BigPoopData Takes the netidee Special Prize

An incisively critical commentary on the obsessive and now-so-pervasive harvesting of data and a plea for the protection of our digital privacy—four schoolboys’ sensor-studded WC has garnered them the 2017 Prix Ars Electronica’s netidee Special Prize. In this interview, Ernst Langmantel, the director of netidee, explains what he likes so much about this project, and elaborates on Austria’s largest initiative to nurture the potential of digital networks.

Big Poop Data
Credit: Miller, Rameder, Wetzelhütter, Wolschlager

This is the second year that, in addition to the Golden Nica grand prize in the u19 – CREATE YOUR WORLD category, the Prix Ars Electronica is singling out some deserving young people in Austria for particular recognition. The netidee Special Prize honors work that takes an innovative approach to the internet of the future or utilizes the internet to foster regional development.

The 2017 prizewinning project, “BigPoopData” by Robert Miller, Nico Rameder, Daniel Wetzelhütter and Max Wolschlager, is being honored with a €1,000 cash award. The lavatory at a Viennese hacker space named Metalab is the focal point of this project. Their comfort station was covertly equipped with sensors in order to gather information ranging from the use of toilet paper and water to the average time spent by those who come here to use the facilities. These data are publically accessible; visitors to bigpoopdata.com can get informed about the average length of time these hackers spend in the john and, above all, when the daily rush hours occur.

Ernst Langmantel is the chairman of the board of Internet Privatstiftung Austria, the foundation that funds netidee. We asked him about this year’s prizewinning project as well as about the mission of netidee. In contrast to the 2017 Prix Ars Electronica, the deadline for submissions for prize consideration is July 20, 2017. See www.netidee.at.

Big Poop Data Screenshot

What do you especially like about the BigPoopData project, and which aspects of it make it worthy of recognition by netidee?

Ernst Langmantel: The project demonstrates one of the internet’s most important current lines of development—the Internet of Things (IoT), the electronic interlinking of objects. The area selected by this project—a basic human physiological function—puts this idea into high-definition terms, which make it easy to get across and in a rather provocative way too. This is perfect since it not only shows the tremendous extent to which this phenomenon could come to pervade everyday life; it also kicks off a necessary discussion about advantages and disadvantages, opportunities and risks.

These students’ project expresses their concerns about protecting the privacy of IoT users. What’s your view of the proliferating digital networking of things used in everyday life?

Ernst Langmantel: The implementation of the IoT is giving rise to tremendous possibilities for improved efficiency in numerous areas, and it’s also spurring totally new and innovative products and services, and especially in areas that you wouldn’t immediately associate with digitization—agriculture, for example. Installing a network of moisture sensors in fields would make it possible to automate irrigation and make it significantly more efficient. This would result in higher yields, reduced water usage, and an easier job for farmers—thus, a win-win situation for man and environment!

“As far as privacy in concerned, I personally am still a bit reserved. After all, data harvested from private users end up, as a rule, on “some sort of” servers in the internet where they’re not subject to the least bit of user control over what actually happens to the data, who has access to them, and how they’re analyzed. I find that unsatisfactory, so I’m curious about what impact the EU’s new General Data Protection Regulation will have on this.”

In any case, what I’d like to see occur is for private data to be handled in a way that’s transparent to and verifiable by users, and can be transmitted into the internet only in exceptional cases. Or, to the extent that such data transfers are technically necessary, that trustworthy, effective control mechanisms are in place for the benefit of those affected. Local data retention and local control intelligence are, after all, also key assets for the availability of services. Nowadays, internet access is indeed widespread, but there will always occasionally be overloads, disruptions and temporary breakdowns, and when they occur in so-called smart homes, it shouldn’t be the case that all the lights go out and can’t be turned on again.

Big Poop Data Screenshot

With a million euros to distribute, netidee is Austria’s largest fund subsidizing innovative project ideas and dissertations in scientific fields. What are your primary criteria this year in selecting funding recipients?

Ernst Langmantel: We don’t demand that the netidee present an “imposing” business plan; what is important for us, though, is for the funding application to credibly demonstrate that there is sufficient survival probability of the results once the project has been concluded, and there is at least the potential for growing impact. Our website goes into detail about the assessment criteria; here, I’d like to highlight three essential aspects.

First off, how well does the project contribute to accomplishing netidee’s mission? That is, what does it do to advance the internet in Austria and nurture positive social development? We seek projects with growth potential—growth in the sense of proliferation of usage that’s as self-reinforcing as possible and potential for further development, also on the part of third parties, since the results of all subsidized projects will be available for general use according to open-source provisions!

Second, how good is the quality of the funding application? A key component of this is the degree of innovativeness of the project concept. What is its unique selling point compared to other—possibly similar—publically available solutions?

Third, how high do we estimate the chances of commercial success? We want to achieve impact; that’s why we emphasize the project objective’s relevance for the general public. And, of course, there’s the question of whether the project resources described in the funding application match the aspiration level of the project itself.

Screenshot netidee.at

The Website of netidee.

In addition to the subsidies, you annually award special prizes. This year, there are three of them …

Ernst Langmantel: Exactly, the best successful funding application in each of three substantive categories this year is being singled out for recognition with a €3,000 special prize in addition to its respective subsidy. This year’s special prize categories are Blockchain, Closing the Gender Gap and Privacy by Design.

Blockchain is a technology that has the potential to revolutionize an entire business sector. The best-known example is the digital currency Bitcoin. There’s also been a lot of talk about so-called smart contracts. We can initially differentiate between those in private and public blockchains: the former are proprietary and used only within a company or group of companies; public blockchains are intentionally made public on the internet, and can be seen and used by anyone.

As for Closing the Gender Gap—the internet is used by women and men alike, but when it comes to developing, designing and programming, the guys still have a big lead. netidee is seeking new and innovative approaches or tools to get girls and women of all ages enthused about the internet, to arouse their pioneering spirit and direct it towards high tech, to nurture women’s IT skills, and to thereby foster equal digital rights.

And that brings us to Privacy by Design. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation that goes into effect in May 2018 will institute uniform data protection standards throughout Europe, and their implementation will confront companies with major challenges. Where are the stumbling blocks in actual practice? How can technology provide support in this connection? What are the best ways to proceed both with respect to existing systems and applications and for new ones? netidee is very much looking forward to receiving new ideas, practical analyses, as well as assistance and developments tailored to the needs of specific target groups!

Austrians can now submit a proposal to netidee …

Ernst Langmantel: Exactly! The 2017 netidee Call for projects and grant applications was first issued on May 18th. Entries can be submitted online at www.netidee.at; the deadline is July 20, 2017. A single project can receive up to €50,000 in funding. Depending on the application, up to 100% of the project’s costs are eligible for subsidization. The maximum stipend for a master’s thesis is €5,000; a doctoral dissertation can receive up to €10,000. A key precondition for all subsidized projects is that the results achieved be made available to the general public (Open Source, Creative Commons).

In comparison to other funding agencies, our subsidy application is far less elaborate, so the expenditure of effort to apply is kept to an absolute minimum. So, potential applicants should definitely go to www.netidee.at and check it out! We cordially invite applications describing exciting internet innovations and academic degree projects!

netidee

LangmantelErnst Langmantel received his degree in communications engineering from Vienna University of Technology in 1983 and then went to work as a software developer at Siemens in Vienna. In the field of communications technology, the leading edge at the time was Germany’s analog mobile phone network C, and engineers were rejoicing that the decision had been made to expand the system to accommodate a then-sensational 100,000 subscribers. Langmantel subsequently made the move to private communications systems where, as a project director with mobile phone network experience and a few patents to his credit, he played a key role in multicell wireless expansions for telephone systems on the basis of the DECT digital wireless standard. In 1998 at the outset of the deregulation of public telephone networks throughout the EU, Langmantel was appointed director of the technical department of Austria’s regulatory agency for telecommunications, and later also for broadcasting. In this capacity, he worked in an exciting interdisciplinary field at the nexus of technology, business and law, and was the man with chief responsibility for the Austrian telephone number system during this period. In search of new challenges in 2011, Langmantel became a self-employed consultant in the field of telecommunications technology with projects in the Near East. Since early 2013, he has also been chairman of the board of directors of Internet Privatstiftung Austria, where his responsibilities include development of the netidee subsidy program.

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