a very sophisticated face that would include drag and drop rearrangement of the page and multiple personal pages for different purposes—you could have a separate local tabs for “local news,” “kids stuff,” “my sports,” and “business stuff.”

Lafayette could use the nifty extra features iGoogle uses in Asia for a sporty new local website. And with the coming bandwidth from LUS it could easily match the speeds available there.

Maybe someone could ask Google if they need an US testbed?

(Thanks to Mike who suggested the link—and the title. :-))

PhotoSynth & Web 2.0—Worth Thinking About

Sunday Thought Dept.

Warning: this is seriously different from the usual fare here but fits roughly into my occasional “Sunday Thought” posts. I’ve been thinking hard about how to make the web more compelling for users and especially how to integrate the local interests that seem so weakly represented on the internet. As part of that exploration I ran across a research program labeled “PhotoSynth.” It offers a way to integrate “place” into the abstract digital world of the web in a pretty compelling way if your interest is in localism: it automatically recreates a 3 dimensional world from any random set of photographs of a scene and allows tags and links to be embedded in them. Once anyone has tagged a local feature (say the fireman’s statue on Vermillion St. or a associated a review with a picture of Don’s Seafood downtown.) everyone else’s images are, in effect, enriched by their ability to “inherit” that information.

But it seems that it is a lot more than just the best thing to happen to advocates of web localism in a long time. It’s very fundamental stuff, I think, with implications far beyond building a better local web portal…. Read On…

Photosynth aka “Photo Tourism” encapsulates a couple of ideas that are well worth thinking hard about. Potentially this technical tour de force provides a new, automated, and actually valuable way of building representations of the world we live in.

This is a big deal.

Before I get all abstract on you (as I am determined to do) let me strongly encourage you to first take a look at the most basic technical ideas behind what I’m talking about. Please take the time to absorb a five and a half minute video illustrating the technology. If you’re more a textural learner you can take a quick look at the text-based, photo-illustrated overview from the Washington State/MS lab. But I recommend trying the video first.

(Sorry this video was removed by YouTube).

You did that? Good; thanks….otherwise the rest will be pretty opaque—more difficult to understand than it needs to be.

One way to look at what the technology does is that it recreates a digitized 3D world from a 2D one. It builds a fully digital 3D model of the world from multiple 2D photos. Many users contribute their “bits” of imagery and, together, they are automatically interlinked to yield, out of multiple points of view, a “rounded” representation of the scene. The linkages between images are established on the basis of data inside the image–on the basis of their partial overlap—and ultimately on the basis of their actually existing next to each other—and this is done without the considered decisions of engaged humans.

Why is that a big deal?

Because its not all handmade. Today’s web is stunningly valuable but it is also almost completely hand-made. Each image or word is purpose-chosen for its small niche on a web page or in its fragment of context. The links that connect the web’s parts are (for the most part) hand-crafted as well and represent someone’s thoughtful decision. Attempts to automate the construction of the web, to automatically create useful links, have failed miserably—largely because connections need to be meaningful in terms of the user’s purpose and algorithms don’t grok meaning or purpose.

The web has been limited by its hand-crafted nature. There is information (of all sorts, from videos of pottery being thrown, to bird calls, to statistical tables) out there we can’t get to—or even get an indication that we ought to want to get to. We rely mostly on links to find as much as we do and those rely on people making the decision to hand-craft them. But we don’t have the time, or the inclination, to make explicit and machine-readable all the useful associations that lend meaning to what encounter in our lives. So the web remains oddly thin—it consists of the few things that are both easy enough and inordinately important enough to a few of our fellows to get represented on the net. It is their overwhelming number and the fact that we are all competent in our own special domains that makes the web so varied and fascinating.

You might think that web search, most notably the big success story of the current web, Google’s, serves as a ready substitute for consciously crafted links. We think Google links us to appropriate pages without human intervention. But we’re not quite right—Google’s underlying set of algorithms, collectively known as “PageRank,” mostly just ranks pages by reference to how many other pages link to those pages and weights those by the links form other sites that those pages receive…and so on. To the extent that web search works it relies on making use of handmade links. The little fleas algorithm.™ It’s handmade links all the way down.

Google was merely the first to effectively repackage human judgment. You’ve heard of web 2.0? (More) The idea that underpins that widely hyped craze is that you can go to your users to supply the content, the meaning, the links. That too is symptomatic of what I’m trying to point to here: the model that relies solely on the web being built by “developers” who are guessing their users needs has reached its limits.

That’s why Web 2.0 is a big deal: The folks designing the web are groping toward a realization of their limits, how to deal with them, and keep the utility of the web growing.

It is against that backdrop that PhotoSynth appears. It represents another path toward a richer web. The technologies it uses have been combined to contextually indexes images based on their location in the real, physical world. The physical world becomes its own index—one that exist independently of hand-crafted links. Both Google and Yahoo have been looking for a way to harness “localism,” recognizing that they are missing a lot of what is important to users by not being able to locate places, events, and things that are close to the user’s physical location.

The new “physical index” would quickly become intertwined with the meaning-based web we have developed. Every photo that you own would, once correlated with the PhotoSynth image, “inherit” all the tags and links embedded in all the other imagery there or nearby. More and more photos are tagged with meta-data and sites like flicker allow you to annotate elements of the photograph (as does PhotoSynth). The tags and links represented tie back into the already established web of hand-crafted links and knit them together in new ways. And it potentially goes further: Image formats typically already support time stamps and often a time stamp is registered in a digital photograph’s metadata even when the user is unaware of it. Though I’ve not seen any sign thatPhotoSynth makes use of time data it would be clearly be almost trivial to add that functionality. And that would add an automatic “time index” to the mix. So if you wanted to see pictures of the Vatican in every season you could…or view images stretching back to antiquity.

It’s easy to fantasize about how place, time, and meaning-based linking might work together. Let’s suppose you stumble across a nifty picture of an African Dance troupe. Metadata links that to a date and location—Lafayette in April of 2005. A user tag associated with the picture is “Festival International.” From there you get to the Festival International de Louisiane website. You pull up—effectively create—a 3-D image of the Downtown venue recreated from photos centered on the stage 50 feet from where the metadata says the picture was taken. A bit of exploration in the area finds Don’s Seafood, the Louisiana Crafts Guild, a nifty fireman’s statue, a fountain (with an amazing number of available photos) and another stage. That stage has a lot of associations with “Zydeco” and “Cajun” and “Creole.” You find yourself virtually at the old “El Sido’s,” get a look at the neighborhood and begin to wonder about the connections between place, poverty, culture, and music….

The technologies used in SynthPhoto are not new or unique. Putting them all together is…and potentially points the way toward a very powerful way to enhance the web and make it more powerfully local.

Worth thinking about on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

Lots o’ Langiappe:

TED talk Video — uses a Flickr data set to illustrate how the program can scoop up any imagry. This was the first reference I fell across.

Photo Tourism Video — Explains the basics, using the photo tourism interface. Shows the annotation feature of the program…

Roots of PhotoSynth Research Video—an interesting background bit…seadragon, stitching & virtual tourist, 3D extraction….

PhotoSynth on the Web Video: a version of the program is shown running in a web browser; only available to late version Microsoft users. (Web Site)

Microsoft Interactive Visual Media Group Site. Several of these projects look very interesting—and you can see how some of the technologies deployed in PhotoSynth have been used in other contexts.

Microsoft PhotoSynth Homepage

ToDo: Yahoo Pipes

Today’s “ToDo:” Yahoo Pipes. Nifty, cool, efficient.

If we’re all gonna love having big pipes here in Lafayette and find ourselves living on the web as a consequence (like I think we will when we’re not dancing or eating crawfish or boudin) then we’re gonna have to learn to deal with the dreaded “information overload.”

The problem is an embarrassment of riches: the net makes so much information effortlessly available that it is all too easy to while away the hours when you could be doing something useful like playing with your grandchildren or searching out the best boudin place doing something merely mundane like keeping up with the news on LUS’ fiber system.

Not Good.

Don’t let it happen to you.

Play a bit with Yahoo pipes and you’ll discover that for a small upfront investment in time spent building a pipe you can eliminate a host of tedious clicks from you regular routine. Yahoo pipes lets you concatenate RSS feeds into one giant feed and search that feed for items of interest, filtering out all the gradu that you wouldn’t bother to read anyway.

The simplest pipes (see an example below) just search a set of feeds for all mentions of your favorite thing. You could, for instance, search all Lafayette media mention of your favorite topic. I put together a pipe which will search most of South Louisiana’s major media. You can travel to a “pipe” which searches on “Blanco” and today returns mostly the comments on her recent set of vetos. (Be paitient—Yahoo is searching 1278 items and winnowing it down to the 20 or so articles you’ll see. And it will do it a LOT faster than you would—so quit your whining.) Another pipe, searching “Vitter” lets you feast on the latest local coverage of the scandal.

It’s all very easy really and Yahoo has done its best to make it as easy as possible. In an earlier ToDo article I recommended an animation programming environment called “Scratch” in part for its super easy introduction to visual programming for kids. Yahoo pipes works off the same idea. You are presented with a palette of tools (like sources, user input, operators, and various bits to manipulate your data). You pick up a tool and drop it onto a working canvas, paste source links into the “source” tool, drop a search “operator” onto the canvas, type in your search term, then simply “pull” links to indicate that you want to search your source based on the search terms you typed. Link that to an output device and save. You’re done. All very intuitive and fun to play with since you can mess with your connections, sources, and operators to see what they do and how they change what you get.

That sort of quick check is not all you can do—but that should be enough to get you started. Here’s a version of the “South Louisiana News Search” that is a redevelopment of one I’ve put together for my own use that contains more bells and whistles and a rudimentary user interface. (It’s a model for some tools I’ve been thinking about for the Lafayette Commons I’d like to see our community have. (more)) The “South Louisiana News Search” pipe is embedded on a web page and lets you enter your own search term. The return comes back tagged with the website from which it was pulled and is (poorly) time-sorted from most recent to oldest. Now imagine what you could do with geotagging and calendar feeds in addition to the RSS type feeds I’ve played with here. Then contemplate using Google Gears to pull in database material, give it all a real user interface, and allow you to go offline with the data and the means to do something with it.

This sort of fun and simple tool is only the beginning.

Lagniappe: Your favorite info source hasn’t gotten on the RSS bandwagon yet? Try Feedity.com. It will let you convert that page to an (undated) feed that Pipes can use.

Lagniappe2: Don’t like my feed? Wish it had Alexandria? Can’t fathom why I left off the sports feeds? Wish it included your home town newspaper? Just go to Yahoo, register (free), login, and “clone” that feed. (I’ve made it publicly available.) Tweak, alter, add, subtract, and improve to your heart’s content.