All elections are the same

“Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

Connecticut Courant, September 15, 1800, describing what would happen if Thomas Jefferson were to be elected president over incumbent John Adams.

 

(from: Retro Campaigns)

Highlights from WhereCampEU 2012

UPDATED: added the names of two speakers: Hugues Bouchard and Diego Arechaga.

We learn from Ed Parsons, Google’s Geo man, that Google Maps and OSM are not fierce enemies. Au contraire, “Google wants OpenStreetMap to succeed“. So I took a picture of Ed presenting OSM, announcing it cheekily as “Ed’s defection to OSM” (no, that’s not true).

All of this might have earned him the title of Saint Parsons (thanks, Henk Hoff).

I agree on one thing: Google Maps and OSM are not competitors. OSM is a database providing geographical data. You can use it to create a cartographic rendering, but it’s not its main goal. People seem to forget it.

 

Yahoo’s Adam Rae showed how you can use Scale Spaces theory to infer regions in a map from the geographical distribution of tags. Although Adam’s results are great in their own right, and the mere ability of detecting boundaries via tags is a fascinating possibility, I find this extremely interesting also for its implicit dynamism: tags about a location can change.

Ethnographers who wish to learn how the perception of what is a place, how a place changes, or how the boundaries of a location are fluid, might use this technique. This is true in space and time. An interesting, although intended to be funny, example of such perception shift is http://thisisntfuckingdalston.co.uk showing that the boundaries of a place change according to a spatial component. Moreover, a temporal component might be added to the model, assessing how people’s perception of a given place changes over time. Take, for example, an expanding neighbour.

 

Jan Nowak, an engineer at Nokia, showed how Nokia Maps API can be used to go “from data to meaning in 20 minutes“. Someone complained that “Nokia doesn’t do anything that Google hasn’t already done“. I don’t think this holds true: first of all, there are some genuinely innovative UI elements in Nokia Maps (see WebGL). But more importantly, they are adding a great element of competition to already existing services. Even if Nokia Maps were just yet another map service, with comparable features to Google’s, that would be beneficial to developers and to the geo community at large. It’s a challenge that will bring innovation. Why complain?

 

Jeremy Morley from the University of Notthingham gave the attendees the last updates about the OSM-GB project, whose aim is to measure and improve the quality of OpenStreetMap in Great Britain. This is a very interesting project with very useful outcomes both in the academic and applicative areas. The project aims to answer questions such as how authoritative a crowd-sourced map can be, and to show how multiple sources, including crowd-sourced maps, can be used together to improve the overall quality of the geographical information. One very important aspect of this project is exactly its contribution to OSM happening at the same time as offering a model for updates to non-crowdsourced mapping efforts.

 

Having contributed to the project and to the presentation, I’m very happy with the reception that Taarifa has received, mostly thanks to a great presentation by Mark Iliffe, a PhD student at the University of Nottingham. His public engagement skills are well known and they earned Taarifa promises of contribution by many of the people attending. There was also a mini hack-session with over 10 people willing to discuss Taarifa and envision ways to improve it and put it to good use.

 

Day two opened with Jan Van Eck telling the audience why Esri is interested in Where Camp and how they think they can contribute to the geo-computing community.

He showed some of Esri’s work in the area of maps production and user experience, with the goal of making a case in support of their philosophy, not always in tune with that of OpenStreetMap. However, it must be said that Esri’s contribution to the perception in the public of the existence of a “geographical issue” is certainly a big one.

 

Another interesting piece of work by Yahoo, led by Vanessa Murdock with contributions by Hugues Bouchard and Diego Arechaga (pictured below), showed how hash tags can be used to infer hyperlocal trends, similarly to what Adam presented earlier on.

 

Goldsmith’s design student Francisco Dans led a very practical session about real-time data crunching with map displaying as a result, with tricks and tips on how to use Processing to parse xml/kml. He showed how he used this framework to display trams in San Francisco on a map in real time. Francisco advises using UnfoldingMaps as a tool to create interactive thematic maps and live geovisualizations.

 

Ollie O’Brien is a well known attendee of WhereCamps and Geomobs, working as a Research Associate at CASA. He introduced his recent work on creating City Dashboards: web aggregators of several data sources about a single city. These are extremely useful central points of information for citizens and tourists. Ollie also showed a fun and mind boggling piece of software, developed at CASA, that allows users to fly the sky as they were pigeons. Using a Microsoft Kinect controller and Google Earth, the user can “play” with the system by flying among building using gestures.

 

Laurence Penney is always aggregating the more “cartographicals” of us at his enlightening talks. This time, he came up with a very insightful talk about unidimensional (or linear) maps. A good example of such maps is the Trajan’s Column in Rome, which tells a story in time and space on a single dimension. Of course, a similar technique can be used to represent geographical information. In the past such maps have been used by seamen as “rolling maps“, in a way not too dissimilar to what current GPS navigators do, by displaying what your next step is. What was very interesting in Laurence’s talk is how he conveyed the high aesthetical value of these maps.

There were many other open discussions, including Nutiteq‘s Jaak Laineste showing their latest SDK, useful to create and navigate 3D maps, and ITO World‘s Peter Miller showing how ITO uses and contributes to OSM by adding layers of data. Philip Kandall of Skobbler introduced some advanced routing features (“routing from A to B is boring“) that will be in future navigators, including route calculation by time available for the journey (i.e. not as a maximum time, but as a minimum).

 

As traditional for WhereCamps, a couple of light-hearted moments have closed the unconference: Tim Waters‘ geo-yoga, involving stretching positions that mimic country shapes (I guess we can work on a KML representation of such positions?) and Mark Iliffe’s Geo-Locating Geobeers, suggesting how the Taarifa Platform can be used to report beer drinking location and level of… happiness.

(full set of photos http://www.flickr.com/photos/puntofisso/sets/72157629552681824/)

In other news

Oh yes, you will allow me a bit of self-promotion, right? :-)

I’ve been thinking for some time about starting a newsletter of my own about geeky stuff. No, not necessarily IT-related stuff if you are thinking about that. The idea is to collect things that can excite us geeks.

That said…

  • You’re strongly advised to join at http://tinyletter.com/puntofisso.
  • You’re strongly advised to unsubscribe soon after, if you find it boring.
  • You will get a letter every 7-15 days.
  • [As regular as you were before you started taking that probiotic yogurt every morning. (Don't blame the granola).]
  • I promise you will get the most interesting links I’ve found. And sometimes rechts, too.
  • I promise you will get books recommendations. Or at least excerpts of them. That might include a Bible or two.
  • I promise you will get strange music. Trash music. Fake music. Classical music. I hope you like Rammstein, but they won’t necessarily be in the soundtrack.
  • (No worries for your crystal glasses: I’m not gonna sing.)
  • I promise you will get poetry. Not necessarily written by humans. Possibly not written by me. But you never know.
  • I promise you will get interesting photos. No, not just mine. Yes, I’ll try to get that “just” away, but I want to have options.
  • I promise you will get the best ideas in circulation. You will get maps to navigate through them.
  • I promise you will get the best geeky humour. And (home) cheese (making) recipes. I’ll call them algorithms.
  • I promise you will get the most exciting conversation I saw on twitter. Condensed.
  • I promise you all of this will be short and occupy more or less a page.
  • I promise you will get unicorns, double rainbows, Möbius strips. You will get umlauts and maths. You will get where no man, where no one has gone before. Just not boldly.

I should give credits to @robertbrook. He doesn’t know me, I don’t know him. But his funky newsletter was enough to convince me to write one myself. So you should rather sign up to his.

Is Social Media changing our relationship with Death?

“This morning I’ve started the most amazing journey”. These are the opening words of a Facebook status update of a friend of mine, announcing her own death. The status goes on to explain about her terminal illness (many of her friends, like me, were unaware of it), explain why she kept it private, and say good-bye, all in first person. How peculiar yet powerful is it?

Surely my friend was not someone belonging to the “Internet generation”, being in her seventies. Still, she was a moderately active Facebook user. Especially as someone living far away from many of her friends, she used Facebook as a way to keep in touch. And when she understood that her illness was terminal, she decided to arrange for what was going to happen on her profile. Hence my question: is social media changing our relationship with death?

There are many examples of how death is represented on social media and how social media becomes the first point of arrival for mourners (and the curious). Especially with famous people, their Facebook profiles become sources of photographs for the press. Their final status updates are used to show how sudden their departure was. On Twitter there is a flow of messages from mourners using hashtags as #RIP. Steve Jobs’ death became a trending topic on Twitter, as Amy WInehouse’s. But all of this is just the digital transposition of an non-digital process.

Announcing one own’s death is a new kind of behaviour, a novel need emerging as a consequence of the perceived importance of social media in our everyday lives. As we have become less worried of posting photos of our children and to display our location to a level of accuracy that would have scared us ten years ago, so we have started experiencing death in unexpected ways. We can still see the profiles of dead friends as they were still part of our daily lives. As an eternal memorial to their lives, they stay with us, presumably forever – or until Mr Facebook decides to delete them, sometimes upon request of friends and relatives. But differently from Twitter, where a profile of someone who dies just disappears from their followers’ timeline, Facebook profiles stay there and occasionally make a comeback in the most painful way: “today is your dead friend’s birthday – write happy birthday on their wall!”.

In a new model of human relationships, friends end up writing that well wishing message. The birthday of a dead friend becomes the occasion to revive them. Hundreds of messages from common friends will spread on all the common connections’ timelines. New behaviours, shaping a new attitude towards death. It’s collective mourning. Death has become social. Can you think of an equivalent of this in a non-digital context? Have you ever been at a cemetery, making a mass-visit to a dead loved one? I don’t think so, and that’s where social media is changing our relationship with death. It makes people remember once more and at the same time it provides ways to celebrate a person in their social circle.

Given that death becomes so relevant to our daily digital lives, it’s not surprising that people start making arrangements for their digital after-life. Expressing the need to make your death manifest on your Facebook profile is acknowledging that your digital self is an important part of your life. Some people might behave differently; some might decide to close their profiles, or ask relatives to delete them. As in a non-digital context, for some life will go on, for some will not. But there’s no denying that social media is affecting our perception of and reaction to death in the same public, open way that it has changed other previously private aspects of our lives.


Production systems can’t be beta

Warning: this is just one of those ranting, whinging, blog posts you all developers like.

Yesterday I have been struggling almost half an hour with a python script. A very simple one: connect to a system, download an XML. This XML is a paginated list containing the number of the current page, the next one, and the last. The script should have simply got to the next page, read the “next” number, downloaded such page, and terminate when current == last.

Easy, right?

Except I spent half an hour trying to understand why the script was going into an infinite loop. I am an experienced programmer, but not a massively confident one: when things don’t work, I check my code. You can call it coding modesty if you prefer.

It turns out the problem was in the XML: whatever the page, it always contains “this = 1″ and “next = 2″. This is supposed to be a production system, at its version 3, for which the institution I work for pays a huge amount of money.

This is quite a big bug on a basic function of what is supposed to be a production system. Which prompts me the obvious question: have they ever tested it?

20 UkGovCamp thoughts

1. One of the best camps I’ve attended recently
2. I want @davebriggs’ shirt
3. “Only thing that makes you special is tax payer funding” is the most stupid thing I’ve read
4. “We are special because we’re here on a Saturday, in our own time, trying to solve the taxpayer’s problems” is the best reply I managed to give
5. So many local government officers around is a very good sign
6. So little councillors/politicians around is a not so very good sign
7. Tree macro-areas for discussion and action: Transparency, Participatory democracy, Data geekism
8. I’ve finally met Baskers!
9. In the LocalGov/PublicSector communities I know more people than I thought
10. Social Media strategy evaluation is difficult (not just in the public sector): how can you evaluate a conversation?
11. Defining the goals of that strategy is the most interesting part – and the outcome of that evaluation is not necessarily a number
12. Kudos to @LinkedGov and @danpaulsmith for an amazing service and session showing how Linked Data can become interesting and useful to everyone
13. UkGovCamp is political, but it involves people with very different ideological backgrounds
14. I’d like to see more people from the public sector taking part to this: many problems are similar, as it is resource availability
15. Wow, I can present myself to an audience with a microphone. I used to go piping red doing that!
16. Never catch flu the last day of such a great event
17. Next time: get speaker/organiser’s name on the agenda. It helps identifying it.
18. I might accept @the_anke’s offer of conversations in German, next time ;-)
19. Open Data is great but we need to define what it is, how to share it, and how to get people engaged.
20. Government (GDS) involvement is a great and exciting thing, but open data (and the movement) will succeed only with citizens/developer/activists maintaining ownership of action

Computer Science History in Secondary Education?

Sue Black’s wrote a great blog post about whether the history of computer science should be part of the GCSE Computing programme. This is a new programme offered initially by OCR as a pilot, and now as standard GCSE. It offers a qualification in three practical parts, lacking completely a more philosophical approach to Computer Science.

Although a mainly practical approach to computing might be justified at this level, a total absence of the wider issues of Computer Science is appalling. So Sue’s idea of adding the History of Computer Science to this qualification would improve not just the quality of the qualification itself, but also the understanding of the contribution of Computer Science to our society. Joining voices with Sue, I would like to highlight some simple points about why Computer Science history is important:

  • from a purely technical perspective, learning how things developed leads to better skills; we require nuclear physicists to study Newton’s laws, and astronomers to have a grasp of Kepler’s ideas. Knowing the history of punched cards and batch processing on mainframes will make today’s developers deal with their work more effectively.
  • Computer Science made a substantial contribution, most famously through the work of cryptoanalysts at Bletchley Park, to the Allies’ victory in World War II. Computer Science made the difference between a Europe dominated by dictatorships and a democratic one.
  • The history of businesses in Computer Science is one of visions and missions, one of intense fights over the improvement of efficiency, effectiveness and commitment to users; it’s a story of genius ideas and financial mistakes; it’s a story of alternative views of how to get to the market, of giants that created giants. In short, it’s a story that every aspiring entrepreneur should learn before even trying.
  • Studying the more philosophical aspects of Computer Science, the complexity and computability theories, the halting problem, the Goedel’s theorems, can give a student an amazing insight of how humans perceive reality and approach problems.
  • The history of people in Computer Science is a history of science, knowledge, research, passion; it’s also a telling story about civil liberties and bigotry. Ada Lovelace, a woman, is hailed as the first programmer of history; Alan Turing, a gay man who was persecuted (not a typo for prosecuted) for what he was, is credited with developing modern computer science and leading the effort to decrypt Nazi communications. Knowing this story is a way to learn the contribution of each and every person to the development of a great science.

Studying the history of Computing as a science is part of my background. The path going through Babbage, Lady Lovelace, Turing, Goedel, and Dijkstra was possibly the most mind opening of my life. I would really like to see new generations enjoy the same mind opening experience.