What next for CodeTheCity?

We kicked off CodeTheCity with our first Aberdeen event on 21st – 22nd June 2014 which really couldn’t have been better.

We had some 38 volunteers – service users, service owners, coders, designers, bloggers – all of whom turned up and give around 700 hours of their time over the weekend to eight civic hacking projects. At least three of these are sufficiently-well developed that they can be taken forward as live ‘things’ – and the others have at least sown the seeds of further challenges and may go further.

CodeTheCity Logo

CodeTheCity Logo

You can find much more here:




But where do we go next and what do we do?

Well, I’ve had a chat with Steve Milne. He’s not just one of the four main collaborators behind this endeavour, he’s also the driving force behind the name, the concept, the site and much more.

He and I are pretty much agreed on most of how we take this forward. So here are my thoughts.

The concept of CodeTheCity is not limited to Aberdeen. We’ve already had interest from Edinburgh and Helsinki – and it is generic enough to work anywhere. To that end, Steve has drafted a manifesto and a guide to running a CodeTheCity weekend. He’d like your feedback on those.

While, I’m keen to see what happens further afield – and how we can support and guide that where necessary, I’m also determined to ensure that we keep it working in Aberdeen – using our first outing as a springboard for future activities, events, and engagement between the different communities, organisations, and individuals who supported us.

The drive still needs to be bottom-up (rather than led by official organisations) with service users, and some service owners, bringing us challenges and problems to work on. That said, we do need, and recognize, the support from the local authority, academia, SMEs, and larger international organisations, all of whom have instantly recognises that there is a model here which is worth supporting.

Working with local groups

We had representatives of some Aberdeen community centres there at the June 2014 event, and some sports staff, some council employees from the translation service and so on.

Next time we need broader participation – and having had conversations with each of those groups in the last week, I’m confident that their enthusiasm for the format and approach and keenness to keep it going will pull others in.

There are other models that we can look at and learn from – such as Apps For Amsterdam, and Appsterdam who have broad community bases.

We also need to work with my employers – Aberdeen City Council(ACC)  – and look at some fundamentals, such as how data is gathered, stored and made available for re-use. Doing this right would not only generate much more open data, allowing greater sharing and re-use, but would also benefit end users, and make it easier for CodeTheCity participants by avoiding some of the issues we had around scraping sport timetable data or FOI data from closed systems.

We want open data to be at the heart of most of what we do. This presents opportunities to decentralise some of the maintenance of data (eg for Community Contacts) and rather than rely solely in Library staff, in this instance, look at how some of that could be looked after by the groups whose data it is.

This ties neatly in to Aberdeen City Council’s participation in Code For Europe(C4E), which I’m leading, and on which Andrew Sage is our Code Fellow. Part of what we’re doing locally with CodeTheCity is providing small-scale test beds for projects that could be scaled up or broadened out with C4E support.

Both have at their heart the need for data – clean, open, maintained, accurate, timely – and also for user involvement in developing web applications and associated services.

Next steps

So, in summary, as I see it at the moment, the future for CodeTheCity in Aberdeen is rosy.The energy at the June event, and the number of subsequent conversation, expressions of commitment, and a common desire to keep doing more is infinitely greater than I’ve experienced in association with any previous hack weekend.

So we can expect

  • more events – at least one big-scale one in Autumn 2014, with potential smaller informal or linked ones meantime,
  • support from ACC’s CodeForEurope programme in further developing some of the infrastructure requirements (eg for an Open Data repository, use of Open311, CitySDK) and sourcing and making available many new datasets,
  • a growing awareness and buy-in from ACC senior managers that the CodeTheCity approach is one that works – by getting service users, providers, coders and others together to identify, workshop and design new solutions.

I, for one, am excited and energised by how positive the future CodeTheCity looks.

If you attended the June event and enjoyed it – tell your friends. If you missed it but like the sound of it, get in touch. Get on our mailing list and we’ll make sure that you know when we announce the next activities.

Ian

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MatchTheCity Project at CodeTheCity

A quick update from Code The City.

I’m working with the #MatchTheCity project team. Our aim is to provide some of the data and infrastructure to support other projects – such as #BigSociety.

I’ve been working with Dave Morrison, the Code Fellow for East Lothian who came up for the weekend, on liberating some seriously closed data and making it open.

Meantime Andrew Sage, Aberdeen City’s Code Fellow, has been working on processing the data and making a data model to hold it all – and offer it up online for the other projects.

 

SAMSUNG CSCDave and I have scraped and transcribed

  • The current Sport Aberdeen Timetable which is a very odd piece of work. Not open, has to be forced to show all days events, uses javascript to reveal rows and uses jpegs to denote the day of the week, rather than text. Dave did a great job of scraping this.
  • The Aquatics Centre timetable. This is a PDF – so not open, needs a ruler and a print-off to work out the start and end of session times, (couldn’t be read by a screen reader),isn’t even scrapable so it had to be hand transcribed. Also service disruptions are marked in the HTML page above rather separate to the PDF.
  • The Exercise Classes at Aberdeen Sports Village. This was easier to scrape semi automatically, but could be much better.

At present, there is no way to search across these – eg if you just want to find out where you can lane-swim tonight, or establish what family sports opportunities are available next Saturday.

We also created a json file of venues’ details.

Andrew then create this in Heroku. And everything is on Github here.

The scraping we’ve done will provide a static snapshot. We need to work with Aberdeen City Council’s Education Culture and Sport directorate to work out how we get open data sources to be set up and maintained for these, so we can offer back the data for integration into the website.

Iain Learmonth has pulled most of these data into Linked Data format (all in 20 minutes).

Dave is now working on mapping this. Almost done.

Rowan Evenstar helped with some styling of the page.

Show and tell at 3pm.

Update: the styling and mapping won’t work on the Heroku-hosted site, while both work on local copies. This is no biggie. The heroku site was created just to visualise what we’d got into the back-end system, and would not be a longterm solution to viewing it anyway.

Oh, and #MatchTheCity won the popular vote after the show and tell, which was nice!

Ian

 

Scraping Tools – A quick round-up

I’ve written here before about using Scraperwiki to scrape content from websites which haven’t implemented OpenData.

I have even used Scraper Wiki to scrape our own website to get badly-formed content out in a structured way for a hack.

Now, sadly, Scraperwiki is no longer free, and old scrapers are mostly frozen. So if you are about to embark on a hackathon you might be looking for an alternative.

I’ve noticed four recently – but have yet to test these.

  • Morph a web-based tool from OpenAustralia. Write scrapers in Ruby, Python or PHP
  • Portia: released yesterday(!) – available via GitHub, soon to be made available as a hosted service
  • Import.IO – A free web-hosted service that promises further (maybe paid for) features. Looks like a great Help section with support, webinars etc.

Have you used any of these? Leave a comment with your experiences. Or let me know of other alternatives!

Ian

Code For Europe (Scotland)

As I wrote in my previous post, Aberdeen City Council have joined Code for Europe 2014.

Code For Europe Badge

Code For Europe Badge

Following the international meeting in Barcelona, and ahead of the appointment of the code fellows, the four participating Scottish councils came together in Edinburgh this week to compare where we are and what our next steps will be.

As part of that meeting Katalin Gallyas of Amsterdam city municipality addressed the group on that city’s experiences. She spoke of the development of the apps mentioned in my previous post, but also covered a number of other issues. These included tools they use, such as Open Data Kit, and the choice of Open Data platform. “Beware the big corporates offering expensive, proprietary platforms”. Amsterdam chose CKAN an open source one. This is a choice that the Scottish authorities need to make – and perhaps an opportunity for something on which we could collaborate.

She also covered the extensive and enviable Open Data ecosystem that exists in Amsterdam. This involved

  • SMEs, hackers, coders,
  • Business accelerators
  • Innovation intermediaries
  • EU projects and funding
  • An open-minded city government
  • Participatory citizens

In 2014 Amsterdam are seeking national and EU funding – and they have committed to having

Badge with the slogan I Amsterdam

I Amsterdam

4 fulltime employees who amongst other duties will be collecting evidence and use-cases on reusable Apps.

All of this activity and engagement is bringing the state-of-the-art into city hall, shifting from traditional in-house one-off developments (that we see all over the place) to the use of tools such as Tableau or GitHub, allied to the adoption of and growing familiarity with concepts such as Commons / Standards, civic coders, hackers, grassroots tech.

She suggested that in following such a model Scotland needs to be looking for sources of external funding – such as Horizon 2020, but also at growing entrepreneurship, and developing a local Open Data ecosystem.

We also need to look at Apps For Amsterdam, and Appsterdam which has loads of activities and even its own ‘Mayor’: Mike Lee.

All of this activity acts as a real Open Data catalyst. It exposes the need for a vocabulary match between the policy makers and the civic app space, generates clear use cases for the data. And it highlights the need for the adoption of commons and opens standards by local authorities.

Suzanne leads a workshop

Suzanne leads a workshop

Following Katalin’s presentation there followed some highly energetic road-mapping of the Scottish programme which was led by Suzaanne of the Waag Society, of whom I wrote in my previous post. This generate some positive twitter comments:

I’ll return to this topic in future posts as the Scottish C4E programme gets underway.

Code for Europe comes to Aberdeen via Barcelona

Recently Aberdeen City Council has accepted an invitation (via NESTA)  to join the Code for Europe movement. This post sets out some of the background to that. It covers the content and outcomes of the first meeting of code fellows in Barcelona at the end of February 2014.

ESADE Buildings

ESADE Buildings

A following post will cover a subsequent meeting of this year’s Scottish Local Authority participants which took place a week later.

What is Code for Europe?

Code for Europe (C4E) “strives to solve local civic challenges, by enabling agile temporary teams of developers to create solutions that are easily reuseable in other European cities.based on Code.” It is based on the original Code for America model, and sees Code Fellows, who retain their independence (rather than being contractors) being embedded in City Hall. This means that they work alongside the people who know the problem or have access to the data needed to power the solution. By that process it aims to bring positive culture change in the city hall.
The C4E movement was established at the start of 2013, and involved six cities: Barcelona, Helsinki, Amsterdam, Berlin, Rome and Manchester. the aim was to deliver web or mobile apps which are taken up by the local authority – not left to wither as the might do after a hackathon, for example.

 

2014, the second year, brings new entrants

NESTA have previously sponsored the Make It Local programme in Scotland which delivered four open data-driven sites including Edinburgh Outdoors and SmartJourney.
Now NESTA have created a programme which will see four Scottish Local Authorities join the C4E movement: Aberdeen, Edinburgh, East Lothian, and Clackmananshire.  As part of this programme, there will be a tiered mentoring scheme in place. Helsinki, who bring their experience of C4E 2013 will mentor Aberdeen. And Aberdeen who participated in Make It Local 2013 will, in turn, mentor Clackmananshire. In the same way, Amsterdam will mentor Edinburgh who will mentor East Lothian.
Additionally, all cities who participated in C4E 2013 are remaining in the current year. Most are refreshing their roster of fellows – or augmenting them.

The Barcelona Get-together Feb 2014

Student Accommodation at ESADE

Student Accommodation at ESADE

On the last two days of February 2014, the first international meeting of code fellows for participating cities took place at the ESADE Business School outside Barcelona. Code fellows and representatives of various participating bodies attended. These included Helsinki, Aberdeen, Berlin, Amsterdam, Barcelona, East Lothian, along with attendees from NESTA (UK and Scotland), EU Commons, ESADE business school, and independent developers.

The two days allowed for presentations, panel discussions, workshops and simulated app development. It allowed code fellows who are already in place for this year (not all are) to to start to network.
The eGarage Space at ESADE

The eGarage Space at ESADE

The Presentations

  • We heard about the development of Samensapp (which like all C4E projects is registered on the Europe Commons site with its code on Github). This was created after an area in Amsterdam was identified with significant social problems, The Code Fellow worked not only with the local government there but also with local citizens to first identify the problems, then to look at how technology could address a specific societal need – in this case allowing people with common interest to band together and to book underused rooms in community centres which traditionally could not have been booked online. Some community members were taught how to maintain and improve the code.
  • We learned about Take A Hike which was developed when it was identified that only 4% of Amsterdam is visited by tourists and much of it is congested for locals and visitors. So this app was developed to create trails, and incentivise tourists to explore further afield. Like all C4E developments, the source code is open and the system could easily be re-purposed for any other locality.
  • We heard from Llluis Esquerda, a civic hacker about his frustrating journey to liberate data about the availability of shared bikes in most major cities of the world. This involved cease and desist letters, and inconsistencies and frustrations from City Halls all over the EU and beyond. His experiences were all the more powerful for being presented unvarnished!
  • Timo Tuominen of Helsinki and Jan-Christoper Pien of Berlin are both new code fellows. They spoke of their prior experiences and also of the process they are going through to identify potential projects to work on in each of their host cities.
  • Sergio Diaz from Barcelona described a project which he is working on which is an offshoot of the local Bottom Up Broadband programme. This will see citizens building and hosting Arduino-based environmental monitoring stations which will capture data locally but make it available as open data as a city-wide grid of sensors forming a Smart Citizens platform / toolkit.
  • Haidee Bell and Paul Mackay, both of NESTA in London spoke of a number of things:
  1. The history of Europe Commons which presents a searchable database of city apps created as part of C4E and other initiatives. The future version of that platform will see it list more details of each project: what the problem was, what the solution was, which data sets are underpinning it, and where it has been re-deployed, and so show how the initial investment has been capitalised on.
  2. Nuams, Open Civics, API Commons (a place to publish your API specs),
  3. the City Software Development Kit (SDK),
  4. Open 311 and
  5. the emerging General Transport Feed Specification (GTFS).

In this short segment there were some real nuggets that I want to check out, discuss with developers and hackers and look at we support and contribute to these in Aberdeen, Scotland and the rest of the UK’s local Government space.

  • Ruth Watson of NESTA in Scotland, who had arranged the whole trip for the Scottish contingent, opened a session on Make it Local programme and I presented on both SmartJourney and Edinburgh Outdoors (all mentioned above)
  • Prof Esteve Almirall in the ESADE Lecture Theatre

    Prof Esteve Almirall in the ESADE Lecture Theatre

    We were given more in-depth information on the history of Code For Europe and its origins with backing from the World Bank. This was presented by Pro Esteve Almirall of the ESADE Business School. Esteve was instrumental in setting up the C4E programme. He also outlined possible future developments including the potential of a Global Commons built on the Europe Commons model. This could also include translation facility to the model.However none of this will happen until the conclusion of an ongoing World Bank restructure.

Designing a game with post-its and cards

Designing a game with post-its and cards

Suzanne Heerschop of the Waag Society (backers of C4E in the Netherlands, as NESTA are in the UK) led the final workshop sessions, designed to get follows and city representatives used to working in partnership on projects. In this we used the prompts from AddingPlay cards from PlayGen to steer development and make us think of challenges that my arise. This was a very fun and creative session. I must get myself a set of those cards.

All in all the two days sped past – with good company, engaged partcipation and stimulating ideas. And it set the Scottish contingent up for the Edinburgh session which was set for a week later and which will be the subject of my next blog post.

 

 

team Strike Demo Their Game

team Strike Demo Their Game

Top non-fiction reads of 2013

Four of my five top non-fiction books which I read this year are Python programming titles. This is unsurprising as I’ve spend a considerable amount of time teaching myself Python via books and MOOCs.

The titles below will take you from absolute beginner to having a firm grasp of how to build interactive, useful, modern applications of this versatile programming language.

The fifth title is a non-programming, which I reviewed back in June. While it is not about programming, it does touch on Open Data, data journalism and the need for new skills among citizens and journalists alike.



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Learning Python

By (author): Mark Lutz

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Python Cookbook

By (author): David Beazley, Brian K. Jones

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Facts are Sacred

By (author): Simon Rogers

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My favourite novels of 2013

During 2013 I read just over 30 novels. Some were newly published books, some classics that I’d not read before, and others that were recommended to me.

The discovery of the year, for me, was Ernest Hemingway; someone whose work I’d always intended to read but never quite got around to doing so. I read four of his titles in the Summer. All were excellent, although I found Death in the Afternoon, his treatise on bullfighting quite a slog to finish.

I binged on Ian McEwan – devouring four titles in succession. While Solar, Sweet Tooth and the Comfort of Strangers were all great reads, I chose Atonement alone for my top ten of the year. I can’t explain why it took me so long to get around to reading this book, but I am glad that I finally did.

I also re-read some Graham Greene titles. I’d forgotten how darkly comic Our Man In Havana is.

On holiday in France in the Summer, during a heatwave, I reacquainted myself with the first volume of Somerset Maugham’s short stories, which I last read as a teenager. This collection is worth the price for the first story, Rain, alone. And while that opening tale is dark, there are great comic pieces such as Three Fat Women of Antibes.

A friend loaned me Beryl Bainbridge’s first novel: A weekend With Claude – which contains all the elements of her more famous titles.

Another discovery was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which lived up to its modern classic status.

Jane Harris’ period novel, Gillespie and I, set in Glasgow in the 1880s, with its seemingly sweet central character kept me hooked to the last pages.

Finally, Ian Rankin’s most recent Rebus novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible, maintains the high standard of this series and brings Rebus back to mainstream policing, alongside his old adversary, Malcolm Fox.

So, here are my top ten in no particular order.


For Whom The Bell Tolls

By (author): Ernest Hemingway

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Collected Short Stories: Volume 1

By (author): William Somerset Maugham

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Wolf Hall

By (author): Hilary Mantel

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A Weekend With Claude (VMC)

By (author): Beryl Bainbridge

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Atonement

By (author): Ian McEwan

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Our Man in Havana (Vintage Classics)

By (author): Graham Greene

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To Have & Have Not

By (author): Ernest Hemingway

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Brave New World

By (author): Aldous Huxley

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Gillespie and I

By (author): Jane Harris

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First look: Mining The Social Web – Data Mining Facebook, Twitter, Google+ etc

Have you ever wanted to use the APIs of the main Social Media platforms, to download and analyse data, manipulate it and combine it with other data sources?

Then this excellent, updated book is for you.


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The sample code, written in Python, is not just available to download, but is also provided via Github. Better even than that, the author, Matthew Russell,

has provided a VirtualBox VM that installs Python, all the libraries you need to run the examples, the examples themselves, and an IPython server. Checking out the examples is as simple as installing Virtual Box, installing Vagrant, cloning the 2nd edition’s Github archive, and typing “vagrant up.”  You can execute the examples for yourself in the virtual machine; modify them; and use the virtual machine for your own projects, since it’s a fully functional Linux system with Python, Java, MongoDB, and other necessities pre-installed.

In setting up the virtual machine on my Linux laptop I encountered a problem when I allowed the PC to go to sleep. I raised an issue on Github, as the author prefers, and I had a response with a suggested resolution back from the author within minutes!  That’s a great service.

I’m still working through the first chapter on Mining Twitter which, at 38 pages, has loads of useful code examples. All of these can be run live in the IPython server and the code experimented with to your heart’s content.

And of course, since all the code is hosted on Github, you can keep up to date with any changes by pulling down an update version.

Despite my limited time to play with the code so far, this book, and its exemplary code base, is unhesitatingly recommended.

To quote from an Amazon review:

I really can’t say enough good things about this book and how it sets the bar high for future technical books!

Draped in Irony – is the Public sector always behind the private sector?

Those of us working in ICT and digital service delivery in the public sector are often told we lag behind the private sector. But that is frequently not true in my experiemce, and my recent attempts to hire a dinner suit online offer a good illustration of how firms can get it wrong.

In preparation for SOCITM 2013 I needed to hire a dinner suit for the evening event in London. Given that I live in Aberdeen, and didn’t want to take the suit down with me and then back up, it made sense to organise the hire in London. Searching via Google for such a service I was drawn to two companies. The first was a very amateurish-looking one which, although it offered a hotel drop and off collection service, didn’t fill me with confirdence that they wouldn’t walk off with the cash and fail to deliver.

The second appeared to be reputable, with three branches around the City, and had an online booking form which allowed a choice of branch for collection, and a selection of suit types, with all varations of jacket and trouser sizes, plus accessories. And, it didn’t demand payment upfront.

So I completed the form, declined the top hat option, and submitted the form, which gave me a confirmation screen that my order had been submitted.

And I waited for confirmation. And waited.

Two days later, time was getting tight and I’d heard nothing. Looking in my spam mail folder I found a bounced email from the original order. The mailbox to which the form had sent the booking didn’t exist in Outlook, it appeared.

I phoned the branch and explained to a very helpful assistant what had happened.

“Oh, we don’t take online bookings as the system hasn’t worked for a while!” As I discussed this with him, I checked the site again. There was no message to say not to use the online booking form, and the form itself still gave the illusion that it took and processed orders. I attempted to engage him in a dissussion about how this might impact their business – but he seemed unconcerned.

Happily, he assured me that I could pop in to the branch and get fitted and walk out with a suit without any problems.

But knowing how much effort my colleagues in local government put into making online systems work for citizens, I was surprised by this private company’s apparent lack of concern or understanding for the impact on customers and their business.

UK Railways and internet connectivity

Over the last couple of years I have spent a large amount of time travelling by train; mainly between Aberdeen and Edinburgh, Stirling or Glasgow. And on each of those journeys I have experienced the same frustrating issues in trying to get an internet connection for my laptop or phone.

I have a Samsung S4 and unlimited data plan which allows tethering of other devices, so on the face of it I should have no problems – but the quality of the Three network is so patchy as to be unusable for much of the journey. On common parts of these routes, between Aberdeen and Dundee say, as much as 80% of the journey has no functioning 3G or HSPDA network signal. Even in Dundee station itself there is no signal – whereas there is a reasonable one in the centre of the Tay bridge! And where there is a signal, it frequently drops out after 5 minutes or less. This makes mobile working, or any other online activity almost impossible.

Speaking to friends and colleagues this is not unique to Three – the other operators suffer the same issues.

You might say that I should use the in-train Wifi. But my experience of this is mixed, and no train operator provides reasonable cheap service. Scotrail’s is free but frequently impossibly slow and often throttled. Cross Country Trains is all paid for and expensive on a per journey basis, and East Coast’s offers only a limited 15 minute free service then it is very expensive.

Perhaps there needs to be a movement for free wifi on trains just as there are several for free wifi in  hotels.

But why don’t the UK Network operators ensure better HSDPA coverage along our railways? Many of us pay over £30 per month for an unlimited service. Do we want to pay an extra £5 or £10 per day / journey to fill the holes in Three’s pr other operators’ service.

This raises the opportunity for the development of a cross-platform app that does the following in a fashion similar to a war-driving apps:

  • Notes the network operator to which the handset connects
  • Uses GPS to plot the journey
  • Monitors the signal strength of 3G / H data network along the journey, capturing location constantly
  • Notes black spots in the same way
  • Uploads the anonymised data to a central mapped portal

The portal would then highlight the various networks’ performance,k show routes, compare network operators, and provide the data as Open Data for analysis. This could then be used to put pressure on network operators to improve their coverage.

That’s one APP I would use.

Now don’t get me started on the lack of power points on Scotrail trains…..