Open to UCLA students, faculty and staff from a variety of academic fields, IDRE’s Technology Sandbox is a computing facility unlike any other. The Sandbox is hidden in an expansive labyrinth of rooms, offices and winding corridors, otherwise known as the Math Sciences Building. To gain entry, users must scan their handprint and input a four-digit code à la James Bond. Why so top-secret? Let’s just say some pretty cutting-edge digital research is being carried out behind the room’s thoroughly secured double red doors.
The Sandbox offers a wide range of computer modeling, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), web programming, graphics, image processing and web authoring applications. At any given time, dozens of interdisciplinary projects are in the works. Researchers come from a wide range of disciplines, including digital humanities, computer science, architecture, urban planning and geography, amongst many others.
One of the newest additions to the Sandbox is Rob Graham, a Web GIS Programmer for the California Center for Sustainable Communities. Graham is hard at work on the Urban Metabolism Baselines Project. “The project is a study of how energy is used in the county of Los Angeles – who uses it, what they use it for and what types of characteristic the people and buildings that use the energy have. It is my job to create an interactive energy atlas and data center to explore the information and research we’re coming up with,” said Graham.
Hannah Gustafson, a graduate student researcher for the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, is also a part of the Urban Metabolism Baselines Project. Gustafson explained, “I’m working on electricity mapping in Los Angeles County. Last year, a previous grad student was able to map the electricity usage for the City of Los Angeles, but now we’ve collected data for the whole county. I am working on mapping that data and looking at patterns of usage. Eventually the goal is to expand into an energy data center for the whole state.”
Gustafson and Graham’s efforts will allow the state to measure its progress in meeting ambitious energy efficiency goals and will give the public access to valuable data. “This is the first time anyone has taken a look at where energy is being used in Los Angeles and in California. There is really no level of accountability,” said Gustafson. “The state has very aggressive energy conservation goals, but there is really no baselines analysis of where we are now. We won’t really be able to see if any of those major investments in conservation or renovation efforts are making a difference until we have this baselines data. That is our goal, in addition to public accessibility of the data. We essentially want to be able to provide a tool to access and utilize this data, which we think is pretty important.”
Just a few feet away from Gustafson, graduate student Albert Kochaphum is working on an entirely different (albeit equally exciting) project in collaboration with GIS Coordinator Yoh Kawano called the Zig Map. The Zig Map is a crowd-sourced map of the UCLA campus that allows disabled people to access and share information about the best way to move around the university grounds. “The Zig Map is like a Yelp Interface that helps people with disabilities navigate UCLA. We are working on the project with the Disabilities and Computing Program (DCP), which is under OIT. The platform is really Yoh and [DCP Coordinator] Patrick Burke’s brainchild,” explained Kochaphum.
Similar to Yelp, users can write reviews about the accessibility of certain points of interest on campus and can point out the location of ramps, entrances, stairs and hazards. Kawano and Kochaphum often consult disabled students and faculty to get crucial feedback so they can make the platform as useful as possible. The goal of the project is to allow members of the disabled community to “zig” around the UCLA campus more easily.
In addition to helping build the Zig Map, Kochaphum is working on HyperCities, an innovative platform that allows users to go back in time and explore the historical layers of famous cities across the globe. “The HyperCities website has been around for several years. It’s a platform for sharing information about maps that have a historical aspect to them. It’s basically an overlay on Google maps with historic maps, so you can annotate stories about the maps,” Kochaphum stated.
Kochaphum is working with Kawano to develop a website to store information related to the HyperCities book, titled HyperCities: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities. Kochaphum explained, “We’re developing a website to accompany the book; it will also include many of our projects that you cannot learn about in the book. I am responsible for creating a front end for all of the projects that people can look at.” Site users can read personal stories, watch videos and discover new projects, such as the UCLA Romelab, which is a cross-disciplinary research group dedicated to studying the connections between certain historical phenomena and The Eternal City. They can also access the source code for the HyperCities website and learn about real-time Twitter mapping.
The resident Italian of the Sandbox is Maria Francesca Piazzoni, a visiting graduate researcher from the University Institute of Architecture of Venice. Known for her energetic personality and delicious homemade tiramisu, Piazzoni came to UCLA in the summer of 2013 to work on the Urban Humanities Initiative, a three-year program funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. According to its website, the Initiative seeks “to establish UCLA as an internationally recognized hub for collaborative study of urbanism that bridges design and humanities.” Piazzoni explained, “The Urban Humanities Initiative aims at joining a number of experts who deal with many different disciplines – the humanities, architecture and urban planning. The purpose of the program is to give students new perspectives and methodologies about issues related to urbanization.”
Each year of the program focuses on a different megacity on the Pacific Rim: Tokyo (2013-14), Shanghai (2014-15) and Mexico City (2015-16). The Initiative supports new seminars and courses, multidisciplinary studios with travel to the megacities, guest lecturers and visiting scholars from the three focus cities as well as interdisciplinary research. “I have been using the Sandbox to work on the development of a syllabus for a course that will take place next year, the year of Shanghai. The topic of the course is Shanghai and Identity, and it is designed for graduate and doctoral students,” stated Piazzoni. She is planning on returning to Italy in the summer after finishing up her Ph.D., but says she will sorely miss the Sandbox and everyone who works there.
Although individuals are each engaged in different research projects, it is clear that Sandbox users feel a strong sense of community. The Sandbox’s layout and design encourages teamwork and collaborative thinking. The alternative work environment has an open floorplan and there are no assigned workstations, so people are free to move about and share their ideas. Lab users can frequently be overheard troubleshooting research problems and lending their expertise to other users.
“People here are very friendly and supportive … Everyone who works here is always willing to help and answer questions. Sometimes offices can feel competitive; there is often a lot of rivalry and competition. Here it is all about teamwork. It’s really great,” remarked Kana Kudo, a master’s student in the Department of Urban Humanities. Kudo is currently working with the AEGARON (Ancient Egyptian Architecture Online) team to help geo-reference plans and architectural drawings of ancient Egyptian buildings and post the plans online.
Everyone agrees that the Sandbox is the ideal meeting and collaboration space. “There are always a lot of ideas being circulated around in the Sandbox … I like the fact that our workspaces are open and inviting. In the profit world, it’s more restrictive. People are concerned with productivity, and employees are required to sit at specific workstations. It is not like that at all in the Sandbox,” said Kochaphum. “I also really like the open food policy and the snack array. Really both things are a testament to how the sandbox fosters teamwork and the development of students and their projects. The snacks bring people together!”
Indeed, on any given day, one can find an assortment of delicious, multicultural snacks. Right now, lab users can help themselves to rice snacks, brought back from Japan by Yoh Kawano, who recently traveled to the island nation to monitor radiation levels in the area affected by the nuclear disaster in Fukushima.
Gustafson also praises the Sandbox’s welcoming environment. “It’s a community of people, and you feel very comfortable approaching people for feedback for different projects you are working on. We are all doing very different things, but the projects all overlap in the realm of technology and GIS and data analysis,” said Gustafson. “That kind of thing gets really old if you’re just sitting in front of a computer all day. But this kind of space is very open; people are always talking and they feel comfortable seeking out advice and help. This type of work environment is pretty amazing.”
Piazzoni added, “I came to the Sandbox anytime I was having a hard time – personally or academically. Coming to this place was like being in a safe haven. No matter what was outside, when I came here I always felt at home.”
For information about how to gain access to the IDRE Sandbox, visit the Sandbox Access webpage.