Archive for February, 2007

OpenStreetMap Baghdad

OpenStreetMap Baghdad is happenning. This is incredible and exciting. And we need your help. Please read on.

OpenStreetMap is an free and open collaborative map of the entire world. We gather GPS tracks and draw maps over them, in an editable wiki style database. And recently we added aerial imagery to our toolbox, thanks to Yahoo!, so dense urban areas and remote locations can be mapped just by tracing streets in the web browser.

This means that OpenStreetMap has the most comprehensive map of Baghdad among any of the web mapping services.

Yahoo has great coverage over Baghdad, and we’ve been tracing. But since we’re physically just about everywhere else in the world but Baghdad, we don’t know the names of the streets or the neighborhoods, and especially what’s changed and still changing during these years of conflict.

So we’re reaching out to find people who could help .. people in Iraq now or have been in Iraq. Data sources, like any old maps or geographic names databases that are permissible to use would be very useful. Or crucially at this point, people who might know people who might know these people and sources. Maybe that’s you.

Our core belief is that open and accessible geodata helps people. The BBC reported on Iraqis using Google Earth to safely travel and avoid violence.

We are well aware of the huge challenges here, culturally and technically. There’s been discussion on how to handle the multiple names of streets .. the old names under Saddam, new names under different factions, and the government. OpenStreetMap can handle all endonyms .. names should exist by use not prescription. And that’s just scratching the surface of the issues. But right now is the right time for proving the open collaborative model for geodata, in the places that need it the most, and OpenStreetMap is ready to take it on.

So any help is welcome .. forward an email, blog post, CNN .. anywhere closer to people that can make OpenStreetMap Baghdad take off. And any comments or discussions, positive or negative, are welcome too.

(x-posted to OpenGeoData)

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The next few months are starting to look very active, lots of speaking. I already need a sip of water.

BarCampLondon2 Feb 17-18 is this weekend .. will probably talk about Weaver House. Though OpenStreetMap Baghdad has my head spinning today.

I’m speaking at a Human Centered Computing Seminar on OpenStreetMap at the University of Sussex on Feb 23. Going to focus on our workshop process and education, usability, and Brighton.

Andrew and I are presenting on Adding Location to Web 2.0 Apps.

and then Andrew and I take the cable car up to do it again the next day!

Where 2.0 is May 29-30. I’m doing double duty, presenting with Ian Holt on Learning Lessons from Neo-geography, our Ordnance Survey project on GeoRSS, and then on Weaver House.


Lift Post-Process

Lift07 was great. What can I say? It was an overstimulating three days, where every conversation and presentation was extra interesting. So well done. Where else will you have the chance to hear Sister Judith Zoebelein geek out with Robert Scoble about Linux PHP and Site Stats on the Vatican website. I had the opportunity to do the OpenStreetMap workshop, and you know the more you give the more you get. Looking through my notes now to pick up some highlights, ideas and people to follow up.

Lee Bryant was as usual incredibly lucid articulating on adapting technology beyond the geek ghetto. He compared Outlook to Pavlov’s Dogs, called out Homo economicus as an Autistic (along with most software), and questioned the long term viability on Wikipedia’s Neutral Point of View. His tips for dealing with organizational resistance to new communication technologies all ring true from my experience with Wikis at the UN. *Get IT on board. *Find business/organizational benefits in openness. *Start with pilot projects in small groups. *Work from the bottom up.

Stowe Boyd, self described “Software Psychiatrist”, articulated a common theme that social software works best when it addresses selfish needs first and foremost .. collective benefits are the happy byproduct of well designed search for self. He praised for building implicit social networks based around activities. Explicit social networks, most of them, are again Autistic and overly managed. The actual notion of relationship is much more fluid and based on interaction. Andreea Chelaru and I discussed how other existing systems of communication and media could be leveraged .. and I was almost tempted to hack together an app that would simply gather user profile pictures of users posted to particular tags on social sharing sites, as ad-hoc social networking, until Pipes distracted me and actually showed a better way (ie no code) to build such a mashup. Anyway, I’m now getting into building my autistic social network on Linked In.

Suren Erkman gave an incredibly interesting presentation on Industrial Ecology. Like biological ecology, it’s an attempt to account for all material and energetic flows within a system, and like a mature ecosystem, it seeks to foster limited waste of limited resources .. which is yet far off. In the mean time, it’s good to hear that at least one positive outcome of the proposed mission to Mars is that it will be impossible to bring along all metabolic requirements, so astronauts will need to “close the loop” and reuse their own waste (ESA Project Melissa), Nestle engineers have saved hundreds of tons of plastic by designing a chocolate powder granule that’s flat and can be packed more densely within containers, and that the Canton of Geneva is the first place to require an accounting of all material flows, which is 74700 tons of material a year. If we’re going to survive at all is going to require massive cleverness in small places, and that definitely means our software, but also chocolate powder.

There were many talks focused on “doing good” with technology. Perhaps this is an enlightened crowd, but in some ways perhaps the larger culture is finally clueing in (or my echo chamber is getting louder). Sugata Mitra of the Hole in the Wall Project. PCs are placed in Indian slums, without any instructions, in English, and children are giving free rein. They learn remarkably fast, and quickly develop their own “shoulder to shoulder” education network. The PC reinstalls itself fresh every two weeks, clearing out all the installed spyware but also the children’s bookmarks .. Sugata is waiting for the day when the kids find a way to circumvent the reinstall. Nathan Eagle, who I saw speak on Reality Mining at Where 2005 (the entropy of life) came to Lift from Kenya, where he’s teaching students to program mobile phones (and generally having the time of his life); the students on the verge of building breakthrough applications, like mobile medical assistance. And Motofone for this market, but Nathan says it’s unlikely to be popular simply due to the cheap cost of local phones hybridized phones.

David Galipeau deftly, and with plenty of opinion (the key I think to a lively discussion) led a follow up panel which really challenged the audience to examine why and how they address the digital divide (back to Stowe Boyd’s discovery of Self). Sugata realized that the honest answer, acceptable to the people he was helping, is that the Hole in the Wall computers could eventually produce students for his training courses. To myself, why did I lead a workshop in neogeography for the Dominican Republic Ministry of the Environment? Because if they were making best use of the tools out there, there was a better chance of protecting those wild places, and I’d have more opportunity to experience them. However, that was a limited engagement, and the realization is that technology is not nearly enough .. it takes sustained interaction in order to enact change. Perhaps this is quite a mindset change for the Lift crowd, since we’re so enamored of our loosely coupled way of doing things .. but that doesn’t work when the culture of the technology hasn’t yet taken hold. The emphasis is on education, and the technology comes second .. Sugata Mitra was critical of the $100 laptop since it focuses so much on computer networking, rather than “should to shoulder networking”. Outside the session, I enjoyed a long discussion with Craig Duncan on all this and more in his new project, PreventionWeb.

Had many discussions on OpenStreetMap. It’s highly regarded conceptually, but practically not many people have had the stomach for it. The workshops are there to address this steep learning curve, shoulder to shoulder style, but there are definitely much to be done on usability and engaging with multiple technical levels. The sparodic connectivity of the devices themselves, in Geneva’s urban canyons, had participants puzzled and it makes me realized that GPS receivers are not well designed for this at all .. they’re either for navigation or passive recording .. not the active recording of OSM. Fabien Giradin’s talk on Embracing the Real Worlds Messiness resonated strongly here .. we need to design the OSM experience to account for when it breaks, and things like the Yahoo Imagery helps greatly. Like Jan Chipchase, he has a strong eye for environmental details which reveal hidden truths, like English Sinks. As computers pervade more of life, strange interactions and broken infrastructure will become more common not less. I want to “Play with Noise and Disorder” and may draw up some maps of GPS reception strength here in Brighton. Fabien ended by comparing “seamless” design to strong AI, and asked “do we really want to live in a calm world?” (no, we seem to desire messiness).

Even though I’m enamored of the drawing on printed imagery and logical diagram method of noting metadata when collecting OSM tracks, there is a real need for an integrated mobile device client .. since something like rain doesn’t mix with paper .. guess that better be a water proof mobile device. Nick Black and folks here in Brighton have all looked into this. May try to storyboard out the process with an interaction designer or two who expressed interest. Bread and Butter Design did the most amazing job on branding for lift, and if there’s any way we can scrape together money to hire them for State of the Map it will be worth every penny. I’d like to pick John Buckman‘s brain a bit more on licensing issues for the OpenStreetMap database; John’s on the board of Creative Commons. Plenty of people saw the intrinsic value of OpenStreetMap, just as the see the value of Wikipedia. Much has been made of a comment by Florence Devouard on Wikipedia’s 3 month funding horizon. Wikipedia is of course a huge inspiration and pillar for OpenStreetMap .. so I think I’m going to start saying the same and see if that scares up more funds.

The topic I expected to see the most on .. sensors and ubiquitous computing .. was present but less in the forefront. Jacques Panchard gave a good introduction to wireless sensor networks. Got to chat a bit with Julian Bleeker about his Arduino hardware hacking. Somehow the physical world seems the most futuristic to me right now, and I can’t wait until we’re all flying weather balloons and RC airplines aquiring aerial imagery and collecting pollution data during our walk to the corner store; today we’re all amateur/professional cartographers and tomorrow we’re all .. sensors? Finally Ben Cerveny’s talk seems beyond even the future; maybe it was late in the day, but some future version of myself is going to have to watch that talk again and try and absorb it. I may try and experiment with one catchphrase “a school of fish that can see itself”, and see what group-level self awareness would do to a flocking simulation.

Coming home, there was instant resonance with the sessions on the the blur between amateur and professional, as several of Anna’s photos of the Dominican Republic have been published in a report on the DR by the German Development Agency, who I had also worked with on that Neogeography workshop. Nice, everything is connecting.


Playing the Pipes

Yahoo Pipes is pretty incredible .. and it’s just started. About a dozen laptop screens were distracted at Lift07 with Pipe dreams .. no coincidence the favicon for Lift and Pipes resemble each other.

I’m really excited about this class of web native scripting services (I’ll try to define what that class is a few paragraphs in). For now I’m going to talk about my first go at building a Pipe, which takes a tag and builds a GeoRSS feed of people posting about that tag, Tag 2 GeoRSS.

Tag 2 GeoRSS

The basic idea is to request a list of tag citations from Technorati, and loop through with the For Each: Replace module, requesting bloginfo on each in a another pipe. You may not know that Technorati stores GeoURL tags, and they’re available through the bloginfo api.

Pipes initially only groks RSS, and the Technorati API can return RSS, but that RSS contains less information than their XML format, and the missing pieces are crucial to construct this Pipe. The RSS feed from the tag api contains a direct link to the post, but not to the weblog, and bloginfo only works on the root blog url. Second, bloginfo RSS does not contain the GeoURL location.

So I decided to go with XSL to transform the Technorati API XML into the RSS that I want. The W3C hosts an XSLT Service, so I hacked up tapitag2rss.xml and tapiblog2rss.xml. If I had those hosted on S3, then this whole Pipe could be entirely web native. The Technorati request UrlBuilder is piped to another UrlBuilder which builds the W3C XSLT request.

Iterating through the development was frustrating because of some bugs. The xmlfile argument for the XSLT UrlBuilder kept reverting to Hostname, rather than [url] any time the Pipe was reloaded. After editing the “sub-pipe”, the main pipe had trouble refreshing the sub-pipe. It seems like many requests are cached behind the scenes, so that changes to the XSL weren’t picked up, so I’d have to do something like change the name of the XSL in order to get a fresh request. Also, the Filter module couldn’t be set to screen out items that don’t have Geo tags.


The weirdest thing was trying to push through GeoRSS. I was certain GeoRSS was supported from Brady’s Deconstruction, yet when I had the XSL output GeoRSS Simple or W3C Geo, it wasn’t present in the Pipes output. It seems that within a Pipe, geo stuff is acted apon only in the y:location element, which produces GeoRSS when output .. and having my XSL output y:location did work. I think this is wrong on two counts. Pipes should grok GeoRSS on the input as well. And any namespace present in source pipes should be passed through, even if not known to Pipes.

Still it’s an amazing start, and the Pipes team has done a good turn releasing early and working with the web to find out what’s needed. GeoRSS is such a key part of the “mashup” environment, it’s available now in some form, and featured in some of the top pipes.

Web Native Scripting

There’s been a need for a web native scripting language, an abstraction to cover the bits and pieces necessary for mashups. Major parts of the mashup toolbox have become codified, but it’s still awkward to code these things in server based scripting languages, and if you’re not a programmer it’s still out of reach.

I’ve grown to admire Excel for how much power it puts in non-programmer hands, and new services like Dabble DB and EditGrid have taken that model for its explanatory leverage, but are also embracing the web native scripting approach. Transformation services like Dappit and FeedBurner have their own partial approaches. Swivel and Many Eyes focus on the visualization. Ning has of course been cultivating a new style of development, and they have abstracted out many of the common mashups and apis, but it hasn’t hit any sweet spot for non-programmers (php is too hard) or programmers (rails). Even Greasemonkey was in some sense an iteration in this space. And I could count Mapufacture among these tools too (btw, here’s Pipes Nearby Something in Mapufacture.)

All these tools are pushing forward the overall idea of making the web a programming environment, and making that environment as widely friendly as possible. It’s hard to know what the right balance will be .. surely it shouldn’t grow to resemble any other scripting language. But should it try and embrace some of the heavyweight ideas of Web Orchestration, in some lightweight fashion? For instance, my Technorati API key was maxed out during development of this Pipe, so I signed up for a new one .. figuring out this was the problem required leaving Pipes and making requests directly. There could be more ways to access the underlying data flow, and set up some kinds of triggers for unexpected behaviors. Could Pipes support OpenID, XSLT, Microformat operations and RESTful services?

The scaling problems seem real enough, and who knows, maybe this eventually pushes some processing back towards the browser (just in time for Firefox 4). Can the concept of Pipes be portable .. is there an abstract way to encode this .. there are open source projects like Plagger in which to pursue these ideas too.

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OpenStreetMap Lift

Despite the rain our OpenStreetMap workshop charged on. Seemed like it was a good introduction, lots of learning, and we made a good start on mapping Geneva. Importantly for me, I learned about how OpenStreetMap could work better. Thanks everyone for participating.

Details on the OpenStreetMap wiki.


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Lift in Geneva

Now in Geneva for Lift. I have high hopes for this conference, so many interesting people

I’ve been preparing for the OpenStreetMap Geneva Workshop tomorrow. All the GPS loaners know where they’re at, and are full powered. Yahoo Imagery traced for a rough pass, and printed out. Even getting a decent lock in Geneva’s cavernous streets with the Garmin Geko, making tracks pretty on target to the vectors sketched out over the Yahoo Imagery.

A couple of the GPS loaners were mailed to me before I left Brighton, and left on for the journey. Its track travels from Hounslow, over the M25, down the M23 to a holding station near Gatwick, where it loses power.

Tomorrow I’ll find some grips on Geneva, for now I’m disoriented. Through some mistakes by the hotel I’ve been upgraded, twice, so it’s a pretty nice disorientation.