Amplifying Unsheffield

I spent the weekend in Sheffield for Unsheffield, where South Yorkshire’s finest (and a few ring-ins from elsewhere ;)) put on a fabulous weekend of unstructured conversations, presentations and idea sharing initiatives. In the interest of amplifying the innovation going on at the event and in the region, I want to highlight some of the ideas and discussions that took place over the weekend.

New applications for old tech

The first session I attended was on hacking existing technologies – everything from a remote control to a Wii and a security sensor system – so that they may be used for more interesting and functional or fun tools.  The hardware hacking community has been around for a long time and is the lifeblood of sites like instructables and etsy, but the devices arising from this activity are gettign more and more interesting.  Some of the discussion focused around why manufacturers wouldn’t co-opt some of the applications that were being identifed, but the reality is that most manufacturers can’t guarantee the functionality of any hack, and perhaps even more significantly, aren’t prepared to invest to support these new functions, so unless some relationships can be entered into where responsibility and support for hacks is shared between manufacturers and the hacker community, the tools will never see the commercial light of day. But there are two primary opportunities that arose from the discussion:
(i) There is a need for a collective, voluntary community of hackers with a formal online presence to act as support for hacks in the wider consumer electronics community, and as a resource for identifying local hackers and companies that sell hacked devices;
(ii) There needs to be protection of hackers against litigation from manufacturers who believe that their devices are being compromised by the hacks being carried out.
There’s no doubt that there is a a huge and growing market for device reappropriation.  People who choose to allow their devices to be hacked must be adequately informed that (in most cases) their warranties will be invalidated.  But if their desire for functionality outweighs their need to return goods, then the decision to hack (or get a device hacked for you) is pretty simple.  Of course, there are potential problems with dodgy operations setting up, offering hacks for a fee and delivering nothing.  But if a formal online presence is set up and hackers/hacker companies generate business through user reviews, this could weed out the responsible hacks from those dodgy operators.

Reclaiming vacant spaces for public projects

In the economic downturn, vacant shopspaces, offices and warehouses are a reality.  And trying to attact investors to fill these often tired and soulless spaces can be tough.  But during an extended period of vacancy, it makes sense to open up the spaces for alternative uses.  Vacant, these places aren’t generating rental income.  If the spaces can be opened up, and used for community and creative projects, and if a collective of people can come together and raise capital for any electricity use and insurance for a period of tenure, the possibilities of attracting new proprietors could be increased (so long as real estate agents have the right to show businesses through the venue as it is being used) and community projects have an opportunity to reach audiences they can otherwise ill-afford to access.

Spacemakers is just such an initiative.  They are looking for interest and advice from people on projects they could house in vacant spaces, and are looking for support from local government and property managers for venues for creative and community works – everything from exhibitions and public art, to community education, literacy and community consultation programmes.  Urban renewal doesn’t have to be all about apartment buildings.  Sometimes it can just be about making these otherwise hidden public projects more visible and accessible.

Aggregating your feeds

Trying to keep all your social media feeds up to date can be both time consuming and  risky; if you forget one of your many feeds, there’s a possibility of appearing out-of-date to the people who follow that channel. Also, if you are producing different media all the time, it can be awkward to have to post media in one channel and then remember to inform everyone where that is in another channel. Onepage is a utility that is designed to aggregate your feeds from multiple social media channels, so you can go to one place to update and you can send a single address to audiences to access these many streams.

The participants in the onepage session felt that onepage as essentially doing what friendfeed does, but that there was an opportunity to aggregate feeds based on a search term or on a group of authors, so that a niche interest onepage could be set up for very specific purposes.  And this group/topic feed could be accessible to audiences without having to be manually created within a Facebook or Friendfeed interface. For instance, if you are looking for everything being gathered by 10-20 specialists on a specific subject area, this onepage could be created and become the expert analysis zone for a much wider audience.

The beta is up onine if you want to test at getonepage.com.

A better mousetrap. Err. Better search engine.

Developing better search engines is a priority for so many users.  But knowing what’s out there beyond google is often difficult.  I keep my eye on the search/searchengine keywords on del.icio.us but sometimes you just need to share what you’ve found to be useful.  Raised at unsheffield were the following useful tools:

(i) Duckduckgo: great really after you’ve put your keyword in and searched either normally, or mainly info or shopping sites.  Because once your results come up, you can then narrow your results by news or web 2.0 aggregators.  So if you’re looking for information about ‘polymer scientists’, you might be looking for information about what polymer scientists do (wikipedia), or where to recruit polymer scientists (LinkedIn), or the latest news about polymer scientists on BBC, or CNN.  Quite useful and it has ducks on it. Bonus!

(ii) Wolfram Alpha: if you want a mathematical function, you want advice on distances, calories in food, geographical data, population data, flying time, GDP or even the number of tigers in the wild, AND if you can phrase your question in the form of a formula, then Wolfram Alpha is for you. It’s fun if you know basic maths.

(iii) Worio: if you still love your google but also want orthogonal links to other information, worio develops relationships between the keyword you use and keywords commonly *near* the keyword you have used.  Kinda funky discovery opportunities.

(iv) Tin Eye: if you want to search for use of images online, then Tin Eye is wicked.  It doesn’t just search for file names.  It searches metadata and uses pattern recognition technologies to identify possible iterations of the visual elements of images. Upload the image you have and find where it’s been used.  This is mainly a copyright tracking tool but it can also be interesting for tracking creative commons development of works.

Publishing ‘failed’ projects

Much discussion was had about the famous 20% of time Google gives it employees to pursue their private projects.  of course, this isn’t new.  3M did it decades ago to enourage innovative development, and academia has had it written in to staff contracts for their research for centuries.  But in commercial environments where this practice is supported, should we be facilitating opening up ‘failed’ project bids for open community testing and adaptation.  If google, for instance, were prepared to publish the projects that don’t get developed into their Google Labs applications, and then receive a percentage cut of any later commercial product that derives from its unfinished or rejected ideas, this may enable a new revenue stream for Google (not that it needs one) but it would also provide them with a little testing ground for young or enthusiastic developers looking for a project to bring to life.  Not everyone has great ideas.  But some are better adaptors of others’ ideas.

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There were many more ideas shared and I’ll blog more of these tomorrow, but this is just a taste of the ideas zooming around the Unsheffield room. And as the Amplified rep at the event, I felt it was important that my audience and the Amplified community had a chance to engage with some of these great ideas.

Congrats to Jag Gill and Jay Cousins for their great work and to all who participated to make it a fabulous weekend’s collaboration.

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