Sunday, December 16, 2012

Mobile Participation in the Public Sphere: Accessibility and Privacy

After my presentation of polltogo at Mobile Monday in Paris last week, I was invited to write a short article for the Journal du Net about the topic of the evening: Participation in public spaces. I decided to focus on some of the issues around mobile participation, namely accessibility and how to balance the right to privacy with targeting.

Link: Comment contribuer publiquement et anonymement dans l’espace public virtuel? [in French]

Brief summary in English:

As we have all noticed, paper as a medium is dying and communication in the public sphere is changing. Increasingly, this communication is occurring on mobile devices. In the last two years we've seen the potential impact of this trend on democratic movements: Arab spring, anti-SOPA, Occupy Wall Street, Pigeons movement in France, etc.

But what if you don't have a smartphone? How would you announce to the world where you are, participate in QR code mediated interactions, bear witness using Instagram, etc. Though most developers ignore them, older phones and more economical "feature phones" are still surprisingly common: 50% of the penetration in the US [Nielson Mobile Insights, March 2012] and 82% in Africa and the Middle East [VisionMobile, July 2012]. This is causing another form of the well-documented digital divide: A stifling of the participatory potential of a large proportion of citizens. One could argue that this is a temporary issue, since smartphone sales now dominate (at least in certain parts of the world), but with the incessant pace of innovation, constantly pushing the high-end higher, isn't there the potential for a constant gap? In any case, at the very least, we should be aware and make our web/mobile tools accessible to older devices.

When we are on the ground, communicating via a mobile device, how do we effectively communicate with strangers to organize/collaborate/meet, on the spot, with little delay? Contact lists and instant messaging are for communicating within our existing networks. How to we target our calls for action to strangers without knowing who it is we are targeting? If we assume that people desire some level of privacy (or anonymity), this is a tricky problem. One way to strike the balance could be the use of geolocation data. Already we can search for public tweets nearby with Twitter, or find public polls nearby using polltogo, but it's still early days...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Where should one live to minimize the probability of experiencing an earthquake?

Though it’s clearly not the only factor to consider when choosing a place to live, most of us have pondered this question at some point, especially on days like today (Re: Haiti). For some individuals, who can work from anywhere, have nothing tying them down to any particular location, or who are particularly risk averse, the question of minimizing earthquake event hazard could rank higher in priority. To satisfy my own curiosity, and perhaps be a service to others, I ventured to try to answer this question. We could start by studying maps of the edges of the global tectonic plates and noting the locations of prominent volcanoes in the world, since earthquakes tend to occur in those regions. However, that doesn’t really tell us anything about the likelihood of events occurring since many of those areas are fairly stable, geologically speaking. Luckily, in the 1990’s the United Nations sponsored a project with the goal of improving global standards in seismic hazard assessment: the Global Seismic Hazard Assessment Program (GSHAP). One of the outcomes of this project was a compilation of regional data to produce an international dataset of points where geologists have calculated the risk of “hard” shakes (high peak-ground-acceleration) as being above 10% in the next 50 years (well, that was as of a decade ago now). Here’s the GSHAP project’s global hazard map (below); areas in white or green may not be immune to earthquakes, but have the lowest probability of strong earthquakes.

GSHA strong earthquake hazard map
Link: Full size map

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Bioeffects of Carbon Nanotubes (CNTs)

Since I was in Biarritz, I sneaked in to hear some talks at the annual world conference on all things related to carbon, Carbon 2009, being held here this week. As you may know, a hot topic these days in the field of carbon chemistry is carbon nanotubes (CNTs). Unsurprisingly, a large proportion of the conference papers centered on the synthesis of CNTs and their (potential) applications. As a non-chemist (I’m more into physics and biology), I was more interested in the few presentations that addressed the topic of biological interactions and possible bioffects of carbon nanotubes. As is the case for the whole budding domain of nanotechnologies, bioeffects are my prime concern. Unlike most, I’m not concerned at all about the H1N1 virus (there’s Tamiflu/Relenza, and we can always make a vaccine), nor genetically modified organisms (there is no human safety issue whatsoever, it’s a big misunderstanding; the only issue is the possible impact on plant biodiversity in the wild). No, what really scares me is the possible dangers of all things “nano”. Nano-products/materials/devices are all very new and, given their infinitesimal size (visible only by electron microscopy), all too easily absorbed by our bodies, potentially right through cell membranes. Because of the infancy of the work done at this size regime, there has not been any long-term studies on in vivo effects on humans. For carbon nanotubes, researchers are only starting now to study potential effects in vitro, and generally still only chemically, without any cells in the mix.

At Carbon 2009, I appreciated one talk in particular given by Xinyuan Liu (from the Laboratory for Environmental and Health Nanoscience at Brown University) which outlined the inconsistencies in CNT bioeffects studies published to date. She also outlined the three potential categories of risk related to carbon nanotubes:
  1. Metal impurities left after the synthesis of carbon nanotubes:
    It turns out that many of the bioeffects reported to date are likely attributable to impurities that remain in the sample after the complex chemical synthesis processes used to generate CNTs. In particular, metal catalysts such as nickel or ytirium. For example, ytirium has been shown to inhibit calcium ion channels (important in the transmission of signals from one nerve to the next, or from nerve to muscle).
  2. The effect of carbon nanotubes on reactive oxygen species (ROS):
    CNTs apparently deplete natural antioxidants (in simulated biological environments) in a dose-dependent fashion. For example, folic acid adheres to the hydrophobic surface of CNTs.
  3. The biophysical implications of the geometry of carbon nanotubes:
    Given the long length of many CNTs, they are too large for single macrophages to absorb. Eventually, when multiple macrophages would be recruited to this hopeless task, there would be the potential to develop granulomas. This is perhaps why some researchers have reported asbestos-like pathology related to CNTs (as the problem with asbestos is analogous). The other biophysical implication of carbon nanotubes is their biopersistence. It is likely that the different types of CNTs vary in persistence, so more studies need to be done. For now, we must consider the possibility that carbon nanotubes are bioaccumulative (like heavy metals).
What worries me is not the carbon nanotubes that will be chemically integrated into other materials (and never to be near humans in their raw form), such as improved airplane wings, or those that will form the basis of new medical treatments, such as drug-delivering mechanisms (as these will have to go through the typical battery of clinical trials). My concern is the carbon nanotubes that were not purposely intended for human exposure, such as those in an industrial manufacturing process. If there ever was an accidental release of CNTs in the environment, not only would we not know their long-term effects (on humans, or on the biosphere), we would be hard-pressed to find and measure their levels, let alone “clean up” the invisible mess.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Blinded by Organic: Bio-obfuscation

[In response to: “Let My Consumers Free!”, which was in response to “Eating Food That’s Better for You, Organic or Not”]

Having recently moved to France, where food hovers at a higher strata of the public consciousness, and where there is a greater conservativeness at moving away from age-old ways of doing things (e.g. bans on genetically modified foods), the problem is just as bad here, if not worse. Here the obfuscation is done with the prefix-turned-into-word “bio”, rather than “organic”. Yes, there are some standardized labels (e.g., “AB” of the Agence française pour le développement et la promotion de l'agriculture biologique), but there is a wealth of competing labels, not to mention fake ones invented by corporate marketing departments. Even for the products that are legitimately labeled, there is generally a lack of supply chain verification (as pointed out by a recent investigative report by the television network France 2); critical since, quite often, raw ingredients are sourced from around the world.

I haven’t yet come across any bio Oreos here though! The new trend here seems to be bio cosmetics, which tend to have very low requirements to get official label status, such as 15% verified bio content — which is not at all mentioned on the packaging, and one only can discover by visiting a web site.