open knowledge

Energy Hackathon 2013 – the results

(also posted on OKF Finland blog)

8 great concepts/prototypes were created last week at Energy Hackathon 2013!

The focus of the hackathon was on domestic electricity consumption data. One reason why this data is particularly interesting is that Finland is one of the first countries in Europe where smart meters have been installed in nearly all households. The legal framework that gives people the access to their own data will be valid from the beginning of 2014.

The hackathon had approximately 60 participants and 3 special guests from abroad: Denise Recheis (Thesaurus and Knowledge manager at Reeep), Chris Davis (Postdoc in TU Delft) and Julia Kloiber (Project Lead at Open Knowledge Foundation Deutschland).

Helsingin Energia and Elenia provided several data sets and the developers of the Open Energy Data API gave access to their test data. More

Information wants to be free, but on the other hand…

I just learned today that when Steward Brand said ‘Information wants to be free’, he also said something else:

“Information wants to be free” (IWTBF hereafter) is half of Stewart Brand’s famous aphorism, first uttered at the Hackers Conference in Marin County, California (where else?), in 1984: “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”


Will data gathering make the world a better place? (IBM Thinks so)

During the Mobilityshifts week in NYC, I also has a chance to check out the IBM Think exhibit at Lincoln Center. The reason why I went there was that I had heard about visualizations for the massive Data Wall which Casey Reas & co had created. The wall was indeed impressive and children seemed to enjoy playing with it.

IBM Think exhibit / Data Wall

It turned out that the simple information boards opposite to the Data Wall had some quite intriguing content. These boards contained a vision of a Happy Future, with all the improvements that sensors, surveillance and data analysis will bring to our societies. Reading the promises felt like taking a time trip back back to the days 1939 New York World’s Fair that introduced many wonders of consumer devices (including IBM’s electric typewriter).

In context of ‘Healthier rivers’, the Hudson River was chosen as the example. In collaboration with IBM, Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries and Clarkson University are in the process of creating a real-time sensor network all along the Hudson River.

Coincidentally, Hudson River was also one of the sites where citizen science projects are taking place (see my previous posting). The goal of these two projects is essentially the same – to get better information about the state of the river in order to improve its condition. But in the approach there are drastic differences:

  • IBM & co use complex and expensive technologies, tools are free or very cheap
  • Based on a recent press release, IBM & co aim to ‘advance commercialization of emerging real-time river monitoring sensor technology’. tools are free and open source

In addition to these rather obvious differences, an important issue is what kind of opportunities are lost if river monitoring is left to the hands of big institutions. In case of, the tools offer people a concrete way to learn more about their own surroundings and to take an initiative to improve the conditions. Who is more likely to make noise about the companies that pollute Gowanus Canal, the local activists or IBM & co?

In terms of design, the question is whether there is a standardized solution with centralized monitoring or a general instruction which is modified be the local people to suit the local context.

A striking example of the difference between these two approaches that was often discussed during Mobilityshifts were the Adequate Yearly Progress tests that all children in public schools in US have to take. This test was introduced as a part of the No Child Left Behind Act during George W Bush administration. The goal ‘No Child Left Behind’ sounds great, but trying to achieve this goal via standardized tests has been a disaster.

Based on the presentations at mobilityshifts, everyone (teachers, children, parents, school administrators) seems to agree that these tests have not increased the quality of education, on the contrary they have added unnecessary stress to those who are doing well and been discouraging for those students and schools with problems. The points that were emphasised during mobilityshifts over and over again was that people learn in different ways. Good teachers adapt their teaching methods to suit the needs, and luckily here in Finland this is still possible (see Dianne Ravitch’s blog posting about this, her view is a bit too positive, but the main facts are correct).

Unfortunately in many other areas (public institutions, university education, etc) the idea of improving quality via standard tests has been pushed through here in Finland as well, with unhappy results (less efficiency, less creativity, less everything else except suspicion and bureocracy).


Citizen science: healthier trees and more confident citizens

Pollution in Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn (Liz Barry / PLOTS)

The Rigorously Unprofessional session at Mobilityshifts featured two really impressive projects, Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) and Treekit.

Activists are using the tools and methods developed by PLOTS to find out more about the sources of pollution that is constantly accumulating in Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. One of the key tools is balloon mapping, which is used during different seasons of the year to shoot high resolution aerial images of the area. There is also a tool for shooting infrared imagery. By comparing various images, activists have been able to identify a large number of pipelines which are not monitored by any authorities, in fact no one seems to knows what they are and what is coming out from them. Liz Barry spoke of ‘environmental headhunting’ – that these images could be used as legal evidence against corporations and other polluters.

Liz also wanted to emphasise that there is a difference between crowd-sourcing projects that have been initiated by companies and public authorities, and citizen science projects in which the agenda is set by people themselves. The tools created by PLOTS can be used for all kinds of purposes, even to purposes that the creators of these tools would not want to support. This was discussed often during Mobilityshifts conference – how citizen efforts can be re-appropriated to work against them.

Suspected pipelines found by activists in Govanus Canal. The one marked with red colour is the only one that the city authorities have information about.

The Treekit project has created tools for mapping the exact locations and gathering other useful information about trees that grow in cities. In New York these tools have been used by local people and the resulting dataset is much more comprehensive and accurate than what the park authorities themselves had before. The point of this activity is not just to gather information – the main point is that trees in urban context need nurturing, that someone has to take care of them. In certain areas of NYC there is a lot of pollution in the air and the trees are struggling. Giving them water on a regular basis already helps, some people have started doing this by using big buckets. Healthier trees means healthier air for people to breath.

Treekit is also connected to the ongoing milliontreesNYC project, with currently 499 517 donated, planted or adopted trees.

Treekit – The red squares are the exact locations and sizes of the trees, measured with Treekit tools. The round items are the locations of the same trees in a database used by the city park authorities. (Phil Silva / Treekit)

An interesting discussion followed, related to the transformation that happens when people start using these tools. One could say that these tools allow ‘non-experts’ or ‘common people’ to become ‘experts’, ‘researchers’ or ‘designers’, but the whole idea of a ‘non-expert’ does not seem to make much sense. Phil Silva (Treekit) emphasised the importance of being allowed to make mistakes, that people can start doing things before they have learned all the details.

To me it seems that instead of learning specific knowledge and expertise, the important thing that these projects can give people is a sense of confidence, a sense of authority, a belief that they can change their everyday surroundings. I guess this is what expertise in practice often is – confidence and authority.

Open Helsinki @ DMY MakerLab

I was invited to curate the Open Helsinki & Pixelache Helsinki programme for this year’s DMY MakerLab in Berlin. This was only the second edition of DMY MakerLab, dedicated for open design and makers culture.

DMY festival is pretty similar to many other big design fairs, but DMY tries to stand out from the others by emphasising critical and experimental approaches to design, as well as highlighting work done by graduating students and emerging designers. The venue is the amazingly massive Tempelhof airport and this year’s event attracted more than 30 000 visitors. So, it was noisy and busy, but the mood was friendly and relaxed. Most of the MakerLab workshops were well attended and especially the quick drop-in workshop worked very well, people were happy to stop for an hour or so to learn and do something.

Below you can find some glimpses of the Open Helsinki section (YKON Game, Low2No School of Activism, We*Love* Open Data and Massimo Menichinelli / and Pixelache Helsinki section (OHANDA open hardware initiative and Temporary photoElectric Digestopians Worklab by Bartaku).

Bartaku’s Temporary photoElectric Digestopians Worklab
fuses cooking with solar cell design. The resulting ‘e-tapas’ produce electrity, but also look & taste delicious. Here are some photos and Bartaku’s interview at WMMNA.

The YKON Game was one of the nominees for the DMY 2011 Award. YKON Game is a world simulation game for up to 30 -50 players, inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s World Game.

The Low2Now Camp
project brought a busload of urban activists from Helsinki to Berlin. During three days they hosted the Low2No School of Activism and explored the local scene in Berlin. More information and great examples of urban grassroot initiatives can be found at Low2Now Camp blog.

Massimo Menichinelli
from gave two presentations: ‘Open P2P Design’ and ‘Open P2P Design & Markets and business models for Open and DIY projects’. You can find the presentation slides here.

We*Love* Open Data
is a bunch of open data researchers and enthusiasts from Helsinki. This informal collective was formed for the occasion of DMY MakerLab but has continued its activities afterwards as well. During DMY the group managed to collect and visualize information about rental prices in Berlin. In addition, Miska Knapek presented some of his sculptures which visualize/materialize long time spans of weather data. More info at blog.

* * *

You can find more information about these and other MakerLab projects from DMY Berlin website. All the photos above (except the one from Bartaku’s workshop) can be found from my DMY Berlin photoset.