Sunday, October 29, 2017

Smart Cities - Where are they now?

I have become highly interested in Smart City technology. Not just because of the potential for improvement in the efficiency and management of public resources and services. But because we are at the emergence of another transformation in technology. Another jump in capability, and with it the disruption of the status quo. The negation and rapid decline of old, established business models and the appearance, and rapid adoption of new ones. And I am fascinated by the public opinion, policy and ethical implications around where this will take us.

This is not unlike the emergence of the Web in the mid-90s which disrupted the publishing and media industries and retails sales business model. The tail end of this is still being played out today with large established retailers going by the wayside. Shopping malls have become ghost towns. Amazon rules, and continues to dominate, the online retail space.

Today the emerging tech platforms are the Internet of Things ("wearable web servers") and the miniaturization of technology into the palm of our hand, coupled with the continued advances in ultra-high speed wireless networks and cloud computing, will have a profound effect on our environment at home, in our communities and in our economies and daily lives. There are huge possibilities in better management of our environments, as well as huge risks as Internet access becomes ubiquitous - everywhere and everything.

In recent years, Smart Cities programs and projects have been started all over the world. In the US, a Smart Cities Initiative was officially launched under the Obama administration in 2015, including some allocation of Federal research funding of projects in areas including public safety/ emergency response, transportation, energy efficient/ low emission, environmental monitoring, open public data, and public/private partnerships. But Smart Cities projects and initiatives have been going on since the early 2010s.

The City of Portland where I live has a Smart Cities Initiative and is proposing a number of pilot projects to research, test and evaluate the application of emerging technology. In transportation, the development of self driving features and the goal of autonomous vehicles will have a profound effect on the local environment and economy. Once cars are autonomous, you don't need to park. An autonomous vehicle acts like a chauffeur driven car. Once you are dropped off, it can drive itself somewhere else. Return home, or perhaps even go out and "work" by providing car share rides to other people. The parking business is huge, occupying a lot of space within city limits, and particularly within core, downtown areas. Both private (parking garages) and public (street parking) derive revenue and provide jobs to monitor and maintain these facilities. Technology has certainly already impacted the jobs in these businesses with parking attendants/cashiers being replaced by kiosks. But autonomous vehicles will basically put these businesses out of business. And the City? Currently the City derives a lot of revenue from parking. Once this revenue begins to dry up, what will replace it?

Autonomous vehicles will also impact the auto-industry. Car ownership has been the bedrock of American society since the 1950s, and it is still a primary way that people commute, and also get around town to meetings, events, visit friends and family. However, it is horribly inefficient. Many families have multiple cars, which predominantly sit in the driveway at home or in parking lots. 99% of the time. Once we have autonomous vehicles, they can be put to work, rather than have them sitting around. Once everyone is sharing their cars, the cost of ride sharing plummets (supply and demand). Once cars use alternate energy (electric and related electricity generating technology), they can be refueled off alternative grids. It is estimated that we have 8-12 times the number of vehicles in circulation than we need to meet our transportation requirements. The need to purchase cars will become obsolete. Car companies already lease cars as an alternative to purchasing. Car sharing programs like Car2Go and ZipCars already provide on demand renting of cars. A logical extension of this is that in the future car manufacturers or car sharing companies will have fleets of autonomous cars that you can simply hail on demand.

Autonomous vehicles will also impact the shipping and trucking industry which is currently a huge employer. Self driving trucks can drive longer and further without the need for sleep. For a while, we may need an operator in the truck in case of issues, but eventually even this will not be necessary. What will happen to all these employees? Where will they get new work. Couple that with the drone and UAV developments that even commercial TV and movies have portrayed taking over the delivery of physical items, and eventually people, it is going to look a whole lot like Marty McFlys future, even though it will be a little later than October 2015.

Which brings me back to my interest in all this. Basically, we need to be doing the research and planning for this now. Technology has a habit of developing regardless of intent, and if we are not thoughtful about the individual decisions we make, and the path that we set ourselves on, we could end up in a future that we will feel we did not choose or want. We have to think holistically, and look at the broader ramifications. Robots have been predicted and shown to replace human jobs for years. Whilst there will be a need for humans to work alongside, and to support and repair robots, these jobs will be a minute fraction of the jobs that will be lost. Japan realized this problem already, and also the impact on the new business model that made people unemployed. Basically, that you have to be careful not to cut off the hand that feeds you. If people do not have jobs, and well paying jobs, they will be unable to afford all the products that the robots are making. And the factories will be shutdown. So at the same time we are switching to these new business models and economies, we need to be thinking about the humans involved, the potential impacts, and how to mitigate or prepare for them. You need a Holistic Technology Guru!


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Just because you can, doesn't mean you should...or at the very least you need to think it through first!

But the crowning glory of my technology and travel experience had to be hiring/ renting a car in the UK.

Driving in the UK is now apparently so dangerous, that my parents automobile insurance can no longer cover non-resident UK citizens! I find it absolutely fascinating that I am no longer allowed to drive their car with permission, even though I am a direct relation, hold a current UK drivers license, and am an experienced driver (>30 years). I could not even drive my father home from the airport to save him driving both ways. It would seem that I have been driving too long on the wrong side of the road, in a third world country (USA) that has no drivers licensing and non existent traffic laws. Of course, I am sure my parents could have paid more money to add additional coverage to their insurance. And maybe, this new rule was due to people registering and insuring their cars through their parents at a cheaper senior citizen rate. But I digress...

With Josephine in high school, she has begun to seriously consider universities and colleges that she would like to attend. Being an Oxford man (alumnus), I wanted to be sure to tour some of the colleges and drop by the admissions office while we were in the UK. We also has some friends setup a tour of the Other Place (Cambridge) with someone who teaches music and has "access," i.e., knows the porters and college staff. So we rented a car from Enterprise in Canterbury after we got back from Paris. The pickup process and paperwork was standard, nothing weird from technology standpoint, except for a little statement in the contract that leasees were responsible for any tickets or infractions gained whilst driving the car. Makes sense. Same anywhere in the world really. It did make me think though as I know that the UK make wide use of speed cameras and mailing speeding tickets to the registered owner of the car, in this case Enterprise, and then they would forward the ticket with a £35 administrative fee. So I took careful note of this, and proceed to drive the car very carefully up to Cambridge.

The obvious route from my parents is around the M25 London Orbital motorway (freeway), also affectinately referred to as the "Jam Doughnut" due to the regularity with which it gets backed up with traffic. The eastern section has to cross the Thames estuary at Dartford. For the longest time there was a 4 lane Dartford tunnel, and more recently a suspension bridge called the Dartford crossing, which allows another 4 lanes clockwise, to the tunnels 4 lanes counter-clockwise. A toll has been in place pretty much forever, and used to involve toll booths where you threw in your couple of quid (£1-2, $2-3). When we crossed this year, the booths were gone! Yay! No more tolls? Err, not so fast. A sign to the side of the road informed drivers to go online to dart.com to pay. £2.50 for a car. Failure to do so would result in enforcement and fines. Fortunately, I knew what was going on, and logged on once we got to our friends house and paid using my debit card. The website correctly identified the number plate and I paid the £2.50. I also got a receipt for the payment indicating the date and time. So I thought all was good, being responsible for any charges while renting the car.

You can imagine my surprise when three weeks later a received a DART violation letter from Enterprise, and notification of a £35 fee to my credit card per the terms of the rental agreement. I called DART and requested clarification. They explained that while I had paid, it was possible that my payment had been applied to an outstanding toll charge on an earlier day. I was directed to completed on contestation form online and provide proof of payment, which I did. I am still trying to clear things up with Enterprise. 

So it would appear that some high tech company sold the British government on yet another application of number plate recognition. I am sure that they extolled the reduction in peak use congestion around the old coin toll booths, and the easy and efficiency of digital financial transactions. Unfortunately, according to my parents, the new DART charge has been an operational disaster and public relations nightmare. It has created a huge volume of customer service inquiries, complaints, fee and fine corrections in addition to the enforcement work. All this extra work was overlooked due to poor research and analysis before implementation. I was then informed that processing my DART contestation could now take up to 48 days, up from the original 30 days. I also noticed on the drive that there were no signs with alternate languages for foreign visitors and tourists who would not have a clue about the toll. And I am not even sure whether DART would have access to other countries drivers license information to know who to send the letters and fines to. 

I would love to see the hidden administration burden and cost the new DART system has created that was never included in the original business case. And if that could well have changed, or at least influenced, the decision if it had been known up front. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

That's a really cool use of technology...but what's going on behind the curtain?

The next experience with modern technology in the UK was at the Heathrow car park/ parking garage. My father was at the airport to meet us. We came into the new Terminal 2 with a very swish, clean and efficient experience through to baggage claim. We then made our way to the car. I noticed that they have space monitoring (IR-motion sensors over every parking spot). That's pretty standard. We have had the same technology in the Portland, Oregon airport for longer than Heathrow. This allows you instantly know how many spaces are available and where. The sensors have a visible light that glows red when occupied and green when available. Reader boards as you drive in tell you the number of spaces available on each floor.

The difference at Heathrow? They have installed digital cameras pointing at every parking slot, and these are setup to do number plate recognition. Outside the elevator is a little computer kiosk with a sign "Locate your car." Type in your number plate, and the kiosk will find your car, show you a picture and direct you to it!  Pretty cool idea. No idea how well it works, but I overheard people in the car park who were also pretty impressed by the service.

I would seem though that the real reason for the technology is tracking payment. The system can monitors who has paid and not paid digitally. When you go to the pay booth/ kiosk, you enter your license plate, it shows you a picture and you pay for your parking. No need to display a ticket in your window any more. And the system knows when you arrived and when you left. No need to have any poorly paid meter maids or parking enforcement employees. Park and don't pay? The system will use your car's number plate to access your address, and send you a parking fine/ violation in the mail.

I saw this technology in use all over the UK. In other pay and display car parks (Oxford Park & Ride), and the City of London uses license plate recognition to enforce its Congestion Fee, which is assessed on all vehicles going in the center of London during peak hours (mainly day time).

Not sure if any of the public had any concerns about the privacy implications. My first thought was who gets access to this data, and why? The UK is the most digital and CCTV monitored population in the world. And it seems to be getting worse. Austerity measures after the global recession have resulted in huge cuts to government services and programs. There are fewer police to enforce the laws and consequently an ever increasing reliance on technology to do the work. Police departments now have technicians sitting in control centers watching hundreds of video feeds looking for anything that warrents sending a car. If this sounds Orwellian to you, then you are of the same mind as me. Don't know Orwellian? Download "1984" by George Orwell and read it!

Ultimately the use of number plate reading technology in car parks will become common place where the business can justify the cost, and the cost continues to drop. Unfortunately in this case it means laying off (or reassigning) people checking parking stickers. But there will be an additional administrative cost dealing with customer service complaints and corrections where the technology misses the mark. Where the technology works well, the public will accept it. Of course the converse is also true and leads to public outrage. I will cover a "fail" example next.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Look before you leap...or when implementing new technology, test, test,test!

My recent trip to back to the UK (December 2015) was an interesting technology user experience. I currently live in the USA, on the West Coast in Portland, Oregon. I work in Information Technology, or IT as a Business Technology Manager within the City of Portland. So working in the public sector, I am always on the look out for great and effective uses of technology as I travel around, live, play and work. So my latest trip back to the British Isles, and a side trip over to Paris, France was no exception. The British and American civilizations are very comparable in their use of technology, however there are very interesting differences in their adoption and application.

So the first experience when traveling is the airline check-in, and the industry move to computer kiosks rather than check-in agents. This move has been going on for some time, so the airlines have had plenty of opportunity to field test and make improvements to their online website and physical kiosk check-in. But for some reason for me, traveling internationally causes these to error out pretty much all the time. I think it is the need to have/scan passports, and all the additional information and security that occurs for international travel. And I have a green card which probably the last straw that throws the system. I never have a problem with domestic travel where my credit card and driver's license work just fine. Passports now have chips in them but the airlines either don't have access to them, or need to upgrade all their equipment in order to read the chips.

No real difference here between the US and UK check in other than the fact that UK airport and airline staff don't want to believe that the kiosk check-in doesn't work, almost yelling at me when I try to locate and walk over to a manned desk to get assistance. US staff still seem better trained in customer service and are more helpful when you have problems with the machines.

Immigration and border control still have the all too familiar long lines/ queues, and have relied on 'real' immigrant officers. Though recently, I have seen the move to technology in this area. The UK has some unmanned immigration stations for British passport holders who have chip enabled passports. You place your passport on a 'reader' and then look into a camera. First time I used it, I stood for ages before it let me through. It had me worried for a bit. I can only assume that it was creating an entry for me in the 'digital' tracking database, and possibly doing face recognition and confirmation with my stored image. Your travel group all needs to have the upgraded passports to use this, so since I do not travel alone very much, I have not used it much.

The US has begun to use kiosk technology for immigration. I have seen a couple of 'voluntary' and 'fast pass' kiosks in recent years, obviously doing some early testing. On our last trip through Vancouver BC (which has a US immigration presence for flights to the US), we used kiosks that collect the same information as you provide on a US Landing Card, and you use the machine as a family unit. This seemed to be a pilot installation and there were staff helping people use the machines. My wife and daughter were successful, but I was rejected after three attempts. The flash on the camera was incorrectly adjusted, and over-exposing everyone's faces. The machine was obviously trying to do face recognition but it was failing due to the poor photo quality. Successful people collected a receipt from the machine (in place of your landing card), but either way you were still interviewed by an immigration officer. Whilst it was frustrating dealing with the pilot kiosks, I applaud the US immigration for testing the technology out, and getting feedback, rather than rushing to implement fully unmanned immigration processing. The US continues to use more biometrics on Resident Aliens and tourist visitors collecting finger prints and a photo at immigration.

More to come on my travels. Up next,
"That's a really cool use of technology...but what's going on behind the curtain?"


Saturday, February 13, 2016

The pitfall of modern, mobile technology, undermining human connection and local communities

Don't get me wrong, I LOVE technology. I am interested in the successful and appropriate use and implementation rather than just having the latest gizmo, gadget, or mobile app. I am interested in usability, accessibility, ethical, privacy/security of technology. Especially as the world becomes more and more digitally dependent and connected. Few people seem to be asking why, not because they don't want or need the new technology, but whether we are actually better off with it. And what is the human cost of having the new function or capability. Companies will always tout the benefits in order to get us to buy their products. But they very rarely point out the downsides unless there is a large public safety concern like texting and driving. 

I ride the bus to work every day, and have done for about 20 years. Back in the 90s, people on the bus would be reading newspapers and books, and would be listening to music on their Walkman or iPod. but even with this technology, people would be talking amongst themselves, with their friends or coworkers, or would strike up conversations about the news or the book that they were reading. Fast forward to today (in the 10s), and everyone has their heads down on their mobile devices. Conversations are rare...the bus is eerily quiet. Go to a restaurant today, and friends and families are face down in their mobile phones and not conversing over the dinner table. Mobile technology that connects us over distance seems to be disconnecting us face-to-face. 

I am not the only person to notice this. In fact more and more people seem to be pointing it out, though it's amuzing to me that they report it like it is some amazing discovery. There certainly seems to be an addictive nature to mobile, at-your-fingertips information and communication. People acknowledge it, and the potential impact, but keep right on doing it. The original tech addiction was the Crack-berry, people addicted to their Blackberry phone with text and email delivered instantly, and all the time. The younger generation are often singled out as the addicted generation, but I have seen all generations doing it. Save the senior citizens who probably never experienced or saw a need for mobile data. But I predict that if they were shown it and allow to immerse themselves, many would succumb. And of course, there are those in any generation, that don't see the need and actively avoid the mobile technology. Probably fewer in the younger/ teen generation as there is so much peer pressure there. 

The concern as I see it is the impact on human relationships, and the ability to reach out and relate to the human beings around us. To learn human relationships through social media, and online media, provides an often warped perspective, open to extreme and negative assumptions about others. This leads to rigid beliefs, judgement, name calling and isolation (HATE). When you get to meet people face to face, understand them and relate to them, there is the possibility of empathy, affinity and community (LOVE). Which would you prefer for the human race? So next time you are on the bus, or having dinner, put down the mobile technology, look around you, and reach out to someone you don't know, or reconnect to someone you do. It may be difficult at first. You may go into some level of tech withdrawal, and feel a bit awkward. Hang in there! You will work it through, and you will be surprised how much better you will feel. 


Thursday, September 07, 2006

Can mobile computer users live without QWERTY?

I was following an interesting discussion on the OnTheRun with Tablet PCs show #28 podcast about whether Tablet PC users can live without a keyboard. This issues is increasingly cropping up as people consider the tablet and UMPC models over the traditional laptop (folding screen and keyboard). Apparently there are a lot of apprehensive laptop PC users about there who think that they will suffer keyboard withdrawal symptoms if they switch to a non-QWERTY keyboard, mobile PC platform. This demonstrates the usual problem that new technology faces...the fear of change.

I vaguely remember all the knashing of teeth that occured when the WIMP (windows, icons, menus and pointers) desktop replaced the terminal interfaces (UNIX, DOS). Apple did it first (oh, those eccentric Mac users) and then Microsoft followed (didn't they steal the idea...or perhaps Apple stole it from Xerox). Of course, today people think you are crazy if you are not using a windowed environment (and all the lawsuits finally went away). But, at the time, computer users could imagine a world without a terminal interface. And guess what, it is still there for those people who cannot be without it.

Picture of Typewriter
(from Wikipedia)

I am convinced that mobile computing will not become a true reality until we get away from the aged, QWERTY, typewriter based method of text input. Forcing people to hunch over their laptops in airline seats, perched on a wall or bench, or the floor at many events I attend, is just plain crazy! Or perhaps it demonstrates to what lengths we will go and what we will tolerate not to do things differently.

The obvious solution from human-computer interaction experts is that we will talk, poke and scrawl on our computers. They have been researching and predicting this for quite some time. I remember using MacInTalk on the Mac 10 years ago. However, even with the numerous new versions of speech recognition engines, we are still limited to quiet environments, one person at a time, and "no non-native American English speakers please!" As for handwriting recognition, you still have to write like my daughter is learning to in her 1st grade class (nice well formed letters), which is not very practical or fast. Increasing speed and writing cursive results in an instant drop in recognition accuracy. Picture of a Twiddler keyer

Picture of a Twiddler keyer
(from Wikipedia)

My Newton MessagePad was capable of this level of recognition 10 years ago! The other ironic fact is that handwriting is vast becoming a dying art in the age of computer laptops and word-processing anyway.

So what are the other options? Well, the wearable computing geeks have been trying out all sorts of mobile chording keyboards and keyers. These have certainly been great prototypes of how to do data entry using one hand and on-the-go, however they have never received wide attention or adoption. This has been in part due to the fact that the hardware is tricky to setup and learn, but also because most users feel comfortable with the familiar QWERTY keyboard and using a computer while sitting at a desk.

Picture of an EkaPad in use


An exciting new option for the road warrior is the EkaPad (www.ekatetra.com), a 12-key, handheld pocket USB keyboard. This keyboard requires no flat desk surface and fits the hand in its naturally relaxed position. What is lost in two-handed typing speed is more than made up for in its ergonomics and ability for ubiquitous use by requiring only one hand, e.g., while walking a warehouse floor, operating machinery and automobiles. And this keyboard is simply plug 'n play (no drivers required) since it appears to the computer as a standard IBM or Mac USB keyboard.

see earlier blog, Cool Road Warrior Mobile PC Platform, 8/31/06.

The move to laptops challenged people to unchaining themselves from their desks, but not from the QWERTY keyboard. The move to tablets and PDA-sized computers is now challenging users to unchain themselves from QWERTY keyboards. It has to happen. It will happen...eventually.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Cool Mobile PC platform for the Road Warrior

The Samsung Q1 and EkaTetra EkaPad

View of Q1 and EkaPad from the front, users perspective
The UMPC (ultra mobile personal computer) is a new platform most easily described as a half-tablet PC configuration, about the size of my old paper Filofax and Newton PDA (more below). I am evaluating the Samsung Q1 which is the only model I can currently find that is shipping from resellers (www.cdw.com). It runs Windows XP Tablet Edition that adds voice and handwriting recognition capability. Mouse input is replaced by a touch screen and stylus. It has been compared to the Newton MessagePad 2000 which it certainly reminds me of, however this is no solid state device. It packs a 40GB hard drive, 512MB RAM and a high-res, bright color screen. This of course is its achilles heel since the battery life is no longer than your typical laptop (2-3 hours intensive use). A far cry from the MP2000's 8-10h capability. For more in depth reviews, check out,
I am excited about the new UMPC platform mainly for the drop in bulk (& weight) I have been waiting for. This is mostly due to the removal of the built-in keyboard, in favor of hand & voice recognition. Of course neither of these technologies is still ready for prime time. Even though the Dragon NaturallySpeaking and XP Voice claim 95-99% efficiency this is still limited to a "quiet office" environment. Add some background noise or a second person to the mix, and goodbye useful voice recognition. Handwriting recognition still suffers from the fact that in reality most people are atrocius at handwriting, and it is ironically getting worse as handwriting becomes less and less used or practiced in the digital age.

I have been beta testing the Q1 with the new Ekatetra (www.ekatetra.com) one-handed, USB keypad, called the EkaPad. This 12-key, handheld, chording keypad is an exciting development in the art and science of text and data entry that finally captures the needs of on-the-go text
entry in a device that is only slightly larger than a business card. It emulates both standard Mac or Windows full-size keyboards, and is therefore completely plug n' play on USB systems. The EkaPad can be used in either hand (no handedness in the design), and in any physical position, e.g., standing up, sitting down, lying on your back, etc. Obviously operating a chording keyboard is different to a QWERTY keyboard, but the EkaPad is easy to set up and learn using the variety of tools supplied and online support available. And you can practice as you go by placing a handy reference card called the "cheat sheet" on your computer's screen.
The Q1 and the EkaPad complement one another perfectly. You can key-in text to the UMPC with one hand comfortably by your side rather than both pronated on a desktop. Or you can use the EkaPad in one hand and the stylus or a USB mouse in the other. The EkaPad is held in the hand by the use of a thumbstrap called the EkaHand, which despite its size and simplicity actually took over two years to develop. But once installed correctly and comfortably, it works like a charm.


View of Q1 and EkaPad from the side, device depth perspective
Alternatively, the EkaPad can be attached anywhere using the EkaHand strap or a strip of DuoLock™. So I was actually able to mount the keypad to the back of the Q1, and then enter text while holding the Q1 in both hands. The only thing missing was a thumb joystick for my right hand (something to give the UMPC developers to think about!). The sky is the limit with this keyboard. I am already imagining be able to perform text-entry while walking/jogging though I doubt I will be able to Web browse with this screen since due to it's fine resolution/pitch. But a larger external screen mounted could make it as easy to read as news/magazine print.


So be honest, when was the last time you where able to open your laptop in a coach airplane seat, use a laptop while seated in the car, or curl up on the sofa with a good laptop? This is a really cool mobile computer & keyboard combination that allows you to comfortably enter text into your computer in more unconventional, relaxed and informal settings.

Summary
I have to agree that the battery life is a major downside of the Q1 since most ambulatory computer users need at least 8 hours to pull a shift or a day's work. But on the whole the UMPC is a step in the right direction, and the Ekapad is a great little mobile keypad.