$200 PC Available in Lafayette

A Wired blog sez that a $200 Ubuntu Linux PC, sans monitor is now available in Lafayette.

Cool. And it’s especially great for Lafayette.

Why great for Lafayette?

This computer and its software packages come very close to being exactly the computer that the Lafayette Digital Divide Committee recommended in the “Bridging the Digital Divide” document.

That study, which became official policy when it was made an ordinance by the city-parish council, recommended a mix of low cost computers, free open source software, and a local portal/server that leveraged the intranet bandwidth the committee recommended LUS make available to its customers. Let’s take a look at how that has played out:

The key, and hardest, part of that equation was securing the use of full intranet bandwidth—when the committee first recommended Lafayette adopt that policy there was real doubt that it was technically feasible. In short order such doubt was dispelled. Since that time LUS and the city-parish has fully committed to providing at least 100 megs of intranet bandwidth to every user regardless of how much they spend for internet connectivity. Huval and LUS call this “peer to peer bandwidth.” With 100 megs locally available to all users a rich local portal and aggressive use of server-based applications becomes possible. Since much of the computing and handling of large quantities of data can be handled on the network rather than in the users personal computer much less powerful—and hence less expensive—computers can be used.

That brings us back to the subject of todays post: Everex’s TC2502 gPC computer. This ‘puter is available through WalMart for $200 dollars and Wired’s blog carries of list of locations that will stock it that include Lafayette. It is also available over the net from WalMart’s online store. It is sold without a monitor but includes mouse, keyboard and a set of speakers. The desktop computer runs a variant of the free Ubuntu Linux operating system called gOS. Also free is a list of installed open source software including OpenOffice, Firefox web browser, Meebo IM, and Skype, GIMP photo software, the Xing DVD and video player, and Rhythmbox music management software. Even more interesting for local digital divide promoters is that it includes icons linking to Google applications like Mail, Documents, Spreadsheets, Calendar, News, and Maps.

Between LUS’ solid commitment to lower prices for connectivity (which is now more important than computer cost as a barrier to adoption) Google’s online apps, and the emergence of commercially available, low-cost, open source computers like this Everex, the pieces are falling in place for Lafayette to have a digital divide program that will be as unique as the system itself.

Public-Private-University: The Reality & the Potential

A report from the Advertiser presents an overview of the speakers on “technology and knowledge economy” at a Chamber breakfast at the Petroleum Club (a location redolent of the old rather than the new economy). The Advertiser’s Bob Moser leads with the money qoute:

Lafayette has put itself in a great position to lead the future “technology and knowledge economy,” a Mississippi economic leader told a local business crowd on Thursday.

Randall Goldsmith, head of the Mississippi Technology Alliance, was the leadoff in a session that also featured Lafayette’s Ramesh Kolluru, Keith Thibodeaux, and Doug Menefee.

The Reality
I was pleased to see some positive discussion of the essential role of the University in any hope Lafayette business might have of riding the technology wave. Not mincing words: I am often appalled at the dismissive attitude that I find pervasive in the Lafayette business community regarding the role of ULL as the engine of tech growth. Put plainly, without ULL there would be not tech be a sector in Lafayette. There is no hope of staying ahead of the curve without the academics. They are the essential players. It really is that simple and a Chamber breakfast that seems to treat that as a given is a great relief.

LONI and LITE were apparently the focus of discussion and both, of course, are academic ventures. (Again: without ULL neither could exist—and more pointedly neither would have even been conceived.) LITE will need careful, tolerant, encouragement from the local community. It is a new concept and is a tool rather than a product to boot; as such it so will take time to develop its niche. (Impatient parties should review the rocky early history of Baton Rouge’s Pennington Biomedical Center and consider what the consequence would have been if Baton Rouge’s business leaders had demanded immediate, local payback in terms of focusing on fostering old-style local private medical practices and hospitals in Greater Baton Rouge. —It would have destroyed what has become an outstanding world-class asset.) In a similar vein LONI—and its connections to Internet2/LamdaRail, are all fundamentally academic interconnects. It is a creature which, will benefit a larger community but not something that would exist as an asset for Louisiana or Lafayette if it hadn’t been created by the Universities.

It goes without saying, or should, that without the private and governmental sectors actively and passionately involved the possibilities that ULL offers the community cannot be realized. They, too, are essential. But no one should mistake the reality: while a strong business community and a wise government are central to Lafayette’s growth they could not create the resource that is represented by ULL; they could, however, fail to take advantage of it.

Oddly in my view, the “technology and knowledge economy” event did not include a focus on the most significant (academic or non-academic) initiative in the city—and arguably the very one that will have the greatest immediate impact on the ability of Chamber members to compete from a position on the high ground with their national and international opposition: the LUS Fiber project. That project will provide a ground-breaking 100 or more megs of intranet connection to every citizen who signs on—and that could easily be 50 or more percent of the market. Young and old, poor and rich, white and black, Creole, Cajun, French, and Americain. It will be coupled with a state-of the art wireless network that will actually work. It will all be available in the least expensive parts of the city to large, small, tiny entrepreneurs and regular folks who, if they so chose to grasp it, will have bandwidth previously available only in to mega corps and university campuses. What will we do with all that? Who knows? But rest assured that the vacuum will be filled. Why no mention? What’s up with that sort of blind spot?…The really interesting discussion would have been of how to leverage this uniquely Lafayette convergence of the muscle of private initiative, municipal community-mindedness, and the restless exploratory energy of Academia to benefit the community.

The Potential
It would be pretty easy to imagine a research project that encourages ULL professors to develop an expertise in the popular use of really large bandwidth. It would involve both social and technical research and would draw in artists, playwrights, and mulitmedia folks of all strips in testing content. It’s the sort of research project with tentacles into every department that a first-rank research 1 University would salivate over. But none of them have the essential resource. Consider: Lafayette will shortly have more bandwidth in the hands of a larger number of people of all races, ethnic backgrounds, and incomes than any place in the country. It is going to be the richest feedbed of data imaginable for next generation theorizing and practice in disciplines ranging from networking to interface design; from multimedia art to interactive theater. Properly designed and funded such a program would attract top-notch, ground-breaking young scholars to ULL in numbers sufficient to make the university a national center in a field of interdisciplinary studies it, and Lafayette, could create.

An element in making such a push credible to an outside world that sees Louisiana through the lens of the White Citizens Council and the Jena 6 would be a real digital divide initiative and a strong, community-backed program to encourage every citizen to make the fullest possible use of the potential of the new network. With public, private, and university backing Lafayette could find itself among the Austins’ and Research Triangles’ of the US: places where people come and want to stay in order to build something special that they could build nowhere else. Dell Computer is an engine in Austin (and the US) becaue a student wanted to earn some extra cash and explore what he’d learned in school and for very little other substantial reason. That Hollywood is all but synonymous with riches worldwide is not due to any natural advantage but to an accident of history.

We could create such an accident here.

The real potential of such an open collaboration between the public, private, and university sectors would be in the spin-offs, the Dells, the Steve Jobs—the companies marketing the “inconsequential” by-products of new fields in the form of new services offered by drop-outs and folks who don’t want to leave but have gained new, almost unique skills and put them to productive use. Texas poured its oil revenues into academics and, along the way, into a “far-out” and esoteric “computer science” department back in the days when the internet was a gleam in a researchers eye. An orthodonist’s kid who showed up intending to become a doctor got hooked, got his hands dirty, and decided to drop out to really do this stuff. Dell Computer and a high-tech industry in dusty then-backwater Austin was the payback. That sector alone will return its investment many times long after the last oil is pumped from the sands beneath Texas.

If that strikes you as worthy thing to hope for there are few things you could do. You could support the university and especially its research arms in doing the “far out,” esoteric things they are supposed to do. Hang around and hire the dropouts. Be tolerant of the oddities of those you don’t fully understand. Feed ’em and share the music. Celebrate Mardi Gras. You could support a local survey of Lafayette’s needs to provide all those future researchers a baseline from which to work. You could support LUS fully, regardless of any previous leanings—and say so. You could work to close the digital divide and to bring everyone in our community into full use of the technology we will own.

You could decide the future is worth working for.

Lafayette’s Age-based Digital Divide

Today’s Advertiser runs two stories (1, 2) that are both interesting and informative on the gap in computer and internet usage between seniors and the rest of the community.

The gap between seniors and the rest of the population is one of the most marked divides in internet usage—and one remarked upon by Lafayette’s own digital divide committee. Today’s article documents the divide and notes the narrowing of the gap over the years:

In a study conducted for The Daily Advertiser this spring, 36 percent of those over 65 who responded said they had accessed the Internet in the past 30 days. That figure was 33 percent for a 7-day period in question. Those numbers are significantly lower than any other age group, but even that represents a marked increase over 2001 (8 percent) and 2005 (22 percent) for the 7-day response.

That clearly documents a divide–and an improvement over time. What’s really great about this is that it is local data. (Something we very badly need.) Lafayette is unique enough that I’ve never been confident that the national stats applied very directly. National trendlines are easier to show confidence in but even that makes the old statistician in me a little uneasy—so it is very nice to get better data. The little bit of data given here documents a healthy change over time.

Interestingly this summer, PEW’s well-respected periodic surveys of internet usage documents a very similar number —32%—for seniors “using the internet at least occasionally.” That sort of phrasing is likely to overestimate usage; the Advertiser’s asking if a respondent has used it in the last week is a more reliable and tougher question—and it showed 33%. So while a completely parallel question would be ideal the Advertisers data is still a good indication that Lafayette’s seniors do not lag the national average and most probably are using the internet in a bit higher numbers.

We’re used to thinking of ourselves as behind the ball in Louisiana but apprently that isn’t true of senior internet usage. At least not in Lafayette. Why not? Part of the answer might be visible in the subtitle of the first story: Classes help some step into computer age.” Folks at the university and at the public library have been making education available in a consistent and useful manner. Some organizations that appeal to the elderly, like genealogical ones, are also touting the advantages to interested seniors. All that has to add up.

Of course, as nice as education is, it still leaves more seniors offline than any other category. Arguably seniors with limited mobility, a larger interaction with the trappings of officialdom, and a more persistent need for good medical information would benefit more than the youngsters from internet connectivity. It would be nice to increase their utilization. The second story, Why getting grandma online matters,” points to the more fundamental problem: showing people who’ve gotten along without the internet for the whole of a very fruitful life why they ought to want to bother. The story lists activities that make the value evident:

  • Sharing photos with family and friends.
  • Free medical information is available.
  • Shop without leaving home.
  • Apply for certain benefits.
  • You know, when you think about it those are the sorts of things we all find interest–that and staying in touch with friends and our community more generally.

    What would help seniors begin to take advantage of the resources are pretty much what would help us all. We ALL would benefit from being better connected to our communities. That’s what the idea of a Lafayette Commons, an online place that makes useful local information easy to access is all about. Worth thinking on.

    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.

    Thoughts on Killer Apps and Community

    I’ve been chewing over an informal speech/meeting with Geoff Daily of KillerApp Monday evening from which I came away pretty impressed. He was speaking on what drives broadband usage—especially usage of high-capacity fiber networks. Daily actually gets it—he’s not so distracted by the technology itself that he doesn’t see that something more is necessary to create real change.

    Daily was in town at the behest of Abigail Ransonet (aka fiberina and mistress of Abacus Marketing) who is hosting him here. Geoff, who is “on tour” of communities which have significant fiber to the home networks, is visiting Lafayette with the dual purpose of seeing what we are doing (or planning to do) with our fiber and informing us about what others have done.

    What impressed me was that Geoff didn’t succumb to the implications of the name of the business for which he works—nor the mindset that is so popular that the name was an obvious choice for a business focused on broadband. He doesn’t think there is going to be a “KillerApp” that drives full utilization of fiber networks and leads to broadband utopia.

    What Daily pointed out Monday was that most of the applications that people expect will drive broadband usage already exist. Some of them don’t really require big broadband if only a few people are using them—and only a few people are. Those that do require a big pipe don’t appear to be widely adopted where the bandwidth is available. The missing element is adoption. Waiting for “the killer app” is just a way of putting off the real works: preparing the community to make use of the many advantages which fiber’s big bandwidth makes available.

    Without community education—and providing a way for that education to occur—networks may be fiscally successful. But they will not realize the dreams of their advocates to provide a foundation for accelerated growth, equity, and a markedly better quality of life for citizens.

    The “build it and they will come” assumption is insufficient to those goals. Building a community-owned fiber network is, I believe, a necessary precondition realize such dreams. Privately-owned networks will never be motivated to serve the needs of the community except indirectly. If any community hopes to get ahead of the curve or to simply control its own destiny it must own its own tools. That’s true for carpenters and that’s true for cities. Lafayette did the right thing in building its own network. But Geoff Daily reminds us that this is only the beginning. (Check out his blog at KillerApp for relevant ideas.)

    Daily pointed to the Utopia project in Utah as one that appeared to him to be built on “build it and they will come” assumption. In truth, as Daily probably realizes, this attitude was pretty much forced on them by their statehouse: the state of Utah would only allow local communities to build the networks the private providers refused to build if they leased them out to private service providers. In consequence the Utopia project is not, and cannot be, “utopian” in any real sense. The citizens who own and will have taken the risk in providing the network will find themselves with services that are typical of services offered by any private network since what motivates their providers will be no different from what motivates anyone else’s.

    That is better than not having such services at all, I’ll grant, but that is not what Lafayette voted for—we voted for the dream.

    One point was unmistakable: Geoff Daily wants that dream too. He wants to see the technology lead to better things for communities and their residents. That leads him to think that we need a visionary success in at least one community to kickstart nation-wide usage. The country needs to see a place where an advanced network kicks off accelerates growth, decreases inequality, and results in a markedly better quality of life for all its citizens.

    I nominate Lafayette.

    But, as Geoff’s presentation and the following discussion made clear, it won’t happen by itself. The the only way that will happen is if LCG, LUS, and the community decide to make it happen.

    Lafayette’s Bus Routes to be Tracked Live

    Here’s a little dream that you should see live by the end of the summer: A webpage that tracks the position of all the city buses in real time.

    The Advertiser runs the story this morning. The gist:

    “This allows us to give information to the public,” Mitchell said.

    “They can go online and see where their bus is in relation to their bus stop in real time.”

    Those who use the online service will be able to set an alarm at a specific point on the route, that will alert them when their bus reaches that point on the map in relation to the bus stop, Mitchell said.

    Now that is nifty. There are all sorts of public safety, scheduling, and efficiency reasons to keep close track on the position of your buses. (The major package delivery corporations and many of the long-haul trucking firms and airlines already do this. —I recently was able to track a friends’ flight from San Antonio to Lafayette in real time on the carrier’s website. We left the house when the plane hit the parish line and met her coming off the breezeway.)

    There’s not much in the way of a hint as to how this info will be provided. It’d be great if it could be provided in a format that would allow anyone to use it…for instance to provide a feed that would be usable on a cell phone or as a module on a community commons site.

    (Google is testing a format for such….Google Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) Here’s an example of how this works. The current iteration of the Google labs project doesn’t include a real-time feed that uses GPS data. But it is pretty clear that the right programmer could add that relatively simply using the Google API and tools like Gadgets to overlay the updated GPS coordinates. See Austin‘s implementation. (Hah!!! See update below, the overlay’s already been done.))

    As fun as this is now imagine how useful it will be once the fiber-based wifi system is operational. Take your laptop, iphone, blackberry, cell or other net-connected device and track where your bus is now. No uncertainty, no trying to remember all the schedules for all the buses. You can be an occasional user. One of the differentiators for many people between large cities and small towns is how useful the public transit system is. Large cities like Chicago or San Francisco already use a version of this. Properly implemented this could go a long way toward making it practical — and comfortable — for people who do not have to use the transit system to do so. The folks downtown realize that:

    Mitchell said the Web site combined with the GPS tracking is another method to make people aware of Lafayette’s bus system and how it works.

    “This is another way we can get people to ride the buses and make it more convenient for our riders,” Mitchell said.

    Good for the transit folks. Good for Lafayette. It will be a huge improvement over the current set of online pdf schedule maps which don’t appear to have been updated recently.

    Update!!!.…in my poking about a bit more I found just what I want for Lafayette–Look at this google-based overlay of data piped through NextBus for San Francisco. It appears to update every 30 seconds or so. The google underpinning is free; all NextBus had to do was provide a java-based overlay of the current GPS reading for each bus. It works on my Mac, your PC, and any mobile device that can browse the web and play the java applet.

    Creating a Lafayette Commons

    Here’s something that’s worth the read on a rainy Sunday afternoon. It’s an inspiring essay titled “Reclaiming the Commons” by David Bollier. He bitterly complains about the growing tendency to allow our common resources and heritage —from concrete public property like oil or grazing rights on public land, to more abstract rights to goods created by regulation like the electro-magnetitc spectrum, to truly abstract (but very real and increasingly valuable) rights to common ideas and intellectual resources— those common resources are being taken from us and handed over to the few.

    The argument is that we are all poorer for it. And that society would be richer if those things remained in the public domain. He convincingly argues that undue private ownership of ideas stifles the invention of new variants and new ideas.

    The point for Lafayette is that we are about to create a new common resource: the Lafayette fiber intranet, and we are creating it as a publicly-owned resource. If Bollier is right then we have a real responsibility to make sure that our common property serves the common good and that it not be “enclosed” by the few.

    We here in Lafayette will be in the nearly unique position of commonly owning a completely up-to-date telecommunications infrastructure ranging from a fiber-all-the-way-to-the-home network, to a wifi network using the capacity of that fiber. A citizen who wants to will be able to get all of his telecommunications needs met using local resources, resources that are owned in common.

    A lot of what is missing on the web is access to local resources-the church calendar, the schedule for the shrimp truck, what vegetables are available at the farmer’s market, specials at the local restaurants, nearby childcare, adult ed resources, local jobs…and much more aren’t available or are the next best thing to impossible to usefully gather in one place. We could, by acting together, fix that.

    Creating a thriving network-based commons is the task that is set before us. Bollier gives us some insight into the magnitude of what is at stake. We can, by the way we participate and what we create, create a truly common and truly valuable resource.

    Give the Bollier article a look. Then think a bit about what we can do to make ours a transparently valuable network–one that will encourage all to participate fully.

    (Hey, we can be idealists if we want. :-))