Fed contractor constructs outdoor oasis for Katrina victims; Virtually safe…hurricanes?; IBM summons coeds to build openly accessible Open Document Format software

Fed contractor constructs outdoor oasis for Katrina victims
A government technology contractor has announced it is building a park and pavilion for a small Mississippi community that lay in ruins after Hurricane Katrina.

Project Performance Corp. (PPC), a management and technology consulting company based in McLean, Va., said a team of 10 employees left Aug. 19 to assemble the new amenities in Bayside Park, just outside of Bay St. Louis, Miss.

The undertaking is part of the company’s efforts to help the Bayside Park neighborhood, which lost nearly all of its 700 trailers and small homes during Katrina.

PPC employees will outfit the recreation area with screened pavilions, picnic tables, a performing arts stage and a flower garden.

The week-long trip marks the company’s seventh visit to Bayside Park since Katrina struck. On each trip, PPC donates its employees’ time and money for food, supplies and equipment.

Virtually safe…hurricanes?
The online 3D world Second Life has garnered headlines for hosting virtual concerts by major music acts such as Duran Duran and Suzanne Vega.

But the buzz on the blogs these past weeks is that Second Lifers now have federal neighbors: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has erected its own plot of land inside the alternate universe.

Philip Rosedale, former RealNetworks chief technology officer, founded Second Life. It is a shared Web community in which people create and animate avatars of themselves to interact with one another.

NOAA’s ‘hood, Meteora, boasts a sea life submarine tour, tsunami models, a plane ride into a hurricane and a demo of how glaciers melt.

Meteora is the brainchild of NOAA’s Earth Research Systems Laboratory. The lab, which has 600 workers in Boulder, Colo., focuses on climate change and the atmospheric activities that contribute to climate change.

The project was fairly spontaneous.

“One of our guys is a Second Life guy and said, ‘How about we try this?’ ” said lab director Sandy MacDonald. Several of the lab’s scientists contributed to the project, along with a few other nongovernment Second Lifers.

MacDonald said that the plot is a test bed. He hopes to use it as a platform to convey weather forecasts and inform the public about climate change.

He added that reaching out virtually may be the way of the future. “It’s not too far in the future where the virtual way of presenting information may be the best way,” MacDonald said.

IBM summons coeds to build openly accessible Open Document Format software
Last month, IBM launched a contest that challenges college students worldwide to propose accessibility software based on a new international open-format standard.

Open Document Format (ODF), an alternative to proprietary formats such as Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, is a file format built upon Extensible Markup Language. The format was conceived as a standard for saving government records so that any application can read them in the future, regardless of the software that created the original document.

IBM is opening the competition to undergraduate students in the United States, Canada, China and Japan.

“This contest brings together three critical ideas that have significant importance in the computer industry today: open standards, open source and accessibility,” said Bob Sutor, IBM vice president for standards and open source.

“We hope that these efforts spark significant uptake in how we make our information and applications available to as many people as possible,” Sutor said.

The rules:
Phase 1: Learn about accessibility and ODF. Study articles and presentations provided by IBM. Then complete a quiz demonstrating comprehension of the basic concepts of ODF and accessibility.

Phase 2: Use the new knowledge to make a difference.

Option A: Create a tool that automatically identifies places where accessibility features should be applied in an ODF-based word processing document.

Option B: Do your own thing — with the green light from IBM. Submit a short paragraph or two that identifies an ODF accessibility issue and explains how to address the issue using technology. If approved, program the code to support the proposed solution.

The prizes:
The top 10 student developers in each region win an iPod Nano. The best two student developers in each region get a Lenovo ThinkPad laptop and a trip to Los Angeles next year for the 22nd Annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference.

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