Archive for January, 2008

Thanks San Francisco

That was awesome, thanks.
Old friends, even older friends, new friends. Interesting meetings, creativity. Anarchists to government. Future scheming.
Coffee, yoga, bikes, code. Lost of all those. Burritos. Food generally. Sunshine, some.

Next is London, UKGovWeb BarCamp. Then India! OpenStreetMap India all February (more on this soon). SoCal in March. etc.


InSTEDD using GeoRSS in Disaster Response Tools

x-posted to the GeoRSS weblog

InSTEDD is an “NGO Startup” formed by Larry Brilliant in 2006, focused on building and distributing innovative technology for humanitarian response. Dr. Brilliant is now the head of, which provided seed funding for the organization. InSTEDD emerged from a year of relative quiet, releasing some simple and elegant tools. Their approach so far appears to be reuse of the best of Web 2.0 for humanitarian response.

SMS Geo-Chat builds location based chat on top of SMS, with visualization in Google Earth, and wider distribution of data with GeoRSS (hence the posting here). This is developed further in Contacts Nearby, which leverages the multi-modal communication of Twitter and the social network of Facebook.

If this sounds just a little like TwitterVision, it’s not surprising, I reckon the influence is there and that’s a very good thing; the innovation and ideas in this field are out there, and what’s really needed is a channel to get the clever hacks into the hands of responders. We’ve discussed and worked with GeoRSS for disaster response for a couple years (National Geographic had a good summary in 2006). There’s been discussions of Twitter in dsiaster response since it’s launch; SMS is the last communication channel to go down in an emergency, and the first to come back up. And Twitter is multi-modal, easily connecting SMS potentially to any other channel. These ideas had a good workout during the San Diego fires.

Just a couple critiques. The format they used to encode location in Twitter is “lat*lon*message”; rather than the nanoformats (“l:lat,lon”) used in TwitterVision and Bangladesh Boat Journey. I think nanoformats are potentially more flexible and already being used, so why invent a new format. Also, I’m not sure why they chose to code their projects in — are most humanitarian response organizations running msft products? Or is it because some of the core team come from Microsoft? Hopefully there’s scope for full open source solutions in the future.


Pure OpenStreetMap Nestoria


Tao of Administrative Districts, Computing the Terrain

Last summer, I finally visited Norway and saw the fjords and the landscape, and had some fuzzy thoughts I’m still working through.


Streaming over mountain passes, through tunnels, around fjords .. administrative divisions are something like terrain computation, both at best obeying some kind of Tao across many domains of constraint.

Driving through Nordland, the kommune boundaries were surprisingly frequent, much more frequent then seemed practical for any kind of administration. The first order administrative district in Norway is called a fylke, something like a county, and below that the kommuner. From Wikipedia, kommuner “are the atomic unit of local government in Norway and are responsible for primary education (through 10th grade), outpatient health services, senior citizen services, unemployment and other social services, zoning, economic development, and municipal roads.” Seems like a lot for every tiny, low populated, northern Norway kommune to cover.


These tiny divisions are the logic of the landscape applied to administration, but don’t sit well with modern travel habits. The computation is an anachronism.

Kommunes were originally each set up with an administrative center one days travel from the next, by boat, horse or foot. The crumpled terrain of Norway and the coast would lead me to think that each kommune was one days sail around the fjord to the next place. Suppose these were organized by the church, as they were here in California, with the Spanish mission system.

Now when driving through Nordland, the kommuner fly by. With good roads and tunnels and bridges, the one day rule doesn’t fit. The kommune divisions remain, though they’re under constant review and debate in Norway. Again from Wikipedia

The consolidation effort is complicated by a number of factors. Since block grants are made by the national government to the municipalities based on an assessment of need, there is little incentive for the municipalities to lose local autonomy. The national policy is that municipalities should only merge voluntarily, and studies are underway to identify potential gains.

There’s competing domains over which the logic of the landscape boundaries are measured. National financing works against consolidation, yet most every public service might benefit from joined forces. Take snow clearance. I assumed that this must be organized along a different landscape logic, that maintenance stations would be distributed along roads according to some practical distance they can plough in a single day .. the domain constraint of modern plowing of modern highways. But that’s not the case, each kommune is responsible for ploughing, and it often happens in the winter that driving along a national highway, at the kommune boundary you’ll suddenly find a unploughed road.

The early days of increasing road travel worked in the opposite direction, towards increasing kommune. Lyngen kommune in Troms was split into Lyngen, Storfjord and Kåfjord. People began to travel overland, even though it took longer than traditional sailing, and as a result the one day was reapplied, splitting the kommune in three.


How are administrative districts like a computation? We start with a landscape over which to ask questions — the non-human geography, the terrain and resources in an area, over which one government has control (in contrast to borders, which are divisions negotiated by adversaries, historically by killing each other, while administrative boundaries are usually less adversarial and bloody). The questions we ask are generally about distribution of resources .. where to build towns, where to farm, over which path to build roads. The answers are a combination of top down decisions (one days travel), development processes (locales grow/shrink due to many factors), and naturally the landscape itself (richer resources lead to a better settlement).

Landscape and terrain are terms also used in computation, as a means to visualize the space of all solutions to a problem. A fitness landscape. Problem solutions which are better, according to some criteria, are represented as peaks in the landscape. To find those solutions requires some traversal of the terrain. A brute force search doesn’t take any account of the landscape, in preparing the solution search or in response to what’s encountered. An evolutionary computation responds to peaks and troughs of the landscape. A solution engineered entirely in the mind of a programmer is imposed on that landscape — it’s an interaction but one we’d consider outside the computation domain.


Lines can be drawn in any way over the earth. Code can be organized in any fashion. Only same of those lines and code are going to make any sense. Usually those lines and codes are not arbitrary.

In post-revolutionary France, the map above was proposed to rid France of the ancient province system, which no doubt incorporated some ancient injustice. This rational solution held no account for old territories or any fact of the landscape itself. Truly fair? Never adopted of course.


But then look at the American West. This huge territory had ancient division of use and administration (I’m not aware by what method or agreement, but I’d be very curious to hear how boundaries worked among native Americans) .. but those ancient divisions were completed ignored. And in the name of expediency of settlement, the huge territory was divided along rational, geometric means. For the US to maintain it’s claim, it needed to be settled fast and needed to be settled “fairly”. There was no time survey the land and adjust the size of plots according to division of resources. The domain restrictions weren’t the landscape, and there were plenty of problem solvers to through at it. The American West was settled by a brute force search.


Is there some natural way these divisions should fall? They are difficult to change. In Norway it’s under constant discussion, but there is a huge amount of feeling, and with time human feeling overruns any efficient or rational organization of the landscape .. perhaps the longer time people put into a place, the less likely they are to approach any reorganization rationally (or perhaps that’s a symptom of the European system of real estate).

The map above was alarmed by the Daily Mail in the UK. I don’t know the context of the map, but it shows divisions of the UK and northern Europe along some non-nationalistic lines. The EU is of course not reorganizing national boundaries, as the Daily Mail is alarmed, but perhaps for some domain constraint such borders make sense. Cornwall probably does share more in common with communities along the Bay of Biscay then it does with Kent and Sussex.


Tao, by Lao Tsu (Lao Tzu, Lao Zi) (by way of Wikipedia) “taught that the wisest approach was a way of ‘non struggle action’ (“Wuwei”or “wu wei”) – not inaction but rather a harmonization of one’s personal will with the natural harmony and justice of Nature”.

I have no idea what this means practically. Somehow I think there’s some natural harmony of computation, and some natural harmony of organizing ourselves along this planet, and there’s some deep principles common to computation and the landscape which inform both and will lead to more sensible decisions.

Thanks to Magne, einarr, bokare on #osm for discussing Norwegian kommuner

Comments (2)

The odd free iPod or something if you invent GeoRSS

Steve let’s rip. He’s definitely his fake self.

Ok, just to set the record straight, yea I did get a free iPod, but not for that. It was for winning the “Feedster developer contest”.

I love this part…

Please look the other way and go implement GeoRSS for sheep tracking in Earth using kite photography for free for the UN, don’t worry houses will be much cheaper post-crash so you won’t need money.

Comments (2)

2007 Year in Review

First excuses. It’s totally self indulgent, self congratulatory and a little self pitying. Keyed off inelegant mashings of centuries of calendaring, ie not tied to seasonal significance, and really new-ity can be pursued every day or any moment. But I see many year in reviews, including the guy I worked closest with last year. And I feel compelled to write one, and this is my weblog, right.

2007 was amazing. And completely terrible in one big way. I don’t usually talk about personal stuff here, forever on the internet. So I won’t, but if you want to hear more about it let’s drink a few beers and then I’ll recount the whole damn thing. I’m a bit rootless now, but that’s a good thing, and I’m reconnecting with my family and friends, which is lovely and I received the kindest support from them. Anyway, back to internet optimism. Worked on lots of interesting projects, met many people, travelled, made great change, and had a good time .. what more can you ask for?

OpenStreetMap was a big focus and vehicle. Brighton is mapped, I know the town inside and out. We printed posters and had a party with the mayor and got OSM in a book. I spoke all over Brighton and met folks. And accepted my true geekhood, attaching a clipboard to my bicycle handlebars. OpenStreetMap took me to Geneva for Lift 07, really mind opening and good fondue. Spent a week in Rome with OpenStreetMap and ancient history. And again to Italy, to Tyrol, which was beautiful and entirely welcoming, and received a donation of all of Merano’s geodata, and then Venice for the Bienalle. Liverpool too, and Manchester for State of the Map. I joined the OpenStreetMap Board, and negotiated our first edit war in Cyprus. And plans are in the works to take me and OpenStreetMap to new continents.

Mapufacture incorporated. The vision is coming together, we have plans. Flowing contracts through it. Andrew and I made several big pushes, including a neverending sprint at UMI’s offices. Mapufacture worked with the OGC and UNDP. GeoRSS was supported by Google, and I did a little dance. And I declared GeoRSS is like breathing air at Where 2.0. I spoke at Where 2.0 on Weaver House after spending much pleasurable time researching dusty documents in the Tower Hamlets archive and wandering Shoreditch; and also spoke about my work with the Ordnance Survey. Shared the stage with Andrew at Web 2.0 Expo and Location Intelligence in a marathon week, and had the best dinner of the year at Minako.

I’m now a vegetarian, sometimes pescatarian. Practising yoga daily. I feel better than ever.

Did nothing for my carbon footprint. I don’t foresee kicking my travel habit at all in 2008. Spent two weeks in India. Finally drove around the Norwegian fjords and Lapland. Snowboarded in the Swiss Alps. Flew to the states four times for stuff. Munich for Oktoberfest. The Italy trips. Slovakia for UN work.

Two incredibly demon flus. First after Oktoberfest, Oktoberflu .. entirely expected after 2 days of shared drunkenness and entirely well earned. Another after santacon, and again, a well earned illness, believe me.

Worked on two BBC projects, the Bangladesh Boat Journey and Every Square Mile. Haven’t talked about ESM yet, but a very interesting project and finally an opportunity to work with Headshift. Worked with Urban Mapping and the Ordnance Survey. Started a very interesting contract with the UNDP on wikis and social networking at the UN. PlanningAlerts got a big push out. OAM happened. I thought more about mapping and disasters, and collected my thoughts for State of the Map, and created some buzz about Katrina and Route 90. Hacked Google Street View at WhereCamp, and just hung out at FOSS4G. Spent way too much time pitching for a certain event happening in east London in 2012, which we may or may not actually work on. Finally did kite aerial photography at DorkCamp. Hacked the iPhone to show OpenStreetMap. Oh yea, bought an iPhone, the best gadget I’ve ever had.

The only really tough work thing was NASA. A dream job doing disaster response system development, which dematerialized in the end.

That was 2007?! Pretty nice and pretty hard. Here’s to a 2008 even more engaging!


UNDP and Mapufacture

Cross-posted to mapufacture blog

The UNDP Eastern Europe and Central Asia Bureau had a major relaunch of their Environment and Energy website for a major ministerial meeting in Belgrade last October. Maps were a big feature. And those maps were produced by Mapufacture Inc, in part utilising

There were two main tasks. A system to geotag UNDP environment projects, and a pretty map display. We decided to do both decoupled, in their way, from the UNDP CMS. Through RSS/GeoRSS it was just easy to link together the UNDP CMS and Mapufacture. The CMS produced an RSS feed of projects, and Mapufacture was set up to aggregate this feed. This was then made available for UNDP users for item level editing — dragging and positioning on the map. And as usual, Mapufacture made this feed available for export as GeoRSS, which was aggregated back by the UNDP.

Item level editing? Yes. Mapufacture has a lot of features built up but not just yet ready for launch, which line up even greater control over the GeoWeb for our users and customers. So from existing feeds, “private” copies can be made for editing, while still keeping them up to date from the source, or feeds can be created from scratch, and editing access controlled, etc. Sure elements of this have existed for a while here and there, but combined with Mapufacture’s existing tools and future features .. I’ll just say I’m pretty excited by what this all will offer.

Making a pretty map from that GeoRSS feed didn’t involved Mapufacture direct, but did invoke all our map making skills and hacks. Used Mapstraction to easily build marker filtering and brought back MGeoRSS for greater control over the loading of GeoRSS feeds — GMaps native GeoRSS handling just isn’t nuanced enough. The biggest trick was getting the map to display above the page. We were working within the limitations of the UNDP templates — and the middle column just didn’t provide enough space for the map to breath. Starting from leightbox I got the map overlaying on top of the other content properly .. that took a good deal of tweaking! And it uses anchors so that the back button works correctly and all.

So a fun project overall with the UNDP, pushing forward their technology, one of several I’m working on at the moment — not all map related but pretty interesting stuff. And we pushed forward Mapufacture. Perfect pushing.