Interesting stuff from around the web 2008-11-24

Google map of London with Flickr shape data overlaid by Matt Biddulph. Used under license.
Google map of London with Flickr shape data overlaid by Matt Biddulph. Used under license.

The Shape of Alpha – using mass data to reveal the perceived shape of geography [Code: Flickr Developer Blog]
“Plotted all the geotagged photos associated with a particular ‘Where On Earth ID’ (a database of places and bounding boxes, which describes the spatial hierarchy between places) to generate a mostly accurate contour of that place. Not a perfect representation, perhaps, but something more fine-grained than a bounding box.” How cool is that!?

Neighbourhood Boundaries [tomtaylor.co.uk]
Using the Flickr shapefiles to show you where the world thinks its neighbours are. Tom has written a bit about it here: “Of course, it’s not always right, so Flickr give you the option to override the place they guessed, with a more accurate name, as you perceive. For example, a photo taken near South Bank might better be described as Waterloo, or Embankment. Over time, this database leads to a more accurate representation of the shape and boundaries of the places in question, comprised of thousands of people photographs. Flickr are good enough to release this data in the form of shapefiles.”

The First 100 Days – what past US Presidents did in their first 100 days [goodmagazine.com]
Interesting to see how the first 100 days appear to be a good indicator for the tone and direction of the rest of the presidency. I now know what all Presidents and PMs should be made to answer “what will you do in your first 100 days”.

The BBC have hired a full time MusicBrainz server developer! [MusicBrainz Blog]
Just the sort of thing we should be doing. Helps the Web, helps the MuiscBrainz community and helps the BBC.

How to Price Your iPhone App out of Existence [Safe from the Losing Fight]
There will be an iPhone app bust. The current prices simply aren’t sustainable. Either developers will crash out of the market when they discover they can’t make a living off their current prices, or the gold rush developers will lose interest and leave when they realize they can’t make a quick buck off the store. The developers left standing will be the ones who set reasonable prices for their applications.

Users, Twits and Cameramen Under Fire [Nick Reynolds At Work]
Wise words from Nick – who continues the good fight in the war to kill of the UGC term. It is such a rude and self limiting term.

Life in the Linked Data Cloud – Calais Release 4 Coming Jan 09 [OpenCalais]
OpenCalais is to release its data as RDF and join it to the LOD cloud.

Coffee houses and civil liberty

For 11 days in 1675 King Charles II tried to suppress London’s coffee houses because they were regarded as “places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers“.

Spectateur by Jessie Romaneix. Used under license.
Spectateur by Jessie Romaneix. Used under license.

Seventeenth century coffee houses were great social levellers, open to all men from all walks of life, whatever their social status, and as a result were associated with equality and republicanism. Because they became meeting places where business could be carried on, news exchanged they were influential places – they provided bankers, intellectuals and artists with a forum to discuss political development and to carry out business. Indeed Lloyd’s of London and the London Stock Exchange both owe their very existence to the London coffee houses.

But with their popularity came controversy.

In 1674 The Women’s Petition Against Coffee was set up in London. Women complained that men were never to be found at home during times of domestic crises, since they were always enjoying themselves in the coffee houses. They circulated a petition protesting “the grand inconveniences accruing to their sex from the excessive use of the drying and enfeebling liquor”.

Strange to think that something so everyday as a coffee shop could on the one hand stir up such emotion and political fear and on the other provide a platform for some of the oldest and most successful companies in the world. Stranger yet that we are still making the same, wrong headed, decisions 333 years later.

Yesterday saw BBC newsbeat report that the “US Army warns of Twitter danger“:

US intelligence agencies are worried that terrorists might start to use new communication technologies like the blogging site Twitter to plan and organise attacks.

It goes on to quote the US Army report saying that:

Twitter is already used by some members to post and support extremist ideologies and perspectives.

Terrorists could theoretically use Twitter social networking in the US as an operational tool.

This follows the UK government’s desire to develop a central database of all mobile phone and internet traffic giving the police and security services easier access to the data.

As with coffee houses during the 17th century, the Internet is currently a new thing – one that is challenging and scary for some while at the same time providing an environment where communication and commerce can flourish for others. And unfortunately for us this presents a challenge for society today. The Internet is something that has happened to our current generation of policy makers – rather than something that they have grown up with – and while that is true it will be seen through the glasses of those that see it as something that is special and different – just as coffee shops were to King Charles II. Or as Douglas Adams puts it:

…it’s [the Internet] very new to us. Newsreaders still feel it is worth a special and rather worrying mention if, for instance, a crime was planned by people ‘over the Internet.’ They don’t bother to mention when criminals use the telephone or the M4, or discuss their dastardly plans ‘over a cup of tea,’ though each of these was new and controversial in their day.

But there are difference, for starters in 1675 King Charles II realised his mistake and reversed his decision after 11 days. Today’s politicians don’t appears to be as humble as 17th century kings – which is a little worrying. But more importantly today’s technologies provide massive leverage – and in situations like this that’s a problem.

When a government gives a QUANGO, the police or security services a new power that doesn’t necessarily  mean that that power can be acted upon. Indeed there are lots of pieces of legislation that aren’t acted upon, because they are just silly but there are also laws that aren’t acted upon because they are too difficult or too expensive to do so, or at least too expensive to do so indiscriminately.

Society has to date had a useful safety value – the police need to apply common sense and intelligence when apply their powers. There is no practical way in which they can apply all laws, as written, indiscriminately instead they needed to decide where and how best to apply those laws. And in return society and individuals regulated their activity – taking responsibility for their actions. Most people choose not to break the law, not because they think they will get caught and punished but because we moderate our actions based on social norms and our own moral compass. The police and security services provide a backstop should this go wrong.

But things are changing – big centralised databases that record everyone’s phone calls and email, keep track of DNA profiles, or otherwise store your Identity makes it much, much easier for a government to enforce a piece of legislation universally, indiscriminately. The cost associated with running a query across a database of phone calls is practically nil and this means a government no longer need prioritise its searches as it once did. There’s no point – you might as well just search the database for suspicious patterns in the data, since it costs next to nothing to do so.

Yes people use the Internet to do bad thing, and quite possibly Twitter is one of those services that bad people use. But they also plan bad things in coffee house but for the last 300 odd years we’ve realised that trying to legislate against coffee houses is a bad thing for society. I suspect in generations to come we will view the Internet in the same way – recognising that bad people, do bad thing and one of the place they do bad things is on the Internet but the Internet is just another platform, like coffee houses.