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Projects in the News

  1. Featured Creator: Adam Grossman of Dark Sky

    Today's featured creator is Adam Grossman, co-creator of Dark Sky. His accurate, short term weather predicition app determines your precise location to let you know when it will rain and for how long, utilizing hi-res, beautifully animated weather radar displays.

    Did any particular ruined outdoor activity inspire you to create Dark Sky?

    It all started a couple years back: I got stuck at a highway rest stop in a downpour. I'm talking buckets of rain, buckets of lighting (lightning can fit in buckets?). And there was my car, all the way across the parking lot. I guess I'm kind of a delicate little flower and didn't want to get wet, so I wondered if I could just wait it out inside. It was easy enough to check: I opened up the radar app on my iPhone and sure enough, a big ominous red splotch hovered over my location. But the thing was, I had no idea how long it would last. I had the map right in front of me, but I couldn't figure it out! The animation wasn't any help, it was too jumpy and splotchy to tell whether it'd be ten minutes or an hour.

    There had to be a better way. And if it didn't exist, we'd have to build the damn thing.

    So Dark Sky solves the basic question of "Should I bring my umbrella while running out to buy toilet paper?" Why the focus on rain, as opposed to temperature, humidity, and all those other weather-related things?

    There are already a bunch of apps that tell you the temperature. There isn't anything that tells you to get off your butt and walk the dog now, because it's going to start raining in 18 minutes. We wanted to focus on that. And besides, most of us don't care about things like humidity percentage or wind direction. When was the last time you thought to yourself: "Oh man! I absolutely must know what the dew point is RIGHT NOW!" I mean, what the heck is the "dew point" anyway? No one knows... it's a mystery. I'm pretty sure it's made up. (Ok, some people care about the wind: sailors, wind surfers, kite flyers. They're in the minority, but there is already a great service that predicts the wind,, created by our buddies at WeatherFlow.)

    Could you go in a bit of technical detail of how this seemingly magical thing works?

    Alan Kay once said, "The best way to predict the future is to invent it." So that's what we do: Dark Sky uses your iPhone antenna to fire precisely tuned radio waves into the upper atmosphere, thus causing clouds to form and allowing us to control exactly when and where it's going to rain. Bwuahaha!

    Okay, whatever, not really.

    Instead we pull in images from the National Weather Service, and use some fancy algorithms to extract velocity information from the clouds. Once we know what direction and how fast the storms are moving, we find your exact location (using GPS) and then project the storm into the future to figure out if it's going to rain or not. More technical nitty-gritty can be found on our blog, here.

    Why was it important to make a good-looking weather radar display?

    Every existing radar map is ugly. They're all terrible. They're so bad that most people don't even realize they can be any different! But here's the thing: Beauty — real beauty, not just aesthetics — makes an interface easier and more pleasurable to use. It makes a world of difference. And besides, if you're going to do something, you might as well make it the best something in the world.

    Do you think that providing this new way to visualize weather will have an impact on how people think about it? 

    There is so much weather data out there. There are thousands of weather stations across the country, hundreds of radar towers, satellites in orbit keeping a watchful eye, and advanced algorithms that pull it all in and extrapolate it to every point on the Earth's surface. And yet most of this information is being squandered. We're presented with weather forecasts in much the same way our parents and grandparents were: in bulk, and with no regard to how it effects us individually. The current apps out there are just slightly more advanced versions of the TV weatherman or newspaper forecast.

    But the technology exists for it to be so much more. We live in the future, dammit.

    Your phone should know when you have a meeting across town and tell you to leave early because it's going to start raining. It should wake you up at 5AM because there's a fresh bed of snow on the hill and your better grab your sled before everyone else. It should tell you exactly when to leave the restaurant on your first date, timing it just perfectly so you both get stuck in a downpour trapped under that awning where you've planned the perfect first kiss.

    Maybe Dark Sky won't do all that just yet. But it's where we're headed.
  2. Guest Post: Whitney Dow on When The Drum is Beating in Haiti

    Whitney Dow is an award winning filmmaker whose works have been screened all over the world. When the Drum is Beating, his latest documentary, examines the contemporary culture of Haiti through the country's oldest musical group — a 20-piece band called Septentrional, whose enduring popularity has been a testament to the passion, spirit, and joy of an entire nation. As Whitney's Kickstarter project draws to a close, he continues to travel back and forth between Haiti, organizing early screenings of his footage. Fascinated, we asked him to share the experience with us. 

    Septentrional Bassist “Ti-Bas” Alce and Director Whitney Dow, photo by Tracy Ketcher
    Septentrional Bassist “Ti-Bas” Alce and Director Whitney Dow, photo by Tracy Ketcher

    Making When the Drum is Beating was a journey, and — like most journeys worth taking — took me to an entirely different destination then I had planned. I like to say that I made this film in penance for an earlier film I made in Haiti about democracy. In that film, I tried to understand Haiti by deconstructing a current political situation and came away feeling that, like so many people before me, I had reduced the county to the sum of its problems. When l set out to make When the Drum is Beating, I was determined to make up for that error by telling a Haitian story of hope and perseverance — the story of Septentrional, the longest surviving band in Haiti.

    Septentrional had, against all odds, survived and flourished for more than six decades in a country where the average lifespan is just 51 years. This was a band that sang about girls, falling in love, and the beauty of a country most often defined by its societal problems and environmental degradation. I wanted to make a positive film about an inspiring group of musicians and to give people a different access point to the country. But it got more complicated than that. I didn’t realize just how complicated until I arrived in Haiti last Tuesday.

    Last week I came to Haiti with Septentroinal’s musical director Nikol Levy and the band’s biggest star Jocelyn Alce (know as Ti-Bass) to screen the film in a number of locations. The screenings were organized in concert with The Dominican Republic Global Film Festival and would take two forms. The first was a screening at the Hotel Karibe, for a rarefied crowd of the Haitian elite.The following screenings would be outdoors at some of the camps for displaced persons where some 600,000 people still live almost two years after the earthquake that destroyed much of Port-au-Prince.

    The Hotel Karibe is one of the fanciest hotels in Haiti. The trip from the airport took us by the tent cities and slums that house some of the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere. I found myself standing in the lobby of a hotel where the drinks cost more than many Haitians make in a week, and whose pool and tennis courts look like they were imported from a San Diego Four Seasons.

    I was nervous because the film we were about to present was very different from the film I originally set out to make. As I spent more and more time in Haiti with the band, I realized that what had attracted me to Septentrional was not just what they were doing, but the context in which they were doing it. Although the day-to-day struggles of the band were heroic, what was really incredible was the historical context within which they pursued their art. The film, which was originally going to be about a band, was now woven through with the history of Haiti itself, from Columbus to the earthquake, tying the problems that the band faces today directly to some of the most brutal events in the country's past.

    A pre-screening crowd mingles at The Hotel Karibe.
    A pre-screening crowd mingles at The Hotel Karibe.

    My fears were unfounded. The event felt like successful premieres everywhere. The night was filled with actors, beauty queens, politicians, and speeches by ambassadors. An audience of 500 drank cocktails and ate hors d'oeuvres, and When the Drum was incredibly well received despite the fact that the film lays a great deal of blame for the country's conditions directly at the feet of many people that were in the room. 

    The next night was a different animal. We were scheduled to show the film on a soccer pitch in Pétionville, but at the last minute the plans were changed, and we found ourselves driving through the night into one of the biggest camps in Haiti in a place called Tabarre. Like most of the camps in Haiti, Tabarre is made of thousands of tents that house tens of thousands of people. There is lots of crime, few sanitation facilities, and the desperation is palpable. It is hard to spend any time in one of these camps and imagine how life is going to get better. An outdoor screen had been set up in front of a pavilion in a clearing.

    Audience members watch the film on an outdoor screen at Tabarre.
    Audience members watch the film on an outdoor screen at Tabarre.

    I have seen the film many times and many ways: on a massive outdoor screen in Battery Park City at the Tribeca Film Festival, with incredibly polite and quiet audiences in South Korea, in churches in Queens, NY, and at festival screenings across America, but sitting in the camp in Tabarre was like nothing I had experienced. The tech people had cranked up the sound to an excruciating level. It was amazing to hear the band's beautiful music blast across the camp and see the people smile in recognition. They clapped for the band and laughed at day-to-day scenes of the country. Then came the history sections of the film. When the Drum graphically details the horrors of slavery, the bloody revolution, the shameful American occupation, the brutal Duvalier dictatorship, and of course, the earthquake.

    Ti-Bass speaks to a post-screening crowd at Tabarre.
    Ti-Bass speaks to a post-screening crowd at Tabarre.

    I realized that in this environment, the film was unspooling not a series of historical events about a place called Haiti, but rather a living a history that led in a straight line from Columbus directly to this camp and all its misery. I had always thought of the earthquake as the end of the film, that it represented the ultimate tragic outcome of 400 years of brutal history, and the film has a brutal earthquake sequence that contains audio and video from the security cameras that were in the presidential palace as it collapsed. But, as the scene unfolded, with the sound turned up so loud that the entire pavilion literally shook, I realized that the end of the film actually lay here in this camp, and we were living it in real time.

    After the film, Ti-Bass got up and talked about the necessity of knowing and owning your history so you can change the future. This is not an original idea, but looking out at that particular audience it seemed real to me in a way it had never before. Driving back to our hotel, Ti- Bass and Nikol began to make plans to tour the country with the band and the film, educating Haitians about their country's past and showing them, through their own inspiring story, that no matter your history, it is your choice whether or not to be a prisoner of it.

    Ti-Bass and the When the Drum crew in Limbe, Haiti. Photo by D. Morel
    Ti-Bass and the When the Drum crew in Limbe, Haiti. Photo by D. Morel

    Films are not inanimate objects. With distribution they become living things that have the power to change lives. This Kickstarter campaign is about making sure that this film gets out to the widest audience possible.

    You can check out the film's official site, and support this project here.

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