Friday, July 06, 2007

Wrapup from Communities & Technology Conference

(Warning, this is a long post)

I presented a paper last week at the 3rd annual Communities & Technologies Conference. Overall, it was a great conference. I've mostly been to more corporate events, so the academic side of things was a good change.

My paper was on how mobile storytelling (digital storytelling with cameraphones or other mobile devices) at a minimum gives participants the ability to tell their own story, increased self-esteem and technical skills. And when well aligned with industry and government, like the Digital Pathways project, you also start to see job placement and even job creation!

My presentation is at the bottom of the post; here are some of the highlights.

Day 1 was the Workshop about business clusters in emerging markets. The highlight for me was the presentation by the Shantanu Biswas and Soumya Roy from Motorola research in Bangalore who had done an in-depth case study of Bellary jeans cluster, in Karnataka, India. There are around 800 small companies in a relatively small area who are all involved in the production of cheap blue jeans for the Indian market. They talked about the ecosystem from textile wholesalers to packaging and shipping. In this particular cluster, ICT usage was quite low and everything was done by hand; with paper reciepts and messages being sent through runners. It was a great look 'under the hood' at how this specific group of businesses worked together, and could work together better.

At the end of the day, Marc Smith from Microsoft Research gave the keynote. He talked about a number of topics, all around Digital Traces, visualizing the 'footsteps' we leave behind as we communicate in various ways. One cool thing he's done is create an outlook plugin called SNARF to allow more people-oriented ways of sorting email, like 'who did I get a lot of email from last week that I haven't gotten any this week?'

His prediction for the future was that in 24-36 months mobile devices will start to recognize the presence of others and actually do something about it. I've seen this on a small scale with some bluetooth apps, like itunes pausing when your phone goes out of range, but it would be interesting to see it on a larger scale.

Day 2

My highlight for the second day would have to be the 'history of slashdot' by CmdrTaco and Hemos (AKA Rob Malda & Jeff Bates). (flickr photo by eschipul)

It was clear they had worked together and been friends for a LONG time.. They had a great back-and-forth banter as they talked about the history of Slashdot from the pre-mod_perl days to the multi-homed, multi-loadbalanced present.

Some random Slashdot factoids (mostly on the techhie side)
  • All incoming submissions are viewable: (not nearly as entertaining as the just-updated livejournal feed, though)
  • Comments are about 10% of the traffic but 50% of the work
  • Slashdot hardware:
    - 20-25 machines
    - 2 master dbs, 4 slave dbs (search, backup, slaves)
    - 15 front end machines (static, dynamic, ssl)
    - bunch of helper boxes -- SMTP, NFS, logging
From the community point of view, it was interesting to hear about how they trained new editors; a mix of picking the right people and the appropriate editing guidelines. Unlike digg (for example), Slashdot will never be dominated by Paris Hilton news. (I read both for what it's worth)

Also interesting was the talk about Rhythms of Participation on Facebook. It's mostly what you'd expect for the college crowd, spike from noon Friday to noon Sunday, lots of random messages after 2am. :)

Day 3

The keynote for the third day was Judith Donath from the MIT Media Lab. She gave a talk based on her upcoming book about "human signaling in mediated and face-to-face communication". It was fascinating; she talked about the basic idea of signaling theory. She describes it as:
Many of the things we want to know about each other are not directly perceivable. These qualities include emotional states (are you happy?), innate abilities (are you smart?), and the likelihood of acting a particular way in the future (will you be a loyal friend?). Instead, we must rely upon signals, which are perceivable indicators of these not directly observable qualities.

Qualities can be almost anything: strength, honesty, genetic robustness, poisonousness, suitability for bookkeeping employment, etc. We rely on signals when direct evaluation of the quality is too difficult or dangerous. A bird wants to know if the butterfly it is about to eat is poisonous before it takes a bite, and relies on the signal of wing markings to decide whether to eat or move on. An employer wants to determine before making a hiring decision whether a candidate will be successful or not, and relies on signals such as a resume, references, and the candidate’s actions and appearance to predict suitability for the job.
I can't really do it justice in terms of a summary, but it was fascinating look at how we communicate both explicitly and implicitly. She has a chapter of her book available if you're interested in reading more.

My presentation is embedded here from Slideshare:

EDIT: Joe McCarthy from Nokia Research just posted a very comprehensive summary as well, reminding me of a few things, like the "Daddypants" philosophy of moderation on Slashdot.

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