Author Archives: Ton Zijlstra

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.

Week Notes #6

A regular week the past 7 days.

  • Open data work for the Province of Overijssel, with a open data working group meeting and writing a preliminary report for the programme board.
  • Meeting with the Frisian open data working group, sketching the path to the new publication moment at the end of March, to extend what’s available on the Frisian open data platform
  • A good Techsolidarity meet-up in Utrecht, discussing the new EU privacy rules GDPR, and how to do that by design.
  • A session with the Province South-Holland open data team discussing how to build an effective data inventory this spring
  • Welcoming our new intern Jan, who will work on data ethics, and our new colleague LouLou, who will assist in one of our projects
  • Met up with an old university friend I haven’t met since about 20 years
  • Acquired two VHF/UHF transmitters, now that I’ve reactivated my old ham radio license (PE1NOR)
  • Dropped off my ‘Measure your city‘ sensor kit for repair, after the wind blew it out of a tree

Star Man Live

Yes, it is the folly of man, or rather Elon Musk, and can be seen as a hubris filled PR stunt: launching a Tesla Roadster into space just because. But is a good upgrade from the wheel of cheese he launched in 2010, and it sure beats lumping blocks of concrete into orbit to see if a rocket works as planned. Landing 2 boosters to be re-used is no mean feat either even if the core engine missed its landing site and crashed, nor is reducing the cost of a launch 10-fold. The successful test launch of this Falcon Heavy shows Space X is more than serious about pushing development forward. Having fun by hurling a car into space is just the cherry, not the cake.

The resulting live video footage of the empty space suit behind the wheel with our blue ball circling in the background is pure fun. Topped off by a Don’t Panic message on the dashboard. I only hope Star Man that as rumour has it indeed brought a towel for the next leg of the trip in the general direction of Mars and then ever onwards.

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.

Week Notes #5

This week didn’t feel very productive. Lots of various stuff to think about, meant I did less focus work. Some of the things this week I did spend time on.

  • Open data work for the Province of Overijssel, meeting some departmental heads
  • Had a preparatory meeting for upcoming work in Serbia for the UNDP early March, and wrote a first draft for how to approach it
  • Provided feedback on a project proposal for an open data readiness assessment by the Palestinian NGO Leaders.
  • Made a first draft for a planned talk at the Open Belgium 2018 Conference
  • Discussed a potential project in Georgia
  • Made a short video on using data sharing and open data as a way to find out things you don’t know yet about your core client group, as part of a proposal for project in health care.
  • Activated a Things Network gateway, and reached out to the local community group to get more involved

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.