National Initiative for Social Participation

May 6th, 2009

iParticipate is a Facebook group for people “interested in discussions oriented around stimulating a significant increase in research support for technology-mediated social participation, especially as related to national priorities.” Some of the ideas underlying the group and its vision were outlined in a recent letter in Science by by Ben Schneiderman on A National Initiative for Social Participation and in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that is, unfortunately, only available to subscribers. ACM TechNews, which apparently does have a subscription, summarizes it for the rest of us.

“More than a dozen researchers met recently at the University of Maryland to draft a white paper that calls for the creation of a National Initiative for Social Participation. The researchers say that social networks could be used to track disease outbreaks, revolutionize neighborhood-watch programs, encourage energy conservation, and other civic- and community-oriented objectives. The effort is led by University of Maryland professor Ben Shneiderman, who plans to propose his project at several conference sessions this summer. Shneiderman is using social media to organize the effort through a Facebook group called iParticipate. “I see this as an agency like NASA is for space, or like the NIH is for health,” he says. Part of his objective is to encourage computer science teachers to incorporate social networking technologies into their curricula. However, critics warn that social networks are easily manipulated and prone to errors and vandalism, which could have a negative impact on a social health information network or crime monitoring effort. Shneiderman argues that the challenges of creating useful and reliable social networks is why more research is needed. “Coping with legitimate dangers such as privacy violations, misguided rumors, malicious vandalism, and infrastructure destruction or overload all demand careful planning and testing of potential software,” Shneiderman wrote in a letter to Science.”

I think it’s a great idea with the potential to help in many areas.

UPDATE 5/7: A copy of the Chronicle article is available here.

Eat your own dog food pâté

May 4th, 2009

This one is going into the ebiquity research archives.

John Bohannon, Robin Goldstein and Alexis Herschkowitsch, Can People Distinguish Pâté from Dog Food?, American Association of Wine Economists, AAWE Working Paper No. 36, April 2009.

“Considering the similarity of its ingredients, canned dog food could be a suitable and inexpensive substitute for pâté or processed blended meat products such as Spam or liverwurst. However, the social stigma associated with the human consumption of pet food makes an unbiased comparison challenging. To prevent bias, Newman’s Own dog food was prepared with a food processor to have the texture and appearance of a liver mousse. In a double-blind test, subjects were presented with five unlabeled blended meat products, one of which was the prepared dog food. After ranking the samples on the basis of taste, subjects were challenged to identify which of the five was dog food. Although 72% of subjects ranked the dog food as the worst of the five samples in terms of taste (Newell and MacFarlane multiple comparison, P<0.05), subjects were not better than random at correctly identifying the dog food.”

It puts a new spin on the concept of eating your own dog food.

Got a linguistic fluff problem?

May 4th, 2009

Finally, a way to remove all of that annoying ‘linguistic fluff’! A BBC article on Wolfram Alpha describes it as better than Google.

“A web tool that ‘could be as important as Google’, according to some experts, has been shown off to the public. Wolfram Alpha is the brainchild of British-born physicist Stephen Wolfram. The free program aims to answer questions directly, rather than display web pages in response to a query like a search engine.”

But wait, there’s more…

“In addition, he said, the system had got ‘pretty good at removing linguistic fluff’, the kinds of words that are not necessary for the system to find and compute the relevant data.”


Privacy and the law

May 3rd, 2009

The ABA Journal news blog has an post, Fordham Law Class Collects Personal Info About Scalia; Supreme Ct. Justice Is Steamed, on privacy and the law — or at least one very famous lawyer: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Joel Reidenberg teaches a course on information privacy law at Fordham University and illustrates the scale of the problem empirically.

“Last year, when law professor Joel Reidenberg wanted to show his Fordham University class how readily private information is available on the Internet, he assigned a group project. It was collecting personal information from the Web about himself. This year, after U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia made public comments that seemingly may have questioned the need for more protection of private information, Reidenberg assigned the same project. Except this time Scalia was the subject, the prof explains to the ABA Journal in a telephone interview.

His class turned in a 15-page dossier that included not only Scalia’s home address, home phone number and home value, but his food and movie preferences, his wife’s personal e-mail address and photos of his grandchildren, reports Above the Law.

And, as Scalia himself made clear in a statement to Above the Law, he isn’t happy about the invasion of his privacy: “Professor Reidenberg’s exercise is an example of perfectly legal, abominably poor judgment. Since he was not teaching a course in judgment, I presume he felt no responsibility to display any,” the justice says, among other comments.