Car2Go is at the Heart of an Entire Transportation Platform

BikeShop

 

If you call Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, or Montreal home you’ve most likely seen Car2Go’sSmart “fortwo” vehicles parked or on the move. The service’s North American debut was in Austin, TX (March 2010), and followed launching in Vancouver (June 2011).

Vancouver is now home to their largest fleet, with 650 vehicles and over 55,000 members, serving a home area of 110 sq. kilometers. The Car2Go footprint is growing globally, servicing 26 cities and over 700,000 members.

Making it easier to get around the city is nice, as is going car free altogether. But more importantly we’re looking to a future where an estimated 70 percent of the world population will live in cities by 2050. Increasing global urbanization is an issue. Car2Go, is essentially one part of a much bigger strategy for addressing the future challenges of individual mobility.

At IBM’s Impact2014 conference Nicholas Cole’s (CEO, Car2Go North America) keynote address introduced everyone to Moovel. It’s a platform that IBM mobile and cloud computing technologies are playing an important role in developing and deploying. With an intuitive smartphone application, Moovel bundles the offers of different providers for the optimal path from A to B, and is linked to public transport.

BmUn_SkIIAAlkYFThe platform is being tested in Germany right now, but there little question that we’re moving towards transportation as a platform. I spoke with Cole about Daimler’s bigger vision. “It’s not just about our own services. We’ll be connecting people with bike sharing, integrating the platform with city transit services, a limo like service such as Blacklane, and air travel. It will be one stop to arrange and book all of your mobility requirements,” he offered. Moovel will also opens up opportunities for third party development with the future release of an API.

I joked about the challenges of making a trip furniture shopping to IKEA in the Smart fortwo. Cole had heard that one before and mentioned that Europe is rolling out Car2Go Black, “it’s a natural progression being able to offer a bigger car, and longer duration of use. At trip’s end, the vehicle is returned to one of the dedicated parking stations – including those in another city where car2go black is available. There’s no return time required during the trip.” In Europe, the car2go black network will be based solely on the Mercedes-Benz B-Class.

Cole talked about the evolution of their business saying, “you just can’t drop a few hundred cars into a city and expect it to work, it’s important to be part of the community fabric.” Working with the city administrations is critical to the success of any urban transportation efforts like this, but so is working with business. “It’s the residents of every city who are the heart of our business, but we do see growing opportunities to work with companies too. We’re looking to do more with local businesses who have campus size footprints in a city.” While it’s a natural fit, he highlighted how they’re working with Daimler Trucks North America in Portland.

Waterfront

Five years ago the idea of allowing car sharing service vehicles to flow through the city, versus simply being allocated a set number of parking space, was met with no shortage of resistance. Conceiving a new vision for personal mobility within the bureaucratized city transportation grid and revenue generating model didn’t align with many cities in those early days. According to Cole, “thankfully cities like Austin and Vancouver said lets discuss it, and see what makes sense. Today, cities are approaching us.”

We also touched on how the car can eventually just be another sensor. There’s no reason our cars shouldn’t be telling us what’s happening around us, like the air quality, emissions, traffic conditions, road conditions, and where to find parking. As he noted “technology is getting closer to where cars will tell you what roads to avoid. With the integration of apps like Waze is where we’ll have the ability to know the best ways of getting around in real time.”

The transportation network is a key to creating more livable cities of the future. Envisioning a network that’s integrating more mobility options, that’s more efficient, less congested, flowing more efficiently, and spewing less carbon is a good place to start.

This story originally appeared in BetaKit

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Celebration Day 01/07/14

75520

01/07/14

20 rolls

It’s V6A

8:00

AM

Tall boy downed

then downed

tossed

tossers ride

the ally

Tall boy empty

finds new hands

change found

celebrate

small change

no change

celebrate

what day?

a new day

another day

survive

suffer

sunshine

bolt cutters gripped

cutters rip what?

celebrate

loot

bounty

pawn

quick fix

smoke it

shoot it

down it

celebrate

it’s another day

it’s Canada Day

it’s V6A

 

picture courtesy of Alpha Coders

 

PrintToPeers Software is Adding Teeth to 3D Printing Hardware

Group Photo

Talk about serendipity. Two guys who don’t know each other move into the same Calgary coworking space discover they’ve been working on the same idea, over the same amount of time.

The pair, Tom Bielecki and Kaz Walker along with James Thorne are the cofounders of PrintToPeer, and now call Vancouver home. They’ve been part of  GrowLab‘s most recent cohort.

PrintToPeer is a web platform and printer driver that simplifies the 3D printing process. They envisioned the AirBnB for 3D printing. “Our whole idea was around accessibility to 3D printing. The problem was that we had 3D printers and but it was hard for people to find us,” said Bielecki. “We wanted to build this network of discoverability, where people could easily order parts from us, or we could print other projects for them.”

Doing some deeper market validation they found upwards of 30 similar businesses, but none of them were “making the printing process easier by sending the file directly to the machine” according to Bielecki. “Once you actually send that file to someone, they still have to go through this very complicated process to print off the object,” he added. “It’s because there was no networking. You couldn’t send it from the network to the 3D printer.”

SharingThe printing process for objects is nothing like printing that .pdf file document off your laptop. Many trees would be saved if we had to use three different software applications, and go through hundreds of settings to print a document. Printing objects is a complicated process. “You have to understand the actual physical properties of the plastic that the printer is extruding. All of the settings need to be tweaked based on your own hardware, and based on the different plastic being used,” said Bielecki.

The vision for 3D printing is about breaking down the barrier from idea to product, but today it’s almost the exact opposite, said the cofounder. “You pretty much have to be a physicist or an engineer to create a functional and useable finished product. By adding a network and easy user interface to the printer, we knew that we could deliver a simpler online workflow.”

It all about making it easier for the innovator to use this technology. Seeing it as more than an application for the basement hobbyist, they’re thinking back to how the ethernet made networking office printers possible. PrintToPeer is looking at how businesses, schools, and even new business models will be able to leverage the capabilities of the networked 3D printer. “Still being a scarce and shared resource, there needs to be an easier way to open up access to what this technology is capable of” said Bielecki.

He thinks “there are absolutely huge possibilities when you network 3D printers with a common API.” The hardware itself is quickly becoming commoditized, meaning the space is just as quickly becoming even more software centric.

iPad-screen_camera_smallLooking into the future, Bielecki sees important changes for rapid prototyping. “We see this opportunity for hardware startups and creators of other physical products to bring consumers into the product development cycle. With connected printers it will be possible to A/B test products. This creates a whole new feedback loop of people being able to confirm things like a products fit, form and function. I see being able to iterate on hardware products in an agile process, just like the way software engineers have valued for a couple of decades.”

What has him most excited is “having one design file and being able to print it in a whole array of different materials and qualities. It will expand my choices beyond just what’s on a store shelf. I can choose whether something is simple and prints in two hour, or more complex that will take 10 hours to print.”

PrintToPeer is launching an initiative to build a common OS for 3D printers,  and enjoyed a successful Indiegogo campaign to help move the effort forward. If 3D printing has your attention, this is something designed for a beginner, and configured for a pro. The startup is making the print process as seamless as possible so that your print jobs will work on the first try.

This story was originally published on BetaKit

NASA Teams with Google X to give ISIS a New Set of Eyes

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There’s life events where you never forget where you were, or what you were doing. I was almost 7 years old when Neil Armstrong uttered the most famous line – “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It always stuck with me.

Exploring space has influenced countless communications, hardware, software, and material science innovations. Being the third nation in space, Canada’s history of innovation is a rich one. BetaKit has featured the likes of Dr. Alan Winter for his early work in satellite technology, Commander Chris Hadfield for his leadership aboard the International Space Station, and the recent efforts of Vancouver’s UrtheCast to deliver us a 24/7 High Definition view of earth from space.

It’s the fascination of meaningful science behind space exploration that had me excited to learn more about the SPHERES program and Project Tango at O’Reilly Media’s first ever Solid Conference. Over 1400 people attended two days of talks and demos. The event was an enthusiastic exchange of ideas about the present and future for the Internet of Things, as well as the coming together of our digital and physical spaces.

With keynote speakers like Rethink Robotics (CTO & Chairman) Rodney Brooks, Google X’s Astro Teller,  Autodesk CEO Carl Bass, Hiroshi Ishii with MIT’s Media Lab and many more, plus five different session tracts featuring over 100 talks, there was plenty fuelling the imagination.

Seeing the partnership between NASA and Google X first hand was a highlight. NASA says the project “aims to develop zero-gravity autonomous platforms that could act as robotic assistants for astronauts or perform maintenance activities independently on station. The 3D-tracking and mapping capabilities of Project Tango would allow SPHERES to reconstruct a 3D-map of the space station and, for the first time in history, enable autonomous navigation of a floating robotic platform 230 miles above the surface of the earth.”

SphereNASA’s Zachary Moratto (Engineer at SGT / NASA Ames Research Center), shared more insight about the project, saying “it’s technology that can navigate. It’s a GPS-like system, but better that GPS because it works indoors, works without GPS. It knows how high you are up, and even knows what angle you’re pointing at in any given moment of time which allows you to do some pretty crazy things.”

He couldn’t speak to Google’s intentions or future commercialization ideas, but talking from NASA’s perspective “this is perfect for a robot, it’s a satellite that wants to know where it is in the environment.”

The goal this Summer is proving it can navigate throughout the space station. Looking into the future Moratto suggested “we’d like to integrate Tango-like algorithms, software and hardware into Sphere as into one giant robot, and eventually become the “Roomba” of the Space Station. We want a robot that can navigate, do patterns, figure out where it is, and to have expansion ports for attaching other instruments. We want to be the platform and not the end device.”

IMG_2397Use cases include the potential for connecting an air quality measurement sensor. Moratto added “there’s no convection in space, so CO2 pools up and can be a deadly blob of air that an astronaut could fly into. It’s one less thing for the astronauts to check and monitor themselves.”

He also mentioned that it could be a telepresence robot allowing mission controllers, to see over a shoulder. “Right now the astronaut spends up to 30 minutes preparing cameras to record a given operation.”

“The Space Station becomes kind of like a giant dormitory too. People bring stuff and the place gets kind of messy,” he noted. Finding tools and equipment can be challenging at times, and with Tango’s mapping abilities it could helpful for finding assets tags. “It will be great for helping keep track of where stuff is in the space station.”

The “holy grail” would one day be being able to operate outside of the space station.

The NASA and Google teams have only been working together for the past nine months, yet it’s quickly proving to be an important exploration into the potential for today’s state of the art vision technology.

This video is a great look at Spheres and Project Tango coming together.

This story originally appeared in BetaKit

British Columbia Will Have the Planet’s Smartest Coastline

 

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Ocean Networks Canada (ONC) has announced a collaboration with IBM to create the “smartest coast on the planet”. A three-year, multi-million dollar project will equip British Columbia with a monitoring and prediction system to respond to offshore accidents, tsunamis and other natural disasters.

The “Smart Oceans BC” program will use marine sensors and data analysis to enhance environmental stewardship and public and marine safety along Canada’s West coast. It will monitor vessel traffic, waves, currents and water quality in major shipping arteries and will include a system to predict the impact of offshore earthquakes, tsunamis, storm surge, and underwater landslides.

ONC is the University of Victoria’s largest research project. It is already operating the world’s most advanced cabled ocean observatories off BC’s coast. IBM is investing $12 million in cloud computing infrastructure, analytics software, services and skills training in support of expanding this vital system. This also furthers Canada’s position as a global leader in ocean technology.

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Michelle Rempel, Canada’s Minister of State (Western Economic Diversification), announced that Western Economic Diversification is also contributing $9.1 million in funding that will bring online a number of additional underwater observatories and high frequency coastal radars.

Scott McLean, director, ONC Innovation Centre said “the concept for the project was created by the ONC Executive team in several brainstorming sessions last fall. We were discussing how we could apply the ONC Observatory technology (developed for a research facility) to more directly support public and marine safety.”

“ONC has a world-leading marine sensor network and associated expertise,” said IBM president Dan Fortin. “IBM is making significant investments in technology and skills-training to ensure ONC has the capacity to analyze data from the new sensors coming online. This will allow modelling systems to better support disaster planning and drive Canada’s economic future through the development of big data skills and associated digital expertise.”

ONC will be running earthquake and tsunami simulations with a goal of predicting their behaviour and potential impact on coastal areas, using on-premise cloud computing technology. This information will benefit a wide range of stakeholders from public safety agencies to public transportation, tourism, and other industries operating in the area.

With new visual analytics, data streams processing, machine learning and data exploration software, researchers will be developing, testing and running decision-support systems. This also presents an avenue of commercial viability that could aid industrial and governmental agencies in sea state, pollution monitoring, spill response and other aspects of ocean management.

“Through IBM’s contribution, we’re able to draw insights and conduct analysis of a massive amount of new data that will be critical in the implementation of a world-class marine safety system,” said ONC president Dr. Kate Moran.

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She also said, “Smart Oceans BC will help to develop best practices in three focus areas: marine shipping, environmental monitoring, and public safety. For example, for marine shipping, we will be developing baselines of the sound in the sea. Should sound increase from shipping, this information would be used to suggest best shipping practices to mitigate and reduce noise, such as altering routes to minimize impact on marine mammals, and identifying areas where ships should alter their speed to reduce noise.

ONC estimates the global market for smart oceans systems technology will grow from $4 billion to at least $6 billion by 2020. Part of IBM’s commitment will be supporting internships for over a dozen students from BC universities to build subject matter expertise and practical experience in this emerging industry. The students represent the importance of having a cross-disciplinary approach, and will include MBAs, researchers, programmers and biologists.

McLean puts this project in a global context saying, “ONC is an international research facility with over 10,000 users from around the globe and has a program founded on international partnerships. We have already had an international workshop in March for tsunami modelling and will be establishing partnerships around Smart Oceans BC that will serve as a testbed for new technologies.”

A smart coastline is good, but arguably for many British Columbians a safe coastline is better. I also asked Moran if this project will have any impact on making future potential oil tanker travel any safer for BC’s coast?  She foresees that “Smart Oceans BC will reduce risk by providing real time information on sea conditions to ships traveling along the coast.  Knowing sea conditions in real time provides valuable information to make decisions about when and what route to travel.”

This story was first published in BetaKit

Thinking about Watson’s World and the Autonomous Auto

IBM-Watson

“I for one welcome our new computer overlords.” Ken Jennings was humble in accepting his  Jeopardy defeat to the silicon of Watson. While not the theme of the recent Wavefronts Wireless Summit 2014, it’s a fair subtext.

Now that connected cows and connected home appliances are no longer the stuff of bad internet jokes, the relationships between mobile devices and everyday things seems to be catching on. Forecasting of 50 billion things being connected to the internet by 2020 equates to sizeable opportunity. Over 500 people in attendance (double of last year) at the summit indicates a growing interest in this business.

The healthcare industry stands to benefit from much of this innovation. More importantly it’s the patient who stands to gain the most. Jeffrey Betts leads IBM’s Chronic Disease Management and Personalized Healthcare activities in Canada, and presented, “Converting Big Data into Better Healthcare with Analytics.”

We spoke about the opportunities that Watson is presenting to healthcare professionals. It’s an an artificially intelligent computer system capable of answering questions posed in natural language. “Watson holds the promise of providing a physician with all of the evidence, all of the time at the point of care,” said Betts. In spite of their 8-12 years of training and education, keeping current with information is a huge challenge. As he points out “the cold hard fact is velocity of change in health information far exceeds any humans cognitive capacity to absorb it. So physicians are obsolete at graduation and fall behind in their knowledge continuously.”

Technology like Watson is giving physicians the ability to draw on the latest evidence. This comprehensive collection of evidence makes a significant difference in the work they do diagnosing a patient, and in selecting a treatment.

Text is the key driver of healthcare communications, yet so much important context is lost. Bett’s points out “about 80% of medical information is done in the form of free text. It’s being able to actually utilize this to find facts about the patient that are not explicitly captured in some other system of record, like if they might be a smoker or not can impact the prognosis or treatment plan.”

Watson can both read and reason, and thus establish context. It has the ability to infer and understand the nuances of language. From the medical perspective Watson has the ability to place relevant facts that it finds in unstructured text, into context for the physician.

For instance, Betts shared that “in talking with Oncologists about their process for creating a treatment plan, there’s a lot of ambiguity and complexity. It’s takes time. It’s a very iterative process. By having all of the evidence relevant to the patient presented with options ranked in probability, plus the evidence associated with those options means added physician confidence is just a click away.”

With the Watson API it will be interesting to see what new innovation entrepreneurs will deliver. This is technology that can be key in breaking down of our current health system silos. The patient will finally become the centre of care.

Wavefront_Summit-3

But that wasn’t all that grabbed attention at the Wavefronts Wireless Summit.

Tim Hayden is author of the forthcoming “The Mobile Commerce Revolution” and announced to the crowd that “we’re at the end of the auto age”. Social is mobile, he said, and it’s changing our relationship to “being” mobile.

Hayden offered that “if you look at what’s happening with Lyft for instance, it’s like virtual mobile hitchhiking. It’s getting simpler to get a car only when you need it, and paying for it only when you use it. To a younger and more urban demographic the car is becoming a utility. It’s not the status symbol of past generations. As Hayden says, “everyone born after 1994 has a very different outlook on life. They’re not going to have a car define who they are.”

Michigan, California, Nevada and Florida now allow self-driving vehicle research to take place on their highways. There’s been the recent news of driving coast to coast without a drop of gas courtesy of Tesla. Transportation is in the early days of massive upheaval.

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Hayden notes “it’s interesting that Uber pre-orders 2000 self driving cars two days after receiving it’s $258 million investment from Google Ventures. Here’s good old fashion ‘peanut butter and jelly’. You have the service and you have the OEM talking with each other about how to make this extremely efficient. Not paying drivers, a lower infrastructure cost per vehicle, not worrying about driver errors, changes the game.”

Jay Giraud is cofounder and CEO of Vanoucer’s Moj.io, which is connecting the car to the internet. He believes personal transportation is “about turning your car into a platform. It can now act and behave like a smartphone. We’re envisioning new models of ownership, new ways of commuting, new ways of connecting with people while you’re on the road, and getting the things you need in a very contextual and automated way.”

While he’d love a self-driving car, Giraud knows the reality of mass adoption is still on the distant horizon. What he’s see right now is the fact that “we all do the same commute, but we all have different needs. How we use our cars, how connect with cars, how we find cars, get in cars, and maybe even how we own cars is up for grabs right now.”

Regardless of technology, the devices and how they’re connected, none will solve our global challenges. Only people can solve people challenges like carbon emissions and personal wellness. Ideally technology will be the enabler to a better future.

This story originally appeared in BetaKit

The Perfect Couple. A Perfectly Cruel Place

They really were the perfect couple. Just not officially betrothed. Together they wreaked more havoc than their four horsemen brethren. Misery was the body blow. Torment was the head shot. With no more to give, and realizing no more could be taken they found the door.

Even when Misery and Torment flipped the bird and flipped off the light, that empty windowless room wasn’t completely devoid of light. It just seemed so.

Bleeding out in darkness is good. You can’t see the size of the wounds. You can’t even see how big the puddles of fluid are. You can just lay there and ooze. You can just wallow and lie. Replay lies. The darkness is a good place to feel sorry for yourself. No one can see the sorry excuse you’ve become.

You let Misery and Torment in. You can only blame yourself for letting them stay so long. Funny thing is how they blame you for having nothing left to give. Funnier thing is that Misery and Torment were happiest finding the door on their own. Guess there was a sense of victory surveying the carnage wrought.

The bleeding stops. The real pain ends. It’s the phantom pain that hangs on. The imagination, and replaying of all those lies keeps the pain feeling real. There’s medication for that. The darkness is the best place to medicate too. No one else knows your prescription. No one else controls your dose. In the darkness no one sees the emptiness. In the darkness you can’t see through the emptiness. You can only feel it. Enough medication eventually removes that feeling too.

Misery and Torment didn’t chain and padlock the door. Only closed it. Not quite airtight. You can still breath. Barely.  Bottom isn’t a soft landing. Eventually the hardness forces you to face the door. It’s allowing yourself the will to grope around in the darkness. It’s about getting a handle. Strain and you’ll even see a sliver of light. Even in complete incoherence, faith has potentiality.

Wallowing is weak. Blind faith in others is weaker. Having no will to power yourself is the weakest. This space offers two choices. Dark or light. Bottom isn’t middle ground. No shades of grey for mental camouflage. Gripped by misery and torment, or the embrace of faith and will. Choose. Them or You.

Stand up, move forward or wallow and stay fetal. The light burns at first, but bottom sores fester and rot. Misery and Torment thrive in rotting knowledge. Misery and Torment are my ex’s; spouse and a business co-founder. They’re excuses.

The ex’s are out, it took some time wallowing before quitting on the excuses. I finally quit on them. The perfect couple now occupy their own perfectly cruel place.

Excuse free. In clarity. Clarity drives purpose of decisions. Purpose with clarity gives meaning. With weightless purpose now moving effortlessly through the dark, the light, the grey, Misery and Torment free. No fear, only faith and will. Goodness, Meaning, Happiness.

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What a Career! This Guy Knows the Codes, both Machine and Human.

Alan Winter

“The issue in genomics is that we’re at about 1983 on the IT side. The applications in genomics today are much like spreadsheets and Windows 3.0, in that it hasn’t permeated everything yet. But it will.” – Dr. Alan Winter

He has a lens on Canada’s technology history like few others. Starting with postgraduate work in solid state physics during ‘70s, the career of Dr. Alan Winter has influenced the key communications systems we rely on today. Now he’s overseeing technology that stands to make our lives better in so many ways tomorrow.

Winter is President and CEO of Genome British Columbia. Since 2001 he’s been leading this Vancouver based not-for-profit research organization that’s enabling British Columbia to become a world leader in selected areas of genomics R&D and to develop a vibrant life sciences cluster in the province.

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It’s fascinating to hear him talk about analog computers. “They consisted of components like valves, memory drums, but you could see the beginning of change through solid state physics. Most of this was being driven by the space program and the military. It was all about getting electronics into smaller, lighter and more compact form.”

Seeing these changes piqued his interest, leading him to join the Federal government’s space program. He became responsible for what is today’s search and rescue SarSat satellite system. Canada was the third nation in space, the first to have a domestic satellite system in the world, and Winter was an influence early on.

Winter shared “the Canadian government said this has to be a priority because of how vital communications is to such a geographically vast country.” This also seems to illustrate how government communication priorities have not necessarily changed for the better over the years.

At the time, and being a national priority Winter was given to opportunity to travel the country and meet with companies potentially interested in satellite, remote sensing or other related technology. One of those interested companies in the 1970s was Vancouver’s Macdonald Dettwiler, “‘who’d done a great job of attracting very entrepreneurial people,” according to Winter.

It was this group of people who were essentially some of our early software pioneers. He said, “they were looking at the processing of sensing data. In those days people understood hardware, software was basically FORTRAN cards, and embedded software was barely even embryonic. But, this team proved to be early leaders in developing this important marriage of software with hardware.”

His communication career is also highlighted in his role as President and CEO of MPR Teltech during which time he saw the spin out of six companies including PMC-Sierra and Sierra Wireless. The next eureka moment came while visiting his son at Queens University, who “excitedly talked about the Human Genome Project coming to a conclusion in 2001. I got very interested in the project and what DNA was because to me it looked like a software problem.”

He added “it’s interesting because I think biology is becoming an information science. Any significant enabling technology has gone through a long process of developing and testing different applications to really see where it takes root. In genomics we’ve only been going for ten years, and already sequencing costs have come down from the first project being $3 billion to now being about $1000. It’s actually moving faster than Moore’s Law.”

Winter touched on how fast this technology is moving in healthcare. Procedures like newborn screening now being genomics based, cancer cells being sequenced to deliver precision targeted treatments, and how detecting an infectious disease like SARS is done by sequencing the virus is becoming more routine.

watershed sampling

Beyond the impact genomics technology will have in healthcare in terms of potentially bringing down costs, making it more effective and personalized, he talked about it’s role in our natural world. For instance in forestry, “the mountain pine beetle was a huge disaster, so the issue is what do you plant next that’s more resistant to pests and the changing climate? In fisheries, the challenge is dealing with the tracking of pathogens both in the farmed and natural environment. Or take the mining industry where we’re looking at the microbial breakdown of toxins from tailing ponds.”

Thinking about the progression of IT this last 30 years and applying an exponential growth curve to genomic technology, Winter’s lens looks to a future of amazing and meaningful scientific discoveries.

This story originally appeared in BetaKit

Solid Thinking: Reflections on Solid Conference 2014

Jon & Joi

“Software is eating the world…. Hardware gives it teeth.”Renee DiResta (Principle, OATV)

With one look at what the O’Reilly Media team, Jon Bruner and Joi Ito had planned for the first Solid Conference, there was never a question of me not going. It was only a question of getting there. Having the deep pocketed editor helping jet-set me around in the pursuit of a story is the unicorn in my freelancing magical world. Between the support of the Vancouver technology community, and the generosity of many others the trip came true because of a successful crowd-funding initiative. The 21st and 22nd of May at Fort Mason revealed a treasure trove of thoughts, conversations, and visions of the connected self and connected society. I’m grateful to have earned the experience. This is only the start of a story that will keep on giving.

For the more than 1400 attendees at times the choices had to be overwhelming. With key note speakers like Rethink Robotics (CTO & Chairman) Rodney Brooks, Google X’s Astro Teller,  Autodesk CEO Carl Bass, Hiroshi Ishii from MIT’s Media Lab and many more, plus five different session tracts with over 100 talks fuelling the imagination. There was so much on display the senses had moments of being overloaded.

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Jon Bruner started everyone thinking by simply asking “what’s a tech company, anyway?” It’s more than the 0’s and 1’s, the circuits, sensors, the materials, the connectivity, and the transcending science fiction into science fact. As the digital experience continues merging with the physical experience, there’s no shortage of why’s to ask. Asking why some of this technology needs to exist is a good place to start. Is it solving big problems? Is it making us more capable? Is it making us smarter? Cool wasn’t making the grade for me.

Astro Teller“Hardware is hard” seemed almost understated coming from someone who’s all about moonshots. Visions of what could be aside, Google’s Astro Teller gave advice more entrepreneurs need to seriously consider saying “get more oil on your hands or mud on your boots to take down the really big problems.” Take the time to learn more about Google X and Astro Teller in the great Fast Company feature.

Envisioning relations in terms of both the potentiality and the tension between our digital, spacial, and physical worlds, Hiroshi Ishii was brilliant.  His talk, “Vision Driven: Beyond Tangible Bits, Towards Radical Atoms” left me breathless.

Hiroshi IshiiIshii leads The Tangible Media Group at the MIT Lab, where the TRANSFORM project is described as one that “fuses technology and design to celebrate its transformation from a piece of still furniture to a dynamic machine driven by the stream of data and energy. 

The motion design is inspired by the dynamic interactions among wind, water and sand in nature. Escher’s representations of perpetual motion, and the attributes of sand castles built at the seashore. TRANSFORM tells the story of the conflict between nature and machine, and its reconciliation, through the ever-changing tabletop landscape.” Watch for yourself.

 

SphereIn the category of science fiction meeting science fact, the SPHERES program was on my radar before the conference. Seeing the partnership between NASA and Google first hand was a highlight. NASA says the project “aims to develop zero-gravity autonomous platforms that could act as robotic assistants for astronauts or perform maintenance activities independently on station. The 3D-tracking and mapping capabilities of Project Tango would allow SPHERES to reconstruct a 3D-map of the space station and, for the first time in history, enable autonomous navigation of a floating robotic platform 230 miles above the surface of the earth.”

This video is quite the ride – 

Richard IsaacsQuite possibly it was Richard Isaacs (Mechanical Designer and Organ-builder with C.B. Fisk)  who best wrapped a unique context around Jon Bruner’s opening question. His talk, “Musical Counterpoint in Wood, Bone, Metal, and Carbon Fibre” introduced us to the history and the complexity of pipe organs. It’s worth noting (courtesy of Wikipedia) that “beginning in the 12th century, the organ began to evolve into a complex instrument capable of producing different timbres. By the 17th century, most of the sounds available on the modern classical organ had been developed. From that time, the pipe organ was the most complex man-made device, a distinction it retained until it was displaced by the telephone exchange in the late 19th century.” It’s both a history and a future of craftsmanship and musicianship that’s capable of taking us closer to the heavens than any spaceship can. He also shared an impressive visual collection of “pipe-organ porn” too.

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Most encouraging throughout the two days was the talk of design centred thinking, and how crucial user experience and the user interface is. It’s about putting the human experience at the centre of  our hardware and software experiments. We can talk about the industrial internet and the internet of things, yet there is no industry and there are no things without us at the heart of the equation.

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O’Reilly summed up the spirit of solid thinking best, saying “we need to think about the people… not just about things.” He also extended all of us a challenge, one we need to collectively endeavour towards delivering on everyday – “work on what is hard.”

Many of the pictures are courtesy the O’Reilly Flickr collection.

 

 

A River of Data Flows Through Vancouver’s Aquatic Informatics

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Having the “up to my neck” in it feeling is common place for many CEOs. For Aquatic Informatics‘ CEO Ed Quilty, his story starts with water being up to his hips (literally).

Originally a river ecologist as he put it, “not a software guy, not a business guy, but a guy wearing rubber boots, working in rivers, scrapping slime off rocks and collecting bugs and water samples.” Since then he’s led Aquatic Informatics for the past 11 years, growing it to the point where thousands of scientists and over 400 agencies in 28 countries are using the software.

The software is addressing critical water data management and analysis challenges for the environmental monitoring industry. They work with a variety of customers including federal, state/provincial or local government departments, hydropower operators, mining companies, academic groups and consulting organizations, who collect, manage and process large volumes of water quality or quantity data. Located in Vancouver, they’ve also been recently named as a BC company that’s “Ready to Rocket.”

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Quilty traces the genesis of the company back to the early 90’s while on a UVic co-op work term for the BC Ministry of the Environment. “They had this cutting edge sensor for continuous water quality measurement. This was a big leap forward from putting samples in a bottle, and shipping them off to a lab for analysis. The lab could tell you the amount of nutrients, organics, or heavy metals. This was only a small snapshot, and the odds of missing some major event were always significant. With this sensor technology we were getting information every minute or fifteen minutes. It was a big change in the industry. We went from never having enough data to being overwhelmed with data ”

With a Forest Renewal BC project, he saw the value of sensing technology and data collection, that focused on water quality inventory. He was seeing the impact of the forestry industry on water.

With an overwhelming volume of the data, Quilty realized that using spreadsheets wasn’t cutting it. “That’s when we starting working on scripts to automate the data processing. It was trying to figure out how we’d manage all this data that really got things started. I was a biologist used to dealing with 30 or 40 samples a year, not per hour.”

They built a very lightweight version of the initial application, one good enough to sell into his professional network in BC. The real break came when they caught the attention of the US Geological Survey.

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At that time it wouldn’t scale to meet the needs of the largest water monitoring agency in the world, but they were invited to respond to a RFP calling to model the water flow of water in rivers. Quilty said “we bid, not thinking we’d win it, but to get the exposure and learning experience. Much to our surprise we won the $500,000 contract. We had six months to build it, and were only going to get paid at the end if we successfully delivered. Our chief scientist knocked it out of the park.”

In 2006 all of the USGS hydrologists and flow specialists across the US were introduced to Aquarius.

The AI application allows for the conversion of water level to water flow. This information is important in terms of water allocations for irrigation, dam operations, for drinking water, industry, and for fisheries. “You have all of these competing interests, farmers, fisherman, environmentalists, cities, fighting over water particularly in places like the Colorado River, other arid regions, and then you have issues around flooding,” Quilty told BetaKit. “It’s kind of like Goldilocks trying to right just the right balance.”

Think about the considerations of dam operators, where an inch of water can mean millions of dollars. “They’re constantly trying to do optimization of their reservoirs,” Quilty said. “They want to keep them as high as they can, but they have legal obligations to release water to people below, like fishermen and farmers. At the same time they’re trying to balance Mother Nature, throwing different scenarios at them like flood or drought conditions.”

Without data, without good science and quality information, good policy decisions can’t be made. For AI, it’s about breaking down the information silos. They’re focused on facilitating better communication and creating more efficient networks. Quilty said that “often you see organizations collecting information from the same watersheds and not knowing it. You end up with dense networks in some areas, and very sparse in others.

The value of sharing this data easily is at the core of good environmental management. And without the data there’s no chance of managing our resources well. The opportunity to have a positive global impact is massive: imagine helping prevent resource abuses, like giant lakes and aquifers being drained, as highlighted in this New York Times article about Iran’s Lake Urmia.

Quilty isn’t reserved in sharing the company big hairy audacious goal, “it’s about hosting and managing all of the planets environmental data. We’ll be bringing discrete water quality and groundwater information into the system, and moving into atmospheric, ocean, and soil data too.  It’s critical to be getting the right data from the right places, at the right time. I think about all of these sensors like EKG’s measuring the heartbeat of the whole planet, and we want to be part of optimizing it.”

This story originally appeared in BetaKit