Return to ECHO Homepage
Below The Surface

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Adventures in Kiosk Land

It's mud season here in Vermont, which means Earth Weeks and Mudfest here at ECHO. It means something else as well. On April 11th (the Saturday before our two-week festival began), Kiosk Season begins. What's that? It's the time of year lasting from early April to late August when the daily admission to ECHO is high enough that Kiosk usage is almost guaranteed.

The interesting thing is that, before the Kiosk really takes off, we need to reach a certain "critical mass" of people in the building. Before that point, videos are rare. After that point, we get 15 to 50 per day. That range seems to depend more on WHO is in the building, and not HOW MANY. Once we're above the critical point, we will get videos, and adding more people to the building doesn't cause there to be any more videos.

In preparation for this busy season, we've been making some new and exciting changes. Here's a rundown:
First - All videos recorded and kept now go to YouTube. - Previously, you could choose whether you wanted to send you video or not. If you chose not to, your story was destined to live out a boring life on the Kiosk, and then get deleted after enough new videos had been created. Too many awesome videos were being lost to this. Now, videos will live long, happy lives, reaching out to a worldwide audience on YouTube, where we and others can comment and respond.

Second - The "checkout" procedure has been cleaned up. The number of questions being asked has been reduced. If an adult is not present videos are no longer being kept. Everyone who records a video is required to supply an e-mail address where we can contact them.

Third - The E-mail sent to visitors has been improve. Previously, e-mails sent to visitors who recorded stories on the Kiosk simply contained a link to their personal photo and audio. Now, they not only include that, but they also mention our YouTube channel and Website, and encourage people to check them out, look for their video, and comment on others. I think this is an imporant thing to help drive people toward Stewardship beyond their visit.

Fourth - We've cleaned up the YouTube titles and descriptions. The original version of the YouTube Upload Script would set a video's answer (For example: Summer) as the title, and the question (What favorite memory do you have of Lake Champlain) as the description. This got especially bad when the answer was "Something else." Now, we use the Question for the title, and in the description, we quickly describe the project, give the question, give the visitor's answer, and then provide a link to our website for people to learn more.

We've already seen some changes happening, and hopefully, at some point in the future, I'll be able to do a post with some interesting statistics and analysis.

~ Travis Cook, Information Technology Coordinator

A Tale of a Table

Earlier this week (ok, I admit it, it was a month and a half ago...) I mentioned I would be writing a followup post all about some mysterious room in the Newseum, back when I was attending WebWise 2009 in Washington DC. I've been a bit busy since then, but I wanted to get back to that before I moved on to other things. Here's the story:

The room I'm talking about is the The Bancroft Family Ethics Center - located on Level 2. The large object in the center is a table with computer screens rear-projected onto the surface. It's part of a game in which you grab little reporters who are roaming around the surface, drag them to your editing area, answer a question about an ethical situation, and, if you get the answer right, contribute a story to the paper in the center. There are two teams, and the first team to fully complete their paper wins.

For example, when I was playing with the table, I dragged over a question similar to "You're the editor of Paper X, and learn that the reporter you've assigned to cover a story about a corrupt mayor is now having a romantic relationship with him. Do you pull her from the story?". Having watched a few too many James Bond movies, I said no, got the question wrong, and all the little reporters booed me. Oops.

So, what does any of this have to do with Voices for the Lake? Well, as our primary video editor, I frequently have to ask myself... if I find out that one of our video contributors is having a romantic relationship with invasive fish, do I pull the video?

Actually, no. I mean yes, I'd probably pull the video (This is one video topic I've yet to come across... although I'm sure it will come up eventually.), but that isn't why I'm interested in the room. I'm more interested because, as part of the Voices for the Lake project, we're building a giant, interactive map of the basin - to show where all the great stories we're collecting are talking about - and we don't know where to put it. Part of the trouble of finding out where to put it is that we also don't know what it will look like, and one of the ideas that has been tossed around is that it should be built into a giant interactive table.

Rather than touching the table itself, all you have to do is wave your hand over it, as you can see in the picture. When your fingertips (or camera... basically any point) gets close to one, they hook on, and you can drag and throw them around. A camera above the table, combined with IR lights IN the table, work together to make it all happen. To find out more about how it works, check out this Video Blog from the Newseum itself.

Also located in the ethics center are little workstations with touchscreens, speakers, and headphones. In their case, the activities on these workstations are seperate from the table. In our case however, I can't help but imagine navigating around a map on our table, finding a cool story that you want to watch, and then dragging that story over to a workstation. Once you've done it, you walk over to the workstation, and begin to watch the video. After you watch it, you could then be presented with the ability to signup with one of our stewardship partners for more information, or to actually get involved with a solution.

For example, I walk up to our map table, look around, find my house, find my favorite little swimming spot on Lake Champlain, and see that, nearby, someone has recorded a video about a toxic bluegreen alge bloom they saw. I drag the video over to workstation #1, and then walk over to the workstation to sit down and watch it. When it's done, I'm given the option to request more information, where I can enter my e-mail address and get a message with some more details on bluegreen alge. Or, one of the options at the end of the video might say "Learn how you can help monitor alge blooms." If I click it, I get another video, recorded by a scientist, talking about how citizens can signup to collect samples all around the lake, with information how how to get started. From story to stewardship.

Apparently, the key to frequent blog posts is keeping them short. On that note... "Publish Post"

~ Travis Cook, Information Technology Coordinator

Friday, April 3, 2009

Lessons from The Pike

Photo: Courtesy of US Fish & Wildlife Service Photo Gallery; Robert W. Hines

I could have a smashing video in here of the experience I'm about to type out to you. But I don't because I didn't have my video camera. Lesson learned: ALWAYS have your camera with you. You never know when you are going to stumble on a story for stewardship. I'll do my best to describe it to you, but man, I am kickin' myself for not having the camera.

Yesterday after work I went to look for ducks in St. Albans Bay State Park. As I pulled over on the side of the road, there were two other cars parked there and two men standing along the edge of the wetland. These two men were staring into the water and they had rifles.

As I walked away to do some birding, I was running through all the potential game they could be going after and reconciling that with the current hunting season. Nothing fit. Not duck season (phew!), didn't know if there was a muskrat season, couldn't think what else they could shoot. But, by the time I walked back from my birding adventure, I had an idea of what they were "hunting". I was excited. If they were hunting what I thought they were hunting, this was gonna be good. I had to ask one of them, I had to find out. And I knew if I was right I was going to be sorry I didn't have my video camera.

Coming upon one of the hunters, still standing there gazing down intently at the water's edge, I said, "Excuse me, sorry to bother you. Could I ask what you're hunting?" Now I wish I could type in a Vermonter accent because its a rich, rural, relaxed jumble of sounds. (Arrg, camera!) But, this weathered older man told me he was hunting pike and not having much luck. YES! I was right. Cool! And it's at this point I really wanted my camera because we got into a discussion about shooting pike.

A little background for you: A pike is a fish, apparently they are tough to catch. Pike shooting is something unique to northern Vermont and New York and Lake Champlain. There is a season - middle of March to the middle of May. It is thought that it evolved from the Abenaki using spears to fish for pike in this region. This odd hunting season has been written about in the New York Times.

But the story, oh the story I could have captured on video. He told me he had been hunting pike for more than 20 years. He told me how sweet the meat was and how they were great to eat. He invited me to see the pike in the trunk of his car that his buddy shot earlier that day. Beautiful, beautiful fish.

I had a hard time focusing on the conversation at points because I kept thinking how great this would've been to capture on video. And, then how would I ask permission to do that? Even if I had the camera would I have had the guts to ask, "Would you mind if I captured our conversation on video?" How do you out-of-the-blue say, "This is so cool, I want to be able to share this with others."? What would he have said? Would he have let me record him?

I've been thinking about how the Voices For the Lake project could use a story like the pike hunter. ECHO stands for Ecology, Culture, History, and Opportunity: doesn't this story have a bit of each? Couldn't I find a way to connect fisheries biology and conservation with this story? How could it be used to find agreement and common ground on a practice that is potentially polarizing? How does a guy like the pike hunter feel about the health of the Lake? of the fish?

Storytelling is powerful! Sharing experiences is powerful. This is what Voices For the Lake is all about. A good story can reveal itself at any moment. My lesson learned from the pike hunter is not just to bring my camera next time - but to be bold enough to ask questions, to really listen, and to be open to all stories about how we enjoy Lake Champlain.

~Bridget Butler, Voices For the Lake Manager