tales from urban dilettantia


Strange Attraction

Happy Friday! I am declaring today to be particularly good, even as Happy Fridays go, since (1) I went for a run this morning, (2) the cubefarm has exploded into the amusing chaos of Yet Another Desk Reshuffle and (3) the first person I saw as I walked towards my building this morning was oliverm, smiling and waving at me. Good things.

There will be a Day 2 of Happiness Posting – in fact I will post it tonight, because tonight I miraculously have a night to myself which I intend to use for blogging and painting and the like. (I’ll also take this moment to point out that I never used the words ‘consecutive days’. And in the words of Nick Hornby, yes, that is a sneaky lawyer’s trick.)

In the meantime, have a little of my pontification on one of the Many Shiny Things I am excited about. This particular shiny thing is data. And datasets. Datamining. Visualisation. Information. I accept that this is a field that is dead sexy only to a very specific sub-set of people. However – trust me on this, unbelievers – for those of us wired in that particular way, it can be an intricate, exquisite, fascinating thing.

The web is beginning to engage with data in increasingly interesting ways. For one thing, free datasets are becoming more and more accessible and people are using them in ways that are sometimes artistic, sometimes functional, and very often both. While the plague of inaccessible data, siloed in institutions and organisations, still represents an incredible waste of potential, the situation is certainly improving. And, from an entirely different direction, Web2.0 technology has delivered the tools to easily collect one’s own raw data.

On the latter point, I’ve been running a small personal data collection project recently. Applications such as MapMyRide, FourSquare, Last.fm, LibraryThing, Sleep Cycles for iPhone and Delicious track a whole lot of stats already in a fairly passive, low-effort manner. In addition to those, I’ve adopted Your Flowing Data (YFD) to aggregate information on a number of other variables. There’s a YFD iPhone app, and a spiffy hack for Latitude users. (The very pretty Daytum tool also provides similar functionality.)

Obsessed, any?
Obsessed, any?

In a move that most consider an odd choice, I’ve made most of my staggeringly banal YFD data public, on a page called Banalytics (yes, I’m proud of that one). The reasons I’ve decided to open it up are various, but I’m particularly interested in the way it massively reduces my tendency to tell small, pointless lies, and feels like a gesture to towards understanding that people will choose to like me or not like me just as I am. (And of course there are the cynical days when I wonder whether maintaining privacy for the sake of privacy is a drain on my resources, and no more than a shared delusion.)

On a less personal and more academic level, I’m utterly fascinated by people who create large scale projects of this kind. Nicholas Felton is one of the best-known examples, and his personal Annual Reports have received plenty of coverage. (He also posts some really lovely stuff over at Tumblr!) His passion for design, information, for the appreciation of the very small – these things resonate with me and I can lose myself for great lengths of time in the existential detail of his work.

I struggle to find the right words to explain why I find this field so enchanting; it is a discipline of numbers and forms, not well suited to words. The attraction for me has much to do with shapes and patterns and relationships. Both the analysis and the visualisation are acts of beauty; acts of untangling immense webs, and of deft slicing and assembly. They are acts of perceiving the interconnectedness of things, and acts of holding that up and saying ‘see what I have found; see that it has meaning’. And they are the great heart – each heartbeat counted and illustrated – of the the intersection between the analytical and the designed.

For anyone interested in reading further, see below for a rambling assortment of the data blogs, tools, resources and datasets currently available on the web.

Data & Visualisation Blogs:
Data Wrangling
Flowing Data
DataBlog (The Guardian)
Information is Beautiful

Australian Bureau of Statistics
Data.gov (US)
UK Data Archive
UN Data
WHO Data and Statistics
OECD.Stat Extracts
UCI Machine Learning Repository
Time Series Data Library

Meta-lists of Datasets:
DataWrangling List
Datasets for Data Mining

Statistical Data Mining Tutorials

If You’re Into It

River Ramblings

Yesterday, on the advice of kattiko , via angrygoat , I decided to do a little exploration and take a longer, more scenic bike route to work by following the river. (I normally do a fairly dire ride along an arterial road, followed by a frustrating – and sometimes dangerous – crawl through pedestrians and peak hour central business district traffic.)

After crossing the railway at East Perth Station in the morning, I decided to explore the river a little more on the commute home and follow it further north before heading back to Flyingblogspot Cottage. This turned out to be a beautiful ride, leading me through some rehabilitated wetlands I’d never explored before. I’m hoping to head back there in the near future with a camera, as even cycling through in the afternoon I spotted a beautiful White-Faced Heron, and a number of unfamiliar small birds and butterfly species.

For anyone interested in checking the trail out for themselves, head from the city towards Maylands along the north shore of the river, cross under the freeway and ride or walk from Banks Reserve to Barden Park. I headed home at this point, but it looks like the public greenspace continues well up the river – scope for a future expedition.


As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been enjoying playing with foursquare over the past few days. A few people have since said commented along the lines of ‘yes, I saw your post, but I don’t understand what fourquare does’. Like a number of recent applications, foursquare allows you to ‘check in’ your location using an iPhone or Android app, or through their mobile website on your phone. If your device has GPS, the app suggests a number of locations around you and provides tips, feedback and comments from previous visitors. If the location you’re at hasn’t been entered into foursquare yet, you can add it yourself.

The difference between this and other geolocation tools, though, is that foursquare has pared back the social networking aspects to a very basic ‘friends list’ offering and focused on giving users a reason to check in and add content. This is done via a gaming approach where users earn points and badges for adding new locations, check-ins per day, checking in at a new location and so forth. (If you’ve visited a location more than anyone else, you’re displayed as the ‘Mayor’ on that location’s foursquare page!) It’s good fun, I learned a few new things about Perth the very first time I turned the app on, and the iPhone app seems reasonably robust and useful. A word of warning, though – I’d advise against giving it access to your Facebook or Twitter accounts as you most likely don’t want it posting your location updates there.

The thing that interests me most with this kind of application is that it’s engineered to cull out advertising and junk information, as all the content is user-uploaded. A location only appears in the database because a user cared enough to add it – for instance, I added Velvet Espresso and my physio because they’re both great and because I visit them both on a regular basis. I don’t know whether foursquare is going to be the application to do it, but I suspect this kind of user-populated, viral geolocation technology is going to have a significant place in the future of the location-based web and information-overlay development.


I’ve also been getting into the popular MapMyRide this week, partly because it is very, very good at data aggregation and it offers a great iPhone app that works as a bike computer, and partly because my cubemates are trying to get me into women’s short-course triathlon. While the website and app are designed with fitness and training focus, MapMyRide is also excellent simply for recording distances, times and routes cycled and should give me a much clearer picture of the amount I ride per week.

One nice feature of the site is that while it provides stats in terms of fitness and performance, it also offers a ‘Green Stats’ section which looks at fuel, carbon and money saved. Unfortunately the fuel and financial savings are calculated based on US national averages, but knowing the site is using 18 mpg and $3.48/gallon, it’s easy enough to reverse engineer the calculation – in fact I might put together a Greasemonkey script when I have time to automatically convert these into more relevant Australian numbers.

The site also has a lovely ‘search for rides’ section populated by its huge userbase. If you log in as a Perth-based user, for instance, you’ll currently see 405 suggested maps with everything from a cruisy 2.12km circuit around Reabold Hill to time-trial routes through Kings Park and scenic 30-40km river circuits. The route listings also contain user comments and helpful tags, such as ‘Big Climb’, ‘Low Traffic Area’, ‘Mostly On Bike Path’, ‘Quiet’, ‘Scenic’ and ‘Very Hilly’.

The iPhone app is really easy to use as a trip computer; all you need to do is launch, select the ‘Record’ button when you start and hit ‘Stop’ and ‘Save’ when you’re done. You’ll be prompted to enter information such as the type of workout and whether to save the route as private or public. (If you’re wondering what to do with your phone and don’t have a bike-mount, I use an nice iPhone armband holder I picked up at JB Hi-Fi, although there are undoubtedly cheaper options on the internet.)

Finally, the site offers a number of tiers of membership from Free through to Gold, so it’s easy to try out without paying up. There’s a choice between a free and a paid iPhone app too, and the Bronze site membership is relatively affordable and more than sufficient for a casual user.


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@dilettantiquity is interested in an unreasonable number of things, including the wide and wonderful universe, happiness, well-being, wine, optimal human experience, non-violent communication, complex systems, existential nihilism, rationality, technology, grassroots organising, cacophony, music, creativity, learning and love.