My least likely blog post ever

If you’d asked me for a list of topics I’m likely to write a blog post about, I doubt if Jade Goody would have featured in the top 1000. But here I am, joining in. In a way I guess I’m just trying to make sense of my own feelings on the issues.

Jade passed away this morning. A 27-year-old victim of cancer. By any measure, a tragic loss of a young life. And an avoidable loss – if the press is to believed, Jade ignored the results of a cervical screen test which had showed pre-cancerous cells, and allowed the disease to develop and subsequently spread.

With much of her recent life acted out (willingly and deliberately) in the glare of tabloid publicity, it was obvious that her illness would be lived the same way. The intimate secrets of a reality TV star hold no interest for me, but in my more gracious moments I will acknowledge that there must be more than a few people for whom it’s important enough to watch TV programmes and buy magazines devoted to the subject. So the world followed Jade’s illness and talked about how she coped, and how she ensured that her family would be provided for after her death in the only way she could- by selling the whole story to the press.

My mother died of cancer 28 years ago, and two of  my grandparents before that. They were not celebrities in any way, just 3 of the millions of loved ones who fight the disease every year. They lost their battles in a private way, retreating from their social lives and to some extent, their families as the illness progressed.

Nobody, not even close family, discussed the disease then, or even now. Nobody discussed the risks, the need for screening, treatment options (and the not insignificant side-effects of treatment), palliative care, or what to prepare for as their lives came to an end.

Today, cancer and the issues around it are on every front page and website. The NHS reports an up to 50% increase in demand for cervical cancer screening, and leading cancer charities are talking about increased awareness of the risks of cancer amongst young women in particular – the demographic that most identified with Jade and her plight. In short, cancer is a subject on the popular agenda for the first time.

It might be for what you could describe as the wrong reasons, but I believe that the taboo around the terrible disease of cancer may just have died along with its latest celebrity victim.

God bless, Jade, and your young family.

March 22, 2009 at 10:18 am 1 comment

Free UK postcodes database – genius!

This is such a good idea, it’s a wonder nobody thought of it before….

Mike Butcher at Techcrunch writes about freeethepostcode.org. It’s a project to crowdsource GPS-collected lat/long coordinates for UK postcodes, in order to create a free (as in beer, and as in freedom) geocoding service for the masses.

The Royal Mail-owned canonical postcode database is not free in either sense. It costs a fortune, and is strictly licensed. It’s one of the many betes noir which have been in the sights of the ‘Free Our Data‘ movement for ages – along with the much-debated Ordnance Survey map data, which is also being challenged by the Freethepostcode’s excellent sister project Openstreetmap.

Freethepostcode has an iPhone and Android mobile client, which should make submitting coordinates for postcodes that you visit dead easy. As long as you source the coordinates from GPS, the data you submit is free from copyright and can be placed in the public domain. There’s already a simple geocoder service running which translates postcodes to lat/long and vice versa – but of course it’s only as accurate as the underlying data. You can make it better by submitting postcodes yourself.

This project is a great example of a practical way to overcome outdated copyright restrictions around public data. More power to its elbow.

February 10, 2009 at 11:32 am Leave a comment

Uktrains twitter app getting up steam

A few weeks back, Ben Smith (@bensmithuk) released the first few parts of a Twitter feed for UK train service information. His application takes disruption and other service information feeds from the BBC, processes them through Yahoo! Pipes, and feeds a set of train company-specific Twitter feeds with the result.  An interested user simply has to follow the feed for the train company they’re interested in.

As with all these things, it ain’t rocket science. But it *is* a great idea, well implemented. And it’s something that NRES (National Rail Enquiry Service) or some other rail industry body really should be doing themselves. As Ben explains on the Uktrains wiki, he can’t even source the information directly from NRES because of their copyright restrictions – instead, he uses the BBC Backstage license to get the same information second-hand from the BBC instead. Madness.

However – Ben’s latest feature is something that NRES would never do themselves. The service is now 2-way. Passengers experiencing delays can send a tweet to Ben’s application, which will re-tweet an alert to all users following the relevant train company feed.

Again, this seems like a simple enhancement. But my bet is that it will catch on like wildfire, and deliver a near realtime train running information service directly from affected passengers to others. You can read about the service on the wiki, and try it out yourself.

That’s what the internet’s for.

February 9, 2009 at 12:00 pm Leave a comment

Facebook goes public, kills Twitter?

Facebook announced recently that they’re opening up public access to their users’ status feeds – meaning that users and applications outside of the Facebook walled garden can ‘follow’ a Facebook user’s updates. A bit like Twitter, you might think – and you’d be mostly right.

But as Mike Butcher points out on Techcrunch, there are a number of good reasons why it won’t work the same way.  Facebook is still an inherently closed platform, even though they’ve opened a small window. Twitter is inherently public, and thrives on users reading non-private directed communication between others. Facebook’s a long way from delivering that.

February 7, 2009 at 2:16 pm Leave a comment

Google gives us a little Latitude – so what?

Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave, or don’t use Twitter (I think those two things are more or less equivalent), you’ll know that a few days ago, Google unleashed Latitude on an unsuspecting world.

What’s Latitude? A new feature in Google Maps that displays the location of your friends on the map. Simple, really. It gets the location from a mobile Gmaps client (version 3.0, currently available for S60, Windows Mobile, Android and Blackberry. Note no iPhone/iPod Touch yet).  The client uses whatever technology is available on the handset for location discovery – cellID, GPS or wifi hotspot ident. It sends the currently detected location to Google servers every so often, and your authorised friends can see where you are on their own mobile client or an iGoogle widget.

Depending on your approach to these things, Latitude is one or more of:

  • Really exciting
  • Scary as hell due to privacy concerns
  • Not much use without an API and third-party apps
  • Nothing new

Dealing with the last point first – well, Latitude isn’t doing anything that you can’t already do with a combination of existing tools and services. Brightkite provides a location-cum-social-network mashup, which only lacks the automatic update feature to be as good, if not better, than Latitude. Yahoo’s Fire Eagle is a location-sharing platform with a rich API and set of security features, ready to integrate with mobile clients and other applications.  (Other applications are available). But Google is past-master at doing something that has always been possible, but doing it in a highly scalable, user-centric Google-ish way, and running off with market share in the process. Gmail is the obvious example.

Is Latitude exciting? Yes, without doubt. It brings the principle of visual social location tracking closer to mass-market availability. It also acts as a pathfinder to stimulate discussion on the privacy issues that are doing the rounds, and a catalyst for futher innovation both by Google and smaller parties.

Is it scary? Only if you let it. Latitude will only share your location with people you specifically tell it to. You choose who you invite and whose invitations you accept. Even if you do share, you get to choose whether to restrict the location information shared to city-level, or disclose full details. And you can do this per friend. So if you choose to share with someone you don’t know, and they turn out to be a stalker or a burglar, that’s down to your poor judgement. Nobody did it for you.

The further privacy question is – should you share your location with Google? That’s up to you. Your mobile network already knows your location whenever the phone’s switched on, so I don’t see any extra risk. Google has, as usual, a list of FAQs on this and other issues, in which they state they don’t accumulate historic data about your position, they simply register the latest update.

I think the most interesting question about Latitude is the one about APIs and third party apps. Latitude itself is very cute, but after you’ve spent a few hours adding friends and seeing whether they’re skiving at home during the unseasonable weather, what are you going to do with it next? The true value in location information is the ability to mash it up with other data, track it over time, and generally make use of it in innovative ways. You can’t do this with Latitude – until they release an API. Contrast this with Yahoo Fire Eagle, which is a platform the consists entirely of a secure API to allow location information to be brokered and shared with whichever applications the user authorises.

Here’s an example. My next bright  idea is a hosted application that sends you an SMS when a nominated other individual approaches a specific location. I can use this to get a message to my partner that I’m going to need a lift home from the station shortly, without having to wake up early from my commuter nap. That’s a very easy thing to do using Fire Eagle as a back-end broker, provided I have a mobile client that updates Fire Eagle. But I can’t do it with Latutude because it doesn’t have an API for my application to use to look up my location. (The more observant and knowledgeable reader will know that Brightkite has some functionality like this built in. I said it was just an example…).

My conclusion, then, is that Latitude is a Good Thing. It gets people talking about location-based services, brings the privacy issues to the fore, and lets people like me speculate about fancy new capabilities. It will doubtless be developed further, hopefully in the areas that early users have already identified – an API to allow third-party apps, and the ability to integrate with other location-aware applications and platforms, such as Fire Eagle.

I’m looking forward to it.

Update: Added a trackback to this post on Mobile Industry Review by Rummble‘s Andrew Scott. Pretty much says it all.

February 6, 2009 at 6:47 pm 1 comment

Snow joke

Completely agree with this post by Pete Ashton. It’s a pet hobby-horse of mine (one of many!). Comparing the way the UK copes with severe weather with what happens in cold places is completely daft – those places know it’s going to be cold 50% of the time, and build a transport infrastructure in anticipation.

In the UK we get snow like we’re seeing now once every 10 years or so – the additional cost involved for us to provide 100% reliability through such a rare event would be enormous, and no taxpayer or fare-payer would stomach it for a moment.

February 2, 2009 at 2:38 pm Leave a comment

Crowdsourced snow reports on Twitter

Twitter is proving fascinating for yet another unexpected application this evening. Along with many other people, I’m sat glued to the snow reports coming in from around the country, using the hashtag #uksnow. The topic is vying for top slot on the ‘trending topics’ list with the Superbowl – quite some achievement!

Many contributors are using a standard format, which should, if anyone’s so inclined, make it dead easy to extract the feed and drive a map mashup. Realtime weather status via Twitter – brilliant.

Why not join in? http://twurl.nl/d27uvr to follow the #uksnow tweets on Twitterfall.

Update: The map mashup has materialised here. Huge props to @benmarsh.

February 1, 2009 at 5:32 pm 3 comments

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