Of Maps and Landscapes, of Relics and Geo-Data

Peter Rukavina regularly sends us printed artefacts. The most recent one was a map of Europe. On it Peter printed “A map is the greatest of all epic poems”, quoting Gilbert Grosvenor, founding editor of National Georgraphic.

Maps in 1975-1980
Maps have always been highly fascinating to me. As a kid I endlessly pored over maps, and drew them and copied them at different scales as a pass time in primary school after having completed the regular work. I remember being shocked as a kid that maps could change more or less arbitrarily. I saw them as rock solid descriptions of how things were and would remain. When Rhodesia changed its name to Zimbabwe in 1980, it all of a sudden meant that the world map on the classroom wall and my lighted globe and atlas at home were incorrect. The horror. Those changes I now see as what makes maps fascinating, and turns them into epic poems in the words of Grosvenor.

A map from 1918-1940
Take the map Peter sent us for instance. At first glance it’s a basic map of Europe, but upon closer inspection it’s a map of Europe valid for just a short time.

The map Peter sent us, photo by Elmine, CC-BY-NC-SA

It shows Austria and Hungary apart and Iceland independent, so it must be from after 1918. But it also shows Istria as part of Italy and the Baltic states as independent, which both place it after 1920. It also shows Yugoslavia, a name officially adopted in October 1929.

The map can also not be more recent than 1940, as it as stated shows Baltic independence. That Lviv, currently in Ukraine, is shown as Polish (and Poland being further to the east than now), places it before September 1939. That it shows Austria, which by 1939 was part of Nazi Germany, means it dates from before March 1938. It mentions the Irish Free State, which dates it to before December 1937. But wait, it shows Istanbul as being named Constantinopel. Istanbul was officially renamed in March 1930.

So this map represents the geopolitical lay-out of Europe as it was between October 1929 and March 1930. It was a valid representation for a mere 6 months!

A map in 2018 isn’t one from 1929
In my current work geographic references are as important as ever, as they make it possible to combine and thus make useful a myriad of other data sources. Almost everything we as humans do has a significant geographic connection. Maps famously are not the same as the terrain. Yet in digital times, the map is not only not the terrain, the terrain isn’t what it used to be anymore either.

Useful geographic data in the digital era are more and more fluid, and increasinlgy invisible to the user. When I grew up we mostly used maps while we were on the move long distance, figuring how to drive from the Netherlands to the Austrian alps in the summer for instance. Nowadays if I e.g. look at my location history in Google maps, the most eye-catching movements are the least informative. Large movements are like taking an underground, you sit down in a chair with no leg room in one city and are spewed out at the other end in another, with no notion of the fly-over country in between.

A random month worth of my travel. The most striking lines are the least informative, the dots are more important

Key has become hyper-localized geo-referenced socially contextualized information: where in this city that I find myself today can I find good coffee, according to my network, within 350 meters? For that type of movement maps become part of the engine under the hood, but often no longer are necessary to display. My phone vibrates in my pocket, short long short short, or L in Morse code, at a left turn, and short long short, or R, at a right turn, while I make my way to the coffee place with the confident swagger of a local.

Peter’s map is a relic, and not just because it was only correct for 6 months in 1929-1930 to begin with. Still just as fascinating though as it was to me as kid in the 1970’s.

Two Good Reads on GDPR

The transition period to the new European privacy regulations, GDPR, will end in May after which compliance is needed. To me the GDPR is extremely interesting. First because it introduces a few novel concepts. Second because good data governance means openness, personal data protection and information security are all approached in the same way, which makes the GDPR important for my open data work. That open data work has been steadily shifting towards creating meaningful digital-first data governance.

One of the exciting novel concepts in the GDPR is that the legal obligations follow the data. The GDPR applies to any organisation holding data about EU citizens, regardless where they reside themselves. Another is that EU citizens must be able to clearly understand how data about them is collected and used. Terms of service where the snake hides on page 312 of a document full of legalese is no longer acceptable. This means that your data usage must be out in the open, as every individual has the right to verify how their own data is being collected, stored and used, as well as to export that data and withdraw consent. Compliance is recast from being a disadvantage to being a precondition and source of competition. To me it seems the GDPR is bringing the law much closer to our digital times. It paves the way for ‘ethics by design’ concerning data, and use it as a distinguishing factor. It also sets a de-facto global standard (although not everyone seems to realize yet).

The GDPR creates or reinforces a range of rights in law. Some of my clients have mentioned how they perceive this as a large heap of new work, but to me that’s not really true. It is true if you approach the GDPR as yet another administrative exercise to proof you are compliant, yet that is the old way of approaching privacy: Do whatever you want internally, and take precautions on the edges with the outside world. To reliably implement the GDPR and to be able to provide audit trails and pro-active proof of compliance (note that absence of this ability is interpreted as non-compliance), the most efficient way forward is embedding compliance in the data systems themselves. The ‘by design’ approach is mandatory for new systems. Knowing where in your data sets personal data resides, having consent as part of the metadata etc. This brings personal data protection firmly at the level of data governance and at the level of data system and structure design. Openness, personal data protection and information security can no longer be gates put around the data, but need to be part of the data, an ‘everything by design’ approach.

Two good articles to read are:
The report of a Berlin panel discussion, addressing the more general meaning and impact of the GDPR in 8 insights, by Sebastian Greger. (HT Alper Çugun)
A handy overview of the rights created under the GDPR and their meaning for e.g.
website and other tech design
, by Cennydd Bowles.

My The Things Gateway Sees Measure Your City Sensors

After I activated my Lorawan gateway this afternoon, it is now clear it works! In my part of town a few sensors for the Measure Your City network have been installed (one in my garden but currently offline after a storm knocked it out of the tree). Those sensors are now picked up by my gateway and the Measure Your City database shows my gateway as the path along which the data was collected.

database screenshot
One of the sensors (number 105), located two streets away from our house, is now using my gateway to log its data to the central Measure your city database.

My The Things Network Gateway Activated

After receiving the hardware for The Things Network, I now activated the gateway. I had first planned to run up a Cat6 to the top floor but I couldn’t successfully get the cable through the empty conduit that was available for that. Deciding not to wait until I get a cable through the conduit, I connected the Gateway to an ethernet port on the Netgear Orbi satellite that is installed on the top floor. This means it has a steady internet connection, even if not directly wired to the router yet.

The first few messages were sent, so now that ‘hello world’ is behind me, I am curious to see if there will be any traffic my gateway sees passing by.

Dude, You Broke the Future! Charles Stross at 34C3

I appreciate the work of science fiction author Charles Stross a lot (his blog is here). At the 34th Chaos Communication Conference (which took place in December in Leipzig, Germany) he gave an interesting presentation. He isn’t much of a presenter, reading from his notes, so go read the transcript that he posted (the video is online as well). With some deserved criticism of the singularity, and corporations as 19th century slow AI, as context blind single purpose algorithms.

And on how exploring the (near) future as SF is becoming more and more difficult:

My recipe for fiction set ten years in the future used to be 90% already-here, 9% not-here-yet but predictable, and 1% who-ordered-that. But unfortunately the ratios have changed. I think we’re now down to maybe 80% already-here—climate change takes a huge toll on infrastructure—then 15% not-here-yet but predictable, and a whopping 5% of utterly unpredictable deep craziness.

Eddo Hartmann on North Korea

Visited the photo exhibit by Eddo Hartmann on North Korea in the Huis Marseille museum in Amsterdam last week.

What struck me was the similarity with the Eastern block countries in the 1980’s in terms of design looking like it got frozen from the moment that outside influences were banned or blocked. It seems that the price for removing outside influences is reduction of inspiration or creative friction resulting in stagnation of artistic expression (other than those sanctioned)

East Berlin 1987
Friedrichstrasse, East-Berlin in 1987, at least it was busy, even if the design was like the 50’s

Also the contrast between the often inhuman scale of monuments, buildings and roads and the general absence of traffic or crowds. Except maybe for rush-hour on the metro (the exhibit contained some 360 degrees VR videos of that). The emptiness of the photos looks to be confirmed by aerial footage in Google maps, that also shows an absence of traffic and passers-by that doesn’t rhyme with Pyongyang having 3 million or more inhabitants. It reminds me of the emptiness of Second Life a few years back, where the entire environment was built up but no-one was ever there, except during events. Of cities we expect a certain activity level at all times. The whole ‘the city that never sleeps‘ mythology.


Google maps aerial photo of Pyongyang showing mostly empty streets


Elmine exploring some video footage of Pyongyang in VR

Jetpack and XML-RPC

Following up on yesterday’s posting on blogging more, I looked at using the WordPress desktop and Android apps. This to see if using those apps makes it easier to blog something on the go (triggered by Peter’s comment that enabling mailing entries to his blog helped his workflow.)

It turns out that I can’t connect to this blog from those apps. WordPress is designed to build the connection using its own plugin Jetpack. I’ve been using Jetpack for visitor statistics already, and previously noticed how the statistics function was the only bit that ever worked. Jetpack needs the xmlrpc file that allows remote access to work. While that file exists in my install and responds as if its active when accessed (“XML-RPC server accepts POST requests only”), in practice it does not seem to be functional. Running the Jetpack debugger to test xmlrpc returns an error message.

None of the suggested fixes by Jetpack help, like disabling all plugins to see if there’s a conflict with Jetpack, and I already am running a default theme. As a final measure they suggest to disconnect Jetpack from the Jetpack settings, but that does not work…..as Jetpack says it can’t save settings. Which was the issue I started with, so I’ve come full circle without a solution.

How to Blog More?

I backed away from Facebook (not entirely though) a few months ago, and as a result my volume of new blog postings increased. I want to take it a step further. A step to revisit and tackle the question how to blog more. The main bottleneck is that I usually end up creating long posts, providing context which sometimes evolve into essay like things. That is not a bad thing, my blog is a space to think aloud, but it means long gaps between those type of postings. There are many smaller things I could blog about just, but I usually don’t, as I am worried it will end up as a long time-intensive posting. Setting targets of x blogpostings per week never worked in the past of course. The material then stays in my Evernote (yeah, still found no alternative).

So I am strivng for a more light-weight and unhurried way of creating blogposts of the non-essay variety. Short references with just a short observation, and/or a minimum of context. Over time it could be a more established routine, but for now I’m just looking at possible ingredients of such a light routine.

Ingredients that are involved I think:

  • Don’t write postings in WordPress, but as notes in Evernote. This keeps the ‘publish’ button out of view, which to me seems to signal I can only log out of WordPress if I finish the posting.
  • Write more about what I do, re-use material I use for my work
  • Allow multiple notes in different stages of construction to exist simultaneously. What gets finished gets posted.
  • Listen to feedback, use it.
  • Look through the stuff I bookmarked a few times a week, to either blog a few links on a topic, or jot down a few thoughts.
  • Use small chunks of time to write a few lines, 10 minutes on the train will do and will add up.
  • Link back to more of my existing postings if I want to add context and let the reader decide to go down the rabbithole of my musings.
  • Delete sidepaths, associations, contextual stuff while writing something (I deleted at least half a page of additional stuff while writing this posting)
  • Create and use ‘templates’ or repeating styles for certain types of postings, so as not to start from scratch. E.g. I’ve been posting some week notes recently and I use an empty template for it, which speeds up the writing, as it provides a clear path, where a blank screen allows me to go down all kinds of other paths.
  • Stop trying to be complete or exhaustive with linking to other sources, a few links suffice to weave the web as it is meant to be after all.
  • No need for pictures in every post, let alone the ‘perfect’ image to illustrate something.
  • Allow imperfection and unfinishedness. It doesn’t matter, if the purpose is to keep a log, or trigger interaction.
  • Writing is its own purpose. Produce first, improve later.
  • Stop.

Speaking at Open Belgium 2018

On 12 March the 2018 edition of the Open Belgium Conference takes place in Louvain-la-Neuve. With my company, next to sponsoring the event as a partner, we submitted several proposals in the open call for speakers. The program and speakers have now been announced. I’m pleased that we’ve been invited to give two presentations.

My colleagues Frank and Jochem will talk about a project we’re doing with a regional government and local governments, where together with civil servants from the local governments we talked to farmers, citizens, entrepreneurs and businesses and simply asked them: ‘what do you do’ and ‘how can we help (with our data)’? The process and results and the way this is a novel experience for both civil service and external stakeholders are story worth sharing.

I will be presenting at the very end of the day, talking about the need for and use of creating systematic and detailed inventories of data assets in a government entity. Increasingly open data, personal data protection, information security, and data sovereignty are overlapping topics and efforts, where most government organisations will still treat them as islands. My and my company’s experience from creating data inventories for 6 different Dutch government bodies shows how data inventories can support data governance, embracing privacy, security and openness, all by design.

I’m looking forward to the conference, and meeting up with both familiar faces, and new ones, as well as get a better overview of all that is happening in Belgium concerning open knowledge. If possible I’d like to find some new contacts for collaboration in Belgium, by transplanting some of our methods and processes.

The Things Have Arrived

A little over 2 years ago I backed a Kickstarter project The Things Network. It’s an order of magnitude cheaper version of a gateway for a LoRa (long range) network, for internet of things sensors etc. The fascinating thing about this The Things Network gateway is that it provides an infrastructure for very little money. With just 2 or 3 of these your entire city becomes your sandbox for IoT experiments. Usually it’s the other way around: you have cheap prototypes but to scale you need expensive infrastructure (a prototype car is fun, but also having to roll out a road system isn’t.) Now you are just as easy rolling out the infrastructure, as well as your prototypes.

It took a long time to arrive. The original team I think learned the hard way that setting up production and supply chains for hardware from scratch has a quite different dynamic compared to software development. This is not a new lesson for Kickstarter projects either. So the hardware which should have been delivered in June 2016 took until January 2018, some 18 months of delay. But now it’s here.

In the mean time I’ve co-initiated an IoT community in Enschede (community site here), before moving house to Amersfoort where another group is active. Here in Amersfoort I participated in the Measure Your City project, by placing a IoT sensor hub in my garden. With the hardware now arrived, I can’t wait to start experimenting. My gateway will come on-line as soon as I have run up a Cat 6 cable to our attic space, and can then help support the Measure Your City network, and any other projects that might take place in the vicinity.


The Things Network goodies arriving today: a gateway (shown), 4 uno’s (sensor platforms) and 2 nodes (prototyping platforms)