Open data and the live tube map

This morning’s Observer column.

For me, the most arresting image of the week was not the photograph of General Stanley McChrystal, looking drawn and ascetic in combat fatigues, en route to his dismissal by his commander-in-chief, but a map of central London showing the underground system. On each line can be seen little yellow blobs. Blink and you discover that each blob has moved a fraction. You can see it for yourself at traintimes.org.uk:81/map/tube/.

The yellow blobs are, of course, tube trains. The fact that they're moving across the map indicates that this is, as near as dammit, real-time information about their positions on the network. And it's public data: you can sit at your computer in San Francisco or Accra and know how the trains on the Central line are doing just now.

How you react to this provides a litmus test for determining where you are on the technology spectrum…

Dead data: charts and graphs

I was musing about the uselessness of PDFs the other day (partly because of the MPs’ expenses story) and then wandered into a terrific talk by my colleague Tony Hirst in which he flashed up this striking slide from a presentation by Dorothea Salo.

It links to a pithy observation by Michael Kay:

“Converting pdf to XML is a bit like converting hamburgers into cows.”

Sunlight, not PDF, is the best disinfectant

So Parliament has finally published the data on MPs’ allowances. Except, of course, that it hasn’t, really. Here’s an example: a part of the ‘return’ for Margaret Moran, the MP for Luton South:

Note that there’s no way of determining where her second home is. It’s the same story as one wades through her ‘receipts’. For example:

The more I look at this stuff, the more I appreciate how much old-style journalistic digging the Telegraph did. Knowing the address of Moran’s second home was just the starting point. So to denounce the Telegraph revelations as mere ‘cheque-book journalism’ is spectacularly to miss the point.

Oddly enough, this is also a case where networked journalism would have worked — if the data had been out there in non-censored form then we could have crowd-sourced the investigation of individual MPs.

UPDATE: The Guardian is already crowdsourcing the job. I’ve just spent a happy hour poring through the expenses returns of Ben Wallace, the Tory MP for Lancaster and Wyre. Wonder why he spends so much money on (a) IT services and (b) ‘executive’ cars.