CategoryOpen Access

Google snaps up another open web advocate

I’ve been following the work of Chris Messina (also known by his handle, factoryjoe) for a couple years now. I can’t remember how I found him (maybe it was BarCamp, OpenID, of the Firefox ad), but I know why I follow him. Like me, he wants to keep the web open and data transferrable or transportable.

While browsing the New York Times Technology section Monday morning (my favorite tech news site, hands down), I saw the headline that he now works for Google (Monday was the first day). This kind of shocked me. I feel Google gets a little scarier every week: some of my friends have admitted that a lot of their online life exists on Google servers and feel queasy about what could happen (some call this “the cloud” and have pointed out the devastating possibilities for privacy and business).

Open web advocate, Chris Messina, presents at the Open Source Bridge conference in Portland, Oregon, in June 2009. Photo by Aaron Hockley.

The author pointed out Messina’s history in open web advocacy (he hijacked his high school’s website because of its refusal to allow an ad for a new gay/straight alliance). The article offers some speculative reasons why Messina made the move, but I want to discuss the inclusion of a quote from Eran Hammer-Lahav, who works for Yahoo!.

With Messina, Smarr, [inventor of OpenID and more Brad] Fitzpatrick and others all working for Google, focusing on the Social Web, there is less and less incentive for Google to reach out. Google has a strong coding culture which puts running code ahead of consensus and collaboration. Now with so many bright minds in house, they are even less likely to reach out. Quote continues…

In other words, with all of the open web advocates being Open Web Advocates (Messina’s new title), who will advocate for web users now? There’s me, for sure. And there are folks standing behind Open Government and Government 2.0. People like Barack Obama (he issued the Transparency and Open Government memo), Adriel Hampton (host of Gov 2.0 Radio podcast), Mark Abraham (urbandata on Twitter), and anyone in the government “black box” who’s willing to set government data free.

In addition, new websites are up and running that remix and mash up government data into useful applications that can promote, through the web, a different level of ownership of one’s community. Or websites that provide useful and relevant information for residents. Websites like SeeClickFix (identify problems in your neighborhood to get city politicians and staff to take notice), or the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Housing and Transportation Affordability Index.

And don’t forget that the Chicago Bicycle Parking Program liberated its bike parking data into Excel, KML, and GIS-compatible formats in 2009.

Screenshot of the Advanced Search page in the Chicago Bike Parking Public Interface web application from which you can download bike rack installation data.

Urban data page updated

Like any good website owner and author, I track statistics (or analytics as people like to call them now). The most important information the reports tell me is how people found my site: either through keyword searches, or links from related webpages.

Recently, a visitor came across my site because of a search for “amtrak routes gis.” I suspect they were looking for shapefiles they could load into Geographic Information System software containing Amtrak routes and stations. My blog showed up on the second results page in Google and they came to my post, “Why Amtrak’s not on time,” about the factors that influence the passenger rail company’s timeliness. The page doesn’t have what the visitor wants.

I decided to update my page, “Find urban data,” to aid future visitors. Also, if one person is looking for this information, it’s likely that others want it, too. I found the information, “amtrak routes gis,” in two places and in two formats.

First, the United States Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics publishes national data in the “National Transportation Atlas.” You can find a shapefile with Amtrak stations. For Amtrak routes you must download the railway network shapefiles and then filter the information for the attributes that describe Amtrak.

The second source is an interactive KML file (more about KML) that you can load into Google Earth, view in Google Maps, or manipulate in another KML-compatible application.

Bike parking news for Chicago and NYC

First, let’s talk about Chicago’s bike parking news.

The Chicago Bicycle Parking Program, in August 2008, launched a web application that “does three things” (straight from the website) for Chicago residents: allows them to request a new bike rack; allows them to track their request; allows them to find existing and requested bike parking locations.* We call it the “Public Interface” in the office.

In the past three weeks, our “bike parking locator” was featured on:

  • Chicago Reader
  • Cyclelicious
  • GapersBlock (via Chicago Reader)
  • RedEye – “How much bike parking is in your ‘hood?” – This piece excited me the most. It was printed and distributed to thousands of Chicagoans on Friday, December 11, 2009! The article included a map based on the data that anyone can download from the Public Interface’s advanced search page.

Scan of article printed in the 12/11/09 publication of the RedEye, a Chicago Tribune tabloid-style newspaper.

Screenshot of the Advanced Search page in the Bike Parking Public Interface web application.

Now let’s move on to the news in New York City. The Bicycle Access to Office Buildings Law went into effect on December 11, 2009. Briefly, the law says buildings with at least one freight elevator and without listed exceptions must create a “bicycle access plan” for residents/tenants upon request. For interested tenants of building owners and managers, the NYC Department of Transportation’s “Bikes in Buildings” website is the first stop. It describes the process and offers tenants and building owners and managers an automatic request generator or plan builder. This also helps the NYC DOT track requests and deal with exception requests. In the spirit of President Obama’s desire for government openness and the Office of Management and Budget’s recently released “Open Government Direction,” I hope NYC DOT publishes the information it holds.

Streetsblog has posted a roundup of its previous articles leading up to the bill’s passing in July 2009.

*Disclaimer: I coded the web application. My boss was also involved, mainly in directing how it should function and what it should say (he’s way better at copywriting than I am). I also got help from someone who’s blind to test the accessibility of the website.

Google Maps, the dynamic GIS system

Earlier this year, Google Maps added a feature to the common maps interface that allows users to identify problems* with map data or presentation. Click on the “Report A Problem” link in the lower right corner of the current map view. Then drag the marker on top of the error, categorize it, then write a description of the problem.

I reported several problems soon after the feature was released. I checked up on the results of one problem I reported. The situation was the lakefront multi-use path along Lake Michigan in Chicago, Illinois. The screenshots below show the map before I reported the problem and the repaired map.

With this addition, Google Maps seems to be encroaching on the territory of Open Street Map (OSM) that uses ONLY public domain (not the same as free) and user-contributed data. But the data users contribute to Google Maps (in the form of reporting problems on the map) become the property of Google and its data providers.

From the OSM Wiki, “The copyright of the whole data set is scattered among all contributors. Some contributors release their contributions to the public domain.” Readers interested in learning more about maps in the public domain should read this Guardian article about the UK’s Ordnance Survey heavy grip on its data.

Disclaimer: I felt prompted to write this post because James Fee on his blog often (1st) writes (2nd) about the (low) quality of the data Google puts in its Maps.

*Users have long been able to report problems, but never in such an easy way or one that tracks reports and notifies the user when Google fixes the error.

The importance of sharing data in KML format

The KML file is an important format in which to share locational data. KML was developed by a company called Keyhole, which Google purchased in 2004, and subsequently released Keyhole’s flagship product: Earth.

A Keyhole Markup Language file is a way to display on a map (particularly a 3D globe of Earth) a collection of points with a defined style. Google has added more functionality and style to the KML format, expanding the styles that can be applied and the information that can be embedded.

KML, like XML (eXtensible Markup Language), is extremely web-friendly. For a web application at work I developed, I included this PHP class that creates an KML file on-demand based on a predefined database query. The file contains locations and attributes of recently installed bike racks in Chicago. EveryBlock imports the file and its information into their location-based service, aggregating many news types around your block.

But a KML file is more important than being the native file for use within Google Earth. It’s an open source text file that can be manipulated by a number of software programs on any computer system on earth (or read on a printed page). It’s not encoded, like shapefiles, so I can read the file with my own mind and understand the data it would present in a compatible map viewer. I see lines of organized syntax describing points and polygons, listing their attributes in plain language.

Have you ever tried to see the “inside” of a shapefile? Only GIS programs can read them for you. KML provides data producers and consumers the opportunities to keep data open, available, and easy to use. We need locational data for our work, and we need tools to help us use it, not hide it.

Midtown Greenway at Chicago Avenue in MPLS

Open space advocates and planners should investigate the development, design, and construction of the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Greenway opened up acres of green space to residents, and created new spaces, like this ramp to the multi-use trail between Chicago and 11th Avenues.

Sorry, I won’t do the research for you, because the bicycling facilities component of the multi-use trail and corridor interest me more. Start here: http://www.midtowngreenway.org/

I will continue sharing photos of my trip to “trail city.”

Obama’s promise for open government

I’m excited about Obama’s memorandum he wrote in his first week of office, on January 21st, 2009. In it, he calls for federal agencies to stop looking for legal ways to say no to requests for data, or in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.

He will help usher in a new American government, where “[a]ll agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure.” 

And the agencies shouldn’t be so passive about the distribution of their data. President Barack Obama continues with:

“…agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public. They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government. Disclosure should be timely.”

The United States Government is probably the world’s largest collector and holder of data. It probably stores more data and information than the internet (minus what the government publishes there). I hope I can expect an onslaught of data, but it must be accessible in multiple formats and in ways we can use. Saving spreadsheets is NOT distributing data. That’s protecting it and trying to make it harder to manipulate. It means providing raw access to tables and databases, providing APIs for custom queries, and XML feeds for simple and broad presentation.

Perhaps we’ll need a White House Office of Data to coordinate with agencies about the formats and presentation and distribution methods they choose or will choose.

I’m glad Obama’s transition team took the advice from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) on this one – they fight for, among many things, the rights of the internet and information and how access to both should be equalized and open. Read the EFF’s news article about this about-face from George Bush’s archaic information policies.

To Obama: When you create that office, please consult the geniuses at EveryBlock for the Office’s “Public Consumption” division. They know how to package data for quick and informative understanding.

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