Random Etc. Notes to self. Work, play, and the rest.

Posts Tagged ‘time’

If I Had More Time

"Mr. Micawber was waiting for me within the gate, and we went up to
his room (top story but one), and cried very much. He solemnly
conjured me, I remember, to take warning by his fate; and to
observe that if a man had twenty pounds a-year for his income, and
spent nineteen pounds nineteen shillings and sixpence, he would be
happy, but that if he spent twenty pounds one he would be
miserable. After which he borrowed a shilling of me for porter,
gave me a written order on Mrs. Micawber for the amount, and put
away his pocket-handkerchief, and cheered up."

I am the Mr Micawber of time, being that I'm over-spending just slightly this month. Hopefully I'll make it up this year!

If I had more time I might blog about a small revival in minimal geeky location-based fun stuff that's happening with sites like noticin.gs and blockchalk.com. I might also note that foursquare got funding which is good because even though I'm not particularly attracted to the service it's a better experience than its competitors by a long way (and much less creepy, I think). And I'd note that opengeodata.org has stopped being about OpenStreetMap exclusively and that if you want to get Steve Coast's attention there are a million things he's thinking about these days.

If I had more time to blog and more time to think, I'd stop leaving cranky comments trying to answer Manuel Lima's false dichotomy and Robert Kosara's straw man and I'd stop worrying about definitions of data and aesthetics and analysis and I'd be happy to frame the argument in terms of prickles and goo instead.

"it is inevitable that there will soon be a large number of hybrid designer-engineers that shall radically reconstruct the visual landscape." – John Maeda

This debate isn't new and it's not going away either. John Maeda and friends have been pointing out the rise of gooey-prickles and prickley-goo for years. I wonder if prickly folks at RISD are getting gooier, and vice versa.

My money's on the middle ground too, which is why I find narrow and divisive definitions so frustrating. Why can't we have aesthetically pleasing data analysis? (Of course there will be pure analysis with no emphasis on aesthetics, just as there will be pure aesthetics with no emphasis on data. Sometimes the latter with be art to make a point. That's cool!)

If I had more time to think and blog, I'd have told you about our intern Amy Martin and how she worked with us over the summer on some Wikipedia stuff to hone her hybrid designer-developer skills, and how that seems to be paying off nicely. And I'd mention the new GAFFTA space in San Francisco that is running workshops also recognising this kind of work without worrying overmuch about definitions. We'll be there next month.

Gosh. If I had more time I'd never blog.

mySociety Travel Time and House Price Maps

O'Reilly Radar has the scoop on the most recent thing I've finished working on at Stamen. Interactive travel time and house price maps for London. Go play, and read what mySociety have to say, including the ones for BBC TV Centre and the Olympic Stadium site. Then come back and read this full post if you want the background info...

mySociety travel time map for SW1P 4DR

I've had a slow debate running with mySociety's Tom Steinberg since Euro FOO '06 about the best way to present travel time mapping, after we compared notes from my travel time tube map for London and the work Chris Lightfoot did on mapping transport travel times in the UK as a whole.

It seemed like the best way to settle this debate would be for mySociety and Stamen to work together updating their maps and see if we could get the best of both worlds. MySociety had comprehensive travel time data that they, uh, acquired from Transport Direct and Transport for London's journey planners. They also had an ace up their sleeves with the purchase of house price data for London from the UK's land registry. So far the volunteer-led map design had come up with strong proofs of concept, but a consistent set of presentation material was needed to make a compelling argument about the usefulness of these maps in the general case.

Our initial attempts to update the map began with a couple of days of Tom Steinberg and I alternately hunched over Photoshop and poring over the Edward Tufte books (passages recommended by the man himself) and looking for an appropriate colour gradient to represent travel contours (I didn't know about this resource at the time). All the while Francis Irving was back in the UK working on the heavy lifting behind the project, getting the data gathering and overlay rendering up to speed. We tried a few different things, but actually I thought that the palette Tom had worked on with mySociety volunteer Richard Pope was pretty good, and that's the one we used for these static contour maps. (Early mySociety results on the left, updated one in the middle, my final one on the right).

mySociety map options

These maps got much less satisfying with the addition of the house price zones, however. That was what Tom had originally asked us to help with; a thorny problem that needed a new approach. After poking around with the various two and three colour overlays with my colleague Mike it became clear that the combinations of masks and outlines were immensely confusing to work with. In addition to this problem, Tom and Francis at mySociety wanted to be flexible about the most appropriate configuration of house prices and travel times to tell a convincing story about the data later. My initial plan had been to set up a workflow in Photoshop to quickly produce the image files they needed. As the complexity of that task became clear, it got less and less attractive.

I had been resisting reaching for a programming solution to the design and cartography problem, but it became clear the manual processing was going to be onerous and difficult to keep consistent. So I asked Francis to provide me with a house price overlay that displayed small price increments using a grey-scale gradient, instead of solid colours between large price bands. Then whilst Tom Steinberg was out at a meeting I cooked up a quick slider experiment in flash to see if the approach had merit, and the difference was astounding. From that moment I was hooked on giving everyone access to what we were playing with, even if it meant working on it over Stamen's christmas break (time/budget constraints had already excluded building a slippy Google-Maps-style map, for example).

Here's a picture of what the house price masks looked like at that point, two colour bands on the left (constrained, harsh), and the new small price increment one (cloudy, beautiful) on the right:

mySociety house price mask comparison

The next task focused on getting a consistent set of base maps for the work, rather than using a hotch-potch of Ordnance Survey maps. The OS maps are world-class for accuracy, of course, but the cartography changes radically at each different scale and the maps aren't designed for on-screen viewing, let alone for data presentation. Naturally (given my history with the project) we turned to OpenStreetMap as a data source and asked Nick Black from ZXV to help produce maps that would be a drop-in replacement for the OS maps mySociety had been using so far.

OSM layers for mySociety maps

One thing that Nick's involvement got us was separate layers of data (above), which let us get more fancy with the presentation later on, and keep the labels on top of the data. Of course flexibility giveth, and flexibility taketh away: later on, it took me a while to figure out how to get the text rendering in Flash to match the mapnik style Nick was providing us (more on that later).

So, armed with new map layers, gradient overlays and masks for travel time and house prices, I set about creating a Flash piece that Tom and Francis could configure for themselves (and they did). They're tough cookies to please, of course, and getting something ready that we were all happy with (on volunteer time, across an 8 hour time difference) took patience on everyone's part. Looking at the finished pieces I hope you'll agree that it's worth it, and if you happen to be a transport routing expert sitting on a system that could help produce these maps for everyone, working around the issues Francis identified, then I hope you get in touch!

I have to leave this post here for now, but I hope to go into more detail about the Flash code (which is over here, under a BSD license) in a future post.

Why Wait?

Abstracts and attendees are now online for Why Wait?, a workshop being held at UCL next week.

Here's a summary of what I'm thinking about in this area:

There are several ways to manage a waiting process (e.g. numbered tickets at the cheese counter or single queues for multiple service points at the post office). These methods can be objectively measured; the effect on waiting times and processing rates can be quantified. But the effect on the experience of waiting is less objective and cannot easily be measured. How might we better understand these issues, in particular the perception of fairness, to design better waiting experiences that are optimal not only in their use of resources but also in their impact on the people who are waiting?

Nice to note that Dave Chatting will be attending. My brief conversation with Dave about our shared interest in time-based maps led to a couple of interesting posts on Computing for Emergent Architecture. It will be good to pick up that discussion again.