British Columbia Will Have the Planet’s Smartest Coastline



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.


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.


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

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.

Solid Robot IMG_2396 IMG_2399 IMG_2422

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.

IMG_2408 IMG_2412

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.



Can Technology Save Us From Ourselves?


Reality is not universal. Mix one man’s factual with another’s fictional, and somewhere in that ether is another person’s reality of the moment.

When Marc Andreessen penned “Why Software Is Eating The World” in 2011, he didn’t share a vision of machines or devices. Contrast Andreessen’s reality with the dystopian world envisioned by James Cameron in 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, where a lot of stuff blew up. Here, man’s conflict with machine also serves as a cautionary tale.

For some people, the reality of this moment is found interacting with connected devices, or machines talking to machines. The internet is more than navigating web pages now: it’s a world of connected things. Bing’s Sr. Product Manager Duane Forrester sees this as a world of “using knowledge to empower objects – THAT is the internet of things.”

Forrester was one of many great speakers at the recent Wavefront Wireless Summit held in Vancouver. The event was three days of talk and thoughts about what is, and what could be. With over 500 attendees, a line-up of international thought leaders, and global business partners the event was true to it’s theme of “driving business transformation with wireless and mobility solutions.”


With two discussion tracks and so much content delivered it’s impossible to review every topic, conversation, and speaker. It’s also tough picking favourites. But on the heels of this year’s CES event that highlighted wearable technology, the connected home and vehicle, there was no shortage of “cool” consumer enabling technology discussion.

However, there was also serious conversations about significant issues relating to health care, transportation, energy, and agriculture. The entrepreneurs casting a lens beyond our first world problems, by taking a global perspective have enormous opportunities in front of them. There’s a huge part of the world that will never communicate through a strand of copper.

From Kenya, a Skype conversation with Jesse Moore, Managing Director at M-Kopa, illustrated this world of opportunity. Moore shared how machine-to-machine technology (M2M), mPayments and “old school” feature phones have lit up Kenya. While most of us take bank accounts and electricity for granted, that’s just not the case in much of the developing world.
Meanwhile, Gary Atkinson’s presentation challenged everyone to ponder the question, “Can Technology Save us from Ourselves?” Atkinson, the director of emerging technologies at Cambridge, UK’s ARM, offered that if technology is cheap enough, low-power enough and small enough, we need to better deploy it to solve big challenges. Atkinson is looking at how “little data” from sensors can help us make better decisions to improve crop yields, to detecting leaky water infrastructure, to better protecting people with chronic diseases.

We talked about how the use of technology can help better feed our world. He pointed out “we can barely feed and water ourselves today, and there will be two billion more people on the planet by 2050. We need to be able to scale up and increase the yields. Increasing the yields requires us to make better decisions, and be more intelligent about how we grow food on a hectare of land. To be more intelligent we need more measurement. We need a more granular understanding of one plot of land, not a general overview of 10,000 hectares. A couple of areas where technology will help, and precision agriculture and drip irrigation.”


In spite of having the technological potential, we still haven’t gotten to the point where end devices, that can sense, monitor, and communicate are cheap enough or are durable enough to last ten plus years. For many of the world’s farming operation, this technology is not yet economically worthwhile.

Silicon isn’t the constraint, being able to cheaply communicate data is. Atkinson said “we’re trying to use technology that was developed for humans to talk with humans. But, machines don’t need to be concerned about the whole availability of a network. This is where the design goals for Weightless SIG is about taking out everything that humans need (such as latency dependence, immediately available, relatively high bandwidth, clarity and cell-to-cell roaming). It’s about reducing base station and operational costs, as sensor technology for this type of application doesn’t need to be run on current cellular technology.”

It’s an interesting case of removing human-centred design considerations from the machine, and it will actually facilitate better human related outcomes. By creating a “dumber” network, and decreasing sensor costs by increasing the scale of adoption, the potential to better feed ourselves is an opportunity right in front us.

This article originally appeared in BetaKit