Conceptual Geotagging & mapping Interviews Mobile User experience

A new Powerhouse Walking Tours App and a Q&A with Glen Barnes

About a month ago our second walking tour App went live in the AppStore and was promptly featured by Apple leading to a rapid spike in downloads.

The Powerhouse Museum Walking Tours App is a free download, unlike our Sydney Observatory App, and it comes pre-packaged with two tours of the suburbs surrounding the Museum – Pyrmont and Ultimo. Both these tours are narrated by curator Erika Dicker and were put together by Erika and Irma Havlicek (who did the Sydney Observatory one) based on an old printed tour by curator Anni Turnbull.

Neither Pyrmont or Ultimo are suburbs that are likely to be attracting the average tourist so we felt that they should be free (as opposed to the Sydney Observatory one) inclusions with the App.

Additionally, as an in-App purchase you can buy a really great tour of historic Sydney pubs around the CBD written and narrated by Charles Pickett. We’re experimenting with this ‘freemium’ approach to see what happens – especially in comparison to the Observatory tour which requires an upfront payment. So, for a total of AU$1.99 the buyer can get the two included tours and the pubs tour.

So how’s it going?

As of last week we’d had 1,437 downloads of the free App with the two included tours since launch on June 13. 13 of the 1,437 have made the decision to go with the in-App purchase (that’s a upgrade conversion rate of less than 1%). We started getting featured on the AppStore on June 25 and the downloads spiked but there was no effect on in-App purchases. In comparison, the priced Sydney Observatory tour has sold 53 copies since launch a few weeks earlier on May 23.

We’re pretty happy with the results so far despite the low in-App conversions and we’re yet to do any serious promotion beyond that which has come our way via the AppStore. We’re also going to be trying a few other freemium upgrades as we do know that the market for a tour of Sydney pubs is both smaller and different to that of more general historical tours. You’re unlikely to see families taking their kids around Sydney’s pubs, for example.

We even had an unsolicited review from local blogger Penultimo –

We learned a few things very quickly – mostly about our own expectations. The first was this: it’s not going to be like a museum audio tour. The Powerhouse Museum did not pay a professional audio-speaker to make these tours. This means they have a kind of nice, very slightly amateur feel to them. At first this felt a little strange, but we got used to it.

Glen Barnes gets inspired about outdoor mobile tours during a visit to Pompeii 2003

Glen Barnes runs MyTours, the company behind the software platform we’ve been using to make these tour Apps. Since KiwiFoo, Glen and I had been conversing on and offline about a lot of tour-related issues and I got him to recount some of these conversations in a Q&A.

F&N: My Tours has been very easy for non-technical staff to build, prototype and test tours with. How diverse is the current user base? What are some of the smallest organisations using it?

We’ve got about 26 apps out right now covering 3 main areas:

– Tourism boards and destination marketing organisations (Positively Wellington Tourism in New Zealand and the St Andrews Partnership in Scotland)
– Museums and cultural institutions (Powerhouse Museum, Invisible City Audio Tours, Audio Tours Australia and Invisible City Audio Tours App mainly because the content is great and the they’ve spent a lot of time on the stories, photos and audio. (Did you know that people used to sink ships of San Francisco so they could claim the land over the top of them when it got reclaimed? How awesome is that!)

Invisible City App

I think a good tour has to have something to hold it all together – putting pins on a map just simply doesn’t cut it and neither does copying and pasting from Wikipedia.

I’m also a big fan of real people talking about their experiences or their expertise and this was really bought home to me when I meet Krissy Clark from Stories Everywhere at Foo Camp a couple of months ago. We went exploring out into the orchard and ‘stumbled’ across a song that was written about the place by a passing musician. The combination of the story and the song really took me back to what it must have been like in the middle of the hippy era.

Of course a great story is no good if people can’t find it. Promotion is key to any app.

I think this is one area where organisations really have to start working with local tourism boards and businesses. If you are from a smaller area then band together and release one app covering the local heritage trail, museum and gardens. The tourism organisations tend to have more of a budget to promote the area and by working together you can help stand out amongst the sea of apps that are out there. Also make sure that you tell people about it and don’t rely on the app stores. Get links of blogs, the local newspaper and in real life (Welly Walks had a full page article in a major newspaper, two more articles and a spot in KiaOra magazine). Talk to people and make sure the local hotels and others who recommend places-to-go know about what you are doing.

F&N: Do you see My Tours as creating a new audiences for walking tours or helping transition existing printed tours to digital? I’m especially interested to know your thoughts on whether this is a transition or whether there might actually be a broader market for tours?

We fit the bill perfectly for transitioning existing printed tours to the mobile space but that is definitely only the start. It is easy to do and creates a first step in creating more engaging content. A criticism some people make is that some of the tour apps don’t have audio – but in reality audio can be expensive to produce. I don’t mean we shouldn’t strive for the best but I would rather see some tours out there and made accessible than not published at all. Also if a few new people who wouldn’t dream of going to the library to pick up a walking tour brochure or booking a tour with the local historical society get interested enough to spend their Sunday exploring the town then that is good enough for me.

F&N: Here at PHM we’re trying both a Freemium and an upfront payment model for the two apps we have running. How have you seen these models work across other My Tours products?

We’ve tried to experiment a bit with different pricing models both for our own pricing and the app pricing. In-app purchasing hasn’t really taken off just yet and I’m not sure how this is going to work long term for this type of content. I’m hopeful that as more people become used to paying for things like magazine subscriptions through apps simple In-App purchases should become the norm for content just as it is for in-game upgrades. My main advice would be that if you can give the app away for free then do it as your content will spread a lot further that way. One way of doing this would be to get sponsorship for the app or some other form of payment not directly from the users.

F&N: What are the essential ingredients to having a chance of making a Freemium model work?

For any app you have to provide value off the bat to have any chance at all. For example you can’t give away an app and then charge for all of the content within – You will get 1 star reviews on the store straight away. Apart from that are you offering something that someone just has to have? That is a big call in the GLAM sector but if anyone has ideas of what content that is I would love to hear about it!

F&N: I was struck by My Tours affordability compared to many other mobile tour-builders. Do you think you’ve come at the ‘mobile tours’ world from leftfield? What assumptions have you overturned by being from outside the ‘tour scene’?

When we started we didn’t really look at any other solutions (as far as I know we were working on My Tours before anyone else had a completely web based tour builder like ours). I think we also did a few things with our tour builder that are a bit different because we hadn’t come from within the tour ‘scene’. The whole idea of having to upload ‘assets’ to your ‘library’ before even getting started just seemed a bit weird and convoluted to me so we we just let people add images and audio directly to the stops as they needed them. Also opening up the tour builder to anyone without them having to sit through a sales pitch from me was a first – I see no reason why you have to qualify people before they even kick the tyres.

We also challenged the assumptions that apps were only available to those with lots of money. The internet has this amazing ability to put everyone on an equal footing and let everybody’s voice be heard. This doesn’t mean that all voices are perfect but what it does mean is that money isn’t the measure of quality. Put another way there is no reason why the Kauri Museum shouldn’t have their own app just like the MoMA. It might not have all of the bells and whistles of an app from a major museum but at the same time it won’t take a hundred thousand dollars to develop.

It is interesting to look in more detail at pricing. We approached pricing by looking at a couple of other generic app builders and also looking at what value we provide. We’ve based the value proposition on the number of downloads that most of our apps will receive. Welly Walks is doing around 30-50 downloads a week which means they are paying around 30-50 cents for each app that gets downloaded. That is great value for them. Other apps are not getting quite so many downloads. If you are a smaller organisation you may only get 10 a week and the price per app is $1.50-$2 which still seems OK.

Looking at the charging models for some other tour builders and at those same download rates over a 2 year period you’d be looking at $11 and $16 an app for 10 downloads a week or $2.50 and $3.50 for 50 downloads a week. Of course, there are other factors apart from cost per download that come into it (For example renting the devices on site) but the bottom line is “Are we getting value for money?”. We may add in different pricing tiers as we add more features but I expect this will be around how deep you want to go with customising the look and feel of the app – custom theming for example.

F&N: I was really impressed to see that you had been implementing TourML import/export.

TourML to just seems like a no brainer. To me it serves 2 purposes. 1) To enable organisations to export/backup their data from a vendors system in a known format and 2) Allow content to be easily shared between different platforms.

Now some vendors want to lock you into their system and their way of doing things and they try and make it hard to leave. Instead we started from scratch building our company based on the modern practice of monthly charging and no long term contracts. As they say, “you’re only as good as your last release” and this keeps pushing us to build a better product. And while we don’t have the TourML export in the interface yet (the standard isn’t at that stage where we feel comfortable putting all of the finishing touches on our proof of concept) we see no reason why people who want to move on should not have access to the data – after all it is theirs.

We also want to see content available on more devices and pushed out to more people. Isn’t the whole point of the GLAM sector to enable access to our cultural heritage? By having an open format it means that a tour may end up on devices that are too niche for the museums to support internally (Blackberry anyone?).

F&N: What do you think about ‘augmented reality’ in tours? Do you see MyTours exploring that down the track?

I’ve got a love/hate relationship with AR. On the one hand I really want it to work but on the other I have never actually seen it work.

I think two examples show this clearly.

On a trip to London last year I was looking forward to trying the Museum of London’s award winning Streetmuseum app which places various historical photographs around the city. But having done so I came away with a couple of nagging issues. I never once got a lock on an image actually hovering over the correct location (even at which has a wide open sky due to the construction of the new crosslink tunnel). Here’s a screengrab from my phone where you will see the photo is way off the mark.

The second unfavourable experience with Streetmuseum was less technical and more a psychological issue – I actually felt really vulnerable standing in the middle of touristy London holding up my iPhone with my pockets exposed. I was always conscious of a snatch and grab or a pickpocket.

The second example was during Museums and the Web 2011 where Azavea held a Walking tour of Historic Philadelphia.

A group of about 15-20 of us set off with the mobile app and walked around the city looking at various sights. It only took about 10 minutes before our devices were tucked firmly back in the pocket as we couldn’t really get it to work reliably – and this is from 20 dedicated museum and mobile practitioners! Let me point out that I don’t think it was a bad implementation of the current technology (they really have a bunch of talented people working there), I just think that the technology isn’t ready. You can download a whitepaper from Azavea on the project from their website which goes into some of the issues they faced and their approach.

I think there are some opportunities around where it does make sense but the outdoor ‘tour’ space I don’t think is one of them (yet). So will we be adding AR to My Tours? Not any time soon in the traditional sense but if someone can show me something adds value down the road? Sure.

F&N:You are also really committed to open access to civic data. How do you see commercial models adapting to the changes being brought through open access?

I’m a big Open Data fan (I helped found Open New Zealand). I’m not sure where that came from but I got interested in open source in 1999 when Linux was starting to take off and I just loved the way that many people working together could build tools that in a lot of instances were better than their commercial equivalents. I’ve also worked for companies where there were a lot of manual tasks and a lot of wasted human effort. Open Data means that we can all work together to build something greater than the sum of its parts with the understanding that we can both get a shared value out of the results. It also means that people can build tools and services on top of this data to without spending days trying to get permission before they even start and can instead focus on providing real value to others. I’m really proud of the work myself and the other Open Data folk are doing in NZ. We’ve got a great relationship with those within government and we are starting to see some real changes taking place.

How will companies adapt to this? If you are charging money through limiting access to content then you will no longer have a business. When you think about it how did we ever get in a situation where businesses produced content and then licensed this under restrictive licenses back to the organisations that paid for it in the first place? If you commission an audio track then you should own it and be free to do what you like with it. Mobile? Web? CC licensed? That should all be fine. Therefore the value that the producer adds is where the business model is. For My Tours, that is in providing an easy to use platform where we take all of the hassle out of the technical side of the app development process – you don’t need a ‘computer guy’ and a server to set up a TAP instance. That is what we are experts in and that is what we will continue to focus on.

Geotagging & mapping Interactive Media Mobile

China Heart goes live – a mobile storytelling experience

China Heart launches tonight, Thursday January 27, at the Powerhouse and the ‘general public’ (more likely, niche publics) can start playing it with all the special real-world additions between January 30 and February 13.

Of course, you can play it outside this period – and you can even play it without being in Sydney.

If you have an iPhone then download the free iPhone App

Or if you don’t then you can try the web version, which also nicely reformats for mobile web browsers.

Read the backstory to China Heart in my earlier post.

China Heart is presented by d/Lux/MediaArts in association with 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, the Powerhouse Museum and the Project Factory.

China Heart is supported by Screen NSW, Screen Australia, the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority and City of Sydney.

Digital storytelling Geotagging & mapping open content

Sharing with SepiaTown – historical images re-mapped

Early in the year when I visited Josh Greenberg and the digital team at the New York Public Library, I was told about SepiaTown.

One of quite a few ‘Then & Now’ web projects (see also History Pin), SepiaTown puts historic images back on the (Google) map, also using Google Street View to connect the photography of yore with those of today.

We figured that we’d give SepiaTown a full collection of the geotagged images of Sydney from the sets we’d uploaded to our repository in the Commons on Flickr, and after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing we uploaded a datafile and waited.

We knew that quite a few of the geotags on these images were ‘approximations’, and that to properly do Then & Now, you also need to know the direction in which the photographer was facing. And we also knew that neither the metadata in Flickr or on our own system was enough.

So you can imagine our surprise when Jon Protas at SepiaTown popped into our inbox advising us –

We quickly discovered when we first dug into your collection’s geo-locations that many of them were mapped in a fairly general way, and fell short of our quality control levels. We spent the summer spot-checking each one and correcting the locations for almost all of the images you provided, and we are now confident that the vast majority of the images are now mapped within a 20 yard radius of the exact camera location (and are facing the right direction).

Some were quite tricky, but fortunately, site designer Eric Lehnartz, who is also our main uploader (and a bit of a geo-locating savant), was able to deduce even the more obscure and rural locations.

Wow. They’re improved, fixed, tweaked!

Not only that, SepiaTown are sending the corrected dataset back for ingestion into both our collection management system and thus also into Flickr.

Big thanks to Jon & Eric!

Here’s a few to try from the Powerhouse set (follow the link then click the Then/Now option):

Blaxland’s Tree
Sussex St, North from Market St
Erskine St, West from Kent St
The Spit, Middle Harbour

Check out their blog for other highlights. They have some fantastic images mapped in there.

Conceptual Geotagging & mapping Mobile

Subject or photographer location? Changing contexts of geotagged images in AR applications

If you’ve tried the Powerhouse Museum layer in Layar in the past few days on the streets of Sydney you may have noticed some odd quirks.

Let’s say you are in Haymarket standing right here.

You open Layar and it tells you that where you are standing is the location of the following image.

Now when we were geo-tagging these images in Flickr we made a decision to locate them on the point closest to where the photographer would have stood. That seemed like a sensible enough option as it would mean that you could pan around from that point in Google Street View or similar and find a pretty close vista. This is well demonstrated in Paul Hagon’s mashup.

In the example above, if we had geotagged the subject of the image (the lighthouse) on its exact location then the Street View mashup would not function. This would be the same for many other images -the Queen Victoria Building, the Post Office, and the building in Haymarket.

However, AR applications work in the physical world and so we have another problem. If you are walking around you don’t necessarily want directions to the place where a photograph was taken, but directions to the subject of the image – especially if the camera-based heads-up-display is overlaying the image over the view of the world. This is particularly the case with historic images as the buildings have often either changed or been demolished making the point-of-view of the photographer hard to recreate. (Fortunately the Haymarket building is still there so reconstructing the view is not too difficult).

The larger the subject, the more problematic this becomes – as the photographer would stand further and further away to take the shot. Think about where a photographer might stand to photograph the Sydney Tower (or the Eiffel Tower) for example – it would be nowhere near the actual location of the subject of the photograph. Showing this on a mobile device makes far more sense if it is the subject of the photograph that is the ‘location’.

Question is, should we re-geo-locate our images? Or geo-locate both the photographer’s position and the subject’s position separately?

Either way we need to look into how people actually use these applications more – it might be that it doesn’t really matter as long as there are some obvious visual markers.

Geotagging & mapping Mobile

New version of Powerhouse Museum in Layar : augmented reality browsing of museum photos around Sydney

Last year we trialled Layar for the display of historical photos of Sydney from the collection. At the time Layar was not all that stable and our content was mixed in with those of others.

Now the application is more stable and our layer in Layar is discoverable simply by searching ‘Powerhouse Museum’ in the Layer browser. You can also now view the original images in Flickr without leaving Layar making for a far better user experience.

This is still very early days and we’re thinking around the possibilities. Thanks to Rob and Alex at Mob-Labs for the development work.

What do I need?

You’ll need either an iPhone 3GS or an Android phone. It is not compatible with the iPod Touch or earlier versions of the iPhone because they lack a compass.

Then you need to install the free Layar application.

Using Layar

1. Go to the central business district of Sydney.

2. Open Layar on your mobile device then select Search.
Type ‘powerhouse museum’.

3. Select the Layar to open the browser with Powerhouse content loaded.

You may find a lot of points appear on your screen. If this happens you need to reduce the view distance in Layar.

You can switch between the ‘reality’ view and map and list views.

Interacting with Layar

Selecting a point of interest in any view will bring up a thumbnail and options to view the image on Flickr or navigation directions to reach the point if it is not where you are standing.

Can I try it if I am not in Sydney?

If you’d like to try it from outside Sydney you can do so. You’ll have to go to the Layar Preferences – under your phone settings on the iPhone – and set the ‘Use Fixed Location’ to On. The latitude you should enter is -33.878611 and longitude 151.19944.

The next version?

Soon we’ll be uploading a bunch of other points – contemporary photography from the same locations – and then adding some game elements. Stay tuned.

Thanks again to Rob and Alex at Mob-Labs for the development work.

Geotagging & mapping Mobile

Augmented reality update – using Powerhouse geocoded photographs on your iPhone 3GS with BuildAR and Layar

So you read about MOB’s implementation of the Powerhouse historical images in Layar for the Android phones . . . well, Layar is now available for the iPhone!

You’ll need a 3GS as it uses the compass for orientation but the Layar application is free from the App Store.


Once you’ve installed Layar on your iPhone you need to configure it to use BuildAR as a ‘layer’.

To do this just perform a search within Layar for ‘buildar’ then select it.

Search and add the BuildAR layer

You can see here that I’ve added it to my favourite layers for easy reference along with Wikipedia and Flickr layers!


Then head out onto the streets of Sydney and see what you can find.

You can view objects overlaid on ‘reality’ or get a map or list view. Clicking an object presents you with a number of options including visiting the historic photograph on Flickr, on the Powerhouse site or map directions to get closer to the point at which the photograph has been geocoded.

Layar in action



Geotagging & mapping Imaging Mobile

Augmented reality and the Powerhouse images in the Commons (or interesting things clever people do with your data #7215)

On Saturday night at our (very rainy) Common Ground meetup in Sydney, Rob Manson and Alex Young from BuildAR demonstrated the first version of their augmented reality mobile toolkit using images from the Powerhouse’s geocoded photographs in the Commons on Flickr.

This work riffs around the early mashup from Paul Hagon where he combined the historic photos with Google’s Street View; and the ABC’s Sydney Sidetracks project.

But then makes it mobile – replacing the Street View with the actual view through the camera of your mobile phone.

I asked Rob a few questions –

F&N – What is this Augmented Reality thing you’ve built? What does it do?

The first service is BuildAR and it is a service built upon the Mobile Reality Browser called Layar.

Layar uses the GPS on your mobile to work out where in the world you are, then it uses the digital compass to work out which direction you’re facing (e.g. your orientation). From this it can build a model of the objects and places around you. Then as you hold up your mobile and pan around, it can overlay information on the live video from your camera that you see to highlight where these objects and places are.

BuildAR let’s you quickly and easily add, search and manage your own
collection of Points of Interest (POIs) to create your own Augmented Reality layer. You can do this via a standard PC web browser, or you can do it via your mobile phone. You can create a free personal account and get started straight away creating your own private POIs or you can make public POIs that other people can view too. All it takes is a few clicks and they are shared or published in real-time.

You can also use the service to create fully branded and customised layers.

We’re constantly releasing new features including groups so you can share private POIs with others, rich graphs so you can view when and how people are using your POIs and custom mobile websites that each of the POIs can link to. We can even customise layers to make them really interactive so the POIs you see are based on where you’ve been, other POIs you’ve interacted with, the time of day or any range of options. Treasure hunts are a great example of this.

How did you use the Powerhouse data?

We’re in the process of creating layers for a lot of people at the moment and another great example is with the Powerhouse images that were released into the Flickr Commons. We loaded over 400 of these images as public POIs so now you can wander around Sydney with your phone and see beautiful historic images of the local area around you. You can then just tap on the POI/photo and you get the option to go directly to the Flickr page for that image, or even better straight to the Powerhouse page with all the historic information and the original image.

I spent the afternoon with my son the other day wandering around looking at images of our local area. Neither of us knew that Bondi/Tamarama used to have an Aquarium and it has opened up a whole new world for us to explore.

How easy was it to use Layar? What are the benefits?

It was reasonably straight forward, but it was a very technical process.

That’s largely why we created BuildAR – so other people can create and manage their own POIs by just pointing and clicking, or wandering around and using their mobile.

The benefits are that it is a great system with quite an open API. They’re gaining a lot of traction and I think the “browser with layers” approach is much better than creating dedicated applications.

This is much more along the lines of how the web works.

If you want to create something then you just create a website that uses standards based HTML/CSS. It just wouldn’t make sense for you to also have to create your own browser too. That’s the old model from before the 90’s and we’ve all learned a lot and come a long way since then.

Layar are releasing some great new features soon too, like supporting 3D models and animations and support for more mobile device types. They can focus on that and we can just focus on creating great layers and tools that make it easy to create and manage layers.

What data sets were you looking to use? How easy was it to use etc?

We’re looking for either content that’s compelling or data that’s useful. The Powerhouse images are a great example of compelling information and the team at the Powerhouse made it really easy to integrate into our application (thanks Luke and Paula!).

Very soon we’ll be releasing an option that lets you upload a batch file of POIs or just point it to a GeoRSS feed and you’ll be done. Couldn’t get much easier than that!

Another great example of compelling content we’re currently working on is with Sculpture by the Sea. This is a beautiful outdoor experience and is a perfect fit for mobile Augmented Reality.

We’re also doing quite a bit of work in the Government 2.0 and Open Data movement and we’re currently working on a range of layers that utilise the really useful public data that’s being released. Our goal is to help this data become more “situated” and therefore hopefully more relevant . . . then on top of that we’re opening up layers of social interaction to add even more value.

This is a really interesting time with a lot of social change on the horizon. The combination of Augmented Reality and Open Data is something that is literally changing the way we see our world.

What platforms does it run on? Will it be easy to port to the iPhone?

At the backend BuildAR is simply a relatively open API and we implemented that all on our Linux based servers. On the Layar browser side it currently runs on Android based devices and will be released on the iPhone 3GS and some other platforms soon too. The Layar team are working hard to port and enhance this whole application and the goal is to support any phone that has GPS and a digital compass built-in.

I think in the near term future you’ll see GPS and digital compasses start to spread back onto netbooks and laptops and then the tablet computers that will be released soon.

You were demo-ing another AR application at the Web Week launch party. Tell me about it?

This was a “marker” based AR project, an ARt exhibition collaboration with Yiying Lu who created the “Fail Whale” for twitter. Basically you just hold up an illustration created by Yiying, on a postcard or a t-shirt, in front of a camera connected to an internet connected computer. The application we created then recognises the image and then projects a simple Fail Whale animation over the top of the marker.

This also loads that last 30 tweets with the #wds09 hashtag and randomly displays one of them every 45 seconds. It’s all kinda self-referential and tongue-in-cheek and is a great way to play with and interact with Yiying’s beautiful illustrations.

You can try this on your own computer too. All you need is an internet connected computer, Flash installed on your browser and a working webcam. Just visit the project website and have a play or just watch the video to see how it works.

It is still quite early days with this technology and the light levels can really impact how well it works, but AR is definitely something that has an impact when you experience it.

“You are what you tweet” Augmented Reality exhibition from Rob Manson on Vimeo.

We are obviously in the early days of mobile phone AR. How do you see it developing?

Well, I’m working on a broader research project on Pervasive Computing and I think this is a core part of that evolution. The interfaces are still quite clunky and having to hold up and wave around your phone is still quite a clumsy experience.

I think quite soon we’ll see more immersive display devices start to spread. I’m running a session on this at Web Directions South and we use this underlying theory to inform most of our business/product strategy development.

Basically the distance between the network and the user is collapsing. The distance between the display and the user is collapsing. And the distance between the physical interface (e.g. think of gestures) and the user is also shrinking. This means our overall experience of space and even who we are is changing.

This all seems a bit futuristic, but glasses with displays built-into them should start to spread quite soon, all powered by mobile devices. And there’ll be even more interesting options too. Just think how quickly iPhones and Bluetooth headsets have become common everyday objects.

The opposite side of this is the spread of wireless digital cameras.

Combine the two and you open the door to rich and immersive Augmented Reality where you can shift your perspective constantly and freely.

I think this is the start of something really fascinating!

Geotagging & mapping

Suggestify – fixing incorrectly geotagged locations

Flickr has been on fire recently with the addition of ‘Galleries’. Galleries have been put to great use – apparently 25,000 galleries in the first week – including the Royal Observatory Greenwich’s lovely Astrophotography gallery and, of course, those around the Sydney dust storm,

Now Aaron Straup-Cope, also of Flickr, has released an alpha version of Suggestify. Actually, Aaron says “it is still very much in the alpha-beta-disco-disco-danceball-revolution stage” so be gentle with it.

A bunch of us in the Commons and the cultural sector had been hassling Aaron and others at Flickr about letting people ‘suggest’ geolocations for photographs, but this is much trickier than it first sounds. Aaron has been working on solutions to the problems for ages and Suggestify is an attempt at teasing out the issues though real world testing.

There are obvious implications for the photographs in the Commons on Flickr – no longer does there need to be a to-and-fro between someone who thinks they know where a photograph is, instead they can use Suggestify to propose a location.

There’s a little necessary complexity to setting Suggestify up to work with your account – first you have to authorise Suggestify with your Flickr account, then again to allow Suggestify to write suggestions back to your photos. This is a little fiddly but inevitable given the way it operates outside of the Flickr HQ and uses the API.

Go and give it a go with all the un-geocoded photos in the Powerhouse Museum account – help us locate them! You’ll need to have a Flickr account to do it.

Login to Suggestify, authorise your Flickr account, and start tagging for account name “Powerhouse Museum Collection” (with spaces!).

(You’ll be best off trying this with Firefox – it breaks in Safari 4 and, well, you all know better than to use IE)

Geotagging & mapping Interactive Media Semantic Web

Introducing About NSW – maps, census visualisations, cross search

Well here’s an alpha release of something that we’ve been working on forever (well, almost 2 years). It is called About NSW and is a bit of a Frankenstein creation of different data sets mashed together by a sophisticated backend. The project began with an open-ended brief to be a cross-sectorial experiment in producing new interfaces for existing content online. In short, we were given permission to play in the sandbox and with that terrain comes a process of trial and error, learning and revision.

We’ve had an overwhelming amount of feature requests and unfortunately have not been able to accommodate them all but this does give us an indication of the need to work on solutions to common problems such as –

  • “can we handle electoral boundaries and view particular datasets by suburb postcodes?”
  • “can we aggregate upcoming cultural events?”
  • “can we resolve historical place names on a contemporary Google Map?”

to name just a few.

There’s three active voices in this blog post, my own accompanied by those of Dan MacKinlay (developer) and Renae Mason (producer). Dan reads a lot of overly fat economics and social theory books when not coding and travelling to Indonesia to play odd music in rice paddies; while Renae reads historical fiction, magical realism and design books when not producing and is about to go tango in Buenos Aires – hola!

We figured this blog post might be a warts and all look at the project to date. So grab a nice cup of herbal tea and sit back. There’s connections here to heavyweight developer stuff as well as more philosophical and practical issues relevant to Government 2.0 discussion as well.

So what exactly is About NSW?

Firstly it is the start of an encyclopaedia.

Our brief was never to create original content but to organise what already existed across a range of existing cultural institution websites. There’s some original content in there, but that probably is not be exciting in itself.

While projects like the wonderful Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, ‘Te Ara’ are fantastic, they cost rather more than our humble budget. Knowing up front that we had scant resources for producing ‘new’ content, we have tried to build a contextual discovery service that assists in exposing existing content online. We aimed to form partnerships with content providers to maximise the use of all those fact sheets, images and other information that is already circulating on the web. We figured, why duplicate efforts? In this way, we would like to grow About NSW as a trustworthy channel that delivers cultural materials to new audiences, sharing traffic and statistics with our partners along the way. That said, there’s actually a whole lot of exciting material lurking deep in the original content of the encyclopaedia, including a slew of digitised almanacs that we are yet to expose.

We’re particularly excited to be able to bring together and automatically connect content from various sources that otherwise wouldn’t be “getting out there”. There are a lot of websites that go around and scrape other sites for content – but really getting in there and make good use of their data under (reasonably) unrestrictive license is in facilitated by having the request come from inside government. It’s not all plain sailing, mind – if you look through our site you’ll see that a few partners were afraid to display the full content of their articles and have asked they be locked down.

But, because we work in aggregate, we can enrich source data with correlated material. A simple lucid article about a cultural figure can provide a nice centrepiece for an automatically generated mashup of related resources about said figure. We could go a lot further there in integrating third party content rather than going through the tedious process of creating our own articles by pulling in content from sources like Wikipedia and Freebase. (We certainly never intended to go into the encyclopaedia business!)

Secondly, the site is an explorer of the 2006 Australian Census data. As you might know, the Australian Bureau of Statistics does a rather excellent job of releasing statistical data under a Creative Commons license. What we have done is take this data and build a simple(r) way of navigating it by suburbs. We have also built a dynamic ‘choropleth’ map that allows easy visualising of patterns in a single data set. You can pin suburbs for comparison, and look for patterns across the State. (with extra special bells and whistles built for that by some folks from the Interaction Consortium who worked on the team.)

Third, we’ve started the long and arduous process of using the same map tools to build a cultural collections navigator that allows the discovery of records by suburb. This remains the most interesting part of the site but also the one most fraught by difficulties. For a start, very few institutions have well geo-located collections – certainly not with any consistency of precision. We have tried some tricky correlations to try to maximise the mappable content but things haven’t (yet) turned out the way we want them to.

But, considering the huge data sets we are dealing with we reckon we’ve done pretty well given the data quality issues and the problem of historical places not being able to be reverse geocoded automatically.

Fourth, not much of this would be much chop if we weren’t also trying to build a way of getting the data out in a usable form for others to work with. That isn’t yet available yet mainly because of the thicket of issues around rights and the continuing difficulty in convincing contributors that views of their content on our site can be as valuable, potentially more valuable when connected to other material, than views on their individual silo-ed sites.

Where is the data from?

About NSW has afforded a unique opportunity to work with other organisations that we don’t usually come into contact with and we’ve found that generosity and a willingness to share resources for the benefit of citizens is alive and well in many of our institutions. For example, we approached the The NSW Film & Television Office with a dilemma – most of the images that we can source from the libraries and archives are circa 1900, which is fantastic if you want to see what Sydney looked like back then, but not so great if you want to get a sense of what Sydney looks like today. They kindly came to the party with hundreds of high quality, contemporary images from their locations database which isn’t public facing but currently serves a key business role in attracting film and television productions to NSW.

Continuing along with our obsession for location specific data, we also approached the NSW Heritage Branch who completely dumb-founded us by providing us with not just some of their information on heritage places but the entire NSW State Heritage Register. The same gratitude is extended to the Art Gallery of NSW who filled in a huge gap on the collection map with their collection objects so now audiences can, for the first time, see what places our most beloved artworks are associated with (and sometimes, the wonderful links with heritage places – consider the relationship with the old gold-mining heritage town of Hill End and an on-going Artist in Residency program that is hosted there and has attracted artists such as Russell Drysdale and Brett Whitely). With our places well and truly starting to take shape we decided to add in demographic data with the most recent census from the Australian Bureau of Statistics who noted that their core role in providing raw data leaves them little time to for the presentation layer so they were delighted that we were interested in visualising their work.

Besides our focus on places, we are pretty keen on exploring more about the people who show up in our collection records and history books. To this end, the Australian Dictionary of Biography has allowed us to display extracts of all their articles that relate to people associated with NSW.

As a slight off-shoot to this project, we even worked with NSW Births Deaths and Marriages Registry to build the 100 Years of Baby Names at lives on the central NSW Government site, but that’s a different story, that’s already been blogged about here.

There are of course many other sources we’d like to explore in the future but for now we’ve opted for the low-hanging fruit and would like to thank our early collaborators for taking the leap of faith required and trusting us to re-publish content in a respectful manner.

There are many things we need to improve but what a great opportunity it has been to work on solving some of our common policy and legacy technology problems together.

Cultural challenges

Unfortunately, despite the rosy picture we are beginning to paint here, the other side is that collecting institutions are not accustomed to working across silos and are either not well-resourced to play in other domains.

Comments like “This isn’t our core business!” and “Sounds great but we don’t have time for this!” have been very common. Others have been downright resistant to the idea all together. The latter types prefer to operate a gated-estate that charges for entrance to all the wonders inside – the most explicit being “We don’t think you should be putting that kind of information on your site because everyone should come to us!”.

But we wonder, what’s more important – expert pruning? Or a communal garden that everyone can take pride in and improves over time?

To be fair, these are confronting ideas for institutions that have always been measured by their ‘authoritativeness’ and by the sheer numbers that can be attracted through their gates, and not the numbers who access their expertise.

Unsurprisingly these are the exact same issues being tackled by the Government 2.0 Taskforce.

It’s an unfortunately constructed competitive business and the worth of institutions online is still being measured on the basis of how many people interact with their content on their website. Once those interactions begin to take place elsewhere it becomes more difficult to report despite the fact that it is adding value – after all, how do you quantify that?

We’ve done some nifty initial work with the Google Analytics API to try to simplify data reporting back to contributors but it is more a philosophical objection more than anything.

Add to that Copyright and privacy and you have a recipe for trouble.

Munging data

Did we already say that this project hasn’t been without its problems?

The simplest summary is: web development in government has generally had little respect for the Tim Berners-Lee’s design principle of least power.

While sites abound with complicated Java mapping widgets, visually lush table-based designs and so on, there is almost no investment in pairing that with simple and convenient access to the underlying data in direct, simple, machine-readable way. This is particularly poignant for projects that have started out with high ideals, but have lost funding; all the meticulous work they have expended in creating their rich designs can go to waste if the site design only works in Netscape Navigator 4.

Making simple data sets available is timeless insurance against the shifting ephemeral fads of browser standards, and this season’s latest widget technology, but it’s something few have time for. That line of reasoning is particularly important for our own experimental pilot project. We have been lucky, unlike some of our partners, in that we have designed our site from the ground up to support easy data export. (You might well ask, though, if we can’t turn that functionality on for legal reasons, have we really made any real progress).

As everyone knows, pulling together datasets from different places is just a world of pain. But it is a problem that needs to be solved for any of the future things all of us want to do to get anywhere. Whilst we could insist on standards, what we wanted to experiment with here was how far we could get without mandating standards – because in the real world, especially with government data, a lot of data is collected for a single purpose and not considered for sharing and cross-mixing.

We’d love plain structured data in a recognised format, but it isn’t generally available. (RDF, OAI-PMH, ad hoc JSON over REST, KML – even undocumented XML with sensibly named elements will do) Instead, what there usually is are poorly marked up HTML sites, or databases full of inconsistent character encodings, that need to be scraped – or even data that we need to stitch together from several different sources to re-assemble the record in our partner’s database because their system won’t let them export it in one chunk. Elsewhere we’ve had nice Dublin Core available over OAI, but even once all the data is in, getting it to play nicely together is tricky, and parsing Dublin-core’s free-text fields has still been problematic.

In our standards-free world, there is also the problem of talking back.

Often we’re faced with the dilemma that we believe that we have in some way value-added to the data we have been given – but we have no way of easily communicating that back to its source.

Maybe we’ve found inconsistencies and errors in the data we have imported, or given “blobs” of data more structure, or our proofreaders have picked up some spelling mistakes. We can’t automatically encode our data back into the various crazy formats it comes in, (well, that it’s twice as much work!), and even do we invest the time on that if there is no agreed way of communicating suggested changes? Or what if the partner in question has lost funding and doesn’t have time to incorporate updates no matter how we provide them?

This is a tricky problem without an easy solution.

What does it run on?

Behind the scenes the site is built pretty much with open spource choices. It was built using on Python using the Django framework, and PostgresQL’s geographic extension postGIS (the combination known as Geodjango).

For the interactive mapping it uses Modest Maps – which allows us to change between tile providers as needed – and everything is pretty modular and re-purposable, and a whole bunch of custom file-system based tile-metadata service code.

Since we have data coming from lots of different providers with very different sets of fields, we store data internally in a general format which can handle arbitrary data – the EAV pattern – although we get more mileage out of our version because of Django’s sophisticated support for data model subclassing.

We have also used Reuters’ Open Calais to cross-map and relate articles initially whilst a bunch of geocoders go to work making sense of some pretty rough geo-data.

We use both the State Government supplied geocoder from the New South Wales government’s Spatial Information Exchange, and Google’s geocoder to fill the gaps.

And we use the Google Analytics, plus the Google Analytics Data Export API to be able to deliver contributor-specific usage data.

We use an extensive list of open-source libraries to make all this work, many of which we have committed patches to along the way.

We do our data parsing with

  • phpserialize for python for rolling quick APIs with out PHP-using friends
  • PyPdf for reading PDFs
  • pyparsingfor parsing specialised formats (e.g. broken “CSV”)
  • Beautiful Soup for page scraping
  • lxml for XML document handling
  • suds for SOAP APIs (and it is absolutely the best, easiest and most reliable python SOAP client out there

Our search index is based off whoosh, with extensive bug fixes by our friendly neighbourhood search guru Andy

We’ve also created some of our own which have been mentioned here before:

  • python-html-sanitizer takes our partners’ horrifically broken or embedded-style-riddled html and makes it something respectable. (based off the excellent html5lib as well as Beautiful Soup)
  • django-ticket is a lightweight DB-backed ticket queue optimised for efficient handling of resource-intensive tasks, like semantic analysis.


So, go an have a play.

We know there are still a few things that don’t quite work but we figure that your eyes might see things different to us. We’re implementing a bunch of UI fixes in the next fortnight too so you might want to check back in a fortnight and see what has improved. Things move fast on the web,

Geotagging & mapping Mobile

Maps are all around us

I was reading Michael Chabon’s piece on childhood last week and one section popped out of the screen –

It captured perfectly the mental maps of their worlds that children endlessly revise and refine. Childhood is a branch of cartography.

Walking my daughter to school we tiptoe “past the wizard’s house” at the top of my street – a rather rundown old building full of props and what, to small people, appears very much like magic equipment. A little further up the road is where the “scary man” sleeps rough. This got me thinking about the possibilities for children’s maps of their neighbourhoods overlaid on ‘official maps’.

So how might this work? Could this work as a game? Well, it also provides an excuse for a stream of consciousness post about a few of my favourite map-related projects.

Since I saw it at MW2009 I’ve been a huge fan of the New York Public Library’s Map Rectifier project. Here historical maps are being ‘rectified’ so that they can be searched, and navigated using contemporary online mapping tools. (The current rectifier uses Open Street Map). This is an incredibly thoughtful way of ‘digitising a collection’ – where the digital copy opens the object up to new uses. I’m looking forward to future projects that emerge from this work and peeling back the layers of historical sediment as maps are laid on top of each other by year.

New maps of the city are being created all the time and here’s a new Nintendo DS game called Treasure World (article) that utilises the environment around the player – the mutlitude of WiFi points around a coty to be precise – as a key element in the game. Players collect in-game content as they explore the city’s WiFi points around them. This is almost invisible ‘augmented reality’ gaming – and I’d wager that many players won’t comprehend that the city around them is the game itself (indeed, the point is that they don’t need to).

Similarly revealing of the digital sediment around us, Flickr’s mobile ‘near me‘ (open on your iPhone) brings to the mass market mobile web what the iPhone application Darkslide (formerly Exposure) had as an ‘extra feature’. With Near Me the mobile Flickr website now can make a call to your location and then return other people’s photos ‘near you’. This creates an uncanny experience of being able to – in place – view the world through the eyes of those who have been there previously. Or, ‘near my home’, it shows me the rather debauched parties that happen in some of my neighbours’ houses (perhaps that’s just my neighbourhood!).

Conversely I’ve been fascinated by a number of art projects that reveal the parts of the world still unmapped by photosharing websites – “the no-go zones of the technorati”.

There’s sonic maps emerging too – the BBC’s Save Our Sounds – and the University of Salford’s Sound Around You have both been in the news recently, and Audio Boo has been around since the beginning of the year too.

One of my friends and sound artist, Richard Fox, has just launched a new augmented reality game in Sydney based on the razor gangs of the early 20th century in Darlinghurst. Called Razorhurst, and adapted from a historical book, Razor, it uses GPS-enabled PDAs (running Windows Mobile and built with MScape) to recreate the period. It runs to the end of July (sponsored by dLux Media Arts) and you can collect your PDA for the game from the East Village Hotel – the significance of which is crucial to the story.

Mscape has been around for a little while to author these sorts of games, and the historical assets are starting to become a little more widely available. It is a pretty easy authoring environment even if it is the equivalent of the CD ROM age – only playable on some devices, closed system etc.

Someone – yes, you dear reader – should probably go and build a Mscape game out of the geotagged content in the Flickr Commons – I would if I had 100 hours.

Of course, there’s another reason why I’ve been really interested in maps but I’ll tell you about that in a week or two . . .