De-globalization or why local matters

Over the weekend we built a local news app at the Mediahackday in Berlin. The purpose of this event was to find new ways to utilize the back catalogs of media companies such as the Guardian, Axel Springer, and others. This use-case is a perfect fit for the Localstream platform that I have been involved with over the past year. So, we went in and did our thing. My colleague Mark MacMahon wrote up a nice article about this on our Tumblr blog.

One of the things that struck me again while focusing on this particular use-case over the weekend is a phenomenon that has been bouncing around in my head for a while. For lack of a better word, I’d like to call it de-globalization.

As an example of this, consider this advertisement that I spotted in the subway on my way to the Mediahackday venue:

Location based advertising. Very much an offline thing still.

This is an advertisement that promotes the existence of a mobile application. Alexa is a shopping mall in Berlin (near Alexander Platz) and apparently they thought it a good investment to spend money on the development of a mobile application for the people in their mall. Then to tell these people about the existence of this application, they invested in a (presumably) expensive advertising campaign as well. This is location based advertising in the wild. Big money is spent on it and it is mostly an offline business.

In fact most of the economic activity world wide is driven by locals engaging with small and medium enterprises locally. Despite globalization and mega corporations, there is an enormous long tail of very small companies and it is growing. The EU states that:

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are the main drivers of job creation, economic growth and social cohesion in Europe. They have local roots, provide local jobs but also exploit the benefits of globalisation. SMEs indeed constitute the dominant category of business organisation in all EU countries with some 23 million enterprises (99.8%); their share in total employment creation is massive (81.6%) as well as their contribution to the EU-GDP (up to 60%).

Alexa is spending what must be a sizable budget for them on bespoke mobile app development and offline advertising for the resulting app. That strikes me as a particularly expensive and ineffective way of promoting themselves. Despite ongoing globalization, massive growth in online channels, and widespread adoption of internet, Alexa is forced to go offline to address their audience: Berlin locals. And just like other locals, they are finding it difficult.

The reason for this is that existing online channels for the likes of Alexa to promote themselves in or for people to discover Alexa’s mobile application, and other content lack a local focus. Where do people living near the Alexa mall go to learn about what is happening around them? There’s no such thing.

People in the industry have been talking about location based services and associated revenue streams for ages. But one glance at the advertisement above makes it very clear that despite this, local is still very much an offline business for most of the locals. This applies to commerce but also to other things. What is happening around my house, on my street, in my neighborhood and in my city? Who is writing about my area and what are they saying about it? What events are on and what cool historical facts can I find out about my area? The online answer today involves search engines and a lot of hard work filtering through blogs, wikipedia, event sites, social media, location based services, etc. Because that is so impractical, nobody bothers and consequently Alexa has to spend big money on subway advertising just to tell people that there is an app that they are very excited about.

At Localstream we want to change this and enable locals go online to engage with each other locally to share news, knowledge, and other information about their area. Through the Localstream platform, we can filter content by location and provide a view of the available content specific to where it is about as opposed to what it is about (search engines) or whom it is about (social networks).

Localstream de-globalizes the internet. The internet is full of location relevant information ranging from venue specific applications such as the Alexa app above, local news about the area, historical facts, events, etc. However, the existing channels for this content rely on people stumbling upon this content in search engines or social media. With Localstream, you can stumble upon it by location.

At Mediahackday we specialized our concept for news and tried to turn the back catalogs of news organizations such as the Guardian and Axel Springer into a location browsable channel. While we definitely still have some challenges with respect to our ability to tag the content correctly and rank accordingly, the raw value of this was immediately obvious when we started browsing the news content about Berlin.

Living in Berlin I of course entered my street name (Bergstrasse) as a search criteria:

Screen Shot 2013-10-07 at 18.34.41

As you can see here, Localstream found some news content that isn’t about my street but does mention nearby streets and venues. For example, Tucholskystrasse and Ackerstrasse, which are both near my street (first hit). So, despite the fact that none of these articles were marked up with coordinates, Localstream is able to recognize the street name and deduce that articles that mention a nearby streets are relevant to my location.

Now bearing in mind that we hadn’t seen the content before and that our location graph, ranking and location tagging are very much works in progress, this is a pretty good result. We were able to ingest content we hadn’t seen before that lacked any structural location information and turn it in a location browsable news application in under 24 hours. We believe we are just scratching the surface here in terms of what is possible.

Moving to Berlin

A bit more than a month ago, I posted a little something on the reorganization in Nokia Research Center where I work and announced my availability on the job market. This was a bit of a shock of course and it has been a hectic few weeks but the end result is really nice. For me at least. Unfortunately some of my colleagues are not so lucky and are now at risk of losing their job.

In any case, a few weeks ago I visited Nokia Gate5 in Berlin for a job interview. Gate5 is a navigation software company that Nokia bought in 2006. Their software is powering what is now known as OVI Maps and whereas the whole industry is shrinking, they are growing like crazy now and rolling out one cool product after another. Today, they sent me a proposal for a contract. Barring contractual details, this means that I will be based in Berlin from February. This is something I’ve known for a few weeks but having all the necessary approvals from Nokia management and a concept contract is about as good as it gets in terms of certainty. So, since I know a few people are curious what I’ll be up to next year, I decided on this little update.

I can’t say too much about what I will do there except that it more or less matches my Java server side interests and experience perfectly. This means back to being a good old Java hacker which is just fine with me and something I’ve not had enough time to focus on lately (much to my annoyance). Just today I submitted an article and I have one or two other things to finish off in January. After that, my research will be put on hold for a while. That’s fine with me as well. After returning to a research career three years ago, I’ve done a few nice papers but to be honest, I’m not enjoying this as much as I used to.

Of course Berlin is a great place to move to. I’ve been there now twice. I remember thinking the first time in 2005 that “hmm, I wouldn’t mind living here” and when I was there three weeks ago I had the same feeling again. It’s a big city with a rich history, nice culture and lots of stuff to see and do. I also learned that this is one of the few cities in Europe where life is actually cheap. Apartment prices, food, drink and all the essentials in life are really affordable there and of excellent quality too.

Anyway, I’ll be off to France the next week visiting my parents.

Happy holidays

X-Plane 9 review

Last weekend I ordered X-plane version 9. I bought version 8 early 2006 and since then I haven’t looked back. Sure, MS Flight Simulator looks great but the flying sucks. Laminar consistently delivers with new features and bug fixes. Version 8 got its last major update (8.64) about half a year ago and since then they have been beta testing version 9. While I could have bought it earlier, I waited until they released it.

A few days ago the package with 6 double layer DVDs was delivered. Installation was not so smooth as I complained about here. But I managed to sort it out and have a working X-plane 9 now. I installed the European and US scenery. The 6 DVDs of world wide scenery is really nice and detailed but consists only of automatically computed landscapes from various databases. Europe now also includes the part I live in (Finland) which was too far north for version 8. However, I prefer to fly southern Europe, where the landscape is a bit more varied.

There are cities, forests, roads, airports, coastlines, etc. where they should be (and in surprising amount of detail) but the simulator lacks custom content like the massive amount of content that comes with Microsoft Flight simulator. To fix that, I installed the excellent Corsica scenery, which is one of the many third party scenery packages available and one of the first ones to be upgraded for version 9. This adds a nice level of realism. Flying in from Nice (another scenery package, warning horrible HTML layout) with the new Cirrus jet was pretty cool and surprisingly easy given that the Cirrus was new to me. According to the product announcement, this plane was actually created by Cirrus themselves and presumably tuned to their specifications and needs. Also, the 3D cockpit is pretty cool and much more user friendly on a PC than the average very complicated panel coming with a X-plane jet.

Technically, version 9 includes lots of improvements to the scenery rendering and simulation. The changes are outlined in great detail in the product announcement page by Laminar owner and founder, Austin Meyer. I have little to add here except to say that it mostly works and delivers as advertised. Don’t expect to max out any of the rendering settings, they have been designed such that this is not possible with any hardware available now. In fact they just raised the bar for future hardware. If you can get your hands on a NVIdia with a few GB of video ram, X-plane will probably find a use for every byte of it. The good news is that it still looks pretty good with object detail not set to “TOTALLY INSANE” (Austin Meyer loves his capitals). In case you are wondering, I have a three year old AMD 4400+ with 2GB and a NVidia 7800 GT. Anything similar or better will run X-plane just fine.

Part of the attraction of X-plane is that it is a niche product build by some dedicated people who know what they are doing and are totally focused on doing it. Considering that they have a very small programmer team and not much other people working for them, it is pretty amazing what they manage to deliver. They have to be smart and efficient about a lot of things. So their UI is totally custom and a bit wacky. But it works. The included planes are so so but there are plenty of free ones available to fix that (and some better ones for a small fee). With all these nice freeware planes out there (e.g. on x-plane.org), you have to wonder why the selection bundled with X-plane is so weak. Most of the planes don’t have 3D cockpits and quite a few even lack textures.

However, at the core of X-plane is an excellent and extremely detailed simulation of just about anything that flies and everything that makes it fly. I mean, they are worrying about the accuracy of the voltage in electrical systems here and how that behaves under different failure scenarios. The attention to detail is just amazing. This is a simulator made by absolute flight sim geeks for flight sim geeks. It has lots of rough edges but it does its core job extremely well and is arguably the best all round flight simulator available today.

Sensei

Last month a European funded research project I’m in kicked off: SENSEI. The official project website is still under construction but somebody was kind enough to blog about it at least.

Sensei will be a lot of work and hopefully also very interesting and fun. It’s a so-called integrated project in FP7 which means it is one of the many projects with a lot of partners (21 in our case) across Europe of both academic and industrial side that are financed by the EU in the context of the seventh framework programme that will distribute billions of research money over the next few years. So if you are an EU citizen, thanks very much for making this possible with your tax money ;-).

Nokia is in Sensei for 9 person years spread over three years (50% funded). The blog post mentioned above has a pretty good overview of the key points of Sensei so I won’t repeat them here. My personal interest in this project will be on the software middleware layer.

x-plane graphics tweaks

Today I played a bit more with x-plane. I made two flights. One from Baltimore to Newark (with a King Air 350) and one from Philadelphia to Newark (Piper PA 180). Both planes were downloaded from xplane.org. More such goodies can be found there.

Additionally I played a bit with the graphics settings. What I found out was that the compress textures setting is really important. As noted in my previous post, the thing is mostly CPU bound. More objects require more CPU. However, with things like resolution and texture size, video ram is the bottle neck. Since I have a nice 7800 GT, there is 256 MB of memory. This may seem like a lot but there is quite a bit of textures in x-plane. Yesterday I found that it was impossible to set the texture size to extreme since that caused x-plane to reduce visibility to about a mile to keep up the framerate. Reason: I was running out of vram! The solution for that is compression, this is supported by the videocard and a common strategy for working with high resolution textures. Probably this should always be turned on unless the video card is really old.

With texture compression on (in the x-plane render settings), I can now have mega tons of objects, tons of roads (these are actual x-plane settings), extreme texture resolution and about ten AI planes in the air. That looks nice! Hundreds of textures have been included with the x-plane global scenery and they are quite good (compared to e.g. the shit that comes with ms flightsimulator).

With these settings, flying over New York is workable (though framerate suffers a bit). Outside of the cities, the number of objects is much less of a problem. Besides, most cities are quite a bit smaller than NY.

screenshot NY
Another thing I noticed is that the scenery in europe does not appear to include objects. So flying outside of the US is a lot less fun. The Alps though are very detailed. Here the lack of winter textures makes them look unrealistic though. This time of year they should all be snow covered and even in the summer some of them remain snow covered. Not in x-plane. I suppose that is the limitation of the approach taken by the global scenery people (no custom modelling, only take in data from sources like satellite images). However, europe is still 4.7GB of data. Most of this data concerns data coming from various satellite images (high detail). Things like rivers, coastlines, terrain types and elevation are all accurate. So even though Amsterdam does not have objects, it still has the right textures in the right place so you can see where the city ends.