The (educational) case for Exchange Dublin

This is the first post that is not directly about some aspect of a user interface or other interactive technology. Rather, it’s a post about something that just happened in Dublin. Dublin City Council decided to close Exchange Dublin. The reason given was “anti-social behaviour“. You can sign the petition if you wish to see it alive; if you don’t have a clue what it’s all about, you can just read the comments by the people who signed the petition. They say how awesome a cultural space Exchange has been.

Education and “21st Century Skills”

Since all these people say a lot about the contribution of Exchange to culture, and since I’m no artist, I’ll talk about what I personally know. Exchange has helped young people with some things which are key skills, as experts say: working with others, communicating, and being creative. And, if the Irish State is going through all this work to reform the curriculum to follow these principles, shouldn’t Dublin City provide its young residents with the opportunity to practise these key skills?

Image

Processing Dublin was a monthly event in Exchange Dublin where student got to talk and showcase creative technology projects, per Dublin City Council “anti-social behaviour”.

How do I know that this behaviour took place there? It’s because I’ve participated in organising a couple of events there. One, called Processing Dublin (part of the Processing Cities project), was a monthly meeting organised by myself and @saorog (to whom I haven’t talked about this blog post and might as well be disagreeing with whatever I’m saying here). It was about creative technology, and myself, Stephen, or students were talking about or showcasing projects on graphics, data visualisation, or other interactive audiovisual applications.

Thus, I personally know that students there were engaged in creative technology, and with each other. The skills that the NCCA is just starting to apply for the junior and senior cycles, were already there. Of course, these skills were partly there, as it’s one thing to have a meetup of already interested in technology students, and it’s different to try to work with every student. And that’s why Exchange is awesome, because interested students can could get together and make a creative project happen. And Dublin City Council appears not to want this.

Double Standards

The Council say that they appreciate Exchange’s work but that they worry about “anti-social behaviour”. To begin with, define “anti-social behaviour”. No concrete explanation was given, but the assumption at last Wednesday’s weekly open general meeting at Exchange was that it was about some loud people by Cow’s Lane, totally unrelated to Exchange itself. No incident inside Exchange, an open, no-alcohol, social space happened that would be considered by any sane person as anti-social.

However, let’s assume for the sake of the argument, that there had been an incident in Exchange. Shouldn’t the Council see to addressing the incident rather than closing down the space? Whenever there is an incident in Dublin they close down the place where it happened? If drunk people fight in a pub do they close the pub down? No they don’t. If there is confirmed massive abuse by the Church do they close the Church down? No they don’t. They try to address each incident separately. And rightly so.

Of course, they cannot do such a thing with Exchange, because no such incident happened. That’s why the double standards. At the end of the day, I don’t think that creative people will take it, I’m sure that a new space will be found to house Exchange’s activities. However, it’s a shame that the Council gets in the way of activities it should seek to promote. It’s a shame that the Council shuts down a space whose activities have been one step ahead of national educational strategy.

Why the latest brain study you read is probably wrong

There are many articles lately which claim that behaviour xyz has been confirmed by some brain study. For my PhD research and for my UX work I have looked at a lot of these studies, and I can point to a number of issues I have come accross a lot. Like, really, really, a lot.

  • Reporting: Many articles do a lousy job on understanding brain studies or report the results inappropriately.
  • The WEIRD Effect: Sometimes these brain studies are biased, as plenty are performed on WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) sample sources. Usually, a researcher will use undergrads of their department in a country of the “West” and draw conclusion from this sample. The researcher or others (see “Reporting”) might wrongfully generalise these conclusions to a broader sample. So, yes, we don’t really know how the brain of non-Westerners functions in the same detail as we do for Westerners.
  • Neuroplasticity: Our brain is not static; rather, it is very flexible and its flexibility awards established patterns. These patterns may vary over time and accross cultures.

Image

Thus, many epistomological mistakes might be applied by a combination of the above. In plain terms, if in one culture the people have dessert and coffee at the end of each meal, the brains of these people will want to automate this feature. Thus, the neurons of the areas related to the meal, the dessert and coffee, will change how they wire in order to be firing together (neuroplasticity). That is, if you do some things together a lot, then your brain will group this things together, in order to save energy/resources. Because these neurons are now grouped together, if you now have a meal, you will also want dessert and coffee because the related neurons are going to fire together.

That is, our brain structure depends on our customs, as our brain structure changes over time. Now, if one takes many people from the same culture (who also have dessert and coffee), they will most probably have the same wiring/grouping in their brains, too (because they’re used to doing the same things). If one scans their brains, it’s probable that the same brain signal patterns will occur, since the same habits will have formed the same brain patterns (the WEIRD effect).

Behaviourism

Many popular examples show this issue. Apart from myths like the left/right brain division, other myths have wider implications. For example, a myth says that {happiness = achievementsexpectations}. There’s nothing but opinion to support that pseudo-equation. This might appear to be true for a generation of people from country X; fair enough: how is that relevant to humanity?

It’s not. It’s culturally biased opinion, and it’s easy to see behind the smoke and mirrors. In a culture where effort is valued more than achievements or expectations, we would see people there having trouble to see how expectations are meaningful. In the same way that in many countries wasting time doesn’t make any sense.

Imagine if you scan the brains of people from various cultures. Now that you know about neuroplasticity and the WEIRD effect, what do you think would happen?

Bad Philosophy

Not just popular reporting but also science has its issues. In bad epistemology we can add the misunderstanding of philosophical underpinnings of science. Some have gone so far as to say that humans have no free will because choosing between a red and a green button during an experiment is done at a subconscious level.

The assumption here is that these researchers apparently consider the human subconsious as something extra-human; if they understood the subconscious as a human trait then subconscious desicions would still be considered free will, wouldn’t they?

In addition, these experiments about how a WEIRD sample behaves in order to choose this or the other coloured button in a split second seem to have little effect on the discourse about free will. How is the decision to push a button similar to meaningful and important decisions in our life? I am certain that apart from any subconscious processes, I also consciously thought about practicing a profession, or about being with a partner. A brain scan would show the effect of both conscious and subconscious processes in my brain; what effect would that have on free will?

Finally, let me clear that hear I’m not arguing in favour or against the existence of free will. All I’m saying, is that brain scans of 20th-21st century Westerners are not an argument for or against its existence. In the same way that colours don’t have specific meanings but their perception is culture specific.

Resource: “Color” Tag Printable Cheat Sheet

Lately, I have started using more and more D3 for visualisations. Having used it at work for various projects, we had to adjust the colour palette of each project accordingly. Since D3 uses SVG for graphics, I started looking at the <color> tag.

Apart from the tag definition, W3C provide a list of keywords one can use instead of RGB values; this is extremely useful, as one can use the following to produce code that makes sense the moment you look at it:

var colours[lightsteelblue, lightskyblue, deepskyblue];

A list of keyword per RGB <color> is here. That was very useful, but I needed more than a list on the web. I looked for a cheat sheet on the web but didn’t find any. So, I did the following.

Firstly, I wanted to colour-sample when building mockups, so I made the following images (feel free to download):

Color tag and keywords - page 1

Color tag and keywords – page 1

Color tag keywords - page 2

Color tag keywords – page 2

Moreover, I wanted to look at this list even before turning my computer on, during sketching phase. So, I put the images above in a printable color-keywords cheat sheet [pdf].

Enjoy these resources! :)

Content is Queen?

No, I’m not into content strategy all of a sudden. It’s just that from a human-computer interaction point of view, user experience is really important. And that means that the experience of browsing content is of paramount importance.

Now, not all content is equal; news organisations should pay more attention than others, for example. Surprisingly enough, lately I’ve come across many news organisations that fail to successfully deliver content in a usable way. I mean, look at this:

content image

Actual content at a news org website covering one sixth of the browser window.

The actual content covers one sixth (approximately, I didn’t count pixels) of the window! The article is this narrow column at the left hand-side of the page. The rest of the screen doesn’t matter to me, and I didn’t ask for it. Widgets, ads, and all these irrelevant things that were supposedly caused by Flash ads are still here, unblockable though, as they’ve been implemented in JavaScript. Where’s my news story? Why do I have to scroll so much?

I see this type of design more and more at news websites; no offense to the one I got the screenshot from—does it actually happen increasingly or is it just me? Let me know what you think! ;)

HCI for Peace Ideathon: SIG at CHI 2013

SIG at CHI 2013, Wednesday May 1st – 9:00-10:20  http://chi2013.acm.org/program/by-day/

J. Hourcade (Univ. of Iowa, USA), L. Nathan (Univ. of British Columbia, CA), P. Zaphiris (Cyprus Univ. of Technology, CY), M. Zancanaro (FBK-irst, IT), E. Kapros (Trinity College, The Univ. of Dublin, IE), J. Thomas (IBM T. J. Watson Research, USA), D. Busse (Samsung, USA)

Computers are increasingly mediating the way people make decisions, including those that can have an effect on conflict and peace. In addition, recent research provides empirical data on the factors that affect the likelihood of armed conflict. These conditions provide an unprecedented opportunity to the human-computer interaction community to play a role in preventing, de-escalating, and recovering from conflicts. This SIG will be the first opportunity for CHI attendees to meet during the main part of the conference, share their ideas, and provide concrete ways to move forward with this line of research.

Usability of Log-in pages

Just quickly, some log-in pages of popular services have gone to the too fancy side of things. Which is not really usable. Let’s see, as an example, vimeo:

vimeoLogInScreenshot

vimeo LogIn Screen

So, when I browse to the log-in page, the focus goes to the first text field to enter the… username? Maybe the e-mail address? Maybe both are ok, as it is increasingly the case (btw, how do they handle md5 in this case?)?

OK, so you’ll have to tab to the password field so that the focus leaves the first field to discover that only e-mail does the job, and then Shift+tab back to fill it in. Sorry, but there are so many services we use each and every day nowadays, that it’s not very usable to do that all the time.

Overall, the recent vimeo redesign was lovely and only details like this were not taken care of. And, in fairness, many popular services now have the same log-in model (auto-focus on the field) which is why I decided to write about it. It’s not that I have a problem with vimeo in general (it should go without saying, since I am using their service, but you never know).

So, I prefer services that have remained a bit more old-fashioned and always show you what they need from the user, so far Linkedin and WordPress are like that. See below.

Linkedin ask for your e-mail and, despite the auto-focus, you know, because the label is before the text field.

logInLinkedin

log-in Linkedin screen

WordPress is good with e-mail or username (really, if you know how the md5 works in this case leave a comment), again the label is before the text field.

logInWordpressScreenshot

log-in WordPress Screen

Next time you design a log-in page, consider! :)

Visualising Dublin Recycle Facilities

I participated in a project that was developed during Interactivos?’12 Dublin which was organised by Medialab-Prado and was part of HACK THE CITY, Dublin’s 2012 flagship exhibition organised by Science Gallery.

The project was called Thanks for Recycling and originally was an idea of Martina Kalogjera.

We did a number of things, but what I’d like to talk about here is how to visualise geo-located data using the longitude and latitide and skip tiles and other tedious work. So, we got our API key for Dublin City maps and we were good to go. We queried the data to find the existing data facilities.

The data response looks like this (that’s just a sample here):

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<markers>
    <marker id="715" lat="53.34166204059" lng="-6.2142513929251" 
cls="false">
        <name><![CDATA[Ringsend Recycling Centre]]></name>
        <address><![CDATA[Pigeon House Road, Ringsend, Dublin 4]]>
        </address>
    </marker>
    <marker id="1798" lat="53.354949345405" lng="-6.2443851012856" 
cls="false">
        <name><![CDATA[Shamrock Terrace Recycling Centre]]></name>
        <address><![CDATA[Shamrock Terrace, North Strand, Dublin 1]]>
        </address>
    </marker>
    <marker id="104" lat="53.310275616603" lng="-6.2745812625401" 
cls="false">
        <name><![CDATA[Bring Centre Herzog Park]]></name>
        <address><![CDATA[Orwell Road, Dublin 6]]></address>
    </marker>
    <marker id="1799" lat="53.355334884953" lng="-6.27803326980319" 
cls="false">
        <name><![CDATA[Bring Centre Grangegorman ]]></name>
        <address><![CDATA[Grangegorman Road Upper, Dublin 7]]></address>
    </marker>
    <marker id="2006" lat="53.325739799004" lng="-6.2895988199836" 
cls="false">
        <name><![CDATA[Bring Centre Eamonn Ceannt Park]]></name>
        <address><![CDATA[Rutland Grove, Crumlin, Dublin 12]]></address>
    </marker>
    <marker id="2014" lat="53.324706069157" lng="-6.3090944344926" 
cls="false">
        <name><![CDATA[Bring Centre Windmill Road]]></name>
        <address><![CDATA[49-51 Windmill Road, Crumlin, Dublin 12]]>
        </address>
    </marker>
</markers>

Which is how most of geo-localised data look like. Initially, we thought that a web-based service would be quick to do what we wanted: to represent a circle around each recycling facility which represents 10 minutes walking distance around it. In this way we would see which areas have a recycling facility within walking distance.

However, using web services was not faster than using Processing and the library Unfolding (you can find it at your usual library-finding place). So we wrote the following code:

import processing.opengl.*;
import codeanticode.glgraphics.*;
import de.fhpotsdam.unfolding.*;
import de.fhpotsdam.unfolding.geo.*;
import de.fhpotsdam.unfolding.utils.*;

de.fhpotsdam.unfolding.Map map;

ListrssGeoLocations = new ArrayList();

public void setup() {
 size(900, 600, GLConstants.GLGRAPHICS);
 smooth();

 map = new de.fhpotsdam.unfolding.Map(this);
 map.zoomAndPanTo(new Location(53.32f, -6.25f), 14);
 MapUtils.createDefaultEventDispatcher(this, map);

 loadRSSGeoLocations();
 }

public void loadRSSGeoLocations() {
 // Load RSS feed
 //String url = "http://www.dublin.ie/maps/api.php?apikey=yourAPIkey
 //&action=getFacilities&what=recycling";
 //or save to a local file: 
String url = "dublin.recycling.api.php.xml";
 XMLElement rss = new XMLElement(this, url);
 // Get all items
 XMLElement[] itemXMLElements = rss.getChildren("marker");
 print(itemXMLElements[0]);

for (int i = 0; i < itemXMLElements.length; i++) {
 // Adds lat,lon as locations for each item
 float lat = itemXMLElements[i].getFloat("lat");
 float lon = itemXMLElements[i].getFloat("lng");
 print(lat);

 rssGeoLocations.add(new Location(lat, lon));
  }
 }

public void draw() {
 background(0);
 map.draw();

for (Location location : rssGeoLocations) {
 float xy[] = map.getScreenPositionFromLocation(location);
 drawEarthquakeMarker(xy[0], xy[1]);
  }
 }

public void drawEarthquakeMarker(float x, float y) {
 noStroke();
 fill(200, 200, 0, 100);
 ellipse(x, y, 140, 140);
 }

Which is *really* short, and does the job. Note that it gets “lat” and “lng” from the XML response. No tiles, no nothing. And the result we got:

dublinRecycleCentres

There you go :)

More about the whole thing, here.