Baptism of snow

An interesting few days.

Saturday spent with like-minded public information enthusiasts exploring new ways of using and reusing information here. Not just for the sake of it, but in pursuit of better services, engagement and communities.

Sunday, resting and getting over it, this happens while I’m making lunch. A real-life case study in the power of information – unfolding as I watched.

Monday, trying to forget about the snow this happens.

And Tuesday, this [Note: now broken link to a defunct alpha demonstrator of an aggregation/crowdsourcing application that allowed schools to be found, and their closure status checked/updated] appears. Sure, it needs lots of work on the basics of data, presentation, integrity and reliability. That can come in time. But its existence demonstrates an attitude, not a magic solution to a very difficult information challenge. It’s out there for review and comment by those better qualified than me. The best place for discussing it is here.

Blimey, what’s going on? It’s also not yet a week since the publication of the Digital Britain report and the issue of the Power of Information recommendations as a beta for open comment.

This is quite a lot to happen in one week, even given an environment of social media and digital innovation.

There are some themes running through all of this. The power of information seems to be gaining force as a meme. Things don’t have to be done as they always have been. The power of the crowd can add value, and isn’t necessarily something to be afraid of. Mixed models – the ordered and structured alongside the spontaneous and even quirky – might solve old problems in new ways.

Above all, the role of passion and enthusiasm to see things change. And to make things happen. Even if that means at breakneck pace, cutting a few corners and taking some risks.

And even while snowbound. It’s been a great few days. I’m loving the ride.

A flurry of #uksnow

Just before I get down to putting the lunch on, I glance at Twitter. @davebriggs says it’s just started snowing. A few seconds later, @stephenfry also reports a few flakes. @paul_clarke isn’t cool or dedicated enough to know Mr Fry’s precise whereabouts, but I’ve got a vague idea of Norfolk or north London, and I have a reasonable idea where Dave is.

This gets me thinking about a wave of “it’s starting to snow” tweets that I know are going to be appearing. What might that look like on a map? As a historical picture of advancing snow fronts, or even a live, dynamic view of where the flakes will land next. Powered by the people actually experiencing it. On a scale and level of detail unachievable by any formal organisation (that I know of).

So I thought about a hashtag: #uksnowstarts or something like that. Another glance at the mobile, and I see #uksnow. Ah, beaten to it – oh well – so what’s this about then? Turns out #uksnow is starting to bubble with reports from weather-obsessed Brits about whether they have (or indeed have not) seen floaty white stuff in the air.

Fresh from yesterday’s UK Government Web BarCamp, #ukgc09 (worth looking at ukgovweb.org), my mind was pretty open to data sets and what could be done with them. Except the contents of #uksnow wasn’t data – at least nothing that could be readily useable.

Time for a suggestion on standards. I’d put my own tweet out about weather conditions in RH1, so I quickly came up with a format: #uksnow [1st part of postcode] [n/10]; as a simple way of getting the holy trinity of mashable data together. Place, condition and time (from Twitter’s own logging). Bingo – three things that could readily be parsed by someone with the time and inclination to do so. And then analysed, mapped, mashed, shared, whatever…

That someone isn’t me, by the way. Well, perhaps using coding techniques popular in the late 80s, but all that fell behind me years ago. But the one thing that has been drummed into my head is that if the data sets are openly available, and there’s use to be had from them, and there’s some sort of standard to them, good things will follow. From someone, somewhere.

So now, having just put the spuds on, I’m trying to promote an instant standard for a crowdsourced data stream to track some current and impending weather events. Great.

I sensed a ‘perfect storm’ moment: this was a simple suggestion, with hopefully no privacy/security issues (through using a partial postcode). On a subject which Brits love to talk about. With news warnings that something juicy was on the way. And on a Sunday, with people hanging around Twitter and not much to do.

Stuttering take-up at first, but a few re-tweets of the standard got it moving. A question comes in on privacy. Another on whether n/10 was a good scale. I thought by now it probably wasn’t. Was it explicit that 0/10 would be a good way of saying “it’s not snowing” – in itself useful and valuable data for the exercise? Would anyone use 4,6,7 and 8 (questions familiar to survey geeks). Wouldn’t it be better to have a 0-5 scale with more fixed meanings like “it’s a few flecks” to “it’s sticking” to “white-out”?

Nice ideas all, but I stuck to my gut feel about a subjective 0-10 rating. After all, subjectivity is something we can all do – and thinking about the data averaging and errors that would be present anyway, surely swirling clouds of grayscale 0-11s washing across the country like a starling murmuration would tell the story quite adequately? Unused rating points could simply be merged or skipped completely in the analysis.

We’ll see – it’s Sunday evening now. I’ve been out doing family things and not tracking #uksnow. I’ve no idea if anyone’s taken up the mantle on a mashup. Perhaps there’ll be something there tomorrow as a data stream that could usefully do the job. Perhaps not. Perhaps everyone’s bored of it by now. Perhaps the mighty blizzards will start later and it’ll all go nuts again. Who knows?

I wonder if my message “without standards, it’s just noise” was transmitting onwards. Had anyone felt the urge to keep retweeting the format in my absence? It might have changed. Did I care? Not really, all part of the fun, and the learning.

Either way, this is the closest I’ve been to a Twitter meme, and it hasn’t half made me think. And given the day job, and trying to stimulate real innovation in public information, that’s probably quite a good thing. I mean, if this did go anywhere, I can think of quite a few players in my working world who would take it Very Seriously Indeed. And that is a hint, by the way ;-)

UPDATE: 16 December

The story of how the map was created unfolds in the comments below this post.

UPDATE: 18 December

If you’ve come to this page via the TechCrunch link, there’s a more up-to-date take on the “IP” discussion for #uksnow here.