Nimble hulks collaborate

It’s good to see not all newspapers are caught in a stupor the Japanese ones seem to actually be seeing their common interest and making something sort of useful to their readers.

First, it’s nice to see newspapers do stuff which is innovative instead of being stuck in the headlights and waiting to die.

Secondly, this adresses a real problem. On any commute I make with my iPhone, I theoretically can read all the news from the world’s best newspapers instead of grabbing a free newspaper from the box on the station. I’ve done so for a while, but lately I don’t bother anymore.
The reason I don’t bother is that it is too much hassle to lead the newspaper’s awful bloated websites over what passes for 3G in this part of the world, then select what I want to read and then read that. There are too many actions involved and the cognitive load is too great.

A simple app which works like a specialized RSS reader where you can triage for a specified set of newspapers and categories the articles you want to read and then get those in rapid succession would be a godsend.

Halsoverkop project-des-ontwikkelen

Taplin schreef van de week al dat de economische crisis onrust en onveiligheid op lokaal niveau tot gevolg zou hebben. Blijkt dat Dubai al het ravijn in glijdt en niemand weet hoe erg het daadwerkelijk is.

Nu is het nogal onhandig om in tijden van crisis de boel nog verder aan te halen en geen informatie vrij te geven zodat de paniek alleen maar groter kan worden. Het gerucht gaat al dat de eilanden teruggeclaimed worden door de zee (waarschijnlijk omdat de baggeraars zonder werk in Nederland zitten).

Wie had gedacht dat dunebashen in SUVs en snowboarden in het midden van de woestijn niet houdbaar zouden zijn? Als het Dubai-Disney niet eens marginaal economisch duurzaam is, hoe ecologisch duurzaam had het dan kunnen zijn?

Megalomane projecten waarvan iedereen aan had kunnen zien komen dat ze de noodzakelijke onderbouwing misten. Ook al durfden weinigen dat te zeggen in het aanzicht van het ‘economische wonder’. Nu hebben we gezien waar economische wonderen van analysten, investeerders en bankiers toe leiden.
Blijkt dus dat je geen wereld kunt bouwen in 10 jaar, ook al heb je nog zoveel hijskranen.

Van de week ging ook al het TVCC gebouw in Beijing in vlammen op. Het heeft er niks mee te maken maar een zekere symboliek valt niet te ontkennen.

Guidelines for government data

This weekend I visited the Barcamp UK Govweb (#ukgc09, barcamp) in London to talk with people about government websites, data and see what the state of the art is in the UK on this topic. It was a very interesting meeting and I learned a lot from people who’ve been doing this for far longer than I have been.

Stand around

Government Data

Open Government Data Session Tack-on Free For All

One of the most interesting was the session on government data and the various initiatives and other activities that are being advocated to give us better and easier access to government data to make cooler stuff.

A lot of issues about current initiatives were discussed, about various Click-Use Licenses and about how open data should be financed.

Guidelines

One of the things that I found surprising is that most people present were firmly against a set of guidelines about how to open up your data.

I agree that a set of guidelines like these if done improperly can cause more pain than they solve and maybe they are not necessary in the UK with the OPSI in place. In the Netherlands we would like an open data process where everybody who has data and would like to open it up could go to and get advice what the best strategy is.

I want to prevent situations where when faced with the problem how to open up data, a government body contracts it out and we get a site with a bunch of PDFs in return. Guidelines can’t catch all cases, but we should be able to create something which prevents the worst from happening while simultaneously not tying us down when we try to make usable systems.

Everybody present in the government data session implicitly knows what should be done when opening up data but the problem is that this knowledge is tacit and in that form is useless to any government official interested in opening up their data. If you’re in that position and you’re willing to consider opening up your data in a ‘developer friendly’ format, it would be nice if we had more to offer to you than some vague ideas.

None of the rules in the guidelines should be definitive, they probably should be in the form of a series of questions with explanations so people are forced to consider stuff and by answering those questions come to a better end result.

As far as I am concerned the main rule should be to avoid unnecessary complexity when publishing data and consider stuff such as potential users and their needs, licensing, description, URL/availability and data format. I agree you cannot draft guidelines which guarantee a good outcome but I do know that change is necessary.

Initiatives

During the session a number of initiatives were named, maybe somebody else has a more definitive list:

I think the Hack The Government Day that Rewired State are planning is a very good idea. It’s been something of a year since we had our last govcamp in the Netherlands but I also see the need to combine the currently running initiatives into a more developer related event.

Corporate obstacles in the Netherlands

I talked with Max Whitney at 25C3 for a bit to learn about how NYC Resistor came to be. The story seems to go something like this:

They find a loft in New York.
They find 9 people willing to plunk down some cash ($1000 each).
They setup a Limited Liability Company.
The LLC subleases the loft from the current leaser on a year contract.
Membership dues and workshop money (and the occasional party) pays the rent on the space.

This story is a stark contrast with what you would need to do in the Netherlands to setup something similar. I know because I’m in the market to expand our current coworking space both because we will be kicked out in April and because we could use some more space for stuff and projects.

So how is this different and much more difficult to setup in the Netherlands? There are a number of factors which contribute to this difficulty.

Zoning

Zoning laws prohibit using something like a loft for commercial/office-like purposes. If you’re doing a startup, the boundary of what is your house and what is your place of work may blur, but in the Netherlands an office is an office and a home is not an office.

Municipalities especially will not want livable houses to be extracted from the housing market and occupied by businesses because a lot of them already face a housing shortage.

Personal investment

People just dropping in some cash to get a space started is probably easier in New York too. One factor Max mentioned was that leases are ridiculously expensive anyway so people are used to paying a lot of money.

But a more important factor probably is that there is a bigger culture in the US of personal investment. What is annoying to startups here is that there are so few European angels. There has hardly ever been a significant internet cashout in the Netherlands and neither do we see a lot of reinvestment happening. On both coasts of the US there seem to be more people with money who are willing to invest it into cool stuff. The vast majority of people with money in the Netherlands are more boring than anything.

Liability

Limited liability companies in the Netherlands are called a B.V. and they require a seed capital of €18’000 to start. This money does not have to remain there but it is still a sizable hurdle. In comparison a British Ltd. costs €100 to setup.

Setting up a Ltd and using that to enter into a lease agreement in the Netherlands would be frowned upon because Ltds have a historically bad reputation.

Another way around this may be to setup a voluntary association or a foundation but to be able to shoulder liability, these would need statutes which need to be acquired from a notary and require a significant fee.

Subleasing

Subleasing spaces in the Netherlands is usually frowned upon especially when the sublessor makes a profit. This is because a lot of houses in the Netherlands are rent controlled and are rented out at half or less of their market value.

This means that a lot of houses are not being utilized to their full market value and that the supply in houses is far too small (and the supply of officeplexes too big). Rather than having the market clear this mess up, we are stuck with this heavily entrenched real estate system.

Lease agreements

Office leases are usually agreed upon for a period of 5+5 years, which mean you get a five year contract with the option to extend it for another five years. This five year contract is in fact meant to protect the lessee from fickleness on the part of the lessor but it does not take into account the fact that businesses may not want to be tied down.

This would not be so much of a problem if limited liability companies were easier to setup (the company would then take on the lease) but I treated that above.

Critical market

To be able to partially fund a space on workshop and party revenues, it helps if there is a large pool of potentially interested people. With the scale of something such as New York that may be possible, it’s a bit harder for us in Delft. We are at the moment somewhat pressed to find a fourth coworker let alone people who’d be willing to pay money to support us.

Concluding

None of the things I mention above are insurmountabel but I think they do in large part explain why Dutch business and venture culture is not as dynamic and booming as that in the US.

Our digital senses

In some of Adam Greenfield’s backpages “Whatever happened to serendipity?” he recounts how he used to scrounge for punk rock records and how the difficulty and uncertainty of the experience was part of what made it worthwhile:

But at the risk of sounding like an old man, this ritual – make no mistake, that’s what it was – invested the purchase with meaning and value for me, and I despair at a world that doesn’t at least offer the possibility of similar adventures to its inhabitants.

This resounds simply with the fact that things that are worth doing are oftentimes difficult to do or to learn and things that are worth having are the ones you invested effort in getting.

Just to narrow this down to music, 99% of the music I listen to has no meaning whatsoever to me. This has no bearing on the quality of contemporary music, which I think is actually quite high. Only a couple of albums and artists have managed to strike a chord with me that makes their music merit a repeat listen.

This may be different for others but the real investment of Fl. 45,– or so back then was quite significant, distribution channels were few and the diversity they offered near zero, you got your recommendations either from mass media or from word of mouth. The experience was radically different.

Yes, something has been lost in the transition but the abundance we have gained in return makes it more than worthwhile for me.

But the piece is about the loss of serendipity and shortly after he writes:

Yes, I suppose you could always switch the thing off, leave it behind, deliberately “forget” it. But when you’ve lived your entire life through the intercession of a mobile and benevolent Delphi, is that realistically an option? I suppose we’ll find out.

Having spent two and a half weeks in the United States most of which in and around San Francisco. I can testify that it is indeed not an option.

San Francisco is so well mapped within most online services that the experience you have there using the internet is unparalleled. Most services originate there which results in San Francisco being completely mapped in Google Maps, well covered in Yelp and there are ample Twinkling Twitter users in the proximity.

Unfortunately for a visiting European like myself it is prohibitively expensive to use roaming data, meaning that most of the time my iPhone was a multimedia brick. Being disconnected like this, made me acutely aware of how reliant I have become on the real and virtual compass my iPhone provides. Walking around without a continuous stream of data coming in on the iPhone felt as if a sense was missing.

What is a sense other than a mapping of external information to a part of your brain? The services on my iPhone provide me with a sense of presence and sense of direction within my spheres of contacts. My brain is conditioned to receive regular updates to this sense and withholding those updates used to be called something like “withdrawal from information addiction” but since this is a sense we’re talking about, I think “sensory deprivation” may be better suited. Without this sixth sense so much of your peripheral ‘vision’ is cut off that you feel like you are wandering around half blind.

Mailtjes naar publieke instellingen

Zoals ik gisteren schreef heb ik e-mails gestuurd over onze resultaten naar GroenLinks en Rover over de resultaten van de visualisaties van de reistijdengegevens.

Het is alemaal nog niet super-af maar het geeft een goede indruk van de verschillen in reistijd tussen openbaar vervoer en de auto. Als iemand interesse heeft in beelden die dit aantonen, dan zijn het wel deze instanties.

Hier de e-mail naar GroenLinks:

Hallo,

Ik zag van de week wat persberichten langskomen over openbaar vervoer e.d. Ik heb samen met een collega een tijdje geleden van 9292OV en van ANWB voor elke postcode in Nederland opgevraagd wat de reistijd is naar de Dam. Deze gegevens hebben we verwerkt in een serie visualisaties waarin duidelijk zichtbaar is hoeveel langer het kost om met het openbaar vervoer ergens te komen:

Een van de visualisaties laat zien hoeveel verder je in dezelfde tijd kunt komen met de auto:
Compare: travel by public transport or car

Uiteindelijk is er een interactieve applicatie uit voortgekomen die nog gepubliceerd moet worden:
It's hard to stop tweaking
Alle visualisaties:
Done, for now

En onze beider verslagen hoe we het gedaan
hebben:
http://alper.nl/dingen/2008/06/workshop-session-on-geodata-visualization/
http://leapfrog.nl/blog/archives/2008/08/15/the-making-of-a-travel-time-map-of-the-netherlands/

Er zijn hier twee punten die spelen:

1. Het verschil in bereikbaarheid tussen de auto en het openbaar vervoer zijn dramatisch en deze visualisaties proberen dat inzichtelijk te maken.

2. Het verkrijgen van de gegevens om dit soort inzichten te bereiken is goed mogelijk maar moeilijker dan het zou moeten zijn. Er zijn meer stimulansen nodig om gegevens vrij te geven en dan het liefst in herbruikbare formaten.

Ik hoop dat jullie er wat aan hebben.

Met vriendelijke groet,
Alper Çugun

Nu maar afwachten of er een reactie komt.

Update: En hier de reactie van de publieksdienst van GroenLinks:

Geachte heer/mevrouw Çugun,

Hartelijk dank voor uw e-mail van 6 september 2008 die wij in goede orde
hebben ontvangen.

Wij zullen uw punten meenemen in komende debatten.

Ik hoop u hiermee voldoende te hebben geïnformeerd.

Met vriendelijke groet,

Vishal Ramkisoensing
Publieksdienst
Tweede Kamerfractie GroenLinks

Playing with Public (Transportation) Data

As promised a while back after we got our fill playing with the data I would release it to the public to see if you could come up with something interesting. I’d leaked the JSON file to Kars and he applied his skills in visualizing things in processing to the dataset.

Then after some more back and forth I retrieved a similar dataset from the ANWB site: the time to travel a similar distance at a similar time but this time by car.

The juxtaposition of those two datasets made for some interesting results and some nice applications of interactive filtering. Kars has a full writeup of his process.

So without further ado, here is the dataset under a Creative Commons Attribution license. It’s a JSON file: Traveltimes with as keys a four digit string for the postal code. The value is a dictionary with this key-value mapping:

lat
Latitude GPS coordinate
lng
Longitude GPS coordinate
place
Inferred name of the location
time
The time it takes using public transportation
carTime
The time it takes by car (a small amount of null values where the time could not be retrieved)

All times are from the center of the 4 digit postal code as well as can be determined to Dam Square in Amsterdam around noon on a given day.

I find it interesting (and somewhat appalling) to see how large the difference is between taking the car or going by public transportation. Doing a sampling for 08:00 on Monday morning during rush hour might somewhat equalize this, but I think it’s safe to say that car owners will remain at an advantage.

So next up is e-mailing GroenLinks and Rover to see if they can use this data or these visualizations.

Coworker.nl — Map of coworking spots in the Netherlands

Some ideas start out small and then grow larger than you thought imaginable. Coworker.nl is one such idea. This is a write up about how it came to be and how you can build your own.

As a wandering free agent, you end up in strange places and if you’re stuck somewhere, it could be useful to get some work done in the neighborhood. I was not the only person with this problem and I couldn’t find a good WiFi map either, so I thought we could start something up.

A conversation about coworking on Jaiku quickly turned into the idea to gather those locations onto a Google Map and see if we could make that work. So talking back and forth a bit, I made a custom Google Map and invited people to add their offices with drop-in coworking spaces on it. This took off a bit and we had a functioning coworking map of cool companies and startups in the Netherlands willing to host a nomadic worker. Robert had the domain coworker.nl lying around and he pasted the code for the map on that domain and Coworker.nl was born.

After some time, other people also started to add coffee shops with WiFi with a coffee cup icon and a public utility was born.

Coworker.nl - Coworking spots in The Netherlands

Attention

A lot of people have seen the map by now (22’000 and counting) and I have never launched a project as small as this which got so much attention in so little time. Robert and myself didn’t have any problems getting this featured in various publications and even in a national newspaper. This says something about the immediate appeal of a simple geo-visual application and about the climate in which we launched this.

coworking.pdf (1 page)

Independent web workers are seen as the vanguard of the hot Dutch new economy. Small shops, people setting up office in lunchrooms and coffee shops are seen as a ‘new’ trend. These workers also are in need of more flexible office space solutions (of which there are precious few in the Netherlands). Our map provides a handy visualization of this trend, it exactly fits a niche and appeals to people.

Values and Misconceptions

What differentiates this map from most other WiFi maps and other custom maps and geoapplications is its incredibly narrow focus based on a shared set of goals and values. The initial participants in the map all know on a near instinctive level what is meant by coworking. They understand the problem of needing a place to work and are willing to share their offices.

A lot of outsiders who find the map do not really get it and just a link to the Coworking wiki is not nearly enough to explain the shared values and history this map is built upon. Some people think we are an exchange for short-term office space, others want to sell their office space on a per day basis to make an extra buck. All interesting tangential applications of this map, and it’s nice that people are running with it, but we should stay true to the original goal.

The Tools

We should be really thankful of Google for providing these powerful and easy to use tools like Google Maps which we can use to hack something together in literally no time at all. We could have built our own database and map editor etc. but that would have taken some days if not weeks and would have greatly reduced the appeal of a small project such as this.

The fact that we could paste some minimal code to Jaiku and invite people to edit the map made all te difference. One additional step which would help in the management would be to add some kind of versioning or backup facility so if somebody accidentily deletes the entire map, I could easily restore it to a previous version.

The Data

The data is available as a KML file to anybody who wants it (feel free to take it, distributed backup is the best kind) and I think we’re willing to publish it under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license but I would appreciate it if you let us know if you’re going to build something.

Build your own local

Because this is so simple to setup local versions have already been made (Coworking São Paulo by Michel Zappa) by others but the vision is to eventually cover the entire world both with maps and locations one country at a time, so to get this started here’s a small recipe how to set this up:

  1. Create a custom Google Map
  2. Call out to your local scene on Twitter, Jaiku and whatnot to ask if they’re interested and if they have spaces they know.
  3. Invite these people to edit your Google Map, be sure to allow them to invite others as well to help your map grow virally.
  4. Get a (short and memorable) domain and paste the embed iframe code of the Google Map onto the domain for better visibility. You can also copy our CSS and JavaScript for extra ease.
  5. Let it grow. You don’t have to go about it too agressively, in our case we built it to scratch our own itch. Any value others derive from it is a plus.

Once enough countries have their own map, we may be able to combine them all into one massive global coworking map, for those people hopping countries.

Tangents

There is some stuff which this map is not really about but wich bears talking about anyway:

The fact that the map also houses coffee shops with WiFi and a place to sit may not really be about coworking, but these are spots where you can get some work done and they show that there was no high quality WiFi wap for webworkersin the Netherlands. I expect this is the same in other countries.

Working area

There are quite some commercial spots available with meeting rooms and desks which you can lease by the day or some other period. These are not exactly in the coworking spirit, but they do serve a need, so for now we have allowed these to be on the map as well.

As I already wrote there’s a shortage of office space which you can lease flexibly. The map could be used to show policy makers and realtors in which regions of the Netherlands there’s demand for flexible office solutions and in the future we may add a vetted exchange to the map to help freelancers and small companies such as ourselves to get suitable office space.

Most of the people on the map are either free agents, people working in small companies, startups or a combination of these. So that way the map also serves as a list of interesting companies and people in the Netherlands who are active in the web scene and who have an open attitude. I think that is also a valuable thing to have for a nascent scene such as ours.

Workshop session on geodata visualization

Yesterday we had an afternoon of workshops in an unconference style event at the office. A full registration of the event with video and slides will be published during the course of this weekend, but unfortunately most of it will be in Dutch.

I did a hands on workshop of a small datavisualization project I did this week and I registered myself on video using Screenflow. The video (in Dutch) is below:


Geografische Datavisualisatie from Alper Çugun on Vimeo.

And the result:
Public Transportation Travel Times

I did not make a keynote instead opting to the more hands on presentation of narrated browser tabs interspersed with live demoes and code samples.

Here’s a list of the tabs I’ve used during the presentation.

Introduction

Using the iPhone to Mine for Gold & Sense

City Sense

PolicyMap

Data gathering

Travel-time Maps and their Uses

Travel-time and house price maps

mySociety Travel Time and House Price Maps

Wikipedia — Postcode

Postcode map (one digit)

Google Maps

OV9292

Mechanize

GeoNames, query, webservice

Simple visualization

Processing

ArcGIS Desktop

Open Source GIS

Wikipedia — GIS

Google Earth

KML Reference

Adobe Kuler

Wikipedia — HSL and HSV

Google Maps — Retranchement

ANWB

Funda