Thanks, Jane.

April 29th, 2006

Jane Jacobs died this week. She permanently changed the way I think and see.

Her book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” overwhelmed me with feelings of serendipity and intimacy. It dug deep into a long series of my questions and observations about cities and neighborhoods and public spaces.

I kept bumping against these issues in the dark, struggling with common-sense suspicions that so much of the logic behind recent North American urban planning and housing development is just plain wrong and destructive — until Jacobs flipped on the spotlights and revealed the very real sources of those feelings.

She led me to an ongoing fascination with urban studies and architecture. I realized through Jacobs how important it is to understand the workings of places and flows of people in the city when designing new communications tech.

She underlined the need to break out of academic and professional echo chambers. To simply get out there and watch how things work, from the ground up. To plant the right seeds and get out of the way, rather than attempting to overdesign, to dictate, to predict the unpredictable.

She did all this through plain, passionate, human language, without an ounce of pedantry or arrogance.

Thanks Jane.


April 7th, 2006

Friends at Berkeley’s School of Information (formerly SIMS) are building something intriguing. It’s called Mycroft and it replaces Web site banner ads with tiny tasks for users to complete. In aggregate, all these tiny completed tasks can solve massive problems that computers can’t tackle on their own.

Here’s an example:

It’s still a student project but already you can publish the banners on your own site. Details here.

To take it further, consider: Mycroft presents each puzzle piece to multiple users to verify the solution(s). So the second or third time a puzzle piece appears, why not present it in a different setting: not as a Web banner ad, but as a captcha test for someone creating a new account on a Web site? (Captcha tests are those “type the letters you see in this scrambled image” tasks that verify you’re a human.)

So when verifying that a new user is human, Web sites could offer a Mycroft test and boost their revenues or help solve problems for nonprofits — with no extra work or hassle for users. That’s powerful stuff.

[tags]global brain, mycroft, mechancial turk, captcha, berkeley, sims[/tags]