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Friday, April 1, 2011 by Abadi Askdg

Several cities have developed apps that allow citizens to report things like downed tree branches, breaches of city ordinance, or potholes in roadways, but the city of Boston is trying to take the human out of the process. An app called Street Bump will take advantage of smartphones’ GPS data and accelerometers to automatically report potholes to city authorities without the user having to raise a finger—if it actually works, that is.
The free app, which runs on the Android operating system for now, is still in alpha testing and isn’t quite ready for public consumption. But the idea is that it will allow citizens to help the city create work orders for problem areas on city roadways without requiring a phone call or email to city engineers. “It’s a new kind of volunteerism,’’ Nigel Jacob, one half of Boston’s Urban Mechanics office, told the Boston Globe. “It’s not volunteering your sweat equity. It’s volunteering the devices that are in your pocket to help the city.’’

But the city of Boston and its partners (the city is receiving help from experts at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the Santa Fe Complex, a technology think tank in New Mexico) aren’t the first to try to make this kind of roadway-assessing app, and the challenges are many. Microsoft has looked into it, as has MIT, with varying degrees of success.

The challenge: teaching a phone to tell the difference between a pothole and a speed bump or elevated crosswalk, or—perhaps even more challenging—a railway crossing or sewer grate. That’s pretty tough to do, and an app that issues false positives could degrade the city’s ability to respond to potholes by sending workers to repair nonexistent problems, costing time and money.
But the city of Boston seems well aware of the challenges. Street Bump will soon be distributed to thousands of testers and a $25,000 prize will be offered to programmers who can devise the best ways to correct the app’s shortcomings. If users can help the city smooth out a few bumps in the road, the city could soon have a citywide network of pothole sensors patrolling the pavement around the clock.

by Abadi Askdg

Nokia, which has been floundering for, oh, the last five years or so, announced early this morning that they'll be embracing Microsoft and its Windows Phone 7 platform, and basically abandoning the infuriating Symbian OS and the likely-DOA Meego OS. It's actually an interesting partnership: it could be a chance for the two companies to come together to improve the Windows Phone 7 platform as a whole.

Despite the company's position as the top cellphone maker in the world, Nokia is in a deep, dark tailspin. Most of its sales are of low-profit, low-function cellphones to developing countries, rather than the exciting and profitable high-end smartphones that have made Apple, HTC, and Motorola successful. That's due to its software, rather than its hardware: The Nokia N8, for example, had some reasonably impressive hardware (especially its camera), but ended up pretty much unusable thanks to the intrusive, incomprehensible mess that is Symbian, Nokia's go-to operating system.

The pattern is pretty clear: Get Nokia some decent software, and they could make a damn fine phone. Nokia's stubbornness made that seem impossible for the last few years (a Nokia rep once told me there's "no way in hell" they'd ever make an Android phone), but early this morning, a joint Nokia-Microsoft conference announced a key partnership between the Finnish hardware maker and the Redmond-based software giant. It's more than just Nokia signing up to stick Windows Phone 7 on their phones, like Samsung, LG, and HTC--Nokia's Ovi Maps application will take the place of Microsoft's Bing Maps, for example, and Nokia's connections with European carriers will help Microsoft break into that market. Also, Nokia (unlike the other Windows Phone 7 partners) will have total freedom to customize the OS as they choose--a dubious advantage, given Nokia's software track record, but we'll reserve judgment.

There was no specific announcement about a particular phone, but we did learn that Nokia and Microsoft have been working for weeks, so presumably they've gotten underway at least a little bit. Hopefully the partnership delivers the first killer, must-have Windows Phone 7 smartphone--it certainly seems possible.

by Abadi Askdg

With NASA’s space shuttle program in full wind-down, it seems like there are a lot of “lasts” in America’s storied, three-decade Space Transportation System. Space shuttle Discovery successfully touched down at Kennedy Space Center in Florida just before noon today, marking the end of STS-133 and Discovery’s final mission, the 39th and last flight for the busiest spacecraft in NASA’s shuttle fleet.

A quick eulogy for Discovery: It has spent 365 days in space (that’s a full year in orbit), carried more crew members into space than any other shuttle, made more orbits than any other shuttle in the fleet, and docked with both Mir and the International Space Station (the latter multiple times, because Discovery built the ISS). Discovery launched the Hubble Space Telescope and the solar exploring Ulysses spacecraft.

space shuttle programDiscovery was chosen for the the first return to flight missions after both the Challenger and Columbia disasters. And, with the two shuttles that preceded it to the launchpad lost to tragedy, it is now the fleet veteran. Appropriately, Discovery is the first of the remaining fleet to make its last journey to space.

But Endeavour isn’t far behind. The youngest space shuttle is scheduled to make its last journey to the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center tonight--just 8 hours after Discovery cleared the runway for the last time--setting the stage for its own final mission. In a rare occurrence, the crew of an incoming shuttle mission will more or less pass the crew of an outgoing mission on the tarmac.

Endeavour is scheduled for launch to the ISS on April 19. Atlantis’s final mission--and the space shuttle program’s last hurrah in space--is slated for late June.

by Abadi Askdg

The aerial water bombardment of Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facilities began in earnest late yesterday after being deemed too risky earlier in the week. The strategy--previously untested as far as we know--is aimed at cooling the reactor cores and spent fuel rod storage pools, but it's highly unclear whether it's doing any good. The choppers are dropping their payloads on the go, presumably out of radiation fears, and as such Japanese authorities can't ascertain whether any of the water has actually been delivered to its targets.
Helicopters aren’t the only aircraft in the air over Japan’s stricken nuclear plant today. The U.S. Air Force is dispatching a Global Hawk UAV from Guam to Japanese airspace today to gather high-resolution images of the situation at Japan’s nuclear facilities and perhaps even peer into the damaged reactors and cooling pools from above.

The Global Hawk has been gathering aerial data for days over other parts of Japan in order to assist with relief efforts, but this will be its first attempt to assist in the ongoing nuclear crisis there. And the Global Hawk is well suited for the job; Aside from being unmanned (it is a radioactive mess down there, after all), the Global Hawk’s sensor array includes heat-detecting infrared sensors.

That means the UAV can gather imagery showing where the hot spots are, what parts of the reactors may be closest to rupture or other damage, whether or not fires have been completely extinguished, and, over time, the effectiveness of different methods of cooling.
At this point, those methods are diverse. The remaining workers on the ground are braving elevated radiation levels to direct fire hoses at the various overheating elements within the complex, and that previously-scrubbed strategy to drop water from above via firefighting helicopter has now been initiated as the situation becomes more desperate. The effectiveness of the water-bombing at this point is unknown, though it doesn’t appear to be doing much good.