Monday, 22 February 2010

A decade on.....

You regular readers will know that I don't put much public relations related material on this blog; however, I do think you will be interested to know that our mapshop now has a plug-in free map interface for the first time.

Back in 2000, yes 10 years old this week too, so we see it as a kind of celebration, ERMapper's Image Web Server and the underlying ecw format and its accompanying protocol (ecwp://) opened up the possibilities of an e-commerce data delivery platform. Yes, it required an ActiveX plugin but boy did it change the way in which geographic data, particularly mapping and imagery, could be viewed and obtained. Then 5 years or so ago we launched a Java based solution for viewing large scale (notably OS MasterMap) data online and for completing planning applications and similar things for PDF output. More developments here shortly too.

Although IE remains the de facto browser across the vast majority of users in the enterprise space this is changing, fast in some cases, and the need to provide a solution to the growing legions of Firefox, Safari and Chrome users as well leveraging our OGC compliant data stack could wait no longer. The OpenLayers framework (you were going to ask I know, and if I didn't tell you a quick look under the hood would provide the answer anyway) has proven a powerful, flexible friend in this continuing evolution and you can expect more in the coming weeks....

Did I say, we're 10 years old this week....

Friday, 12 February 2010

Data, Doubt and Dissent (Part 3, enough already)

Statistics was compulsory when I studied geography, maybe it still is, but it is dull, worthy, grey and complicated which means that few labour over the minutiae of sampling methods, aggregation units, timelines, confidence intervals, error and so on. Too many shades of grey for politicos, lobbyists, media and the hobbyist too.

So what happens in the mashup, in the creation and consumption of information, the thirst for knowledge and some degree of certainty? Both producer and consumer can define and divine intelligence in their mashup and the chosen analytical methodology (though few would think in those terms). And so we have it, a few producers, a myriad consumers, a willing public, a na├»ve one, ripe for gulling. It is an interesting area….

We are in the arena of filters, choice architecting, framing effects and the tools of cyber balkanisation - data through a lens, information of the providers making, online. The often self-referential, self-reinforcing nature of this information and its blogosphere, contributes to a kind of tribalism or ghettoism and narrow world view, wittingly or otherwise; we use recommender systems, profiles/preferences and other tools to make sense of the volume of information available to us online. We have to, to slow it down to an intelligible level. As one of my colleagues put it, the consequence is that we sometimes appear to be on the threshold of a return to medieval mores and customs in the descent to the lowest common denominator/maximum attention.

Once I started trying to frame some of this stuff for myself, and having read Anderson, Shirky and others, I stumbled across Sunstein who has had plenty to say over the last decade on these subjects, though not the medieval part!

And, while I am writing this a piece appears on similar themes only in the context of religious extremism. But right there is a similar argument about the frictions that mediation creates; it seems that without friction we couldn’t function – historically we were limited to the number of relationships we could sustain around the parish pump and would filter those through common interests and now, while the opportunities are limitless, it is impractical to endeavour to exploit them without filters of some kind. My own blogroll and my usage of Twitter and the delivery of that via Twitter Times are indicative of the issue and the paradoxical challenges it throws up.

Am I living in my own cultural cul-de-sac while believing that that through my apparently unmediated interaction with it I am participating in the ‘global’ (well, as the 1 in 4 who is) village? This narrative of individualism disintegrates on the anvil of community solidarity as a mechanism for giving purpose and creating cohesion for otherwise fragmented causes and those who would espouse them. Some of the traditional boundaries of community may have dissolved but they are being re-created in cyberspace in part to restore the friction we need to make sense of our individual environment.

And into that space step the ‘internet commentators’. But not just ‘people like me’ even if you believe who I am! Surveillance, overt (you did agree to tell everyone where you are didn’t you, what planes you’re catching, hotels you’re staying in, when your house will be empty etc) and covert is ubiquitous. Personalised adverts, recommender systems, blogrolls, Twitter lists, forums, ANPR, CCTV (did I tell you we have 20% of the world’s CCTV cameras in the UK!), loyalty cards, cell-ID, memberships to name but a few – you (and your community of interest, worn clearly) are ‘out there’ so let the trolling begin, let loose the dogs of doubt.

‘Guiding opinion’ online whether through social networking tools, ‘formal’ information exchange or publishing for or against a given community of interest is the (not so) new spin and engenders a corrosive form of ‘followtics’, witness political soundbites, mainstream media’s publicising of the climate change denial agenda and the vaunting of the particular at the expense of its milieu.

The natural direction of this is stoning, hanging and the ducking stool, a descent to medievalism, the dilution of all that a liberal multi-cultural society aspires to. A corresponding paralysis in decision making and law giving will spawn a new era of plunder of the worlds natural and human resources. That’s a dim analysis that I don’t share.

The world is too inter-connected to allow this to happen but is also dependent on often distant institutions to ensure that it remains so. Our new ‘hyper’local virtual communities, whether narrowly identified or with broad allegiances, represent the opportunity to hold the wider networked world to account.

To do so requires two (at least) things:

First, a fundamental shift in the interventionist nature of the political landscape to one that is more responsive, in the national and global context, to and supportive of, in terms of reframing the relationship between individual, third sector, business, families, interest groups and wider community affiliations, multi-agent solutions (where the agent is not an 'agency' but rather a (human) instrument for effecting change). That is I accept a bit of a rambling mouthful - key words - responsive, supportive government. However, no government should respond to, support or galvanise such solutions on the back of narrow agendas, however presented.

So, second, back to PSI….it is essential that the agents of change and the solutions they develop understand the context in which a particular issue is invoked. This is where hyperlocality and the virtual community of the internet helps in reframing the relationships that can power that change. Potholes or pensioners, social housing or cycle lanes - limited budgets, resource constraints, hard choices - context, analysis, action, communication.

So, and here is the really big but…….once we get past the easy sniping and the shallow agendas that will be the low hanging fruit of the vexed and the vicious, what are we into…..essentially we are into a world of comparisons, greener grasses and fences, difficult decisions, conflicting agendas and the yah boo politics that follows. Oh yes, and statistics. The question is, are we big enough to get past the one and chew on and make sense of the latter…..

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Data, Doubt and Dissent (Part 2, middle bit maybe)

At a recent presentation a slide was put up using PSI made available through the MPDP initiative that ranked local authorities according to the %age of potholes (again, I know) repaired.

So Torfaen, with 3 reported holes, all fixed, came out 'top' and then the slide changed. Does that make Torfaen the best council in Britain? Does it mean they have fixed all the potholes? Does it mean the repair will last? Did we know where Torfaen ranks in the passenger kilometre travelled per day charts (I made that one up but you get the idea)? Flipping that table around does it make whoever is at the bottom the worst? Of course not.

Where does our money go indeed, and on what justification? What are the underlying statistics, the hard facts, that drive decisions, be they central, local or further devolved? Are there any (think WMD here!)? What process has been used to say yes to potholes and no to something else? What problems are we trying to solve? How do we measure the relative values of those choices? How do we influence those choices (other than at the ballot box if we have one, or if that makes a difference)? How do we reward or stigmatise the decision makers?

Policies, or projects of policies if you get me, such as the New Deal for Communities, Invest to Save Budgets and the like as well as the rise in citizen and hyperlocal news (some of it 'journalism', some not), location centric applications, the interest in maps and mapping (cf the decline in geography?), the reinvigoration of parish and town councils in some areas and the increase in local advertising expenditure, all point to other ways in which influence on these choices can be voiced.

Nevertheless identifying the problems, their causes and the options for their solution are hard enough and take time, energy, commitment and money; this is hard enough to sustain in a wealthy liberal society, however much we may decry existing mechanisms for delivery (typically 'centralised' or imposed by will of local and central government and related actors in the third sector). This is already muddied by lobbyists and pedallers of mystery but could become infinitely harder (or not) when the PSI-empowered citizen or vested interest wields their 'investigative power'.

The idea that the the public is able i.e. qualified to "root out wasteful spending and poorly negotiated contracts" is as appealing as it is absurd. It is one thing to 'track' a PFI programme but altogether another to identify 'wasteful' essential service contracts such as hospital cleaning or pothole filling or anti-aircraft missile design. BATNEEC was a widely ridiculed approach to acheiving a similar thing but did so almost exclusively in exchange for a loss of quality. RMSA and recurring potholes are a manifestation of the same 'Walmart' mentality, in an attempt to commoditise services to 'free'. Pay peanuts.......

Of course we don't want wasteful contracts and an extension of PPP/PFI without greater transparency and validation of the approach or contract. And of course it is ludicrous that £6.5m be spent on 80 people to provide such services to track expenses for IPSA. We bemoan regulation and red tape as either being too intrusive or not strong enough (its never suitably 'light touch', responsive, symapthetic or concilatory - maybe it is but we don't get good news stories!). Every time we try to cut it away we require (unconsciously it seems) that someone somewhere takes responsibility but they won't, don't or can't usually for fear of liability and litigation.

Into this fray comes the contrasting memes of political self-protection and manufactured doubt.

The former gives us knee jerk reaction to good and bad ‘news’ – the something must be done/it's risky/isn't it terrible/here is our solution type tirades are the stuff of the daily political media flow. Unfettered by the real world challenges of the impacts, social, economic, environmental, humanitarian, whatever, of imposing ‘solutions’ into whatever inevitably far more complex subject happens to newsworthy today, such pervasive flow is increasingly tarnished and seen as nowt more than a cynical ploy.

The latter foments (and liberally funds) controversy in areas where the broader public is ill-equipped to differentiate the implications of complex models, data sets and the requisite analysis. FUD – fear, uncertainty, doubt – generated billions for the tobacco industry over a 50 year plus period (oh yes and for governments as they kept increasing the tax take). Think tanks, research units, "independent" 'institutes' and 'respected' academics combine to create the type of uncertainty into which politicians, hacks and citizens can either exploit or fall for. Climate change being the most recent example.

This stuff (establishing a solid basis for decision making, as well as monitoring and evaluation of outcomes) is hard and pedalling narrow agendas is easier than ever. If it needs to be better understood it needs also to be made more interesting and accessible and the consequences, impacts and arguments credible.

Part 3 will try to look at that.....

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Data, Doubt and Dissent (Part 1, probably)

This may end up being a multi-part piece as various strands come and go in the struggle to create a coherent thought piece on a topic that has been nagging away at me for some time. Yes, it has relevance to geography and location and even to free data and mapping but the underlying motivation derives from a wider philosophical question on the use and impact of data in a hyperlocally enabled globally interconnected world…..bear with me!

So, where to start without being glib or contrarian or wading in the soup of euphemism, the pejorative and the broad brush……

Whether we like it or not, and personally I do, in Britain we live in an incredibly diverse and broadly tolerant society. And yet, and yet…..the manufactured doubt brigade (typically in a ghetto of some kind, whether of the mind, the middle class or the migrant), the furious ignorati and their cohorts in the media, willing and otherwise, chip away at this diversity and tolerance.

We also live in an inter-connected and inter-dependent world where isolationism (or ‘islandationism’?) is denial.

The rallying cries are for political ‘democracy’, transparency, accountability and increasingly for ever more devolved powers. To a huge extent I am in accord with this and I think that the liberation of public sector information has the potential to support the reframing of the state-citizen-third sector relationship (that at one level appears to be emerging) in a positive manner and in a way that accords with these broad ambitions.

I support the idea that 'governments (local and central and their agencies) should establish the principle that the public services should publish in reusable form all the objective, factual, non-personal data on which the public services are run and assessed and on which policy decisions are based or which is collected or generated in the course of public service delivery' (Prof Nigel Shadbolt at the launch of the government's data portal www.data.gov.uk). There is of course dispute about the bounds of such a broad demand and about what mechanisms could be deployed to bring this about, how much it would cost (to government and to commercial enterprise that has to date interceded in such provision), what the benefits would be and how the impacts might be felt and delivered. A discussion for another piece.

I guess the concern or issue that I am trying to give voice to relates to the questions “what do people want this data for”, “how are they going to use this data” and similar. It is easy to concur as I do with “we don’t know, let a thousand mashups bloom, our society and the economy will benefit in ways we can’t even guess at” though this was not quite how Sir Tim, Nigel Shadbolt and others have more eloquently expressed it!

The most quoted recent example, but there are many others at www.data.gov.uk, is that of bike accidents in London. The data was released and in short order a mashup of accident blackspots was available that allowed cyclists to change their routes. All well and good and no doubt reducing cycle related injuries and deaths, related NHS costs, lost working hours, emissions, police time and so on, in theory.

However, as a cyclist I wonder whether this isn’t a cheap anti-cycling gag....as a cyclist what do I ‘know’ (or think I know)?:

Cycling is or can be ‘dangerous’ or ‘risky’
I get hot and sweaty just getting on a bike
Cyclists almost always come off worse in collisions with any other road user
Risk/danger increases with traffic density
Urban roads have a ‘typical’ set of dangers
Rural roads have a different set of dangers
Riding without suitable identifying gear increases danger (lights etc)
Riding on pavements pi**es people off and gives all cyclists a bad name
Jumping/not stopping at lights does the same
As does riding across zebra crossings and down footpaths
Road edges have glass, nails, cans
Road edges crumble
Roads deteriorate with cracks and potholes at random
Pedestrians often don’t look
Cycle lanes and bus lanes are blocked
Cycle lanes are not contiguous
Cycle lanes rarely go all the way to my destination anyway
Drivers don’t look, don’t think or don’t care
Diesel fumes are worse than petrol fumes
I know my route
I prefer to take the shortest route
I take the same route
Most accidents/risk areas are at junctions

So, this mashup does what for me?

Makes me go further
Increases my time to destination
Adds more junctions and stop/starts

So I have to leave earlier to get sweatier to be exposed to more risks? Yeah, right. This is no fault of the mashup nor am I taking pot shots at this example. I do get uncomfortable with the idea that such sites could, owing to their prominence, inform policy and decision making and the investment that flows from that.

This mashup and the ‘solution’ it offers is analogous to claims about football hooliganism having decreased at grounds when in fact all the added deterrents had done was push those who wanted some ‘action’ to take it to places where those deterrents had yet to be put in place, outside the grounds. The moves didn’t seek to change behaviour at all and it was only a wide ranging shift in tactics (plus of course more surveillance) that has brought about welcome longer term change.

The blackspots will follow the cycle flows; cycling will not be inherently safer - arguably fewer motorists will see cyclists and become ever more oblivious to them.

It would be interesting to get all RTA information involving bikes and cyclist admissions to casualty departments for the same area since records began and start to look at that in the context of frequency of bike use (rising), cause of accident/injury (a relation broke both shoulders when a pothole sheared her front forks – not reported as an RTA or accident blackspot), increase in pro-cycle measures such as cycle lanes, introduction of the Congestion Charge and so on. What makes cycling safer is behavioural change in other road users and by those responsible for the roads.

Of course we want to reduce bike accident rates, of course PSI should be used to help achieve that and hopefully this example is the beginning of a shift in the use of such data to inform policy and investment. However, the broader themes of this now definitely mult-part thesis are only really hinted at...more coming in Part 2.