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Digital Featured Perspective

Mozilla Festival: Media, Freedom, and the Web

Mozilla FestivalOriginally appeared on Kasabi’s Blog:

This last weekend, I found myself wearing a lab coat, meeting people working on some of the most interesting projects on the web, while in the queue to an entirely free espresso bar. And, I kept seeing human-sized foxes walking about and dancing. I was fairly sure I needed to wake up.

In fact, I was at this year’s Mozilla Festival, so all the interesting people I was meeting were gathering in London to hack and learn. The lab coat was because Chris and I from Team Kasabi were “Human APIs” at the event, and Kasabi was involved and partnered with the Mozilla Foundation. The espresso? That was because the event organisers were saints, and I’m still not sure about the giant foxes…

The themes broadly covered data-driven journalism, education, and multi-media web tools; and the Mozilla Festival was organised into learning/sharing sessions and design challenges. In the lab coat, Chris and I were able to dip in and out of many different sessions, and try and help people with any questions they have. As a result, I got to see people hacking the news, writing a data guide for journalists, and playing with an eight-bladed helecoptor-camera with Popcorn.js (I hereby coin the word: octopoptocoptor).

The hacks and learning/teaching sessions covered a lot of ground, and touched on many aspects of using the web to further society, tell stories, and uncover the truth in journalism. Data played a central role in this, especially around data journalism, and it’s a topic that needs even more coverage over the next year, I think. Many of the ideas and projects planned this weekend will need to develop strategies for dealing with vast amounts of data, and to get the most out of it! The Mozillian organisers seemed very keen on keeping the momentum rolling, too, with plenty of emphasis on this being a kind of kick-off for projects to develop, grow and mature, so I think there’s a lot of scope for great ideas getting traction.

Before the Mozilla Festival, I wrote about some of the things I’d like to cover at the event:

There is a growing, and important, trend for stories to include more than just words. I’m keen to see more data behind journalism. Partly, this is because it’s more transparent, and encourages wider fact-checking and accuracy. But it also enables a lot more interesting things to be done with stories.

I was certainly not disappointed, but would like to carry on working with people looking to make their data work better, and tell stories from it.

The Mozilla Festival blog has a lot of round-up info, so I won’t try and re-write the whole thing. It was a great event covering a huge amount of ground, and I’m looking forward to catching up about data-driven projects over the next few weeks. I’d also like to hear from anyone who’s interested in journalism and media on the web, to discuss getting your own datasets published, or building on top of others as part of your project.

Categories
Perspective Semantic Web

Trends and Barriers

|This article first appeared in Nodalities Magazine, CC By + SA

For anyone following the Nodalities blog, you may have read some of my recent posts discussing the trends boiling up around Web 3.0 (other buzzwords are available). The Mobile Web and upgraded connectivity in general; the rise of ubiquitous computing from chips in every product imaginable; Linked Data and the “Semantic Web” as an organising platform for this rising tide of data—these are three very broad trends seeing a lot of media attention presently. From where I’m standing, I tend to see the next great turning point of the Web as a convergence of some of these trends, and see it as a rise in the importance of and reliance upon data itself and data tools generally.

The mobile web is bringing new sorts of information to people, and they can make use of this info wherever they happen to be because of advances in devices ad connectivity. As phones and web-enabled devices get better, so to do the chips we seem to have embedded all over the place, and we can now begin to have a more clear picture of what we do through the information we gather from our heaters, cars, and pedometers. Also, as more objects become connected, the grunt-work of number-crunching and storage is becoming commoditised into big, efficient, utility-like cloud services, which host and work with our collected information much more effectively than the gadget in your hand could ever hope to do. Others, like us here at Talis, talk about the Semantic Web, which allows for an evolution from a bunch of connected documents to the explicit connections between bits of information.

Also fermenting in this mix is a strengthening trend of political transparency and a public, shared ownership of social data. Barack Obama’s new administration has clearly made this a priority with the launch and work around data.gov; and in the UK, Sir Tim Berners-Lee himself has been appointed to an Parliamentary advisory role. There is growing pressure to be able to have access to public data, and to see it as belonging to the nation’s people rather than allowed to be legitimately filed away in the great, locked bureau of the capitols.

So, picking up two fairly obvious trends here: Social, Public Data and Linked Data; it would seem to follow that people would begin to have access to previously unavailable information in usable, linked forms. And it’s certainly beginning, as articles elsewhere in this magazine have illustrated. But, what about other chunks of public data? What about when data comes from universities, institutions, scientific foundations and NGO’s? What about charities monitoring crime, CO2 emissions and family histories? Wouldn’t these make a useful piece in the web of social data? What resources have the governments themselves got, if they want to make their public-owned data available in a useful format?

These questions form a major part of the thinking behind Talis’ Connected Commons initiative (talis.com/cc). Basically, Talis has made its Semantic Web platform (including data hosting and access tools) available free of charge for any datasets made available to the public. In doing so, we’re hoping to remove the barrier of cost entirely to publishing interesting data in a Linked Data way. One major reason for this is to promote reuse and mashups of this interesting data, and for people to be able to “follow their noses” to the data that completes their projects. But, from a publishers’ perspective, this is important, because it’s removing a major reason not to bother with making data useful, if not only public. So, with this, data can be made public and useable and the developers and users get the benefit of public SPARQL endpoints and API access to interesting data.

To keep the data open and public, datasets need to make use of either the Public Domain Dedication and License (PDDL) or Creative Commons’ CC0 license. Ian Davis, in his article in this magazine, explains more about waivers and the Connected Commons, and there is a lot more about this particular initiative over on the Talis site (talis.com/platform/cc/faqs/).

In a recent interview with the BBC, Sir Tim said: “This is our data. This is our taxpayers’ money which has created this data, so I would like to be able to see it, please.” I wonder if initiatives such as Connected Commons will begin to remove excuses, hindrances, and obstacles? As public awareness of the importance of access gets hotter, this might become a political issue, as well as a pragmatic one. I hope that in the rush to publish data, and in the ensuing discussion and debate that follows, that the users, hackers and developers don’t get sidelined. I think the world is ready for its data back.

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Digital

WordPress Woes

bench removed for maintenanceSo, WordPress 2.8 is great! I love the interface, the drag/drop, the ajaxed admin area and loads of other features. Unfortunately, it’s also broken.

My problem occurs when I update plugins. Whenever a WP plugin needs updating, the automated system has failed to reactivate it every single time. Unfortunately, it also removes the plugin entirely, leaving  me without that functionality. This is particularly annoying when it removes tracking codes, so I can’t see how many folks have been on my site!

So, I’m going to have to reinstall it from scratch. If the theme is jumpy, or something’s missing, it’s probably for that reason. Hopefully, it’ll all be back up and running soon, with plugins working nicely, and all my content secured.

… hopefully!

Image: “Bench Removed for Maintenance” by andyrob Creative Commons Licensed via flickr.

Categories
Digital Topical

Open Letter to my ISP

Headache

“Headache by magandafille

This evening I sent this letter to my ISP in response to their support followup (I’ve removed the company name):

Please, please don’t give me a list of troubleshooting tips again…

The broadband router is attached directly to the test socket, therefore guaranteed by BT.

My microfilter is fine, and I’ve had different units at various times (of different makes and even colours); and, before you ask, I’ve got one on every phone line in the house.

I’ve reset the router in the past (though I’ve been informed that this can actually cause up to 5-days delay, it’s been more than a fortnight since the last reset).

My speeds are the same.

Nothing changes them.

I have nothing else running when I run speedtests, and have used multiple sites.

I’ve double and more checked all settings on the router itself, and have even switched SSID channels just for grins (no change).

I receive the same speedtest results on different more or less identical systems (OS X 10.5.6 each) though not at the same time, and receive the same result.

My iPhone also grows excessively sluggish between 5pm and bedtime.

My last ISP supplied me with a list of 13 troubleshooting tasks, and I completed them duly before each escalation… none of them resulted in any increase in speed whatsoever. The only thing I could think to do further is to construct a DIY parabola booster to increase the signal from the router to my Mac, though, since I write this from less than 3 meters from the router, I doubt that would help much either.

The speeds drop at peak times. That means there’s too much traffic for the infrastructure you supply. I’ve had no problem with (name of ISP) so far, and am fully aware that the West Midlands is low on its priority list (or, at least, BT’s list), and have come to terms with the low bandwidth that entails. However, you advertise speeds in my area (and have said in correspondence that you expect speeds in my area) to be at around 3MB/s. This is not true, daily.

Not only have my speeds routinely dipped below 1.5MB, but have even dipped below 500k on several occasions. I’ve not experienced “broadband” of that quality in years.

I appreciate your prompt replies, and hope you find whatever it is that’s causing this slow-down, though I can save you some trouble. It’s my neighbours, and their neighbours—all using limited bandwidth which you and other ISP’s continue to degrade by accepting more customers than you can supply.

Regards,

Categories
Digital

First ever iPhone post

Ok, so I thought I’d try something. I thought I’d try writing an entire post on an iPhone. I’ve downloaded an app… Think it’s ingeniously called something like “blog writer”. I can tell that my typically long-winded style and use of punctuation will be a killer here!

Surprisingly, however, this feels easy. Whether that’s the second pint talking, however, would require further experimentation.

I should say: it’s easy enough to TYPE. Thinking at the same time, I feel, will take some time. So, my devoted reader, you’re in for a treat of mindlessness…

Still, it’s as well getting used to using mobile interfaces, I think. With it being this painless to finally BE online through such a small portal leads me to think it’ll be a limited time before this is the default for simply connecting.

Now, this isn’t THAT easy… It is so very much faster to type. But, this is fine, and it’ll only get better. However, there are some things which are necessary for this to be my default:

*I need the use of all my fingers. This screen is fantastically good-and I find it very much better as an interface even than my beloved trackball. But the keyboard… It’s too slow.

*Faster app switching. This will surely improve with time, but it’s a bit of a train-of-thought killer.

*Copy/paste. I mean: Come On!

*Finally, the way to navigate among text is to hold one’s finger somewhere near the text, and drop the resulting cursor somewhere near the letter. Arrows alongside this would be very useful.

So, there you have it: my first iPhone post. Not sure I’ll rush out to to it again. But it’s possible. I need more practice with the interface, but I’m not sure if I will.

One last thought: there’s limited to no file handling. This is a mistake, I think. I would very much hate to lose this much thumb-written text now…

Categories
Digital Perspective Semantic Web

Hook me up

my mac is cool kkkkk by yaraaa
'my mac is cool "kkkkk"' by yaraaa

I’ve been blogging a bit over on Nodalities about “stuff being connected”. The idea being basically: everyone is constantly creating data—all the bits of information that can be used in abstract.  These tiny bits of information are constantly being generated by every process we undertake, from the obvious like online banking to the more obscure like driving to work (your odometer tells you how many miles you’ve gone, your on-board computer may store info about your car’s status, your satnav knows where you’re going and been, your mobile phone may know this too, the garage knows when your last service was… this list can go on and on). These data are more powerful when automated by software, and they become exponentially more useful when they are connected with other data. For example, the knowledge that £50 pounds left your account isn’t particularly helpful without a connection to that little bit of data which tells you the date of the transaction.

But why are some data more obscure—why don’t we even think about using some of them?

It may be simply because they’re not immediately useful to us, yet. We can, right now, log in to our banks and have a look at our accounts. We can shuffle and access and compare and analyse because this information is being presented to us in an easily-managed and understandable way. We have access to the raw data, and most of us have some basic understanding of why these data are important. I wouldn’t be surprised if readers of this blog have a spreadsheet or two with financial calculations on it, or use quicken with their balance info. We all know how important calendar events, emails, address book contacts, and bank balances are, and we have various systems to deal with them.

But, what do we DO with all the data we don’t currently access routinely? Well, this is where those connections come in. We can connect data together using some sort of framework, or abstract construct like a database. However, this database will need to be connected to another database (or exported to an existing one) in order for these new bits and pieces to be considered in terms of others.

More simply, the tools and formats we use all the time (spreadsheets, calendars, notepads, computers, odometers etc…) already exist but they don’t currently take into account the further levels of data we create. We don’t have a tool to see our car’s mileage at a certain date, so we’d need to walk out to the car, look at the odometer, and guess. The bit that’s missing is the connection—the link between information we have and a tool or another bit of data. In the previous example, we need a database to collect mileage, a connection between that and date data, and a calendar to view it—tools and data.

There are two sides to these software tools, though. There’s the side presented to the user, and the side that is accessed by processors and memory and software. I’ll blog more on the human-side later, but the “stuff” happens at the edge of these two coming together.

The “Semantic Web” works on a framework which enables any data to be easily connected to other data. Instead of sitting in a traditional relational database, which makes its connections based on a set of specific instructions (schemas), all the data are encoded with a bit of information identifying them to the web. In essence, each piece of data has an address, and can be pointed to much like a web site points to another. This works at various levels of granularity, so individual records can be linked very easily, allowing for applications to be written on top of these linked data. These applications can then let us analyse, manipulate, swap, and USE anything, literally, that we can link.

Alongside this linked data infrastructure (call it the Semantic Web, or Data Web or just the Web) is the proliferation of computing hardware. Processors and memory are being manufactured into just about anything we can buy. Thiese are all working  to take the stuff we do and “translate” it into data. Phones, cars, fridges, credit cards, clocks, scales, watches… we’re surrounded by little processors or bits of memory recording and crunching what we do. What makes this situation currently frustrating/exciting is that they currently don’t share their information, and aren’t “aware” of the potential of other computing.

So, what am I getting at? Well, like we’re saying over on Nodalities, hook it up! We’re getting data, that’s happening. We have the framework(s) and the distributed network (the Web), and we have decades of experience automating data-comparisons (which is all Software ever does, if you boil it down).

The next step is to connect it.

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Digital

Google’s 10^100 (how many can you help?)

February 11: Fulton patents steamboat.
Image via Wikipedia

I have begun to see that we may be entering a new age of polymaths, and I’m happy to be involved in a part of the business world which seems to sustain some of the best brains on the planet.

I remember reading about the beginners of industry—the pioneers of technology and science. I remember reading how Robert Fulton came up against problems in life, and simply invented new ways of doing things, leading eventually to the development of steam-powered paddle-wheel-boats. I remember, vaguely, from my propagandistically pro-industrial schooling that as a child, Fulton had invented or improved on the lead pencil, because the one he was using in school wasn’t up to scratch. The same story is reflected through many of the West’s inventors of what we’ve retrospectively come to call the Industrial Revolution: when opportunity or difficulty forced their hands, they changed the situation.

Now, aside from natural romanticism, I like to look to the past with neither rose-tinted glasses nor “isn’t-everything-better-now” short-sightedness. I’m sure that for every changer, there were crowds of followers in every age, and I’m sure many of you could point easily to both an earth-changer and a follower without too much effort. Besides, history pays scant attention to followers.

No, what I’m talking about is the seeming ease with which many of my colleagues in the web industry switch between impressively diverse tasks. Some I know make impressive presenters, and happen to hold PhD’s in fields more or less unrelated to what they do now… and can code Java and know a bit of CSS on the side. I fear to challenge any to play chess (since I haven’t played in over 5 years, and have the patience of a twelve-year-old), and several are rumoured to be better-than-average musicians. This diversified excellence, alongside the startups, ideas, enthusiastic organisations and programmes i’ve seen recently, remind me of the society-changers of a century and more ago. Not since then, I think, has such an importance been placed on ambition within social responsibilities.

One of the things I’ve seen most recently has been the Google 10^100 (apparently pronounced: ten to the one-hundredth with a typically geeky need to explain the pun) which aims to “help as many people as we can” by contributing $10million to fund earth-changing ideas. Their site is, in classic Google fashion, very straightforward, so I won’t repeat their blurb…just go have a read. But, while you are doing it, I dare you to set aside any cynicism you may harbour either toward a big business, or to any notion of “changing the world”. Think about what has and is being done, and then think how you could change the world.

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Digital

WordPress

Some of my long-term readers (hi, Mum) might remember that my original blog was a Drupal install, and that my less-than-lovely ISP dropped my connection as I was uploading some new files—therefore borking the CSS. If you don’t follow, that’s OK. The point is that my old site was Drupal (a heavy-duty Content Management System, which is fantastic) now it’s Wordperss (cause it does blogging, and does it well). Well, WordPress has won my geeky heart (it’s smaller than my cynical heart, and not as strong as my music heart, but probably the most covered here).

They have done one thing in the past month which has really, really impressed me. They’ve got a plugin which lets you upgrade to the latest version of their software (which you install on your webserver yourself) without any complicated, difficult-to-remember steps. This is why I lost Drupal: upgrading, and it killing itself in the transfer. Now, I have the latest WordPress, and I’m very impressed.

Its WYSIWYG editor works better, and the media manager is fantastic. As you probably know, I stopped using a local blogging client because ecto is rubbish, and Vista is worse. So I now blog from WordPress itself through Firefox on my Mac. Three things that make me happy: WordPress on Firefox running on a Mac… ah!

Another thing which is brilliant is the flickr sidebar plugin I have had for ages. I completely forgot to check out its “view more photos” link. It automatically finds images from the sets I’ve told it about, and uses them to create a page on my site populated with my flickr stream images!

On a down side, I’ve just noticed that it’s impossible to see the bottom of the sidebar if Twitter is down, because I have my tweets (micro-blog messages) being pulled into a widget above it, so if it’s down, it doesn’t load the rest of the sidebar. I think that’s something WordPress should sort out. Oh, well. I’m just going to switch my images tab over to flickr.

Categories
Digital Semantic Web

Future of Web Apps

I’m planning to attend this year’s Future of Web Apps conference in London. Their list of speakers sounds fantastic, and I’m really looking forward to meeting some folks in real life.

I’m particularly interested in this conference for its stated focus on the web community. Just have a look at the Agenda:

  • How to grow and nurture your community
  • Work/life balance or Blood, sweat and tears: Which is the startup way?
  • Colliding Worlds: Using Jabber to make awesome web sites
  • Startups live – An interview with three new European startups
  • How to survive outside of Silicon Valley
Sounds good, doesn’t it?
There are also “Networking Opportunities” there. These sound brilliant despite the rather corporatese description.
They’ve apparently got seats left, and if you book before 4th August, you save £100.
If you’re going, let me know—we can meet up. I can tell you a bit about myself and Talis.