Making Connections

E-mail Melanie Martella

What do a mine text messaging service, a collaborative education resource, a jailed journalist, and social networking sites have in common? A surprising amount, as it turns out. All involve new ways of connecting with information and other people.

Mine Safety
According to a press release on Business Wire, the U.S. Dept. of Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has approved the MineTracer text-messaging location transponder for use in mines. The handheld device not only signals the location of the miner carrying it, but also provides him or her with 2-way communications to the surface. By choosing to use text messaging for this communication, the developers (Venture Design Services Inc. and Helicomm) make it possible for all miners to communicate with the surface simultaneously because voice messages are too bandwidth intensive to do so. After too many cases of mine accidents where no one on the surface could tell where the miners were, of couldn't communicate with them if they did, the MINER Act of 2006 required mine operators to provide both communications and tracking to its workers. Building on low-power wireless networking, this is now a reality.

Education for All
Dr. Richard Baraniuk, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice University, gave at talk at TED in 2006 about the open source learning project he founded. Connexions allows teachers to share their digital course materials and text, licensed under Creative Commons, with their students. It allows more rapid correction and revision of texts and the production of customized, print on demand textbooks. Having that central repository of course materials also allows the material to be translated into multiple languages. They're currently working on the creation of a peer review system for quality control purposes.

Surprising Uses of Cellphones
Twitter is a service that lets you send short messages (140 characters or less) via a text message from your phone, an IM, or a Web site such as Facebook to your Twitter page and thence to whoever's signed up to receive them. Handy if you're running late and need to notify a bunch of people. Also handy if you're the firefighters during last year's California wild fires and very definitely handy for journalism student James Karl Buck when he got thrown into an Egyptian jail. As a result of that single message "Arrested", he received messages containing advice and support and friends notified the U.S. Embassy, his school, and the media. Next day he was released.

Clay Shirky is a professor of interactive communications at Harvard and he's fascinated with how people are using technology to organize without using formal organizations. I recommend you listen to his recent talk. His contention is that, when the technology is so well-established as to be not worthy of note anymore, the really interesting thing is how people use the technology to form connections and collaborate in a new non-hierarchical way.

Fundamentally, these items are about people using technology to communicate more effectively and in novel ways. How we get information and the pathways by which we access and share it are changing. While we may not have the Internet of Things yet, we sure as heck have the Internet of People. If you have any stories of using this kind of technology, please share!

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