Archive for October 2007
In wake of the rampant wildfires in southern California over the past week, I thought I’d talk a little bit about the use of technology in keeping the public aware of the disaster’s progress. Most people know of my particular disdain for local news, mostly because of their sensationalism of mundane or outdated stories for the sake of ratings. Here’s a classic example of why I hate local news:
Almost nothing that they say on local news is something that I haven’t already read or seen on the Internet, and if it is something I haven’t already consumed on the Internet, it usually doesn’t interest me. That said, having the TV stations do nothing but 24-hour coverage of the fires didn’t help that opinion. They asked dumb questions in a repetitive fashion, replayed the same video day-old video footage like it was new and they rarely give you the information that you needed. However, the Internet had a plethora of great resources to give you the information you needed and did it faster than the TV stations.
KPBS, which is traditionally a non-profit TV station, had the best Internet coverage as far as I could tell. They set up a Twitter account and posted up-to-the-minute updates with the most important information. I’ve never really been a fan of Twitter, but this is a really good use of the technology. Twitter allows you to get updates by looking at the site, subscribing to their RSS feed, receiving IMs or text messages to your cell phone. All of these methods are free to the user and keep you in the know faster than TV news and without all the garbage associated.
KPBS also set up a Google Maps mashup with all the fire information in geographical form. It showed where all the fires were burning, where the shelters were set up for both people and animals, which roads were closed, which neighborhoods you were allowed to re-enter and a lot of other miscellaneous data. It was also updated as soon as data came in from the authorities.
The San Diego Union-Tribune set up a special fire blog with updates as well. There were also hundreds of other bloggers posting firsthand updates about the fires, shelters, etc. Local news just can’t compete with citizen journalism because they can’t scale to the sheer number of people available to report.
Facebook also helped me keep track of how my friends in the area were doing, as they updated their status and posted comments on other people’s walls. It allowed me to more efficiently find out how people were doing and keep the phone lines clear for emergency personnel to use.
So what does it all mean?
It means that people are starting to get used to information being tailored to their needs and available in multiple formats, rather than passively viewing it on TV.
It means that given the opportunity, people will organize and distribute quality information by themselves in order to help others.
It means that the few major media outlets will have less control over information flow in the future and that small armies of dedicated citizens will give people a choice when it comes to the type of information they want to receive.
This is a Good Thing™.
After reading Brad’s post on Infophilia, I can’t help but think that I have the exact same symptoms. I’m addicted to learning new things and acquiring information. I can’t stop and if I run out of things to read in my RSS reader, I just start reading anything I can get my hands on, even if it’s something as mundane as the back of a Lysol bottle. Here’s a few of the things I’ve been actively working on learning in the last week using a variety of books, news articles, software products, museums, and websites:
- Barack Obama’s history
- JFK’s history
- Random facts about Boston and Cambridge
- How to alter the autocomplete functionality in Drupal
- How to analyze football stats to produce the ultimate fantasy football team
- Swarming algorithms involved in various methods of P2P file transfers
- How to make applesauce
*The above picture is an artist rendition of how Amy makes applesauce
A lot of people joke with me about how much I’m on the computer, but it really is just a means to achieve this information overload in a more convenient and efficient way. I remember in elementary school and junior high, I would spend the entirety of my time after school at the library reading until it closed and then go home and log on to BBSes and the early versions of the World Wide Web to read more. I’ve always had this constant desire to consume information in its various forms and the Internet just makes it even easier, especially with news.
Google Reader tells me that in the last month I read an average of about 140 stories a day. While I believe that RSS readers such as Google Reader have made it so much easier to keep up with the news compared to traditional websites and newspapers, there is still a long way to go in the social news world before it is truly efficient. While I read an average of 140 stories a day, I only shared/starred an average of 6 stories per day. That means that only 4% of the stories that were delivered to me were good enough to share with others or keep in my stash of bookmarks. I don’t have any statistics on how many stories in an average newspaper that people enjoy, but I’d imagine it’s somewhere near there. But the computer is a tool that should make this process more efficient, and I’m hoping that with the coming generation of social news services that analyze your reading patterns to deliver more relevant stories, that the number will increase to at least 50%.
But it’s not just limited to news. Technology also makes other types of information more readily available. For example, Rosetta Stone makes it incredibly easy to learn a new language in the same way that you learned your first language and you can do it anywhere you have a computer. There’s also eBook readers that allow you to hold as many books as you want in a single device. I have a few books loaded into my iPhone so that when I’m standing around waiting for a bus or subway I can just whip it out and read right there.
I do have one fear associated with this Infophilia (disorder perhaps?). I notice that the more I learn and the more information I consume, the more my memories of the past seem to fade away. It’s as if my brain is a hard drive that’s running at capacity and keeps deleting old files to make room for new ones. While I love having all the latest and greatest information, there are some older memories that I’d really prefer not to lose. The fact that my digital photo library only starts at 2001 is rather disheartening, as I’m afraid that at some point in the future I’ll have to rely on it to trigger memories of the past.
So my challenge to Brad in his quest to unlock the secrets of the human brain is to find a way to unlock the other 92% of my brain that I supposedly don’t use. I could use the extra gigabytes.