A bolt of lightning from a Dynamo

James Greig, head of design of the fantastic Vulpine cycling empire linked to this dataviz by Strava of a typical Saturday’s rides worldwide.

I started to click and wander around…

The Afan Valley gets nicely lit-up on Saturday morning by discerning MTB’ers…

Afan Valley Strava map

But what caught my eye was when I scrubbed the time-line selector back to the early hours of the morning, instead of a blank map I saw a single bolt of blue start to shoot out of London toward the Suffolk coast.

It must be the Dunwich Dynamo!

You can clearly make out the ride progressing from the outer-reaches of London…

At the start

…toward that refreshing dip in the North Sea at Dunwich.

Dunwich Dynamo beach

Here’s a little animated gif I made of that bolt of brave people peddling through the night to the sea.

Doesn’t make up for missing it this year, but nice to find something so rich in story in the Strava data…

A palimpsest for a place: TheIncidental at Salone Di Mobile 2009

THE INCIDENTAL 01, originally uploaded by dcharny.

The year of the papernet continues a-pace!

Very exciting this morning to see the first edition of The Incidental, a project done for the British Council by Schulze&Webb, Fromnowon, Åbäke and others, for the Salone Di Mobile furniture and design event in Milan, which is about the biggest event in the product design world

I was lucky enough to get contacted by Daniel of Fromnowon early on in the genesis of the project, when they were moving the traditional thinking of staging an exhibition of British product design to a service/media ‘infrastructure intervention’ in the space and time of the event itself.

Something that was more alive and distributed and connected to the people visiting Salone from Britain, and also connecting those around the world who couldn’t be there.

From the early brainstorms we came up with idea of a system for collecting the thoughts, recommendations, pirate maps and sketches of the attendees to republish and redistribute the next day in a printed, pocketable pamphlet, which, would build up over the four days of the event to be a unique palimpsest of the place and people’s interactions with it, in it.

One thing that’s very interesting to me is using this rapidly-produced thing then becomes a ‘social object’: creating conversations, collecting scribbles, instigating adventures – which then get collected and redistributed. A feedback loop made out of paper, in a place.

We were clearly riffing on the work done by our friends at the RIG with their “Things our friends have written on the internet” and the thoughts of Chris Heathcote, Aaron and others who participated in Papercamp back in January. In many ways this may be the first commercial post-papercamp product? Or is it an unproduct?

Anyway – very pleased to see this in the world. The team in Milan is working hard to put it together live every night from things twittered and flickered and sketched and kvetched in the galleries and bars. It seems they turned it around in good time, with the distributors going out with their customer-designed delivery bags and bikes at 8am this morning…

Can’t wait to see how the palimpsest builds through the week, and also how ideas like this might build through events throughout the year.

Remember, if you have quests or questions for the roving reporters of The Incidental, then you can get hold of them @theincidental on Twitter.


I asked the roving reporters via @theincidental to track down Random International with Chris O’Shea‘s installation at Milan ’09, and they did!

Action-at-a-distance = Magic!

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My first Cloudmade map style: “Lynchian_Mid”

I’m attempting to make a map style for possible use in Dopplr that follows the principles outlined in Kevin Lynch’s "Image of the City".

Lynch contended that we make legible mental maps of the city with 5 types of object: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks.

I’m trying to make a style that emphasises these, and eschews the ‘satnav’ style car-oriented mapping. It must be noted that this is a style that works most effectively at city-scale zoom levels, which it’s intended for. It looks pretty useless at country-scale.

I’m really enjoying using the Cloudmade editor, and it’s intriguing to think of the presentation of maps with dynamic/swapping styles that are fitting for certain contexts of scale, rather than the same scheme all the way from satellite to street view (no pun intended…)

Exporting the past into the future, or, “The Possibility Jelly lives on the hypersurface of the present”

Warning – this is a collection of half-formed thoughts, perhaps even more than usual.

I’d been wanting to write something about Google Latitude, and other location-sharing services that we (Dopplr) often get lumped in with for a while. First of all, there was the PSFK Good Ideas Salon, where I was thinking about it (not very articulately) then shortly after that Google Latitude was announced, in a flurry of tweets.

At the time I myself blurted:


My attitude to most Location-Based Services (or LBS in the ancient three-letter-acronymicon of the Mobile Industry) has been hardened by sitting through umpty-nine presentations by the white-men-in-chinos who maintain a fortune can be made by the first company to reliably send a passer-by a voucher for a cheap coffee as they drift past *bucks.

It’s also been greatly informed by working and talking with my esteemed erstwhile colleague Christopher Heathcote who gave a great presentation at Etech (5 years ago!!! Argh!) called “35 ways to find your location“, and has both at Orange and Nokia been in many of the same be-chino’d presentations.

me_home_work1Often, he’s pointed out quite rightly, that location is a matter of routine. We’re in work, college, at home, at our corner shop, at our favourite pub. These patterns are worn into our personal maps of the city, and usually it’s the exceptions to it that we record, or share – a special excursion, or perhaps a unexpected diversion – pleasant or otherwise that we want to broadcast for companionship, or assistance.

Also, most of the time – if I broadcast my location to trusted parties such as my friends, they may have limited opportunity to take advantage of that information – they after all are probably absorbed in their own routines, and by the time we rendevous, it would be too late.

Location-based services that have worked with this have had limited success – Dodgeball was perhaps situated software after all, thriving in a walkable bar-hopping subculture like that of Manhattan or Brooklyn, but probably not going to meet with the same results worldwide.

This attitude carried through to late 2006/early 2007 and the initial thinking for Dopplr – that by focussing on (a) nothing more granular than cities-as-place and days-as-time and (b) broadcasting future intention, we could find a valuable location-based service for a certain audience – surfacing coincidence for frequent travellers.

Point (a): taking cities and days as the grain of your service, we thought was the sweet-spot. Once that ‘bit’ of information about the coincidence has been highlighted and injected into whichever networks you’re using, you can use those networks or other established communications methods to act on it: facebook, twitter, email, SMS or even, voice…

“Cities-and-days” also gave a fuzziness that allowed for flexibility and, perhaps plausible deniablity – ameliorating some of the awkwardness that social networks can unitentionally create (we bent over backwards to try and avoid that in our design decisions, with perhaps partial success)

In the latest issue of Wired, there’s a great example of the awkward situations broadcasting your current exact location could create:

“I explained that I wasn’t actually begging for company; I was just telling people where I was. But it’s an understandable misperception. This is new territory, and there’s no established etiquette or protocol.

This issue came up again while having dinner with a friend at Greens (37.806679 °N, 122.432131 °W), an upscale vegetarian restaurant. Of course, I thought nothing of broadcasting my location. But moments after we were seated, two other friends—Randy and Cameron—showed up, obviously expecting to join us. Randy squatted at the end of the table. Cameron stood. After a while, it became apparent that no more chairs would be coming, so they left awkwardly. I felt bad, but I hadn’t really invited them. Or had I?”

It also seemed like a layer in a stack of software enhancing the social use and construction of place and space – which we hoped would ‘handover’ to other more appropriate tools and agents in other scales of the stack. This hope became reinforced when we saw a few people taking to prefacing twitters broadcasting where they were about to go in the city as ‘microdopplr‘. We were also pleased to see the birth of more granular intention-broadcasting services such as Mixin and Zipiko, also from Finland

This is also a reason that we were keen to connect with FireEagle (aside from the fact that Tom Coates is a good friend of both myself and Matt B.) in that it has the potential to act as a broker between elements in the stack, and in fact help, weave the stack in the first place. At the moment, it’s a bit like being a hi-fi nerd connecting hi-specification separates with expensive cabling (for instance, this example…), but hopefully an open and simple way to control the sharing of your whereabouts for useful purposes will emerge from the FE ecosystem or something similar.

Point (b) though, still has me thinking that sharing your precise whereabouts – where you are right now, has limited value.

lightcone_slideThis is a slide I’ve used a lot when giving presentations about Dopplr (for instance, this one last year at IxDA)

It’s a representation of an observer moving through space and time, with the future represented by the ‘lightcone’ at the top, and the past by the one at the bottom.

I’ve generally used it to emphasise that Dopplr is about two things – primarily optimising the future via the coincidences surfaced by people sharing their intended future location with people they trust, and secondly, increasingly – allowing you to reflect on your past travels with visualisations, tips, statistics and other tools, for instance the Personal Annual Reports we generated for everyone.

It also points out that the broadcasting of intention is something that necessarily involves human input – it can’t be automated (yet)- more on which later.

By concentrating on the future lightcone, sharing one’s intentions and surfacing the potential coincidences, you have enough information to make the most of them – perhaps changing plans slightly in order to maximise your overlap with a friend or colleague. It’s about wiggling that top lightcone around based on information you wouldn’t normally have in order to make the most of your time – at the grain of spacetime Dopplr operates at.

Google Latitude, Brightkite and to an extent FireEagle have made mee think a lot about the grain of spacetime in such services, and how best to work with it in different contexts. Also, I’ve been thinking about cities a lot, in preparation for my talk at Webstock this week – and inspired by Adam‘s new book, Dan’s ongoing mission to informationally refactor the city and the street, Anne Galloway and Rob Shield’s excellent “Space and culture” blog and the work of many others, including neogeographers-par-excellance Stamen.

I’m still convinced that hereish-and-soonish/thereish-and-thenish are the grain we need to be exploring rather than just connecting a network of the pulsing ‘blue-dot’.

Tom Taylor gave voice to this recently:

“The problem with these geolocative services is that they assume you’re a precise, rational human, behaving as economists expect. No latitude for the unexpected; they’re determined to replace every unnecessary human interaction with the helpful guide in your pocket.

Red dot fever enforces a precision into your design that the rest must meet to feel coherent. There’s no room for the hereish, nowish, thenish and soonish. The ‘good enough’.

I’m vaguely tempted to shutdown iamnear, to be reborn as iamnearish. The Blue Posts is north of you, about five minutes walk away. Have a wander around, or ask someone. You’ll find it.”

My antipathy to the here/now fixation in LBS lead me to remix the lightcone diagram and post it to flickr, ahead of writing this ramble.

The results of doing so delighted and surprised me.

Making the most of hereish and nowish

In retrospect, it wasn’t the most nuanced representation of what I was trying to convey – but it got some great responses.

There was a lot of discussion around whether the cones themselves were the right way to visualise spacetime/informational futures-and-pasts, including my favourite from the ever-awesome Ben Cerveny:

“I think I’d render the past as a set of stalactites dripping off the entire hypersurface, recording the people and objects with state history leaving traces into the viewers knowledgestream, information getting progressively less rich as it is dropped from the ‘buffers of near-now”

Read the entire thread at Flickr – it gets crazier.

But, interwoven in the discussion of the Possibility Jellyfish, came comments about the relative value of place-based information over time.

Chris Heathcote pointed out that sometimes that pulsing blue dot is exactly what’s needed to collapse all the ifs-and-buts-and-wheres-and-whens of planning to meet up in the city.

Blaine pointed out that

“we haven’t had enough experience with the instantaneous forms of social communication to know if/how they’re useful.”

but also (I think?) supported my view about the grain of spacetime that feels valuable:

“Precise location data is past its best-by date about 5-10 minutes after publishing for moving subjects. City level location data is valuable until about two hours before you need to start the “exit city” procedures.”

Tom Coates, similarly:

“Using the now to plan for ten minutes / half an hour / a day in the future is useful, as is plotting and reflecting on where you’ve been a few moments ago. But on the other hand, being alerts when someone directly passes your house, or using geography to *trigger* things immediately around you (like for example actions in a gaming environment, or tool-tips in an augmented reality tool, or home automation stuff) requires that immediacy.”

He also pointed out my prejudice towards human-to-human sharing in this scenario:

“Essentially then, humans often don’t need to know where you are immediately, but hardware / software might benefit from it — if only because they don’t find the incoming pings distracting and can therefore give it their full and undivided attention..”

Some great little current examples of software acting on exact real-time location (other than the rather banal and mainstream satnav car navigation) are Locale for Android – a little app that changes the settings of your phone based on your location, or iNap, that attempts to wake you up at your rail or tube stop if you’ve fallen asleep on the commute home.

But to return to Mr. Coates.

Tom’s been thinking and building in this area for a long time – from UpMyStreet Conversations to FireEagle, and his talk at KiwiFoo on building products from the affordances of real-time data really made me think hard about here-and-now vs hereish-and-nowish.

Tom at Kiwifoo

Tom presented some of the thinking behind FireEagle, specifically about the nature of dealing with real-time data in products an services.

In the discussion, a few themes appeared for me – one was that of the relative-value of different types of data waxing and waning over time, and that examining these patterns can give rise to product and service ideas.

Secondly, it occured to me that we often find value in the second-order combination of real-time data, especially when visualised.

Need to think more about this certainly, but for example, a service such as Paul Mison’s “Above London” astronomical event alerts would become much more valuable if combined with live weather data for where I am.

Thirdly, bumping the visualisation up-or-down a scale. In the discussion at KiwiFoo I cited Citysense as an example of this – which Adam Greenfield turned me onto –  where the aggregate real-time location of individuals within the city gives a live heatmap of which areas are hot-or-not at least in the eyes of those who participate in the service.

From the recent project I worked on at The Royal College of Art, Hiromi Ozaki’s Tribal Search Engine also plays in this area – but almost from the opposite perspective: creating a swarming simulation based on parameters you and your friends control to suggest a location to meet.

I really want to spend more time thinking about bumping things up-and-down the scale: it reminds me of one of my favourite quotes by the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen:


And one of my favourite diagrams:


It seems to me that a lot of the data being thrown off by personal location-based services are in the ‘fashion’ strata of Stewart Brand’s stack. What if we combined it with information from the lower levels, and represented it back to ourselves?

Let’s try putting jumper wires across the strata – circuit-bending spacetime to create new opportunities.

Finally, I said I’d come back to the claim that you can’t automate the future – yet.

twitter-_-matt-jones_-kiwifoo-plasticbaguk_sIn the Kiwifoo discussion, the group referenced the burgeoning ability of LBS systems to aggregating patterns of our movements.

One thing that LBS could do is serve to create predictive models of our past daily and weekly routines – as has been investigated by Nathan Eagle et al in the MIT Reality Mining project.

I’ve steered clear of the privacy implications of all of this, as it’s such a third-rail issue, but as I somewhat bluntly put it in my lightcone diagram the aggregation of real-time location information is currently of great interest to spammers, scammers and spooks – but hopefully those developing in this space will follow the principles of privacy, agency and control of such information expounded by Coates in the development of FireEagle and referenced in our joint talk “Polite, pertinent and pretty” last year.

The downsides are being discussed extensively, and they are there to be sure: both those imagined, unimagined, intended and unintended.

But, I can’t help but wonder – what could we do if we are given the ability to export our past into our future…?

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T5: Expectations of agency

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I’m in Oslo for a few days, and to get there I went through Heathrow’s new and controversial Terminal Five. After all the stories, and Ryan’s talk on the service design snafus it’s experienced I approached my visit there with excitement and trepidation.
Excitement still, because it’s still a major piece of architecture by Richard Rogers and Partners – and sparkly new airports are, well, sparkly and new.
YMMV, especially as we were travelling off-peak, but – it was pretty calm and smooth sailing all the way. I’m guessing they’ve pulled out all the stops in order to get things on an even-keel.
Saw both pieces installed in the BA Club Lounges by Trokia (‘Cloud’ and ‘All the time in the world’), both of which were lovely – you can get to see them both without having to be a fancypants gold carder, which is good.

The thing that struck me though was the degree of technological automation of previously human-mediated process that were anticipated, designed and built – that then had to be retrofitted with human intervention and signage.
It’s a John Thackara rant waiting to happen, and that’s aside from all the environmental impacts he might comment on!

My favourite was the above sign added to the lifts that stop and start automatically, to make sure you understand that you can’t press anything. Of course, we’re trained to expect agency or at least the simulation of agency in lifts – keeping doors open, selecting floors, pressing our floor button impatiently and tutting to make the lift go faster. Remember that piece in James Gleick’s FSTR where lift engineers deliberately design placebo button presses to keep us impatient humans happy? People still kept pressing the type panels – me included!
To paraphrase Naoto Fukasawa: sometimes design dissolves in behaviour and then quickly sublimates into hastily-printed and laminated signage…

Geonerdery getting easier…

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Played for the first time this evening with the Nokia Sports Tracker app on the N95. I placed it in the front pouch of my Brompton bag and set off for the station from the office.

The GPS usually acquires satellites painfully slowly, but it got a fix fairly quickly – helped by being in the middle of semi-rural Hampshire, with the tallest thing for miles being a squat 3-storey technology company HQ…

There’s an “autopause” feature on the app which seems to notice when you’ve been at rest for a while, which is a nice touch – but the best thing was once I’d got home and discovered the ease at which you can export it to something like Google Earth.

It was a three-click operation to save and send the file to my Macbook, where I just double clicked it and swooped in on my little bike ride from orbit.


Here 2.0: Big Here, Little Screen

Jason Kottke points to a remarkable post by Kevin Kelly entitled The Big Here, after the Eno-coined-counterpart to the Long Now – which shoots a diamond bullet through my thoughts for the last few months:

At the ultimate level, your home is a cell in an organism called a planet. All these levels interconnect. What do you know about the dynamics of this larger system around you? Most of us are ignorant of this matrix. But it is the biggest interactive game there is. Hacking it is both fun and vital.

In the post it goes on to take you through a quiz which examines your knowledge of your immediate environs, and the linkages it has to the wider ecosystem.

Here are the first three questions:

30 questions to elevate your awareness (and literacy) of the greater place in which you live:

1) Point north.

2) What time is sunset today?

3) Trace the water you drink from rainfall to your tap.

Kelly prefaces this with a positioning of the quiz as one of his “cool tools”:

“The intent of this quiz is to inspire you to answer the questions you can’t initially. I’d like to collect and then post the best step-by-step suggestions about how to answer a particular question. These are not answers to the quiz, but recommended paths on how one might most efficiently answer the question locally. Helpful websites which can provide local answers are wanted. Because of the severe specificity of local answers, the methods provided should be as general as possible. The emerging list of answer-paths will thus become the Cool Tool.”

So far, so good.

Wonderful, even.

My immediate thought though, reading both Jason’s post and Kevin Kelly’s mission is why the hell is this not on a mobile?

So – I over the summer am going to try and knit something together to get it there.

  1. I imagine it will be pretty easy (i.e. within the reach of my terrifyingly-bad coding skills) just to port the text quiz to a mobile using S60 python as a standalone experience.
  2. It might be easy enough then to both launch web resources from the quiz on the mobile device, and perhaps post answers in some easily-aggregated format to back out to the web from whoever takes the quiz.
  3. however might be more tricky…

What I immediately imagined was the extension of this quiz into the fabric of the near-future mobile and it’s sensors – location (GPS, CellID), orientation (accelerometers or other tilt sensors), light (camera), heat (Nokia 5140’s have thermometers…), signal strength, local interactions with other devices (Bluetooth, uPnP, NFC/RFID) and of course, a connection to the net.

The near-future mobile could become a ‘tricorder’ for the Big Here – a daemon that challenges or channels your actions in accordance and harmony to the systems immediately around you and the ripples they raise at larger scales.

It could be possible (but probably with some help from my friends) to rapidly-prototype a Big Here Tricorder using s60 python, a bluetooth GPS module, some of these scripts, some judicious scraping of open GIS data and perhaps a map-service API or two.

One thought that springs to mind would be to simply geotag the results of a quiz (assuming the respondent takes the quiz in-situ!) and upload that to a geowiki, something like Place-O-Pedia.

It might be delightful to see the varying answers from valiant individuals clustered in a location and inspire some collaboration on getting to the ‘right’ answers about their collective bit of the big here or the issues raised by the route there more importantly perhaps.

One open question would be if this ‘Big Here Tricorder’ where realised, would it genuinely raise an individual or community’s awareness of their local ecosystem and it’s connections at other scales? “Every extension is also an amputation” etc.

Well – we won’t know unless we build it.

While we’ve had a couple of year’s noise about Where2.0, I reckon there’s a hell of a lot of mileage and some real good could come of focussing on Here2.0… which gives me a nice little summer project – thanks Kevin, Brian and Jason

Web things I could really use on my phone, part #47

dylans1Amazon’s A9 Yellow Pages search has been causing some buzz around the place, some of it from dear curmudgeonly friends suggesting it is nothing new and that there have been many projects like this over the last 6 or 7 years.

I would suggest the difference is not that A9 have not just made the bear dance, but made it tango.

The user-experience of this service is pretty fantastic compared to predecessors – easy-to-use and with plenty of opportunities for users to refine and feeback on the information.

Inviting users to feedback on which is the most useful picture of a business or landmark is particularly clever, and could generate some fascinating insights for students of Kevin Lynch and other academics of urban persuasion!

Also – the Amazon feature of inviting customers to contribute images could lead to a mappr-like photographic annotation of the United States…

dylans2I guess it goes without saying that this  would become a must-have service if it could be ported sucessfully to the mobile phone, especially if you were trying to find places of high digital repute with pretty anonymous physical presences.

p.s. Dylans in San Francisco that I’ve used to illustrate this post is to my knowledge the only Welsh-themed pub in a world overrun by theme pubs centred around our other celtic cousins, the Irish… I went there a couple of times when the SF Sapient office was around the corner, and they gave me free beer for being able to pronounce Llanfair P.G. in full, bless ’em.