The End of Billboards

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Augmented reality, the process of overlaying digital information atop real life vision, seems inevitable to me given the recent direction and pace of technology – the proliferation of smartphones, location-based services, 3D TVs, etc.

Actually, it’s already here. Layar (fig. 1) is a crazy augmented reality browser, available on Android and iPhone, that uses a phone’s camera and superimposes dynamic, sortable content in real time.  Another example comes from the Museum of London, which launched a free iPhone app (fig. 2) that blankets its historical art and photography library atop your view.

[fig. 1: Layar, via Mobile Crunch]

[fig. 2: Museum of London app, via LikeCool]

I recently started to think about how this would play out for driving. I don’t think it’s that far off before GPS augmentation becomes a feature in cars, with special touchscreen windshields capable of displaying semi-transparent turn-by-turn directions on top of the road as you drive.

It’s not hard to imagine what comes next: superimposed ads, like a McDonald’s logo that grows progressively larger as you approach the store. One might even be able to tap out an order a mile in advance to speed up the drive-thru process.

It may sound scary, but I tend to be one to look for the upside of these things. In this case, I feel this could at long last mark the death of the billboard. With ads streaming directly into cars, there would presumably no longer be a need to have those clunky eyesores blocking the view across cities and along interstates. We could at last tear those suckers down.

But at the end of the day we’ll just be trading a physical eyesore for a virtual one. My jury is still deliberating over whether or not that is any better.  What do you think? Is it worth it to rid skylines of physical billboards, or will it make no difference once the ads are permanently beamed into our line of sight?

Artist Keiichi Matsuda provides an awesome, but dreary picture of what this future might look like, taken to its logical extreme:

[Augmented (hyper)Reality: Domestic Robocop from Keiichi Matsuda on Vimeo]

Cool or scary?

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Posted on June 2nd 2010 in ideas, news, OrgWatch

Small enough to matter

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[Image source: Grassroots Economic Organizing]

A familiar seed grows amidst the ‘too big to fail’ trees in our financial forest:

After months of anticipation, the East River Development Alliance (ERDA), a non-profit organization established in 2004 to help public housing residents by expanding their economic opportunities, [has] finally opened its Federal Credit Union (FCU) – the first to be chartered in New York City in 10 years.

According to ERDA, three out of 10 people in the Ravenswood, Queensbridge, Astoria and Woodside Houses – which will be served by the new credit union – currently lack bank accounts.  [The credit union] will help change that, ERDA says, by providing public housing residents with a means to build capital, manage their money and achieve their financial goals. Proponents also believe the FCU’s presence will spark economic development in the area.

A credit union is a cooperative financial institutions that is owned and controlled by its members and operated for the purposes of promoting thrift, providing credit at reasonable rates, and providing other financial services to its members.  I call them familiar because they’ve existed for quite some time – the first credit union in the U.S. was founded in 1909 and they’ve been under federal supervision since 1934, backed by the full faith and credit of the FDIC.

The ERDA credit union launch ties in quite nicely with my recent thoughts on microfinance, particularly with respect to its lack of freshness. Here is a centuries-old system of community-based finance, owned by its depositors – sounds an awful lot like a Grameen Bank.  Yet for all the fanfare that has surrounded microfinance, people often overlook the credit union as a tested tool for financial reform in this country.  ERDA’s is the first credit union chartered under the Obama administration, and the first established in New York City in over 10 years.

So props to ERDA for reminding us of the tools we have!  As we contemplate how to regulate institutions that are too big to fail, it’s quite reassuring to know that we might also promote those that are small enough to matter.

* on a related note, check out Raghuram Rajan’s radically provocative thoughts on why deposit insurance should only exist for community-based financial institutions, via Ezra.  It’ll make you go ‘hmmm.’

Posted on April 29th 2010 in news, OrgWatch

OrgWatch: WikiLeaks promotes transparency, among other things

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The founding idea of WikiLeaks is beautiful in its simplicity, an anonymous repository for government and corporate officials to leak things of critical importance to the voting public. Like wikipedia, anyone can put forth content into the public dialogue, and the organization goes to great lengths to protect its sources.  The organization has facilitated leaks around the world, including the Climategate emails and the Palin email hack.  As The National is quoted on their website saying, “WikiLeaks has probably produced more scoops in its short life than the Washington Post has in the past 30 years.”

But a recent leak may have gotten them in the hot seat.  The video below, entitled “Collateral Murder” by WikiLeaks, is of a 2007 Apache Helicopter Attack in Bagdhad that resulted in the deaths of civilians, including two Reuters news employees.  The issue was that many observers did not find that this constituted a war crime, and found WikiLeaks’ editorializing to be particularly distasteful and misleading.  You be the judge [Warning: it is tough to watch]:

The official Pentagon story is that there was small gunfire in the area, though the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, disputes that in this interview with Stephen Colbert, who may or may not have stepped out of character to condemn the slant:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Julian Assange

Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Fox News

I am empathetic to the critiques made of WikiLeaks; to call it “Collateral Murder” inserts a deliberate subjective opinion onto a purportedly objective piece of media. But what is funny about the whole thing to me is the fact that we accept this kind of sensationalist editorializing in virtually every other journalistic output. Rarely do the loud, outlandish lower graphics on Cable News channels match the objectivity demanded by the profession, and try picking up the New York Post any day of the week. Why should we begrudge Assange for trying to “achieve the maximum political impact” for what is nothing more than a leaked video in a case where the Pentagon was being particularly secretive?

Colbert gets him on this, because the video is slightly edited, but it is light years away from the chopped up 30-second clips that might squeeze past a TV news editor’s desk, if they actually aren’t too PG to show it. However, the fact that only 1 in 10 watched the whole thing should raise some eyebrows about the powerful impressions made in those first two minutes.

I am reminded of a critique I once read about the use of exclamation points by Lewis Thomas, who noted, “If a sentence really has something of importance to say, something quite remarkable, it doesn’t need a mark to point it out.”

I applaud the effort to make transparent the pain and suffering and collateral damage that comes from wars, especially those fought on false pretenses.  That effort is certainly of importance.  It shouldn’t need any slant to point that out (and we all know cable news will jump right in to fill any voids in that department).

So, do you think WikiLeaks crossed a line?  Would it have hurt their effort if they had simply added a question mark to the title, and let viewers and politicians and lawyers make their own judgments?  Is WikiLeaks really a threat to national security?

[Props: Andrew Sullivan]

Posted on April 16th 2010 in news, OrgWatch

Artful Impact: Just a little patience; Guns will turn to Roses

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Samuel Steinberg Seidel, contributing to GOOD, highlights cases of artists recycling weapons into art.  Check out these pieces from the Guns to Roses elective at Washington DC’s Youth Rehabilitation Services New Beginnings program:

Others, like Guns into Art, helped recovering addicts at Milestones, a drug rehab center in San Francisco, to explore the Cycles of Addiction:

More disarmament from the TAE Project, using AK-47s leftover from the Mozambican Civil War:

Posted on April 2nd 2010 in Artful Impact, OrgWatch

OrgWatch: Brooklyn Brewery

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As part of Think Social Drink Local 2010, I put together this video profiling Steve Hindy, co-founder of the Brooklyn Brewery:

I had to cut out significant portions of the interview to keep the video short, but I wanted to share how he got to launching the brewery. Steve Hindy used to be a journalist. Prior to starting Brooklyn Brewery, he worked for the Associated Press as a correspondent in the Middle East. During that period he spent a lot of time with diplomats in Saudi Arabia, where alcohol is illegal. Many of these resourceful diplomats brewed their own beer and taught Steve Hindy the basics. He cultivated his hobby upon returning to New York and went on to launch the Brooklyn Brewery in 1987. Today, it is among one of the top 40 breweries in the country and Brooklyn Lager is among the top draft brews in NYC.

Posted on March 12th 2010 in OrgWatch

OrgWatch: 5th Pillar, Corruption Killer

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I was really intrigued by this story about 5th Pillar, an anti-corruption organization in India that issues zero rupee notes – entirely fake and valueless currency – in an effort to combat endemic bribery by public officials by shocking them into honesty.  The Economist explains:

The idea was dreamt up by an expatriate Indian physics professor from the University of Maryland who, travelling back home, found himself harassed by endless extortion demands. He gave the notes to the importuning officials as a polite way of saying no.

Apparently, it has actually gotten officials to back off of extortion.  The Economist article continues:

[The President of 5th Pillar] thinks the notes work because corrupt officials so rarely encounter resistance that they get scared when they do. And ordinary people are more willing to protest, since the notes have an organisation behind them and they do not feel on their own.

Simplicity is awesome.  Bribery in India, and throughout much of the developing world, is rampant.  But it is universally illegal.  Yet with such a low threat of getting caught, it becomes an everyday occurance for many.  I have encountered even the most ardent social justice crusaders that have merely written it off as a necessary evil – just the inevitable cost of doing business in places with questionable state apparatuses.

The zero rupee notes are a powerful repudiation of this sort of culture of acceptance, but they rely on a tremendous amount of courage from everyday citizens in places where protections from the state are not necessarily guaranteed.  I for one would be very fearful of confronting an official in such a manner.

So power to the brave citizens that whip out these notes.  And thanks to 5th pillar for letting them know that they are not alone in this fight.

[Image Source: 5th Pillar]

Posted on March 2nd 2010 in OrgWatch

Think Social, Drink Local

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I was asked to put together this promo for Think Social, Drink Local 2010, NYU Stern‘s hottest party of the year, hosted by the Social Enterprise Association:

This year’s party is Friday, March 5th at the historic Altman Building.  It features four hours of open bar provided by local and eco spirit sponsors, raffles and giveaways donated by local social entrepreneurs, and an eco-fashion show outfitted by local sustainable designers.

Be sure to check out all the sponsors:

  • Crop Organic Vodka offers USDA Certified Organic, artisanal (like cucumber) vodkas
  • Brooklyn Brewery, NYC’s biggest local brewer, currently has 16 different beers
  • c. marchuska makes chic and sustainable clothing at affordable prices
  • Garbage of Eden ‘upcycles’ plastics from around New York City to design accessories
  • Recession Rags opts against producing new cloth and forages the city’s garment districts looking for unused vintage fabrics
  • Posture Magnetic makes quality design using sustainable methods of production and transportation
  • Alternative Apparel employs strict ethical labor and environmental guidelines for choosing vendors throughout the supply chain
  • Indego Africa returns 100% of profits from sales of Fair Trade handicrafts to its artisan partners AND invests in long-term skills development
  • Mociun delivers sustainable jewelry
  • Tribal Societe sources jewelry and clothing from artisans throughout the developing world, and donates a portion of sales to the Global Fund for Women
  • Edun is building a community-based value chain in the production of its clothing, with a focus on Africa
  • Green Apple Cleaners dry cleans using Liquid CO2, a method that is highly regarded as the most benign to human health and the environment
  • Green Map provides a collaborative mapmaking platform to let communities around the world promote their local sustainability
  • Peeled Snacks uses only high-quality natural and organic ingredients in its fruit and nut snacks, available in many stores.  You may have seen them at Starbucks
  • Nunu Chocolates makes totally natural, handmade-to-order chocolates out of Brooklyn

Posted on February 16th 2010 in events, OrgWatch

OrgWatch: Project H Design makes design matter

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On the Colbert Report, Emily Pilloton of Project H Design explains how her organization aims to create genuine social impact through humanitarian design.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Emily Pilloton
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Economy

I’m such a sucker for this kind of stuff.  It’s probably my inner-architect, whom I exiled during college, trying to squeeze back in.

The grand irony is that I quit my pursuit of architecture because I felt that there was not enough potential to create genuine impact through design alone.  In retrospect, it seems surprising to me that it went down like that, because I went to a very Modernist school, where “form follows function” was the law of the land.

I’m just glad that so many others have found ways to put their skills to good use.

Posted on January 28th 2010 in Artful Impact, OrgWatch

OrgWatch: ShotSpotter targets gunshots with acoustic sensors

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ShotSpotter does pretty much what it’s name implies, but spots via sound.  It’s pretty impressive:

I was originally introduced to this idea by someone at Tactical Philanthropy, who was investing in the technology and spoke about it at NYU’s 2009 Annual Satter Conference on Social Entrepreneurs.

People will claim that, even with these sensors to identify the location of gunshots, the shooters will likely have fled the scene before responders can arrive.  The National Institute of Justice concedes in a report that it is unlikely to lead to more arrests. However, there have been a success stories here and there.

The real long-term benefit, though, is strategic.  Aside from the potential to have quicker response time and even arrests in a few cases, the data itself might help to give a much realer picture of the level of crime some of our cities are facing.  The aforementioned report states that only a dismal 23% of gunshots are ever reported.  Getting these things down on maps and into data models will be a good step towards better law enforcement.

My biggest concern is that police, knowing that a gun is in their vicinity, may get itchier trigger fingers.  But that is an issue of management and discipline, and one we should be constantly perfecting nonetheless.

Posted on January 21st 2010 in OrgWatch

OrgWatch: Ushahidi map-tweets Haiti’s disaster

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Following up on earlier map thoughts, check out what Ushahidi has been doing:

[What is Ushahidi? from Ushahidi on Vimeo]

As mobile communiques become more routine than going to the bathroom, it becomes easy to see how important they will become in coordinating relief in disaster areas.  Ushahidi is already at work in Haiti, tracking collapsed buildings, locating trapped and missing people, and sharing the location of relief services.

Our thoughts are with the people of Haiti; may the response be swift.

Posted on January 14th 2010 in news, OrgWatch
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