192021

Richard Saul Wurman, prolific explainer and the creator of the TED conference, is back with a 5-year project called 19.20.21 to try and work out what makes urban environments tick. This is long overdue:  over half the world’s population lives in cities, rising to 2/3 by 2050. By analysing 19 supercities with more than 20 million inhabitants, the project:

“will lead to a common means electronically, in print and real time, to comparatively describe the demographics , economies, health data and environmental data as it relates to the urban world.” (from 192021.org)

The powerful idea at the heart of this is that whereas the world used to be thought of as power struggles between countries, it  is now “A Globe of Cities”:

“today, people think of the world as a network of cities – not a network of countries. We visit London, Paris or Rio de Janeiro, rather than England, France or Brazil. The world is now linked through mass channels of communication and transportation, managed by a patchwork of public and private interests.”

So what?

Cities grow organically and are the product of their host cultures, so it is no surprise that there is variation – in sanitation, transport, health, education, quality of life, crime etc… But how do you describe these differences? The words “crime”, “quality of life”, “public transport” may have literal translations in the languages of the world, but subtle variations in meaning are too much for a simple dictionary entry.  

To understand these factors you need to have lived in both cities long enough to have experienced the right things. Worse, even people who have been fully assimilated in several cities would mostly have experienced them in a deeply personal way. If you spent your primary school years in London, secondary school in New York and university in Mumbai, could you really comment on their respective educational systems?

And even if you could explain the differences on a completely objective level, you’d still have to consider the perspective of the other culture. The exact same meal, maths lesson or knee operation might be seen as fantastic, adequate or deeply disappointing depending on expectations.  

That’s why it’s so hard to answer the question asked by someone from a different city or country: “What it’s like where you’re from?”

19.20.21 = a common yardstick

Getting to the point where applicable lessons can be drawn from the world’s largest cities may take longer than 5-years, but the findings should be fascinating. Hopefully, the outcome will be a set of concrete design patterns which city planners can use to improve the lives of their citizens while reducing the environmental burden of urbanisation. These must do two things. 1) create an objective way to measure the success of a city’s elements, 2) make it possible to transfer these elements elsewhere.

Finding a common scoring system can kick start progress: take the introduction of the Apgar scoring of a newborn’s health, which slashed the mortality rate of babies in childbirth:

The Apgar score, as it became known universally, allowed nurses to rate the condition of babies at birth on a scale from zero to ten. An infant got two points if it was pink all over, two for crying, two for taking good, vigorous breaths, two for moving all four limbs, and two if its heart rate was over a hundred. Ten points meant a child born in perfect condition. Four points or less meant a blue, limp baby.
The score was published in 1953, and it transformed child delivery. It turned an intangible and impressionistic clinical concept—the condition of a newly born baby—into a number that people could collect and compare. Using it required observation and documentation of the true condition of every baby. Moreover, even if only because doctors are competitive, it drove them to want to produce better scores—and therefore better outcomes—for the newborns they delivered.
Around the world, virtually every child born in a hospital had an Apgar score recorded at one minute after birth and at five minutes after birth. It quickly became clear that a baby with a terrible Apgar score at one minute could often be resuscitated—with measures like oxygen and warming—to an excellent score at five minutes. Spinal and then epidural anesthesia were found to produce babies with better scores than general anesthesia. Neonatal intensive-care units sprang into existence. Prenatal ultrasound came into use to detect problems for deliveries in advance. Fetal heart monitors became standard. Over the years, hundreds of adjustments in care were made, resulting in what’s sometimes called “the obstetrics package.” And that package has produced dramatic results. In the United States today, a full-term baby dies in just one out of five hundred childbirths, and a mother dies in one in ten thousand. If the statistics of 1940 had persisted, fifteen thousand mothers would have died last year (instead of fewer than five hundred)—and a hundred and twenty thousand newborns (instead of one-sixth that number).

The Apgar score, as it became known universally, allowed nurses to rate the condition of babies at birth on a scale from zero to ten. An infant got two points if it was pink all over, two for crying, two for taking good, vigorous breaths, two for moving all four limbs, and two if its heart rate was over a hundred. Ten points meant a child born in perfect condition. Four points or less meant a blue, limp baby.

The score was published in 1953, and it transformed child delivery. It turned an intangible and impressionistic clinical concept—the condition of a newly born baby—into a number that people could collect and compare. Using it required observation and documentation of the true condition of every baby. Moreover, even if only because doctors are competitive, it drove them to want to produce better scores—and therefore better outcomes—for the newborns they delivered.

Around the world, virtually every child born in a hospital had an Apgar score recorded at one minute after birth and at five minutes after birth. It quickly became clear that a baby with a terrible Apgar score at one minute could often be resuscitated—with measures like oxygen and warming—to an excellent score at five minutes. Spinal and then epidural anesthesia were found to produce babies with better scores than general anesthesia. Neonatal intensive-care units sprang into existence. Prenatal ultrasound came into use to detect problems for deliveries in advance. Fetal heart monitors became standard. Over the years, hundreds of adjustments in care were made, resulting in what’s sometimes called “the obstetrics package.” And that package has produced dramatic results. In the United States today, a full-term baby dies in just one out of five hundred childbirths, and a mother dies in one in ten thousand. If the statistics of 1940 had persisted, fifteen thousand mothers would have died last year (instead of fewer than five hundred)—and a hundred and twenty thousand newborns (instead of one-sixth that number). (Atul Gawande in the New Yorker – also a story in his incredible book, Better)

Without a common yardstick, how can you know who has gone the farthest? 

Or what about the impact on trade and industrialisation of common standards for railway gauges, shipping containers or even the metric system itself. In The Box, former finance economics editor for The Economist Marc Levinson explains how “an iconoclastic entrepreneur, Malcom McLean, turned containerization from an impractical idea into a massive industry that slashed the cost of transporting goods around the world and made the boom in global trade possible.” From the first chapter:

Some scholars have argued that reductions in transport costs are at best marginal improvements that have had negligible effects on trade flows. This book disputes that view. In the decade after the container first came into international use, in 1966, the volume of international trade in manufactured goods grew more than twice as fast as the volume of global manufacturing production, and two and a half times as fast as global economic output. Something was accelerating the growth of trade even though the economic expansion that normall stimulates trade was weak. Something was driving a vast increase in internationl commerce in manufactured goods even though oil shocks were making the world economy sluggish. While attributing the vast changes in the world economy to a single cause would be foolhardy, we should not dismiss out of hand the possibility that the extremely sharp drop in freight costs played a major role in increasing the integration o fthe global economy.   

What are the equivalent costs of interaction between cities? What stops cities sharing more ideas on how to make urban environments fit both for people and for the planet?

I hope that this project will help identify the ideas which have worked best, and somehow explain them clearly enough that cities of any culture will be able to apply them. As many people as live in the entire planet today will live in cities in 2050. That’s why 19.20.21 matters, and I hope it succeeds.

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The camera never lies

December 17, 2008

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what happens when your computer can give those words a rewrite, mix them with other passages and generally treat them like newspaper scraps on a ransom note?

Eventually we won’t need a file system to browse our pictures – we will probably virtually walk through the places we’ve been with our photos like paintings on the wall of a gallery (with those of others there too). We are also getting closer to the day where images can be manipulated at a higehr level than the manual, pixel by pixel way we are used to: “I’d like a field with four golfers in it, overlooking the sea. Great, just pan left 30% and make the grass greener. Done.” With a large enough archive of images and the kind of technologies below, that scenario is not far off.

Here are a couple of great examples which can already be used and one more on the horizon.

Seadragon/Photosynth

“You familiar with Photosynth?”

“Yes… Taking a large collection of photos, analysing the similarities and displaying them in a reconstructed three dimensional space?”

“Exactly. Build me a high school gym.”

Developer conference? Nope. This is from Microsoft Photosynth’s airing in an episode of CSI earlier this year. As Microsoft put it, Photosynth is a perfect example of a tool creating a 1 + 1 = 5 scenario, where the thousands of pictures uploaded to the likes of Flickr can be combined to create a seamless three dimensional environment. Try it.

The cool news? The technology on which Photosynth is based just hit the iPhone. It’s called Seadragon, was built by a small Seattle area startup acquired by Microsoft in 2006, and allows you to seamlessly zoom in and out of a gigapixel scale image. Try it out in your browser or check out the iPhone demo.

Also check out Blaise Aguera y Arcas’s groundbreaking demo of Photosynth at TED 2007

Source

…and on CSI!

Seam carving: resizing no longer considered harmful.

contentawareresizing

This is an awesome technology originally developed by Israeli researchers Shai Avidan and Ariel Shamir. When you resize an image normally, you squash everything in it. With seam carving you only touch the parts that matter least. In other words, the golfers stay fat, but the sky and grass around them gets progressively removed.

This video by the researchers is the best way of getting a handle on the possibilities: the principle of seam carving also makes it possible to enlarge images without stretching them and selectively remove parts of a picture (e.g. you could pick a golfer and make them disappear more convincingly than traditional techniques). Check it out below. The paper also makes good reading.

The cool news: it’s in Photoshop CS4, which was released in October (yes, I know GIMP had it first). They call it “Content Aware Scaling”, and have a video demo here – (yep, the golfers).

Talking of Adobe: Infinite Images

On a continuing theme of algorithmically creating new images from the old, Adobe are playing around with a tool which takes any picture, finds other similar pictures and seamlessly stitches them into an infinitely pannable and zommable virtual environment.

Essentially, this is Photosynth, but instead of sticking to images of the same thing it grabs anything that fits the bill. Grainy footage from Adobe MAX 2008, via ReadWriteWeb.

What will happen when anyone can mash up two images and create a picture of a place that looks absolutely real? What other technologies are getting us closer to this world?