Author Archives: Ton Zijlstra

Midsummer A Year Ago: Make Stuff That Matters Unconference and BBQ

Today is midsummer. The heating system came on this morning, and it has been raining since then. Quite a contrast with last year, when over 40 of you came to brighten our home for the Make Stuff That Matters unconference birthday party, and double that for the BBQ the day after it.

#mstm14 crowd
#MSTM14 crowd during my opening remarks, by Paolo

To me it is still a great source of energy to think back to the atmosphere and spirit of MSTM14, and the joy of seeing so many of our colleagues, peers, friends, family and clients interact, having travelled from all over the country, from all over Europe, and even from Canada and spanning 6 decades of age differences. As a bit of sunlight on this day that feels like autumn, some impressions from last year.

We used an introduction game and process, designed with Peter Troxler, to get everyone involved in making something.

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Designing together

We had the Frysklab mobile FabLab parked in front of our home for two days, staffed by Jeroen, Aan, Marleen and Jappie of the incredible Frysklab team. Next to their equipment (multiple 3d-printers, a laser cutter, a CNC mill), we had our own 3D printer and four more on loan through the kind collaboration of Ultimaker. This allowed everyone to get their hands on the machines, guided by the Frysklab team and Elmine.

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Frysklab, and the line-up in our living room

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Klaas ‘borrowing’ our printer 😉 & at work in the Frysklab truck

People started out creating objects with Doodle3d, and then after encountering its limitations, by themselves moved on to more capable but also more complicated software tools. Guiding each other, searching for tips & tricks online, and through trial and error. The 3D-printers kept going for over 2 days, until the last guests left for the airport! Seeing how well everything went, and how our process delivered above our own expectations, made Elmine’s “Maker Moment“. I remember standing in the Frysklab truck towards the end of the first day, with everyone around me excitedly talking, working and making, and I just felt happy seeing the energy all round me. We set out to show ‘making’ as a communal process, and seeing it succeed is joyous.

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Peter and Oliver explaining 3d printing from Minecraft, Tjores proudly writing his name in 3D

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Amarens printed a 3d-hug, after a scan of herself. A castle made in Minecraft printed by Floris

The second day was all about the bbq, bringing about double the number of people together compared to the unconference day. And people kept on making, neighbourhood kids got busy in the Frysklab truck, and unconference participants showed newcomers how the machines worked. Fine food, fine wines, and many helping hands, such as Ray’s, in the kitchen, kept everyone around for conversations, making and fun.

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Ray and Harold making food, Martin and Paolo making music

And even after the event, the ripples kept spreading outward. New connections were made, with friends opening their own home for other participants to stay in during the summer for instance. Elmine and I used a visit to Copenhagen to bring the MSTM experience to our friends Henriette and Thomas, and their sparkling daughter Penny, where we shared what we ourselves had learned from Peter and his son Oliver. My colleague Frank took that same lesson from Peter and Oliver to a whole new level, involving dozens of neighbourhood kids in a 3D-printing event where he lives.

Now a year later, the energy is still palpable to me. On this rainy day a year later I am grateful for the inspiration and friendship of last year. And although it will be hard to top, I am slowly starting to think about what we could do in 2016 for a new edition.
If you are entertaining the thought of doing something similar yourself, do read the e-book we wrote after a previous edition (download the PDF), where we describe the basic steps of hosting your very own birthday unconference and bbq. If you do and we’re invited, I promise Elmine and I will try our best to make it possible for us to attend.

Flemish Open Data Day 2015

Today I am in Brussels, as a guest of the Flemish government. For the fourth time the ‘open data day’ is held in Flanders, bringing together public and private sector to explore possibilities for open data. I gave the opening keynote this morning, on building public services with ‪#‎opendata‬ in collaboration with other stakeholders.

At the request of Noel van Herreweghe, the organizer and Flanders’ open data program manager, I focussed on public service delivery with open data. My main message elements were to start from where you want to see impact, and then mobilize data and people around in such a way that the data change the opportunities stakeholders have to act.

In my examples I showed how it does take a different perspective on public service, with the citizen at the center of the design, not the internal processes. And that with open data you bring many more new stakeholders to the table, which makes collaborative services possible that become better as more people use them. In practice we see that in many cases civil society organizations or businesses create front-ends to what essentially are public services. At the same time, also data collection can be collaborative (such as BANO in France).
To turn government into a platform, a system of connected core reference data sets is a fundamental element. Denmark and the Netherlands have such systems, which are largely open data as well. France and others are discussing this, and Belgium and Flanders have identified some what they call ‘authentic data sources’. This allows others to build on this fundament, creating value that way. The end game for government itself is to be open by default and by design, as well as providing performance data on dashboards generated from live open data streams. This allows the public to simultaneously see, interact with and use the data for service provision and provide feedback.

Slides are online:

Open Data Readiness Assessment in Serbia

The week before last I worked on an Open Data Readiness Assessment (ODRA) for Serbia during a week long mission to Belgrade. It is part of my work for the World Bank and done in close collaboration with the local UNDP team, at the request of the Serbian directorate for e-government (part of the ministry for administration (reform) and local authorities).

Next to me visiting a wide range of agencies with local colleagues Irena and Aleksandar, my colleague Rayna did a roundtable with civil society organisations, and my colleague Laura a roundtable and a number of conversations with the business community. We also had a session with UN representatives, and WB project managers, to mainstream open data in their project portfolio.

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the unfinished orthodox Saint Sava church, and the brutalist ‘western gate’ Genex tower

Throughout the week we invited everyone we met inside government who seemed to be interested or have energy/enthusiasm for open data for a meeting on the last day of the mission. There we presented our first results, but also made sure that everyone could see who the other change agents across government are, as a first step of building connections between them.

The final day we also had a session with various donor organisations, chaired by the UNDP representative, to explain the potential of open data and present the first ODRA results.

In the coming few weeks the remaining desk research (such as on the legal framework) will be done, and the draft ODRA report and action plan will be prepared. A delivery mission is foreseen for September. In the meantime I will aim to also spend time helping to strengthen local community building around open data.

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Ministry of Finance, and the Ministry of Defence building that was bombed in 1999 by NATO

In Serbia, the dissolution of Yugoslavia and ensuing wars (Bosnia, Croatia), the Milosevic era, international sanctions, and NATO bombardments during the Kosovo conflict (1999), have left deep marks on the structures and functioning of government and other institutions (as elsewhere in the region).

I had always more or less assumed that in the early nineties the former Yugoslavian federal institutions had morphed into what are now the Serbian national institutions. Instead these federal structures largely dissolved, leaving gaps in terms of compentencies and structures, which are not helped by (legacies of) corruption and political cronyism. Serbia is a candidate for EU Membership, meaning a path of slow convergence to EU policies and regulations.

10 Years Ago: Reboot 7

Reboot 7 in 2005 was a turning point for me and many others. How a large part of my professional as well as personal network looks today, that digital disruption now fully underpins most of my work, and that I took the freedom to operate on my own, all have Reboot 7 (and the editions after it) at its core.

10 years ago this week, Elmine and I were at our first Reboot conference in Copenhagen. It was the 7th such conference, and the first one that was more internationally oriented (the previous ones focussed more on the Nordic countries AFAIK). It was organized by Thomas Madsen-Mygdal with a team of volunteers including Nikolaj Nyholm. From the fact that you will see more ’10 years after Reboot’ postings you can gather it was inspiring, and fun, and that we have much to thank Thomas and his team for.

I went to Reboot as sort of the end point of a process. I started blogging about knowledge management and social media in 2002, and as a result of it my international professional network had exploded. I felt the growing need to meet some of them. So when BlogTalk was organized in 2003 in Vienna, I and many other bloggers used it as an opportunity to meet face to face for the first time. The next year, 2004, I returned, this time with Elmine, for the 2nd BlogTalk. I came away with two key things. One, I met a wide range of inspiring people, like Lee Bryant, Paolo Valdemarin, whom I definitely wanted to stay in touch with. Two, I felt the need for much stronger actual conversations and experience sharing.

In response to the first item, Elmine and I started looking for a conference to go to together in 2005 (as there would be no BlogTalk that year) where we could meet those people.
In response to the second thing, I wanted to organize something where the conversation was the actual program, cutting away the powerpoints. These were the BlogWalks, organized with Lilia Efimova and Sebastian Fiedler, originally thought to be in support of the BlogTalk conferences. There we used Open Space formats just before unconferences became more visible through the BarCamps.

Reboot promised to combine the two: a conference where I could meet inspiring people, that I already partly knew, and where the participants were the same people as on stage.

Doug Engelbart on video from Calif. Doug Engelbart 1968 demo
The iconic Doug Engelbart demo and video conversation at Reboot 7

I came away from Reboot feeling having turned a corner, and from now in 2015 it looks more like a starting point.
Reboot delivered upon my expectations, and so much more. It was a heady mix of inspiring people I knew, and many new faces and inspiring minds. It was in a venue (Kedelhallen) that made space for plenty informal interaction, where you could be human (people started bringing their kids!), and everyone on stage was also a participant. The program was fixed upfront but curated by the people who wanted to come. Good food and drinks. All that created an atmosphere where you were allowed to ask the awkward questions, dream the big ideas, build prototypes, and have them met with curious and critical questions and exchanges. Many times we saw someone suggest something, or try something at Reboot, that later turned into a book, an application, a start-up or a Google buy-out. And there was lots of fun. It was also a very European conference, where you could see that Europe, the idea, works beautifully.

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Reboot’s iconic lawn chairs. We brought some home.

I think that meeting all those great people (e.g. how I met Peter Rukavina using the Foursquare precursor Plazes) at Reboot allowed me to incorporate a number of things, that normally made me feel like the village idiot, into my work and everyday routine. Asking the big questions, while doing the small things to bring it forward. To be a fish that works to notice the water, and to question the water. To bring a more entrepreneurial attitude to everything I do. To be ok with that I don’t really have a job description, but do the things I think are worth doing. To more purposefully enable others to do the same. The type of spirit Reboot conveyed, is something I and many others have been seeking to turn into our normal mode of operation.

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Doing a session with Danish government in the locker room of Kedelhallen

We kept returning to Reboot every year, until the last one in 2009, creating many memories. By that last one I was working on my own, and had had a very good year. I became one of the main sponsors of that last Reboot conference, which I saw as a good way of making something possible that had been a source of so much learning for me. A tuition fee for what was my greatest source of learning for a number of years. Being a sponsor allowed me to bring a few others to the conference as well, providing free tickets. So I brought students who would not otherwise be able to afford to go.

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Elmine and I did a workshop on ‘owning your learning path’ at one Reboot, and took it outside because of the beautiful weather

One of them I met last year, and he explained one of the large negative side effects of Reboot.
I met him at a different conference in Berlin, and he was sitting in the central space of the venue, sipping coffee and not going to any session. He looked a bit bored. So I asked him if he enjoyed the conference. “Not really” he said. Why not, I asked. “You spoilt me when you brought me to Reboot in 2009 as a student, now I cannot stand other conferences anymore.”
The same is true for me too. I can’t really stomach the blandness and pace of most other events.

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Bring your kids to conferences! Reboot had a kindergarten

And we keep searching for and visiting events that try to bring the same spirit: SHiFT, Lift, SOTN, ThingsCon and others. Or try to organize events ourselves, like our Birthday Unconferences, Data Drinks and other. And every now and then my colleagues and I succeed in taking groups of clients through an event where everybody leaves on a similar natural high as Reboot created for me.
The lasting value of Reboot is of course in how it changed my attitude and showed me new pathways. And how it created a lasting network of relationships that are my core professional peer network, and in fact many of whom have become dear friends. If you ever wondered about the weirdly distributed social life Elmine and I have, I blame Reboot.

Lee Bryant at Reboot 11
Lee proposing a new mythology (underneath the banner listing me as sponsor)

Will there ever be another Reboot? Not likely, at least not in this shape. Lee Bryant called for a new mythology at the last Reboot, a new narrative for meeting the global challenges. By now Reboot is part of that mythology, and a new conference might just spoil that. The Reboot spirit however very much deserves more channels of distribution. If Thomas ever plans to do something along those lines, I’d be happy to help. Because everyone deserves a regular reboot.

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A key piece of advice and unofficial Reboot slogan

deventerraamwerk

When government wants to store your fingerprints, and it’s ok.

Sometimes it is ok if your government wants to store your fingerprints. Like, when they use them as artwork on city hall.

Last weekend Elmine and I strolled an afternoon through Deventer an old Hanseatic city in the eastern part of the Netherlands. We came across a shop window where a group of people were busy making clay moulds, which had us intrigued.

Deventer Raamwerk

The clay moulds, it turned out, were made from finger prints, to be cast in metal and then used on the facade of the new city hall as window covers/decorations. A project by local artist Loes ten Anscher.

Deventer Raamwerk Deventer Raamwerk

The finger prints are from citizens in Deventer themselves. One in every forty-three, from the city and surrounding villages, from every age, has been asked to provide a finger or toe print, to be cast in metal. The 2.300 prints are cast in metal and used on the newly built city hall. Every metal cast has a number, and the person providing the finger print gets a pendant with that number. They will know where there finger print is on the building, but noone else.

I really love this project, making citizens part of the building where those that provide public service work, and involving them up to the level where they have their fingerprints all over local government. One example where I think government storing my finger prints is actually not so bad!

Big Data for Malaysia and ASEAN

This week I was invited to Malaysia as one of 8 members of the advisory panel on big data to the Malaysian government. The meeting was part of the Big Data Week taking place in Kuala Lumpur where I gave two presentations and was part of a panel discussion. Malaysia intends to become a big data hub for ASEAN countries. To that end it brought well over 2000 people together to discuss big data, and as part of that Richard Stirling (of the ODI) and I were there to highlight the role of open (government) data in that. Next to the conference as part of the advisory panel I met for a day in a closed-door session with MDeC, the agency that is responsible for the implementation of Malaysia’s big data plans. On my own initiative I met with the Ministry for Administrative Modernisation’s planning unit (MAMPU) to discuss the change management and community aspects of becoming a more open government in more detail, and see how that might be tied in with the ongoing efforts of the World Bank’s collaboration with the Malaysian government.

During the conference I gave two presentations. The first on the notion that to make sure that open and big data have a broad impact socially and economically, you need to have a strategy that involves all stakeholders, and move beyond the big company focus the effort currently seems to have. SME’s, civic organizations, and individual citizens play a crucial role, not just bigger corporations and academic institutions who provide the needed skill sets.
In this presentation I looked at half a dozen or so emergent patterns that stand out from all open data stories I’ve been part of in Europe and elsewhere to make that clear.

The second presentation took just one of those patterns: that in ‘open data’ openness is much more important than data, and zoomed in on it, under the title ‘Open data is the biggest data of all’. In this presentation I posited that openness is a necessity in a networked society, to be a visible and thus acknowledged part of the network, that in aggregate open data is bigger than whatever big data set, and that openness hits a large number of factors that make non-lineair impact possible. The type of growth that we promise ourselves from big data, but which itself in reality usually only aims for incremental growth for established players. Our societies however need that non-lineair kick. We need to reason backwards from where we want to see socio-economic impact, to which type of circumstances, such as data availability, and broad inclusiveness are needed to get there.

Finally I did a fun panel debate with Michael Cornwell on the new ethical questions emerging around open data and privacy, where I made a call for more ‘data awareness’ and called upon entrepreneurs to be straightforward to their clients on how they are using data. The way a company deals with the data that describes me and my behaviour is part of my deal and interaction with a company, and any intentional opaqueness concerning data from the company side should be seen as a breach of trust and short-changing the client.

16 Months of Local Open Data

The culmination of over a year of work
Last month we concluded a project that started in November 2013. For the Province of North-Holland we worked with 9 municipalities to help them bring publishing open data into their normal routines.
We celebrated the end of the program with an afternoon conference of 125 participants in Amsterdam, sharing the experiences, the good, the bad, the splendid, the ugly.

The program
The program we designed is based on the notion that making open data part of normal operations requires learning by doing, and learning from others who are doing the same thing. Also by taking time for it, and us helping out on the work floor, you allow more colleagues to get involved as well as see new knowledge settle.
To make sure open data is not something ‘extra’ a government does for others (‘nice to have’) we seek to position open data as a policy tool (‘need to have’), that helps governments to engage with stakeholders and impact their own policy goals.

Four phases
The preparation phase was aimed at finding a number of municipalities to participate. They had to allocate people and time to it, and there needed to be some current local policy issues that provided a possible angle for open data. We talked to about 16 local governments, and in the end 9 joined the program.

Three implementation phases were part of the plan: 1) find internal support, raise awareness, and find a suitable policy topic as context. 2) select and publish data, find initial external stakeholders, 3) engage with stakeholders, help them use the data, and make the publishing process permanent.
In practice these three phases weren’t discreet, but overlapped and never ‘finished’.

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the plan

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the reality

A year long execution phase
The execution phase of the program started in March 2014, with a high-energy kick-off event where some 60 civil servants and political functionaries participated, and the 9 participating municipalities and the province signed the ‘North-Holland Smarter’ Manifesto. (The manifesto was a beautiful side project by my colleague Frank and our artist in residence Ate: wooden panels with different data visualizations of the region, and laser cutted pixelated shapes of the participating local governments to place signatures on. An afternoon well spent in the local FabLab Protospace)

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the manifesto

The participating municipalities gathered for collective working days 4 times, and in between worked on their own. We helped out with providing guidance, examples and facilitating session and workshop both internally with civil servants, and externally with citizens, businesses and organizations. Each worked around a locally relevant theme, ranging from flash floods to new entrepreneurs in socially disadvantaged neighborhoods, from regional public transport for the elderly and schools, to financial transparency.

In the end most local governments started publishing data (not a small feat for non-urban local governments I’d say), and some moved it towards their line management successfully. A few first examples of seeing the data used exist, and most don’t see the end of the program as the end of their efforts but as the beginning.

Overall we included a few hundred civil servants and several dozen external stakeholders. Some of that work is still ongoing with our involvement, until May.

The final event

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participants working together at final event

We ended the program with a final event to present our learnings. Some 125 people from across the Netherlands, representing local, regional and national government entities came. We shared what we experienced roughly in the same way the program phases were designed, providing the participating municipalities with ample space to discuss what they had done and learned, what worked and what didn’t work at all. Some presented their data publishing platform, others their next steps, some recounted how they helped learn colleagues use data better themselves, others how settling on a policy theme early didn’t work for them. Entrepreneurs and data re-users talked about how they work with data.

It was a good and informal way to convey the actual work involved and how some things can take more time than thought (usually the social aspects), while others turn out to be much easier than anticipated (usually the technical aspects).

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the municipalities in North-Holland that are publishing open data (image Ruud Smith)

Getting past the hype
Plans and reality never match, and I think our program created the space and time for that to be ok and part of the journey. Our client with the Province said that to her the project was to help people move beyond the hype towards where open data is part of the normal way of doing things, and softening the ’trough of desillusion’ in the hype cycle. Judging by the quotes we collected of participants we succeeded in doing that.

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getting past the hype (image Isabel Brouwer)

The Setup

Our friend Peter Rukavina recently posted his ‘setup’, in which he describes his work place, tools and routines. As did Chris Corrigan, a long time blogging connection, with whom we once spent a great afternoon talking and walking through the northern rain forest on the awesome Bowen Island he calls home. I am always interested in how others shape their work days, and what they use, so I thought I’d share my setup as well.

Infrastructure
At home: A simple desk in the very light attic space of our home. It’s about 25m2, white, with one apple green wall plus windows along both lengths, and it has both Elmine’s and my desk, a bookcase and fold-out couch. It looks out over our neighbourhood, so you still see the daily rhythm and can watch out for the mailman or delivery guy bringing a package.
One floor down we have a room with an electrically adjustable standing desk, that Elmine and I both use.

Our home is connected to a fiber optic network, currently delivering 100Mbit symmetrical connection, that we are in the process of upgrading to a 1Gbit symmetrical connection, at the same cost (60 euro/month including tv and fixed line phone).

We live on the eastern border of the Netherlands, within viewing distance from Germany, and my clients are usually in the western part, a 2 hour train ride away, or outside the country. So I spent a large amount (somewhere between 4 and 24 hours per week) of my time in trains, where I travel first class as that comes with power outlets and a bit more room to work.

The Green Land, a company I started with 3 partners is located at Zpot, in Utrecht right in the center of the country. Zpot is a co-working space started by my The Green Land partner Frank, which provides me/us both with landing desks, and more importantly meeting rooms. Membership is 100 euro/month for the company. I hope to be there once a week, but my schedule gets in the way of that easily. We decided last week to all aim to be there on Fridays at least, to increase the amount of time we get to work together.

Hardware
I use a 2014 MacBook Pro, with 1TB ssd and a few other upgrades, bells and whistles. I regard 21st century knowledge work as artisanal, and my laptop is this artisan’s primary tool. I decided a long time ago that trying to save money on the most important tool I work with is nonsensical and something I’ll pay for in frustration.

That laptop when used at the attic desk is connected to a medium Wacom Bamboo pen and touch, a usb keyboard with numerical pad (for the bookkeeping I do myself), and 2 additional screens, resulting in the picture below (although the pen and pad have been replaced since then). Until last year the second extra screen was connected through an Terratec Connect A1 on USB, but with the new laptop I now use a Thunderbolt port and the HDMI port to connect two screens. At the standing desk the laptop is connected to a wireless keyboard.

desk march 2012

For some travel I leave my laptop behind and use an Asus Android tablet with detachable keyboard.

The local network connects to a 2TB NAS that we both use as TimeMachine, and another 2TB NAS we both use as archive disk. It also contains a Sonos bridge that delivers music to speakers in all the rooms in the house.
I run a VPS in a Swiss data center with 30TB storage that serves as off-site back-up and cloud-sync (with versioning).

Next to a HP printer/flatbed scanner, I more often use a Fujitsu Scansnap scanner. That last one is certainly one of the best investments I made. It easily scans everything, double sided, in color and at high speed due to the sheet feeder, and saves to both the file system and Evernote.

An Ultimaker 3D printer is in our ‘standing desk room’. There is also a desk-top laser cutter and CNC milling machine, both of which currently aren’t operational (a lingering item on my todo list).

In the living room a Raspberry Pi serves as (under used) media center and we also have a Nintendo Wii that hasn’t seen much use lately.

I use a Samsung Galaxy S5 phone, and have a 1st gen iPad that has been unused since iOS evolved away from it, as well as a Samsung Galaxy Tab3 that is still in its box and untouched.

While traveling I use a noise canceling headset both on trains and planes, and a Lumix TZ60 camera (although the camera on my phone is quite good and sometimes a speedy alternative). For internet on the road I use a Huawei Mifi, with a monthly 3GB data package that also includes data roaming across the EU (next to the 2GB data bundle and EU roaming on my phone).

Desktop software
My main and daily software tools are Tinderbox (for outlining, mapping, and getting to the point of writing), Evernote (the content part of my outboard brain) and Things (the task part of my outboard brain). LibreOffice for the usual, and Scrivener for longer writes (which talks to Tinderbox).
OwnCloud is what keeps my files synced to the VPS. Smultron for coding / text file editing, and Applescript plus Automator for some routine tasks (such as opening a new project, or populate a checklist for a new speaking gig.) Tweetdeck for a range of Twitter accounts. My VPS runs a script I call ‘Radar’ which is harvesting tweets about specific topics I’m interested in, and presenting me with an overview of URLs mentioned around those topics.

Web software
Owncloud running on my VPS (which has fully replaced Dropbox), including my company’s shared files is always in the background. Flickr for photo online back-up and sharing, with too much of history to move it all to something else. Podio for working with my The Green Land partners, and Slack for emergent work interaction with a team in open hardware. Diigo (with Delicious in the background) for bookmarking. And one that I would very much like to change: Gmail for all mail. I use it webbased for seamless experience with my other devices. This is the one element in my setup I’d like to change, getting out of gmail’s servers. And blogs of course: WordPress and some Drupal sites.

Phone software
Most of the phone apps are there to have access to the same stuff as on my laptop. With some additions for travel: railroad apps for Netherlands and Germany (that also covers most of the rest of Europe), KLM and Amsterdam Airport apps. UberSocial Pro for Twitter, to maintain multiple accounts.
One app I am particularly fond off: LinkBubble. It opens links in the background from any of the other apps (like FB or Twitter), so you don’t break your flow in going through a social media stream. From LinkBubble I can easily share to Evernote, mail, or any other app.

Social routines
I don’t have a lot of regular routines, as my calendar is very different from week to week. I do have a rhythm to my day though, getting up 6:30 and approaching things in various blocks (90min the largest), with focus work in the morning, less demanding stuff in the afternoon. I try to take walks a few times per week when I work from home.

I feel the need to travel a few times each year, to expose myself to different scenes, perspectives and views, so I try to make sure I always have some international work going on. I like to regularly immerse myself in different busy cities, but need the quiet to digest and think things through, and I hate it when I can only just jump from one thing to another without that digestion time. When that happens it makes me ‘forget’ things: last week I was in Kyrgyzstan and the day before I left we organized a conference with 125 people as end point to a year long project. Because of the work in Kyrgyzstan I mostly forgot about that conference the day before and what it signified. I went through the photos of the event this week to remember and relive and take note of what happened.

Every now and then I smoke a cigar, eat a raw herring, or eat a Hema smoked sausage with mustard when I land at Amsterdam airport.

Elmine and I enjoy traveling together, and enjoy good food. I do the cooking at home. We regularly take time to visit friends in various places, but still I think I see most of them not nearly enough by far. Doing a birthday unconference and bbq as we did last June with ‘Make Stuff that Matters’ to bring a wide diversity of people to our home is how we try to give something to our social network and which is a tremendous source of inspiration to ourselves.

That’s my setup. Yours?

Student’s Six Big Data Lessons

Students from a minor ‘big data’ at the local university of applied sciences presented their projects a few weeks ago. As I had done a session with them on open data as a guest lecturer, I was invited to the final presentations. From those presentations in combination several things stood out for me. Things that I later repeated to a different group of students at the Leeuwarden university of applied sciences at the begining of their week of working on local open data projects for them to avoid. I thought I’d share them here too.

The projects students created
First of all let me quickly go through the presented projects. They were varied in types of data used, and types of issues to address:

  • A platform consulting Lithuanian businesses to target other EU markets, using migration patterns and socio-economic and market data
  • A route planner comparing car and train trips
  • A map combining buildings and address data with income per neighborhood from the statistics office to base investment decisions on
  • A project data mining Riot Games online game servers to help live-tweak game environments
  • A project combining retail data from Schiphol Airport with various other data streams (weather, delays, road traffic, social media traffic) to find patterns and interventions to increase sales
  • A project using the IMDB moviedatabase and ratings to predict whether a given team and genre have a chance of success

Patterns across the projects
Some of these projects were much better presented than others, others were more savvy in their data use. Several things stood out:

1) If you make an ‘easy’ decision on your data source it will hurt you further down your development path.

2) If you want to do ‘big data’ be really prepared to struggle with it to understand the potential and limitations

To illustrate both those points:
The Dutch national building and address database is large and complicated, so a team had opted to use the ‘easier’ processed data set released by a geodata company. Later they realized that the ‘easier’ dataset was updated only twice per year (the actual source being updated monthly), and that they needed a different coordinates system (present in the source, not in the processed data) to combine it with the data from the statistical office.

Similarly the route planner shied away from using the open realtime database on motorway traffic density and speed, opting for a derivative data source on traffic jams and then complaining that came in a format they couldn’t really re-use and did not cover all the roads they wanted to cover.
That same project used Google Maps, which is a closed data source, whereas a more detailed and fully open map is available. Google Maps comes with neat pre-configured options and services but in this case they were a hindrance, because they do not allow anything outside of it.

3) You must articulate and test your own assumptions

4) Correlation is not causation (duh!)

The output you get from working with your data is colored by the assumptions you build into your queries. Yes average neighbourhood income can likely be a predictor for certain investment decisions, but is there any indication that is the case for your type of investment, in this country? Is entering the Swedish market different for a Lithuanian company from let’s say a Greek one? What does it say about the usefulness of your datasource?

Data will tell you what happened, but not why. If airport sales of alcohol spike whenever a flight to Russia arrives or leaves (actual data pattern) can that really be attributed to the 2-300 people on that plane, or are other factors at work that may not be part of your data (intercontinental flights for instance that have roughly the same flight schedule but are not in the data set)?

Are you playing around enough with the timeline of your data, to detect e.g. seasonal patterns (like we see in big city crime), zooming out and zooming in enough, to notice that what seems a trend maybe isn’t.

5) Test your predictions, use your big data on yourself

The ‘big’ part of big data is that you are not dealing with a snapshot or a small subset (N= is a few) but with a complete timeline of the full data set (N = all). This means you can and need to test your model / algorithm / great idea on your own big data. If you think you can predict the potential of a movie, given genre and team, then test it with a movie from 2014 where you know the results (as they’re in your own dataset) on the database from before 2014 and see if your algorithm works. Did Lithuanian companies that already have entered the Swedish market fail or flourish in line with your data set? Did known past interventions into the retail experience have the impact your data patterns suggest they should?

6) Your data may be big, but does it contain what you need?

One thing I notice with government data is that most data is about what government knows (number of x, maps, locations of things, environmental measurements etc), and much less about what government does (decisions made, permits given, interventions made in any policy area). Often those are not available at all in data form but hidden somewhere in wordy meeting minutes or project plans. Financial data on spending and procurement is what comes closest to this.

Does your big data contain the things that tell what various actors around the problem you try to solve did to cause the patterns you spot in the data? The actual transactions of liquor stores connected to Russian flight’s boarding passes? The marketing decisions and their reasons for the Schiphol liquor stores? The actions of Lithuanian companies that tried different EU markets and failed or succeeded?

Issue-driven, not data-driven, and willing to do the hard bits
It was fun to work with these students, and there are a range of other things that come into play. Technical savviness, statistical skills, a real understanding of what problem you are trying to solve. It’s tempting to be data-driven, not issue-driven even if in the end that brings more value. With the former the data you have is always the right data, but with the latter you must acknowledge the limitations of your data and your own understanding.

Like I mentioned I used these lessons in a session for a different group of students in a different city, Leeuwarden. There a group worked for a week on data-related projects to support the city’s role as cultural capital of Europe in 2018. The two winning teams there both stood out because they had focussed very much on specific groups of people (international students in Leeuwarden, and elderly visitors to the city), and really tried to design solutions starting with the intended user at the center. That user-centered thinking really turned out to be the hardest part. Especially if you already have a list of available data sets in front of you. Most of the teacher’s time was spent on getting the students to match the datasets to use cases, and not the other way around.

My Radar, Finding New Sources of Interest

People often ask me how I stay informed, and always seem to know even about smaller initiatives around the topics I work on. Part of that is what I call ‘Radar’. With Radar I automatically collect all the Twitter messages that mention keywords I am interested in, and detect the web addresses they mention. Those web addresses are evaluated on their type (is it a blog, a video, a general site, a presentation, a photo?) and counted as to how often they are mentioned.

runningtotalsradar

Running totals for Radar: found 350k people, mentioning over 1 million URLs


Radar then presents me with overviews of all URLs mentioned on Twitter in the past day, or week, on the key words I follow. This way I find not just the ‘big’ websites, but also the smaller events, initiatives and discussions, that are mentioned by smaller communities. Next to URLs Radar also tracks who is mentioning certain topics, which basically gives me a list of suggestions of who to maybe follow on Twitter, or who’s profile I may want to look at to see if they also blog about the topics I am interested in.

urlmentionsopendata

Most mentioned URLs in 4566 tweets on Open Data in past 24 hours

peoplementioningfablab

The 47 people tweeting about FabLabs today, new people highlighted


What comes out of my Radar then may get added to my feedreader, or to my bookmark collection, or to my notes collection in Evernote. Radar is the serendipity antenna that scoops up a wide variety of things. To me, whatever is being mentioned on Twitter is like the froth on the waves: it is not all that meaningful by itself, but shows me where there is movement and energy of interaction. That points me to the places and people that make up the wave below the froth. Which is where the significant info is.

Radar at first was a bunch of php scripts I wrote myself that ran on my laptop and which I started manually in sequence. My coding skills aren’t all that great though, so ultimately I asked Flemming Funch to clean things up for me. That meant he coded the scripts from scratch, with only my original outline of what I wanted remaining. Now it runs permanently on my VPS with a basic web front-end for me to explore the output (see screenshots).