Rewired State kindly invited me along to a two-day hack with unreleased environmental data from around London, held at City Hall or the GLA.
I discovered that there are a lot of interesting environmental data sets on the London Data Store, as well as some new APIs that the GLA are working on with Kings College.
What grabbed me was that scouring through the data available was that there is an hourly feed available of 99 air quality sensors across London that I can't seem to see has been hacked on before. I think it went live actually during the hack, and I must be one of the first external people to play with it.
So I did a couple of air quality hacks. One with the live data and one without (the API went live on the second day and I didn't get a chance to pull it in).
This is a cute little game idea (with a monster of course) that could be used as a way of explaining which parts of London have good/bad air quality. Kind of silly, but playing around with the idea of ambiently getting information across to people in an unexpected way.
Is it smoggy in London?
One issue with much of the way that air quality data is displayed currently is that it appears very academic and unfriendly. I wanted to concentrate on answering just one question well, and this is it - 99 live sensors picking up air quality. The map changes colour to be more grey on a bad day, and I've got a "human" way of describing the air conditions:
And clicking on one of those points gives you an ultra-simple meter reading for that location. The idea being that you can add this to your mobile phone home screen and check it before you leave for work of a day.
I had some trouble with the JSON formatting, so I also suggested putting these feeds on Pachube. And wouldn't it be amazing to do some live data visualisation in that beautiful public space on entering City Hall? I feel a proposal coming on...
You've probably noticed recently that you keep seeing the same ad repeated time and time again on lots of different websites you've been going to. Over the last year or so it's been irritating me more and more - while I understand websites need ad revenues to survive, I also think that for me this is one step too far - particularly when the ad isn't relevant to me and yet I get presented with it every single day of my life!
A couple of companies I know and respect started using it, which has really affected how I view them. In fact Chargify (who we use at Aframe for some of our payment processing) were using it and I kept seeing their ads everywhere, despite being a customer!
I wanted a button next to these ads saying something like :"Yeah OKAY! Dude. I'm a customer of yours. Please make it stop", but apparently that doesn't exist.
So as of today I'm blocking all behavioural advertising and as far as possible, anything that tracks me while I use the web.
You might want to do the same. And if your company is using this kind of tactic to reach people, you might consider not doing it because it irritates your existing customers!
Here are some handy ways to get rid of these irritating behavioural ads that seem to follow you around the internet and just won't go away.
Advertisers use a unique token that they give to you the first time they 'see' you by serving up an ad to your browser, called a cookie. Any subsequent view of one of their ads means they can connect your profile to where you've been previously based on that token stored in the cookie.
Depending on your browser, you should go to your "settings" and remove cookies once in a while. Removing all cookies will also remove them from legitimate sites where you do actually want them, so it'll mean that you may have to log in to various sites again as a result.
An alternative to deleting all of your cookies is to go through each one in turn and remove any you don't know about. Or even better use a free utility that will do the job for you.
This is sneaky - your Flash plug-in that is used to show you some ads (and to do nothing but identify you sometimes) also has its own set of cookies that some browsers don't know about when you clear out the other cookies. New Chrome and Internet Explorer users don't need to worry about this. But if you're on an older browser you should use a utility such as Flush
Unless you want to do a regular manual clean-up of your cookies every once in a while, chances are you'll find that having a small utility installed that takes care of the job for you quite handy. Cookie Stumbler will clean all of these cookies up and run every once in a while in the background.
You'll also note that Cookie Stumbler will do a lot more than cleaning your cookies out yourself manually. It turns out that there are all sorts of sneaky, nasty methods being used to uniquely identify individuals - not least including certain colours embedded in images that are then cached by the browser and reported back to the advertiser. So even if you clear the cookies, a subsequent view of one of their images via an ad could result in the cookie being reset - back to square one, even though you removed it!
Cookie Stumbler handles this and a handful of other nasty, sneaky tricks so you don't have to. However, unlike the other things listed here, this is commercial software of the order of $18 per year for a subscription.
The ad industry has apparently set up a scheme whereby your browser can opt out of tracking by saying "no thanks to tracking" on your behalf and storing a "don't track me" cookie. The ad network (should they be reputable) will honour this and not track your behaviour.
Or something like that. TACO is a free browser extension that does this for you and reports back to you, as you browse, which ad networks you have opted out of, and a bunch of other useful "no thanks, it's my data" things too.
On top of TACO you can also get a report on anything that tracks you on any page, as you browse, and optionally block all or certain things from even running on the page. So if a site is using Google Analytics, or Facebook, or any of the many ad networks you can selectively allow and disallow these things from 'calling home'. I'd call this a "whitelist" - you can turn on what you want to run, and default everything else to 'off'.
If you're really fed up with the ads (I'm a pragmatist, so I'm not going this far) you can install AdBlock which effectively removes advertising from the pages that you see as you browse. In my experience it seems to slow things down and cause problems with video players, but you may have more luck.
With a combination of all of the above you should be able to get rid of a lot of these irritating ads and also keep tabs on who is tracking your behaviour and taking some control over what is stored about you online.
I've just been to the "Birmingham Creative City" launch and I thought I'd put a few thoughts down in response. I'll start at the beginning...
I lived in Birmingham for over ten years and over that time became pretty well networked as a kind of go-between for the types of people who had been influential in the city - lawyers, bankers, accountants; and the new 'creative' types who were doing interesting things - designers, music people, arts organisation folk and so on.
I guess you could say that I quite heavily bought into the idea of the Creative Class and the importance of nurturing creativity in cities. At the time I was working on my first startup there was a lot of talk about the value of the 'creative industries' - a new term that had been coined, I think by government.
"The Creative Industries": The result of a 'god of the gaps' approach to economics that collected thirteen rag-tag 'industries' (and that's a loaded term itself) into one big 'there be magic here' term: "Look. Stuff to do with creating or exploiting intellectual property is going to be really important". It was the hot new thing, and lots of people started pushing this agenda. I was a young, impressionable designer who'd had a modicum of success with a couple of small projects and won a couple of awards (this does bad stuff to you, but that's another story).
Quite quickly I found myself in an odd position. On one hand I seemed to be able to talk to those 'suits' of Birmingham in a language they could understand, and I also kind of understood what these 'creatives' (ugh. There it is - I'm almost allergic to the word now) were about.
For many years you'd find me at random meetings and events with either side, talking about the economic arguments for creativity and culture, about what we could do for the fair city of Birmingham, if only XYZ were to happen. I sat on boards, I helped set up things that fit into the grand agenda of, umm, getting 'creativity' onto the agenda. There were a handful of us at any one time doing this. The faces changed, the exact same group of people would never be found at the same events but I realised that I'd found a group of 'usual suspects'. Sometimes we formalised our ideas, sometimes we didn't, everyone worked on their own stuff and did it for free. Or at least I did. I'd work on this agenda during working hours and then catch up at weekends and at night. It was a project.
I did it mainly because I really cared about it. I had this idea that through creativity, culture, art, architecture, education, inspiration and just _being smart_ about what the future is going to be about that we could collectively make Birmingham into a better place. I mean - we've all looked around. There's poverty, unfairness, lack of opportunity, untapped talent, total geniuses keeping their light under a bushel... I guess my idea boiled down to - "Maybe if we can get the suits to understand what we could do with Birmingham using creativity as a theme we could do something beautiful for this place".
There was a bunch of us up to this, for a variety of personal and business reasons. Some wanted a bigger arts scene so they'd get more visitors to their venues, some wanted more TV programmes to be made so their production companies could get more work, some wanted a 'critical mass' of talent so we could have a sustainable freelance talent pool, some people wanted inward investment so they could shift more property, some wanted a better nightlife so they could enjoy the place more - tons of reasons. I don't think I found anyone who would disagree with 'It would be great if Birmingham did more to support creativity'.
Along the way this idea seemed to get a little bit of traction. Not very visibly, but if you were at the right meetings you'd start seeing this stuff being dropped in here and there. If there's one thing I learnt in this process it's that when things change there's absolutely no way of attributing these subtle interventions back to any one person's actions. There were a bunch of us doing this over time - I won't name names. You'll probably know one or two. And I don't in any way know everyone who was doing this.
I had a notion of "the powers that be" in some way perhaps making a few decisions in a subtly different way than they would have and not really caring if it was exactly what we'd have wanted, just as long as it were in the right general direction.
Some years in, I distinctly remember meeting Martin Mullaney, my local councillor when he'd just been given the responsibility for culture/creative in the council. And I really tried hard to stifle a grin when he started pitching back at me almost an identical list of the arguments we'd been putting forward for several years. He had no idea who I was, obviously, why would he? But at that point I realised - job done. Influence applied. I don't know who'd been briefing him, but our collective message of 'wouldn't it be great if...' seemed to have pervaded.
At that time I'd put various things on pause while I was on the Clore programme (it looks weird online, but it's great. Yes it was tax-payer's money. It was well spent - read on) and I realised that over this time I had become increasingly tired and jaded by the various attempts to actually do things around this idea, really dodgy festivals, publicly funded events that were plain embarassing, funding decisions that seemed mental, fed up about things that I cared about closing or mysteriously burning down, getting really shit advice from the various unqualified expert advisers I was introduced to, loads of talented folk reaching a certain level and then leaving, people just about managing to get cool stuff off the ground but being hampered rather than helped, weird planning decisions, scheme after scheme aimed at this 'sector' as if a theatre and a software company have things in common. Of course there was all of the good stuff, but these things got pretty tiring and I realised that I just wanted to go and do a proper startup and stop messing around.
So I killed my darlings and went and did just that. There's probably another post just here about stopping undirected activity and just doing one thing well. I'll write that one day.
For all the talk of somehow making Birmingham more creative in some way, there's an inherent lie that we'd sold ourselves. We'd sold the future to ourselves rather than the reality of the present. And I'd started believing the hype. So when it came to attempting to get a startup idea of the ground it was just a lot harder to find investment than everyone had been saying it was. That's debillitating - having a bunch of ideas and just not being able to take any of them anywhere isn't good for your sanity. Far better to plug away at something that does work on some small level than to reach for something impossible if there's just no funding around, right? But that's not me. So I made myself open to the idea of leaving the city to do my next startup. Which is what happened. Surprisingly suddenly I met up with David, co-founded Aframe and left for London with some actual cold hard cash behind it from private investors who knew a good business idea when they saw one.
I've not been back. I've kept my flat and I still pay council tax in Brum, so I can still claim citizenship. But I've not stepped back into this scene anyway - I put it behind me, got my head down and I've been working hard on 'doing one thing'. Forget the politics, or talking about doing something, forget the whining about public money, I took everything I'd learnt on Clore and applied it to getting Aframe off the ground. You can read more about how we're doing elsewhere - in essence, we have some investment, we have a great team, we have a fantastic product and it's bloody hard work.
I thought I'd be back more often, but I just didn't need to go. I'd said all that needed to be said. I started organising a 'post leaving leaving do' but never got around to it because I was coding solidly. It was exhilerating and liberating. It still is in fact, although we now have scaling challenges rather than 'prove the idea works' challenges (cue jibes from my team-mates).
But at the back of my mind I've been continuing to think about these things. Did I just abandon "project Birmingham"? Was all that work a waste of time? All those crap networking events and attending dull events about tax accounting just to spread the idea a little? I hoped not, but I'd just packed all that up with all the possessions in the move.
So, to bring this up to date, I was surprised last week to get an invitation to the launch of Birmingham Creative City - I guessed I must still be on some list somewhere. And after some thought I took a few hours out of my 'staycation' to pop up to Birmingham to see what it was, and perhaps be on hand with an occasional comment, idea or question.
I now feel beaten up and generally depressed. Where do I begin? I mentioned the Martin Mullaney instance earlier for a reason. It was fascinating being in a room with a bunch of folk effectively giving a more involved version of that conversation. Here we were, a bunch of folk who've been trying to get the creative/cultural idea written into the strategy for the city (region? city-region?) for a good few years. And here they were, a government minister, various powerful local folks, the head of the new big "power that be", someone from the Arts Council deciding not to give us in the audience the same arguments we've been giving for years because the "argument has been made".
We win. Apparently.
We've got what we wanted - the 'suits' have taken on what we've all been saying and are serious. A bit too serious. And that's the problem. Gone was our creativity, our soul, our delivery, our ownership of this concept. In its place we have powerpoint. We have people giving speeches in which they "welcome the Minister's comments".
I guess we got what we always wanted here, and there's no use being upset at the lack of style or inspiration in the delivery. Or rather - that was one of my first thoughts.
In actual fact my other was "Fuck you". To give that context, go and have a read of what Pete Ashton said. It's a good rant.
When I say "fuck you", what I'm getting at is that a lot of the interesting stuff in Birmingham tends to happen in spite of those with a remit to support it. A Birmingham "fuck you" in this context is more like "Fuck you - I'm doing it anyway". I call it in-spite-of-ness and the city has it in bucketloads. It's had to. The minister for culture being flown in to help launch the idea of a creative city as if its a new thing should expect such a reaction. As should all of the team behind their powerpoint launch.
Powerpoint. Seriously. You're going to launch a grand vision about making this city a creative powerhouse (or whatever term you want to use) with a powerpoint presentation and a dry delivery of some stats to a room full of suits (was I the only one there in a pair of trainers? It certainly felt like it).
No. You should be doing something utterly unforgettable, something that gets people talking, something probably based around an idea that may or may not be possible but that nevertheless inspires a "Wow - seriously, are you nuts? Okay, well if you think that's possible, I'm in" reaction. Instead I have left this event with absolutely no idea what the idea is. Something to do with economics or something, maybe it's about getting some of these university leavers who've been promised media jobs at the end of their course some employment in the area that they dreamed of working. I don't know.
The "potential idea" for a modern art gallery (we've all been talking about this for years) has now moved onto a "sketch" for a modern art gallery, with an address. This is flipping great and I can't wait to see it happen. The photography archive looks like it has a sketched home at Curzon Street which is also great news (we've also been talking about this for years, right?). There's a bunch of cash set aside for philanthropy, but on the rough evidence so far, many of the major donations that have happened in the West Midlands have been to the RSC so you can't really generalise.
I'm still confused about the stats too. Is this about cultural organisations that need donations/public money to operate, or is it about software companies and architects who need access to finance. If it's about jobs, shouldn't it be about education? What about scrapping rubbish ICT lessons (learn Powerpoint!) and teaching coding instead?
The thing is, the people all seemed very capable. And it _is_ what we always wanted - a recognition by "the powers that be" that creativity needs to be supported in Birmingham, that it's going to be an important factor in its future success. It's just such a shame that, as with so many things in Birmingham, it's apparently impossible for one person to say "this is my idea and I'm going to own it". A good idea needs an owner not a committee, and that person should be able to express the magnitude of their idea so that others buy into it. Whilst the people speaking all seemed to be in some way 'partners', there's nobody emotionally attached to this concept, and I'm afraid that it's going to be a damp squib. And I'm tired of that.
What's good about my living in London now is that I really don't have to care about this stuff any more. And yet I just do. It's quite freeing not being part of the scene anymore - I can look in from the outside to a degree. Birmingham is a great city but I fear, as others have pointed out, that the Birmingham 'project' is at an end. We should either find a way to do do this 'Creative City' amazingly with passion and surprise, or step away from the grand plans and just focus on the things that we do as creative people on an individual level. I suspect that the latter will be the reaction. Perhaps in these fragmented, atomized times, the city's continuing attachment to the notion of 'Big Projects Are Best' needs to be scrapped. Certainly my advice to people following my experience is "Don't believe your own hype. Just focus on doing good work." and perhaps I'd extend it to this project. Whatever it is.
There's always a point in a launch where you want to ask a question but realise it's probably plain rude. Here's mine: "Given your various statistics and assumptions about how creativity is a Good Thing for Birmingham, why have you come to the conclusion that this is the correct response?" But I didn't ask it. Mainly because there was a danger that I might inadvertently say "Oh, and fuck you" to a government minister.
Perhaps this was just a step along the way. Perhaps "a leader shall emerge". Perhaps we just need these things written into some strategy document somewhere so that everyone can point to it when they need a decision to be made. Perhaps I'm being unfair and I've misunderstood the project. And perhaps it doesn't really matter what I think because I've already voted with my feet, so to speak.
In the end, I suspect in-spite-of-ness will continue in Birmingham. The artists will struggle and succeed in equal measure, the talented designer/programmer/architect will continue to have a reputation outside the city yet be unknown within, strategy documents will circulate, ministers for creativity and culture will come and go, and the city's powerful creative heart won't even skip a beat.
Sad news - the unofficial @towerbridge account has been shut down and replaced with an official one.
Apparently a request for ownership of the account was made by someone (see below for who that might be) representing the museum exhibition space based at the bridge (Tower Bridge Exhibition) and the existing account, along with all of its tweets has now gone.
I won't go into the legal or moral issues - plenty of people are talking about that already - I want to bring a cultural angle to the debate.
What was @towerbridge?
It was a cute mashup between the publicly published schedule for the bridge and a bot that turned that data into tweets created by Tom Armitage. You could see when vessels passed under the bridge and when the bridge opened and closed, amongst other things (spoof conversations with other bridges for instance). A few lines of ruby code and some simple automation and you have a "Spime" - a word coined by science fiction author Bruce Sterling. It was a bridge that talked to you, and for me was the main example I would use when explaining the concept to someone new to it.
Here's an early screengrab of some of its tweets:
The internet of things
So Tower Bridge inadvertently became a tweeting object at a time when lots of people were becoming interested in Sterling's ideas about an 'internet of things' - a future filled with objects that report on their status in some way, where objects could be findable by their locations, data that could be generated and used in interesting ways by simple physical interactions. Wired runs a great series of observations about this area in Spime Watch.
History doesn't stop
Tower Bridge Exhibition self-describes with "A visit to Tower Bridge Exhibition clearly explains how the Bridge works and describes its fascinating history."
Personally, I'd say that a bridge being cited at conferences about the future of how people and technology interact with objects around us, and that people over a period of a few years had unexpected and interesting conversations with and about the bridge, counts as 'fascinating history' and explaining day-to-day how the bridge works.
It seems so short-sighted that a museum has deleted all of this - all of the URLs pointing at this account are now broken. A genuinely interesting part of the bridge's, and the internet's history is now gone, whereas the opposite should have happened - this account should have been included in the museum's activity. People enjoyed the account, it proved an interesting and funny way of humanising the day-to-day operations of the structure in a way that hadn't been done before.
Because history doesn't stop, we want our museums to be 'backing up' what's happening around us, and that includes what's going on online. The modern world is dominated by mobile phones, the web, devices everywhere, and when we look back in future years unless we've kept some of that stuff we are going to have a great big hole labelled 2011 "really interesting stuff happened around that time but nobody had the foresight to keep any of it."
Curators vs Marketers
But herein lies the problem. I doubt the curator (if there is one) or anyone interested in history-in-the-making had anything to do with this. This was a marketing job. Here's a grab of what @brandcarrie (Carolyn Hall, Marketing and Events Executive at Tower Bridge) was up to recently (including ironic 'out of touch' tweet):
Another one of those examples of how not to do "social media". If I thought it would do any good I'd say to them "give the account back", but that doesn't really matter because the content is gone, the URLs would all still be dead, and a little piece of the bridge's history was lost forever because of sad, ignorant, offhand destruction.