Combining two passions of mine, data and surfing, I produced this chart to see things in perspective. Can you sense an element of frustration here
Click on image for full size, also available on my Flickr page here (under Creative Commons license).
Combining two passions of mine, data and surfing, I produced this chart to see things in perspective. Can you sense an element of frustration here
Click on image for full size, also available on my Flickr page here (under Creative Commons license).
Following on from my last (slightly off-topic) post about bookshops, I felt inspired to explore my oak bookshelf to find the books which, to me, have managed to convey a true and magical sense of place. Resisting the temptation of selecting publications from the technical worlds of mapping or geography, I went in search of books I have read and loved because of how they made me feel. A place is not just defined by its position in 2D or 3D space, but also by the time, feelings and senses. This also makes it impossible for anyone to ever to (re)visit the same place – except maybe in a book.
I hope you enjoy the list, and please do let me know if you can recommend any more!
1. 30 Days in Sydney – A wildly distorted account, by Peter Carey
As a student I spent two years in this magical city. Using a masterful blend of autobiography, fact and fiction, Peter Carey truly manages to capture the Australian spirit of Sydney, from its maritime heritage to its lush outback. Simply amazing, especially if you have visited or lived there.
2. A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, by Andrew Chaikin
Published in 1994, the 25th anniversary of the first moon landing, this is the most complete and authoritative account of the Apollo Astronauts’ experiences. As I read it I had to keep pinching myself along the way – all of this really happened. I don’t think you’ll find a better read to get a sense of what it’s like to go to the moon, and then walk on it.
3. Quiet for a Tuesday: Solo in the Algerian Sahara, by Tom Stoppard
Similarly to the moon landings this is a beautiful account, accompanied by stunning images, that conveys a great sense of the desert’s space, light, and peacefulness. This time I didn’t have to pinch myself because I have been lucky enough to experience the Sahara myself during my days in oil exploration. This book transported me right back there.
4. Uncommon Places: The Complete Works, by Stephen Shore (Photographer)
This photo essay is just unbelievable. Reprinted in glorious high-definition, it captures Stephen Shore’s large format images of American scapes in the 1970s and 1980s. The quality of the pictures is so sharp you’d think they were taken yesterday. They not only preserve a particular era, the images also transform boring places such as car parks into fascinating spaces you never knew you wanted to explore.
5. The Life and Times of the Thunderbold Kid, by Bill Bryson
I was born neither in America nor in the 1950s, but this book captures Bill Bryson’s childhood so well that it brought back long lost memories of my own childhood which took place 20 years later, thousands of miles away. Similarly to Uncommon Places, this book manages to capture a place and time in an absorbing yet utterly different way. And because it’s written by Bill Bryson, it also makes you laugh!
6. On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan
Having read this novel a couple of years ago I can’t remember much about it except for one inconspicuous scene where one of the main characters goes on a bike ride along a country lane. McEwan’s masterful description of this ordinary setting took me down memory lanes that may or may not have existed in my life – immersed in green hills, fragrant fields, and hopeful youth. This is the stuff that powerful writing is made of, and it is impossible to do it justice here (certainly not with my writing!).
7. Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will, by Judith Schalansky
A beautiful and original work of art. This is indeed an atlas (it includes maps) but not as you know it. Schalansky, inspired by the Cold War’s travel restrictions in her native East Germany, compiled this world atlas of far-away islands so that the imagination is free to roam. Each of these islands is steeped in history but, even today, logistically very difficult to reach. The atlas deliberately blurs the lines between fact and fiction, taking you on a journey where it is unclear where history ends and the author’s dreams and imagination begin. A pure delight.
8. The Wave: In Pursuit of the Ocean’s Greatest Furies, by Susan Casey
This book masterfully intertwines a good story with oceanography, shipping, sailing and big-wave surfing. This is a book that conveys a true sense of the ocean like nothing else I’ve read (e.g. Moby-Duck – no typo here – doesn’t come close). I never thought a book about waves could be such a page-turner. And even though it is entirely non-fiction, the climax at the end is incredible. Spoiler alert: this is what a big wave feels like.
9. The Wild Places, by Robert Macfarlane
Macfarlane is probably Britain’s best wilderness writer, and this book doesn’t disappoint. I’ve already read it twice and will probably read it twice more. Even if you’re not interested in Britain’s wild places in particular, this masterpiece will transport you to peaceful and beautiful spaces whenever you need to. I particularly loved Macfarlane’s account of his overnight mountain bivvy on Red Pike in the Lake District where, under the stars, he suddenly found a snow-capped winter wonderland all to himself.
10. Eternity: Our Next Billion Years, by Michael Hanlon
This book takes place and time to the next level. Until I read it I had never fully appreciated the true timescale of human endeavour compared to the evolution of the universe. Being of a geo-background I take a natural interest in all of the global issues of the day, from climate change to technology to geopolitics, and the challenges at hand can sometimes seem overwhelming. This book really puts the ‘here and now’ into perspective. This sense was also reconfirmed when I later read Tim Flannery’s epic book, Here on Earth, which highlights the widely underestimated ability of nature and humans to adapt to change.
Oh, and one more thing…
11. Monocle magazine, edited by Tyler Brûlé
Indeed. Just let me explain. True, Monocle is somewhat pretentious – what with the fashion, the adverts for expensive briefcases and Rolexes, or some of the pompous commentary on culture, design and global affairs. Unfortunately it seems to be targeted at globetrotting yuppie hipsters and (wannabe) wealthy elites. But once you get over that, you will find an eclectic mix that truly celebrates places and their people. It champions small-scale entrepreneurism and intelligent city design. It celebrates creativity, passion, design and artisanship, from corner shops to handmade bicycles to Ordnance Survey’s cartography. In a nutshell, this is a monthly publication that might inspire you to believe that the world is fundamentally a good place, and it provides ideas for making it an even better one.
Happy Jubilee Holidays.
This week, much-loved British bookseller Waterstones announced a surprising tie-up with its arch-enemy, Amazon, to sell Kindles and ebooks within its physical high street stores. Whether this is a stroke of genius or a unilateral suicide pact remains to be seen. Either way, Waterstones is probably right to embrace the digital age – whether it survives all depends on how it does it.
I love a good bookshop and so I’m keen for physical stores to survive. But I’m only a humble book reader, not an expert media commentator. So here’s from a user point of view, and slightly biased by my professional (data) background, what my ideal bookshop would look like:
1. Don’t turn it into a Starbucks or Costa. Their business model is based on charging £3 for a 50p cup of coffee. What you actually pay for is the rental of an armchair. So just cut out the middleman and provide comfy reading chairs yourself. And anybody who buys a book gets a free coffee thrown in.
2. A bookshop should be an oasis of calm in the urban jungle. The mind needs space and time to browse. If you provide quiet & attractive areas where people can enjoy their purchases (make them buy before they read, so they can enjoy their free coffee!) they will associate the shop with pleasure and come back again and again.
3. I don’t like current e-readers for two reasons: they don’t provide the satisfying tactile/sensual experience a physical book does, and their plastic covers look cheap and disposable. Why on earth would anyone want to make their book look disposable? Literature is not junk food. So cut the rubbish out and provide decent screens – iMacs or whatever – for people to browse. And if that is not compatible with a Kindle, it merely highlights the third issue I have with ebooks: compatibility. I don’t have to buy new furniture every time I get a book in print. So provide unified terminals for people to browse & buy any format they like – including print. And maybe a small onsite printing machine could churn out personalised, special editions – that would be cool. And to please the more digitally inclined, make sure to have a decent supply of power sockets and Wifi, so they can recharge not just themselves but also their devices.
4. Speaking of embracing digital, bookshops should be fountains of knowledge and entertainment, not just a shop. They could do well borrowing a few concepts from university libraries. Terminals should encourage you to explore, learn, have fun, and – oh – download (ie buy) content. And maybe the pièce de résistance could be a Wolfram Alpha type machine that let’s you type in any question and it gives you the answer, fed by open data, Wikipedia, open source as well as proprietary intelligence from around the web. This way you will also attract classes of school children on educational outings, and raise the next generation of book, sorry knowledge, buyers.
5. Another news item this week was that sales of fountain pens are on the rise again. Incidentally I bought myself one only 3 weeks ago, confirming the trend. The reason is that people increasingly value the personal touch in the digital age. So a good bookshop should also sell good stationary, pens and pencils, and provide spaces that inspire people to use them straight away. Doodle, draw, write a postcard (what a novelty!) – some things are simply more satisfying on paper.
The digital age has given us access to all the world’s information, on small devices originally designed to be held against one ear. That does however not mean we also have to consume and create all information on these devices. (Although I confess this blog post was written on a train using my iPhone.)
Bookshops have the unique opportunity to become focal points that bring together the analog and digital worlds in meaningful and satisfying ways. I hope they don’t waste it.
Things go in and out of fashion all the time, and so it is with technology. If like me you are a data professional you will be familiar with today’s hot potatoes: open source, open data, big data, cloud, and so on.
Today, as I visited one of my employer’s more recent acquisitions (a small business specialising in high-end data analytics) I was reminded of the fact that each technology has its place. Being small, this business can easily mix & match the best tool and approach for every job at hand.
You might automatically assume that they went for the latest tech in everything. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth: their client industry still uses ASCII files as their ‘standard’ for data exchange, and so they have to cater for this outdated practice. And yet, they run a highly sophisticated operation. Technically it is built on a hybrid stack of proprietary, open source, and homegrown technology: SQL Server for the core database, PostGIS for the spatial bits, homegrown code for the clever analytics.
But the real sophistication lies not in the technology but in how they run their business (and how they spend their time). These guys are domain experts, highly focused on their customers. They are passionate about what they do, but they also keep a low profile. There is no time to go round tech events evangelising their favourite piece of technology. They routinely beat the competition through hard work, a shrewd eye for opportunities, and quiet persuasion rather than public chest-beating. Besides, if they went to speak at conferences they would only be handing their hard-earned advantage to competitors. The only events they might attend are purely focused on their clients.
Now contrast this with some of the tech communities. By the very nature of technology these communities are focused more around the HOW rather than the WHAT or WHY. This is fine and provides useful inspiration for like-minded individuals, as well as social fun. However, people are tribal by nature, and so these communities invariably end up with leaders and followers. Unless members of a community make a conscious effort to keep an open mind, they can easily fall prey to ‘group think’ where nobody asks tough questions anymore, and any deviation from the gospel is seen as heresy. I have witnessed this particularly in the open data or open source communities, and the same is true of some proprietary vendors. The end result can be reminiscent of a cult. And cults breed spiritual leaders: evangelists.
I’m highly suspicious of evangelists. As most people know, there is never a single solution to a particular problem. Sure, you need a tech strategy but you also pragmatism. A crusade for its own sake achieves very little.
So stop listening to the evangelists, keep an open mind, keep asking the tough questions, and seek out real people who run real businesses. They may be harder to find but when you do, it will be worthwhile.
On my way to Germany I stopped by at the Geospatial World Forum 2012 which is being held in Amsterdam this week. It was certainly a very enjoyable day: many of the usual suspects were there, and it was great catching up with old friends and colleagues.
The guest keynote was an inspiring highlight. Former Dutch astronaut Wubbo Ockels spoke of his shock when, blasting into orbit, he realised that space – the frontier he’d been dreaming about all his life – was just a dark and scary void. It made him appreciate that it is not space but Earth which is special: a beautiful spaceship delicately wrapped in a wafer-thin blanket of air. Ever since his epiphany Ockels has dedicated his life to developing renewable energy and transport technologies. He also spoke of the need to energise young people. Except – there weren’t any young people in the audience. At 41, I was one of the youngest there.
Next up was a panel with the usual geo-industry luminaries. The first talk quickly descended into a vendor sales pitch and so I made my exit, heading for the trade exhibition. But the floor circuit took no more than 5 minutes to complete: GIS, CAD, GPS, a few theodolites. Why would I want to buy any of this? But hey, I was able to grab a few pens to replenish my shrinking stock at home.
In the afternoon I dropped in and out of various themed sessions. Good idea to break the conference down into streams: it’s much better to talk about specific topics rather than just high-level benefits. So I dropped in on Energy, Mobile, and Open Source. And contrary to what you might expect from a traditional geo-conference dominated by old men, the open source session was totally packed. People were standing at the back of the room. Respect.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is that I didn’t learn anything. The problem is that I don’t learn anything anymore when I attend a “traditional” geospatial industry event. There’s simply no information that you haven’t already learned elsewhere (usually online). Presentations are quite short, so speakers can only scratch the surface of what they want to share. Booths are manned by sales people who can’t answer detailed questions or run technical workshops. My office department, staffed by about 30 data professionals, has now reached a 50/50 gender balance but these industry events are run by old men, for old men, trying to catch up on what’s happening on the geo-technology front. What’s the bloody point?
Over the course of my career I’ve been to most types of geospatial events around the world, and I’m tired of them. They drain me rather than energise me. They still talk about the same issues as 15 years ago. They try to sell me stuff I don’t need, and most importantly, they don’t put me in touch with my customers because they’re not there. It’s more like going to a class reunion.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy class reunions. There are people in the geo-community who are very dear to me, and I love sharing a joke or a drink with them. But don’t make me pay over 400 euros for a bad cup of coffee in a windowless conference lobby. I can organise a drink with a contact in a much more pleasant location, for much less. And it will result in a more illuminating conversation than anything that can be discussed on a live stage.
So – having slaughtered a sacred cow – who’s up for a drink? Even if we pop open a €100 bottle of Château Lafite it will result in a 80% saving.
All this matters, of course, because Google is a dominant player in a large market and most of us make use of its services. Nobody – including Google – will agree with the use of illegal practices but beyond that it becomes much less black and white. So how did you react to the recent events?
All of these attitudes are valid to a point, but none is entirely satisfactory. What I’ve been missing in recent weeks is reporting that looks at the bigger picture, and much of that should be looking at what we, as a society, actually expect from the internet now.
A lof of issues of the online market are directly related to common attitudes and practices of national government bodies and regulators. For example, why did the World Bank’s lawyers think it was okay to sign this deal with Google? Were they so naïve that competition concerns didn’t even occur to them, or was it a conscious decision based on hardnosed pragmatism? Are we comfortable with national governments interfering in commercial markets, handing single players (including sometimes their own agencies) a unique competitive advantage? Also see e.g. these pieces on ESRI or Ordnance Survey.
Should regulators not be more concerned about the ever deeper entrenchment of established players? This is not just about Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft or Apple, but also about smaller niche companies who are busy creating pseudo-monopolies in their own sectors. There are solid garden walls emerging everywhere on the web, partly because the established players capitalised on their first mover advantage, and partly because their product is such that it feeds off its own users in a perpetual virtuous circle at the exclusion of others (think e.g. of social networks like Linkedin or proprietary formatted music or data sites that are not interoperable).
The result is that users are suffering from vendor lock-in and that new players are prevented from entering the market. Where’s the interoperability? Where’s the consumer choice and freedom to move your data between suppliers? Try migrating your friends between Twitter, Facebook or Google+, or your cloud data from Amazon to Azure, and you see what I mean.
It is this that we should be worried about, not (just) the behaviour of individual companies. What we need is a considered approach and not cheap headlines. Whatever Google does or doesn’t do is mostly a matter for them, their shareholders and their customers, and good luck to them all. What we need is a level playing field, open to all, and that is not Google’s job alone. This is where political leaders and regulators need to step in.
And they will only do so if we ask the right questions.
Politicians around the world argue about making the tax and welfare system fairer, but the system has grown so complex that even experts no longer understand it, so it cannot be reformed.
A state-of-the-art Air France airliner crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all on board, because the avionics have grown so complex that only a computer can control them, and the junior pilot in charge had no idea how to fly the plane manually.
The iPhone app from the UK Meteorological Office used to be nice and simple, but the latest version has so many data points and buttons and map overlays that it is impossible to tell what the weather is going to be.
Are you going to create something simple today?
You will no doubt have noticed that, throughout the past couple of years, local and national governments all over the world have been announcing open data initiatives. At the moment this is particularly the case in Europe where, from Portugal to Lithuania, hardly a day goes by without a new press release. The most prominent was the recent publishing of the EU Open Data Strategy.
Releasing open government data is – of course – a good idea for all kinds of reasons. I strongly support these initiatives even though I also realise that not all that glitters is gold (for further reading I greatly recommend this analysis by Shane O’Neill).
But one thing always makes me laugh: the billions and zillions of “economic benefit” that the release of open data will allegedly create. Yes we all know – intuitively – that there are benefits, but we also know that these benefits are difficult to quantify. As we seem to live in a society where we no longer believe our own judgment unless it is backed up by numbers, we then feel the need to reverse-engineer the pre-determined result with expert bullsh*t known as a market study or economic research.
Let’s be honest, we can make life easier for everyone. In that spirit, here is my contribution to the Open Data world:
Simple OpenData Benefit Calculator™
The fundamental logic is this. A quick Google search shows that, in the EU (population 500 million), the benefit of open data is apparently between €40 billion or €68 billion, depending on who you ask. That is, roughly €100 per citizen. In the UK (population 60 million), the benefit is said to be £6 billion: roughly £100 per citizen. In the US (population 330 million), the benefit might be $750 billion: about $200 per citizen.
Now, do you see a pattern emerging here? Of course, this would be far too simple. So here is a proper formula to help you justify your next Open Data release. I guarantee it works every time:
The Prime minister’s age is expressed in years, and the shoes are in European size (note however that if you use American or UK size then your benefit will be greatly improved). The overall benefit is expressed in local currency but for added accuracy or randomness you could also introduce a foreign exchange factor.
Let’s take Romania: The population is 22 million and the Prime Minister, Emil Boc, is 45 years old. His shoe size is probably 42 but I’m just guessing here – this is where the true research would come in. So here we have:
In other words, the open data economic return for Romania will be € 2.36 billion. As you can see this is a really precise number, so it must be true.
Spending a lot of time in taxis I get asked this question quite often. Unless you still live in the town you were born the answer is not straightforward, especially once you start thinking about it. Is it where you grew up? Where you live now? Where you feel most at home? Where your ancestors lived? Or is it your personal geo-midpoint of the places you’ve lived at, statistically weighted by the time spent at each place?
If you’ve moved around a bit you might go for the lazy option and just say where you were born, followed by some apologetic waffle about having lost your accent. “Yes but my accent comes back after a couple of drinks.” Brits are quite good at this, especially since regional accents have become trendy.
Or you might do something more American and claim that you’re actually half Scottish or Irish, because your great-great uncle’s father-in-law had a third-degree cousin who was married to a Celtic woman.
The French, on the other hand, keep things simpler. They have a binary system to determine your place – in every sense of the word. Either you are French, or you are not. Either you are from Paris, or you are not. It’s simply a case of magnifique or merde, 1 or 0.
Now that we’ve got the stereotypes out of the way, a spoken accent is indeed an important clue to where someone is from. But it’s by no means a reliable indicator, and it can be a social minefield. I could hold an entire pub quiz on getting people to guess what my accent is. I remember one happy occasion where a lady in San Francisco thought I was English (based on the way I said “hello”), but generally people tend to think I’m from 1. South Africa 2. Belgium 3. Holland or 4. Switzerland. (Just for the record, the answers are 1. wrong 2. a bloody insult 3. wrong 4. no thanks.) My accent also used to have a tinge of Australian in it, but that’s long gone – except for the swearing.
Where you’re from – or where other people think you’re from – can have more serious ramifications too. Take the case of Atanas Entchev, a well-known and respected GIS professional who, after having lived in the US for 20 years, suddenly found himself detained in jail over a bureaucratic visa technicality. His son, who has not known a country other than the US, was also detained and threatened with deportation to a country he had never experienced – but apparently that is where he is “from”. Apart from the irony that the Entchevs were detained by people who themselves are immigrants (or descendants of immigrants), it is clear that where you are “from” is not just a very personal question but also requires validation by others. I guess it’s a bit like people asking me how tall I am. Everyone can see I’m six foot seven but still, people somehow feel compelled to comment on it as if it needed official confirmation or mutual agreement. But compared to some basketball players I’m actually quite short – so it also depends on who’s asking.
Ever since humans first migrated from Africa we have never stopped moving around the world. From the Bronze Age to the Romans, from the Vikings to the Americans, many inventions like the wheel or the moon rocket would not have happened if people had not migrated and explored new horizons. Today, immigration is certainly an issue in many countries but gets bad press for all the wrong reasons. We seem to have forgotten that migration is what has shaped humans more than anything else, albeit not always peacefully. Migration also remains vital for today’s economies, as it enables people to cluster around skills rather than ethnicity, producing global centres of excellence. Even if you’re not surrounded by international rocket scientists or artists, people who come from different backgrounds will broaden each other’s minds and foster creativity.
You can also take migration too far, though. I’ve known many people on the global expat circuit whose children ended up with no sense of identity because they had been uprooted too many times. There is probably a happy medium, but migrate we must – at least some of us. Having lived in five countries I am now happily settled in the UK with my family, and can proudly call myself the tallest Luxembourger in Devon. Surfing, walking, whisky – it’s my kind of place. When I’m not there, it is where I’m from.
So rather than ask people where they’re from, ask where they have come from. There is a subtle difference. If the answer is “the supermarket” then so be it. Simple, no?
You would probably agree that power pylons are the ugliest things ever invented by man. And let’s be honest, there’s no need to be politically correct here – no woman on earth could possibly have created such hideous things (you’re welcome!). Pylons have an eerie ability to spoil the landscape like nothing else. Alas, our society cannot run without electricity, and power cables are notoriously costly to bury underground. It seems like we are stuck with pylons.
So imagine my surprise today when, visiting an energy conference in Berlin, I saw… beautiful pylons. How can this be? The beautiful pylons are built using the same raw materials as the ugly ones. They even use the same type of construction. But the result is stunning: the new pylons have totally changed my emotional response to them.
The answer lies in their shape. It’s something to do with design. Or more precisely: not designed by engineers.
As you look at these amazing pictures from Choi + Shine Architects, imagine what this type of creativity could do in the so-called world of geo-design which, in a nutshell, concerns itself with supporting holistic decision-making in urban infrastructure planning. Design goes beyond the shape of things but, most importantly, design is about creativity.
Just like engineers not everyone in the professional geo-community is creative. But we do have some creative types amongst ourselves who are able to design beautiful maps and publications. Can they also help us inject a bit of creativity into a world that is still dominated by function over form?
Post revised & updated on 6 January 2012, also incorporating a new link to an excellent intro on geodesign by @spatialsustain, see http://www.vector1media.com/spatialsustain/the-third-geodesign-summit-focuses-on-creating-our-future.html.