Local lab aims to improve water quality

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Blacksburg, Va., May 3-Rippling River: Strouble’s Creek, which runs through Virginia Tech’s campus, has been listed as an impaired waterway since 2000. Photo: Stephen Dixon

by Stephen Dixon, Sidney Cook–

Stroubles Creek is a waterway that runs underneath the town of Blacksburg and flows into the Duck Pond. It is also an important tributary to the New River and provides water for a variety of plant and animal life in the region. However, in 2000 the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality registered the creek as an impaired waterway.

In order to constantly collect data on Stroubles Creek to know the full extent of its impairment, Virginia Tech formed the LEWAS Lab. The LEWAS, or Learning Enhanced Watershed Assessment System, uses instruments to measure the flow rate, pH level, dissolved oxygen, conductivity, depth and temperature. According to their website, it also has WiFi capability so that the live data updates in real time.

Dr. Daniel Brogan, a postdoctoral associate for the LEWAS Lab, developed the user interface for the data and works on how to best educate the public. He has been presenting the interface in classes at Virginia Tech and seven other institutions. He believes that “having access to this interactive, live data increases students’ motivation and learning about environmental monitoring issues.”

While college students make up a large part of the program, having access to this data is important for all members of the New River Valley. Brogan has also attended science fairs around the area to help educate the youth in the community. He noted that educating people when they are young is a key component to ensuring that they are environmentally conscious through their adult lives.

While the LEWAS Lab mostly focuses on measuring data of Stroubles Creek, the StREAM Lab does more in terms of reducing the sediment and bacteria loadings in the stream. According to StREAM’s website, their goal is to “remove Stroubles Creek from the Clean Water Act list of impaired waters.”

Dr. Cully Hession, the lab director, noted that since 2009 the lab has excluded livestock from stream access, planted riparian zones and installed bioretention cells at the Blacksburg Community Center and Foxridge Apartments. However, there is still much to be done in order to accomplish the goal of removing Stroubles Creek from the list of impaired waters.  Starting this summer, Hession will partner with the Stroubles Creek Restoration Initiative and work with a $6,000 grant from the VT Green RFP program.

While not necessarily working together, Dr. Brogan and Dr. Hession both share a common passion for educating the public about this issue.

“The more people that know about the problems in this creek and know that it’s there, the more that people will care,” Dr. Hession said.

In the end, that is exactly what Dr. Brogan is doing as well, communicating the data effectively in order to educate the public.

Tap and go

by Erik Van Pelt, Rachel Hale–

Virginia Tech recently launched a new mobile food ordering application. Students now have the ability to order food from specific shops in Turner Place dining hall using their smartphones. Dining Services at Virginia Tech have partnered with Tapingo, a smartphone app designed to offer mobile payment at college style dining halls.

The innovative new systems have been adopted at Turner Place as a small-scale launch for the service, which will have widespread availability on the majority of on-campus dining halls in Fall of 2017.

Launching the app early allows both Dining Services and students a grace period to become familiar with the process and ensure that it will run smoothly in the future.

“There was definitely a learning curve when we first started using it,” said Olivia Jansce, an employee at Bruegger’s Bagels. Jansce was part of the first group of employees who had to learn the process of using a phone application for payment rather than a card. She explained they had to learn not only the technicalities of using the app but also the demands of it in terms of labor.

Employees have to service their in-store customers while also keeping up with orders coming in digitally. This process involves adapting new methods of prioritization and efficiency, for employees.

The purpose of the new program is to streamline dining services, offering patrons the same high-quality product with a much shorter waiting time.

“I’ve used it a few times to order from Bruegger’s and it’s saved me a lot of time,” said Virginia Tech senior Josh Wallis.

Students at Virginia Tech frequent the dining halls in large crowds during the time windows in between classes. These rushes can overwhelm dining facilities causing backups and delays; the institution of mobile ordering is aimed at mitigating these backups and providing a more convenient experience for diners.

The introduction of the app is not designed to generate a larger customer base, just a more efficient experience for current customers.

According to the Princeton Review, an independent college ranking service, Virginia Tech ranks fourth in the nation for best dining services. The ranking system is based on comprehensive criteria that include things like quality of food, service, range of choice and health standards.

Virginia Tech is ahead of the curve with the introduction of the app. Only a handful of other schools afford the same luxury to their students.

Students at Virginia Tech can download the app online or in any major smartphone app store. Dining Services expects a seamless transition in the Fall when the service goes full-scale, and hope to continue their high standards of service to students.

Digital News Delivery: Audio technologies for journalists

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Photo credit: Foter.com

by Sara Joy-Hogg, Stephen Dixon–

Mobile technology is quickly changing the ways in which journalists record interviews and audio. Instead of using heavy and expensive high-tech equipment, journalists are using their smartphones and switching to mobile journalism.

A large reason for the switch to mobile technology is how cheap and easy it is to use. According to a poll by Pew Research Center, 77 percent of Americans had a smartphone in 2016. Since many journalists already have the smartphones, downloading a voice recording app is convenient and either free or very cost efficient.

However, a key issue with cheaper, mobile technology is the lack of quality. These mobile apps are free for a reason, resulting in many people questioning if journalists should be using them instead of standard, high-tech equipment.

In the vodcast below, we compare mobile apps such as Voice Recorder and Voice Memos, a digital audio recorder, and a lavalier mic.

Algorithm to fight cyberbullying

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Blacksburg, Va., April 20 – Professor Bert Huang: Huang continues his research on algorithms to detect cyberbullying. His tool is only about halfway complete as he looks to take it to the next level of preventing cyberbullying. Photo: Johnny Kraft

by Johnny Kraft–

Cyberbullying is quickly developing into one of the most popular forms of bullying as social media and technology can be used as a weapon 24 hours a day, seven days a week. However, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech has built his own weapon in the battle against cyberbullying.

Professor Bert Huang has developed an algorithm to detect traces of cyberbullying. Huang is an assistant professor in the Virginia Tech Department of Computer Science, where he is using his knowledge of machine learning to develop algorithms to combat cyberbullying.

According to bullying statistics, about half of adolescents experience some form of cyberbullying, and 10 to 20 percent experience it regularly. However, Huang has found in his research that adults experience cyberbullying more frequently than people realize, and that men experience about the same amount of cyberbullying as women, although they are much different forms of cyberbullying.

Huang developed computer algorithms to identify cyberbullying automatically by using machine learning, which is a type of artificial intelligence that provides computers with the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed.

“We have to provide information as human experts for the machine-learning algorithm to learn from where these are explicit examples of here’s something that I am looking and here’s something that I’m not looking for,” said Huang. “So in this case, it would be here’s an example of cyberbullying and here’s an example of not cyberbullying. Doing that is really expensive and takes a lot of human effort, and is really tricky for humans to do.”

According to DoSomething.org, 81 percent of teens believe cyberbullying is easier to get away with than bullying in person. Right now, the algorithm can only detect traces of cyberbullying, but Huang’s challenge is to eventually find a way to prevent cyberbullying after detection. Huang acknowledged this as the biggest obstacle and focus of his research.

“That’s the goal. There’s a big open problem beyond the detection task. So once you detect it, what do you do?” said Huang.

The algorithm is still developing, as it is not completely accurate yet. Huang hopes to keep evolving his weapon, as a practical tool for social media and other Internet users in the future, but the next step is not completely clear.

“There’s a big question of what you do if you actually detect cyberbullying. This is a problem that we as humans have not solved,” said Huang. “How you intervene and how you fix that problem is not obvious, so getting a computer to do that is an even harder problem.”

Bert Huang
Blacksburg, Va., Virginia Tech Assistant Professor Bert Huang built an algorithm to detect traces of cyberbullying. Photo: berthuang.com

G.A.M.E.R. lab offers new research route for students

by Katt Carter–

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Blacksburg, Va., April 2– A Virginia Tech student plays a life simulator game, a popular genre that can impact players differently. Photo: Katt Carter

Communication majors at Virginia Tech are required to take a Capstone course in order to graduate, one of these courses focuses on research with media and video games.

The course was started by Dr. James Ivory, an associate professor at Virginia Tech who wanted to look at video games in terms of their social dimensions.  The research he headed made way for the G.A.M.E.R. lab at Virginia Tech, researching content in video games, as well as the effect on players.

The lab also focuses on television research, looking into how topics in media are handled and how that impacts viewers’ perceptions of the world.

Visibility at such a large research-oriented university can be difficult to achieve, and the G.A.M.E.R lab is significantly smaller than other operations at Virginia Tech.

James Zogran-Werness is a senior in multimedia journalism who took the course in hopes to have an interesting capstone and further his insight on gaming and if genre impacts levels of violence in players. He said he feels that “Virginia Tech doesn’t have a prominent focus on this type of research and that may be due to how new it is as a field.”

The Guardian published an article last year discussing how despite the popularity of video games, they get little media attention or coverage.  The article went on to mention that this may be due to the stereotype of gamers being lonely teenage boys which could lead people to ignore the social impact that games can make.

While video game research is still considered young by industry standards, Virginia Tech is making headway by incorporating it as a capstone course to encourage interest. In the years to come the lab is hoping to expand and grow as student interest increases.

 

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Blacksburg, Va., April 2- Dr. James Ivory discussing a research topic during class. Photo: Katt Carter

SCI/TECH: Era of cyber warfare


Photo credit: dustball via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

by Sidney Cook, Johnny Kraft, Richard Chumney–

For decades the threat of cyber warfare has been on display in movies and television. Now, well into the 21st century cyber warfare has become a disturbing reality of modern life.

After investigations into the high profile hacks of the Democratic National Committee and Sony Pictures Entertainment authorities determined the attacks were directed by foreign governments. Vladimir Putin and the Russian government, according to FBI officials, weaponized the information gathered from the hack of the DNC in an effort to disrupt the 2016 presidential election in the favor of Donald Trump. North Korea backed the hack of Sony to intimidate and embarrass the American corporation.

Experts believe Russia is likely to strike again. Putin’s government is expected to target U.S. communication and information technology infrastructure but not conduct attacks which could trigger a military response.

In the meantime government agencies and multibillion-dollar corporations will have to find ways to strengthen their digital infrastructure to prevent future attacks.

Digital News Delivery: iPhone 7 aides in citizen journalism

by Kyle Cooke, Maria Dobbs–

Given today’s technology, it’s true that anyone can be a journalist. Whether it’s recording video, taking pictures, or sending out news on Facebook and Twitter, mobile devices and apps have enabled anyone with access to a smart phone to spread news. The new iPhone 7 is adding to this trend, specifically with its updated camera. The camera on the iPhone 7 is so high-end (it includes an incredible “portrait mode”) that professional photographers have been using it to shoot NFL games this season.

However, the way the iPhone 7 displays news to its users has also improved. Instead of having to open the separate news application, individuals can swipe right from their lock screen and the “Top Stories” of the day will show up. Even better, the news is curated to the owner of the phone.

Finally, the improved camera of the iPhone 7 is making live streaming more efficient and enjoyable. Many news organizations such as the ACC Network and even The Collegiate Times have been utilizing live streaming services like Periscope and Facebook Live from their mobile devices. With the iPhone 7’s improved camera, those streams are only getting clearer.