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SXSW Day 2: Where Are You? What Are You Doing?

Mapping and tagging information in real time will change how we interact with one another in real space–if we can access the Web.
March 12, 2007

It’s 9:00 A.M. on Saturday. We’ve been cut off from cyberspace. This is not good.

Twitter lets you send text messages to large groups of people, and the Twitter boards at South by Southwest display what you are doing and where you are going.
Credit: Brad King

I’m sitting outside Ballroom E, plugged into one of the few outlets in the area, and one by one, people ask me if I’m connected to the Internet. I’m not. This isn’t an answer they like. I don’t like the answer either. Two people sit down anyway, pull out their laptops, and plug theirs in next to mine. A few minutes later, they grumble and wander away, laptops still in hand.

Nobody has any idea what is wrong. And we don’t know where to look for answers.

There’s an unease that comes from being unplugged, particularly here at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Conference, where you spend as much time going to panels as you spend networking. Tracking down people–and finding out where they are going to be–becomes a full-time job here.

On Saturday morning, the buzz from the longtime attendees is that there are 5,000 registered attendees–the most ever. The ballrooms and large panel rooms are set up to handle hundreds of people. In short order, the rooms will all be filled to capacity. Overflow rooms have been set up for the larger conversations. Moving from one room to the next–which at times requires a Harry Potter-esque trip to the mysterious third floor, which is accessible only by two elevators and one hidden escalator on the far side of the convention center–is like swimming through the sea, with people currents and ripples guiding you.

The real-space crowds are just an inconvenience of life. Every panel–every interaction–is augmented by people using the laptops and mobile Web devices. When there’s Internet access to be had, attendees continue to communicate and surf the conference even while waiting … waiting … waiting for the elevators to arrive.

There’s also Twitter, a Web application that allows people to send text messages to large groups at one time. Users sign up for the service; then they can receive notes from their friends, much like an instant-message buddy list, or they can check one of the large-screen televisions here at the convention center where Twitter messages scroll.

Right now, though, there is no Internet connection, and that’s a problem. I track down Hugh Forrest, the man responsible for the interactive festival, who assures me that the wireless network will be back up by late afternoon.

It’s ironic that 5,000 wired and networked digerati still have to find information the old-fashioned way: they look for another human.

The frustration level simmered on the fourth floor. Surely there was data out there that could be turned into useful information that could help us all understand why the network was down. In fact, we know that data exists somewhere, which makes it all the more frustrating. If my father’s Internet access goes down, he assumes it will be fixed. If my Internet goes down, I assume there is something I can do to fix it.

But that requires data being turned into information in real time–and it assumes that cyberspace, which removed the geographic barriers from communication, can reattach my location to information that I need.

Tagging, of course, is one of the main ways that this data will be turned into information with Web 2.0 applications. The debate, though, is whether companies should use taxonomies, which are centrally created naming systems, or folksonomies, which are user-created naming systems.

Sites such as Flickr and let the user base create tags for content, which allows ad hoc groupings to arise. The problem with folksonomies comes with groupings. If one person labels his or her pictures “dogs” and another labels his or her pictures “Dogs,” computers can’t necessarily put those pictures together. However, top-down taxonomies are likely to drive users away, particularly if they have to search for the “correct” tag to use for pictures and other data they’ve created. Maybe they don’t want to use “dogs” for pictures of the family pet, Rover.

In discussing the overlap of the folksonomy and taxonomy tagging systems, George Oates, lead designer on Flickr, described the emergence of an integrated folks- and taxonomies approach to data. Sites such as Flickr look for patterns within their user base (the folksonomy) and then create groups around the most popular tags while incorporating the less-used tags. This allows computers to create larger groups by incorporating a centrally developed taxonomy.

It’s an ever-changing taxonomy, though, and one that must be updated regularly; however, computers aren’t very good at parsing human thought.

Once that information is tagged, though, it needs to be turned into something that is usable by people; otherwise, all the tagging and sorting in the world won’t do this data much good.

Web developers and programmers are using mapping technologies to access that information in ways we’ve never thought of. OpenStreetMap, for instance, uses the GPS devices in courier services to map traffic patterns and help these services reevaluate how they deliver packages.

One of the more interesting presentations–and potentially the most frightening in light of the revelations that the FBI and NSA have been overstepping their information-gathering bounds–is BioMapping, an art project that uses GPS and stress-recording devices to track the stress levels across a city. You can imagine a time when law-enforcement agencies deploy police officers based on stress levels.

The digerati aren’t worried about the police state. According to Endgadget’s Peter Rojas, who spoke during an opening panel, the digerati want everyone to be able to tag data and create real-time maps so that users can turn data into localized information.

If we had access to the data about wireless connectivity in the area (which we could still get with a smart phone with online access through a proprietary network run by, say, Sprint), we could tag that information to show hot spots in downtown Austin and share the information with other SXSW attendees. Ultimately, we’d have a geo-localized, real-time information stream that gives an answer to the question on everyone’s mind: when will we be back online?

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