28 Apr 2011

Wealth, electricity and signal [and the history of the world]

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It’s not at all surprising that wealth, electricity and mobile phone signal things are often found together, yet when viewed on a map the correlations remain striking. One further thing, that had not crossed my mind, is how the history of the world – at least according to online sources such as Wikipedia – also comes with a geographical distribution.

We had a about half an hour of head-scratching earlier this month when Google changed their maps API – our OpenSignalMaps heat map overlays continued to work but the map beneath disappeared. What resulted was a map of signal without the distractions of borders or even continents. As discussed previously these stripped down maps can be extremely informative. That’s when we took the below screen shot. Note that the empty areas do not mean no signal, just no readings – no-one is using OpenSignalMaps there.

Uncannily similar to the below wealth map, from http://www.econbrowser.com/

Econobrowser also include a famous image from Nasa of the Earth at night.From Nasa via Econobrowser The same pattern once again.

History of the world (according to wikipedia)
Gareth Lloyd and Tom Martin’s wonderful project A History of The World in 100s recently won History Hackday. They geocoded events from Wikipedia articles and then mapped them. You can find the full story and a video visualisation here. We knew Gareth back at Oxford and now he continues to work on brilliant stuff.

Below is their Fusion Tables based representation of the data.

These four maps represent four inequalities of quite different types, yet clearly correlated:
Inequality of infrastructure and opportunity – the signal map shows, more than anything, where people are using smart phones, perhaps the best technological tools for connecting people to others.
Inequality of wealth – the GDP density map shows where high concentrations of wealth have accumulated
Inequality of waste – the sky at night shows how much energy is wasted as light
Inequality of information footprint – This is perhaps the most important to note: we cannot doubt that Asia, South America have rich histories and those histories are (to a great extent) recorded but often not accessible in the sources we most often turn to – Wikipedia, or perhaps Google.

It is claimed that information is without borders. To a certain extent it is – it can travel quite happily between states (just as the signal heat map overflows borders). However it takes wealth, technology and electricity to access the greatest sources of information. With the distribution of material resources these virtual borders will be taken down.

25 Mar 2011

Where the streets have no name: unmapping the world

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Borderless world map is the answer to a question I recently asked myself: what would a map look like when removed of all names and borders? Surprisingly, my usual source (googling) could not provide me with an answer. The buzz is about creating yet more detailed maps: what merit could there be to a map which gives you no place names?

Cartography has always aimed for the finest levels of detail. First the world is divided up into countries, then into smaller administrative regions (states, cantons, counties, quartiers, barios, boroughs…) the labelling of cities and towns is another implicit form of taxonomy: a way of partitioning the world. The utility of detailed maps cannot be doubted, yet there is a danger to it: proud of their level of detail we forget that these lines and words – borders and place names – are only features because we agree they are features. Without people they have no meaning. They are tacked on. A bird migrating does not see them.

What’s interesting to me is that maps are part of a feedback loop that shapes our view on the world: perceived differences between groups of people created nations, this created borders, borders were added to maps. Looking at maps only reinforces the perceived differences. Looking at an empty map is informative – it reminds us that the world is inherently seamless.

In the linked map borders have been removed but all other features have been left in – roads, buildings, airports – their labels suppressed. Though the map is filled with features, the missing words give me, at times, the impression of a planet empty of people – or at least of a planet not owned by people.

On a technical note, this is extremely simple to do using Google Maps API V3 which introduced to possibility to style maps.

To see the full map: Borderless world map

Without labels London seems empty.

17 Mar 2011

Limericks Map for St Patrick’s Day

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To celebrate St Patrick’s day we’ve knocked together this Limericks map:

For more details and analysis: Limerick Crime Map According to Edward Lear

08 Mar 2011

Limericks Lite featured in the T-mobile App Channel

Android No Comments

Our free ebook of classic Limericks by Edward Lear has been featured in T-mobile’s app channel… Thanks T-mobile, we think you have excellent taste in comic Android apps!

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared! –
Two Owls and a Hen, four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard.

- Shake for random
- Save favourites
- Publish to your facebook
- Email friends

Unadulterated nonsensical genius.

26 Feb 2011

Uk Charity Shop Map

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A map of over 8000 charity shops in the UK. Click on the icons more details.

I’ve been interested in Fusion Tables for a while. While Google Maps api allows a huge amount of flexibility, and is even more powerful and easy to use with V3, Fusion Tables are great because:
-They allow you to create maps extremely quickly (much faster than with the Google Maps API)
-They offer a really easy format for sharing data (you can share the base data in exactly the same way as you can share google docs)
At a talk we went to about a month ago, Google developer advocate Mano Marks, stressed that while Google maps are great for tech geeks to use they can be a bit, er, involved for anyone who is not a coder. Fusion Tables, in contrast, offer a really intuitive way to get mapping, if you only know the most basic things about how to use a spreadsheet you’ll get along fine with Fusion Tables and you can have a map in minutes.
Fusion tables can’t really do the things we’re up to with Open Signal Maps (we built our own heat mapping system to display the data) but for quick things like this they’re perfect.

19 Feb 2011

What is limiting the start-up scene in Argentina? Can the mobile explosion help?

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I spend a lot of time in Buenos Aires and I’ve been thinking about this problem for a little while. The city has many qualities that could make it a good incubator for start-ups. It’s got a highly educated population, it has a tradition of creativity (thoughmainly in the arts), there exist government incentives for various industries – buy a house in Villa Crespo and you don’t need to pay tax if you’re an online video editor. Furthermore SUN and Microsoft have big offices downtown and Google has its Latin American HQ here. There’s a huge student population at the well respected UBA; students make great entrepreneurs – Staircase 3 has it roots at Oxford university, or  if you want a more famous example try Mark Zuckerberg. There are some great startups here especially round the areas of game development and outsourced IT but with all the talent it could be a lot bigger. What’s holding it back?

1. Barrier to entry of the cost of electronics. Not a huge problem – notebooks have helped a lot here, most middle-class people now have access to broadband internet. More powerful machines, however, are more expensive

2. There is only one major city and its expensive to visit other places. Consider the European start-up scene: London and Berlin lead the way, but events take place all over (LeWeb in Paris, MobileWorldCongress – where OpenSignalMaps got a bit of attention – in Barcelona). This really helps with networking and exploring more markets. A return ticket Buenos Aires to London is $1300. Sao Paulo is nearby however and tickets there are just $300. This is not a major factor but it does make a difference.

The most important factor:
3. Lack of e-commerce businesses in Argentina means there is a lot less money in the tech sector. There is no Amazon in Argentina, no Ebay (it just redirects to the Spanish site, no-one is listing stuff here). E-commerce money drives not only e-commerce but a huge range of entrepreneurship, before we look at how it does so, let’s look at why it hasn’t taken-off in Argentina:

There are two main problems keeping Argentina from developing a thriving e-commerce sector.

-The post is not sufficiently reliable. Companies like DHL and UPS are reliable but they extremely expensive here – and I’d love to hear some reasons why. I went to DHL to try to post some keys from Buenos Aires to London. No more than 20g. $120 US was the cheapest option. Wow.
- People don’t do electronic payments. It’s not an issue of not being net savvy, it’s that the banks don’t offer them, and businesses and consumers don’t trust them. There is a chronic (and perhaps not undeserved) mistrust of the banks here, it has it roots in the financial crisis of 2001. That’s another story.

So how much does Argentina miss out on from its lack of ecommerce potential? A lot. Ecommerce and its derivatives is a huge driver of online innovation. Just look at the projects Jeff Bezos of Amazon has invested in: ChaCha (Q&A site), Linden Labs (behind Second Life), 37Signals (awesome CRM and project management tools) to name but 3 of many. None of them e-commerce, but all helped by money that has come from e-commerce. Think about how many projects Google has sponsored and all the projects of ex-Googlers too… and don’t forget that money mostly comes from AdWords, which works because of e-commerce. Of course e-commerce isn’t the only way to make money through the web but missing out on this does remove one important avenue of funds.

The above factors are, I’m sure, not unique to Argentina. The good news is that the mobile explosion might help. Argentina has a good tradition of game development and games are the big sellers on phones. But the selling of games as apps doesn’t require striking publishing deals with big companies, like ecommerce the time to revenue is very low. Indeed the start up costs, at least with Android, are really low – $20  gets you a google developer account, app developments greatest investments are time and creativity. As the app economy becomes larger it offers the potential to incubate start-up scenes all over the world.

18 Feb 2011

Open Signal Maps launched

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Just under a week ago, 12/2/2010, we launched our Open Signal Maps website. The app has been around since the beginning of December and now has over 100,000 downloads on the Android market alone (it is also available on other markets). We’ve received quite a lot of media attention since then, with articles on Open Signal Maps appearing in TechCrunch, Time, CNN, Mashable and numerous other sites. The idea is very simple: we want to map the world’s signal strength. We want people to be able to have an impartial view on the capabilities of different networks in different places. For more details go to the OpenSignalMaps site.

14 Jan 2011

Resolved: Changes to Highrise Certificate & Problems with Rooftop

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The guys at 37Signals have resolved this issue. Rooftop should be working again.


37Signals have recently changed the SSL certificate to one that is not trusted by Android. This is causing causing problems connecting to Highrise in our code. This was a change made across other 37Signals web apps, the change also affected Campfire and Android Campfire clients (Camppyre), however it has now been reversed for Campfire. 37Signals will reverse the change for Highrise but do not seem to have done so yet.
When this happens the app should start working.

More details:

10 Nov 2010

Issues logging out and back in to Rooftop – resolved

Android, Rooftop No Comments

It has just come to our attention that something’s changed about the Highrise API. Or at least we’re getting HTTP 301 (content moved) codes on accessing a particular page that is essential to retrieving your auth token which lets the app work. So avoid logging out until we can fix this. I’m looking at it now.

UPDATE: this was because Highrise changed all links to SSL, we’ve updated the app to reflect this… so log in and out as you wish!

06 Oct 2010

Droid beta testers needed

Android 3 Comments

We’re looking for someone interested in beta testing a signal finding app. We’ve got a version of this app out in the UK and other countries (Signal Radar) but it’s only been tested with GSM phones.

The app shows you the direction of the cell tower that you’re receiving your data from. It also graphs your signal and does other nifty things. It’s designed as a quick tool to help you pick up more bars.

If you’ve got a droid using CDMA (on Verizon say) or any other CDMA android we’d love to hear from you.