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Faith in Services, Trust in Data

Published in Technology


Moleskine Concept Diagram 1

Earlier this week Google announced Keep, their new service for quickly storing notes from your phone and online. As others have pointed out, it’s similar to the popular Evernote. Feature comparisons aside, the launch of new services providing common, even essential, access to my information highlights a disconcerting trend.

Faith in Services

Underlying these product decisions is the manifestation of the products that we use. Historically we purchased physical media that we would hold and use as much as we wanted. Despite a company going out of business, ending a product or even upgrading the version we could choose to keep using the product as we had originally acquired and intended. Whether that was Word Perfect or Windows 95, we were in control.

With the advent and ubiquity of connectivity and the Internet, we have become more reliant on services – popularly referred to as The Cloud. There are numerous benefits to this architecture such as scalability, reliability, accessibility, and maintainability. Users can access information from almost any device whenever they need it without worrying about location, versions, or upgrades.

Consequently we put our faith in the service and the trust that there is connection to the internet, the service will be working, that our information is not leaked or shared, and even that the company or product continues to exist. We are now reliant on decisions for which we have little or no control.

Reality of Providers

Evernote has a vision to create a 100-year company, a nearly unique perspective for a new information technology company. It is the kind of pledge that instills a confidence that considers building a long-term relationship with users and exhibiting through products and services.

By contrast, invested and publicly traded companies have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profits and increase shareholder value. They are legally required to change their products and business to contiuosly get the most money possible. Users are not shareholders and as such are beholden to the decisions to improve revenue. This is not bad per se, but can have consequences in products that live or are shutdown that may seem arbitrary to users.

Google is well known for this behavior, as recently in shutting down Google Reader, though even more relatedly the Keep-similar closing of Google Notebook that was part of a regular “spring cleaning”.

Beyond mere existence of these services we are still reliant on the stability of the service provider. The recent launch of SimCity was plagued with service failures due to scaling and security. And there are many more intentional service related restrictions, particular if the service provider is a hardware manufacturer with clear incentives to lock you into their physical platform.

Trust in Data

The point is that we must realize the vitalness of protecting and accessing our data. Whether my personal notes, email, photos, business plans, or any other information that I have, it is imperative that we retain ownership and rights to the underlying data. Users should be able to hold their data with permission to access, use and reuse regardless of future business decisions.

Services are a value-add. They make my data more useful and perform amazing capacity such as character recognition, entity extraction, geocoding, analysis, and recommendations. But these cannot come at the detriment of control and access to the information that exists independent of a particular product.

Consumers are relatively new to technology, and there is a constant flow of marketing, features, and new products to try. These are easily appealing and exciting while overlooking to the potential implications of investing into a particular service. I hope the culture evolves to where access to the data is not an esoteric or unrelated conversation but is a forthright requirement of any new service.


OpenDataDay and Hacking for DC

Published in Data, Technology, Travel


World Bank GlobeI often say that Washington, DC is a city that thinks more about the world than it does about itself. Situated as the Nation’s capital, headquarters to a multitude of multinational organizations, and even home to people from all over the world, DC works at large scales that cover other cities, regions, and countries. Even the governance of DC itself is subject to the politics and power of unelected officials.

So it is a bit ironic that the international OpenDataDay Hackathon, hosted locally at the World Bank brought together so many smart and technically talented people to work on local DC datasets and solutions.

8500623959_2ffc953865.jpgYou can see the summary and links to all of the various projects on the OpenDataDay DC hackpad. There is a wealth of interesting links, problems, ideas, and output; from mapping the locations of trees by species, to analysis of DC public school vs. charter school performance and walkability.

Beyond just this one day event there is a burdgeoning community of people that are data astute and gathering together to perform some really great projects. DataKind is hosting a follow up DC DataDive on March 15-17, 2013. Data Community DC is an umbrella of at least four other meetup groups discussing data visualization, data science, data business and the R analysis platform.

And if you want to focus on DC, then the new Code for DC chapter of the Code for America Brigade has a few focused projects looking at social services, neighborhood councils, education, and even fire hydrants. Sometimes it’s necessary for us to spend our time and volunteer efforts locally in the communities where we live.


Everyblock closes

Published in Neogeography, Technology, Web


EveryBlock_ Building permits in Schuylerville - Throgs Neck - Edgewater Park | EveryBlock NYC.jpgIn 2007 at the beginning of the popular emergence of local maps and amidst a changing journalism industry, an innovative platform was launched that provided a uniquely local and up to date view of cities. Everyblock, a news feed for your neighborhood, was built as an open-source platform that used government open data feeds to provide a user friendly dashboard of the various activities, crimes, 311 service supports, and even chat messages and social media posts.

Unlike most other sites, Everyblock really considered how people could access and understand the numerous data that permeated around their home every day. At the time I was working on Mapufacture which took a more abstract view of the same data and I always appreciated the care and experience the Everyblock team put into making the information accessible.

Communities and Their Tools

Unfortunately today NBC, whom acquired Everyblock in 2009, decided to shut the site down without any warning. There are likely justified reasons why NBC did not want to continue to support the site. Adrian shares his views on the shutdown and the community are sharing their suprise and thoughts on the official post. Clearly people that enjoyed and even relied on Everyblock as a way to access important local information are now left without this key resource. This is obviously not the first, nor the last, time that a web site that people loved and expected to work was shutdown and they were required to move to an alternative.

Underlying this particular example is something more concerning. Everyblock was a site that was designed to build community and as an interface to local, civic and government life. In some ways it could be considered as a basic public good that served a need unmet by other official and commercial sources. Additionally it provided a forum for citizens to share their experiences, needs, ideas and issues. I always thought there was a lot more opportunity in Everyblock to create real collaboration for neighborhoods to solve their local issues.

People are generally more mobile. I know very few people that now settle into a single place for decades, let alone in the neighborhood that they were born. We are moving, shifting, and finding ourselves consistently in new areas where we don’t understand the local issues or have an opportunity to meet all of our neighbors. Social networks reinforce maintaining our existing connections independent of distance which subsequently can ‘fill your dance card’ and leave less time to connect with the neighbors.

In addition we are constantly engaged with technology and the web. By providing an avatar for the real world in our online social networks, Everyblock reconnected us to the place where we live and our children are growing up. Perhaps Everyblock didn’t reach a ubiquitous engagement that may possible or desired, but it was a well crafted platform that was useful even if it only had a single user.

Git and go

The Everyblock code is open-source and the OpenBlock Project is an attempt to build a community around the project. However there are many other components that go into a site such as the data feeds, community management, and general infrastructure and monitoring. Creating an instance for a city is a big effort that also requires a long-term strategy. I’m curious if this becomes a government run service or if local technologists such as Code for America Brigade could become reliable and sustainable provides of this type of service.

I am truly sad to see Everyblock go – and very thankful to Adrian, Wilson, Paul and Daniel for their vision and work to make Everyblock a reality and inspiration for what is possible.


Guerilla Geography from Daniel Raven-Ellison

Published in Neogeography, Technology


Guerilla GeographyAs part of Geography Awareness Week National Geographic hosted a talk about guerrilla geography by Daniel Raven-Ellison. You can read more about Daniel’s work on his site or blog The Geography Collective.

Daniel’s talk was enjoyable and resonated with what made me adopt geography as a new career. He passionately seeks to experience and perceive places and to teach others. His Mission:Explore books provide intriguing experiments, particularly for children, to learn more about where they live, how they move, the history, culture, and environment of places. And particularly relevant to guerilla geography, about how they can impact and influence this space as a medium for expression and commumity.

He also riffed a bit on psychogeography and reminded me of Tim Waters’ sense tours where he advises people to stop when they see something interesting, close their eyes and smell or hear in order to leverage the other senses in really understanding a place. Or Christian Nold’s biomapping and sensory journeys. Daniel has done “urban earth” walks through major cities while taking a photo every 8 steps. The result is a visceral flow through living urban centers giving you a mere glimpse of the life, paths, and people that inhabit these areas.

Mission:Food bookDaniel is building very simple and effective tools and experiments for anyone to engage with geography. It has large similarities and goals to my work in Neogeography which utilizes potentially more advanced, and often technical, tools but in similarly colloquial ways to share stories and personal experiences with location. What’s also interesting about his work is that he introduces the scientific method in subtle ways such as challenging kids to record the outcome of days they walk under a ladder and days they don’t in order to determine if there is in fact an impact on one’s luck.

Perhaps more controversial, but arguably important, he encourages children to “Meet your meat” that you’re going to eat. Visit the local farm to see the cows, sheep, or other animals and understand the flow of food through the land and from the environment that forms your meals.

I’m not sure if they’ll post his talk from this week, but you can watch his talk from NatGeo Live!.


FourSquare and OpenStreetMap

Published in OpenStreetMap, Technology


foursquare.pngEarlier this week FourSquare announced that they switched their website maps from Google Maps to OpenStreetMap data hosted by MapBox. In what has been a growing trend of broader adoption, FourSquare remarks the utility and success of OpenStreetMap. Additionally it’s another movement in the recent switch2osm campaign since Google began requiring paid licensing for high-usage of the once completely free Google Maps.

Currently the switch is only for the website, which I admit I have used less than a dozen times and the mobile application will still be using the native Google Maps libraries. There are a number of valid reasons for this, not least of which is that Google is not yet charging for mobile maps usage, though I imagine it only a matter of time before they do and also for developers to build comparable mobile mapping libraries for OpenStreetMap.

Value of the Basemap

There are several intriguing aspects of this announcement as well as the reaction. First is that the change of the basemap, while intriguing to the geospatial and data communities, is likely highly irrelevant to most FourSquare users. Would there have been much news had the switch been to Microsoft Bing maps? Probably not. The interest is clearly impacted by the community, and general good will, of the OpenStreetMap project. Each adoption by a major company further verifies its value, as well as solidifies its continuity as organizations build their own business with OpenStreetMap as a core component.

Second is that there have been a number of companies whose primary, or recent, goal has been to be a trusted provider of OpenStreetMap basemaps. CloudMade, started by one of the founders of OpenStreetMap Steve Coast, was created for exactly this purpose. Additionally MapQuest has been using OpenStreetMap as a tactic to increase adoption of their long-standing mapping platform as well as insure themselves against likely increasing commercial data provider costs. However it was an extremely recent technology, albeit from a longer established company, to be the one to provide the OpenStreetMap basemap for FourSquare.

Development Seed‘s MapBox is truly a compelling creation of technology and innovation. They have done extremely well adopting the best of breed software, and the development team that built it, with Mapnik. And they combined it with new technology to make it fast, and a differentiating and compelling story for developers by using Node.js. Technical details aside, the design and thought into the representation of OpenStreetMap clearly was a key differentiator in FourSquare using Mapbox to serve their OpenStreetMap tiles. And I’ll also add that Development Seed is a local DC and East Coast company – something I don’t doubt was interesting to the New York based FourSquare in pushing against the typical Silicon Valley technology scene.

Of course, in the end it is just a basemap. This is the background canvas that contains the actually valuable information that FourSquare has gathered and users engage with. The switch from Google Maps to OpenStreetMap does not in any way change the value or usage of the FourSquare application and community. Technically there is no real difference – it’s possible to restyle most any basemap today, and I imagine the switch from one provider to another was a relatively trivial code switch. FourSquare, or others, could just as easily switch to a new basemap if it was important to them as a business or their community.

More than a Basemap

OpenStreetMap Editing Belga CafeWhat I am most excited about, and believe FourSquare has an almost unique potential to enable, is the adoption of OpenStreetMap as more than just the canvas for visualizing check-in’s and user activity. OpenStreetMap’s true value is that it is an open, editable, relational database of geographic data – where the basemap is merely one way to access the information. What makes OpenStreetMap the future of location data is that the information can only get better, more up to date more quickly, and better representative of unique and varied views of a person’s place.

Several years ago Dennis and I had a conversation just after the initial launch of FourSquare about the potential of using OpenStreetMap. At the beginning, FourSquare only worked in specific cities, and in his considering how to expand it everywhere the options were between having a blank database and having an OpenStreetMap populated dataset. Obviously the tremendous potential was having the then nascent community of FourSquare users using and updating OpenStreetMap data. Unfortunately for usability and I assume business reasons (e.g. build your own database that you can own) FourSquare didn’t adopt OpenStreetMap at that time.

However, imagine if FourSquare adopted just this technique. Leverage their millions of users to improve the OpenStreetMap database. OpenStreetMap itself suffers from the common platform issue of being everything to everyone. This is confusing for new users that want to contribute to know where to begin. They may just want to include the road in front of their house – or the park down the street and the great coffee shop they frequent. Unfortunately the interface for performing these activities often requires understanding of British terminology of places and an overwhelming choice of categories, tags, and drawing options.

FourSquare by contrast is forced to be simple and focused. Users are quickly engaging and disengaging with the application that should capture the data and reflect it to the user for verification. Because my activity is being tracked, FourSquare can know that I’m on foot in the US and in an urban area, so don’t start by showing me hiking trails, or highways but show me restaurant and relevant places of interest – allowing me to dive deeper if I want to but making it simple for the casual user to improve the data. I believe that only through simple and focused user applications will OpenStreetMap broadly enter into the common use and be able to reach the end tail of location data.

Of course, this assumes FourSquare, specifically the investors and board, don’t see their user collected place data as a key and protected dataset. There have been enough POI selling companies in a dying market. There are now businesses such as Factual, and still CloudMade, who are focused on making this data openly available – though themselves as brokers to the data.

Despite continuing to cross numerous impressive adoption hurdles and over seven years of development, OpenStreetMap is still a young project. Its adoption by FourSquare is indeed another momentous occasion that heralds optimism that it will continue to grow. And as companies like Development Seed, CloudMade, MapQuest and others adopt OpenStreetMap as a core to their business – providing not just services but truly engaging with the community and providing focused context and value, OpenStreetMap will only get better.