Open Data and User Experience

Can Open Data be an opportunity for better services, with respect with user experience? Certainly so.

As noted on the Public Strategist blog, the current Bus Countdown display is not the best ever: it gives information too far in the future in a way that isn’t suited to someone already at the bus stop, unless they’re polling the display for information going back and forth from their home.

Pretty obviously, when there is just one single means through which this kind of information are spread to the public, usability is managed centrally by the authority in charge of such information. Surely, this authority might invest on usability and accessibility and let people access such information in multiple formats on different devices or by different means.

As Public Strategist suggests, if I’m at the bus stop I’ll just need to know when the next bus will come; say I’m waiting for bus number 91: I’m not interested in knowing I have three 91 buses coming in half an hour, I just need the first, maybe the second. However, when I’m at home I might want to know when all the next “instances” of a given bus will pass in a longer term.

This is exactly where the open data revolution can make a difference: by letting developers play with the data, they can propose novel solutions to the public, better interaction models, or simply a number of different ways to access the information – number that a single, resource-constrained, organisation is unable to manage.

Open Data are a liberating tool for Government transparence; but they can also empower designers and developers to create a better experience for the public. This is surely a very important, although less ideological, reason why local authorities and larger organisation should welcome this revolution.


Christmas Time

This blog, as usual, has been dormant for a while. I’m not one of those blogger who spit out everything passing through their minds but I generally like to report events, technologies, and research ideas that I’m really enjoying and understand.

So, let me deviate a little from my usual scope to report a little bit about myself and my expectations for the new year.

Firstly, in my day job, I was promoted from my previous post. I’ve been working for a year and a half at St George’s University of London as a Systems Developer and Administrator. Last July a colleague left, so I applied to take over his post of Senior Systems Analyst which I finally got in November. I’m now in charge of the mail and backup servers, and of taking care of the storage systems over our distributed network. Most interestingly, after having the chance of dealing with the implementation of our Common Research Information System using Symplectic, I’ve been able to initiate a couple of projects that I believe will greatly improve our services and our positioning as an educational institution in 2011:

– the development of a new process for service support, using Request Tracker
– the design, deployment, and marketing of a mobile portal.

I believe that both projects will help – given the cuts we’ll be experiencing – improve the quality of our services and reach a wider audience. Internal behavioural changes will be needed and a lot of inter-departmental cooperation will be required to let everyone accept the changes and I’m already working on the advocacy sub-projects.

Secondly, 2010 has been a great year of Geo development. After starting to get interested in the topic a couple of years ago, I got in touch with some great people that are really helping me expand my knowledge and views. For 2011 I expect to increase my practical skills and manage to do some work in the area – the first opportunity is exactly our corporate mobile portal, which will have extensive location aware capabilities.

Eventually, as a photographer I finally managed to experiment some techniques like HDR and do some nature photography in the Salt Ponds of Margherita di Savoia. In 2011 I’m planning to do all I can to turn semi-pro, launching a photography website and organize my first theme exhibition in a local cafe. I created my own Christmas Cards this year, with the photo you see below: it’s a picture I took in Bologna, where I was living up to 2008, and it’s the Christmas Tree we have every year in the main square.

That’s all for the moment. Enjoy your holidays, whatever you wish to celebrate 🙂

Christmas in Bologna

geo gov Web 2.0

Free data: utility, risks, opportunities

Some random thoughts after The possibilities of real-time data event at the City Hall.

Free your location: you’re already being photographed
I was not surprised to hear the typical objection (or rant, if you don’t mind) of institutions’ representative when requested to release data: “We must comply with the Data Protection Act!“. Although this is technically true, I’d like to remind these bureaucrats that in the UK being portraited by a photographer in a public place is legal. In other words, if I’m in Piccadilly Circus and someone wants to take a portrait of me, and possibly use it for profit, he is legally allowed to do so without my authorization.
Hence, if we’re talking about releasing Oyster data, I can’t really see bigger problems than those related to photographs: where Oyster data makes it public where you are and, possibly, when, a photograph might give insight to where you are and what you are doing. I think that where+what is intrinsically more dangerous (and misleading, in most cases) than where+when, so what’s the fuss about?

Free our data: you will benefit from it!
Bryan Sivak, Chief Technology Officer of Washington DC (yes, they have a CTO!), has clearly shown it with an impressive talk: freeing public data improves service level and saves public money. This is a powerful concept: if an institution releases data, developers and business will start creating enterprises and applications over it. But more importantly, the institution itself will benefit from better accessibility, data standards, and fresh policies. That’s why the OCTO has released data and facilitated competition by offering money prizes to developers: the government gets expertise and new ways of looking at data in return for technological free speech. It’s something the UK (local) government should seriously consider.

Free your comments: the case for partnerships between companies and users
Jonathan Raper, our Twitter’s @MadProf, is sure that partnerships between companies and users will become more and more popular. Companies, in his view, will let the cloud generate and manage a flow of information about their services and possibly integrate it in their reputation management strategy.
I wouldn’t be too optimistic, though. Albeit it’s true that many longsighted companies have started engaging with the cloud and welcome autonomous, independently run, twitter service updates, most of them will try to dismiss any reference to bad service. There are also issues with data covered by licenses (see the case of FootyTweets).
I don’t know why I keep thinking about trains as an example, but would you really think that, say, Thameslink would welcome the cloud twitting about constant delays on their Luton services? Not to mention the fact that NationalRail forced a developer to stop offering a free iPhone application with train schedules – to start selling their own, non free (yes, charging £4.99 for data you can get from their own mobile web-site for free, with the same ease of use, is indeed a stupid commercial strategy).

Ain’t it beautiful, that thing?
We’ve seen many fascinating visualization of free data, both real-time and not. Some of these require a lot of work to develop. But are they useful? What I wonder is not just if they carry any commercial utility, but if they can actually be useful to people, by improving their life experience. I have no doubt, for example, that itoworld‘s visualization of transport data, and especially those about Congestion Charging, are a great tool to let people understand policies and authorities make better planning. But I’m not sure that MIT SenseLab’s graphs of phone calls during the World Cup Final, despite being beautiful to see, funny to think about, and technically accurate, may bring any improvement to user experience. (Well, this may be the general difference between commercial and academic initiative – but I believe this applies more generally, in the area of data visualization).

Unorthodox uses of locative technologies
MIT Senselab‘s Carlo Ratti used gsm cell association data to approximate people density in streets. This is an interesting use of technology. Nonetheless, unorthodox uses of technologies, especially locative technologies, must be taken carefully. Think about using the same technique to calculate road traffic density: you would have to consider single and multiple occupancy vehicles, where this can have different meanings on city roads and motorways. Using technology in unusual ways is fascinating and potentially useful, but the association of the appropriate technique to the right problem must be carefully gauged.

Risks of not-so-deep research
This is generally true in research, but I would say it’s getting more evident in location-based services research and commercial activities: targeting marginally interesting areas of knowledge and enterprise. Ratti’s words: “One PhD student is currently looking at the correlations between Britons and parties in Barcelona… no results yet“. Of course, this was told as a half-joke. But in many contexts, it’s still a half-truth.