An Exciting Time for Cyclopath

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One of the premier research platforms around here is Cyclopath, a geowiki and route-finding service for Twin Cities bicyclists.

Now, we’ve expected Google’s announcement that they were getting into the bicycle routing business for some time. But that doesn’t mean yesterday was relaxed for us. 🙂

After sleeping on it, (and speaking for myself) I think this development is actually either neutral or good. We’re in a different niche than Google — we’re focused on open content and community, not just maps, and we’re strongly local with personal connections to the cycling community and local agencies. And on the plus side: almost all of the reactions from the community I saw on the social web were very supportive of us, and I’ve never seen so much passion at Cyclopath Headquarters as I did yesterday!

We’ll continue to write and publish consistent with our excellent track record (e.g., of the 5 papers we’ve submitted to top-tier conferences, 4 have been accepted on the first try and 2 have been nominated for Best Paper).

Details on what Google’s announcement means for Cyclopath, from the user perspective, are here.

Lastly, and off-topic, please follow @grouplens and @cyclopath_hq on Twitter!

The Minnesota Senate Recount: Is There HCI Research to Be Had?

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The drama here in Minnesota these days is the recount of the U.S. Senate race — and it’s dramatic: a difference of a couple of hundred votes out of 2.5 million cast, a hand recount, going to court, etc. Kind of like Florida in 2000, but more competent. (Minnesota Public Radio has good background coverage.)

But the most interesting part is the “challenged” ballots: these are ballots where the election judge doing the recounting wanted to classify the ballot one way, but a campaign observer objected. There are a few thousand of these ballots; most of them are fairly clearly frivolous, being done for PR reasons, and now the number of challenges is fluctuating day by day as the campaigns withdraw and unwithdraw challenges.

These ballots are now before the Canvassing Board, a 5-member panel convened by the Minnesota Secretary of State to determine the final disposition of each. You can watch the proceedings, live during the next few days or archived. Here’s a direct link to one 90-minute segment of today’s proceedings. (I was only able to make the link work on Internet Explorer. However, don’t use Explorer until you’ve patched the latest nasty zero-day vulnerability!)

I find the process fascinating. Each board member, and a lawyer for each campaign, has a binder containing photocopies of each challenged ballot. For each ballot, the committee chair (MNSOS Mark Ritchie) announces which ballot is being considered, and then makes a motion with a proposed disposition (“I move to reject the challenge and allocate this ballot to Coleman”). Simultaneously, the board members and lawyers examine their photocopies, and an aide passes the original ballot down the line of board members. The process takes a few tens of seconds for a ballot where there’s immediate agreement with the chair’s motion, and maybe a couple of minutes if there’s discussion.

Having the original ballots (Minnesota uses optical scan voting) is critical; some of the ballots which are clearly one way when viewing scans online are clearly something else when the original is viewed. (Example: The pen ran out of ink. The bubbles are blank in the scan, but on the original you can see the indentations in the paper where the voter tried to mark — clear voter intent, which means the vote must be counted under Minnesota law.)

Also, if the decision takes more than a few tens of seconds, the camera switches to a laptop feed, where there is someone manipulating a PDF viewer to show the ballot. You can see the mouse cursor and UI manipulations and everything.

It’s a very human process, with synchronization all accomplished by verbal announcement, at least one synchronization error (“Mr. Secretary, I missed the decision on ballot Minneapolis foo“), and occasional dry humor on the part of the committee members.

Bottom line, I think there’s some HCI research with a great story here. I think the basic premise is a case study of the human processes going into this laborious and monotonous task, with some participants having extreme vested interests, some but limited computerization, the need for high public visibility, and a very high-value outcome.

Who’s gonna do it?

(Crossposted to my personal blog.)

Why Python List Comprehensions Are Great

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So if you had the string

POST /wfs?request=Null&log&foo:bar=1,2:3,2:4,2&baz=x,y:y,z

and wanted to turn it into the list

['foo:bar:1,2', 'foo:bar:3,2', 'foo:bar:4,2', 'baz:x,y', 'baz:y,z']

How could you do it? Well, you could define a grammar & pass that into a parser… or you could have a pile or for loops…. Or, how about a triply-nested list comprehension contained within a reduce call? Like this!!!

[[(tag + ':' + value) for value in values.split(':')]
for (tag, values)
in [b.split('=') for b in a.split('&')[2:]]])

How many Americans have been Rickrolled?

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The Internet is a silly place, and one of the silliest phenomena is a meme known as Rickrolling — if you follow a link, expecting e.g. burrito recipes, and instead find yourself watching Rick Astley and a backflipping bartender explaining how Mr. Astley will never give you up nor desert you, you’ve been Rickrolled. And sometimes, you might be Rickrolled en masse — on April 1, all YouTube “Featured Videos” were really Rick Astley, and readers of and other sites engineered a coordinated and successful bid to place Rick Astley on the sing-along schedule for the April 8th New Yorks Mets game (fans booed).

Anyway, how many Americans have been Rickrolled? According to SurveyUSA — a highly respected polling firm well-known to political junkies — at least 18 million.

Underwhelmed by Google’s Knol

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A few days ago, as explained by Udi Manber, Google announced a new service, called Knol, which seems to have approximately the same goal as Wikipedia: to create a more or less comprehensive repository of useful knowledge. Because Google is the super-juggernaut du jour, there is a lot of speculation that Knol will be a Wikipedia killer.

I disagree (not a unique point of view). Frankly, I don’t find the Knol idea all that interesting, and if it wasn’t Google proposing it, I don’t think anyone would have noticed. The basic difference from the Wikipedia collective-authorship approach is that articles are "owned" by a single person. Others may rate, suggest content, etc., but the owner is the sole arbiter of what the article contains.

Here’s why I think Knol is uninteresting in 2007:

  1. No microcontributions. It’s impossible to make a tiny contribution (e.g. fixing a typo). Sure, you can suggest that the typo should be fixed. But there’s a lot of value in the immediate gratification: people like to see that the article is better right away due to their (tiny) efforts. In aggregate, microcontributions have lots of value in and of themselves, but they are also a good way to lead people to making macrocontributions.
  2. No effort at consensus. It is left to the reader to make sense of the several competing articles on a particular topic. One of the huge benefits of Wikepedia’s approach is that this onerous task is more or less done for you.
  3. Single point of failure in article maintenance. If an author loses interest in an article, it’s difficult or impossible for others to take over and continue work.

These problems are orthogonal to whether Google is able to successfully incentivize authors with money or recognition (things Wikipedia can’t do).

I do agree with Manber that many people who have knowledge often don’t share it because sharing is hard. But, I do not think the right way to make it easier is to introduce a new Knol-style service. Rather, I think adapting the Wikipedia approach to be friendlier is much more promising, for example by implementing a WYSIWYG editor and making policy less byzantine.

(Particularly welcome in the comments are links to interesting analyses of Knol.)