Enjoying Indie SF

In the past months I have increasingly read books from independent authors that self-publish. It seems there is a growing supply of it, and of increasing quality.

Fellow nerd Peter Kaptein has been cutting his own path into the writing jungle, and I enjoy following his reports on his blog and on Facebook chronicling his musings, struggles and process. Likewise here at home it is exciting to see my wife finally giving in to her lifelong urge and start writing stories, after getting a huge burst of motivation from following a training on methods and tools. It is what allowed her to see writing as artisanship and thus well within her own scope.

Today I read the book Remanence from indie US writer Jennifer Foehner Wells (twitter). Remanence is the sequel to Fluency which I read sometime last year. Remanence was published yesterday, and provided me with a good, exciting and relaxing read this weekend. I was originally attracted to Fluency because it promised a linguist at the heart of a hard scifi story (who else to crack the Universe’s lingua franca?). The follow-up provided techno-collapse to pre-industrial level, ecosystems gone haywire and space faring squids finding out they weren’t as free as they thought.

fluency remanence
Fluency, and its sequel Remanence

Independent writers are learning to embrace the affordances that global connectivity provides, and directly creating their own audience, distribution channels and brands, much like indie musicians before them.

It’s not that regularly published SF isn’t interesting or fun. As long as I’m able to explore or be surprised by what I find in terms of perspectives etc. Such as around new year when I hugely enjoyed the two SF novels from Chinese writer Liu Cixin (his Chinese blog). His Three Body Problem, and the follow-up Dark Forest are both great reads with a first encounter in a game world, a quantum-enabled block on human science development and a solution for the Fermi paradox. Already looking forward to the third installment becoming available in English later this year.

Three Body Problem, and its sequel Dark Forest

Serbian Information Commissioner Now Publishing Open Data

Today a tweet from the Serbian office of the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection thanked me and colleagues for promoting open data. As a result the Commissioner’s Office has launched an open data site today, on the data subdomain of their regular website, data.poverenik.rs. This is very good news, and a welcome consequence of the open data readiness assessment I did with the World Bank and the UNDP last year. In June I spoke with the Commissioner about their work, and his deputy already took an active role last December at the conference where we presented the results of the assessment.

In a press release (Serbian only), the Commissioner’s Office states that as further encouragement to the Serbian public administration, the Commissioner is opening up data concerning their own work. Thirteen data sets have been published, one of which I think is very important: the list of public institutions that fall under the freedom of information and data protection frameworks (over 11.000!). Other data published concerns the complaints about information requests and their status the office received, as well as complaints and requests concerning data protection and privacy.

With the help of civil society organisation Edukacioni Centar (whom I had the pleasure of meeting as well) the data comes with some visualizations as well, to improve the understanding of what data is now available. One allows navigating through the network of over eleven thousand institutions that fall within the scope of the Commissioner’s Office, another the status and subject of the various complaints received.

Serbian institutions(Screenshot of over 11.000 public institutions)

Steps like these I find important, where institutions such as the Information Commissioner, or here in the Netherlands the Supreme Audit Institution, lead by example. By doing that they underline the importance of transparency also to the functioning of their own institutions.

Open Data Readiness Assessment Kyrgyzstan Published

The UNDP has published the open data readiness assessment for the Krygyz Republic. From November 2014 to June 2015 I visited Kyrgyzstan three times for a week on behalf of the World Bank. In collaboration with the Kyrgyz Government and the UNDP, as well as local companies, civil society organisations and the coding community, we looked for the right starting points for open data in Kyrgyzstan, and which steps to take to get going.

The UNDP has now published the resulting report, which is embedded below. Download link here.

Encouraging Community

In a conference call this morning with an Eastern European client we discussed the need for more and better connections and relations, and moving towards increasing trust over time between those participating in these connections. This reminded me of the little primer I wrote a number of years back, on creating or strengthening communities more purposefully. By paying attention to a range of specific aspects that we would normally not consider as part of your management toolkit. Things like rhythm, spaces, and levels of engagement, or balancing safety and excitement, variety of perspectives, and being welcoming.

It is based on the great work of Etienne Wenger concerning communities of practice, which has been a key ingredient in my consulting practices in the past 15 years or so, ever since his 2002 book Cultivating Communities of Practice.

The primer, embedded below, describes the aspects I pay attention to when hoping to strengthen community, some stemming from Wenger, some from my direct experience, and provides examples of what type of action results from it. You can also download the PDF, if you like. Do let me know if it is of use for you.

I can also recommend the book by Etienne:
Schermafbeelding 2016-02-24 om 12.27.41>
Cultivating Communities of Practice

First TTN Enschede Meet-Up A Success

Last Thursday the first TTN Enschede Meet-up was held. The Things Network (TTN) is an open infrastructure, using LoRaWan, which lets Internet of Things (IoT) devices communicate data to the cloud, from which it can be approached over regular internet connections.

What fascinates me in this, is that one can implement a city or region wide infrastructure for very little money, where normally the infrastructure is the expensive part. Especially after the TTN Amsterdam initiators ran a kickstarter campaign offering the gateways for just 200 Euro, last October. With several volunteers here in Enschede, we can quickly achieve city wide coverage, and open it up to all comers. And that is what is indeed happening, as it looks like at least 6 gateways will become available in the city soon. One gateway, which Timothy at Innovalor placed on top of the highrise of the University of Applied Sciences Saxion in the city center, is already operational, since last week. The rest will follow in June.

The meeting last Thursday of fifteen TTN and IoT interested people in Enschede was a good first encounter. Besides getting to know eachother, it was good to exchange ideas, experiences, and talk about what we could actually do once the infrastructure is in place.

As it turns out, thinking about use cases is not easy, and that will definitely need more thought and discussion.

Meanwhile one of the participants, JP, showed his LoRaWan device that measures signal strength of the mentioned gateway. On his mobile phone he combines those measurements with his phone’s GPS location. This way he built a signal strength map of the Saxion gateway while cycling around town over the course of his normal activities. The LoRaWan receiver and the map are shown below. As it turns out more people are currently doing this type of wardriving, trying to crowdsource a coverage map of the Netherlands.

LoRaWan wardriving results Enschede

Our family name and open archives

In the 1980’s my dad spent many days searching paper archives to reconstruct his paternal family tree. I am going through some of his archives now that we are dissolving my parents household. What was hard work then, now after digitisation, is often available online.

Regional archives have done a lot of work to digitize records of birth, marriage, and death, and make them searchable online. Through the website allefriezen.nl (all Frisians dot nl) one can search for documents by name. The picture below (archive source) is the registration of our family name on 20 February 1812. This was under Napoleonic rule when France had annexed the Netherlands (1810-1814) and family names became compulsory.

Popke Jacobs the great-grandfather of my grandfather registered our name in the “Municipality Ureterp, Canton Beetsterzwaag, Arondissement Heerenveen, Departement Vriesland” (sic). It is weird to see those French government structures in the document.


The full text reads:

“Before us Maire (mayor) of the Municipality Ureterp, Canton Beetsterzwaag, Arondissement Heerenveen, Departement Vriesland, having appeared Popke Jacobs, living in Ureterp, has himself declared that he adopts the name of Zijlstra as family name and has the following number of sons and daughters, to know, Jakob, old 18 years, living in Grouw. Klaas old ten years, Jan old one in his second year, both living in Ureterp, Geeske old 17 years, living in Drachten, Aukjen old 15 years living on the Groote Gast and Trijntje old 13 years living in Ureterp and has signed this with us 20 February 1812.”

It is interesting to note that my ancestor signed his own name, so he was literate. Others registered in the same document signed with a shaky “X”. His occupation was listed as “worker”, meaning he was a hired hand and day laborer.

Open Communities / Refugeehack Wuppertal

Last November I attended the yearly Open Communities North-Rhine Westphalia barcamp (OKNRW), which was combined with a hackday called #refugeehack. The latter focused on using open data to help refugees find their way in Germany.

I presented my experiences working with local governments to help them use open data as a policy instrument. We did a year long project with 9 municipalities and 1 province in 2014-2015. The driving thought behind it was that releasing data can be a deliberate intervention in a policy field, as having data in my hands changes a stakeholder’s agency. Slides shown below.

Now a video, showing how the OKNRW 2015 & Refugeehack played out has been released (in German).

When Governments Don’t Walk the Talk

Last fall the European open data portal project published two reports. One on the potential economic value of open data in Europe, the other taking a look at the maturity of open data efforts in European countries.

Both reports contain interesting insights and conclusions.
Both reports are also useless.

Because the data underneath the reports has not been published. Without explanation.

That is of course rather surprising because the subject of the reports is open data. At least when the topic is openness, all the related material should be open. That is why, when we built the EU PSI Scoreboard in 2011, we published all the underlying data right alongside the scoreboard. As does the Open Data Barometer. As does the Open Data Index. As does the Digital Agenda Scoreboard. But not the European Open Data Portal project. I would have expected the data under both reports by the European Open Data Portal to actually be available in the European Open Data Portal.

Missing data destroys the report’s value
Not having the data renders the report on open data maturity useless:

  • it makes interpretation of the conclusions impossible, as there is no way to see if the assertions chime with the collected data, nor if that data chimes with ones own experience in the field
  • it makes any meaningful discussion about the merits of the report impossible, even where it gives rise to questions (such as, what makes Bulgaria an open data trendsetter?)
  • it makes formulating actions aimed at improvement impossible, as the data to determine what improvements can be made are not available

Thus after reading the report nobody is, nor can they be, any the wiser as to how to move forward.

Cold feet
I approached the European Commission, and through them the authors, to request the data. After a few messages back and forth, the reason that the data is not published became clear: the national representatives involved in the project, such as the members of the EU PSI Group, have witheld publication of the data. I assume because of cold feet and dreading actual comparison between countries. Not publishing the data however, even if not intended as such, is also sending a clear message: “we’re not serious about openness.” The verdict when it comes to European open data maturity therefore is likely “not very mature”.

Requesting data per country needed
A very few countries may pro-actively publish the data about themselves, but most will not. To obtain the data used for the open data maturity report, it is now needed to approach all the national government representatives involved and request the data from them.

Which I intend to do. Help is welcome. [UPDATE: I have approached most of the governments involved, to ask for the information that could make the maturity report actually useful.]

Off to get some closed data

The Utility of Tags

Earlier this week I came across a Lifehacker posting “Get a Better Creative Workflow in Evernote by Ditching Tags” by Melanie Pinola, quoting Tiago Forte who’s into productivity, which proposes one might as well get rid of tags in Evernote because :

  • “When you rely heavily on tags, you have to perfectly recall every single tag you’ve ever used, and exactly how it is spelled and punctuated.”
  • “The real problem with tags, and why they not only fail to help, but actually even hurt people’s creative self-esteem, is that they give the impression that keeping a useful collection of personal notes requires nothing less than a heroic feat of comprehensive planning, followed by years of meticulous, unwavering cataloging and annotating”

This does not make much sense to me at all. For me tags are a key ingredient in provoking serendipity, as well as a navigational aid. Both play a strong role in my creativity process. If you think tags limit your creativity, I think it is likely because of how you use tags.

Tags vs Categories
It seems both Forte and Pinola see tags as categories. Tags aren’t categories. Yes, categories do require you have a good understanding of how they are organized, and need you to stick with it thoroughly, as otherwise everything ends up in the ‘miscellaneous basket.’ Categories are things you make up before you start categorizing. Tags work the other way around: you add tags to things as you go along. Over time a structure may emerge from the tags which you could adopt as categories, but that isn’t the purpose of tagging. With tags everything starts out as miscellaneous. This key difference is the difference between approaching information from a hierarchical perspective (categories) and from a connected perspective (tags). In the networked age, Everything Is Miscellaneous, as David Weinberger put forth in 2007.

Categories in Evernote
Evernote has no explicit categories functionality, but allows you to work with categories in 2 ways.

  • One is dividing your notes in different notebooks. This is something you can use for fixed and mutually exclusive categories. I have different notebooks for different areas of responsibility.
  • The other is using the tagging functionality. These can be used for non-exclusive categories (as a note cannot be in more than 1 notebook at the same time, but can be in several categories). I use tags like this as categories as well, for instance to indicate project status, or that a note is related to a specific project. However those tags as categories are just a small part of the tags I use.

How I add tags (e.g. in Evernote)
My tags do not form a structure of categories / a taxonomy. They are reflective of my associations with a piece of information. I add tags to capture what a piece of information means to me, what I associate it with, or how I might use it. All of this in a non-prescribed way, and not as a ‘must’ either. There’s plenty of stuff I don’t tag at all, and there is no planned consistency in my tagging. It simply evolves with my own internal dialogue and idiom (something I would have tagged socialsoftware in 2002, would maybe have been tagged socialmedia in 2009 and socmed in 2015).

Key here is that with my tags I do not try to capture what something is “objectively” about, like the echo of systematic categories, but why I saved it. A piece about an animal may be tagged with collaboration or with business_models based on the associations I had while reading it.

My tags may very well not be used or present in the information I tag with it. (In general if you ask people to tag stuff or title it based on what it means to them, there is a good chance they use words not present in the tagged information itself).

I also save material in about half a dozen languages, and then tagging is a way of connecting material together and make it findable in ways that full-text search cannot do, as search is monolingual.

There is likely a power-law distribution in my use of tags: most will get used maybe once or twice, some will get used heavily. The more heavily used ones, if I notice it as a pattern, can become a sort-of de facto category. So I don’t need to remember all my tags and how I used them, as suggested in the linked article above, I usually only remember the less than 10 I use frequently. I am not bothered if I don’t use them.

How tags help my creativity
There are two ways in which tagging aids my creativity.

The first is that it aids my serendipity. If I search my notes it surfaces things not only based on the content of those notes, but also on the associations I used as tags, and other words I used as tags that are not in the content itself. That way unexpected search results, but nevertheless relevant to or overlapping with my search question, can pop up. So that when I search e.g. for business models the example article about the animal I mentioned above will pop up. That way I find things I did not realize I was looking for.

The second is that tags allow me to navigate and pivot through my collected material. I see social software / networked tools as working in triangles (see my 2006 posting Social Software Works in Triangles).
Such a triangle is formed out of an information item (a Flickr photo, a Delicious bookmark, or indeed a note in Evernote), the person that created/shared it (in Evernote usually myself), and one or more descriptors (tags, locations etc.).
The point is that tags are not just descriptors, they are also turning points on the path through my data. These pivots or forks in the road, allow me to hop-step-jump from an article to other things within the same context through a tag, like another article, and then through to the author of it and maybe onwards to one of their other writings, to somebody’s bookmark collection of which it is a part, to that person’s blog etc.
It allows for navigation and triangulation that way, bringing me places I didn’t know about. That is a richness in association, multiple viewpoints etc, that a category system cannot produce. ( I even dreamt about tags and pivots once, in 2007)

So, don’t ditch tags because they cramp your style. Uncramp your style so you can use tags fruitfully.

Are Boarding Pass Barcodes Scary Or Not?

In various FB-feeds I see people posting warnings about not throwing away your boarding pass or showing it to others before you’ve returned home. This all because the barcodes on your boarding pass supposedly contain ‘all your personal information’ which hackers can then steal by scanning.

Sounds scary right, evil hackers having scanning apps and getting your personal information?

Well, there’s nothing scary about bar code scanners, you can download any number of them (Android, iOS). And if you do, you can scan your own boarding pass, just like the ominous hypothetical hacker in the video!

When you do that you realize: there is usually nothing in that barcode, that is not already printed on the boarding pass itself for all to read in clear text. So if you weren’t worried before that the info on your boarding pass might be useful to someone else, the barcode does not change that.

Taking a look at my own boarding passes
Here are two of my recent boarding passes.
Please note that the first boarding pass is an exception: usually the airline keeps the large part, that contains the barcode, when you board. In other cases such as self-printed boarding passes that’s not the case.
I scanned them with my phone, to reveal the information that the barcode contains.

boardingpass1 Scanned boarding pass 2
boarding pass, and scanned barcode

As you can see the barcode reveals:
M1ZIJLSTRA/ANTONARNOLDE CDGAMSAF 1640 343Y015F0048 147>1181OO5343BEY 2979690574758 0

You can find the standard used for boarding pass barcodes from the International Air Transport Association (IATA). The UN Agency ICAO has a (2009) version of that bpbc standard (PDF) available online. I have used page 39 for reference.

Let’s compare the contents of the barcode with what is already visible on the boarding pass. The barcode reads:

M: format code
1: 1 leg of my trip is on this boarding pass
E: ticket electronically issued
CDGAMS: flight from CDG (Paris Charles de Gaulle) to Amsterdam
AF: Air France
1640: flight number
343: date (Julian calendar), 9 December
Y: Economy class
015F: my seat
0048: my check-in number
1: passenger status
47: Field size of following variable size field
>: beginning of version number
1: version number
18: size of following structured message
1: passenger description
OO5: Source of check-in, source of boarding pass issuance
343: date of issue of boarding pass, 9 December
B: document type (boarding pass)
EY:airline designator for boarding pass issuer
29: field size of following message
79690574758: airline numeric code (7) and document serial number (ticket number)
0: selectee indicator

All of this is also on the boarding pass.

Boarding pass comparison

Interestingly some readable information on the boarding pass itself, a reference number (BEG4AP) is not in the barcode. This however is the one piece of info, in combination with my name, that could be used before a flight, e.g. to change seating. So here the boarding pass contains more information than the barcode on it.

Let’s look at another boarding pass, a mobile boarding pass from another part of the same trip, Paris to Belgrade a few days earlier.

boarding2 Scanned boarding pass

Scanning the QR-code reveals
M1ZIJLSTRA/A E6Y933Y CDGBEGJU 0315 338Y014C0002
317>503 M0E05796905747580

What is noticable is that it does not give my first name (it does on the boarding pass itself) and it mentions a different airline and flight number (JU 0315) than the boarding pass itself (AF6292). This because it was a code share with JU 0315 the ‘real’ flight carrier and number.

Here the barcode does contain one piece of information that isn’t on the boarding pass: the booking reference 6Y933Y. With it and my name one could change my bookings for the other parts of the trip (such as return flights), before they were made. Both the booking reference and PNR number on the other boarding pass are only useful before flights have taken place. As they are short, 6 positions, they get recycled quickly afterwards.

Other boarding passes I had
I have checked several other boarding passes I had,from various airlines and flights. A lot have the booking reference printed on it (e.g. Easyjet). I noticed that Lufthansa encodes my frequent flier number into the barcode, which is not always on the boarding pass (although often it is, Malaysia Airlines prints my freq flier number on the boarding pass). This too is one piece of information that might be used, in combination with the booking reference or a weak password or PIN-code to log into your frequent flyer account. Much depends on how ‘easy’ your airline makes it for ‘you’, and thus for others. KLM does not encode my frequent flier number as far as I can tell, but usually I don’t add my frequent flier number to my bookings at the point of booking.

In summary, scanning your barcode does not expose ‘all your personal information’, usually just what is printed on your boarding pass already. Sometimes your booking reference is encoded and not on the boarding pass, and sometimes your frequent flier number is encoded and not on the boarding pass, But not always by far, often they are also printed on your boarding pass already.

Booking references can potentially be used to change aspects of your flights, which is a risk if parts of your booking are still in the future (such as return flights). Frequent flier numbers can be used to attempt to login to your profile at the airline, which can be a risk if your account is only guarded with a PIN number or a weak password. The weakness there is in the airline’s website.

So throwing away your boarding passes only after your entire trip is generally a good idea. But not because of the barcodes per se, because of the information that is usually already readable on it (reference codes and frequent flier numbers).

Oh and of course if you post a boarding pass somewhere and have made some information invisible, then don’t forget to also make the barcode unscannable as it contains the same information.