Open sourcing public transport timetable software

I had a frustrating episode the other day trying to work out a three-way journey round Birmingham.  I wanted to know how to get to a given address by bus from the city centre.  In fact, what I'd have really liked would have been to know what the best journey was from where I was starting off.  And to have a reasonable idea of how long it would take.  This is something I've become used to being able to do easily in London, using TfL's journey planner. Birmingham is a smaller city.  And it doesn't have the rich mix of transport types – there are trains and there are buses.  No tubes, trams or DLR to deal with.  

However, online timetabling for buses is run by National Express and the interface is primarily focused on bus routes rather than point to point navigation.  That is, you have to know which bus route passes near to where you are now and which ones pass the place that you're going to and then you have to look up to see where you might be able to join them up.  This might mean you have to go into the city centre, but if you're in the south of the city and you're going to the west, then perhaps there's one that cuts out the need to crawl into the middle of town.  In any case, it requires a better knowledge of city-wide geography than most locals have let alone visitors or, say, people who were born there, but haven't lived there for nearly thirty years.

Messing with the structure of transport providers, public ownership or creating a new level of bureaucratic authority to deal with this seems over the top when the thinking behind integrating timetables online for a user-friendly perspective has already  been done.

Ha! So I got this far with this post and then looked up transport authorities, because I was unsure what was in place.  I found network west midlands and from there Traveline for the Midlands.  I don't know how I didn't get there before.  It's OK, but not very pretty.  And it's a bastard on mobile.

Anyway, there's still a point in this. This is the sort of vertical integration I wrote about recently.  We're used to the idea of open data, but what about TfL opening up the source of their journeyplanner for transport authorities in other cities. What if Traveline became an open source project that anyone could contribute to?  Rather than creating something completely from scratch to make sense of the data, how about creating something that we can all join in on and improve?  

Having already revealed my woeful research skills in this post once, I make no claims on the originality of the idea.  I'm sure there are public transport and opendata geeks who've been talking about it for years. Sorry.

Originally posted on Lloyd’s posterous

Anyone for #popup cinema in Birmingham today/tomorrow?


I find myself in Birmingham for a couple of days (16th & 17th April), with the wherewithal to create a popup cinema to show some films from the British Council Collection.  I'm based in B30, but can come anywhere in Brum that's easily accessible by public transport.

Give me a shout on 07919182825 if you'd like me to come to you.

What I bring:
1. A selection of short archive information films from the British Council collection – see for the whole catalogue, I have copies of the following 1940s films with me:

  • The Man on the Beat (1945) (Why we trust policemen, filmed in Ladywood and Birmingham City Centre)
  • Student Nurse (1944) (The training of State Registered Nurses, filmed at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital)
  • Local Government (What councils do and how to become a councillor)
  • We of the West Riding (everyday life in West Yorks)
  • City Bound (wartime public transport in London)
  • London Terminus (wartime day-in-the-life of London Waterloo Station)
  • Any of the films that are already available on YouTube (assuming you have an internet connection)
  • I may have others secreted about my person that I've forgotten about

2. My laptop & pico projector popup cinema combo
3. My charming personality, a love of film, history and a willingness to natter.
4. Optional ukulele

I'd need you to provide:
1. A light-coloured screening surface (a matt-painted wall will do) (4' x 3' – 1.33m x 1m) is not bad
2. A room that is deep enough to project onto the surface at size and preferably the ability to darken the room
3. Two mains power points
4. Refreshments (some people find it *impossible* to watch film without popcorn and icecream – I'll settle for a cup of tea)
5. An hour should be plenty of time
6. There is no fee for entry to the popup cinema, though I'll happily pass the hat for tips/donations if that is acceptable to you (this is unfunded work).

As is often the case with me, this is all very last minute.  If you want to do this, but can't fit it into the next couple of days, or if you're elsewhere in the country and would like me to come, let me know and I'll put you on the mailing list.Originally posted on Lloyd’s posterous

Know your place in the Social Software hierarchy

I scribbled this diagram in a notebook while on the train sometime ago and have been waiting to find the time to install a drawing package to make it prettier (I found dia – it just works!).  It's a gross simplification, but sometimes you have to take things up a level to see what's really going on and to start talking about things that matter.  And it's all been said before in other forms, nothing spectacularly new here, just my take on what I've seen.  I also recognise that this is still news to many people.

For those of you who weren't raised as a systems analyst, you might do this kind of thing to show the "client" the logic of what you've observed happening.  They always say "Yes, but that's not how it really works" or "I think that's an oversimplification".  That's good, it means you're going to learn something new about how they see the system.

About the Product/Hamster/Bait thing – people like to say in conversations about this "Wake up dude! You're the product!"*.  And.  I don't think it goes far enough.  We're not just the product, we're a product that drives the engines, like hamsters in a wheel that puts electricity back into the grid, and (especially if we're particularly creative/interesting/hyperactive) we're the bait for more product/hamster/bait to come along and join in.

Anyway. Here's what I think when I show it to my internal client-side:

1. What about freemium services like Flickr?  Am I not still P/H/B if I pay for a pro account?
2. There are overlaps, of course.  Some owners, employees and customers will be P/H/B in their own time.
3. How does this map onto offline social "platforms" like meetups, coworking spaces and members clubs?
4. Might want to further distinguish between Owner and Investor.
5. Another interesting (but more complex) dimension is lock-in – how easy is it for you to get your data out, archive it, re-use or re-mix it/

*I know.  I should stop taking part in conversations where people call each other "dude".

Originally posted on Lloyd’s posterous

Won’t get fooled again

Some (actually many) years ago I was working as an Information Manager at the Audit Commission.  I became increasingly frustrated by the difficulty of joining up data across, the organisation.  There were loads of opportunities to add more value to what we were doing by taking data collected in different contexts and telling stories based on that data.  As an organisation, that's what we were really good at doing, telling stories based on data but we also valued innovation very highly and the key way that people saw they could innovate was in data collection and analysis.  This was also at a time when people were  getting used to the idea that they could use computers to do things that just hadn't been practical before.  In addition, managers were given a great deal of freedom to procure small-scale software to collect, collate and analyse data in interesting (but closed) ways – the priority in a study was for auditors to be able to create value for clients by telling them something useful, anything that achieved that was more important than any wider or longer-term use of the data.

I ended up boring all around me with two regular rants.  One was about agreeing on standards for data collection and ecosystem-wide metadata, the other was about thinking about horizontal standardisation rather than vertical integration when developing new software, to separate out how we dealt with each of the   Data, Application and Presentation layers and to ensure that when we developed or procured something new, we could easily get the data out to reuse later.  The hardest thing was getting people to understand that you could think about these things separately.  They found it really difficult to think about data independently of the process for collecting it, analysing and presenting it.  For a long time, people kept designing things where the data was locked in.  I drew a venn diagram that showed all of the applications in current and recent use and pointed out that all our procurement was either partially duplicating something that was already there or else filling in ever-tinier niche gaps between existing applications.  My point was that if we standardised our data management, we could focus attention on what we did with the data and re-use existing date to save some effort re-inventing the wheel.

I think that those of us who tell stories on the web using data are at a similar stage now.  I think that means all of us who are writing or making media on the web, but also anyone who is using social tools.  The $1bn sale of Instagram to Facebook today has been another wake-up call.  My own Instagram feed is only a few days old, but I'm following people who have been there for a while and see almost universal disappointment among long-term users and a desire to find something else that isn't currently tainted by Facebook.

But shifting over to another service that still holds onto your content and helps you to manage your social graph isn't going to work for long.  The lesson from Instagram is that if a service is any good it will get swallowed up by one of the big boys (probably Facebook) and if it isn't any good, well, you probably won't want to be using it.  The time you'll have using the next platform will just get shorter and shorter as the bubble inflates – how many people do you think today have thought "Blimey, $1bn shared between 10 people in less than two years? I'll have a piece of that!"  The value to me of the services provided has slipped below the break-even point.  As long as I've felt I'm getting a good deal, I've been relatively happy to be a hamster in my cage.  But I feel the prospects of getting a good deal from vertically integrated social applications is getting slimmer and slimmer. And every time we switch cages, we have to leave something behind. In Instagram for example, you may be able to extract your photos, but what about the comments and lists of likes?  No matter what the promises about being able to get at "your content" most tech products don't see it as yours, it's theirs and it's their route either to revenue generation or to selling out to someone with deep pockets.  

I don't think it's enough to say that I'm just not going to use Product X.  We need to build a different model, one in which we hold and manage our own data stores and we have a choice of tools that we use to share that data with the world.  I would rather pay money for an honest service that simply processed my data in interesting, useful and innovative ways than to pay for my experience by losing control over the things that I make and say and the online relationships that I have with people.

Originally posted on Lloyd’s posterous