Eastside Mural Tour project: a critique

I want to preface this by saying I love the idea of the Eastside Mural Tour project, for so many reasons: I love Vancouver’s art, particularly the hidden, surprising art. I love graffiti art. I’m a fan of community projects, and projects that celebrate them. I’m also particularly interested in the idea of digitally curated physical objects, and finding new ways to help travel, explore, learn about communities online. That being said, I’m really disappointed with this project – they’ve missed some really simple points that I feel are critical. If you’re a developer on this project, please don’t think I’m shitting all over you for no reason: if you’ll let me, I would gladly pitch in to help.

All that out of the way, here’s the misses:

  1. The site doesn’t really work on Mobile. Load the front-page: the interactive map is done in flash. The site itself isn’t optimized in any way for a mobile experience: but this is a site destined to be used by someone on a device; most likely as their doing their tours.
  2. The most prominent links are to PDFs of the tours; the big, colourful buttons on the right side. However, hidden at top at HTML versions of the descriptions, which actually contain descriptions of the art!
  3. On these HTML pages, there’s no Map of the location. Nor is there any “next stop/previous stop” links to guide my usage of this. Nor do these HTML pages contain the dial-in directions that the PDFs do
  4. The PDFs are not styled in any way, nor do they contain any of the useful descriptions of the stops on the tour – instead, they simply contain titles of the art, in a format that appear to be links, but if they are, did not work for me in any way.
  5. This one strikes me as particularly egregious: The PDFs contain an image of a Google map that contains all the stops on the tour. So someone clearly spent some time building the geo-coded tour – why not embed that map?
  6. No social: Why not at least propose a couple of hashtags for the project, per tour, maybe per site. Pull in comments/photos from Instagram, Twitter, Foursquare to let the community participate in this beautiful project, in this art. Pinwheel is brand new, but given Caterina‘s local origins, they might be very interested in participating.
  7. Data: I couldn’t find these mural’s in Vancouver’s Data set (though maybe I just failed in my search), but why not, given you clearly have all the geo-data for these murals, release that data for others to remix?

There other, smaller quibbles, but those top 5 strike me as major faults that we should fix. The last simply betrays my personal bias towards open data, and in particular, location data.

There’s also some other ways this same sort of tour could be made. There’s a site, MapTales, that exists solely to create these sorts of self-guided tours. I don’t think it should replace the current site, but providing links to another interface would be a nice way to share these tours out in a well-designed, contemporary way. Bringing up Pinwheel again, all of these stops could exist in there. I don’t think they have the idea of “tours” currently, but by creating a hashtag, locating these places, this could open up the ability to extend & comment on by the pinwheel community. I’d also recommend creating “places” in Foursquare for each of the stops on the tours, let people check in there – or at least easily geolocate photos taken there in such a way that the project itself can re-use them.

This project is sub-titled “murals and the spirit of collaboration”, and yet feels so far from being a project that the digital community can collaborate in right now. Let’s fix it.

Editorial Aside

This brings up all sorts of thoughts around the ongoing failure to provide super-easy tools, widgets, add-ons, etc that projects like this could easily make use of. Even most plugins, themes & mapping tools still require programming knowledge to configure and drop into sites. This world of digitally-curated, real-world spaces is really just beginning. We need to find/build better tools for the average person to expose their localities, their stories in a way that works for all.

Nighttime cycling, open data, app idea

Last night I had a board meeting that ran until about 9pm – this being the fall, it was dark when I rode home, for the first time since I’ve started this daily bicycle commuting thing. I’m generally well-prepared: I wear reflective clothing, my saddle-bag has a reflector, I have a back light that flashes. I don’t (currently) have a front light because it mysteriously disappeared the first time I forgot to take it off my handlebars. I think I’d also like a helmet light to help my vision too.

My route, from Broadway & Fir to home took me along the 10th ave, Ontario & Ridgeway bicycle routes – all ones I’m well familiar with during daylight hours. However, these all become significantly less fun at night. Why? Because there are so many lights that don’t work, dozens more lights who are almost entirely obscured by trees, others yet so dim as to barely light the ground at all. The nicest portion of the ride is the stretch up on Ontario from 12th to 16th, where those new bright-white lights that seem more focused (less light pollution?) have been installed. The stretch of 10th from Hemlock to Ash was by far the worst.

The streetlight across from my house (which is also on a bike route) has been out for sometime. Last night Leah called the city to let them know about that, which you can do via the 311 service But given that there’s a data feed of street lamps for Vancouver, maybe we can automate this a little more. I don’t have the time in the next couple of days, but if anyone has time to cobble together an app, here’s what I was thinking of:

  • Map that shows street lights, let me click on a lamp to indicate it’s not working, obstructed, dim, etc.
  • Twitter service that, based on location of the tweet (using @replies), maps that to the above.
  • Sends a service request to the city (is there a 311 API?)
  • A cool feature would be to “darken” bits of the map based on this data, so you could “show” a map of Vancouver at night based on where lights are on/off, etc – this could be the most useful service, particularly if mapped against bike routes, running routes, etc.


City-owned fibre: new revenue stream?

I was reading this article on Ars Technica about the town of Monticello, MN, who had tried to build its own 50Mbs fibre network after TDS (the local cable monopoly I assume?) had done nothing. This story ends with (of course) TDS taking the city to court (incidentally, the city won at every level, all the way to the supreme court), and using that delay to place fibre itself. The citizens still won, however, as it was a free upgrade in speed for them.

Cities all over North America are struggling for new revenue streams. Vancouver itself has a huge shortfall, and is looking for new revenue sources. Additionally, Vancouver wants to be the “Green Capital” of the world. So why not run city-owned fibre throughout the city? Currently, people have a choice of Telus ADSL, or Shaw cable, and if you’re downtown, Novus. But the service is slow, it costs a fortune – and there’s no real incentive for either  Telus or Shaw to either lower prices or raise speeds, or generally, innovate – because they don’t really have any fear of competition (aside: Where Shaw does have competition from Novus, their price & service is great). So why doesn’t Vancouver roll out a super-high-speed fibre network itself across Vancouver? Revenue could then be handled one of 2 ways (there’s likely other models too – these are just the 2 that immediately come to mind): either lease the lines to private companies to resell (probably far easier to manage logistically), or sell directly to residents (or simply have residents pay a new annual levy on their taxes). Not only would this definitely make Vancouver an attractive city for business to come to (cheap high-speed internet, yes please!), it would also promote telecommuting, remote work, etc. I would argue this falls in line with the goal of being an “Open City” too – broadband for all makes information more easily accessible to end-users.

Would the initial investment be large? Yes. But I suspect it would pay for itself quite quickly – I certainly don’t, and I suspect that most of my fellow Vancouverites have zero loyalty to their internet-access provider (aside: everyone I know who uses Novus loves it – those who use either Shaw or Telus seem to tolerate it, viewing it as the least-bad option between the two). I also think that this sort of urban infrastructure development is exactly what federal stimulus money is good for (although clearly, this does not count as “shovel ready”).

BCHydro Power Outage Alerts: A suggestion

Today, when the power went out at work, the first thing I did (after getting my laptop tethered to my phone) was to go to the BC Hydro Power Outages page, then check the list of outages and finally, double-checked the map to see if that was the correct area. As I clicked on the map, I noticed that each outage has a unique ID (quite sensibly).  I then noticed that there was a mobile site. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work on the iPhone, because it’s a super-old-school WAP deck.

But! Here’s my suggestion. Given that there’s a unique ID per outage, why not let me “sign up” to receive updates? everytime an engineer updates the status of the outage, there could be a system in place to deliver that update to me automatically. Ideally, I’d be able to choose any number of ways of getting updated: Email, SMS, Facebook, Twitter, whatever,  but the most simple to implement would probably be email updates.

That way, I wouldn’t have to constantly check the site, or worse yet for BC Hydro, call them, and everyone would be happier because they can passively receive information rather than having to actively hunt it out.

Beyond this manual per-outage-sign up idea, the next step would be for me to be able to create an account at BC Hydro and input one or more addresses that I would like to “watch” for power-service updates. For instance, I’d like to know about power issues at my house & at my office.

I don’t know if this power outage/service data is “public”. If so, this seems to be another great open data hack for some determined person to build out. If anyone from BC Hydro IT sees this, I’d certainly love to talk with you about trying to build this out – I can’t (at a quick glance) find a way to get this information easily off-site for use by a “power-watcher” app.

Greasemonkey VPL Catalogue Listings Script for Amazon

So David Eaves posted “5 Municipal apps I’d love to see“. One of them was an extension of an existing Greasemonkey script to search local library catalogue listings when browsing Amazon. So I downloaded Bryan Larsen’s Ottawa library script, modified it to look up in the Vancouver library, and have now posted in on Userscripts.org, for all of your pleasure.

Even if the initial lookup fails, you can still do a direct title & ISBN lookup from links that the Greasemonkey script pushes into the page, directly below the title of the book:

The VPL Greasemonkey script at work on Amazon
The VPL Greasemonkey script at work on Amazon

So, install the script, and test it out on Amazon! Let me know if you have any issues

UPDATE: I’ve updated the script a couple of times since this was initially posted, with the following revisions:

1.0: basic modification of the script
1.1: updated to include a new ISBN look-up URL variable
1.2: updated the ISBN lookup to use the correct OCLC web service
1.3: Fixed getIsbn() regex to look for /,? or end-of-string to extract the ISBN.
1.4: edited the Code-matching to use a central array of codes, and loop over those to provide a simplified messaging around status, and in particular, multiple statuses.

This means that it should be *alot* easier for anyone to further modify this in the future for any other libraries they may want to hook into, as well as providing better answers for books with multiple statuses and copies.

Ideally, I’d like to have this crawl the resulting code to pull out both the branch & due-date information, but this’ll do for now I think.

UPDATE 2009-10-20: There’s now also a script for use on the Vancouver Island Regional Library too: http://userscripts.org/scripts/show/60170

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