Sunday 13 February 2011

Linked augmentation

The following post is entirely Hadley Beeman's (@hadleybeeman) fault. So much is, actually, when it comes to opendata and linked data - just Google her and you'll find it why. For the US orientated among you, Hadley is essentially our national lead on opendata in the UK, she's an American and she yay's. In public. Unashamedly. And that makes her just awesome because us Brits, frankly, we do not yay enough.


This tweet kicked off a waterfall of thoughts and feelings:
"Soundthing: Ambient music selection: just walking into a pub with your phone can bend the pub's playlist towards your Spotify prefs. #gsxsw"
The tag is also worth investigating - gsxsw was curated by Rewired State (Emma Mulqueeny) and held at the Guardian newspaper offices this weekend - it was a hack day with a bit of a difference. Hack days might be a  Brit thing also - if so, Google it, there's some amazing stuff going from idea to actuality here at the moment under these banners.

So, the tweet led me to respond with the idea that not only would the pubs sound system bend to me and my mates Spotified taste in music, but that this would somewhere be recorded for future questioning - that somehow I would land in a new city and know where to find like minded music lovers because I could see on  a map layer or something similar all the pubs which linked with my Spotify preferences by more than x percent, where I set the percentage. So, for example, and purely hypothetically (ahem) if I hated 80's music with a passion most people only reserved for politicians, I could avoid pubs which played any 80's music at all. Or, if I was ambivalent to ambient but absolutely loved techno, I could set the filter percentages accordingly and go and find my tribe. Or if I was feeling kinda brave and adventurous, I could change the settings randomly with a button and land somewhere entirely new and unlikely.

But, I thought, what if you took that further? What if you took that out of a pub environment, that linked data which told me where I should be depending on my musical preferences, and as Hadley suggested with food, you applied it to something else?

I'm going to segue a little and tell you a story, based purely on an experience I had yesterday. It's true and it's relevant, so bare with me a little if this comes across as self indulgent.

I've got quite severe tendonitis which flares up every now and again. It means my tendon contracts which then pulls on the muscle above it which dislikes it, which then has a knock on effect upwards again. Riding my bike fixes it, I've not ridden my bike for a bit thanks to snow and torrential rain. You try mountain biking in snow on tech Northern trails sometime. Anyway.

We went out for the day and parked up in Manchester, in a car park we don't normally use. The car park is essentially one of those 'this used to have something built on it (in this case Boddingtons Brewery), it now doesn't, someone decided to make money off the land by parking cars on it'. My other half led us towards a sneaky exit he knew which wasn't the official exit. Just by the exit out onto the street was a short but incredibly steep upward incline. My calf muscles combined have lost about 1/2 inch of flexibility. Lots of unladylike swearing ensued. For the next 30 minutes walking was faintly hideous. It eventually stopped when I relented and dived into a handy second hand bookshop to let them calm down a little and stop contracting.

It could have been avoided, those 30 minutes of pain, and I'll tell you how. Augmented linked data. Somewhere else out there, I have no doubt, is someone else with slightly broken calf muscles who's probably done exactly the same thing and was discomforted enough to want to ensure someone else didn't suffer the same ouchiness. Currently, there is no way for her to do that. Currently, there is no way for me to do that. I can't tell anyone. Putting it on a forum would be pointless, it would get lost in the noise. Putting it an email to someone would get me nowhere. I now know something about the environment in a car park in Manchester would could save someone else some pain and I can't share.

In each of our heads is data. We know things. Some of these things are small, so infinitesimally small that we might never think of sharing them or that they might be of worth to someone else, and some of those things are very big things. Some of those big things are only big to us and some of those big things would  make the world a better place if we could share them with everyone.

Imagine, then, a way of sharing, if you wanted to, everything you ever knew about obstacles or opportunities. A world where on your GPS there was a layer you could switch on or off which linked in to the local councils database in the area you were passing through and told you where the major potholes were or into the local police database so you could know as a motorcyclist where the accident blackspots and blind corners were. Or, even, which gate you needed to slow down for as you passed it because the cows always came across the road for milking at 4:45pm and as a result the road would be slippy and possibly treacherous for the next few hours after.

Imagine a world where local knowledge was at your fingertips. Don't park down that side street because anyone who does gets broken into - or if you must remove the GPS suction circle from your windscreen because the only people who get broken into are the people who forget. Imagine a world where you knew which restaurants and pubs were genuinely child friendly because other parents had indicated it so and you could see this in real time when driving down a street without having to get your smartphone out of your pocket, because your GPS told you? No more relying on the restaurant owners claims to be child friendly when his definition includes a high chair but nothing else.

But most of all, to me, imagine a world where you could see issues before they arose. Where people with sensory overload problems could reference to other people with similar issues without ever needing to know their name, but only by linking with someone just because they have a similar intolerance, and following where they've been and had problems, but more importantly where they've been and not had any problems at all.

A world where I'd never have walked up the slope because someone with the same issue as me had a way of indicating somehow that people with x issue should use the gate on the flat at the other end, should walk the long way around, should not even think about attempting if in a wheelchair.

In my world, in my future, I believe these things will happen. I believe everyone will see through the same eyes I do - through eyes which see data layered across and streamed through reality in real time. One where my world is shaped by others experiences who are like me. One where there are no potholes to break your suspension and no steep inclines to break your muscles.

Don't tell me tech can't change the world for the better. Don't tell me maps don't matter and visualisation is pointless. Don't tell me these are pipe dreams. If no one dreams, reality will never be changed. Yes, thinking small allows people to JFDI. But sometimes, just sometimes, someone has got to think BIG.


  1. Funny you should blog about that today, we are just starting a project on the same thing, working with lancaster university and the TSB. Ours isn't the big thing that you forecast, ours is just a tiny part of it. The GPS element is just for journeys. All us volunteers map our journeys, then report any hold ups. Anyone else on the same journey gets a text warning or can log in and look for holdups. In our rural area we get flooded bridges which close roads and all this info will be mapped and shared in real time, so as soon as the road is clear we will all know and save a 10 mile detour. Its all very interesting. We go live tomorrow.

    Like you say, the future is on its way... I am sure lots of other groups are experimenting with similar stuff, we just need to get them joined up.

  2. That's _awesome_ Chris! Let me know how it goes??

  3. When I was writing my Masters thesis, I ended up in touch with a doctoral student in Switzerland who was into augmented reality.

    As an offshoot of that, he was working on mapping MTB trails in the Alps using GPS. (They don't have OS mapping over there.) As he rode a trail, he described it and this description was recorded and interpreted so that the surface, gradient, features, etc. were automagically recorded on the map.

  4. One of the researchers on the living lab project is a mountain biker, wonder if he would like to contribute? I will ask him. Nothing stopping me joining a few dots is there? Innovation.
    I will keep you posted Lou, once we get through all the bugs I guess we could go global? But the first bit is for local travel routes. KISS and all that jazz. Never enough hours in a day for all us volunteers and all this funky stuff.

  5. Miketually> That's an absolutely fantastic idea!!!
    Chris> I'm paid to do this stuff - there's never enough hours. I need cloned working weeks or something.

  6. Louise, thank you for writing this up! I'll admit, I encouraged you to do it for two reasons: 1) I wanted to hear more about your vision than we could fit in 140 characters, and 2) people often ask me "Why are we bothering with all this?" I can now send them to your post. :)

    Your vision is fantastic; it really demonstrates the potential of linked data. We are getting so much better at capturing what's out there and translating the numbers into real-life contexts. The next big challenge we're facing (technologically speaking) is building those filters. How does it know that you have a tendon problem, but might find a breathtaking view worth 5 minutes of pain (but no more)? Obviously your needs are different to anyone else's, so we need to get better at working out what you're after so we can deliver it to you.

    Two little corrections for you: I'm afraid I'm not actually our national lead on open data; I think that honour belongs to the Transparency Board. But I do spend the majority of my time trying to make it all work (especially through projects like LinkedGov). And it's moments like this, when we're dreaming about the not-so-distant future, that keep me going.

    (Also, I'm not completely American-- I'm half British! Or maybe 1/3, depending on how you measure.) :)

    Overall, I think someone has to think big, to ponder "What if this COULD happen? And then, we could do something else, which no one could do before." It's an important role.

    And equally as important, someone has to communicate that vision to others, to inspire them to help make it happen. Think of how much science fiction has inspired robotics, or space travel. It's so useful to have your thoughts out here. Thanks again for writing!

  7. This is a really cool idea that isn't fashionable yet, also known as The Internet of Things. (The first time I went to a conference on IPv6, I met someone who wanted to give every cow its own IP address).

    Here is a nice vide from IBM, featuring Andy Stafford-Clark, who lives in a house that tweets. He also taught the Isle of White ferry to tweet.

  8. Hadley> I am sorry. I feel really bad for getting both these points wrong. I used lead in a kind of figurehead term rather than an official term but I should have made that clear. And getting your nationality wrong is unforgivable. I'd be a bit knocked over sideways if someone referred to me as Irish (I'm half). Please accept my apologies.

    Gordon> That is just seven shades of awesomeness.

  9. Heard on the DigitalPlanet podcast this morning about a project in Bristol called 'Hills are Evil' which is looking at how open and shared data can be used to help wheelchair users get round Bristol effectively thought it sounded similar to some of the vision you describe here

  10. Digital Planet on the BBC reviewed one such thing. In one city (can't remember which) wheelchair users have created an overlay for the city to help them get around and avoid the cobbles which if hand propelled are difficult to navigate on and if battery operated drain the batteries of the wheelchairs. So they are able to avoid the cobbles and find out where the different hazards are in the city as other users are able to upload their info and suggest where the nuisance places are. This is the type of thing you were suggesting right?? (Ooops just seen it poseted above by Owen!)