Ants, Overlays and Open Data

Whilst standing behind the yellow line on the platform this morning, waiting for a train to Oxford, I noticed an ant on the floor wending its way along the tarmac, within the bounds of the thick yellow paint. The little black speck stood out quite sharply against the bright yellow.
Obviously the ant wasn’t following the line, but neither was it moving randomly. It was clearly following its own little invisible marker, an ant scent trail, that just happened to co-incide with the platform markings.
Last night BBC 1 showed Britain from Above an ariel view of Britain during a 24 hour period. The show had some great information visualisations of including traffic patterns for taxis, garbage collection, commuters, shipping, aircraft, as well as more static landmarks such as railway lines, electricity cables, water courses and telephone and network cabling. If you didn’t catch it the programme is definitely worth a watch.
It was this birds eye view of the world that lead me to reflect on that ant and it’s invisible trail. I wonder how many other layers of information could have been
added to the human-centric views shown in the programme? Animal migratory paths are an obvious one. Paths of dispersal, ranges and colonization are some others. It doesn’t take long to come up with many, many more.
The combinations of different paths and layers are also interesting to explore. Are many of these chance overlaps, like the ant on the paint or are there dependencies or inter-relations? For example how are migratory routes affected by no-fly zones or shipping lanes? Do migratory pathways begin to align with man-made features like roads and railways? And where have features like fish ladders and toad tunnels been introduced to avoid clashes between competing uses for the same space?
It’s doubtful that these kinds of questions will be answered in the rest of the series. Judging by the trailer for next week’s episode there seems to be a more of a “Pop geography” focus. (I’ll be tuning in regardless)
The truly exciting thing is that we can do this kind of exploration of layered information sources through map based visualizations ourselves using a huge, and growing, range of commodity tools and data sets.
Whilst watching the programme, what intrigued me more than the admittedly beautiful, animations were questions such as: how did they approach the
information holders in order to get permission to use it? What steps were made towards privacy and anonymity? For the BBC it’s going to be very easy to get access to all kinds of data. Not least because they have resources to spend, but also because their reputation proceeds them and the result of the sharing of data is immediate: “don’t you want to be on the telly”?
Open data advocates may do well to band together to form an organization that can become the focal point for activism and importantly trust. Such an organization could recommend best practices, including auditing of data for privacy results. It could also put together a showcase of the end results: creative visualizations of published data. It may be easier to approach data owners as a member or representative of such an collective, open, distributed, collegial organization than as an independent interested hacker.
But creating a compelling presentation is about more than just having the right technology and data. A good visualization tells a story. It’s through stories that data, really comes alive. The open data movement needs the involvement of strongly creative people as much as (and perhaps more than) technology people.
You need do be able to do more than animate a little black speck against a yellow band: where was that little ant going?