Experiences of an Online Conference


Online Conference

Last month I attended a conference with a difference, The INSS annual meeting was held in 5 different cities at the same time, as well as online, in an attempt to cut down on travel for participants. I attended the London site and was one of only 2 people to fly to the event. This is remarkable considering that last year we all met in North Carolina and dozens of people flew internal and trans continental legs.

The physical Conference was held at UNC Charlotte in North Carolina, Oregon State university, Arizona State University, Michigan State University and University College London.

Very much an experiment, the practicalities of conducting a conference over several different time zones posed some issues, with early starts for those on the US West Coast and late finishes for those in Europe. The technology worked incredibly well, with very few glitches over the days’ events. Participants were able to ask questions, follow seminars in any of the sites they chose, and interact with the poster and key note presenters using online media.

The event was run out of North Carolina, and the web management was all taken care of from that site. I must say that I was rather skeptical at the beginning, having lived with Skype developments over the years, but how wrong could I be?

Communication Technology

The communication was taken care of using Adobe Connect, so anyone could participate through their own computer or by visiting any of the sites. We in London lost the last 5 minutes of a discussion after one of the lectures, but for the rest it all worked perfectly.

Now as someone who travels to a lot of these kinds of things I can only marvel at the progress made. Each site shared some seminars and papers, but all had different agendas. The London agenda included a day of field trips, as well as as a panel during which presenters discussed their experiences of building the Engineering Exchange, a university lead action group whose aim is to bridge the gap between communities and planners preparing urban regeneration projects. Read the abstract here.

We also toured some of the capital’s largest redevelopment projects, including a visit to Crossrail, a huge rail link and urban regeneration project that cuts through central London. A guided tour of the Elephant and Castle redevelopment area with the interest group “Social Life” followed, a context of urban regeneration that has caused many locals to question both existing and future plans in that area.

The context was also helped by the involvement of a member of a local interest group that aims to support people whose houses are under threat, and promote the idea of refitting houses to maintain communities, rather than rehousing and rebuilding. There is a lot more to think about in urban regeneration that you might imagine.

The Network

The closing panel was hosted in Charlotte and entitled Social Sustainability Initiatives in Planning and engineering Organization. Full details of all the participating site agendas can be found on the INSS website.

The network is open to all interested in participating, so keep an eye on the website for further information. We volunteer our time, we learn a lot, we try to raise social sustainability issues, and we always have a bit of a social at every event. I must say that the multi-site format was a worthy experiment that worked extremely well, and I think could offer a model for future events. Is the era of the online conference coming to life? Looks like it to me.

Maps or I Pads?


A few months ago I bought a so called smart phone just so that I could use it as a satellite navigation tool. I never wanted to do it, but now I live in a new country (again) and I really couldn’t do without it.

All went well, I got it together, I could use it offline so I didn’t spend all my money on data, but then….

It stopped working. It will still give me a route plan, with a blue line to follow, but the arrow stays at home, so I don’t know how far I am down the blue line.

Now, I still carry maps in the car with me of course, because I know as well as anyone does that you cannot rely on technology. It will always let you down at the very moment that you need it most. That is what it is designed for.

So I get the maps out and all is good. I am not glorifying the world of map reading though. My dad traveled the country with a suitcase full of AtoZ’s, individual city maps. You need a fair collection at $5 each just to cover the UK, and he had to stop the car to read them.

No need to stop the car now though, when the system works of course.

So it heartens me to read that American Airlines had to ground a load of their multi billion dollar fleet this week because one of their Apps stopped working. Yes we love to be paperless, saves on trees (and fuel if you are flying that paper round the world), but look what happens when something small goes wrong.

I like the story though, they had to drive back to the terminal and connect the I pad to the airport Wi-Fi and download something. Maybe that burnt more fuel and cost more runway time fees than the money saved by carrying a suitcase full of paper around.

When I was a kid each diary had a map of the world, a map of the UK and a London Underground map in the back pages. Now there is a serious piece of technology! You get it out, get your Swiss Army Knife with a built in compass to hand and you can navigate your way round the world without any problems.

Ask yourself a question, how many of the numbers in your phone do you actually know? I don’t even know my wife’s number, I lose the phone and I am like a lost child. But I can still remember the numbers that I used to dial 30 years ago of my school friend’s parents. My brain has lost the capacity to remember phone numbers, ambulance drivers and pilots have lost the capacity to read maps, and pretty soon we will collectively lose the capability to write with a pen and paper.

It alarms me that an airline relies on an I pad and an App, and without it the world of aviation (and the commerce that relies on it) falls apart. It also amuses me though.

How much money would it save the company in fuel if all American Airlines pilots went on a fitness regime and lost half a kilo? Maybe they could ditch the badges and wear lighter weight uniforms instead, I am sure there are more reliable means.

Smart Canes for the Blind


Last week I wrote about Martina Caironi and prosthetic limbs. Today I want to sort of continue the theme by looking at technological aids for the blind or visually impaired. Many readers will have smartphones in their hands and smartmeters in their homes, but I would like to introduce you all to the world of smart-canes.

A cane offers a lot of information to a blind user, but it tends to concentrate on the floor or at best below knee level. Users can avoid objects that are attached to the floor, but overhanging tree branches and other free standing objects are much more difficult to detect. I would like to take a look at two possible solutions, one produced in India and relatively low cost, and the other produced in the UK and relatively high cost.

The Smartcane is the Indian solution, see the photo above. It costs about $50 US, and its designers say it is innovative and user centric. It detects obstacles using sonic waves and the presence of obstacles is conveyed through intuitive vibratory patterns. It is powered using a rechargeable Li–ion battery, and is seperate from the cane, so the user attaches the technology to their existing cane.

The Specs (as taken from the website):

Adjustable detection range: User can switch between long (3 metre) and short (1.8 metre) range mode depending on the usage scenarios such as outdoor, indoor or crowded places.
Ergonomic grip for comfortable holding and cane tapping: Can be held by different gripping styles, allowing users to use their natural cane holding and mobility techniques.
High detection sensitivity: The sensors can detect a 3 centimetre wide pipe from 3 metres distance, ensuring reliable detection of objects in the detection range.
Four intuitive and distinctive vibration patterns indicating obstacle distance.
Vibrations are uniformly produced on the entire grip: Non-localized vibration feedback allows user to conveniently grip the device.
Does not interfere with the auditory environment surrounding the user Vibrations allow discreet continuous use without making the user conscious or creating annoyance to others
Adjustable sensor orientation: Allows people of different heights and with different cane holding styles to direct the sensors appropriately.
In-built rechargeable battery with a long battery back-up: Removing of batteries for charging is not required.
Fully accessible user interface: Simple and distinguishable beeps to convey the battery charge status, low battery warning and charging status.
Failure detection of key components: Users informed immediately on failure of sensors and/ or vibrator through special alarm signals.
Detects fast approaching objects in the detection range: Especially helpful in detection of reversing vehicles.
Easy attachment / detachment from a white cane: Allows for compatible white cane replacement by the user himself.
Multiple colour options: Available in two non- flashy and elegant colours
Robust design: Can withstand accidental fall
Splash proof: Prevents damage during light rain
Conforms to international quality standards

Sounds like a deal to me!
In the UK users can order the above or splash out on another product called Ultracane. The Ultracane works in a similar way to the Smartcane, but it is a single piece of equipment. You order the cane by length. It boasts more or less the same technical specs as the above, but the batteries are interchangeable (so it does not look as if they are rechargeable in situ), it has a strap to aid in holding it, it is foldable and has a replaceable tip. It works over 4 mtrs in front (further than the Smartcane) and 1.6 mtrs in an upward direction. It also has a twin range, choice of tip, is shower-proof, and is available in any colour you like as long as it’s white.



It costs somewhere in the region of $900 in the UK, has a 12 month guarantee and there is a service centre in case of accidents.

I am sure that much of the difference in price is due to development expenses, the Ultracane was very much on its own when it was developed, and has been on the market for several years. The website hosts many happy testimonials. I am pleased to see the development in India though, as it may give many in the developing world access to the kinds of aids that we in Europe have. Ultracane has also developed the Ultrabike, giving the partially sighted the chance to take to the bike paths in safety.

Check out the websites linked above for more information.

Marketing High Quality Digital Music, PONO

I have never managed to get into digital music for several reasons. I don’t like wearing headphones, I get paranoid as I hear people calling my name in the background, and I think that they distract people’s attention. This is really noticeable while I am riding my bike on the pavement with the kids. People who are walking while listening to headphones are less aware of their surroundings, they tend to zig zag while they are walking and they cannot hear you coming.

This report in Businessweek addressed the problem a few years ago, although it has many methodological issues, and this article on the Treehugger website offers similar data while raising some good questions about the intentions and interpretations.

In Kenya they seem to be taking the problem seriously and in fact it will soon be a traffic offense to cross roads in Mombasa while wearing headphones or on the phone if legislation proposed by the Mombasa County Assembly is approved.
So no headphones means I don’t have one of those miniature storage devices to listen to. But I have never really got into digital downloads either. The problem there is quality. I like vinyl, take a look at the photo below of my record player.

My Sharp Record Player

My Sharp Record Player

This is a beautiful machine, 1983, plays both sides of the record, sumptuous quality, style personified and even comes in a portable version (mine also runs on batteries but the speakers don’t attach as the portable versions do).

So I have never had a system to play digital music that is half as good as this, although recently I have got closer with the Studio Pro 4 speakers that I found by the side of the street here in Cambridge (see this post for details). But even taking that into account, the sound is just not the same.

I have a vinyl and CD copy of the Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats, and playing the two together the difference in enormous. The digital version is sharper and the sounds are purer, but that was not what the boys had in mind when they were recording it. On MP3 the differences are even more noticeable. But convenience rules nowadays, and streaming of low quality music reigns.

Now Niel Young is with me on this, as are Sting and various other musicians. Niel wants to offer high quality music reproduction to people like me, and is preparing to launch his new baby Pono.

The player looks a bit like a regular MP3 player, but the files are much bigger so not as easily stored or downloaded, but the quality is much higher (say those who are marketing it). You can find some statistics in the article above. The data would suggest a vast improvement in quality, but as ever the proof of the pudding as they say.

And there is a cost issue. The player will cost about $400, and an album maybe $25. This is obviously marketed at people who have some disposable income and are looking for quality, probably musicians in their 40’s just like me.

We might wonder how big the market is, but if we note that the project raised about $2.5 million on Kickstart in a few days, maybe there is enough money and enough people around to make it a success.

So the question is for the technology community, will you (or more importantly I)  buy it?