Week 273: Objects, Hack de Overheid, Copenhagen, European Data Forum, Linked Data, Metropolis Lab, all new Foursquare

I’ve been into something of a speculative realism binge lately reading quite some books and even more blogs from the field of current day philosophy. Last Monday I finished Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology which is highly recommended if you want to read up on object oriented ontology.

Preparations for our Hack de Overheid hackathon are entering their last weeks and things are speeding up. If you want a nice day of civic hacking with friendly people and good food and drinks, I’ll say head on over to our signup page.

Getting some work done and then it was off to Copenhagen with the Tuesday night train. Travelling that way with your own bedroom, going to sleep in one city and waking up in another is by far the most relaxing way to go (except when the train has a two hour delay before your 00:32 departure).

You try to travel by rail because it's good and stuff but things go wrong too regularly. Stuck at HBF at night with a two hour delay.

And now by magic I will go to sleep in Berlin and wake up in Copenhagen.

I visited Copenhagen for the European Data Forum to see what the data driven discussions were about on the European level. We got informed about a lot of European programs, a lot of talk about Linked Data and not very much pertaining to the stuff we do from day to day. Some friends from the open data movement were present and the event was quite informative all in all.

The focus on Linked Data in many of the participants is heartening and understandable but ultimately it is a doomed approach. I got into an argument about this during lunch with some developers. There are problems on two levels. On the low level, Linked Data does not solve any actual problems for developers but it does cause many for them because of lack of tooling, learning curves, interoperability costs etc. This is both a problem in proposition and marketing but it is not seen as such by the Linked Data community. Until that is recognized, adoption of Linked Data technologies will remain as dismal as it is right now.

On the higher level, the fact that there is so little interoperation and so much problems standardizing and getting things to work together may be symptoms of the fact that the models of the world being aimed for are too complicated. Engineers will always mistake the map for the territory, but it is curious that they would be able to sell that many other people on it. The engineers’ answer to the fact that things do not work yet is of course: that they need more time/money/resources thrown at the problem. The fact that the cost/benefit ratios have gone completely skewed is not being noticed because it is in no one’s best interest to do so.

Fortunately people on the ground doing real work in open data, such as us and the Open Knowledge Foundation, are encountering these problems and fixing them because in the real world we have no other choice. Rufus Pollock presented about the folly of perfect models and APIs and he’s right on both counts (I presented about this myself before).

Government agencies that can’t release their data on a website properly, are probably not ever going to have APIs that are usable or stable enough for anybody to build something serious on. They would better dump the data and have the developers with a vested interest build their own APIs or whatever they need. Similarly Rufus argued against overmodeling againts a room of European funded academics. I’m not very hopeful but some of it may have changed some hearts and minds.

The same day Berlin celebrated its own open data day, which I unfortunately had to miss. I hear that a lot of people showed up which is good because a lot of work is still to be done in that field. A list has been started to discuss open data in public transit, which should be a high priority. After having gone around Copenhagen for a couple of days with its Google Transit support, not having such a transit facility in a city is such an annoyance and cause of opportunity cost that it should be counted as a criminal offense on part of the transit operators.

European Data Forum - Going to be interesting at least

After two days of talking about data I also visited the Metropolis Lab at the Overgaden art institute where they were having talks about developing the creative city. It was a nice and cozy event, pretty much the complete opposite of the previous one I had visited where artists, architects and festival curators were discussing their work. Given the description of the event I had expected a bit more about games and other procedural media/systems.

I did see Tor Lindstrand present about architecture and I must say that was an awesome experience.

Metropolis Laboratory - another gathering for which we are too practical from the looks of it (now discussing authenticity and authority)

The rest of the time in Copenhagen I spent eating and drinking quality things. Coming back to Berlin that was one of the most important differences I noticed, the fact that food and drinks in Copenhagen were about three times as expensive but also at least twice as good than I had in Berlin.

The other is that the opulence and organization of a Nordic capital is a stark difference to what we are used to in Berlin. It is nice being in a city that is not destitute for a while though Copenhagen may be too polished to live in for any amount of time.

Nice cross station where the train suddenly is street level and there is no wall.

Egg muffin from heaven

New place, totally game

I also browsed the Avignon festival website which I will be visiting in July and came across this item on the programme by Sévérine Chavrier who is staging a play “Plage ultime” inspired by the works of J.G. Ballard. I will be arriving just too late to see that, but I do wish that more theater makers would take note. My current experience indicates that France is doing well in theater innovation (Gisèle Vienne is another name to watch out for) and Kornél Mundruczó is also showing a work “Disgrace” at Avignon (who I saw before in Rotterdam).

It's raining outside and the food here is sublime. I don't think I'm going anywhere.

Kaffe & Vinyl win @straboh

And then it was back to Berlin on Friday night.

End of the week we also got surprised by the all new Foursquare, with a major update to both the mobile client and the website.
Can you tell we're the commercial messages are going to be?

I have to say that I absolutely love the new engagement that this view allows. The main timeline that you now see, though noisy can stand up to the best that either Facebook or Path or Instagram have to offer and that showdown is clearly the direction that Foursquare is headed. Engagement around pictures, likes and comments is high and this update may very well increase that.

I have been a bit annoyed by some changes, but then again I may very well be too much of a power user while they are going for a mass market appeal. For most users what they have changed is an improvement.

For some others like myself and Tantek Çelik, the lack of a local friends view is a bit of an annoyance, especially if —like me— most of your friends live somewhere else. I quite like knowing what everybody in Amsterdam has been up to, but it does not have to be front and center to my experience because I can’t act on it (except in virtual ways).

For most users this is unlikely to be an issue because all of their friends will be in the same city anyway. Because I thought complaining is only going to fix that much, I made a single serving view of foursquare with only the people within a 50k radius: Old Fashioned Checkins.

This was very easy to do because of Foursquare’s excellent developer APIs and support. Another feature missing from the mobile client right now is being able to explore for venues that you have not visited yet. If I look around my house now, I almost only get to see places that I have already been to. Not much serendipity in that. These are undoubtedly things that are going to be improved upon on future updates, but this has been one of the first changes in foursquare that has been so jarring.

Then the rest of the week work to finish saba has continued apace as well.

Foursquare spelen op de radio

Afgelopen donderdag werd ik samen met de manager van Dwaze Zaken en de burgermeester geïnterviewd (Radio 1 link1) voor Radio1 over Foursquare. Foursquare het mobiele spel, vrienden-vinder en sociale gids die we afgelopen jaar naar Amsterdam hebben gehaald en dat nu ook overal speelbaar is.

Leuk om het terug te horen van vrienden. Ik wist zelf niet wanneer het uitgezonden zou worden2. Ik had wel een uur over toepassingen van internet in horeca en locatie gebaseerde diensten en spellen kunnen praten denk ik, maar als je maar een minuutje hebt dan sneuvelen er nogal wat leuke dingen bij de montage.

Hier nog even het belang van mobiele spellen. Dit soort mobiele toepassingen en spellen werkt om drie redenen (die elkaar versterken):

  • Meetbaar
    Foursquare —maar ook bijvoorbeeld de Nike Plus en Last.fm— maken handelingen (automatisch) meetbaar die dat daarvoor niet waren. Je koppelt een sensor of een software knop (check in!) aan een database en slaat alles op. Daar kun je dan statistisch interessante dingen aan afleiden en nog veel meer. Gegevens zijn goud.
  • Sociaal
    Door middel van internet en al bestaande sociale netwerken wordt het makkelijk om deze handelingen en de significante afgeleide resultaten (het beëindigen van een run, iemand van zijn mayor-troon stoten), te delen met vrienden. Hierdoor crëeer je sociaal relevante informatie en waarde.
    De journaalverslaggever vroeg al het standaard bagatelliserende: “Wat heb je eraan? Is het niet suf, treurig, exhibitionisme?” Het standaard antwoord daarop is dat deze handelingen voor bepaalde zenders en ontvangers een sociale waarde vertegenwoordigen en dat dat alleen al het de moeite waard maakt. Daarnaast zijn deze handelingen feitelijk niet heel veel anders dan sociale communicatie die al bestond maar omdat dit digitaal wordt overgebracht zijn de kwaliteiten van schaal, snelheid e.d. anders.
  • Mobiel
    Het meetbaar maken van de handelingen en het sociaal kunnen sturen en ontvangen van berichten vindt meer en meer mobiel plaats. Mobiel is dan niet alleen meer via de mobiele telefoon maar ook via andere apparaten of ingebouwde sensoren in de omgeving.
    Hierdoor is alles ook toegankelijk als je niet thuis achter de computer zit. Dat is makkelijker dan je hardloop rondje op te moeten schrijven en het achteraf thuis te moeten invoeren of veel te laat horen dat iemand in een bepaald café was. Maar belangrijker nog, het koppelt een fysieke context aan een digitale interactie waardoor het geheel beter blijft hangen bij de gebruiker.

Dat past niet in twee minuten radio.

  1. Ik wacht nog tot ze mijn naam goed schrijven op de site.
  2. En er luisteren dus best wel wat mensen naar aan de reacties af te lezen.

Foursquare is responsible for an inordinate amount of good times I’ve had, it still powers @cuppings and I’m still pleased that we got it to launch in Amsterdam as its first international city.

Why Käthe Kollwitz is one of Germany’s most important figurative artists

Today I got a tour of the Käthe Kollwitz museum in Berlin. I had wanted to visit this museum for a while but this proved the concrete reason to finally go (though the café next door makes some mean pancakes if you find yourself in the area).

I was recently attended to her existence by MacGregor’s series on German history (episode). I now believe that she is one of the most important German artists of the past couple of centuries. If there are any other significant candidates, I would like to hear about them1.

What makes her stand out as an artist are:

  • Her mastery of both drawing and sculpture.
  • That she depicts ‘common’ people and social themes prominently. She thought these people were beautiful in their own way and that their plight was one that merited attention. For me this is a stark contrast with how current (artistic) elites try to ignore the ‘common and stupid’ people (like Trump voters).
  • The loss of her son and how that permeates her later work.

Our tour guide didn’t make the connection but I find it more than fitting that on May 1st we would be looking at for instance the Weavers cycle (one of which I have pasted below).


  1. I discount Caspar David Friedrich because he was a painter of landscapes.

Nakagin Capsule Tower

Yesterday I saw the documentary on the Nakagin Capsule Tower by Rima Yamazaki as part of the DOKU.ARTS festival here in Berlin. I wasn’t aware of this landmark during my last visit to Tokyo though I must have passed close by while cycling through the city. I’ll make a point to see it when next I visit if it still stands because that is exactly the topic of the documentary.

The tower is a prime example of Metabolist architecture by Kisho Kurokawa. Metabolism is a hard to define but influential strand of architecture that is described in the documentary as an architecture without timelag. It turns out that the tower by now, though charming with its tiny rooms, is outdated and unmaintainable. Most of the owners want to tear it down and have something new built there that makes more economic sense. Among architects and historians there are voices for preserving it as a monument to an important movement in Japanese architecture and other who think it could indeed be torn down.


The main reason why I wanted to see this movie is because next week I’m moving into a building in Berlin designed by a metabolist architect Arata Isozaki. He appears in the movie as a member of the metabolist movement and as an proponent of conservation. I found his reasoning to be somewhat incoherent and overly sentimental. I’m not sure what that means for the building I will be living in but we’ll see. I’ve only been there once, but I absolutely love the building pictured above. Time will tell whether that is justified.

Another architect Toyo Ito who expressed a disillusionment with metabolism was in favor of tearing it down. His reasoning is that buildings just like people are finite and that if they have fulfilled their purpose they should be allowed to disappear to be replaced by something new. This is a way of thinking about architecture that is mostly alien if you live in Europe but that I find to be extremely refreshing. I think our local hangups on history and current efforts to construct buildings in a historicized fashion are morbid but this is the way we do things in Europe.

All along during the documentary I had to think about some William Gibson I read about Tokyo but which I cannot find right now. So instead I’ll post this from My Own Private Tokyo that I came across.

The Japanese, you see, have been repeatedly drop-kicked, ever further down the timeline, by serial national traumata of quite unthinkable weirdness, by 150 years of deep, almost constant, change. The 20th century, for Japan, was like a ride on a rocket sled, with successive bundles of fuel igniting spontaneously, one after another.

Encounter Zone Maaßenstraße

Berlin is rebuilding the Maaßenstraße into the first Begegnungszone (‘Encounter Zone’) of its kind in the city. Works are underway now after a public consultation was finished last year or the year before. I looked around a bit but I couldn’t find the plans for what they are actually building there. A quick e-mail to the senate solved that problem and I got a PDF of the plan.

Redesigning Maaßenstraße

The most important bit of that plan is the layout of the new street which is dramatically different from what we have right now. Maaßenstraße is a street in Berlin saturated with cafes and restaurants where people from far West Berlin will go to go out on weekend nights. It also touches on Motzstraße which is a popular gay going out area and there are tons more bars and restaurants littered about. On Saturdays the market on Winterfeldtplatz is brimful of people and blocks most of the traffic on the South side.

The quantity of establishment is deceiving since the gastronomy on Maaßenstraße is of such a low quality that I wouldn’t regularly visit any of the places there except the two Turkish kebab places Hasir and the Keb’up House (for the late night döner box).

Traffic wise there used to be bike paths on the pavement but because of the heavy use by pedestrians and the fact that the bike path was level with the walking area, these caused dangerous situations. The road itself wasn’t a great alternative as it was used mostly for parking, double parking and the ostentatious display of muscle cars at night. All in all the usage of the street was thoroughly out of whack with how space was distributed between the various groups.

The new plan removes parking altogether which may or may not work depending on the enforcement level. Cars can park anywhere they want in Berlin and receive a fine that is so low nobody really cares about it. Cycling and driving are integrated on the remaining piece of road that is a lot more narrow than it was and lots of space is allotted to pedestrians walking and hanging out on the street. I have no idea what that is going to do to the noise levels in the street but I don’t live on a popular party street for a reason.

I’ve annotated what I think is noteworthy about the plan below (in a 13MB image file, click for big). All in all the plan looks solid and is bolder than I could have hoped for. It remains to be seen how it will be received by drivers and whether the police enforces the zones that are on there with vigour.


Product design focused on user wants

This post was previously published on Medium and is now archived here.

There’s some recent writing about the decomposition of apps into either thin slivers of single purpose functionality per app or even breaking out of the traditional app domain entirely and delivering their functionality through for instance the notifications screen.

I think both of these are onto something but that the trend itself is more fundamental. I think there are three things happening.

1. Apps can be decomposed into high-level user wants.

A want starts with “I want” and is followed by getting or creating something often accompanied by some social intermediation. Such a want could be “I want to send a message” or it could be “I want to read (and reply to) my messages” or it could be “I want to find a place to eat.”

These are not utilities. Most interesting apps these days are lifestyle apps. Focusing on a single want does not mean the app becomes easier to make. Implementing a want with its very specific functionality, appropriate context, user interface and communication may be even more difficult. A want is a summary of what used to be called ‘user stories’ but focused on what people want to do not on what people are supposed to do. At the risk of sounding obvious: people don’t want to do things they don’t want to do. The exception to this is work where people do things they don’t want to do. People want apps that bring them entertainment, social connections or self-actualisation.

2. Apps cannot support more than a couple of wants well.

Any app that tries to cram in more than a couple of wants from different domains starts to creak and feel cluttered. This looks like the main reason why Foursquare unbundled the totally disparate wants of local discovery “I want to find a good restaurant now” and that of social broadcasting “I want to tell my friends where I am.”

Such unbundling is becoming the norm because an app cannot do everything well without containing multiple apps. Just think back of Facebook’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink app with its own homescreen. The Facebook app itself is becoming more and more bare while wants are increasingly delivered by apps that don’t show they belong to Facebook.

This is a good indicator of what the future holds for these apps. I would for instance be surprised if complicated list management features would be a significant part of the future Foursquare mobile app. Lists do support local discovery but they will never have the mass appeal the app is focusing on.

3. Wants can be fulfilled anywhere you want.

This ties into Naveen’s piece about the notifications becoming the app. I would take this further and say that the app will be wherever people interact with a connected device. Building an app becomes a matter of translating a user want into the interaction affordances of a medium.

You could indeed read and reply to messages in a notification screen if that is where you spend your time. But soon you might do the same thing using the same app but on your connected watch. In a somewhat more distant future you might send a Yo! by slamming two IoT enabled rocks together.

The medium through which a want is fulfilled has become flexible. What matters is the want itself and appropriateness. A talented designer will figure out whether a translation makes sense and how to best implement it.

All in all this is a great development. Digital design is breaking out of screens enabling it to find us where we are and offer us the things we really want.