IDEA Fresh ideas to advance scientific and cultural literacy. Thu, 17 Sep 2020 17:50:36 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Gender role literacy: Girls in science? Wed, 05 Mar 2014 18:35:02 +0000
Pink + Legos = Girls
There are gender wars, and then there are casualties. It wasn’t until 2011 that the behemoth toymaker LEGO acknowledged girls’ desire to build with bricks, even though the company had long before made a seemingly effortless pivot to co-branding, video games, and major motion pictures. So it’s little wonder that girls face all-too-real obstacles when it comes to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields.
Are they Cheerleaders?
Sometimes the barrier is a matter of perception. In the Washington Post, Sara Sakowitz writes that her all-girls robotics team (above) was mistakenly identified as a group of cheerleaders. Sakowitz quoted astrophysicist Meg Urry, who said, “discrimination isn’t a thunderbolt, it isn’t an abrupt slap in the face. It’s the slow drumbeat of being unappreciated, feeling uncomfortable, and encountering roadblocks along the path to success.”
 National Girls Collaborative Project
That isn’t to say folks aren’t trying to improve STEM-related gender role literacy. The National Girls Collaborative Project has compiled a clearinghouse of projects and resources that collaborate to ignite girls’ interest in STEM related topics. Event the White House has launched a collaboration between the Offices of Science and Technology Policy and the Council on Women and Girls, saying that “Supporting women STEM students and researchers is not only an essential part of America’s strategy to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world; it is also important to women themselves.”

Although “STEM women” out-earn women in other types of jobs – a 33% boost over their sisters – the same percentage of women in STEM occupations feel isolated at work. The Huffington Post reports that “40 percent reported lacking role models, and 84 percent reported lacking sponsors or someone to help make their accomplishments visible throughout the organization.”

Computer Engineer Barbie Computer Engineer Barbie
Urry’s “slow drumbeat” could be keeping girls from entering fields that could provide them options both personal and professional. Columnist Mike Cassidy writes in the San Jose Mercury News, “The dearth of women in computing has the potential to slow the U.S. economy, which needs more students in the pipeline to feed its need for more programmers.” He notes that, between 2010 and 2020, there will be 1.4 million computer science jobs and only 400,000 qualified U.S. college graduates to fill them.

Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe points out that, in addition to generous compensation, the field of computer science offers flexibility. This flexibility is a natural fit for women – and men – who in the future may opt to work remotely while raising a family.

And when those young families are being raised, parents might want to consider having their daughters play with STEM-friendly toys. LEGO could be a start, or, as the New York Times reports, steering girls toward computer engineer Barbie, Robot Girl Lottie, or a Roominate engineering kit may start to break down some of the roadblocks and challenge gender roles when it comes to science, math, engineering, and technology.

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Challenges of crowdsourcing: Analysis of Historypin Mon, 09 Dec 2013 15:36:37 +0000 Historypin globeCrowdsourcing can build virtual community, engage the public, and build large knowledge databases about science and culture. But what does it take, and how fast can you grow?

Historypin logoFor some insight, we look at a crowdsourced history site: Historypin is an appealing database of historical photos, with dates, locations, captions, and other metadata. It’s called History “pin” because the photos are pinned on a map. (See recent article about Changes over time, in photos and maps.) Some locations have photos from multiple dates, showing how a place has changed over time, or cross-referenced with Google Maps StreetView. Currently, Historypin has 308k items, from 51k users, and 1.4k institutions. This is a graph of pins over the last three years:

Pins on Historypin, 2010-2013

Aside from a change in their growth rate in early 2012, growth is linear. Since new users are always being added, the linear rate of content growth means users are losing interest. The following are activity rates:

Daily activity at Historypin in 2013

These graphs show some trends:

  • New users: In early 2013, Historypin was pulling in around 23 new users a day, and that rate nearly doubled by late summer. But there was a precipitous fall in July 2013, and Historypin currently averages 17 new users per day.
  • New institutions: This rate is more consistent, hovering around two new institutions per day. This rate will eventually limit as they saturate the market.
  • Daily pins: Between personal and institutional users, and ignoring a one-time spike in May 2013, the rate of new contributions hovers around 200-300 items per day.

How much do users participate? Users can join for many reasons; e.g., to contribute, to be able to make favorites (bookmarks), of curiosity, or because they are spammers. As with many sites, most users are dormant, with just a few users doing most of the activity. The following are the number of pins posted per user:

Pins per user

Four out of five users never post a photo, and 9% only upload one image. The remaining 12% are enumerated in the above-right graph (starting at the top clockwise).

Not another drop in the bucket

It can be thankless to contribute to a crowdsourcing site, so successful projects provide a broader context and community. Historypin illustrates some good practices.

One strategy is to have themes. Rather than generic task (“do stuff”), a theme narrows the scope (“do stuff about the San Francisco Bay”). For example, here are three current Historypin themes:

Historypin projects

DIY HistoryThemes are also used by the DIY History site from University of Iowa Libraries, where volunteers have been recruited to transcribe 37,507 handwritten pages of stories of Civil War soldiers and their families, of Iowa women making lives for themselves and their communities, and other themes like cookbooks, women’s lives, and the machinations of railroad barons. In DIY history, they have a large archive collection, organized into these themes.

Here’s one of their letters, which needs transcription:

A letter for transcription about transcription

Narrow themes create a manageable and achievable workload, offsetting the drudgery of transcription, and providing satisfaction to volunteers.

Other good features

Old WeatherProjects must have robust, easy to use technology so that volunteers can easily get started and participate.

Also, draw on gamefication principles: Keep it fun and satisfying, include some challenge and sense of accomplishments. Old Weather has a clear process. It’s clear how to get involved, and easy to follow individual and project progress.

Follow vesselsChoose your voyage by joining a vesselIllustrations_2Digitise pagesEarn points on each ship. Every page countsIllustrations_3Get promotedWork your way up from Cadet to Lieutenant and even become Captain

Another motivator for contributors is to have tangible outcomes or context. For example, Old Weather has tangible outcomes, providing Arctic and worldwide weather observations which are fed into climate models of past environmental conditions; and tracking past ship movements so historians can tell the stories of the people on board.

Papers of the War DepartmentAppeal and ease of use matters. A similar idea, “Papers of the War Department” from the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University is progressing much slower, with 1.6k registered users (since June 2010), and approximately 200 people volunteering on the site per three month period. Volunteers have transcribed approx 4 thousand (out of 43k total) documents. At this rate, the Mason project will be done in 30 years. Check out their site, and you’ll see how it falls flat.

So what’s happening with Historypin?

SadpinHistorypin is not growing exponentially. It’s not viral. Rather, Historypin’s rates of new users, new content, and new content per user have been falling in 2013. Here are a few theories:

  • Failure to tap a nerve – Not many people care to help stick photo pins on a map, despite their themed projects. Some ideas don’t stick.
  • Hasn’t reached a critical density – The earth has 149 million square kilometers of land. London is 1.5k square kilometers. A density of 1 photo per square kilometer would be require ~500x more pins.
  • Monolingual – Historypin wants to have a global community, but the site is exclusively English. It’s not hard to translate a user interface. (See our 2012 article about outsourcing translations.)
  • Closed system – There’s no way to export your content, link it to another system, nor is there an API. Similarly, they did not pursue a way for institutions to use their site on the backend, e.g., for a historical society in a small town to create a local site on their platform.
  • We Are What We DoQuestionable owner & future – The absence of clear funding sources undermines confidence in the long term prospects. Historypin was created by We Are What We Do, a “not-for-profit behaviour change company.” Their other projects range from branding a series of plastic shopping bags for a British retailer, to embroidered napkins with Tweets. The sole mention of a funding source for Historypin is a vague comment about support from Google.
  • Bugs – Most of the technology on the Historypin site is slick and polished, but the core action of browsing photos on a map is buggy and awkward unless you zoom in close. Their mobile app is criticized by many users for being buggy and inadequate.

It’s a shame, because they are doing lots of things right, with a visually appealing site, an active and authentic blog, smooth technology, a mobile app, and some social media (Twitter, Facebook) to give contributors a sense of what’s new. In August 2013, Historypin acquired a smaller, similar project, LookBackMaps, but that has not boosted activity.

Invaluable labor

These considerations are important because crowdsourcing with volunteers has strong potential to deliver two kinds of content:

(a) Content which requires human judgement. For example, transcription projects focus on documents which are impossible to digitize automatically with OCR, but cost prohibitive to be transcribed by paid staff. Volunteers to the rescue! Once digitized, the documents become more vital, searchable in full text, read online, cross-referenced and mined by researchers. Fascinating insights can be extracted from large amounts of historical text.

(b) Content in which volunteers have unique knowledge. For example, the beauty of Historypin is that so much of the world’s photographic history is owned by individuals. When people share these old photos, scanning their family albums and the like, many other, interesting questions can be asked and explored.

What do you think?

What other crowdsourced projects in science and culture should folks know about? And what do you think are key ingredients for success?

Data source: Statistics from the home page and site of HistoryPin and other projects, over time.

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Dinovember: Creative literacy starts young Mon, 18 Nov 2013 17:01:51 +0000 Welcome to Dinovember“Uh-oh,” Refe Tuma heard his girls whisper. “Mom and Dad are not going to like this.”

It’s Dinovember, and his family’s plastic dinosaurs have been getting into mischief all month. Every year, Tuma and his wife devote the month of November to “convincing our children that, while they sleep, their plastic dinosaur figures come to life. 

“Why do we do this?,” says Tuma, “Because in the age of iPads and Netflix, we don’t want our kids to lose their sense of wonder and imagination. In a time when the answers to all the world’s questions are a web-search away, we want our kids to experience a little mystery.”

They had managed to breach the refrigerator and help themselves to a carton of eggs:

Mom and Dad are not going to like this

We live in a society where too much “creative expression” is varnished consumption. Express yourself wearing brand name clothes, and personalizing your hamburger. Real creativity is a whole different animal, or dinosaur. As educational organizations, we need to help inspire parents to dig into creativity while kids are young. From historical dress-up to science experiments to pure fantasy. Tuma’s project is a great example, and I hope it takes off.

The previous morning, the dinos had climbed onto the kitchen counter to raid the fruit bowl.

dinos had climbed onto the kitchen counter to raid the fruit bowl

Even the dinosaurs are creative. Here they made him look like Barney:

like barney

“All it takes is some time and energy, creativity, and a few plastic dinosaurs,” says Tuma.

Check out his full article with lots more dino shenanigans.


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Drones put a face on nature and culture Fri, 01 Nov 2013 16:38:13 +0000 A new generation of small video cameras and consumer robotic helicopters make amazing video shots possible. Stick your phone on a drone for enchanting views of the natural world, architecture, museums, and more. Here’s a cool new video flying a drone around the NY public library:


That was shot by Nate Bolt with a DJI Phantom quad-copter and both a GoPro Hero3 Black and an iPhone 5S. Slowed down with Twixtor in After Effects to make up for the glaring lack of a Gimbal.

A stunning video taken over Niagara Falls this past summer with the same helicopter (watch this one full-screen):


Not as lovely, here’s an example of flying the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Gateway Arch and the Museum Court house in St. Louis with a turbo Ace X830 helicopter. This has potential, but the blades hurt the effect.


Inside the Australian Museum is a charming, short view of the collection from Journeys to the Deep. However, the shots are shaky. The stabilization methods used in the above library example are important.


Drone regulations vary by locality, but is generally legal within height and distance limits from the operator.

Not only are the results a fresh view of scenes, lending an appealing aerial perspective, but audiences are now used to complex camera shots on television and film, so  step up your game with your visuals.

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What are the most important articles in Wikipedia? Tue, 29 Oct 2013 04:25:05 +0000 WikipediaWikipedia has 4,362,397 articles in English.  But how many of those are seriously encyclopedic, and what are the most important articles?

We’ve been looking closely at Wikipedia for an upcoming app. We wanted to know the most important articles. We calculated an importance score for every article, based on how richly linked a Wikipedia article is within Wikipedia (the number and quality of links to a page), how many languages an article has been translated into, the brevity of the title, how popular an articles is (web hits), and the number of citations/references of an article (scholarliness).

The following are our results. This is an arbitrary, but interesting ranking, so we wanted to share it:

Top 100 English Wikipedia articles:

France, Germany, Canada, Australia, England, United_States, China, Japan, Russia, London, Italy, India, Animal, Poland, Brazil, Iran, Spain, California, Romania, Europe, Mexico, Sweden, Scotland, Switzerland, Netherlands, Turkey, Israel, Paris, Philippines, Pakistan, Norway, United_Kingdom, Insect, Indonesia, Denmark, Greece, Arthropod, Belgium, Chicago, Syria, Texas, Argentina, Marriage, Singapore, Egypt, Malaysia, Austria, Ukraine, Taiwan, Virginia, Islam, Wales, Finland, Florida, Ireland, Philadelphia, Portugal, Rome, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Latin, Bird, Boston, Pennsylvania, YouTube, Hungary, Serbia, Vietnam, Berlin, Plant, Quebec, Buddhism, Croatia, Massachusetts, Christianity, Bulgaria, World_War_II, Thailand, Facebook, Protein, Earth, Africa, Chile, Village, Species, Iraq, Colombia, Burma, Slovenia, Toronto, Moscow, Cuba, Mathematics, BBC, Montreal, Fungus, Peru, Chordate, Estonia


Jesus, Jews, Nigeria, Lepidoptera, Ontario, Slavery, Ohio, Sydney, Illinois, Napoleon, Basketball, Melbourne, Maryland, Internet, Human, Tokyo, Jazz, Lebanon, Mumbai, Nepal, Istanbul, Bangladesh, Agriculture, Google, Asia, Seattle, Hawaii, Beijing, Warsaw, Iceland, Athens, Philosophy, Venezuela, Atlanta, Michigan, Jerusalem, English_language, Detroit, Cyprus, Guitar, Ethiopia, Vienna, NASA, Kenya, Mollusca, Morocco, Minnesota, Cricket, Association_football, Hinduism, Slovakia, Oxygen, Amsterdam, Bacteria, Algeria, Enzyme, Manhattan, Microsoft, Prague, Alaska, Edinburgh, Television, Belarus, Judaism, Milan, Kerala, Latvia, Vancouver, Mammal, Census, Tennis, DNA, Madrid, Economics, New_York_City, Houston, Oregon, New_Zealand, Baseball, Cancer, Copenhagen, Moon, Barcelona, Dublin, NATO, Manchester, Armenia, Wisconsin, Lithuania, Liverpool, Protestantism, Gene, Madagascar, Indiana, Ecuador, Muhammad, Gold, Sun, Law, Alabama


Hangul, Renaissance, Nazism, Physics, Linux, Bible, Budapest, Water, Hydrogen, Albania, Malta, Baltimore, City, Science, Louisiana, Colorado, Birmingham, Soviet_Union, Antarctica, Stockholm, Jordan, World_War_I, Uruguay, Evolution, HIV/AIDS, Jamaica, Singing, Communism, Somalia, Glasgow, Education, Tanzania, Bolivia, Film, Arizona, Pittsburgh, Kentucky, Libya, Luxembourg, Missouri, Wikipedia, Connecticut, Tuberculosis, Ghana, Euro, Kolkata, Sociology, Alberta, Psychology, Twitter, Novel, Sanskrit, Oklahoma, Zimbabwe, Socialism, Shanghai, Kazakhstan, Aristotle, Anime, UNESCO, Dallas, Religion, Dubai, Dog, Ottawa, Mars, Yemen, Venice, Hamburg, Sicily, South_Africa, Greenland, Delhi, Copper, Asteroid, Biology, Quran, Fish, Los_Angeles, Rice, Munich, Seoul, Catholic_Church, CBS, Watt, Chennai, Miami, Cambodia, Archaeology, Actor, Tennessee, Belgrade, Tunisia, New_York, Atheism, Pope, Christmas, Cameroon, Genus, Vermont


Computer, Caribbean, Brooklyn, European_Union, Democracy, Oslo, Utah, DVD, Iron, Bangkok, Florence, Ecology, Aluminium, History, Frog, Music, Moldova, Chemistry, Horse, Language, God, Sudan, Mongolia, Iowa, Uganda, Denver, Austria-Hungary, Lisbon, Automobile, Qatar, Jakarta, Naples, Nevada, Maize, Panama, Fascism, Maine, Kuwait, Arkansas, Cat, Malaria, Haiti, Medicine, Augustus, Star, Kiev, Dinosaur, Hindi, Beetle, Mississippi, Newspaper, San_Francisco, Lutheranism, Sugar, Amphibian, Moth, Brussels, Damascus, Muslim, Album, Cleveland, Piano, Bahrain, Midfielder, Reptile, Eminem, Nicaragua, Cairo, Hong_Kong, Plato, Korea, Germans, Culture, Maharashtra, IBM, South_Korea, Bristol, Petroleum, Homosexuality, NBC, Minneapolis, Macau, Guatemala, Angola, Monaco, Uzbekistan, Manitoba, Manila, Bavaria, Karnataka, United_Nations, Astronomy, Tree, River, Namibia, Belfast, Kansas, Spanish_language, Poetry, Geneva


University, Americas, Frankfurt, Laos, Charlemagne, Electron, Al-Qaeda, Population, Queensland, Virus, Bangalore, Brisbane, Engineering, Blues, Wheat, Submarine, Hollywood, Barack_Obama, Calgary, Cornwall, Sri_Lanka, IPhone, Poverty, Cologne, Blog, Chess, Atom, Steel, Scandinavia, Cardiff, Snake, Shiva, Helsinki, Carbon, Rock_music, Globalization, Zinc, Suicide, Prussia, Mali, Catholicism, Roman_Empire, Fruit, Linguistics, Manga, Fiji, Middle_Ages, Eukaryote, Radio, Brain, Tehran, Canberra, Edmonton, Milk, Coal, Perth, Alps, Liberia, Stroke, Kosovo, Coffee, Anthropology, Cincinnati, Theology, Municipality, Lion, Pneumonia, Crusades, Hertz, Government, Catalonia, Montenegro, Capitalism, Milwaukee, Cattle, Honduras, Wyoming, North_America, Mauritius, French_language, Oman, Food, Electricity, Bucharest, Volleyball, Vikings, Christian, Auckland, Sheep, Lawyer, Liberalism, Telecommunication, Tourism, Ethanol, Elephant, Gujarat, Winnipeg, Kyrgyzstan, Gibraltar, Earthquake


Volcano, Paraguay, Feminism, Turin, Sculpture, MTV, Lake, Senegal, Freemasonry, Painting, Butterfly, Beirut, Saskatchewan, Jupiter, Bhutan, Boxing, Advertising, Silver, Marxism, HIV, Adelaide, Siberia, Marseille, Czechoslovakia, Ottoman_Empire, Brunei, Nebraska, Karachi, Gastropoda, Golf, Urdu, Idaho, Constantinople, Forest, Wine, Mesopotamia, Theatre, Endemism, Baghdad, Oxford, Technology, Nitrogen, Leeds, Anatolia, Delaware, War, Palestine, Belize, Sony, Bollywood, Statistics, Tasmania, Schizophrenia, Johannesburg, Art, Terrorism, Suriname, Stuttgart, Mozambique, Pregnancy, Lead, Racism, Intel, Wii, Toyota, Potato, Vietnam_War, Temperature, Geology, American_Civil_War, Thessaloniki, Greeks, Opera, Biodiversity, Guam, Bermuda, Zambia, Photography, Beer, Extinction, Czech_Republic, Spider, Saudi_Arabia, Balkans, American_football, Rihanna, Barbados, Sport, Desert, Ultraviolet, Cambridge, Anarchism, Email, Baptism, Antisemitism, Java, Kent, Indianapolis, German_language, Politics


Mecca, Drama, Jainism, Sufism, Moses, Metallica, Tibet, Sheffield, Ecosystem, Taliban, Metabolism, Conservatism, Batman, Algorithm, Crete, Cocaine, Alcohol, New_Jersey, Planet, Celts, Zagreb, Honolulu, Coca-Cola, Lyon, Mountain, Venus, Vertebrate, Abortion, Bat, Violin, Romanticism, Maldives, Sofia, Yorkshire, Superman, Honda, Nintendo, Havana, Meat, Anglicanism, Republic, Inflation, Guyana, Ammonia, Jay-Z, Geography, Fossil, Copyright, Neolithic, Sulfur, Sharia, Energy, Helicopter, Mineral, Guangzhou, Genetics, Blood, Ship, Obesity, Diamond, Cold_War, Smallpox, Osaka, Bishop, Yahoo!, Yugoslavia, Chad, Library, Physician, Bratislava, Tajikistan, Andalusia, Asphalt, Ethics, Red, Methodism, HBO, Lima, Professor, Town, Prostitution, Apple, Writer, Puerto_Rico, Blue, Tax, Taoism, Liver, CNN, Time, Sardinia, HTML, Myspace, Architecture, Hydroelectricity, Taipei, Potassium, William_Shakespeare, George_Washington, Pinyin


Uranium, Riga, Hypertension, Ljubljana, Cotton, Bihar, Wiki, Wellington, Calcium, X-ray, ITunes, Soil, Elizabeth_II, Quakers, Macintosh, Mayor, Honey, Flower, Alcoholism, Satire, Country, Assam, Lancashire, Walmart, Soybean, Himalayas, Concrete, Asthma, Mining, Antwerp, Lahore, Baku, Gospel, Montevideo, Feudalism, Castle, Allmusic, WWE, Genoa, Police, Calvinism, Yoga, Primate, Alexandria, Saturn, Eritrea, Saint_Petersburg, Krishna, Homer, Lesbian, Barley, Dresden, Antibacterial, Logic, Baptists, Turkmenistan, Ant, Mitochondrion, Rape, Strasbourg, Leipzig, Judo, Kidney, Bali, Tiger, Nationalism, Mythology, Heart, Disease, Botswana, Seville, Dhaka, Salt, Insurance, Algae, Michael_Jackson, Malayalam, BMW, Unicode, Sodium, Tobacco, Satellite, Oak, Patent, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Banana, Harvard_University, Bank, Rapping, IPad, PHP, Byzantine_Empire, Organism, Vilnius, Mosque, Santiago, Sparta, Marketing, Mahabharata, Slavs


Synthesizer, Transylvania, Talmud, Book, Nokia, Malawi, French_Revolution, Magnesium, Glacier, Rajasthan, Danube, Constitution, Cher, Hewlett-Packard, Cheese, Tea, Crustacean, Liechtenstein, Dorset, Software, Agnosticism, Photosynthesis, Northern_Ireland, Anatomy, Flowering_plant, Nile, Guinea, Infrared, Oceania, Helium, Gothenburg, Rotterdam, Sarajevo, Wi-Fi, North_Korea, Ronald_Reagan, Immigration, Friends, Easter, Apollo, Glass, Goa, Sex, Queens, Cholera, Geometry, Plastic, Ocean, Muscle, Reggae, Microsoft_Windows, FIFA, Andorra, Russians, Tallinn, Autism, EMI, Gravitation, Smartphone, Shark, Pornography, Olympic_Games, Tram, Tornado, York, Xinjiang, Website, Vegetarianism, Influenza, Ancient_Rome, UEFA, Limestone, Database, Sea, Leaf, Zoroastrianism, Universe, Motorcycle, Politician, Museum, Chromosome, Trinity, Samoa, Torah, Hezbollah, Bologna, Bill_Clinton, Death, Rhine, Deforestation, Nickel, Romanization, Vagina, Abraham_Lincoln, Metal, Eucharist, Burundi, Southampton, Akbar, Thermodynamics


Bordeaux, Zeus, Dam, Paleontology, Baroque, Assyria, Passerine, Tomato, Light, Greek_language, Rodent, Habitat, Surrey, Biochemistry, Airport, Hamlet, Saxophone, Murder, Galaxy, Unemployment, Somerset, Basel, RNA, Continent, Benin, Adolescence, Nairobi, Erosion, Cicero, Niger, Aberdeen, Titanium, Brittany, Andes, Family, Rain, Mauritania, Comet, Arabic_language, North_Carolina, Bicycle, Photon, Pop_music, Korean_War, Chicken, Metre, Ganges, EBay, Devon, Wood, Orchidaceae, Kabul, Jersey, Radar, Hamas, Synthpop, Monocotyledon, Odisha, Area, Life, JavaScript, Communication, Refugee, Inflammation, Herodotus, Gabon, Confucianism, PH, Pluto, Kilogram, Aesthetics, Spider-Man, Michelangelo, Nottingham, Amtrak, United_States_dollar, Mercedes-Benz, Flute, Islamabad, Penis, LGBT, Vanuatu, Teacher, Island, Population_density, Ankara, Unix, White, Tin, Chlorine, Zionism, Military, Latitude, Laser, Firefox, IOS, Tuscany, Phosphorus, Comedy, Science_fiction, Research

Other notes

No ranking is perfect, and importance is subjective. Some people will want to have more asteroids or car models, others will want more football players or music albums. However, the above listing is relatively stable — meaning if we adjust the relative weights of various factors, the articles will reshuffle a little, but the list looks basically the same.

Another side effect of ranking Wikipedia articles is that we can evaluate the signal to noise ratio. Very loosely speaking, we believe that approximately half a million Wikipedia articles are solid Encyclopedic topics. The remaining 3.8 million tend to include geographical locations (e.g., a town in Siberia), popular culture artifacts (music albums, old TV shows), lesser companies, politicians and sports figures and other people. Often the lowest-ranking articles were wikispam, and were already removed from Wikipedia by dutiful Wikipedia editors.


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I have a PowerPoint Thu, 29 Aug 2013 18:51:51 +0000 PPTWords matter. And so does presentation. Fifty years ago, this week, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech. But what if King eschewed wordiness, and instead delivered a slideshow? What could it look like?

A few years ago, William Easterly Professor of Economics, New York University, drafted a powerpoint, mocking presentation software and the “evocative jargon used by ‘social entrepreneurs’ trying to change things.” Let’s compare:


King speakingI am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation…

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.




…And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.




I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

…And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”



In a similar manner, Peter Norvig created a presentation for Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address on 19 November 1863.


Lincoln speakingFour score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.




But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.



Now, it’s not strictly fair to blame Powerpoint and the culture of jargon-filled, soulless presentations which emerged through the 1990’s and last decade, which have been famously lambasted by Edward Tufte and others. Powerpoint is simply a tool, which can be used to good or bad effect.

But words do matter.

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Changes over time, in photos and maps Wed, 21 Aug 2013 13:53:04 +0000 Muir Glacier, AlaskaImages gain new meaning when given the context of location or change. Two sites, from NASA and HistoryPin do this to good effect — such as showing the the dramatic melting of the Muir glacier in Alaska, or how a city evolves.

Launched in autumn 2011 by a British nonprofit, HistoryPin pins historical items on a map. Their service demonstrates the potential for a global, crowdsourced database of historical media.

HistoryPinHistoryPin now boasts 277,348 items. Their aim is to encourage a broad audience to take part in local and global history, help people feel closer to the places they live, to conserve and open up global archives, and to become a large global archive of human history. So far, they’re off to a good start. Many cities have several dozen pins, and a few large cities have hundreds.

The challenge of global coverage

In the United Kingdom, HistoryPin’s home country, they have ~50k pins now. Some of those pins are cross-referenced with Google’s street view. For example, here are Elvis impersonators in Westminster, London, in 2006, superimposed on a current street view scene:

Elvis Lives !!! Westminster, London, UK 2006

Despite the apparently high numbers, HistoryPin’s growth appears to be flatlining. They drew ~20k users in the few few months of 2011, helped by glowing press coverage at launch, but only at 30k more users in the last two years. They have 1,353 institutions registered, but few institutions are doing large-scale uploads. It’s unclear why growth is poor. The site is easy to use, and the usage terms are reasonable. They have a web site, as well as Android and iOS apps. One possible problem is that it’s unclear what the long-term future of HistoryPin is, so it’s not necessarily worth investing a lot of time. Also, they have a closed system, with no way to export content back out.

Growth needs to be exponential if HistoryPin has any hope of carpeting the globe. Relative to the U.K.’s 94k square miles of landmass, HistoryPin has barely 1 item for every two square miles. In London’s 607 square miles, HistoryPin has ~390 pins, again, barely 1 pin for every two square miles. HistoryPin would need at least 100x more pins to have serious global coverage. (For a sense of the scale needed for a global view, as of last year, Google Street View had photographed over 5 million miles of unique streets, covering 39 countries and about 3,000 cities, and they are rapidly expanding that.)

Nevertheless, the concept is compelling. Here’s an image from HistoryPin of a train station in Tuscon, Arizona, USA:

Southern Pacific Train Station 419 W Congress St, Tucson, AZ 85701, USA 1923

And here’s an image of the same building, 9 decades later, from Google Street View. It is now a restaurant:

Google Street View, from site of the Southern Pacific Train Station

Going global — from space

A global view is available from satellites. Here is a comparison of Tucson in summery 1984 (left) vs 2011 (right) from NASA’s State of Flux gallery, which posts weekly comparison images from satellites and land-based cameras.

Tucson, Arizona

Tucson, in the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona, is one of the oldest continually inhabited areas of North America, with evidence of settlements 3,000 years ago. As with many western cities, Tucson was organized on a grid pattern, which can be seen from space. The side-by-side photos show that the city has grown quickly over the past 30 years. Indeed, population in the greater Tucson area has increased from about 600,000 in 1980 to more than one million in 2011. Expansion has been largely in the eastern region since mountains on the north, west and south restrict development.

State of FluxThe State of Flux site is run by Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and California Institute of Technology. It is a convenient launching pad for educators and the general public interested in change. The time periods range from  centuries to days. Some are related to climate change, urbanization, or the ravage of natural hazards such as fires and floods.

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Online courses for developing the developing world Mon, 29 Jul 2013 20:58:22 +0000 Bangladesh laptop userOnline education can have a real impact in the developing world. Last week, we needed to hire a programmer for a small freelance job. To my surprise, several candidates advertised they had completed programming MOOCs. These were young programmers in their 20’s, in countries like Pakistan and Thailand, who lacked college-level coursework, but are trying to launch freelancing careers based on online courses.

Online courses and MOOCs may be a poor substitute for in-person learning with a charismatic teacher, but they are light-years better than nothing, and are particularly relevant for higher education and specific skills, when students are self-motivated.

Universities, professional organizations, and educational nonprofits should keep these audiences in mind when developing new, free curricula.

It’s a huge audience. Billions of people lack the knowledge and skills gained by a college education. The following map shows the fraction of people enrolled in college or university, relative to the number of college-age teens and young adults:

Gross enrolment ratio. Tertiary (ISCED 5 and 6). Total is the total enrollment in tertiary education (ISCED 5 and 6), regardless of age, expressed as a percentage of the total population of the five-year age group following on from secondary school leaving.

Most countries fail to give their citizens a college education. Any country in the map which is not dark red is not college-educating a large proportion of it’s citizens. (The statistics exceed 100% when there are many adult-age students in school.)

But as more and more of the population is online, particularly via mobile devices, there are real possibilities for online learning.

Education in Swaziland is not required and it is not free for the majority of students.

In an extreme example, tiny Swaziland (landlocked within South Africa) has 1.2 million citizens, but only one university (serving <6000 undergrads, relative to ~120k young adults of college age). Like many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Swaziland’s school system allows few students to advance to secondary school or college. Of the 20 kids in the above photo, maybe one kid will go to college. However, in 2011, 18% of the Swaziland population was using the internet. Could they learn online?

Similarly in Asia, Bangladesh has ~150 million citizens. 43% of the population over age 15 is literate. There are 88 universities, educating 277k post secondary students — only 13% of the college-age citizens. Internet is used by 22% of the population (33 million people), mostly via their mobile phones. (Mobile internet is the only internet most places outside the capital Dhaka.) Can Bangladeshis learn meaningful skills online?

Some could. If we make more online courses available.

More statistics

The education statistics in Sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia are particularly grim. College educations in Malawi, Niger, and Chad hover around 1-2%. Madagascar is 4%. This is highly correlated to the wealth of a country.

This measure, the Gross enrollment ratio (GER) is the ratio of the undergrads to college-aged citizens. Here is a graph of GER vs. per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a measure of the economic strength of a country:

Tertiary GER vs. GDP/per capita    

The overal diagonal trend is that richer countries send more of their students to college. Curiously, there are outliers, such as wealthy Qatar which has only 12% tertiary GER due to other social factors which suppress education in their society.

Another way to look at this is to see how many high school students continue to college. In no society does everyone go to college. The following graph compares the fraction of society that goes to high school vs. college, in countries worldwide:

High school grads that don't go to college

In the orange triangle above, potentially college-educated adults have their dreams squashed. For example, in the Arab world, 69% of society goes to high school and 23% to college; in developing sub-Saharan Africa, 41% of the population goes to high school and 8% go to college; in east Asia and the Pacific, 80% go to high school but only 30% go to college.

Technology itself is not the answer

Brazilian class using One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) computers.

Brazilian class using One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) computers.

Of course, any dream that technology can conquer educational disparities needs a serious reality check. One of the more notable failures is the One Laptop per Child project, led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Nicholas Negroponte. Despite their claims that by distributing $100 laptops, “we have seen two million previously marginalized children learn, achieve and begin to transform their communities.” In 2012, two separate studies — one in Nepal and the other in Peru — concluded that kids using the computers gained little or no benefit in terms of improved language or math skills or school attendance.

But that does not mean we should not try. Cheap laptops, tablets, and internet-connected smart phones are proliferating at an amazing rate.  More online courses, with substantial, meaningful content — delivered to these students online — can make a difference for increasing numbers of learners who otherwise lack any real options.

The internet has demonstrated profound power to reshape societies, with social media fueling the protests of the Arab Spring. When classrooms are unavailable or limited, online courses are a huge deal. An online course has a clear curriculum, delivers content with text, audio, videos and/or interactivity, and provides some type of assessment. — And can potentially make a difference to millions.

Source: Graph of tertiary enrollment and other stats from UNESCO. In the GER map, countries in white don’t have current statistics from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

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NASA boldly redesigns web site for 2005 Mon, 01 Jul 2013 15:13:37 +0000 NASA LogoNASA redesigned their web site, with a magnificent failure of design by committee. It is a failure of content (eliminated the most interesting details about the science and engineering), a failure of organization (poorly consolidated types of content, such as multimedia and interactive features), and failure of implementation (site does not resize for small-screen smart phones, and failed to make popup menus work correctly on tablets).

Here’s the new home page:

New NASA Web Site

The link “For students” doesn’t  go to a page with information for young minds who dream of space and exploration — rather, it links to a promo of a high-level NASA bureaucrat Leland Melvin receiving an award. Meanwhile, they eliminated the kinds of dreamy topics (space station, solar system, beyond earth) which were directly linked from the old home page.

Screen Shot 2013-07-01 at 10.41.14 AM

Leland looks interesting, and it’s good that NASA is featuring smart black professionals on their site, but this particular story about Leland is hardly going to excite a 13 year old kid on summer break who happens to surf the NASA site.

Another important failure is the false differentiation of types of content based on specifications of the department which produces them. At the same time that leading web sites like Facebook and Twitter, as well as major news outlets, are blurring the lines between text, photos, short and long videos, and audio content, NASA is taking a step backward under the delusion that the public thinks “images,” “multimedia,” and “sciencecasts” are different things, or cares:

Images and multimedia

Meanwhile, lead screen real estate is given to “events”, which links to a calendar filled with empty months, and uninformative events metadata. These are not even real events, like Google+ hangouts with top scientists and former astronauts: They are merely anniversaries, such as the anniversary of the Mars Rover launch of 2003.

Month of NASA Events

All in all, the new NASA site is a hugely missed opportunity to inspire and inform the public, as well as serve the multitude of stakeholders. It was obviously designed from a hugely introverted view of internal departments and procedures. It also may reflect the poor use of surveys to plan a site redesign. For example, survey respondents might say they want “images” and “multimedia” on the new site, but that does not mean the site should be designed using those particular navigational labels.

They make a nice attempt, but incomplete, to substantially integrate with various social media channels. The problem is that social media should be more pervasively integrated, and not put in silos which are linked away. Blogs are arbitrarily differentiated from news releases. Audio podcasts are arbitrarily differentiated from other multimedia. And mobile is still an afterthought in the underfunded, underdeveloped, NASA slideshow apps.

Some other federal goverment web sites are doing better. The White House, recently redesigned Weather (NOAA), and Census Bureau are among the best. Maybe NASA can do better too.

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What is fan fiction? Wed, 05 Jun 2013 18:11:30 +0000 Fan fictionWho owns art and culture? Does it belong to the artist? The legal property owner? Or the society that loves and appreciates it? Traditionally, old art is considered public, and new art is copyrighted. Anyone can write a new twist on Romeo and Juliet, or mashup the Mona Lisa with a mustache. But what if Harry Potter opened a lemonade stand? Or Luke Skywalker had a twin bother?

Fan fiction (or ‘FanFic’) is a retelling our favorite stories, just as humans have always retold myths and legends. It is mostly an amateur phenomenon, featuring characters from movies, TV shows, and popular culture in new situations or adventures. FanFic authors recombine established characters, “worlds” (i.e., the setting or universe of the original stories) and histories (the original events) from current works. Authors may also add new characters, new worlds and new histories, and extend minor characters and story elements of the originals.

FanFic can be easily dismissed because there’s a lot of garbage (and a lot of porn), but there are a lot of gems too.

The world of fan fiction and fan art is huge — exploding in recent years as the internet makes it easy to for fan writers and readers to publish, share and connect.

Graph of Fan fiction stories on FanFiction.Net 

The largest fan-fiction site,, hosts millions of works, based on books, TV shows, movies, comics and more. The site hosts over 644k stories based on Harry Potter, and over 210k based on Twilight. There’s a thriving midlist too, with around 10k stories for topics like the Phantom of the Opera and Gossip Girl; plus a long tail, with 49 items based on Treasure Island and 9 for Curious George (e.g., Curious George and the Pizza). Many other sites cater to specific fandoms, including harrypotterfanfiction and twilighted, for “Twilight” fan fiction, and many other self publishing sites.

Wingfic: Sherlock with wings, illustration by Alice X. Zhang

Wingfic: Sherlock with wings, illustration by Alice X. Zhang

FanFic serves niche audiences with a never-ending appetite for new twists and scenarios. Like any booming literary subculture, FanFic has its own rules, lingo, cliques and tropes. The subgenre “denialfic” is for stories with alternate endings or gross plot changes (e.g., a character does not die), “wingfic” where all the characters have wings, and “futurefic” transplants characters into the future. A large body of writing involves crossovers, such as taking characters from Star Trek into J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

The writers are not motivated by money. In fact, fan fiction is almost exclusively unpaid. It’s a hobby for most writers, and their reward is readership and feedback from readers. Moreover, FanFic stays legit by being noncommercial. By not selling stories, since FanFic is inherently a form of criticism, and is generally transformative (creating different persona and events for characters), authors stay squarely under the protection of Fair Use. “Especially for noncommercial stuff, fair use offers plenty of protection [for fan works] now,” says Professor Rebecca Tushnet, professor at the Georgetown University Law Center.

But income could be nice. “There’s probably not an author/fangirl alive who hasn’t fantasized about being able to write about her favorite show. The fact that you can earn royalties doing so makes it even better,” says FanFic author Trish Milburn, who writes on The Vampire Diaries.

Kindle WorldsLast week, Amazon threw a new twist into the equation with “Kindle Worlds,” a new self publishing site for FanFic authors. Amazon Publishing will pay royalties to both the rights holder of the original work and the authors of the new works. Authors will earn 35% of the net revenue for works of >10,000 words, and 20% for short stories of  5,000 – 10,000 words. The profit split between Amazon and the rights holder is not disclosed. Porn is not allowed. And crossovers from other Worlds are no permitted. Other KindleWorlds authors can build on prior work of any other Worlds author. Amazon Publishing will set the price for Kindle Worlds stories. Most will be priced from $0.99 through $3.99.

This is a fantastic entry point for FanFic authors who want a mechanism for selling their works, and it will be interesting to see if the market is successful. FanFic readers are accustomed to free stories. Not everyone agrees that 20-35% revenue share is fair: “This is not anywhere close to what I would call a good deal,” posted John Scalzi, the president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and The Vampire Diaries

Amazon has secured  licenses for three properties: “Gossip Girl,” “Pretty Little Liars” and “The Vampire Diaries,” are owned by Warner Brothers Television Group’s Alloy Entertainment. Amazon promises more are to follow.

It would be great to see more legal ways for commerce to grow in FanFic’s world of derivative and transformative art. A way for creative people to make stories, art, apps, music, with fair licensing terms. Rights owners should support broad remixing by their fans, and open up these avenues the same way they do with merchandizing. Educational organizations can help foster this by serving as the legal middleman, creating new ways for stories and culture to be transformed.

FanFic is about culture being owned by society.  Paid or not, Fanfic existed long before the internet, and be around when we live in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

See more: Time article “The Boy Who Lived Forever” is a very fair primer on FanFic. Also: WSJ on FanFicio9 on legality of FanFic.


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Lessons to be learned from MOOCs, 2 years out Mon, 22 Apr 2013 18:55:09 +0000 Two Cheers for Web U!Online courses with very large enrollments have rapidly matured in the last two years, led largely by experiments outside mainstream academia by CourseraUdacity and edX. Ambitious educators, technologists, and funders have created courses on diverse topics, and over five million students worldwide have registered for classes. And 3% have completed the courses. What can we learn?

These Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) create “a strange paradox: these professors are simultaneously the most and least accessible teachers in history. And it’s not the only tension inherent in MOOCs,” writes A. J. Jacobs in the Sunday Review. Jacobs recently signed up for 11 courses (of which he completed 2), and graded his experience:

  • B+ for the professors, who tended to be charming and theatrical, trying to make the best of the virtual environment. There’s no patience for crummy professors, as in a math course canceled in 2012 by Udacity.
  • A for convenience, which is unmatched as students can learn from home, while commuting, worldwide. Start and stop anytime.
  • D for student-teacher interaction, which is virtually nonexistent. It’s one-way delivery from pop-star teachers, a virtual lottery to get a professor to answer a specific question.
  • B- for student-student interaction, which is vital for cementing the newly-learned knowledge, but even the best online discussions lack the immediacy of real life. There’s also a signal-to-noise problem, as well as trolling.
  • B- for assignments, which are heavily multiple-choice quizzes (great for computers to grade, bad for measuring learning), rampant with cheating, and lackluster when peer-review is used for essays.
  • B overall, which a generally positive experience, but minimal practical application when taking diverse subjects, and the courses don’t convey any credentials.

The hot air surrounding the rise of MOOCs is beginning to subside, and the ideas will percolate other fields.

On the academic end of the spectrum, traditional academia must and will respond to the pressures that are disrupting their industry. MOOCs are different in many ways from the “distance education” of the last few decades. How will universities compete with free? How will they justify being on-campus as the virtual experience improves? How much can the traditional, intimate classroom model of learning be bastardized before it looses all meaningful value, reduced to little more than watching TV?

This 18 minute TEDx talk by Michele Pistone discusses the future of higher education, and its historical origins:


(Read more comments on Pistone’s talk.)

Of greater interest to this blog, is informal and professional learning. This is the opposite situation, as MOOCs have much to teach us. If you are involved you outreach, take inspiration from MOOCs about:

  • Approaches to improving online learning (adding assessment, interactivity and community)
  • Adding social aspects (online forums, exploring peer review, and seeing what formats prod students to engage)
  • Implementation (user interfaces, software, marketing angles)

It’s all about packaging. The underlying elements (articles, videos, forums, etc.) have been on the internet for some time, and many organizations already have these ingredients at hand. What differentiates an “online course” is how it’s all combined, the outcomes (both learning objectives and certification), and the overall cohesiveness of the package.

How can you deliver learning with online courses? (And do you want to?)

For some more background, see also our articles on “What is an online course?” (Jan 2012), “Online courses for learning skills: MoMA, NYT & knitting” (Jan 2012; BTW: NYT recently canceled their online courses),  “Higher-ed courses with massive enrollments: A revolution starts” (Jan 2012), and “Online college courses, with and without the degree” (Feb 2011).

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What is Crowdsourcing? And how does it apply to outreach? Tue, 19 Feb 2013 15:21:12 +0000 CrowdsourcingCrowdsourcing means involving a lot of people in small pieces of a project. In educational and nonprofit outreach, crowdsourcing is a form of engagement, such as participating in an online course, collecting photos of butterflies for a citizen-science project, uploading old photos for a community history project, deciphering sentences from old scanned manuscripts, playing protein folding games to help scientists discover new ways to fight diseases, or participating in online discussions.

Here’s an overview of several facets of crowdsourcing.


Competition vs. collaboration are two common frameworks for projects. A competition can draw dozens or or thousands of participants who seek a prize. Unlike grant solicitations, these competitions are based on objective results, not on resumes, prior work or personal history. A collaboration typically involves a participant working on a small piece of a larger project.  

The Walker Art Center ran a crowdsourced video festival & awards competition (First International Cat Video Festival) attracting 10,000 entries and over 10,000 attendees.



Crowd funding is when educational projects are funded by individual, online contributors or investors.  Most crowdfunding is done via web sites which list projects, and provide a means for donors to commit. Typically, project funding is all-or-nothing.

One of the leading sites is Kickstarter, which since their launch in spring 2009, has funded over $417 million, funding over 36,000 creative projects. The “Let’s Build a Goddamn Tesla Museum” crowdfunding campaign on IndieGogo, another major crowdfunding site, enable a nonprofit group to buy Tesla’s old lab, which was threatened with development. The group raised over $1,370,511, reaching their original $800k goal in under a week.

Crowd funding tends to work best for a hip projects, on average, a third of projects are funded.

Crowdfunding is distinct from traditional, online fundraising, in that it is focused on projects, not general operations. In the traditional realm, in Q2 2012, charities reported $204-million in total online gifts (10.9% growth over Q2 2011) and $180.9-million for Q3 2012 (8.9% over Q3 2011), with an average gift of $77, according to data provided to The Chronicle of Philanthropy. More people are giving online, albeit in smaller amounts, than in past years.

See a prior blog post on crowdfunding virtual exhibits.

Cloud Labor


Cloud Labor is hiring a distributed virtual labor pool, available on-demand, to fulfull a range of tasks from simple to complex. With enticing projects, this can mean a ton of volunteers …

  • The New York Public Library is developing a citizen cartography tool that lets the public take information archived on digitized historical maps and use the data to tag a searchable interface built with Open Street Map. The goal: a larger, more detailed database that will help future researchers.
  • The National Library of Finland created the digitalkoot project to help digitize millions of pages of archival material. Visitors to the site transcribe old books one word at a time while playing a video game. Think CAPTCHA meets Angry Birds.
  • The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (in partnership with the private company has recruited “citizen historians” to research historical documents from WWII. The Children of the Lodz Ghetto project is designed to teach historical skills while “restor[ing] names and stories to those whose identities were nearly silenced by a force that nearly succeeded in making them disappear completely from history.”
  • Many natural history museums coordinate “citizen science” projects that enlist public help to tackle large research challenges, like collecting and identifying ants, transcribing data from the labels on century-old cicadas or spotting celestial phenomena.
  • Many other citizen science projects have elements of crowdsourcing. See SciStarter for more citizen science projects.

In addition, administrative work can sometimes be done. Fansourcing involves recruiting fans to do administrative tasks which are more interesting to enthusiastic fans (brand advocates) than low-level staff. It can connect volunteer fans with potential visitors via live chat, or moderating online discussions and answering customer service questions. The volunteers offer their genuine enthusiasm, not necessarily a deep professional expertise.

Aside from volunteer engagement, the majority of cloud labor is paid. Simple tasks are often paid at hourly rates below $5/hour. See a prior blog post on outsourcing some outreach tasks to freelancers. It tends to drive towards the lowest common denominator, so it’s best for tasks that are suitable for non-professionals. Quality control is often maintained by double and triple-checking work through redundancy. For example, if the task was to write tags describing a painting, the same painting could be tagged by 5 workers, with software to detect spammy responses, and look for tags common to multiple workers.

 Civic Engagement


Civic Engagement is collective actions that address issues of public concern. This works on both local and national levels. The White House could collect ideas on how to change the manufacturing industry from those who work in it. It asks people which technologies they think are the most important to the industry, as well as what sort of future regulation they believe would be beneficial. Soliciting responses via the internet, in public, eliminates barriers to participation.

Collective knowledge

Knowledge of the crowd

Collective Knowledge  is development of knowledge assets or information resources from a distributed pool of contributors. This type of mass collaboration is best showcased by the Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects. Here are some smaller projects which collected votes from their community:

Collective creativity

Talent of the crowd

Collective Creativity  taps into creative talent pools to design and develop original art, media or content. This can mean new creative works by professionals, or non-professionals.

  • Several museums, including the Smithsonian, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and the British Museum, have established positions for “Wikipedians in Residence.” The Wikipedians push museum data and images into the Wikipedia universe, as well as soliciting and managing content from the wiki-editing crowd. (See my blog post on reaching the public using Wikipedia.)
  • RunCoCo is advice on how to run a community collection online (see PDF).
  • New Zealand was looking to revitalize their tourism campaign, and hosted a contest for young filmmakers. Their reward was the opportunity to screen their work in front of famous filmmaker Peter Jackson, plus a trip to New Zealand to shoot and produce a 3-minute film.
  • In 2007, World Without Oil, was a crowdsourced public media narrative which invited players to participate in a collaborative simulation of a global oil shortage by playing an online mystery game, and later generating their own stories about the crisis and strategizing ways to manage it.

Open Sourcing is a philosophy and approach that promotes free redistribution and access to an end product’s design and implementation details. It’s the opposite of keeping secrets or paid licensing. Key benefits are broader use and publicity. Some popular projects are also able to foster a community where people outside the organization also contribute. Typically, revenue comes from selling related services, or grants. For example, Omeka is a web-publishing platform for library, museum, archives, and scholarly collections and exhibitions.

Community building


Community Building  is developing communities through active engagement of individuals who share common passions, beliefs or interests.

Preserapedia is an open encyclopedia for heritage conservation with over 1 thousand articles.

Open Innovation

In business

The term was popularized by journalist Jeff Howe in a 2006 Wired article “The Rise of Crowdsourcing,” about outsourcing labor to the “crowd,” but the concept rapidly broadened beyond labor. In business, crowdsourcing now means obtaining services, ideas, content, or money from a large group of people. “Crowdsourcing has become a very successful business model for many startups such as YouTube, Wikipedia, Reddit, Threadless and Kickstarter – to name only a few. But so far, its usage by big companies has been sporadic and experimental,” notes François Pétavy, CEO of eYeka, a crowdsourcing platform. Pétavye says that use in the business world is growing, and that crowdsourcing now solves a variety of real world problems, have a demonstrable return on investment.

It is related to other evolving concepts. For example, Open Innovation is using of sources outside of the entity of group to generate, develop and implement ideas.


Tools are applications and platforms that support collaboration, communication, and sharing among distributed groups of people.

Source: The categories above, and the lede illustration, are adapted from Several projects from AAM TrendsWatch 2012 (PDF).

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Cars, trikes, and more create Google Street View Thu, 31 Jan 2013 18:39:37 +0000 Google Maps Street ViewThe Grand Canyon is yet another place that Google brings to your digital screens, from their Street View family of content. Google has been collecting street-level views of our world at a vast scale possible only because of it’s deep pockets and technical expertise. 

The Trekker enables Street View to feature more places around the world - places no car, trike, trolley or snowmobile can access.

Trekker is a wearable backpack outfitted with a camera system on top. It’s portability enables Google to gather images while maneuvering through tight, narrow spaces or locations only accessible by foot. The Trekker is operated by an Android device and consists of 15 lenses angled in a different direction so the images can be stitched together into 360-degree panoramic views. As the operator walks, photos are taken roughly every 2.5 seconds. See a view of the Bright Angel Trail. Read more at Google’s blog announcement.

When a group of art-loving Googlers wanted to take Street View technology to museums around the world, we needed to develop a system that could easily fit through museum doorways and navigate around sculptures.

Trolley goes into museums. Google developed a push-cart system that could easily fit through museum doorways and navigate around sculptures. Here are views of several museums Google has covered.

Once we were able to take the Trike to all of these interesting places, we got to thinking about where else we could go and had the idea of putting our Street View equipment on a snowmobile.

Snowmobile was another hack, put together over the course of a few weekends (they say) using some 2x4s, duct tape, and extra hard drives wrapped in ski jackets to last through the freezing conditions. Motivated by the 2010 Winter Olympics, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada — the snowmobile mapped slopes and trails which fans would be seeing during the games.

While we’ve been able to visit some beautiful places around the world with the Street View car, some of the most interesting and fun places aren’t accessible by car.

Trike is a three-wheel bicycle developed in 2009 for recording from parks and trails, university campuses, theme parks, zoos, monuments, sports stadiums, and the like. For these locations, which are often private land, Google signs a deal with the location. They have a submission form for new locations, which is highly overbooked.

Since Street View launched for five U.S. cities in May 2007, we've expanded our 360-degree panoramic views to include locations on all seven continents.

Cars were Google’s first step into street views, launching in 2007 with 5 U.S. cities, and now delivering 360° panoramic views from locations worldwide. Starting with an SUV, then a van, Google settled on a fleet of cars. The latest car has 15 lenses taking 360 degrees of photos. It also has motion sensors to track its position, a hard drive to store data, a small computer running the system, and lasers to capture 3D data to determine distances within the Street View imagery.

A related project takes underwater panoramas, such as a view of Lady Elliot Island, QLD, Australia.

Check out Google’s gallery of some of their best street view collections. Hopefully they will continue to connect more of our world.

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Math and Science iOS apps for young children Wed, 05 Dec 2012 00:42:59 +0000 In the era of tablets and smart phones, parents of small children may consider educational apps. Recently, the “Slashdot” online community discussed apps and kids. Nerdy parents chimed in with suggestions. This tech-savvy community is often reluctant to rely on apps, favoring “play time outside with soccer and baseballs, and inside with blocks, Hot Wheels, PlayDoh, etc.” But many parents found value in apps, at least occasionally.

Here’s a list of ten apps that computer nerds turn to when they want to engage their young kids in math and science…

Dragonbox – “My 3.5 year olds were doing algebra with fractions without realizing it” said a user. “I’ve personally seen a 4 year old get an elementary understanding of algebra from this app,” said another user, Thwyx. And “fascinatingly friendly and effective way to teach symbolic arithmetic to children,” said stonecypher. “Awesome and I highly recommend it, even to adults. It’s basically a series of algebraic puzzles, using cards that start off not as numbers,” said Roogna. This app was favored by several parents.

Isaac Newton’s Gravity — “You try to solve mazes by putting blocks in the righ place to let the ball roll down. My nephew has played that game since he was 3,” said codegen. Though user fermion notes that most kids need to be a little older.

Cut the Rope — “physics engine in it is a nice introduction to the likes of gravity, elasticity, etc.” said Kergan.

Monkey Preschool Lunchbox — loved by the 4.5 year old of Thorrablot. “Definitely geared more for pre school aged like 2-4,” said iTunes reviewer jteyer.

Feed Me Oil – “The first levels are easy enough for a young child, and our little girl loves it. With the fans, boards, and other mechanisms its a good introduction to gravity and other forces,” said myxiplx.

Algebra Touch – “Amazing app that demonstrates how variables work in algebraic equations, highly recommended. Maybe too high level for a 3 year old but it’s about as mathy as iOS can get,” said mewsenews. This is not a game; it’s a simple drag-and-drop equation solver.

Monster Physics – “Both my 4 and 7 year olds love Monster Physics. And by the same author, Stack the States and Stack the Countries are excellent for geography,” said MojoRilla. A game creating and controlling inventions.

Intro to Math – “she got a huge amount of use from, which while just basic as the names would imply was good around that age,” said Roogna.

Nova Elements – “When she got curious about elements, we picked up the Nova Elements app, which answered her questions at the time pretty well,” said Roogna. This was a complimentary app to a NOVA broadcast.

SkyView — “I have a very smart and curious 3-year-old daughter… She has a wonderfully curious mind, and really likes SkyView already,” said Timothy.

And a bonus recommendation for older kids:

Numbers League – targeting older kids, “covers math down to simple addition and subtraction and up to multiplication, division and simple fractions,” says rreay. The app is based on a card game. “M three children love to play against each other and their Mom and Dad to see who can make the highest point captures,” says iTunes reviewer Sarah Chase.

Other slashdot users also recommended: Tesla Toy and Angry Birds Space to develop an intuitive sense of orbits and attraction/repulsions.

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Three examples of multidisciplinary outreach to H.S. students Thu, 15 Nov 2012 00:19:34 +0000 Sciences and history can nicely meet at historical sites. It engages the history-minded in science, and the science-minded in history. Two examples were recently discussed by Chris Shires, director of interpretation and programs at the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House.

Located east of Detroit, on the shore of Lake St. Clair, near the Milk River (photo below), the Ford house is involved with water quality monitoring as part of the worldwide GLOBE hands-on, school-based science and education program. The science part of the picture involves having students input water quality results into a global database. Shires notes, “Many groups who are engaged in ongoing testing come back for history tours of the house.”  Student visitors also learn about history of the family, including their love and respect for the water.

The Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens in Akron, Ohio has a successful program for 9th grade students from the local ‘Science’ High School. The students do two days of experiential learning activities on the 70 acre estate during a summer program before starting school. During the tours, the students learn about architecture, landscape design and technology, and they also assess primary source materials including archival blueprints, letters and historic photos. One of the science teachers remarked, “To be in their community and creating something that someone could really use–that is the motivation.”

Read more about both programs in Shires’ blog post at AASLH, “Bringing in Other Disciplines to Your Historic Site.”

Another cool example of multidisciplinary outreach school programs is at the Roberson Museum and Science Center (Binghamton, NY):

  • Hands-on science, history and art. Students discover animal adaptations by studying taxidermy specimens, participate in magical science experiences, build steampunk scultptures, or explore antique objects and create a new use for them;
  • School receives a mysterious artifact once a month (September-May) for your classroom. Artifacts range from tools to toys and relate to American History;
  • Discover the Iroquois, their culture, their relationship with the land and how European culture has impacted native peoples. Students create pinch pots and learn Native American constellation legends in the Planetarium.



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