UCLA marrying technology to history

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A bold new experiment in community-based computing is currently underway in downtown Los Angeles. The project, known as Remapping LA, is being spearheaded by a group of digital innovators from UCLA's Center for Research in Engineering, Media and Performance (REMAP), a collaboration between the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science.

"The purpose of Remapping LA is to understand what is going on socially and culturally in this location," said Jeff Burke, executive director of REMAP. "We want to provide a resource for local communities and other citizens so that they can explore first the history of the [Los Angeles State Historic Park] site, and then the communities surrounding it and the geography of L.A., in every sense of the word."

Remapping LA is partially funded by a UCLA Center for Community Partnerships grant.

In the current, initial phase of Remapping LA, students enrolled in UCLA's Engaged Media Workshop fan out from a 19th-century ice factory near Chinatown, armed with advanced mobile phones, GPS devices, digital cameras and geographic information systems, to compile a database of photos, maps, videos and audio recordings that, when combined with historical material, will provide a comprehensive profile of the legendary Los Angeles State Historic Park, an incongruous tract of open land near the city's first center.

In the project's second phase, the new technologies developed by the students will be used to create something akin to a virtual guidebook for visitors to the park site. Later, the same tools will be turned over to residents in various parts of the city to facilitate the exploration and mapping of their own neighborhoods.

"The Remapping LA project is an ideal example of our center's research mission," said UCLA engineering professor William Kaiser, co-director of REMAP. "We have always focused on combining the creative and technology development talents of students and faculty with a goal of major cultural contribution. The State Historic Park opportunity is exciting because the systems we develop will be valuable for a very large community and will have both a permanent presence and a continuous evolution as an urban laboratory."

Digital artist Fabian Wagmister, a UCLA associate professor of film, television and digital media who spearheaded the effort and serves as co-director of Remapping LA, compares the way the system will evolve to the user-created treasure trove of information on the Web site Wikipedia.

"Because anyone who uses the site can post there, you might expect it to get clogged up with misinformation," he said. "But what happens is that wrong or one-sided stuff gets corrected or deleted, and the good stuff gets tagged and rises to the top.

"One of the great advantages of our approach from the point of view of the Department of Parks," he said, "is that it is all done with virtual overlays. It can be implemented without any physical impact on the site whatsoever, therefore allowing constant renovation and participatory evolution."

The works that are created will be exhibited both in the park and in the adjacent Chiparaki Cultural Civic Computing Center.

One clear difference between this enterprise and Wikipedia is that Remapping LA will draw people away from their computers and into the neighborhood, since the overlay interface is site-specific and will only work if one is at the location. The "mapping" that results as community members fan out and explore can be used as the basis for indoor and outdoor multimedia installations, including, perhaps, animated billboards celebrating the cultural history of the area.

In order to visualize how this might work, imagine that you are walking east along Temple Street in downtown Los Angeles, keeping track of your progress on a hand-held electronic GPS device. Just as you're crossing Beaudry Avenue, with Dodger Stadium looming overhead, you get a ping on the device, and a flag pops up on the on-screen map. The flag is alerting you to the fact that an earlier user of this interactive guidebook has "attached" a digital image or a snippet of information to these unique GPS coordinates. The sort of alerts that appear will vary from user to user. For example, if you had expressed an interest in "Los Angeles History," the on-screen alert could take you to an old-fashioned daguerreotype photo and a brief biography of the man for whom Beaudry Avenue is named — Prudent Beaudry, mayor of Los Angeles from 1874 <http://www.answers.com/topic/1874>; to 1876 <http://www.answers.com/topic/1876>; and a real estate developer who put up the first residential buildings on nearby Bunker Hill.

But the use of the technology to create interactive guidebooks is only the tip of the iceberg. "Think of it this way," Engaged Media Workshop project coordinator Chase Knowles said. "Every day, our society forces us to sift through mountains of media just to survive and understand our surroundings. Being able to design and use media to self-define your own environment can be a really exciting and empowering thing for many people."

The land just east of Chinatown on which the 32-acre Los Angeles State Historic Park sits was the site of the city's first railroad yard and is nicknamed the "cornfield" because of the corn seeds that spilled from railroad hopper cars around 1879 and eventually produced cornstalks. Ardent community preservationists and state park officials, who paid $36 million in 2001 to acquire the site, consider it a microcosm of Los Angeles history. Spanish explorers camped near the spot when they first set foot in what is now downtown Los Angeles. It is also where the city's first depot and hotel were built.

The Center for Research in Engineering, Media and Performance, or REMAP, (http://bigriver.remap.ucla.edu/remap) is a joint effort of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television <http://www.tft.ucla.edu/>; and the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science <http://www.engineer.ucla.edu/>; . REMAP brings together world-class faculty and students from both campus units to explore and create new, enriching cultural forms and empowering social situations through the thoughtful interweaving of engineering, the arts and community development.

The UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television offers its students a unique blend of scholarship and practical training, bringing together the highest levels of professionalism with the social mission of a public university. Its landmark integration of theater, film, television and digital media and its outstanding faculty and facilities nurture creative innovation, personal vision and social responsibility. Alumni include such notables as Allison Anders, Lee Breuer, Charles Burnett, Francis Ford Coppola, Tim Robbins, Moctesuma Esparza, Todd Holland, Gregory Nava, Alexander Payne, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Tim Robbins, Brad Silberling, John Schumacher and Audrey Wells.

Established in 1945, the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science offers 28 academic and professional degree programs, including an interdepartmental graduate degree program in biomedical engineering. Ranked among the top 10 engineering schools at public universities nationwide, the school is home to seven multimillion-dollar interdisciplinary research centers in space exploration, wireless sensor systems, nanomanufacturing and defense technologies, which are funded by top national and professional agencies. For more information, visit www.engineer.ucla.edu <http://www.engineer.ucla.edu/>; .

The UCLA Center for Community Partnerships is the driving force behind the university's commitment to civic engagement with communities throughout Los Angeles. Founded in 2002 as part of the university's UCLA in LA initiative, the center is dedicated to developing partnerships between UCLA scholars and local nonprofit organizations to produce academic projects connected to community-based applications that will improve the quality of life for Los Angeles residents. The projects are designed to support children, youth and families, to foster economic development, and to enrich arts and culture. To date, the center has facilitated and funded nearly 100 academic projects involving faculty, staff, graduate students and nonprofit organization partners,  totaling more than $2 million in private donations. 

UCLA is California's largest university, enrolling approximately 38,000 students per year. It offers degrees from the UCLA College of Letters and Science and 11 professional schools in dozens of varied disciplines. UCLA consistently ranks among the top five universities and colleges nationwide in total research-and-development spending, receiving more than $820 million a year in competitively awarded federal and state grants and contracts. UCLA employs more than 27,000 faculty and staff, has more than 350,000 living alumni and has been home to five Nobel Prize recipients.

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