Update: I don't think they're actually using S3 POST at all, which means they're probably slamming their server for no good reason.
We did our UC Berkeley Visual Urban Data talk on Thursday, and from this side of the podium, it went really well. Tom covered the first half with a reverse-chronological overview of Stamen's mapping work. We chose to go backwards to see whether it was a more effective presentation when the most up-to-date work was presented first, with the remainder acting as background. I then went in-depth about Oakland Crimespotting, describing the project's brief history and a number of lessons we've learned from it.
Turnout was excellent, and my first time doing a one-topic talk was loads of fun. This is definitely something I want to do again: taking a full hour to deeply explain a particular slice through our work is a welcome change from our usual rapid overview presentations. Hopefully video will be available soon, and we'll have a chance to revise and present the material a second time in another context.
The reverse-chronological order was partially inspired by Norman Davies' Heart Of Europe:
Heart of Europe: A Short History Of Poland makes no pretense of presenting a full and balanced survey of Polish affairs over the last thousand years. Although each chapter contains a brief chronological narrative, the emphasis has been firmly placed on those elements of Poland's Past which have had the greatest impact on present attitudes. ... For similar reasons, the main chapters have been written in reverse chronological order. ... In this way, the narrative leads from the more familiar to the less familiar.
Tom and I are speaking at UC Berkeley's School of Information tomorrow:
- 110 South Hall, Berkeley CA
- Thursday, March 20, 2008
- 5:15 PM - 6:30 PM
Hardware is kind of a bitch. I have all these resistors that I'm told are necessary to prevent things from asploding, and if I want to have more than two rows of LED on there, I'll have to purchase a few more transistors. But, so far, encouraging!
Bruno Latour's investigation of the stillborn French transit system Aramis was recommended to me by Mike Frumin after another recent book post. Latour dissects the abandonment of Aramis in the form of an academic mystery novel, featuring a cranky sociology researcher/investigator and his young, upstart graduate intern ploughing through two collected decades of first-hand accounts from technologists and bureaucrats. The Aramis PRT occasionally speaks up for itself in the voice of a temporally transposed Frankenstein's Monster.
Latour builds on his translation model from Science In Action and shows how a successful technology project changes in response to its environment, taking on new features and satisfying new needs as it navigates the landscape of human and non-human actors from conception to delivery. No change, no project. Stasis.
Aramis in particular is an example of a late-1960's fad in public transportation that sought to marry the convenience and flexibility of the automobile to the high volumes and socialized costs of mass transit. PRT's never really panned out despite multiple attempts, though in some ways the current crop of car-sharing services is fulfilling this dream from the opposite direction. In this particular case, Latour shows how Aramis was never moved past the "technically sweet" stage: always an engineer's dream, worked on by idealists with little interest in taking its revolutionary technological concepts and adapting them to the physical, financial, and political realities of Paris in the 1970's and 80's.
I marked a lot of pages here, and this is a long post. Normally I'd try to summarize everything but Latour is a lucid, enjoyable writer and his prose is a joy, so this small bit of background should be enough.
Page 24, on state:
The observer of technologies has to be very careful not to differentiate too hastily between signs and things, between projects and objects, between fiction and reality, between a novel about feelings and what is inscribed in the nature of things. In fact, the engineers the observer is studying pass progressively from one of these sets to another. The R-312 was a text; now it's a thing. Once a carcass, it will eventually revert to the carcass state. Aramis was a text; it came close to becoming, nearly became, it might have become, an object, an institution, a means of transportation in Paris. In the archives, it turns back into a text, a technological fiction.
Page 45, on variability, solidity, and resilience:
Mr. Legardere may vary in size, the ministry will change hands ten times - it would be unwise to count on stability there; but the signatures and stamps remain, offering the alliances a relative durability. Scripta manent. That will never be enough, for signed documents can turn back into scraps of paper. Yet if, at the same time, the interlocking of interests is actively maintained, the law offers, as it were, a recall effect. After it is signed, a project becomes weightier, like a little sailboat whose hull has been ballasted with some heavy metal. It can still be overturned, but one would have to work a little harder to prevent it from righting itself, from returning to its former position. In the area of technologies, you cannot ask for more.
Page 59, on metaphor:
"It's a confusion of genres," I said, forgetting my place. "Chips don't talk any more than Chanticleer's hens do. People make them talk - we do, we're the real engineers. They're just puppets. Just ordinary things in our hands." "Then you've never talked to a puppeteers. Here, read this and you'll see that I'm not the one getting carried away with metaphors. Anyway, do you know what 'metaphor' means? Transportation. Moving. The word metaphoros, my friend, is written on all the moving vans in Greece."
Page 67, on the moveable frontier:
The frontier between "the bulk of the work" and "fine-tuning the details" remains in flux for a long time; its position is the object of intense negotiation. To simplify its task, every group tends to think that its own role is most important, and that the next group in the chain just needs to concern itself with the technical details, or to apply the principles that the first group has defined. Moreover, this way of looking at things is integrated into project management.
Page 72, defining "innovation":
Here is the difference between a project that is not very innovative and one that is highly innovative. A project is called innovative if the number of actors that have to be taken into account is not a given from the outset. If that number is known in advance, in contrast, the project can follow quite orderly, hierarchical phases; it can go from office to office, and every office will add the concerns of the actors for which it is responsible. As you proceed along the corridor, the size or degree of reality grows by regular increments. Research projects, on the other hand, do not have such an elegant order: the crowds that were thought to be behind the project disappear without a word; or, conversely, unexpected allies turn up and demand to be taken into account.
Page 88, time is what is counted:
The time frame for innovations depends on the geometry of the actors, not on the calendar. ... Is VAL's time the same as Aramis'? No, even though 1975, 1976, 1977, 1979, and 1980 are critical years for both. It's no good taking out a chronometer or a diary so you can measure the passage of time and blame the first project for going too quickly and the second one for going too slowly. The time of the first depends on local sites, on Notebart's role as engine, on Ferbeck, and on Matra, just as the time of the second depends on the absence of sites, on hesitation over components, on the motor's fits and starts. All you have to do is reconstruct the chain of permissions and refusals, alliances and losses, to understand that a project may not budge for a hundred years or that it may transform itself completely in four minutes flat. The obsession with calendar time makes historians sprinkle technologies with agricultural metaphors referring to maturation, slowness, obsolescence or germination, or else mechanical metaphors having to do with acceleration or braking. In fact, time does not count. Time is what is counted. It is not an explanatory variable; it is a dependent variable that needs to be explained.
Pages 109-110, on tinkering and engineering:
"But wait a minute," I exclaimed, indignant at so much bad faith and because, by chance, I had read Levi-Strauss for my exams. "Levi-Strauss contrasts modern engineers with mythical tinkerers. We engineers don't tinker, he says. We rethink all programs in terms of projects. We don't think like savages." "Hah!" Norbert muttered ironically. "That's because Levi-Strauss did his field work in the Amazon rain forests, not in the jungle of the Paris metro. What he says about tinkerers fits engineers to a T, his ethnologist's bias notwithstanding. ...when everything is going along swimmingly; of course, then it's as if there were 'experts' quite unlike tinkerers and negotiators. But at the end, only at the end. And since Aramis wasn't lucky enough to have such an end ... No, believe me, you don't have those who tinker on one side, and those who calculate on the other."
Page 118, Matra's M. Freque on arguing:
"The arguments sometimes got pretty lively. You heard everything: 'Greedy industrialist!' 'Profiteers!' 'Assholes!' But in the long run we reached an agreement. The problem with Aramis is that not enough people yelled at each other. Below a certain level, that's not good. You see, sometimes my ideas got rejected, other times I came out the winner; sometimes things got simplified, other times they got complicated. That proves it was a real debate, a real negotiation."
Pages 126-127, on mobilization:
As a project takes shape, there is an increase in the number, quality, and stature - always relative and changing - of the actors to be mobilized. Petit was just one highly placed official. Now ministers and presidents are involved. By moving from conceptual phases to production phases, you move from saints to the God they serve. Since the project is becoming more and more costly, since it is agitating more and more people, since it is mobilizing more and more factories, since the nonhumans it has to line up are numbered in the thousands, since it is a matter no longer of plowing up a beet field but of tearing up parts of southern Paris, actors capable of providing resources adequate to the new scale must henceforth be reckoned with. Ten times as many actors are now needed for the project, and they cannot be recruited one by one - one pipe smoker after another, one iron bar at a time. We have to move from those who represent small numbers to those who represent large numbers.
Page 157, Aramis speaks for itself:
Why reject me? Have I not been good? Was I not born well-endowed with virtues, unlike my brother VAL? Have I not been the dream, the ideal? What pains were not taken for my conception! Why recoil in horror today? Did not all the fairies hover over my cradle? Oh, my progenitors, why did you turn your heads away, why do you confess today that you did not love me, that you did not want me, that you had no intention of creating me? ... Of all the sins, unconsummated love is the most inexpiable. Burdened with my prostheses, hated, abandoned, innocent, accused, a filthy beast, a thing full of men, men full of things, I lie before you. Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani.
Pages 159-160, on private doubt:
"To account for this survival, this delay, we have two elements: up above, in the higher spheres, everyone is now in favor of Aramis, unanimously. Although everybody has private doubts about the project, they give it their own backing, however half-heartedly, because they see all the others supporting it enthusiastically. Down below, with the technicians, everybody is skeptical..." "At least that's what they're saying now. At the time, no one noticed the skepticism..." "Exactly. Everybody was skeptical, but only in private. That's the whole problem: half-doubts are all scattered, isolated, buried in notes that we are often the first to see, in any case the first to bring together as a whole."
Page 174, on smoothness:
Let's calculate the sum of forces - using this expression to designate both the work all the actors do to sum up and the diversity of the ontological models they use. Let's add the thrusts of human labor, the fall of ballistic missiles, the responsibility of promises, amorous seduction, the shame of more killing, vanity, business - everything that makes Aramis impossible to suspend. Yes, it's definitely a strange monster, a strange physics. It's the Minotaur, plus the labyrinth, plus Ariadne and her thread, plus Daedalus, who is condemned to die in it and who dreams of escaping. They're really fun, those people who write books in which they think they're castigating technology with adjectives like smooth, cold, profitable, efficient, inhuman, irreversible, autonomous! These insults are qualities with which the engineers would be delighted indeed to endow their hybrid beings. They rarely succeed in doing so.
Page 180, on bureaucracy:
To make fun of the files of the bureaucrats, to make fun of the two-page notes of synthesis and the thousand-page appendixes, is to forget the work of stabilization necessary to the interdefinition of the actors. It is to forget that the actors, large or small, are as lost in the action as the investigator is. The human sciences do not show up as the curtain falls, in order to interpret the phenomenon. They constitute the phenomenon. And the most important human sciences, always overlooked, include accounting, management, economics, the "cameral sciences" (bureau-graphy), and statistics.
Page 199, on common sense:
"Everything happens in defiance of common sense, but there is no common sense for innovations, since they happen, they begin, they invent common sense, the right direction, the correct procedure."
Page 213, on figure-ground reversal:
Where is this thing, the microprocessor, to be situated? On the side of human beings? No, since humans have delegated, transcribed, inscribed their qualities into nonhumans. On the side of nonhumans, then? Not there either. If the object were lying among nonhumans alone, it would immediately become a bag of parts, a heap of pins, a pile of silicon, an old-fashioned object. Thus, the object, the real thing, the thing that acts, exists only provided that it holds humans and nonhumans together, continuously. ... On the one hand, it can be said to hold people together, but on the other hand it is people who hold it together.
Page 280, on stasis:
The report presented the 1987 Aramis, word for word, as identical to Petit and Bardet's 1970 Aramis. I found myself twenty-one interpretations, but the technological documents remained mute about this dispersion. Aramis had not incorporated any of the transformations of its environment. It had remained purely an object, a pure object. Remote from the social arena, remote from history; intact. This was surely it, the hidden staircase Norbert had been looking for. Its soul and its body, as he would say, never merged.
Page 292, on Aramis unloved:
"Yet in spite of its fragility, its sensitivity, how have we treated it? Like an uncomplicated development project that could unfold in successive phases from the drawing boards to a metro system that would run with 14,000 passengers an hour in the south Paris region every day; twenty-four hours a day. Here is our mistake, one we all made, the only one we made. You had a hypersensitive project, and you treated it as if you could get it through under its own steam. ... You believed in the autonomy of technology."
Page 295, Aramis speaks again:
Of what ends am I the means? Tell me! you hid from one another in order not to admit that you didn't want me. You built the CET the way human couples produce one child after another when they're about to divorce, trying to patch things up. What horrible hypocrisy, entrusting to the whimperings of the most fragile of beings the responsibility for keeping together creatures that are much stronger than itself.
We launched Oakland Crimespotting back in August, and all was well for a short time. There were friendly mails from Pete Wevurski, John Russo, and others who liked what we were up to. Unfortunately, we ran afoul of Oakland's website availability, and by late October it became completely impossible for us to collect data at a sustainable rate. We closed up shop and replaced the front page of the site with an apology and a promise.
After several months of general stagnation, Oakland City IT reconnected us to a current, reliable, and accessible data source in January, and I can now confirm that it all Just Works.
There are a few bits of New sprinkled throughout the site.
We've added pages for individual police beats, such as this one for 04X, where I live. A large number of our users asked for these, though truthfully it wasn't something I expected. I've been historically critical of the forms-first approach that CrimeView Community takes ("Easy wizard interface"), eschewing it in favor of a maps-first approach. Changing standards of cheapness are a recent interest of mine, and it's cheaper to show everything. Expect to hear more of this from Tom at E-Tech tomorrow. In fact, Police Service Area and City Council District aren't ways that Oakland residents commonly locate themselves. The Police department is organized into beats, and this turns out to be the right way to interface with them if you're a concerned, active citizen. Each beat has a consistent set of officers and public contact information. Oakland CTO Bob Glaze told me the beat designations haven't changed in decades. Clearly, maps and data for individual beats were going to be necessary.
Each beat page features a map of recent reports in that area. These maps are the result of Aaron's heroic work in extending Modest Maps' static mapping abilities. WS-compose is now a sweet little map generator that will happily report geographic dot locations in HTTP response headers if you ask it nicely, among other tricks.
There are also per-beat news feeds and downloadable spreadsheets of detailed information for neighborhood crime prevention councils.
The other addition is a proper comment feature. In the past, we've had an error report form on each crime report page where residents could alert us to improperly-placed reports or other mistakes, but this wasn't as effective as it could have been. The primary problem was that posting an error report didn't really set off any alarm bells, and it certainly didn't appear on the site anywhere. I've grown to feel that replacing a clunky web interface with a mute one isn't necessarily much of an improvement, so it's valuable to provide a direct feedback mechanism right there on the site.
The error reports have now been replaced by actual comment forms where you can leave your name, a message, and an optional link at the bottom of each individual report page. The comments are keyed on the case number, so case numbers with multiple reports share a set of comments. Right now these just look like regular blog comments, but the intent of the link is to add news articles or connect reports to one another. I hope very much to see this feature of the site grow into something interesting and unexpected.
Here is the mail I sent last month announcing our return:
We're happy to announce that Oakland Crimespotting is back, thanks to the generous help of Oakland's City Information Technology Department. After three months without access to report data, we've been granted a reliable, regularly-updated source of crime report information. This is great news: it means that the website is back up and running with current information, e-mail alerts and RSS feeds work again, and we at Stamen Design can explore new ways of presenting and publishing this important information.
Here are a few things you can do, now:
Visit the site at http://oakland.crimespotting.org/. View a map at http://oakland.crimespotting.org/map/. Sign up for alerts at http://oakland.crimespotting.org/alerts.
We are also interested in what additions to the site you would find useful or interesting. So far, we've had a number of suggestions that we're actively looking into: spreadsheet-friendly downloads, details on individual police beats, a search function, and more than one month's worth of data. If you have any thoughts on these or other ideas, send us a mail at email@example.com.
Our return would not have been possible without the help of a few key people. Ahsan Baig, Ken Gordon, and Bob Glaze at Oakland City IT built and published a source of information for us. Ted Shelton, Charles Waltner, and others helped us navigate the difficult waters of City Hall communications. Jason Schultz, Ryan Wong, Karla Ruiz, and Jeremy Brown at U.C. Berkeley Law School helped us understand how to best approach city governments for information. Kathleen Kirkwood and Pete Wevurski at The Oakland Tribune helped us understand the journalistic context of the project. Dan O'Neil and Adrian Holovaty at EveryBlock.com were a valuable sounding boards for ideas
Two weeks ago, I posted the faumaxion slippy map, an interactive interpretation of Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion World Map. I was curious to see whether the continuous re-orientation of the map would be jarring or confusing to users. Based on some helpful feedback, I've updated the map so that the dragging and rotation behaviors are separate. Instead of continuously re-orienting itself to face North for whatever point happens to be in the center of the map during a click-and-drag, a tiny compass rose shows which way the map will rotate itself once the mouse is released. This version feels calmer, and makes for a more predictable (and therefore better?) interaction: