Biodiversity Observatory – social networking for natural history

I’m heavily involved in the Biodiversity Observatory project. It’s part of Open Air Laboratories (OPAL), a huge (£12m) project funded by the Big Lottery Fund with ambitious goals to develop and engage a whole new generation of environmentalists. We’re not supposed to create a big media splash about OPAL yet until our media team are in place so we can make a very big deal about it, but I’m sure a little blog post here and there is worth it. The project includes the Natural History Museum, the National Biodiversity Network, the Field Studies Council, Imperial College and many others. There’ll be a network of regional activities to draw people in, led by regional universities.

I’m working with two of my colleagues – Will and Richard – who have blogged about this already. Will recently discussed the reputation management system, as did Richard. Richard’s entire blog is about the development of the site, plus the Evolution Megalab which is strongly linked.

Our job is to specify, develop and test the Biodiversity Observatory site. The tagline is that it’s a social networking site for Natural History. The aim is to draw in people who are interested in – say – the butterflies in their garden – and connect them up with a learning community, some appropriate resources, and the expert society for the area.

It’s a really interesting project. It’ll be big, too. With my professional hat on, there’s the social networking side, and the intersection of informal and formal learning. The mass audience will be very much learning-for-fun people, but there will be two OU courses to link up with it: a short level 1 course on Neighbourhood Nature, and bigger second-level course on biodiversity. And there’s the chance to play a small, indirect role in helping to save the planet, which is always a nice to have thing on a project.

Today I was talking to Richard about what we should use as the platform for the site. We’ve ruled out building it from scratch (the timetable is too short), and even building it in a framework like Symfony would be a huge job. We want something open, and we strongly prefer PHP. We are probably going to go for a more full-featured open source project that does most of what we want out of the box, and as Richard says, we are looking at Elgg very closely at the moment. We’re also considering things like Drupal or WordPress, or CMSes like e107 and Joomla! (which! reminds! me! of! Yahoo! coverage! in! The! Register!). And even Moodle, but that’s looking very unlikely.

So it’s interesting that today saw the announcement of two new offerings that could be relevant.

The first is Google Sites, which seems at a glance to be yet-another site-building-site, but has Google momentum and some of the Google Nature so isn’t to be dismissed entirely out of hand.

The second is Wikia has released some of its social networking tools, which sit inside Mediawiki, the wiki software behind Wikipedia and a host of other community-edited sites.

BIL and TED’s Excellent Conference Adventures

TED offers “inspired talks by the world’s greatest thinkers and doers” … with registration – sorry, membership – starting at US$6,000.  (You can see some old talks online, though, and some of those are excellent.)

Not exactly inclusive.  So in response, BIL has been created.  BIL is …

an open, self-organizing, emergent, and anarchic science and technology conference.

Nobody is in charge.

If you want to come, just show up.

If you have an idea to spread, start talking.

If someone is saying something interesting, stop and listen.

Unconferences like this are really interesting idea.  I’ve been to plenty of academic ones, and this sounds well worth doing as an alternative.  (Via BoingBoing.)

When I had a management hat on, I was responsible for running an internal conference for a bunch of about 30 academics and researchers.  It was the one forum where (almost) everyone in the group could talk to (almost) everyone, for two days in the year. I was always keen to minimise the amount of preparatory effort required of the group, while maximising the opportunities for cross-fertilisation of ideas and group bonding.  We tried out all sorts of formats – traditional academic papers, works in progress, panel discussions, workshops, technology fun sessions, and even a great everyone-talks-for-five-minutes day.  (At least, I thought it was great: the feedback was variable.) Of course, the best networking was over coffee, lunch and tea, so allowing plenty of time for those was a fundamental part of the plan.

It was almost but not quite an unconference.  The two main differences were (a) the attendees were a tightly restricted group and (b) we discussed the format in advance as a group, but I had final say on who talked, when and on what.   I think it’d be fun to try more of an unconference approach to the next time we do something similar in our new grouping.

… although I’m wary of saying ‘fun’ because one thing I did learn was that it’s really hard to call something ‘fun’ as a manager and not thereby rob it of all excitement and enjoyment.

(And should Grainne, Patrick and Martin be listening, no, that’s not me volunteering to organise it.)

‘Intellectual property’ is a silly euphemism

As an antidote to the gloom about the Blackboard patent, read Cory Doctorow’s explanation in The Guardian last week (a couple of days before the verdict) of why ‘intellectual property’ is a silly euphemism:

Most of all, it [‘intellectual property’] is not inherently “exclusive”. If you trespass on my flat, I can throw you out (exclude you from my home). If you steal my car, I can take it back (exclude you from my car). But once you know my song, once you read my book, once you see my movie, it leaves my control. Short of a round of electroconvulsive therapy, I can’t get you to un-know the sentences you’ve just read here.

He concludes that

it’s time to set property aside, time to start recognising that knowledge – valuable, precious, expensive knowledge – isn’t owned. Can’t be owned. The state should regulate our relative interests in the ephemeral realm of thought, but that regulation must be about knowledge, not a clumsy remake of the property system.

I do hope we can get there sooner rather than later.  Academics – and in particular, academics engaged strongly with new technologies – can and should be in the vanguard here.

Micro-location data visualisation

So someone mapped the movements of themselves, their two young kids, and the cat, in their living room over the space of an hour, and produced this very lovely graphic:

The method seems terribly laborious to me:

I used a marked-out equally-spaced grid in masking tape and filmed them moving via video across the grid for an hour. I then reviewed the video and plotted their movements on each minute of the video’s timecode onto a ‘room map’ with corresponsing grid.

A real labour of love, and a beautiful and fascinating result. It reminds me of the maps you get from eye-tracking studies of websites.
This is exactly the sort of thing I want us to be able to do – without the heavyweight manual data processing – in our shiny new labs, open in April! We can set up the big lab as – say – a living room, and log what goes on when a bunch of users interact with some new technology or other to do a task.  Out of the box we’ve only got video capture, but it’s designed specifically to allow it to be kitted out to do this sort of thing – there’s any number of technologies we could use for the tracking.

(Via Kevin Kelly)

Blackboard wins, learners lose

Blackboard has won That Patent case against Desire2Learn:

Earlier today [Friday 22nd Feb] the jury handed down its verdict that the patent is valid and that Blackboard should be awarded damages of approximately $3 million.

My colleague Grainne Conole can’t believe they won. Terry Anderson hopes this action:

further alienates users from Blackboard and it accelerates the exodus of fair minded educators from the ranks of Blackboard customers. I also hope that John has the resources to continue the fight with an appeal and wish him success if he does.

This is very disappointing. To my mind it’s another example of the (US) patent system being badly broken, particularly in the area of software. It’s very hard to see how learners win as a result of this. Unless it’s as Terry Anderson hopes, and educators leave Blackboard – and any other company that seems similarly-minded – in droves, to embrace a more open, collaborative approach to teaching and learning. (That’d be a lovely silver lining, but I’ve never been one to follow the RCP-style line that it’s desirable that things get worse in order to spur people to make them better.)

One step back doesn’t mean the journey is doomed, though, and I think it will eventually become clear that this was commercially – as well as ethically – a huge mistake by Blackboard.

EDIT: Stephen Downes has a more comprehensive summary of reaction. It’s not terribly positive.

Flash to get DRMed (thanks Adobe)

The EFF point out the likely effects of Adobe introducing DRM to Flash (via Stephen Downes). Oh great. It threatens to criminalise a vast chunk of the entire video mashup culture, and, of course:

DRM doesn’t move additional product. DRM is grief for honest end-users. And there’s no reason to imagine that new DRM systems will stop copyright infringement any more effectively than previous systems.

I’m not happy. Tony Hirst and I had a discussion in the comments to his ‘No More PDF Reader Hell?‘ post about iPaper just the other day, where the annoyingness and intrusiveness of PDF (and in particular, PDF browser plugins) was a given. And just this morning Flash was intruding about wanting to upgrade itself on my work desktop.

I rather fear that since buying up Macromedia, Adobe has been determined to change the Flash experience to be more like the PDF one. So it might be less PDF Reader Hell, but it’ll be More Flash Hell.

Old art and new media

In her talk on social media, Siân Bayne used two pieces of art to illustrate her points about the Uncanny and Second Life – Masaccio’s C15th fresco The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and Max Ernst‘s disturbing C20th The Clothing Of The Bride.  The combination of old(ish) art and new(ish) media seemed very appropriate, and more interesting than the hackneyed images usually used to illustrate that world.

I’ve long thought that my experience of the online world is a lot like Hieronymous Bosch’s C16th Garden of Earthly Delights:

Paradise on one hand, Hell on the other.  And a lot of fun in between.   A lot more detail than you can ever hope to take in.  Many stand-alone seemingly unrelated items, but with intricate inter-relations that it’s hard to extricate, although broad themes emerge quite easily.  An awful lot of stuff directly or indirectly to do with sex and sexuality. Almost endlessly  diverting. And the best fun is had when there is at least a temporary lifting of Authority!

Social media for learning: a virtual ethnography

Went to a fascinating seminar last week with this title, given by Siân Bayne on a flying visit from Edinburgh to the OU.

She talked about her work on a HE Academy project exploring at the whole Web 2.0/social media world and its effect on three different courses – in Divinity, eLearning and Engineering.

She picked out three areas:

1) New literacies – the stuff you expect, but also interesting takes on Barthes’ Death of the Author a) this is very straightforwardly manifest in a world of blogs and wikis, and b) never mind “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”, in this world, there’s no unity in the destination either – the Death of the Reader as it were, and not in the panicky “OMG nobody reads literary books any more” sense.

2) Appropriation and ‘taming’ – fencing off, assessment, embedding – containing the perceived risk of wild stuff like Web 2.0.   Interestingly, (some) students as well as teachers thought private blogs – although “not proper blogs” were a valuable space in which to think out loud without it going on your permanent Internet record.  In a way, the closedness enabled more openness.  This is a theme I keep seeing all over the place.  Though there were also some who turned up with their own proper blogs and were perfectly happy doing their intellectual laundry in public.

Another point I particularly picked up here – because it relates to another ongoing theme I see – was getting students to blog their  preparation for a seminar as a ‘forcing function’ to make sure they prepared ahead of time.

3) The Uncanny in the Freudian unheimlich sense – “the effect often occurs when the boundary between fantasy and reality is blurred” – Freud describing Second Life in 1899.  Wikis and blogs were un/familiar but probably aren’t any more; Second Life might be now.  Some of the quotes from the students were spectacular – e.g. “Avatars are nothing but corpses” and another having unshakeable feelings of being lost, drowning (there was a lake nearby) and even dying.  There was some good stuff about art but I’ll post about that separately.

She teachers her eLearning students about identity through a Second Life seminar, appropriately enough.  I thought it was particularly cunning to use the uncanny effect to problematise stuff that the students might not have (many people have a pretty straightforward conception of ‘identity’), which is a technique worth re-using.

Also some amusing stuff about the Edinburgh island and disciplinary stereotypes manifesting themselves virtually – apparently the Business School’s place is shiny, neat and essentially a corporate display stand; they complain about the neighbouring architects’ space which is a spectacular and utter mess; and the educationalists have a fluffy zone with spaces to sit in circles with lots of soft furnishings.

(Her slides – not available (yet?) – were a great example of stylish use of Flickr-found art, with a white flower motif popping up throughout. )

At lunch afterwards, during a discussion on open and closed environments, Peter Twining (of Schome fame) mentioned a time when he was giving a seminar in Second Life and had to studiously ignore a pair of inappropriately amorous cows who wandered through.

There was another surprise moment when one of my more distinguished colleagues – with a long track record of widening educational opportunities and going the extra mile and then some for learners – startled me by vigorously voicing despair about failing students.  “What can you do?”, they complained, “You can’t just shoot them!”

(Peter noted that you can in Second Life.)

The Computer knows what you’re thinking

Direct brain input could be with us sooner than I thought – this nifty brain-wave reading headset will allegedly be ready for mass sale next Christmas. (via Engadget)

It’s not a new idea at all, but a usable, widespread instantiation could change the way we interact with computers profoundly.  And raise all sorts of exciting new issues of privacy and openness.  I predict a health scare at some point.

Social:Learn breaks cover!

My colleague Martin Weller has at long last blogged about Social:Learn, the OU project formerly  known as Skunkworks – an attempt to explore what fully embracing the Web 2.0 world could mean for university learning:

It is born of the recognition that the OU (and higher education in general) needs to find ways of embracing the whole web 2.0, social networking world, and that the only way to understand this stuff is to do it.

It’s hugely exciting.  To my mind it’s at least as big a deal as OpenLearn – and if it works at all, even bigger.  Watch Martin’s blog for more as it comes.  I’m still not sure I understand what it is, but my guess is that this is true for the people more closely involved as well.  The journey is well worth setting out on, regardless of whether we reach the destination, whatever that might be.

(As an aside, the previous secrecy, followed by this semi-official leak, and a public announcement to come later, is another great example of how Web 2.0 openness isn’t total.  It’s more than before, but it’s still partial – and that is very important.)