Monday, 30 March 2020


After first reading about geocaches, it seems to be a nearly inevitable application of data storage and communication technology. A network of thirty satellites in near Earth orbit (Neo) form the global positioning system (GPS). Originally intended for precise military navigation and intelligence gathering,it quickly found its use in civilian/commercial navigation. Now everyone with a mobile internet device can have their location pinpointed. This data is then collected by the owners and licensees of the technology being used, including for government intelligence gathering.

Specific data can be stored - cached - at a particular point, which is visible on a dedicated map. A user with the geocaching app. can race around and find as many as they like, and compare what they've found with other users internationally.

My first thought about this technological development is that it follows a historical precedent (at least for Anglo's): new capabilities are quickly, if not immediately militarised, and tightly controlled by government. The first aeronautical factories in Britain for example were state owned and operated, to supply what would become the royal air force. Radio and telephones were first deployed in Australia for army and navy use, with everyone else making do with the public post offices or commercial telegraph network. More recently, the internet was intended for data sharing by American defence researchers; now the GPS.

The second phase traditionally is that public services begin offering the latest information capabilities and communication technology to their communities. Within living memory, country townspeople would visit their local post office or library to make a phone call. My father was very proud at the time to have gone to the public library in Tamworth, and used a photocopier for a school project in the 60s. Equivalent for me was when the internet was first publicised in the mid 90s, when my brothers and I took most of a day out to visit the State Library in South Brisbane. We marvelled at filling in an online form to request songs on the radio because the ABC had the only websites we knew of at the time. (The whole situation was so new that triple j's URL was!) Weather forecasting and other geosciences foresaw the potential of satellites in their fields, and soon afterwards it was applied to archaeology.

The next phase seems to be a phase of mass adoption, or at least mass availability, when political economic factors take hold. Enough enterprising and experimental early adopters have figured out how the mechanisms work, and how to make them operate optimally; what the "rules" or "best practices" should be.
Typically conservative corporations stop being dismissive of the new concepts and techniques, and stop being stubbornly averse to disruption, carried by the critical mass of r&d. Governments become involved, both in regulation and provision. 
Often, ambitious politicians envision the benefits of mass provision, leading to public institutions now considered sacred by default. Here, the Australian Communications Exchange gave birth to Telecommunications Australia (now Telstra) and the nationwide emergency services switchboard, generating incentive and demand for telephones in the home. Other examples include the ABC itself - or BBC or PBS - crucially providing content for the cutting edge media of radio, television, and of course internet. 
Governments started a network of airports, literally building capacity for future commercial airlines, even in competition with railway lines and seaports. Governments compare themselves and compete with each other, which is one reason why Frankfurt has an international airport to rival London's Heathrow, and why Australians will keep making jokes about their internet being worse than Kazakhstan, Romania, South Africa, and even New Zealand.

In the next phase, corporations become more involved, if only because they're the only vehicle for limitless investment in the technology and its potential. Governments create a new market, and new operators find services to provide there. Without Google providing searching, indexing, caching, and analytical services, someone else would (even if they were sub/national libraries, archives, and research institutions). Without iTunes providing cheap IP licensing and access to valuable back catalogues, the likes of Napster, Kazaa, and Megaupload allowed file conversion and sharing of music and videos freely. 

Often, there's a final phase, when government becomes a customer for the newly unleashed applications of technology. A high concept example is the demand for facial and voice recognition, and "big data" has become a ubiquitous computing industry fixation. As for geocaches, I can already see how useful they can be for local and national tourism bodies, and a further innovation for museum and gallery provision.

Information farming

During research about different publishing models I came across this graph about the cost breakdowns (focusing on published academic journals, unsurprisingly). The section which intrigued me most was the calculation of added cost, if proofreaders and peer reviewers were properly paid for their time. That led me to wonder: who should be responsible for quality control in the market for information?

To make it translate more easily, let's imagine that instead it's like agriculture. Is it the farmer's job to ensure the highest quality of product goes to market, because they take such pride in their work? After all, they get public subsidies simply to plant, grow, and harvest. 

Is it the supplier's role? Their brand faces the customer, so they'll suffer any reputation damage from too much faulty product being supplied. Is it the role of the retailer/wholesalers, so that they can identify and neutralise any consumer risk in their supply chains? 

Is it the role of government, to ensure that all actors in the market operate to a high minimal standard, to minimise any threats to the population at large? (Particularly topical now, with the commentary about who should do what to contain any contagion from covid 19.)

 Should all the responsibility be transferred to the end consumer, where people can do as they like on the basis of "buyer beware"?

 Is it instead up to activist nonprofit groups, to conduct clandestine investigations, questioning the way the market works, and why?

 Is it instead part of the work of other farmers, to take the time to check each other's work, to advance the base standard of the entire industry? Hopefully then, one day, someone will benefit from that process to make a breakthrough which will revolutionise and advance their field in unforeseen ways.

Sunday, 8 March 2020

Quickly on wikis

This is one of the #23things which links today's internet with its historical origins. It is based on:
"collaborative websites which can be directly edited merely by using a web browser…by anyone with access to it". 

That quote comes from Wiktionary, "the free online dictionary", whose entries are built, and later built upon, by its users. It's related to the famous Wikipedia, a collaborative encyclopedia.

Attitudes to Wikimedia projects have tended to be derisive and elitist, exactly because it's common people contributing their knowledge freely, bit by bit, in their own language, relying on other volunteers to check its authenticity. Anecdotal evidence supports this; we all must have heard a story of someone logging into Wikipedia to change an article, just to win an argument at the time.

That argument broke down for me after realising two things:

  1. Wikimedia material is updated faster than professional academia, and
  2. The information in it is surprisingly detailed, and surprisingly high quality, since it's not aimed at any particular audience.

At this point, I remember a time in primary school where we had to look up the meanings behind days of the week and months of the year. I had the Oxford dictionary, which was different to everyone else's, and told me this much:
" The day of the week after Tuesday and before Thursday".

By contrast, Wiktionary tells us this much:
" The fourth day of the week in many religious traditions, and the third day of the week in systems using the ISO 8601 norm; it follows Tuesday and precedes Thursday".

Its page goes on to discuss the etymology (word origin), audio clips for pronunciation, as well as writing guide in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). The online entry also lists informal and derived terminology, translations, and how its use and spelling has changed over time [in English]. As said on the homepage:
" Wiktionary has grown beyond a standard dictionary and now includes a thesaurus, a rhyme guide, phrase books, language statistics and extensive appendices. We aim to include not only the definition of a word, but also enough information to really understand it".

Just like Wikipedia, the homepage for Wiktionary has an introduction, and some content to help people begin: a featured word of the day in English, and the "foreign word of the day". They also include links to the standards they use, and an experimental space for new users.

Extensive use of hyperlinks is a distinguishing feature of Wikimedia, making them more interactive than standard articles or other pages of text. For this reason, I kept the links in both previous definitions. In this way, it took only four clicks/links to go from the homepage to the Wikipedia article about "play as therapy" for small children. Linking so many unrelated articles this way has led to Wikimedia being recognised as a massive, though useful, time sink, both for users and contributors. The way that different Wikimedia entries link to each other also forms a very well-connected data empire of its own.

Because of their simple design and construction, and the intensity of engagement by the target user community, wikis are popular on other social media. The urban dictionary should get a special mention, since it helps anyone with a net connection to keep up to date with slang, both in a contemporary and historical sense. In the same vein, gives as much detail as you can handle about any particular game, movie, TV series, or other pop culture obsession.

In short: Wikimedia are a great resource for anyone generally, but especially those of the information professions. They're free, easy to use and understand, and as thorough as we allow them to be.

Hanging out+

Google's hangouts feature is good value (especially since it's free). I used it quite often a few years ago, when friends in my gaming group started moving interstate/overseas. Once we discovered that we all had g-mail addresses, this seemed a logical fit to replace our tabletop sessions.

Functionally, it's like any other videoconferencing software out there, except that it's automatically linked to your g-mail address and Google account. Someone starts the hangout, and invites other people in. People's propics show up when they're speaking, or a live stream from their webcam, if enabled. We could be individually muted, at either end. (With the state of Australian internet in 2014, people also randomly disconnected at different times. As a rule, webcams were off, so reduce the lagging time.) We used the hangout to communicate with each other while viewing an interactive presentation on another website.

What was interesting about hangouts at the time was its position in the digital mediascape. Hangouts were a built-in competition with Skype, which functioned much worse – at least in this country – even to the extent of allowing phone calls between Google accounts. I could be sitting at my desktop in Australia, calling my friend who had Google+ (RIP) installed on his mobile phone, thanks to Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP).

Alternatively, while looking in my g-mail inbox, I can use the same taskbar to send text messages to each other, which we used to pass around private information during the game. This was great competition for other instant-messaging applications at the time, including those offered by Facebook, Lotus notes, Outlook, and 9MSN (RIP). 

Unlike Lotus or Outlook, Hangouts doesn't tend to come by default in a workplace or academic environment, unless you're in a small business like I was in, where Google/Android was their default. To me, this is another fact in their favour, as they're offering industry-standard software for mass availability.

Now I see you can use still the same taskbar for making phone calls through VOIP. This must mean that Google/Alphabet is using their size and tech power to compete with every telco. They charge for these connections, but not for hangouts, which is interesting.

Investigating further, these former functions are now split into multiple applications, which hopefully means that they each use less data & bandwidth. Hangouts still function as instant messaging and videoconferencing, though how it's different to Duo I have yet to find out. As a audio companion to interactive websites – particularly in the gaming industry – it seems to have fallen out of favour compared to Discord.

Phone calls are now split between Duo and Google Phone, both of course designed for their Pixel mobiles, to compete with the likes of Apple.

My first preference for online audio group chat is still through hangouts. Compared to others, it's very easy to use, very reliable, and very easily available.

F/b groups

Like many aspiring people aged <35, I use Facebook most days. My use even increased after an evaluation of the 2010 State Election in Victoria found that Facebook posts were the quickest way of disseminating information and receiving responses.

They must have realised this too, with the introduction of its 'groups' feature. This allows even more rapid communication among a selective audience, including with reference documents. In this, they may be attempting competition with other organisational-focused digital applications, like Slack [which I also use in my volunteer work, but I digress].

For example, here's one I use for my tabletop gaming group, for 1st edition Pathfinder. Mostly, it's used for notifications of upcoming game sessions, and a progressive record of the team's activities and achievements from previous sessions. In the section marked 'files', I put reference documents to which I can direct the group members. These include basic rules clarifications, pre-generated character ideas – A. K. A. Pre-gen's – a simplified guide to making player-characters –
A. K. A. P. C.s – and other trivia particular to the campaign setting.

[For those who are curious: I'm designing one based on Australasia and the Pacific islands, as opposed to the European/North American default. I enjoy exploring the implications of this on technology, politics, and even diet. Having an undergrad. major in sociology will do that.]

Effectively, this operates much like a shared 'page' for Facebook, to which access can be restricted by the moderators. To illustrate this difference, and its importance, I'll use a political example. The “Australian Greens politics, news and discussion” group has public access. Anyone can become a member of this group, and any member can post on the shared wall/timeline. By contrast, “Discussion group for all of us” is a private group for those who are active in campaigns for the Greens. There are probably others, but I'm unaware of them yet, thanks to the 'hidden' access setting. Only current members can invite new members; for everyone else, it won't even appear in search listings.

Facebook groups have a 'announcement' feature, only available to admin's/moderators of the group, while anyone can be part of the 'discussion'. Announcements are listed separately from the general discussion, meaning that members also get separate notifications for them.
One feature which groups lack would be a group chat facility. My gaming group did make one, so that we could more rapidly coordinate availability. I think there's a missed opportunity to link a function in Facebook's instant messenger, so that you can import all the contacts from a group, instead of having to remember them individually.

Another new feature for Facebook groups is 'units'. I discovered this feature through the members' group for a university choir which I'm in.
This is a more interactive or "gamified" combination of posting and internal files. Simply by reading the post and clicking 'done' at the end, it will be marked as being 'completed'. You don't get a 'badge' or anything, like if you keep viewing and interacting with posts from a page makes you a "top fan" or "conversation starter" for a week.
Presumably though, there is back-end data showing who has done the unit and who hasn't. For this group, the big idea would be not having to spend/waste time explaining the dress code for concerts to everyone, every time, and this feature would be more accessible and interesting than merely reading a policy document. Therefore, I foresee that this could be a tool used for enforcement, to be sure that everyone is on the same level before turning up.

In short, Facebook groups have plenty of features which make them more useful than merely scrolling down your wall or checking on constant notifications. Continuous innovations like this are what has made them stand out from the digital social media that came before, and makes them continue to be relevant, as one of the #23things to know about digital information media.