Single white cloud on a clear blue sky, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from Horia Varlan’s photostream

Cloud computing allows people to access web-based tools or applications as if they were installed on their own computers/smart phones. The cloud metaphor was first used to describe the infrastructure of phone networks, and later, the Internet. Now, clouds are taking on a new meaning. On December 10th, Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto, N21 LLC and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy announced an innovative use of cloud computing with the creation of a “learning cloud” in Pittsburgh’s Schenley Plaza. Anyone with a laptop or handheld device will be able to simply point-and-click while in the plaza to learn all about the objects that surround them. Within the “learning cloud” they can learn about the history of the park, the scientific details of the natural environment, or architectural details of the surrounding neighborhood.

“This is the type of innovation will bring to life the objects that surround us every day and also create new opportunities for citizen involvement,” said Councilman Peduto. “We are bringing new education opportunities to the people in a free and open environment.”

The Outdoor Partnership utilizes mobile learning interfaces, geospatial information technology and outdoor high bandwidth communication networks to make this experience possible. Florida-based N21’s president, David Fries, is a Pittsburgh native who was looking to bring his pioneering networks home. He met Peduto at a convention last year. From the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

Fries, who works at the University of South Florida developing mobile technologies for low-infrastructure environments, sees his hometown — and the plaza, specifically — as the perfect place to debut the concept.

“It’s an intellectual and cultural epicenter,” he said. “It’s a fantastic opportunity to give Pittsburgh a chance to be out front on this technology.”

N21 is working with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, which operates Schenley Plaza, to organize its information about the area and structure it for mobile access. Signs will alert visitors they’re entering the learning cloud.

“Your device becomes cognizant of the network,” Fries said, and the network pinpoints the user’s location. The user can take a picture of a nearby tree or any other object; the cloud will match the image against its database and then respond to the user with a batch of information about the object. Eventually, Fries plans to have the network send users an automatic stream of facts based on their location.

Councilman Peduto’s office provided a $5,000 grant to help launch the project. N21 and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy have already applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation for long-term funding.

Even more exciting, this technology can be expanded — imagine the entire city enveloped by a learning cloud — instead of surfing the net, you’ll be surfing the ‘Burgh.

Schenley Plaza, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from rwoan’s photostream