“Swarm Intelligence” Pitt iSchool cultural Web site combines citywide events listing, social networking

Issue Date: 
September 21, 2009
Danielle Lee Danielle Lee

To stay abreast of Pittsburgh’s many cultural affairs, the devout sophisticate must stay busy scouring the listings while also keeping an ear tuned to social chatter. Pitt’s School of Information Sciences (iSchool) hopes to let social butterflies flitter between box-office postings and the word on the street with more ease with a new Web site open to the public that combines a citywide events calendar with a social networking site á la Facebook.

PittCult provides a central listing where users post and browse hundreds of local happenings drawn from the city’s array of museums, galleries, theaters, and dance companies. Events can be viewed by type, venue, or the local organization presenting them; the site currently lists events happening for or during the G-20 Summit specifically. People who register on PittCult—which has gained about 80 members and 200 hits per day since rolling out this month—can also craft profiles that allow them to specify the kind of events they favor as well as create and join groups of like-minded users. Patrons can recommend events to one another, write reviews, and rate the personal tastes and reliability of fellow PittCult-ers. Peter Brusilovsky, an iSchool professor, created the group “Russian Pittsburgh” to bill Motherland-geared events, such as the Pittsburgh Opera’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

More than just a calendar, PittCult is an experiment in building digital communities, explained Brusilovsky, whose doctoral student Danielle Lee created the site for her dissertation.

PittCult relies entirely on the willingness of its members to participate because of their common interests, said Brusilovsky, who studies digital “societies,” social Web sites, and human-computer interactions.

Users post events they read or hear about elsewhere, and they interact based on their similar (or conflicting) tastes. The site becomes a kind of informational ant colony wherein individuals perpetuate and expand the community, Brusilovsky said: As more people post events and interact, the more useful PittCult becomes and the more enticing it is to others looking to be in the cultural know. He compares PittCult to a traditional events calendar, a static list that relies (typically) on information from a limited group of people and provides no opportunity for the people who see it to interact.

“Our site, like Facebook or Google, spreads information through swarm intelligence, when a large group works to keep one another informed,” Brusilovsky said. “The community makes sure an event is posted and that the information gets to the right person. It’s essentially word-of-mouth, which is typically the most effective communication, except that social networks connect more people than real places do.”

PittCult is the most recent event site to come out of Brusilovsky’s lab. He and iSchool graduate student Chirayu Wongchokprasitti created the site CoMeT (Collaborative Management of Talks), a resource for sharing and learning about seminars, lectures, and symposiums hosted at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon. He also helped create a social network for the June 2009 User Modeling, Adaptation, and Personalization (UMAP) conference held in Italy, for which he is a conference committee member.

But PittCult will most likely provide a more complete idea of how digital communities interact because it taps into the more popular world of arts and culture, said Brusilovsky. After Lee thought of creating PittCult, Brusilovsky said he found further motivation from his father, who would comb local listings and compile events of interest to his friends.

“There are so many things happening in this city, but there is no central repository,” he said. “We’re helping the right people get the right information. I’ve found events I’ve never heard by using my own system.”

PittCult is free and available on Pitt’s Web site at pittcult.sis.pitt.edu/.