An open letter to the Dutch geo register

Back in February I emailed (see below) the Dutch geographical information register (NGR) about why I think many developers shun it. My main observation was that a number of key features are so buggy that it’s impossible to use the site effectively (actually: at all).

The best way, I wrote, to fix the bugs (and reconcile with the devs) is to open a free-for-all issue tracker on Github to collect reports (and host documentation). The email triggered a chain of events that resulted in a good spirited “let’s hack the register” meeting in a fort, a geo workshop at a Hack de Overheid hackathon, an ad-hoc documentation sprint and now, to my great delight, a new page on the register’s site titled “For developers” that spurs the documentation we produced during the “sprint”.

I hereby wish to express my gratitude to the NGR team for picking up our work. I also like to thank the folks who contributed during the “sprint” and outside of it and cordially invite them to keep contributing.

Now, the documentation on the developers page is not perfect by a long shot, but it is a good start. It’s up to us to make it better; I thus wish to extend an invitation to all who want the NGR (and geo in general) to become better to pitch in.

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Week #35 – Participatory space making

Smart Citizens build cities

Last week I hinted at my interest in the vision of a smart city in which connected and engaged citizens bring smartness about instead of sensors, feedback loops and algorithms. One of the many ways this smartness surfaces is urban farming.

Another manifestation of this smartness that I find deeply fascinating is the getting together of citizens who set out to enhance/improve their urban environment. In bottom-up urban planning we all get a say in the design of our street, block, neighborhood or city. Citizens are increasingly more often getting together and starting Kickstarter-like projects to fund an enhancement to their neighbourhood. The year-old Citizenvestor aims to close the gap between people with ideas and their local government. The days of dull meetings in the city hall seem to be ending.

While funding a public bench with your neighbours is a feasible project “you can’t” – as Dan Hill succintly remakrs – “crowdsource lightrail”. Crowdfunding urban interventions seems to work best for small and highly local projects. Crowdfunded urban projects are capped financially because the number of people who care for a certain project are probably located in the vicinity of said project e.g. the chances of someone in Japan funding a project in Germany are nill.

Another important issue to consider is legislation; citizens cannot do whatever they want, even when the funding is secured. They need to adhere to zoning plans, safety regulations, secure the backing of their neighbours, etc. The folks at Brickstarter have thoroughly investigated all the aspects involved in the urban crowdfunding process and especially the communication between the people and local governmental bodies. One of their conclusions is that the citizens are ahed of government; local authorities in Finland find it difficult to cope with this new form of city making.

Get the conversation going

We use Geodan’s Phoenix applications to collect the people’s ideas about how to organize and design the city.

It is here, in the meeting of bottom-up and traditional governing bodies and practices, that I see great potential for deploying modern information technologies to start a constructive discourse between both parties. Participatory place making involves a large number of highly  diverse people and therefore calls for streamlined and intuitive tools.

I want to contribute to this issue by figuring out what geospatial tools can aid design phase of a project and how these are to be deployed to support the deliberation process. More specifically, I want to analyze how modern geospatial technologies can help citizens and urban planners to cooperate in future place making.

Of course, technology plays a minor role in the whole conversation. My goal and focus is therefore to bend the technologies to fit the process instead of imposing it on the people in a “here, use this” manner.  Geospatial technology is, for reasons I’ll discuss in a later post, very much underused. I see a great deal of opportunities to improve the tools (ever so slightly) to make the deliberation process easier, more transparent and more pleasant.

I’ll be making headway in this direction by participating in urban planning projects in which citizens want a place at the discussion and planning table. The plan is to analyze the needs of both parties and see  I am currently exploring the various disciplines involved in urban planning in order to better design an experiment/lab/trial in which to test the role of technology.

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Week #34

OpenStreetMap buildings in Bulgarian protected nature zones

A friend’s Facebook post prompted me to start work on a small script/workflow to extract OpenStreetMap (illegal) buildings in Bulgarian protected nature zones. I’ve the feeling these may be numerous as Bulgarian laws often dance to the sound of dubious financial sources. @antitoxic and @yurukov are aiding me (thanks!) by looking for data and offering ideas. As always the OSM data is not perfect so we’re hoping the visualisation will motivate people to roll up their sleeves and map the missing buildings and improve the quality of the Bulgarian OSM. I determine the “status” of a structure by reading its tourism tag; a structure with an empty tourism tag that resides in a protected area is questionable.

The resulting map shows three types of structures: red circles denote structures with an empty tourism tag that are located in protected zones, blue circles denote structures with an empty tourism tag that are located non-protected nature zones e.g. parks and orange circles denote buildings that have a non-empty tourism tag.

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Biweekly notes #1

In an attempt to write more often I’ve decided to start a biweekly series that illuminates my activities, thinking and readings. In doing this I’ll be following the ways of Charl and Alper. I’ve marveled plenty at their ability to push posts on a regular basis and have finally collected enough courage and content to write on a more regular basis. Here goes.

Open Geo Data

Friday I presented at /dev/haag about (open) geo data. The talk was all about demystifying standardised geo web services. These are underused due to, among others, their invisibility, verbosity and weak presentation of documentation and tools. At /dev/haag I aimed to tackle the first of these by discussing the Dutch geo scene, what geo standards are and how easy they are to use once you get a grip of the many abbreviations. For instance, downloading the contents of a Web Feature Service is as easy as

ogr2ogr -f GeoJSON data.geojson WFS:"http://..." layer_name

The city of Chicago made a splash recently by releasing their building footprint data through github. I rhetorically asked why we need SDIs and geoportals when we can git clone datasets. The question struck a cord as it was retweeted a couple of times. This didn’t surprise me, SDIs and geo tech in general enjoy a certain degree of disdain among developers. In the presentation I argue that, yes, there are weaknesses but in the end the services work quite okay and you can do some nifty stuff with them

ogr2ogr -f GeoJSNON data.gejson WFS:"http://..." gemeenten2011
 -where "population > 100000"

Check out the slides on Speakerdeck for the whole story and why you should care.

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Surveying the river Geul

On the 11th and 12th of September I helped students from the Sint-Oelbert Gymnasium to measure a meander of the river Geul in the vicinity of Epen. The project is part of the school’s scientific week in which the students are introduced to the scientific method. Throughout the week students participate in projects that revolve around biology, geography, chemistry, social sciences and philosophy. They define a hypothesis, perform experiments and collect data, analyse their findigs, draw conclusions and present the results to each other.

I helped with the geography project that consisted of surveying the meander shown below and, based on measurements from previous years, coming up with a plausible prediction of the meander’s future developments.

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