NASIG 2013: Knowledge and Dignity in the Era of Big Data

CC BY 2.0 2013-06-10
“Big Data” by JD Hancock

Speaker: Siva Vaidhyanathan

Don’t try to write a book about fast moving subjects.

He was trying to capture the nature of our relationship to Google. It provides us with a services that are easy to use, fairly dependable, and well designed. However, that level of success can breed hubris. He was interested in how this drives the company to its audacious goals.

It strikes him that what Google claims to be doing is what librarians have been doing for hundreds of years already. He found himself turning to the core practices of librarians as a guideline for assessing Google.

Why is Google interested in so much stuff? What is the payoff to organizing the world’s information and making it accessible?

Big data is not a phrase that they use much, but the notion is there. More and faster equals better. Google is in the prediction/advertising business. The Google books project is their attempt to reverse engineer the sentence. Knowing how sentences work, they can simulate how to interpret and create sentences, which would be a simulation of artificial intelligence.

The NSA’s deals that give them a backdoor to our data services creates data insecurity, because if they can get in, so can the bad guys. Google keeps data about us (and has to turn it over when asked) because it benefits their business model, unlike libraries who don’t keep patron records in order to protect their privacy.

Big data means more than a lot of data. It means that we have so many instruments to gather data, cheap/ubiquitous cameras and microphones, GPS devices that we carry with us, credit card records, and more. All of these ways of creating feed into huge servers that can store the data with powerful algorithms that can analyze it. Despite all of this, there is no policy surrounding this, nor conversations about best ways to manage this in light of the impact on personal privacy. There is no incentive to curb big data activities.

Scientists are generally trained to understand that correlation is not causation. We seem to be happy enough to draw pictures with correlation and move on to the next one. With big data, it is far too easy to stop at correlation. This is a potentially dangerous way of understanding human phenomenon. We are autonomous people.

The panopticon was supposed to keep prisoners from misbehaving because they assumed they were always being watched. Foucault described the modern state in the 1970s as the panopticon. However, at this point, it doesn’t quite match. We have a cryptopticon, because we aren’t allowed to know when we are being watched. It wants us to be on our worst behavior. How can we inject transparency and objectivism into this cryptopticon?

Those who can manipulate the system will, but those who don’t know how or that it is happening will be negatively impacted. If bad credit can get you on the no-fly list, what else may be happening to people who make poor choices in one aspect of their lives that they don’t know will impact other aspects? There is no longer anonymity in our stupidity. Everything we do, or nearly so, is online. Mistakes of teenagers will have an impact on their adult lives in ways we’ve never experienced before. Our inability to forget renders us incapable of looking at things in context.

Mo Data, Mo Problems

NASIG 2013: Libraries and Mobile Technologies in the Age of the Visible College

“This morning’s audience, seen from the lectern.” by Bryan Alexander

Speaker: Bryan Alexander

NITLE does a lot of research for liberal arts undergraduate type schools. One of the things that he does is publish a monthly newsletter covering trends in higher education, which may be worth paying some attention to (Future Trends). He is not a librarian, but he is a library fanboy.

What is mobile computing doing to the world, and what will it do in the future?

Things have changed rapidly in recent years. We’ve gone from needing telephone rooms at hotels to having phones in every pocket. The icon for computing has gone from desktop to laptop to anything/nothing — computing is all around us in many forms now. The PC is still a useful tool, but there are now so many other devices to do so many other things.

Smartphones are everywhere now, in many forms. We use them for content delivery and capture, and to interact with others through social tools. Over half of Americans now have a smartphone, with less than 10% remaining who have no cell phone, according to Pew. The mobile phone is now the primary communication device for the world. Think about this when you are developing publishing platforms.

The success of the Kindle laid the groundwork for the iPad. Netbooks/laptops now range in size and function.

Clickers are used extensively in the classroom, with great success. They can be used for feedback as well as prompting discussion. They are slowly shifting to using phones instead of separate devices.

Smartpens capture written content digitally as you write them, and you can record audio at the same time. One professor annotates notes on scripts while his students perform, and then provides them with the audio.

Marker-based augmented reality fumbled for a while in the US, but is starting to pick up in popularity. Now that more people have smartphones, QR codes are more prevalent.

The mouse and keyboard have been around since the 1960s, and they are being dramatically impacted by recent changes in technology. Touch screens (i.e. iPad), handhelds (i.e. WII), and nothing (i.e. Kinect).

If the federal government is using it, it is no longer bleeding edge. Ebooks have been around for a long time, in all sorts of formats. Some of the advantages of ebooks include ease of correcting errors, flexible presentation (i.e. font size), and a faster publication cycle. Some disadvantages include DRM, cost, and distribution by libraries.

Gaming has had a huge impact in the past few years. The median age of gamers is 35 or so. The industry size is comparable to music, and has impacts on hardware, software, interfaces, and other industries. There is a large and growing diversity of platforms, topics, genres, niches, and players.

Mobile devices let us make more microcontent (photo, video clip, text file), which leads to the problem of archiving all this stuff. These devices allow us to cover the world with a secondary layer of information. We love connecting with people, and rather than separating us, technology has allowed us to do that even more (except when we focus on our devices more than the people in front of us).

We’re now in a world of information on demand, although it’s not universal. Coverage is spreading, and the gaps are getting smaller.

When it comes to technology, Americans are either utopian or dystopian in our reactions. We’re not living in a middle ground very often. There are some things we don’t understand about our devices, such as multitasking and how that impacts our brain. There is also a generational divide, with our children being more immersed in technology than we are, and having different norms about using devices in social and professional settings.

The ARIS engine allows academics to build games with learning outcomes.

Augmented reality takes data and pins it down to the real world. It’s the inverse of virtual reality. Libraries are going to be the AR engine of the future. Some examples of AR include museum tours, GPS navigators, and location services (Yelp, Foursqure). Beyond that, there are applications that provide data overlaying images of what you point your phone at, such as real estate information and annotations. Google Goggles tries to provide information about objects based on images taken by a mobile device. You could have a virtual art gallery physically tied to a spot, but only displayed when viewed with an app on your phone.

Imagine what the world will be like transformed by the technology he’s been talking about.

1. Phantom Learning: Schools are rare and less needed. The number of people physically enrolled in schools has gone down. Learning on demand is now the thing. Institutions exist to supplement content (adjuncts), and libraries are the media production sites. Students are used to online classes, and un-augmented locations are weird.

II. Open World: Open content is the norm and is very web-centric. Global conversations increase, with more access and more creativity. Print publishers are nearly gone, authorship is mysterious, tons of malware, and privacy is fictitious. The internet has always been open and has never been about money. Identities have always been fictional.

III. Silo World: Most information is experienced in vertical stacks. Open content is almost like public access TV. Intellectual property intensifies, and campuses reorganize around the silos. Students identify with brands and think of “open” as radical and old-fashioned.

Spy Rock adventure, or, how I learned to solo hike

One of the things I love about fall is that it’s finally cool enough for me to go hiking again. The summer is nice and all, but it’s usually muggy and buggy, and neither are things I handle well. Fall is perfect, particularly after a cold snap or two. The leaves are turning colors, and the sun is a little less brutal.

I tend to lean towards short day hikes, usually in the mountains. Richmond is ideally placed for access to a wide variety of locations, including being only an hour or so from the George Washington National Forest and the Shenandoah mountains. And heck, if I wanted to stay in town, I could hike the six or seven miles of trails along the James River.

Last weekend, on my way to drop in on friends in Harrisonburg, I felt the mountains calling to me as I neared Afton, and so, rather than turning right, I turned left and hiked a bit of trail I had visited last winter.

This particular hike is a mile up a forest service road and then a half mile down the Appalachian Trail to a large, mostly bald-faced rock outcropping. The incline is steady, and with plenty of loose rock to trip the feet going up and down. I found myself pausing to calm my breath and heart far more often than I would with companions. Usually, I push myself to keep up a reasonable pace and only stop when I absolutely need to. This time, I stopped whenever I wanted, for as long as I wanted, and didn’t feel guilty for slowing anyone down. It was during one of these stops that I resolved to do more solo hiking in the future.

As I mentioned earlier, I had done this hike last winter (with friends). However, it was so foggy that day that we couldn’t see anything once we reached the summit. And it was cold. And windy. And miserable. Not this time, though.

The weather was perfect. I started off wearing my fleece jacket, but quickly shed it. The effort my body was putting into moving towards the summit was enough to keep me warm and toasty, although I did appreciate the extra layer when the wind picked up at the top and there were no trees to shelter me.

At one point along the service road, where the uphill bank is quite tall, a bit of rock juts out with a fairly level surface. Previous hikers with some skill and humor have piled stones high on it, creating a tower that seems to weather well, or at least is recreated when Mother Nature cleans house.

Some time after I passed that point, I found myself once again pausing to catch my breath. As my breathing calmed, I became quite still, listening to the world around me. That, too, had become quite still. Hardly a thing moved for several moments, and then a roaring came from behind as the wind resumed its symphony among the trees. I’m certain I would not have experienced that moment had I not been alone.

By the time I reached Spy Rock, I was so happy to be there that I hardly thought twice about the scramble required to reach the top. This was the only part of the hike I hadn’t done before, and although I was slightly nervous about getting into a situation where I couldn’t go up or down, I decided to do it anyway. And, despite seeing or hearing no other hiker since shortly after leaving the parking lot, a couple came into view just as I headed around to the easier scramble on the back side of the rock. I took some comfort in knowing that at that point, I was no longer alone.

The scramble challenged both my insecurities with walking across what I consider unstable surfaces and with heights. When I finally reached the top, a large and relatively flat surface of the rock, I sat for a moment and surveyed the terrain. The rock was not perfectly flat, of course, and sloped towards the side I summited. I took a few calming breaths. And took a few more. And then slowly made my way over to a point where I felt I could stand up fully. When I did, I realized I could navigate across the surface of most of the central part of the rock with more ease than I expected.

The view was quite impressive. I wished I had come a week or so earlier, when the leaves were still brilliant and on the trees, but the views from all around were still lovely, albeit slightly muted. At one point, a hawk circled nearby, clearly enjoying the strong currents buffeting the mountain top.

Since this was a last-minute trip, I didn’t have a few essentials with me. Namely, my hand-held GPS receiver loaded with nearby geocaches. I knew there was one up there, since we had tried to locate it on the first visit, but I didn’t know where. My phone, surprisingly, could get enough signal for me to check into Foursquare, but when I tried my geocaching app, it couldn’t keep the connection long enough to pull up anything. I decided that this was a sign I should come back and see if I can do the scramble a second time, knowing what it entails.

I would have stayed up there longer, but the wind drove me back to the shelter of the trees. The return trip, along the same path that I took up, was relatively unremarkable, except that I didn’t need to stop and made it down in a quarter of the time it took to go up.

Lessons learned: I can hike on my own and don’t need to be constrained by finding partners and keeping someone else’s pace. Sometimes being unprepared for the unknown challenges is easier, or at least less worrying. Leave the hand-held GPS (and spare batteries) in the car when the weather turns — it may be the right day to go hiking, no matter what the original plans may have been.

walkin’ at night

I have been geocaching off and on for almost seven years now. To be honest, it’s more off than on over the past few. On Saturday, I found cache number 401, which happened to be a nighttime cache. As in, you can only find it after dark.

My friend and fellow cacher tiabih talked me into going by her enthusiasm alone, so with plans made, we met up early in the evening and set off to the Powhatan Wildlife Management Area to find the Powhatan Witch Project cache, about 30 miles west of Richmond. Flashlights in hand, and thankful for the three-quarter moon, we set off down the path.

Tiabih had found a nighttime cache before, so she had an idea of what to look for. On the other hand, I had only heard of them, so I wasn’t quite sure of what to expect. We arrived in a clearing at the first waypoint and began looking for something reflective in the trees. Once we found the marker, it took us a bit to figure out where to go next, as it wasn’t quite what tiabih was expecting. But, soon we headed off in the right direction down the path.

About a half a mile or so of markers led us to a decon box with copies of the instructions for the next stages. Tiabih plugged them into her GPS and off we went. A few turns and coordinates later, we rounded a bend and spotted a tent next to a small fire not 50′ away from the cache location. I think the campers were as surprised to see us as we were to see them. Once we established that neither were serial killers, we found the cache, signed the log and headed back to the car.

The fall night air was cool and crisp, and it wasn’t long into our hike that I took off my fleece jacket and wrapped it around my waist. Although we were under the trees most of the way, we came across a few grassy clearings that opened up a sky full of stars. It was so peaceful and calm in the woods that night – makes me want to get out and do more nighttime hiking!

customer service

My car was broken into last week. After I got over the initial shock and disbelief, I focused on getting the window repaired and dealing with the cleanup. The thief stole my GPS (which I’d had for about three months) and the Sony eReader Touch that was sent to me to review over the next few months (which I’d had for about a week). Replacement costs for the stolen items is around $450. The window cost a bit more than the $250 deductible from my insurance. I’m still waiting on what the insurance company will do about the property loss.

When I let Sony’s PR folks know I wouldn’t be able to write the reviews, their immediate response was sympathy for my situation and an inquiry into whether they could send me a replacement. Several days later, I have received notification that I will indeed be getting a replacement from them. The cost of the reader is nominal for Sony compared to the publicity they’re likely to get by me writing about it, so it’s probably no skin off their nose to send another one, but it sure means a lot to me that they did.

This got me to thinking about libraryland and our customer service practices. Most libraries aren’t multinational companies with huge revenues, but the way we handle situations like this with our users can have an impact on our relationships with them. What would you do if one of your users came to you with a story of their car getting broken into and the library books they checked out were stolen? Would you believe them? Would your policies allow you to waive any fines or replacement costs for the lost books?