Does Anyone Know Smartphone CPR?

Maybe I should have started with an open source dumbphone…

This post originally appeared on my blog on Shareable.net

Today’s smartphone industry is controlled by giant tech companies with impenetrable black-box devices running proprietary software, who engage in patent lawsuits and baby-panda eating in their spare time. This last claim may not technically be true, but I figure it’s election season, why can’t I get in on the fun?

Many may hope for an alternative phone which offers more freedom for the user, more transparency and more adaptability. But a viable consumer option may be a long way off.

So far there has only been one option for a smartphone which is truly open and free (as in freedom) – the Openmoko project from 2008, which has now been reborn as Open Phoenux. Mine arrived a couple of weeks ago.

Not only does it run free software, but the hardware is also open source – the manual comes complete with board layouts and schematics for each of its parts.

Why would anyone want an open source phone in the first place? For the same price, you could get a shiny new iPhone.

First of all, the Open Phoenux is not meant to compete head-to-head with Apple and Samsung – not yet, anyway. It’s not a phone built for the casual consumer. It is a phone by geeks, for geeks – a developmental playground to learn how a phone works, to write operating systems and other mobile software, to hook up to different devices, to run hacks and hobby projects. By keeping the hardware and development open, it means that the experience and improvements of the developers are shared with the commons, for anyone to use and build upon. It makes it easier for people to develop new, unexpected uses for mobile technology. When a user has a better understanding of what’s actually inside their phone, they might also start to think a little bit more about where everything came from. With open hardware, the components can easily be replaced and upgraded, making for longer smartphone lifecycles. Ever tried upgrading an iPhone’s hardware? Apple have special proprietary screws just to keep you out of ‘your’ phone. They don’t want you to be able to change the battery. They don’t want you to understand why your phone isn’t working, they just want you to buy a new one. At least some people are trying to fight this tendency:

 

My Open Phoenux came with Linux pre-installed, but in order to actually make calls you need to install a smartphone operating system. I settled on QtMoko as it was said to be the easiest to get started. I realised this was going to be a technical challenge for someone who has only been using free software for a couple of months, and had never even partitioned a hard drive, but I was prepared to be patient, to be thorough, and above all to be very, very careful.

I checked and double-checked my way through the instructions: Card formatted correctly! QtMoko prepared in the right way! Battery inserted! Device turned on! Bootloader! This is all going remarkably well, I thought. My internal high-fives quietly disappeared when I realised the phone had stopped responding.

He's not dead, he's just pining for the fiords.

He’s not dead, he’s just pining for the fiords.

Replacing the battery did nothing. Threatening it back to life with a fierce shake of my fist may have been somewhat optimistic. Shaking two fists proved more therapeutic, though yielded similar results.

Somewhere along the line I must have taken a wrong turn. In my hand I held more technology than all the Apollo missions combined, and I had turned it into something with all the computing power of a moon rock.

I needed help. As with any open source project, the place to turn is the community itself.

Those who responded on the mailing list managed to work out the problem, and I can proudly say that my phone did not die in vain – they have now fixed the installation package and improved the documentation to stop anyone else following my own wobbly footsteps to oblivion.

Meanwhile I must wait until I can get my hands on the right kind of cable to be able to reanimate my phone and make that long-awaited first call. Until then I’m left coming up with new uses for a temporarily-dead open source smartphone around the house:

It happens to be a very handy beer opener.

It happens to be a very handy beer opener.

And an extremely sturdy beer coaster.

And an extremely sturdy beer coaster.

Remove the battery and you've got a sneaky mini-safe to hide valuables and foil burglars.

Remove the battery and you’ve got a sneaky mini-safe to hide valuables and foil burglars.

Works beautifully as a spy mirror. Or a makeup mirror, if you're that kind of spy.

Works beautifully as a spy mirror. Or a makeup mirror, if you’re that kind of spy.

As a bookmark it leaves no room for confusion.

As a bookmark it leaves no room for confusion.

An invaluable companion while woodworking, its ergonomic form creates the perfect sanding block.

An invaluable companion while woodworking, its ergonomic form creates the perfect sanding block.

Any other ideas?

I’ll keep you posted on my progress resuscitating this Open Phoenux, and if you’re interested in this area, keep an eye on developments with the free software operating system Firefox OS, and also the Fairphone initiative to bring more transparency, choice and accountability to phone production.

 

UPDATE: IT’S ALIVE! ALIIIVE!

I mean, it’s not necessarily functional yet, but at least it turns on…

Speaking at the Summit of Newthinking, 15th November

[Video] Checking in with Claudia and Andreas to see how the summit preparations are going

Next Thursday the Summit of Newthinking kicks off, and I’m going to be giving a talk about my first 100 days of trying to live open source – some of the successes and struggles, and my plan for the rest of the year. It’s also a great opportunity to tell some of the stories which I have experienced but haven’t had a chance to publish yet. I’ll be discussing the various different ways in which free / libre / open ideas are spreading into different areas, and some inspiring projects, some bizarre ideas, and some unusual approaches I’ve come across. Come by and say hi!

Newthinking has been around in the Berlin open source scene for almost 10 years, so over the last few months Andreas and Claudia have been introducing me to people with cool projects – and they’ve been extremely busy organising the summit as well! I went down to Newthinking HQ to talk to them about how all the preparations have been going and what to expect from the event next week.

There will be plenty of presentations, in both English and German. Check out the full schedule and speaker list here, and hopefully see you at the summit!

A GitHub for physical things: Knowable

[Video] Simon and Emanuel from Knowable talk about documenting DIY & open hardware projects

Claudia and Anna-Lena from newthinking are helping me get to know the Berlin scene of open source, makers, and hackers, and last week they got me in touch with Simon Höher and Emanuel Schwarz from Knowable.org, a new website which aims to facilitate documentation of projects, teaching new skills, providing space for feedback and catalysing collaboration. I went down to my local maker/hackerspace, Open Design City to chat to them:

Have a play on knowable.org, and you can also find out more about Jerry, the DIY open source server.

The beta schedule for the SUMMIT OF NEWTHINKING is online now, there’s only a couple more weeks to go, already there’s plenty to get excited about. This week I’ve been to visit Fabienne and her textile workshop, there’ll be a video soon – if you’re in Berlin on the 15th & 16th, check out her talk on open hardware!

Others I’m looking forward to are RepRap legend Josef Prusa‘s talk on 3d printing and decentralized development, and Phillip Marr’s look at open energy data approaches, “How much energy is needed to toast a slice of bread?” Keep an eye on the schedule, there’s more to come!

Keeps Your Whites Whiter and Your Skin Itchier

Somebody left me alone with dangerous chemicals. I made soap!

This post originally appeared on my blog at Shareable.net

In attempting my Year of Open Source, I’m dealing with some very complicated, hi-tech issues. My open hardware smartphone arrives tomorrow, I’m trying to build a microphone pre-amp, & I’m about to learn how to program a microcontroller. But how do the ideas of open hardware and free software apply to lo-tech products? Laundry powder, for example? You don’t see detergent brands taking each other to court over patent breaches, the products have hardly changed in decades, and the manufacturing process is not protected. No problem there. But at the same time you don’t get the recipe on the back of the box, you’re not encouraged to try to make laundry powder yourself, and to most people, that strange white powder with the blue flecks and the lilac scent is a complete mystery. Even if it does have oxi-action, enzymes and a freshness blast.

 

Time to start investigating. I had seen an alternative to laundry powder at the local organic store – soapnuts, the fruit of the soapberry tree, which you throw in your machine and somehow, apparently, your clothes come out clean. I assumed it was some kind of homeopathic magic beans scam.

 

I did some serious research before buying. Sure, there’s some pseudoscience and misleading claims about soapnuts around the place- did you know “there is evidence they were used to cure hysteria”? But for washing clothes, they’re legit. Soapnuts contain saponins, a chemical compound whose structure, like soap, has a fat-loving end and a water-loving end, allowing oil and grease to be surrounded by water molecules, breaking them apart and allowing water to better penetrate material. Saponins effectively break up the surface tension of water and allow clothes to get ‘wetter,’ making it easier to rinse off dirt when agitated.

Great! Soapnuts! No recipe required! Open source, right? Well… I can’t grow soapnuts here in Berlin, I’m still at the mercy of the market – there’s only one type of soapnut available, and I can’t change them to suit my preferences or the water in my area. Nor have soapnuts taught me what laundry detergent actually is or how it’s made. In order to address these issues, I decided to make my own washing powder as well.

 

A quick online search will tell you that you need three ingredients: washing soda, borax, and soap. An in-depth search will tell you that as of 2010, borax is a restricted chemical in the EU, prolonged exposure can cause reproductive problems, and it is no longer sold to the general public. Baking soda is a good replacement.

Here I needed to set myself some limits – just how DIY should I go? Do I want to collect a bucket of seawater, dig my own limestone, and make washing soda at home? To keep it simple I thought I’d stick to making the soap. But what is soap? Where does it come from? Is it dug from the lavender-scented soap mines of central Africa? I knew there was some kind of oil involved, but I’d never really given much thought to how it’s made or what it contains. Back to Wikipedia!

 

As it turns out, there are many different fats and oils you can use. Olive oil, tallow, lard, seed oils – and in the past, soap was made from all kinds of animal fats – whale oil, penguin oil, seal oil, you name it – if it’s cuddly, it can be turned into soap. An advantage of making your own soap is that you can use whatever fats happen to be locally abundant – in Greenland you could whip up a pungent walrus blubber soap, in Samoa coconut fat would do nicely, and here in Berlin I guess you’d go for pig fat and rapeseed oil. But for now I’m just using a generic recipe to learn the process.

The core idea behind soap making is mixing fatty acids with a strong alkaline solution, lye, which react to form a salt: soap. Lye is made from water and sodium hydroxide, a highly caustic compound used as drain cleaner, and bizarrely, also used for glazing pretzels.

My local chemist told me that yes, they had sodium hydroxide, but no, they would not sell it to me. It was “too dangerous”, and I was likely to injure myself. I explained that I had protective equipment, an understanding of the dangers, and a reasonably sane mind, but it was no use. Luckily, online sellers asked no questions about my mental state and were quite happy to ignore any threat to my well-being. Excellent.

When making soap, safety comes second only to style.

When making soap, safety comes second only to style.

I found a simple recipe online, dressed myself handsomely in apron, gloves and safety goggles, and got mixing. It’s a fascinating process – the furious heat of the chemical reactions, the choking, lung-burning lye fumes (hold your breath), the slow transformation from oily liquid to a bubbling gloop. As it turns out, it’s much easier than I expected – it only took 15 minutes or so, and I somehow avoided searing my flesh with chemicals.

 

Soap-making is a little cheaper than buying commercial soap, and now I’ve found out how easy it is, I can start to have some fun with it. I’m keen to try different recipes – a hot-process version that you can use without weeks of curing, something using locally available oils, experiments with different fragrances. Who says soap must smell like potpourri? Now I’m free to make any fragrance I like. Maybe I could make my millions selling authentic Berlin soap to tourists – with the delicate aroma of cheap beer, cigarettes and currywurst. Look out for an open-sourced recipe soon…

Even if you don’t want to go through all the excitement of making soap, you can still save yourself a few bucks and have some fun making your own laundry powder. Grate a bar of laundry soap, add a cup of washing soda, half a cup of baking soda, and voila. It does look a lot like freshly grated parmesan, so maybe label the container to avoid any foamy pasta mix-ups.

Julia Kloiber on Open Data

[Video] Julia Kloiber on apps, open transport data, and why it matters

When I was at the Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki, in between lectures, hackathons and workshops I managed to catch up with Julia Kloiber from the Open Knowledge Foundation. Julia is co-curating the Open Data track at the Summit of newthinking with Lorenz Matzat, and we talked a little about her work, open data, and (a bit of a theme for me in the last week or two) open transport data.
If you’ve got an idea for a presentation or workshop at the summit of newthinking, get in quick! the open call is only on for 2 more days!

Anyone interested to see what’s been happening with open transport in the USA should check out this video:

And for any of my fellow Berliners waiting for open data from the VBB or Deutsche Bahn, you can keep an eye on happenings with OpenVBB.

 

My music library desperately needs updating…

Got any favourite long-dead bluesmen, or Creative Commons music?

There are so many enjoyable things about trying to live without patents and traditional copyright – learning about developments in open hardware, open education, learning to make things myself or meeting people doing crazy projects. And I’m happy to give up most of the consumerist/proprietary lifestyle. I wasn’t much of a serious shopper anyway… most of my money went on camera equipment. With some changes, I’ll never look back – I was never a Mac fanboy – I chose Apple not because I particularly liked it, but rather because I particularly disliked Windows, and Final Cut Pro was an Apple product. In 2008, when I bought this computer, I hadn’t even considered Linux.

But when I backed up my computer for the change of operating system, I had to bid a sad farewell to my music library. I transferred all of my music files to a hard drive, not to be touched for a year. I started with a fresh music library. My music this year will only be  music in the public domain (without copyright) or released with a Creative Commons (some rights reserved) license. Everything else, the vast majority of my collection, was under ‘All Rights Reserved’ copyright, so it had to go.

I dug through my collection to haul out any public domain / CC music that I could find… the only music there that I knew was Creative Commons licensed are two artists from Wellington, New Zealand: the sublime Urbantramper and the gloriously ridiculous Disasteradio. There may have been others I missed, but there’s no handy ‘copyright status’ metadata for ordering and searching music, so I wasn’t able to find out easily.

You probably have a good idea of what kind of music is public domain: Old music. No problem, I like old music! I listen to a lot of old Piedmont blues and spirituals from the 20s, so I thought I’d be able to keep them. In order to find out which music is public domain, I first had to find out the length of a copyright term in Germany. Here, and throughout the EU, music copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the author*. So a composition like ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’, (even if you don’t know the name, you definitely know the tune) written by Richard Strauss in 1893, is not able to be used without a license because the inconsiderate bastard didn’t get around to dying until 1949.

The artist has to have died before 1942 for me to include their music in my collection. So my research was a perverse Wikipedia exercise in which I would whoop for joy upon discovering that a favourite blues artist was stabbed in a bar brawl aged 24, or died a syphilitic, penniless death in 1937.

It was a huge relief to find that Robert Johnson was deliberately poisoned in 1938. Blind Lemon Jefferson froze to death in 1929, thank buggery! Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James and Son House, unfortunately for me (but very fortunately for the rest of the world) survived long enough to be rediscovered and have a revival in the ’60s. Aliens outside of our solar system are able to listen to Blind Willie Johnson, but he died in 1945, so I’m out of luck.

Bessie Smith is OK! (car crash, 1937)

Not everything public domain is old, however – many governments, including the United States, release works, documents, files and information as public domain or the Creative Commons equivalent (Creative Commons Zero). So I still get confused. Can anybody clarify what the copyright status of, say, Alan Lomax‘s Library of Congress recordings might be? Are the recordings public domain, but not the compositions?

I can listen, share, and use public domain compositions and recordings in any video I like. But the other Creative Commons licenses are more specific – they’re designed to allow a copyright holder to specify what use he or she explicitly permits, and I’ll be buying, downloading and listening to music with Creative Commons licenses this year. Things get tricky when I want to include a track in a video and post it online, as I am creating a derivative work and redistributing it. So I need to check which license the music track uses (more info on licenses at creativecommons.org):

Attribution (CC-BY): I can listen, share, and use the track in any video I like – as long as I attribute the copyright holder in whatever derivative work I make.

Attribution-Sharealike (CC-BY-SA): Same terms as above, but I have to release derivative works under the same license. My videos are all CC-BY-SA anyway, so that’s no problem for me!

I can’t use music under the following non-free licenses in my videos:

Attribution-Non Commercial (CC-BY-NC): I can listen, and share with friends, but I can’t use it in my videos unless they are also released under a Non Commercial license or standard All Rights Reserved copyright.

 Attribution-Non Commercial – Sharealike (CC-BY-NC-SA): (eg. Urbantramper’s music) I can listen, share with friends, but I can’t use it in my videos unless I attribute the copyright holder, and release the video under the same license.  I could not release a video including CC-BY-NC-SA music as CC-BY-SA (the license I use) or any other free license, or even as all rights reserved.

Attribution-NonCommercial-No Derivatives (CC-BY-NC-ND): (eg. Disasteradio) I can listen, share, but I can’t use the track in a video – it would constitute a derivative work of the original song.

So now I find myself in the strange position of starting to discover music again from scratch, but unlike when I was 13 and first started buying CDs, this time I’m discovering new music with years of experiences, prejudices and opinions already burned-in. You meet a lot of people who, when asked what music they like, you get: “Oh, I like all music. You know, anything with a beat, man.

Not me. I’m the first to admit that I don’t like most music. I actively dislike the majority of music. I tolerate a minority. Even within the genres I do like, there’s plenty of crap. But there’s 0.000756% of the music out there in the world which I utterly adore, obsess over, and listen to over and over again – frantic, clattering, rolling, beating music – songs that slip unexpected thoughts and ideas into your brain, squeeze humour into darkened places, whether thrown-out half-ideas or epic, complex, opuses (opi? opese?). I love musicians whose self-expression, individuality, honesty, and creativity smash the lens of production value, style and technical prowess with which so much music is viewed.

It’s tough finding exciting new music when you’re a whiny old critic. So I need a little help…

I often like:

Post Punk – Krautrock – Soul (particularly NOLA/Memphis) – ‘folktronica’ – Pre-War Blues / Gospel – Indie – Surf – Afrobeat – Rocksteady – Funk (but easy on the slap bass there, fellas) – Rockabilly – Bluegrass – Jazz/Bebop/Hard Bop – Political hip hop – Garage – Alt Country.

I sometimes like:

Punk – Reggae – Electric Blues – Classical – Folk

I don’t like:

Grunge – Metal – R’n’B – Dub – Western – Trance – Reggaeton – Techno – DnB – House – Dubstep – Lounge – anything preceded by the words ‘Smooth,’ ‘Heavy’, ‘Deep’ or ‘Euro’.

Some music I love, and already miss dearly:

Nick CaveThe CleanFour TetHans UnsternNina SimoneTom Waits  – Jonathan RichmanCharlie Mingus  – The Velvet UndergroundSkip JamesBaby Huey & the BabysittersKing KhanChromaticsOrchestre Poly-Rythmo de CotonouVioleta ParraEddie BoMoondogNeu!Phosphorescent

So that should give you an idea. It’s time to refill my music library! Do you make music and release it under a CC license? Or do you know of other musicians who do? If you think I might like it, send me a link in the comments! Actually, even if you think I won’t like it, I’m just curious about what’s out there. As I mentioned, my mind may not be totally open, but in this situation I’ll leave it slightly ajar, ok?

While on the subject of Creative Commons music, how about you check out the video I made about the Cultural Commons Collecting Society?

Good places to start looking for libre music, if you’re interested, include:

adiffuser

CCmixter

Free Music Archive

Jamendo

opsounds

Soundcloud

I’ve had a few suggestions already via Creative Commons on facebook:
50ft Wave (http://50footwave.cashmusic.org/power+light/)
Bomb Boy (http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Bomb_Boy/FM_FUNK_MADDNESS/06_Ignition_Set_GO)
Daniel Bautista (http://www.danielbautista.com/discography.php)
Roger Subirana (http://www.rogersubirana.com/point.htm)
Father Figure Records (http://fatherfigurerecords.bandcamp.com/album/mermonte)
Samuel Lockridge (http://samuellockridge.bandcamp.com/album/when-i-rise)
Town Hall (http://townhall.bandcamp.com/album/roots-bells)

*¡CUIDADO! in many countries, copyright terms are even longer than in the EU. In Mexico, as Carlos points out in the comments, copyright lasts for 100 years. It’s best to look into your own country’s term length, and also check if your country conforms to the rule of the shorter term.

Cultural Commons Collecting Society

[Video] A transparent, democratic collecting society for music under CC licenses

Leading up to the Summit of newthinking in November, I’m making a few short videos about interesting developments in the areas of open strategies in Berlin. Newthinking is supporting me in this project and helping me hunt out cool projects and people along the way. This week I’ve been discussing music under Creative Commons licenses, and at the all2gethernow workshop a couple of weeks ago, there was a lot of discussion of the changes within the music industry in recent years, and how internet culture and technology is changing traditional business models for musicians and record labels. There I met Wolfgang Senges and m.eik michalke, who are part of the team trying to start a music performing rights collecting society for artists who use Creative Commons licenses.

Music that is licensed to be sampled, remixed, and used in videos (without having to ask express permission) is sometimes called ‘libre’ music – free as in ‘free speech’, not as in ‘free beer’. Musicians still need to support themselves and earn money from their music, and that doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive with using more open licensing methods. I’ll let m.eik and Wolfgang tell you more (make sure captions are turned on for English subtitles)…

You can find out more about how the society will work for musicians, and how to get involved at www.c-3-s.org

How Public is Your Transport?

This post originally appeared on my blog at Shareable.net

At the Open Knowledge festival I learned about citizens' struggles to obtain Open Transport Data for their cities. (Image CC-BY LHoon)

At the Open Knowledge festival I learned about citizens’ struggles to obtain Open Transport Data for their cities. (Image CC-BY LHoon)

 

Last week I was lucky enough to be at the Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki – 4 incredible days of workshops, talks and hackathons bringing together some of the best ideas and brightest minds in the fields of open government, science, education, hardware and data. Trying to live as ‘open source’ as possible does present plenty of challenges when travelling.

What to do about open source accommodation? We stayed with kind and generous locals via free hospitality exchange: BeWelcome is the open source option, non-profit, democratic and transparent– Couchsurfing is none of these, but it has the biggest user share.

With two of our hosts in Helsinki!

With two of our hosts in Helsinki!

Hospitality exchange is the best way to get an insight into the local culture (and learn about the Moomins). Want to know why there are slot machines in all Finnish supermarkets? Or what blueberry soup tastes like? Want to see a Chernobyl simulator inside the Helsinki Hacklab? Then go to Finland, and stay with a local!

One of the control panels from Helsinki Hacklabs' Chernobyl Simulator (Image CC-BY Hannu Makarainen)

One of the control panels from Helsinki Hacklabs’ Chernobyl Simulator (Image CC-BY Hannu Makarainen)

I knew transport would be a difficult problem to solve. Up until now I’ve just been riding my old-style 1-speed patent-free bicycle to get around Berlin, but leaving the city meant I had to look elsewhere. Openness in transport can be at various different levels – you could drive an open source car, fly an open source plane, you could share a vehicle, or simply share a ride. My attempts to find the ‘shariest’ option to get to Helsinki from Berlin proved to be somewhat of a failure, only managing to ride-share one leg of the journey. But as it turned out, the festival itself was the ideal place to find out more about the possibilities for the future.

One recurring theme at this conference was open data. Information collected by governments, NGOs and companies, released openly in machine readable formats. Open data presents an opportunity to compare statistics, to make graphs, apps and maps which allow us to better understand the world and see what needs improvement, to base our understanding on facts rather than impressions. Transport companies, the heart of a city’s circulatory system, hold extremely important data on how the city works, in terms of passenger volume, timetables, delays, access to neighbourhoods and energy use. The festival included 3 days of fascinating discussions and presentations on the developments and challenges of Open Transport.

Helsinki even offers a great visualisation for the efficiency of bike parking.

Helsinki even offers a great visualisation for the efficiency of bike parking.

Helsinki was the ideal place for such a discussion – for a country with an astonishingly incomprehensible language, the Finns do have a very clear public transport system, and it’s a great example of open data in action. Helsinki Regional Transport’s timetable and realtime information is shared openly for anyone to build upon. You can mix this data with anything else you like – air pollution or noise levels – crime or economic activity, rent prices – and you start to have a clearer understanding of a city.

A great advantage of opening up data as a company is that 3rd party apps can improve customer experience with your product. There are now apps which tell you exactly where every tram in Helsinki is right now. In fact it’s got a little ridiculous – Helsinki has only one metro line, but you have the choice of 35 mobile apps giving updates, mashups and realtime information to help you navigate it. Good data can allow you to check-in using location-based services on a moving vehicle, not with GPS but with interpolation of timetable information. You could link transport data with special calendar events or weather, and work out when demand is likely to be high. Info on delays or heavy use of transport could be relayed to other users.

Some of the apps presented during the Open Transport Helsinki talk.

Some of the apps presented during the Open Transport Helsinki talk.

It’s not just Finland – in Sweden the government now requires all transport companies to open their data through a central agency. One man’s polite, patient but persistent inquiries built a British rail database, and now the government is trying open transport data itself. The United States has a comprehensive Open Transport Data plan, and iRail.be is working on making sense of every train connection in Belgium, the Netherlands and part of France.

This isn’t a universal movement yet – I live in Germany, where organisations love the idea of modernity, but can’t quite bring themselves to follow through. The raging desire to be high-tech suddenly gets all soft and pulpy when faced with abandoning the pure certainty of print on paper- this is a country where you can fill in your whole tax form online, before you print and send it by post. My online banking service requires a printed paper code to run. For most companies, an ‘Online-Portal’ means a personalised login, to request which account details you would like to see – they can be mailed to your door early next week. So no surprise there’s a lack of imagination in official channels when it comes to open data.

Open data on Berlin's transport website- No results found.

Open data on Berlin’s transport website- No results found.

Deutsche Bahn has hardly begun the slow, iron crank into the 21st century, and Berlin’s 90 miles of underground trains are served by a single basic, officially sanctioned app. No offline version for tourists or others who aren’t connected. No extra mobility information for wheelchair access times; no easy analysis of infrastructure for city planners; no calculation of energy consumption or carbon footprints. No opportunity for integration with OpenStreetMap or OpenTripPlanner. And most importantly, no compromise shown to campaigners trying to prise this data from the city transport agency’s rusty old vaults.

Some frustrated open data activists have started to give dark and dusty German institutions a push into the light, whether they like it or not. A couple of weeks ago Michael Kreil and others finished what I can imagine was 3 weeks of intense copy-pasting, working to scrape what useful data they could from publically available Deutsche Bahn PDFs and the Berlin transport timetables, publishing a clean dataset for others to build on. The hope is that others will use this data to build visualisations, reports and online applications and show these creaky old companies how valuable opening their data could be.

Just to get you started, here’s a mesmerising 30-second look at Berlin’s public transport network – green dots are overground trains, blue are underground, red are trams and purple are buses.

So far the publicity the move has generated seems to be having an effect. Berlin’s transport data may be officially opened by the end of the year. Nationally it might take longer. Deutsche Bahn first responded to the move with a gruff “bah, humbug. We have one of those app things already.” Then the taxpayer-funded corporation last week finally released its data, but not to the public – they signed an exclusive deal with Google.

To round out the festival, in a packed keynote address, Hans Rosling encouraged people to ‘demand open data‘ to increase understanding of the world they live in – but when demanding doesn’t work, grabbing, scraping, and collecting data seems the best alternative. Open data, with, or without permission.

How open is transport data in your region?
Shareable’s content is licensed as Attribution-Sharealike-NonCommercial, so incompatible with free licenses. Therefore this post is also Attribution-Sharealike-NonCommercial rather than my usual Attribution-Sharealike.

I’m in Helsinki… help me get home?

I’m in Helsinki for the Open Knowledge Festival, 4 days covering an incredible selection of 13 different ‘Open’ themes, from government to education to hardware and business, where I’ll be meeting and learning from people involved in some of the most forward thinking developments, hacks and projects from all over the world. I’m filming interviews and I’ll be writing a few posts too, so watch this space!

One of the situations which I knew was going to be a problem over this year was transport – and travelling to Finland presents a particularly difficult target.

To get to Helsinki from Berlin, you can either

A. fly direct

B. fly to Tallinn, Estonia, and catch a ferry

C. drive/train 6 hours to Rostock, north Germany and catch the ferry, (2 days) to Helsinki.

D. drive/train 2 days through Poland, a Russian enclave, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Russia again, and finally Finland. Drive fast and drink lots of coffee, you could be there in 25 hours. Or, more likely, you could be in a smouldering wreckage somewhere in Latvia.

According to my way of thinking, the best way to travel in an ‘open source’ manner right now is through a ride-sharing website. In Germany the popular site is the beautifully named mitfahrgelegenheit.de (with-drive-opportunity.de) where anyone can post their planned journey, state how many seats are available in the car, how much people have to pay to ride along, and leave a phone number for others to call. Regardless of whether the actual software on the website is open source or not, the system facilitates peer-to-peer interaction and efficient sharing. The driver gets a little cash to pay for petrol, and the passengers get a cheap direct trip without having to change trains or anything complicated. It’s also possible to use ride-sharing websites to organise sharing a group ticket (up to 5 people) on a train.

Ride-sharing works extremely well within Germany, and you can also get over the border sometimes, but the problem with travelling to Helsinki is that to cross so many countries, I’d have to get extremely lucky with tidy changeovers between rides in each country, i.e. arrive in Poznan, Poland at 4pm, and have already organised a ride on a Polish website going from Poznan to Kaliningrad, Russia at 5pm. A more likely situation would be arriving somewhere in the afternoon, staying overnight and continuing the next morning. Meaning a trip all around the Baltic sea could take up to a week.

I’m still doing some paid video jobs to pay the rent where they fit in well with my project (like this) so this means I do have commitments back in Berlin and I don’t have a week free to ride-share my way across the continent. I spent hours researching possible connections or the likelihood of ‘boat-ride-sharing’ or anything like that, put out the call for people keen to share a group train ticket, and met all sorts of dead-ends with ride-sharing. So the choice for me was either a) don’t go to the Open Knowledge Festival or b) take a flight.

I decided for the festival, and in the end my journey to Helsinki involved a 4-hour ride-share from Berlin to Bremen (€20), a 3-hour flight to Tallinn, Estonia (€26) and a 1.5 hr ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki (€27).

Our ride-share to Bremen in a smooth, spacious 9-seater van. Easy!

But now I’m in the best possible place to find out where open source travel is right now, and where it’s going. It’s the start of 4 days worth of incredible presentations, workshops and events covering exactly the issues I’m trying to cover with this project, and I’ve just come out of a presentation on Open Transport, brimming with ideas. Updates coming soon!

In the meantime, if anybody can suggest a way to get back from Helsinki to Berlin via more open, sharing methods, I’m all ears!

There’s always the option to pedal back on one of these

Check out this visualisation of ride-sharing via Mitfahrgelegenheit over 5 days:

Ridesharing Network Visualization from Ubilabs on Vimeo.

 

On a general project-running note, I’ve been struggling a bit to get videos cut and online quickly, and provide regular blog posts, although most of the issues with learning new software is mostly behind me, so hopefully some of the back log of unedited stories will be appearing shortly! Judith is now taking on a bit more of a project manager role to help me schedule better and ensure that I’m communicating, blogging and tweeting (@YrOfOpenSource) so that you know what’s going on, and hopefully so that you can help me solve problems when they come up as well.