Posts Tagged ‘g4c’

I’m attempting to write up every single session I went to at SXSWi. Will be mostly about games, but also how tech can kill, neuroscience, digital anthropology, civic science and more.

A video introduction to the Public Laboratory of Open Technology and Science.

Public Lab: Mapping, DIY Activism & Civic Science


This session was an introduction to an extremely interesting organisation: The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS). In their own words, they are “a community which develops and applies open-source tools to environmental exploration and investigation”. They provide simple tools and DIY solutions that enable people to collect data about their environment. The applications of this are absolutely fascinating and potentially very important.

As the panel explained, much environmental data is effectively owned by agencies and major organisations. Moreover, the standard tools for collecting this sort of information are expensive and proprietary, requiring serious investment in hardware or software. This creates an imbalance, especially in communities where the environment is under stress as a result of the action of big companies, think of the BP oil spill (more on that later). Those communities don’t usually have the means to collect their own data. PLOTS aims to change this.

They call what they do “civic science”: enabling projects which are community developed and community owned. They were keen to distinguish this from “citizen science”, which they defined as crowdsourcing data that then goes back to a big agency or research team, out of the hands of the people that collected it. The tools they develop are low cost and open source and information is shared under a creative commons share-alike license.

To give an example, during the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, people along the Gulf Coast wanted their own monitoring tools to see what was really happening to their shores. They clearly mistrusted the official line, and wanted to see for themselves. So PLOTS provided the information and tools to do this, particularly in the form of aerial mapping, and funded the project via Kickstarter. The rig for the aerial mapping technology is deliberately basic, uses balloons, a soda bottle and a camera, and yet can produce data “an order of magnitude better than Google maps”, they claimed. You can see the rig here, and more information about the Gulf Coast project here.

The aerial mapping tools have also been used by protestors to monitor demonstrations. For example this article on The Verge has pictures of balloon rigs being used by Occupy Wall Street protesters. This and other mapping projects can be found on the Grassroots Mapping site. From the PLOTS website:

Maps are often used by those in power to exert influence over territory, or control territorial narratives. “Grassroots mapping” attempts to invert this dynamic by using maps as a mode of communication and as evidence for an alternative, community-owned definition of a territory. To date, our tools have been used to contest official maps or rhetoric by enabling communities to map sites that are not included in official maps. In Lima Peru, members of an informal settlement developed maps of their community as evidence of their habitation, while on the Gulf Coast of the US, locally produced maps of oil are being used to document damage that is underreported by the state.

Mapping can be hugely political, and as they say, this has traditionally been a tool only for those in power to wield. It’s exciting to see the tools being made available to try and redress this imbalance, but the challenges don’t end there. Firstly, it is important, they said, for people carrying out aerial mapping activity to consider how what they are doing might be perceived. After all, people may be unsettled by unmanned flying objects taking pictures of them if they don’t know what it’s for.

More significantly, though, there is the hurdle of getting your data recognised by authorities. Particularly, I imagine, if it is data that contradicts the official information. They have to be careful about the chain of custody for data to make sure that its legitimate and can’t be called into question. Also, they have to go through a legal process for advocacy which they described as “frustrating”.

But it sounds like they are doing good work, and it’s an inspirational idea. I did a bit of digging, but haven’t turned up any similar projects here in the UK. Anyone heard of any?

The whole session was recorded and you can listen to it here. You can also follow PLOTS on twitter: @publiclab.

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I’m attempting to write up every single session I went to at SXSWi. Will be mostly about games, but also how tech can kill, neuroscience, digital anthropology, civic science and more.

Trailer for Peacemaker the Game.

Asi Burak: Games 4 Change: Great Power, Great Responsibility


A very interesting talk at the end of a very long day by Asi Burak, Co-President of Games for Change. As their name suggests, this non-profit organisation has a mission to, as they state: “catalyse social impact through digital games”. They run a conference/festival in June each year which I am a little bit gutted not to be going to, and have a Google group for discussions on the subject of Games for Change.

To kick off, Burak gave us a little background on himself, which he said was key to understanding how he came to be so convinced by the potential of games to do good. After serving in the Israeli intelligence corps for 5 years, he went on to join a mobile company working on location based services (if I recall correctly, it may also have had something to do with games). But the situation in the Middle East obviously troubled him, and he left for Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University where he studied Entertainment Technology. He mentioned the influence of Randy Pausch, whose Last Lecture, entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” (and covering virtual reality and teaching kids to code) I am listening to as I write this. It’s worth a watch if you aren’t one of the millions of people who’ve already seen it.

With his experiences in Israel in mind, Burak set about creating a game about the Middle East conflict. The result was Peacemaker, the trailer for which is at the top of this post. In this game, your objective is to solve the conflict whilst playing as either the Israeli Prime Minister or Palestinian President. You have a number of options to achieve this, both peaceful and military. It’s a bold idea for a game, which I hope to try at some point. What was perhaps most valuable about the game, said Burak, was the discussion that it provoked afterwards. It’s actually being used as part of workshops in the region for that purpose.

Peacemaker was released in 2007, but not everyone at that time was so convinced about games. He mentioned Hilary Clinton’s quote from 2005 that video games were a “silent epidemic” amongst kids. But for Burak it was clear: games are a powerful tool for social change. They provide continuous engagement, unlike films, for example, and are hugely popular. He recommended reading James Paul Gee, who has published books on the subject.

Things have changed since 2007 and perhaps now, he said, we are actually at the “hyperbole” moment, where grand claims are being made for the ability of games to change the world. This is a bit over the top, he said, mentioning gamification and the evangelism of Jane McGonigal as being an example of this (in the nicest possible way, I think, especially given that she’s on the advisory board for Games for Change). In fact, he said, we’re somewhere in between. There’s some interesting stuff going on, but it’s not yet hit its potential. There is no distribution system for games of this type, for example, though I’d argue that they’d have more impact being distributed in the same place as other games. Perhaps not for teaching purposes though.

We were then given some other examples of “games for change”:

iCivics: this site provides resources, including games, on the subject of citizenship. According to their evaluation, 78% of students better understood the subject after playing, and a large proportion also wanted to play on at home.

Freedom HIV/AIDS: This set of 4 mobile games made by ZMQ, was developed to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS and was launched in India across 9 million handsets on its first day. Their evaluation demonstrated a positive change in attitude after playing the games.

He mentioned FoldIt, which I’ve written about before, and various initiatives to get kids making their own games, such as Gamestar Mechanic and the AMD Foundation. In contrast to Hilary Clinton’s earlier scaremongering about games, the Obama administration seems to have come around to the idea that games can be used for good as evidenced by the National STEM Video Game Challenge and there is now a games consultant at the White House.

We came on to games evaluation, a subject close to my heart. He used the example of Re-mission, a game for “young adults living with cancer”, which took game evaluation to another level. This game has been tested in a randomised control trial, published here, which showed that the game improved “treatment adherence, cancer knowledge and self-efficacy”.

So, a talk that gave me a lot to think about, and included some fascinating case studies. You can listen to the whole thing here. And now, as I’m getting to the end of writing this, I’m also getting to the end of Randy Pausch’s entertaining “Last Lecture”. He’s just told us about his “legacy”, Alice. Alice is free software for teaching students computer programming, and also worth a look.


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