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January 18 2013

Eyebeam Update: Two months after Sandy

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the new media and design incubator in NYC, Eyebeam, and the damage they’d suffered in Hurricane Sandy. This week I caught up with Eyebeam executive director Pat Jones to find out what kind of progress has been made in the cleanup.

The three feet of polluted water that flooded Eyebeam’s work and exhibit space on the West Side of Manhattan during the storm had damaged lots of equipment and soaked much of their archive material. Cleaning whatever could be saved and making a priority list for replacing what was lost were the two main challenges of recovery.

Thanks to generous contributions from philanthropic foundations and private companies — such as the Jerome Foundation, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Art Dealers Association of America, Time-Warner, and O’Reilly Media — as well as donations from individuals, about half the equipment losses have been covered.

There are still some other funding proposals under consideration, but essentially the equipment recovery process has been one of triage: Eyebeam has tried to replace equipment needed immediately by their artists in residence, as well as some practical pieces like the two scissor lifts required to access lights and other equipment at the top of their two-story exhibit space.

After replacing some of the equipment, such as computers and monitors, that artists needed right away to do their work, the next priority was to replace the tools needed to put on exhibits for the public — for instance, projectors. Of their former fleet of 10-12 projectors, they have so far replaced four, though they’ll need to replace a few more soon. Bigger pieces will have to wait, though MakerBot has loaned the non-profit a Replicator.

Although the equipment restoration is happening bit by bit, working with half of what they once had has slowed down the rebuilding of the space; it will probably take until the end of the year or so before the organization is fully back up to speed. Donations are certainly still needed and very much welcomed.

The other challenge Eyebeam is facing is the restoration of their archives. Thanks to the volunteers who came in right after the hurricane, the cleaning process happened right away, which helped enormously. Specialists washed salt and oil and other things that could cause damage from tapes, drives, and discs, and whatever was salvageable has been stabilized. What remains is to — carefully — transfer the information from these older formats to a longer-lasting digital format.

Of the work that was submerged, some of it was on media that was fragile in the best of circumstances, so those are of higher priority to transfer first. With some of the material, like VHS and mini-DV tapes, they won’t know how much damage there has been until transfer is attempted. So the transfer needs to be done professionally and delicately, and that’s a very expensive process.

To help with that process, Eyebeam has applied to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (a government agency) for a grant that would provide monetary support for a strategic plan to move forward. They’ve put together an advisory committee that includes several high-profile experts from institutions such as MoMA, Rhizome, and Cornell’s Media Library. If the funding is granted, the project will start in October.

Archival media conservation is, of course, a challenge faced by many organizations all over the world. Says Jones, “Hopefully, not only will this plan help us, but it will also be something we can pass on to other institutions.”

While no one would say they were glad for Hurricane Sandy, it has clearly forced some important questions about priorities and practices. Eyebeam already has a legacy as a place where advances have been made over the last 15 years. Ensuring that it will be a place where people can access what has been done in digital media during this important period, and into the future, will benefit all of us.


November 28 2012

After the storm: Putting Eyebeam back together

Thanksgiving has come and gone and many of us are busy preparing for the winter holidays. For most of us, Hurricane Sandy is about to become a footnote to a crazy series of news cycles around the 2012 presidential election. But for many individuals and institutions, the cleanup has barely begun.

One of these institutions is the Eyebeam Art + Technology Center in New York, a not-for-profit incubator of new media and design. Each year, Eyebeam hosts two groups of residents for five months each, in addition to several fellows for the full year. Almost 250 artists, designers, and technologists have spent time there since Eyebeam first opened in 1997, many of whom we at O’Reilly have known and admired.

Hurricane Sandy brought more than three feet of water, chemicals, and outside debris sweeping into the streets and buildings on the west side of Manhattan. At Eyebeam, this spelled disaster for much of the equipment and archives on their ground floor. The disaster was compounded by the fact that none of this material was covered by flood insurance.

The main space is currently filled with dried-out computers, projectors, mixers and other audio equipment, and two scissor-lifts used for accessing the upper reaches of their 18-foot-high space. Volunteers are looking over and hand-inspecting it all to figure out what can be salvaged; ultimately, they’ll have to find ways to repair, replace, or do without each item.

As for the archives, volunteers have sorted and washed each piece, and begun the task of cataloging what can be preserved. Alumni will be contacted to see if they can provide copies of their work, but most of the material is now very fragile and will need to be digitized and transferred to more stable formats, a time-consuming and expensive process that is expected to take a year or more.

But with all of this comes the opportunity for Eyebeam to reconsider their goals and how they can make their archives available to a wider audience than before.

Events at Eyebeam will resume this week with an #ArtsTech Meetup on 3D printing; larger public events will resume in December. They’re also planning a special series of events to present material from the archives during the week of January 7. Stay tuned to their events page for forthcoming details on that series.

In the meantime, please consider making a donation. Some of you may have enjoyed Eyebeam’s space when they hosted our Data After Dark event celebrating data visualization as part of the 2011 Strata conference in New York. We at O’Reilly appreciate and support all they add to the tech community, and hope you will too.

November 02 2012

Charging up: Networking resources and recovery after Hurricane Sandy

Even though the direct danger from Hurricane Sandy has passed, lower Manhattan and many parts of Connecticut and New Jersey remain a disaster zone, with millions of people still without power, reduced access to food and gas, and widespread damage from flooding. As of yesterday, according to reports from Wall Street Journal, thousands of residents remain in high-rise buildings with no water, power or heat.

E-government services are in heavy demand, from registering for disaster aid to finding resources, like those offered by the Office of the New York City Advocate. People who need to find shelter can use the Red Cross shelter app. FEMA has set up a dedicated landing page for Hurricane Sandy and a direct means to apply for disaster assistance:

Public officials have embraced social media during the disaster as never before, sharing information about where to find help.

No power and diminished wireless capacity, however, mean that the Internet is not accessible in many homes. In the post below, learn more on what you can do on the ground to help and how you can contribute online.

For those who have lost power, using Twitter offline to stay connected to those updates is useful — along with using weather radios.

That said, for those that can get connected on mobile devices, there are digital resources emerging, from a crowdsourced Sandy coworking map in NYC to an OpenTrip Planner app for navigating affected transit options. This Google Maps mashup shows where to find food, shelter and charging stations in Hoboken, New Jersey.

In these conditions, mobile devices are even more crucial connectors to friends, family, services, resources and information. With that shift, government websites must be more mobile-friendly and offer ways to get information through text messaging.

Widespread power outages also mean that sharing the means to keep devices charged is now an act of community and charity.

Ways to to help with Sandy relief

A decade ago, if there was a disaster, you could donate money and blood. In 2012, you can also donate your time and skills. New York Times blogger Jeremy Zillar has compiled a list of hurricane recovery and disaster recovery resources. The conditions on the ground also mean that finding ways to physically help matter.

WNYC has a list of volunteer options around NYC. The Occupy Wall Street movement has shifted to “Occupy Sandy,” focusing on getting volunteers to help pick up and deliver food in neighborhoods around New York City. As Nick Judd reported for TechPresident, this “people-powered recovery” is volunteering to process incoming offers of help and requests for aid.

They’re working with, a new civic startup, which has now registered some 5,000 volunteers from around the New York City area. Recovers is pooling resources and supplies with community centers and churches to help in the following communities:

If you want to help but are far away from directly volunteering in New York, Connecticut or New Jersey, there are several efforts underway to volunteer online, including hackathons around the world tomorrow. Just as open government data feeds critical infrastructure during disasters, it is also integral to recovery and relief. To make that data matter to affected populations, however, the data must be put to use. That’s where the following efforts come in.

“There are a number of ways tech people can help right now,” commented Gisli Olafsson, Emergency Response Director at NetHope, reached via email. “The digital volunteer communities are coordinating many of those efforts over a Skype chat group that we established few days before Sandy arrived. I asked them for input and here are their suggestions:

  1. Sign up and participate in the crisis camps that are being organized this weekend at Geeks Without Borders and Sandy Crisis Camp.
  2. Help create visualizations and fill in the map gaps. Here is a link to all the maps we know about so far. Help people find out what map to look at for x,y,z.
  3. View damage photos to help rate damage assessments at Sandy OpenStreetMap. There are over 2000 images to identify and so far over 1000 helpers.”

Currently, there are Crisis Camps scheduled for Boston, Portland, Washington (DC), Galway (Ireland), San Francisco, Seattle, Auckland (NZ) and Denver, at RubyCon.

“If you are in any of those cities, please go the Sandy CrisisCamp blog post and sign up for the EventBrite for the CrisisCamp you want to attend in person or virtually,” writes Chad Catacchio (@chadcat), Crisis Commons communication lead.

“If you want to start a camp in your city this weekend, we are still open to the idea, but time is running short (it might be better to aim for next week),” he wrote.

UPDATE: New York-based nonprofit DataKind tweeted that they’re trying to rally the NY Tech community to pitch in real life on Saturday and linked to a new Facebook group. New York’s tech volunteers have already been at work helping city residents over the last 24 hours, with the New York Tech Meetup organizing hurricane recovery efforts.

People with technical skills in the New York area who want to help can volunteer online here and check out the NY Tech responds blog.

As Hurricane Sandy approached, hackers built tools to understand the storm. Now that it’s passed, “Hurricane Hackers” are working on projects to help with the recovery. The crisis camp in Boston will be hosted at the MIT Media Lab by Hurricane Hackers this weekend.

Sandy Crisis Camps already have several projects in the works. “We have been asked by FEMA to build and maintain a damage assessment map for the entire state of Rhode Island,” writes Catacchio. He continues:

“We will also be assisting in monitoring social media and other channels and directing reports to FEMA there. We’ll be building the map using ArcGIS and will be needing a wide range of skill sets from developers to communications to mapping. Before the weekend, we could certainly use some help from ArcGIS folks in getting the map ready for reporting, so if that is of interest, please email Pascal Schuback at Secondly, there has been an ask by NYU and the consortium of colleges in NYC to help them determine hotel capacity/vacancy as well as gas stations that are open and serving fuel. If other official requests for aid come in, we will let the community know. Right now, we DO anticipate more official requests, and again, if you are working with the official response/recovery and need tech support assistance, please let us know: email either Pascal or David Black at We are looking to have a productive weekend of tackling real needs to help the helpers on the ground serving those affected by this terrible storm.”


October 31 2012

Sorry I was laughing during your funeral

Since the advent of Twitter I’ve often found myself laughing at funerals, crying at parties, and generally failing time and again to say the right thing. Twitter is so immediate, so of the moment, but it connects people across the globe who may be experiencing very different moments.

This first struck me during the Arab Spring. Maybe I was just finishing a nice dinner in Philadelphia and was lingering over a drink, tweeting the usual crap, while a world away Egyptians (and later Libyans and Syrians) were out by the thousands throwing themselves into mortal danger. Of course, they weren’t paying attention to my banalities while they filled Tahir Square and defended Aleppo, but I still floated by. And in any case, my tweet stream was full of their moment, raging past me. Once I noticed the dichotomy, my political witticisms and flippant comments on the news of the day tossed out between bites of my dessert seemed ridiculous as they bobbed downstream amidst all that anger, action, and danger. It just felt so, … inappropriate. I couldn’t help but go silent. A more primitive sense of decorum, evolved while our voices shared common place and time, welled up and shut me up.

I thought of this again the other night but in reverse. I was very fortunate and came through Sandy basically unscathed. But in the late afternoon of the storm I was out in the wind and rain for about an hour and a half trying to stop a water leak that was flowing through my foundation into the basement, while the whole time I had one eye on a 100-foot pine tree that was swaying threateningly over me. When I came back in, soaked through, and with my mind 100% on Sandy and my immediate safety, I checked Twitter out of habit. Naturally, the first tweet I saw was from Darrell Issa, snug in California, tweeting about the latest non-hurricane-related thing he wanted us to rage about. Dammit Darrell, we’re in the middle of a hurricane, we’ll get pissed about Benghazi next week ok?

During Sandy most of us east coasters had just one thing on our minds while our west coast friends’ normal lives continued unabated. We were tweeting about threatening trees, power outages, and 14th street fire balls while they were tweeting about Windows 8, a Yammer user conference, and whatnot. Lots of people on both coasts, who didn’t feel immediately threatened, were making light and telling jokes. In response I saw more than a few tweets along the lines of “not really appreciating the jokes while I watch the water rise.”

When I went about my business during the Arab Spring I used to feel weird, like they might read my tweets and think “Don’t you know we’re dying out here? There you are just living your life. What’s wrong with you?” The other night I had to remind myself that 2,500 miles and the continental divide separated my moment from those of my friends in California. Two streams, naturally bifurcated by geography and current experience, flowed together to mix awkwardly on my phone.

And it continues now. For many of us even here in the East, Sandy is basically over. We are fortunate. We have power, food in the refrigerator, and a place to brew our coffee. But all over New Jersey and New York this remains far from true. The storm will be millions of people’s primary context for weeks to come. I can’t help but wonder what it must be like to risk a bit of carefully hoarded smart phone battery, while separated from the flood-ravaged street by flight after flight of dark staircase, to take a quick glance at Twitter only to see “OMFG, will Disney put mouse ears on Darth Vader?” That’s #dissonance.

In the immediacy of the moment, this isn’t context collapse, where we self-consciously present ourselves to the context multi-verse in some subconsciously bland and universally appropriate way. Nope, this is a massive context collision because Twitter is so here and now. Here we are just jotting down our immediate thoughts, cozy in our moment, and firing them off to ricochet around everyone else’s.

And what else should we expect? I saw a tweet the other day admonishing all of us for not having paid attention to Sandy when she was still ravaging the Caribbean on her way here. I wasn’t there. It wasn’t my experience. I’m not sure what to do with that.

I think one of the things that made things particularly jarring during Sandy is that usually my tweet stream is the exposed consciousness of a single tribe. Left coast or right, the technologists I follow are approximately alike on both coasts. Conversations coalesce around similar memes and you’d have a hard time pulling an individual’s geography out of their topic and focus. But not today, and certainly not in the last two days. Our lives will be filled with very different experiences for a while. I’m at a funeral, you’re at a party, and we’re talking on the phone.

In any case, don’t read this as a scold. It’s not. I’m just reflecting on my own disquiet. My sense of social norms developed in a face-to-face world and I can’t help but feel an unease, an idea that I’m behaving inappropriately, when my tweets are out of synch with the mass of experience that is flowing past me.

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