Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

My afternoon at PICNIC08

Talk one of four at PICNIC was a small seminar for the European Journalism Center. Their part of the PICNIC experience was hosted in a geodesic dome tent within the “club” – the noisy public space where attendees are eating, drinking and having fun. So it felt a bit like giving a seminar in the anteroom of a dance club… not the easiest experience.

The talk after mine came from the founder of Zemanta, Jure Cuhalev, an interesting plugin for bloggers. You install Zemanta on your browser, it watches what you’re writing as you author a blogpost, and it sends your text to a server, which does natural language processing analysis, and suggests videos, photos, hyperlinks and tags for your content. The media suggestions appear in a window, and you can drag and drop them into your post – they’ll appear with appropriate attribution, ensuring that you follow the “rules of the road” of the internet. Related articles can optionally show up in a section at the end of a post, and the page will be tagged for optimum findability from search engines.

I love the idea – and especially some of the features, like entity extraction. When I type a name – Jure Cuhalev – I’m usually going to look up that name on the web and link to that person’s webpage or blog – Zemanta promises to this automatically. Looking forward to trying it out on my blog soon. And here’s a good video from G4′s attack of the show which introduces the tool.


Chatting with a journalist after my talk, I ended up showing up late for Adam Greenfield‘s talk, coming in for one of his more gruesome examples. Adam’s speciality is ubiquitous computing, and he’s done great work thinking about what happens when computation makes it into every aspect of our lived environment. This ubiquitization happens a little bit at a time. In European cities, it’s become common to fence off spaces with retractable bollards – metal posts that rise out of the ground to block spaces to unauthorized traffic. When an RFID-enabled vehicle with the right permissions passes by, the bollard retracts and gives one access to a street.

When a system like this crashes, things go badly wrong. Adam shows an example of a car – properly authorized – which was assaulted by a misfiring bollard, killing a passenger. “Who do you call for tech support when a system like this fails?”

As we transform our urban spaces, we’re starting to see spaces that are “stealthy, slippery, crusty, prickly and jittery“. Here Adam is borrowing terminology from Steven Flusty at USC. Stealthy spaces can’t be found; slippery ones can’t be reached. Prickly spaces can’t be occupied comfortably; crusty ones are armored and can’t be entered. Jittery may be the most interesting to Adam – they can’t be used without being under surveillance.


map from cabspotting.org

He adds “foggy” to this list of spaces – spaces that can’t be mapped – they don’t exist on your GPS, you can’t plot routes to them. This may become increasingly important as we start visualizing urban spaces in terms of data, offering a network overlay to help us understand our places better. These overlays might look like the map of San Francisco drawn by GPS in taxi cabs. Or a map using Zillo’s information of real estate value. Increasingly, we’ve got information about a place in that place, made local and actionable. We might choose how we move through a city based on the air quality of the areas we plan through, or the traffic we might encounter. “Networked overlay closes the loop, changing how we interact with urban space.”

As spaces become addressable, scriptable and queryable, we can start doing very weird things. What happens when billboards in Times Square start warning individual pedestrians that they need to catch a cab right now if they want to make their flight to Jamaica. Or letting you know that the NYPD knows that that guy is carrying a gun, and that they’re watching him. “I don’t expect these spaces to be pleasant,” he tells us, but they’re coming.

The more hopeful version is a world in which we move from browse urbanism to search urbanism, where we find ways to reach out to the different experiences waiting out there in the city.

I’m not really doing Adam’s work justice here – I’d recommend reading his blog for lots more of this stuff.


My friend Bruno Giussani leads a session introducing nominees to win the Picnic Green Challenge. This is a big prize, funded by the NL Postcode Lottery, and awards 500,000€ to the winning project. Out of 235 nominees, we see four finalists:

routeRANK – a website that looks for the best travel route, both in terms of time and environmental impact.

Greensulate – an insulation that works like extruded foam, but is grown on locally available byproducts, like rice and cottonseed hulls. The result is like styrofoam but produced with a far lower carbon footprint.

Smart Screen – a window glass that reflects solar energy away from warm spaces and opens to absorb solar energy in warm spaces.

Veranda Solar – Easy to install solar panels that sit on your windowsill and plug into existing electric outlets.

We’ll know in a few hours who wins the big prize – I’m pulling for Veranda, because I want to buy some of those as soon as they’re available.

One Response to “My afternoon at PICNIC08”

  1. It has been a pleasure meeting you at the European Bloggers Lab!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. My afternoon at PICNIC08 - [...] This piece originally appeared on Ethan Zuckerman’s excellent blog, My Heart’s In Accra. [...]
  2. Putting people first » Is Adam Greenfield a communist or…? - [...] worth reading: Hubert Guillaud’s article (in French) and Ethan Zuckerman’s piece on Greenfield’s talk at PICNIC 08. …
  3. Putting People First in italiano » Adam Greenfield è un comunista o…? - [...] letture su Adam Greenfield: articolo di Hubert Guillaud (in Francese) e di Ethan Zuckerman sul discorso di Greenfield presso …

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