EuroFOO: Building a Tricorder

I was lucky enough to be invited not just to FOOCamp this year, but also its European counterpart, EuroFOO. Just like FOOCamp, which by the end of the two days had become known as ‘FooFoo’, EuroFOO was a fantastic gathering of really smart people who were happy to just chat about whatever it was that came up. I took more notes at EuroFOO than at FooFoo, and whilst I’m not going to blog all of them, I will give you some highlights.

Matt Jones, with help from Matt Webb and Simon Willison, ran a session on how to build a tricorder specifically for finding out more about your immediate environment, which split us up into three teams – one to work on some Python, one to think about the top-level design/functionality spec, and one to go out into the street and ask locals some questions. The questions were from Kevin Kelly’s ‘Big Here’, including:

1) Point north.
2) What time is sunset today?
3) Trace the water you drink from rainfall to your tap.
4) When you flush, where do the solids go? What happens to the waste water?
5) How many feet above sea level are you?
6) What spring wildflower is consistently among the first to bloom here?
7) How far do you have to travel before you reach a different watershed? Can you draw the boundaries of yours?
8) Is the soil under your feet, more clay, sand, rock or silt?
9) Before your tribe lived here, what did the previous inhabitants eat and how did they sustain themselves?
10) Name five native edible plants in your neighborhood and the season(s) they are available.

I joined the team working out the top-level spec, and the interesting thing to me was how everyone went off in different directions. I’ve seen this happen elsewhere – unless one or two people are holding the torch and saying ‘Follow me!’ the collaboration disintegrates. There was a lot of meta discussion, but not a huge amount of real collaboration.

We thought a bit about potential data sources, where you could get data about the environment and acts of nature. One person made a tangential but interesting point that children waste a lot of brain power on things like Pokemon cards, so why not do a set based on flowers, teaching them to identify native species, invaders, and weeds. Nice idea.

We talked about almanac data, how you map data onto a grid and whether postcode data is useful or GPS better. Talked about layers of data superimposed over the grid, such as a watershed layer which had info about the water table and which direction groundwater flows in.

Then we analysed how the original tricorder had sensors, but ours was not about sensing local conditions but conveying local information gathered asynchronously.

What technology is already out there to solve this problem? We already have a mobile phone, GeoDB, sources of information… so just need a model for interaction.

So the interface could be text based, map based, representative image based (e.g. an image of a landcape with the sunset/sunrise in the sun, tree with local flora information, etc.), or a 3D fly through like Second LIfe with a heads-up display.

At the end of the session, the three groups reported back. The most interesting thing came from the people who’d gone out to do interviews. They discovered that people find out that they are actually intrigued by the questions Kevin Kelly sets, and wanted to know the answers and how well they did. Mainly, they knew where North was, knew when sunset was, knew where the rubbish went, but not much else. Yet once their lack of knowledge was illustrated by their inability to answer these questions, they became curious to find out the real answers.

Interesting session, and it made me think a lot about motivation, education and the separation between man and environment.

EuroFoo06