Buenos Aires Leads the Way

Two months ago I was back in my old stomping grounds, Encinitas, California. It had been several years since I last coasted along Highway 101 as it sucks in its asphalt belly between San Elijo Lagoon and the near-perfect surf break, Cardiff Reef. I pulled off the side of the highway, rolled down my window, and inhaled the salty air tinged with the sweetness of coastal sage scrub. More than anywhere else, this was home. I still knew the names of the best surfers bobbing up and down in the Pacific as they waited for the right set of waves. Years later, and I still knew all the best running trails, the most articulate columnists, the best plates at the best restaurants, and the history of nearly every beach and every block up and down the ten or so miles of coast that make up Encinitas. Subconsciously, throughout the years of my youth, I had built up my own personal Wikipedia of the history, institutions, culture, and sub-cultures that make Encinitas such a special place for so many people.

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Google Street View of Highway 101 in Encinitas with the Pacific Ocean on the left and San Elijo Lagoon on the right.

I have also witnessed the changes endured by the community as home prices have tripled from around $300,000 for a coastal bungalow in the mid-1990’s to over a million dollars today. I know that I will never be able to afford a house where I grew up. Which has brought me here, to Buenos Aires, one of the few cosmopolitan cities where it is still possible to buy a house or apartment without committing oneself to eternal debt. Unlike my comprehensive knowledge of Encinitas, however, I know next to nothing about Buenos Aires. I am an immigrant here. And each new block, every cafe, every neighbor greeting me with a silent nod of the head is a story to be discovered.

Fortunately, not only does the city of Buenos Aires have several official weblogs (including an English-language tourism blog), they have also put together a bi-lingual walking audio tour of the city, which can be downloaded as mp3 files or accessed from any cell phone by simply dialing *8283. You can walk down the smallest of side alleys and come across a plaque on the sidewalk with the necessary code in order to hear more information about the building or monument you are standing in front of. It is as if an invisible cloud of history is floating above the busy sidewalk, waiting to come alive with a simple phone call.

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A plaque on the sidewalk in front of the former national library, which is now used for musical performances.

Little did the city of Buenos Aires know that they would be laying down the bricks – or the plaques – to the future of citizen media.

Threading the Technology and the Content Together

In the month of January, three products were launched which represent the building blocks to the future of how we find out more about the world around us.

It all began on January 7, when a group of African bloggers and programmers created Ushahidi to allow anyone with a cell phone to report violence in the aftermath of the controversial Kenyan presidential elections. By simply sending a text or photo message from their cell phone to 6007, Kenyans were able to report incidents of violence (and of peace-building), which were aggregated on a Google Maps mashup made available to anyone with an internet connection. Ushahidi represented the first widespread use of mobile phones in Africa to gather news in real time and aggregate it by location on a map.

One week later Apple released version 1.1.3 of their iPhone firmware. The new version allows iPhone users to locate themselves within a few city blocks by using information from Wi-Fi networks and cell towers. The feature is mind-bogglingly awesome. I would have never survived five meetings in two days in New York city without it.

Finally, on January 23, fellow Knight News Challenge winner, EveryBlock, launched its beta version, focusing first on Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. EveryBlock represents the most ambitious effort to date of aggregating information about a community and presenting it on a map. Again, if only I were able to afford rent in New York City, I could monitor news and photographs from my neighborhood from hundreds if not thousands of different sources.

Eagle Fire Ties it All Together

Participate, locate, aggregate. All the basic building blocks are there. But until this month, we were still missing the service that tied them together. Enter Fire Eagle, a Yahoo! service which keeps track of your location by serving as a brokerage between various websites.

The easiest way to understand the purpose and the power of Fire Eagle is to look ata presentation by one of its developers, Evan Rabble. Essentially, Fire Eagle allows you multiple ways to specify your location and to let other web services know where you are. Currently, I have three different ways to let Fire Eagle know where I am. First, I could simply update my location on the Fire Eagle website. Or, I could send a text message from my cell phone to Twitter user firebot with a description of where I am. Finally, since Dopplr.com knows when I am traveling to a new city, it will automatically update Fire Eagle with my new location so that I don’t have to.

Now that Fire Eagle knows where I am, how does that help me? For one, I can use Wikinear or Geopedia to automatically search for Wikipedia articles that are relevant to my location. I can also allow my friends, my social networks, and of course my favorite news sites to all access my location. By interfacing with Fire Eagle, a news aggregator like EveryBlock or outside.in can provide customized information (such as everything happening on the 700 block of Broadway) to my mobile device automatically.

Of course, this brings up numerous privacy issues. We probably want our children to know our exact location, but what about our boss? Or, for that matter, the government? Fire Eagle allows us to select a level of “fuziness” for each application that wants to access our location. It remains true, however, that we are trusting Yahoo! to respect our privacy when they have a record of giving private user information to the Chinese government.

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Fire Eagle’s choices of “fuziness” regarding users’ location

I was amazed when, walking around Buenos Aires, I could simply dial a number and tap into the invisible cloud of the city’s history. Still, the Buenos Aires walking audio tour only mentions around 200 historical spots throughout the city. But what about the other millions and millions of stories that aren’t included in the walking tour? What about the stories that have yet to be told? The memories of grandparents who don’t yet know how to share them online, the boxes of old photographs and historical documents stuffed in attics throughout the city? What about the voices that have been either ignored or repressed by the mainstream media? With enough dedication and hard work, those stories, too, will be made available and added to the invisible cloud, all accessible with a single call or the press of a single button from our mobile phones.

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