Tuesday, 28 July 2009


Interesting to see that Wikipedia considers the neogeography entry to be a candidate for removal owing its potentially neologistic nature - despite use of the term dating back in one context or another to 1922 - not so neo after all!

Recently the term has founder common currency more as the rather more web 2.0 corollary to the implicit term of (generally rather gentle) upbraiding of those not aligned with its certain actually rather broad sensibility - the 'paleos' - in that 'if you're not with us...' etc.

I'm not going to endeavour to (re)define these terms or to broaden the scope out to include GIS or geoweb or cartography or spatial analysis or, remember this one, remote sensing. It's an irony of the internet's amateur publishing paradigm that the implicit polarisation of different schools that sustains the debate is on the one hand an illusion (in that most commentators are sufficiently familiar with the subject to recognise the shades of grey on the ground) while on the other a meritricious tool in leveraging a given perspective. You would have to be from a flat earth not to recognise the sometimes less than nuanced devices lobbed onto this field of play.

Coming over all pacifist (again!) the 'problem' with all this navel gazing and grandstanding is that the real opportunity continues to pass by on the other side, tired and neglectful of the squabbling and desirous of someone who speaks their language to solve their problems. And we know this too!

On these terms perhaps Wikipedia is correct and geography (cf Michael Goodchild) is eating itself?

Monday, 27 July 2009

Baby/bathwater - two tribes

Following Steven's post (http://giscussions.blogspot.com/2009/07/digital-paper-divide.html) and a recent LinkedIn discussion topic on web 2.0/social networking tools (I think you'd have to be a member of the ASPATech Discussion Group), we are becoming better I think at articulating the 'digital divde' though not necessarily at bridging it.

'Yoof' culture is entwined with converged digital tools in a way that remains baffling to many over even 35; the blogosphere is allegedly already in decline as bloggers migrate to the instant 140 characters of Twitter; the digital literati to a great extent exist in their (our) own self-fulfilling worlds of filtered, customised content streams; 'free' is the future and our right; a new supplier is just a click away....and so on and so on.

On the other hand, news stands, bookshops, DVD rental and even music shops continue to exist (but for how long I hear some holler); 140 characters does not a valid opinion make; everyone has a right to eat; businesses are hungry to employ people with ingrained technical literacy; loyalty and inertia do not a fluid market make.

As ever, it is always far more complex than the black and white often painted by both conventional and online mediarati. And this is what I think is beginning to change. With time as polarisation dissolves so a greater understanding emerges and from there social, economic, cultural and political models will evolve and adapt to the opportunities and mitigate the threats. This is not to say that the private or public sectors have sat idly by far from it; whether you like the current government or not their efforts at digital engagement across many areas will not be unravelled by whoever comes next. And the mushroming of innovation in business, from the rightly maligned City to the now connected rural fringes (our office is by a trout stream on the Hampshire borders - and why not?!) to the 'always on' bedroom coders, underpins our digital economy.

We really don't have the time to wait for the 'digital natives' to transmogrify into conventional 'leaders' and we can't leave the 'don't get it' leaders to continue as they are. Different communities and interest groups have a great deal to learn from each other - this is not a one way street. Recognition is a key step, language another vital key - dismissive commentary and noises off are unhelpful - dialogue is essential, familiarisation breeds confidence, barriers are lowered, rapprochements are made. Its not that hard, requiring curiosity and an open mind.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

PSIHs - a change of tack required?

With all the clamour over PSIHs in recent months, one TF has been in the spotlight. One can debate the reasons for this - another time. This has rather 'allowed' others (of the PSIH ilk) to carry on apparently regardless or oblivious to the changes going on around them. Say what you like about OS but this is far less true of them and they should be priased where praise is due.

But, wherefore the others; if I were them I would be sharpening my channel engagement, developing more attractive licensing and pricing terms, honing my knowledge of social media, looking at metadata dissemination and generally trying to mitigate future onslaught of interest in my behaviour.

Maybe I'm looking in the wrong places but I sense a head in the sand approach by most - channels are being undermined, licence development is out of kilter with licence agreements, screen scraping has become the modus operandi of choice for many fed up with the vacuum and social engagement is limited to 'contact us'.

I really think it is about time that vocal proponents of 'libre' data turned their attention to the '000s (Cameron said more than 10,000 - he should publish the list for starters!) of PSIHs large and small (from local government to executive agencies) that actually represent the true value of tax funded data. The demand should be for mandated metadata capture and publishing - there are a number of exemplars already that provide effective levers with which to acheive this goal. Value can then truly be in the eye of the beholder.

ps As I said I love maps and they are the best contextual tool and have their own value in relation to the use to which they're being put; but, generally that use and therefore value depends on the other data being contextualised/hacked/mashed and the scale at which that is most effective. The evident need is for other data....

Monday, 6 July 2009

Activate09 - wow - some musings

Thought it best to digest the day and reflect on what was almost (sorry Adam, that was the second time I've watched you read a prepared script, off the cuff humour not withstanding, iti all felt sooo 'qualified') without exception a staggering succession of speakers with topics and ideas to match.

Others have already done an excellent job in 'reporting' (for example, http://rooreynolds.com/2009/07/01/guardian-activate-09/) so will confine myself to stuff close to my heart, personal and professional.

The stand out piece for many would have been Gerry Jackson's harrowing account of broadcasting under repressive, hostile and down-right life-threatening circumstances in Zimbabwe. Having been caught up in two mostly unreported civil wars (I am lead to believe that one of them had one paragraph in The Times once) before the rise of the digital age (there was short wave radio and one telex machine in Hargeisa!) when reporting such things required genuine 'Salvador' type commitment to want to go, get in, get a story and then get out again, Gerry served up compelling, brutal, ugly, essential reasons why and how the convergence of 'genuine' journalism, crowd sourced messages and media, social networks and information systems present such a threat to political systems, good and not so good, and why we should support and enable them.

Hot on the heels of John Simpson's throw away line about how few journalists there were in Tehran (all the 'serious' ones were leaving and 'the crowd' still seems to have to earn its place in some areas of the media) it reminded us that however liberating the tools and technologies that we usually take for granted can be, it ultimately takes a combination of nerves, cojones of steel and that very familiarity that we take for granted to apply them.

Ironic too because of Obama's intervention to ensure Twitter access for Iranians while Google is busy trying to get services accepted in China and the level of intervention or 'web filtering" governments and their agencies already make to 'secure' us from digital threat - Green Dam is only the most visible.

Apposite then that indirectly many of the key speeches of the day were about education and the challenges faced in defining and bringing that education to those most in need, both formally and, where community, social networks, the cloud and the crowd collide, informally. The capture, sharing and dissemination of information and knowledge whether by peers round a 'hole in the wall' PC, through retirement age blogging (great presentation by Will Perrin), taking advantage of open education initiatives or through the ability to mashup data from official sources (I think there was only one mention of metadata on the day) provides both armour and weaponry for the citizen in equipping us to enjoin governments and international agencies to better reflect our will.

Of course, 'followtics' is a blind alley and we should expect our leaders to, well, lead. Some of the red top headliners are no more than a sop to the hang 'em high lobby but are doubtless monitored by the masters of spin for their own ends. If you build it, they will come and may we reap the whirlwind. While it could be argued that even others, such as FixMyStreet afford 'digital natives' greater 'volume' in the already noisy political lobby, the way in which the agency responsible acts in response reflects a more rational and tangible democracy. On this note, and slightly off topic, there is a corner on a hill near us where I have seen a contractor literally lobbing spadefuls of wet tarmac into a hole and letting the traffic flatten it, before driving off to the next one. One shower of rain and the hole is back, followed by the contractor - if they're being paid for holes fixed they must love it; if the council awarded a fixed price contract to the lowest bidder no one wins. Given that unsurprisingly government regards such contracts as commercially sensitive (e.g. http://www.theyworkforyou.com/wrans/?id=2009-06-24b.279322.h&s=%22commercially+sensitive%22#g279322.r0) the whole £25k expenditure transparency spin is moot. More to the point it reminds me of unmetalled roads across much of Africa where the local young men and boys are often to be seen with basic tools filling holes in the tracks near their willages and asking passing drivers for a shilling for their efforts. Only difference is that what you give at the 'go slow' goes straight to them.

If I have one constructive comment to offer, with Chris Anderson's new book 'Free' launching this week, it is a pity that so little was given over to the economics of this envisaged digital universe. However you look at it, the world of volunteering (essentially it is about time given, whether that spent distributing food or writing and distributing open source code) is finite, dependent on the largesse of citizens, HNWIs, corporations and even government (through the regimes and incentives they offer). Ultimately we all have to eat and no one is suggesting bartering - LETS were all the rage a few years back - or that a model can be created whereby advertising pays for everything.

In fact, the throw away line of the day from Bradley Horowitz, VP Google Apps, juxtaposed a world in which, if we accept ads at all they have to be exactly what we want when we want with that of a world hostile to anyone knowing any more than we want it to know. The world is hostile enough to Phorm already but the ad platforms want deep citizen knowledge to target high value ads while the citizen wants to take back ownership of 'their' data - what, the ad model doomed or preparing us for more paid for Google Apps? In a world where marginal cost of (re)production of digital products is (very) close to zero, an examination in one of the plenary sessions of emerging and tomorrow's business models would have been welcome. Andy Baio and others touched on key areas such as usability with respect to customer retention and customers are willing to pay for 'whole product' services but there didn't seem to be an undercurrent saying that future digital economics were a 'given'. I look forward to the Activator events where doubtless such things will be taken up with gusto.

Hopefully at those events a proactive approach to delegates will ensure inclusion (if not attendance) of key individuals from the sectors seemingly absent last week - the procurers and deliverers of what are suppposed to be citizen centric services. Civil servants paralysed by indecision, inertia and buck passing need to be involved, as do the commercial entities at the heart of current service provision. The latter not because they are entitled to anything from a paradigmatic shift in delivery model but because we as citizens are entitled to challenge, educate and inform to speed the shift and because whoever is in power the PPP/PFI model at the heart of much existing provision is unlikely to be thrown out or dramatically reshaped. New models require new partnerships and perhaps the Activate banner will become that under which such teams are forged.

In the meantime all credit to the Guardian team that thought this up, put it together and underpinned it with a top class delivery team. Roll on........

ps for those awaiting a 'data' review, may blog separately as time allows