I like feeds and APIs.

Feeds and APIs provide ways for others to access a service and to recombine the data in new and unexpected ways. Ways that have consistently been proven to be beneficial to both parties (which makes google’s increasing antipathy towards them an interesting, not to mention short sighted, trend).

Anyway, it was one morning when I was attempting to find a route to work for my girlfriend which bypassed the numerous arterial route crashes that had happened that morning and I found myself pondering thus

… wouldn’t it be cool if roads and junctions had permanent URLs, and better yet if you could get a data feed on them?

This would let you do many cool things, for example you could enter your route to work and get a status of the traffic en route – or at the very least attach a particular traffic blackspot (in our case the 13 bends of death on the A4074) to ifttt and get SMS alerts if there was a problem.

Giving roads and junctions addressable urls would be an obvious extension to the google maps API, but given that Google won’t even let you embed a map in a page if it contains a traffic data overlay it seems unlikely they’ll provide such access to their data. Other sources such as the Yahoo’s traffic API has long since been shut down.

So, what alternative traffic data sources could we use?

One possible data source we could use would be to parse a twitter search for the road in question. We both currently use ifttt hookups to get alerts for certain key roads, so the basic concept is sound.

This isn’t perfect, for example there is no understanding of the context of a message – so for example a message saying “No traffic problems on the A4074” and “Terrible crash on the A4074” would both trigger the alert, but only the latter would indicate a problem.

The other problem of course is that it also relies on people tweeting, but in effect this would actually pull in quite a diverse range of secondary sources – in my case, for example, it also pulls in any source that feed into the local radio station – which includes reports from their traffic spotter plane.

As an individual without access to data from traffic sensors, or any ability to collect data directly (unlike, say, google who can use position reports from android phones), we are pretty much limited to collecting data from secondary sources as far as I can see.

What other sources could we use?

On the 27th of March next year all UK households will be compelled by law to fill in a Census.

I admit that I get more worked up about this sort of thing more than most people. The arrogant presumption that we are somehow state property, the compulsion to complete it & the sheer impertinence of the questions being asked are all things that stick in my craw.

With all else that’s going on – ID cards, mass surveillance, not to mention badly written laws made to put minority interests ahead of the citizenry – it seems that the census hasn’t yet appeared on the radar of most civil liberty campaigners.

However, as with previous years the number of questions has increased (34 in 1991, 41 in 2001). This year, there will be 56 questions prying into every aspect of your life.

Ostensibly a census is about resource allocation, but if that was the case the only question the government can legitimately ask is “How many people live in your house?“.

Gender is irrelevant as this is more or less going to be an even split. Birth rate isn’t going to suddenly shoot up so there’s also need to ask about the number of children.

I’d argue that even this one question isn’t really required as any areas which have resource problems can be identified more readily (and I’d argue more accurately) by deriving the information from other sources – class sizes, waiting times at hospital etc.

Some of the questions being asked

Further details of the census can be found here.

Many of the questions being asked certainly do not have anything to do with resource allocation.

For the first time you will be compelled to disclose any other passports you may have. Also, if you’ve previously lived out of the country you will also have to say when you came into the country and for how long you intend to stay.

You will also be compelled to give the names and addresses of any guests you have staying over on the evening of the census, as well as their sex and date of birth – which has led some to call this the “Snooper’s census“.


You are required by law to answer these questions, and if you choose not to answer these questions – questions which in my opinion the government has no business asking – you will have committed a criminal offence and receive a stiff penalty.

Worse still, the contract for processing the data has been handed to the arms manufacturer and surveillance company Lockheed Martin, which has already raised some eyebrows.

Today saw the release of Data.gov.uk, the government data website spearheaded by Tim Berners-Lee which hopes to collate government data and make it available for people to build on.

Although it is clearly aimed at developers, it is my hope that innovative and genuinely useful tools will quickly start popping up as entrepreneurs get to grips with this new wealth of information.

The launch has triggered a fair amount of buzz, and a flurry of blog posts elsewhere which do a much better job at explaining the ins and outs of the site than I have time to.

Personally, I think this is a good step in the right direction. It is also good to see that they have opted to go ugly early – publishing the raw data so we can begin hacking straight away – rather than wait until their cathedral-like semantic web interface is perfect.

True, while the data is in this state it is not so useful to the wider world – yet. Projects such as Scores on the doors have proven that turning raw data into something useful can be a useful and profitable undertaking, so I’ve no doubt that this will change.

The biggest disappointment is the choice to release much of the data under crown copyright. While this was almost certainly a compromise to get anything to happen at all, it would have been nice if the government had taken the bolder step and released it unencumbered and let the economy profit from it.

I would also like to see more local authorities opening up their data, moving away from the idea that everything has to be centralised.

Still, the new site follows a general positive trend of data glasnost which has already seen the promise to open up the postcode database, and in that spirit I welcome it.

Image “New, Improved *Semantic* Web!” by Duncan Hull