A picture I took on recent travels.

An Internet of Open Things to tell Stories

Once upon a time, this weekend of November 6-8, 2015, an Internet of Things (IoT) Hackathon [SOLD OUT] will take place at a leading Swiss telecom and run in parallel to the Virtual Reality (VR) Hackdays [PLACES AVAILABLE!] at a leading Swiss media house. Devices spew data all over the place, something we have known about for some time, and explored on occasion. Where there is data – you can bet your horses, there will be stories to tell. The enthusiasm of the IoT event team got me:

Within the near future, there will be a continuously increasing number of items, which will be equipped with sensors and that will interact and collect data, then communicate this data through the internet with users and systems. […] Every team will have access to a Low Power Network Developer Kit, an Application Enablement Platform and an Application Cloud account. The location will be equipped with beacon technology and the teams will have access to the mobile application SDK.

Excerpted from full programme at iot-hackathon.swisscom.com

Through Thomas Amberg, veteran open data hacker and organiser of the thriving IoT-Zürich community, I got plugged into advising (pro bono) the adventurous team behind this initiative. In this I focused on the qualities of a good hackathon: supportive atmosphere, proliferating diversity, clearly documented goals and conditions (i.e. “Swisscom does not claim any license or any intellectual property in participant’s submission”).


A grant from Swisscom made it possible to rapidly develop DRIBDAT: a new open source platform for sharing projects at the hackathon. Participants get a link to this site where they can share projects with each other and interact in a temporary online community which has a singular focus of accelerating their progress at the hackathon.

On the very same date and just a Steinstossen away the NZZ Hackdays were announced for “storytelling with Google Cardboard”, an event that I would love to bring my stack of single wall C-Flute and affection for all things 3-dimensional to. The organisers of the two hackdays will bridge the events with tours and sync-ups: IoT teams will have a great opportunity to think “out of the box”, while the VR guys and gals will get tons of location-based real-time data to augment their realities with as needed.

On Friday, I am going to this event as a participant, not organiser. (Phew :) As followers may know, I spent most of the summer working on Synopses, which involved looking at lots of medical applications, thinking about health data, talking to doctors and patients about their needs, and piecing together smart patient profiles. Clearly this is an exciting area to apply efforts to. Smart devices can tell us a lot about our health conditions, even if they are indirectly measuring our vital signs, while smartphones are being touted as vehicles to a revolution in medicine. So one thing I plan to do at the hackathon is to see who else is interested in publishing their heartbeat online ❤

The question arises of how to securely, transparently and effectively publish all that IoT sensor output for consumption in our VR headsets. The landscape of cloud data service providers and platforms providing special support for device data is rapidly changing, and When Sensors and Open Data Collide shares some compelling arguments about open thinking in the wake of IoT and smart cities in the cloud:

hackers, hobbyists and enterprises building the next generation of smart cities with real velocity…open pathways for data to be exchanged allowing us all to benefit from advances in technology, without a cost to our built environment…best of breed engineering whilst retaining our community roots… ‘Open’ may mean sharing data with your neighbour, your street, your city. Most importantly make it economically attractive for all enterprises to make data available in some form, even if it’s not ‘open’ in the purest sense.

While at Open Knowledge – which, by the way, has an Open Hardware & Design group – we strive to accelerate adoption of open platforms and data according to the full Open Definition, it is great to see high quality services like ThingfulThingSpeak and OpenSensors.IO provide open APIs, based on open source, encouraging data reuse under open licenses for the connected city. The days of Pachube’s wild wild west may be behind us, but a sense of perspective is crucial as an entire industry emerges around these trends and technologies.

Screenshot of Thingful.net by Umbrellium

At one point I think we should pause and ask ourselves some fundamental questions, like: is the platform and its standards as hackable and upgradable as the Web? Will the data produced continue to be accessible by us for years to come? Are we fully supported in visualising, correlating and analysing every part of the data ourselves? What risk on our privacy is there when third parties collect it? Is it reusable for startups and scientific and commercial research?

Or, perhaps, instead of thinking about the Internet and Things we should really be “thinking about the complex system of interaction between humans and things“.

A room full of sensors, networks and talented motivated people may be just the place to do that. See you there! Thoughts, comments that can’t wait until Friday night? Leave a tweet or a note.

Renewed interest in Open Data for Health

Recording of our call last week on Open Data for Health: https://youtu.be/xBcdlNYdz10

Health and sports are arguably the most popular and personal topics that were addressed during the Swiss series of open data community events. From personal wellbeing to the national health system, the questions are of wide and urgent concern, and connected healthcare presents some of the biggest challenges in terms of obtaining data and campaigning for openness. Already today open data brings an advantage in diverse applications – from medical references to directories of health services, in linking health to environmental monitoring, as part of open access to research, even financial data and new business models – not in the least in the emerging medtech field.

Since our Health-themed hackathon in 2012 (see blog posts in German and in French for a recap), interest was expressed from our community in renewing the topic of Open Health Data in Switzerland. On August 14, we ran a call with some of the interested parties to look at new projects, review trends and possibilities, gather feedback on how best to support community activities & data needs. Some interesting ideas were discussed by an enthusiastic group well suited to continue the thread.

Many thanks to the National Archives for hosting us, to our participants for joining in, and especially to Philipp Ackermann from the Zürich Faculty of Applied Sciences in Winterthur and to Mark Silverberg joining us from the USA. Philipp approached the association with an impressive multifaceted student project aggregating diverse open health data on a national and international level into a series of visualisations. Mark, who we met through the open data community on Slack, called in to share a series of sophisticated and heavily used web applications that put open data into the hands of patients, doctors, city planners and anyone else concerned about health trends. See below for meeting notes and links to everything presented.

Oleg Lavrovsky (@loleg) started off with a recap of past events and a summary of what Opendata.ch can offer to a Health focused interest group – as well as to anyone who wishes to use, promote or publish health data in or about Switzerland:

  • an open health data wiki leading to resources and projects from an engaged community
  • an active collaboration with Swiss government, at a time when e-health is a national priority
  • experience in encouraging organizations, field experts, scientists to share usable findings
  • connections to international networks such as Open Knowledge and the European Union
  • a growing capacity to provide feedback and grassroots training in open data and its uses

Health visualisation project ZHAW

At our meeting in Bern, Philipp Ackermann who works with Kurt Stockinger at ZHAW Winterthur, shared background (slide presentation, 1MB PDF) and gave a live demonstration of their health visualisation project, key data for which was published openly by the Federal Office of Public Health. They shared insights into their experiences using Open Government Data (a little metadata goes a long way! formats like JSON should be provided to improve development experience! it is not easy to get contact and support from the source!), which helped them get a much richer insight into the national situation than our hackathon projects. It is really encouraging to see this a student project with data journalism quality, and what the next level in this project may bring, currently in German only, but also something we would like to help address. We talked about the use of such visualisations in teaching, media, and open access to accurate and relevant information.

Mark Silverberg working on Health Data at the company Socrata gave us an overview of the open health data situation in the USA. Things are progressing steadily since Obamacare brought in place mandated processes to opening data, with examples for us to check out including – at the federal level: data.cms.gov, data.medicare.gov, openpaymentsdata.cms.gov, pillbox.nlm.nih.gov, data.cdc.gov, and at the state/local level projects like: Live Well San Diego, Chicago Health Atlas and Food Inspections Data. Of special interest to non-profits, he mentioned naccho.org (an open data site coming soon), and recommended the annual Health Datapalooza conference in US about health data (increasingly with international focus), organized by the Health Data Consortium, with the next one in DC in May 11-16, 2016. Finally, Mark gave us a peek at a new alpha search platform he works onopendatanetwork.com, which can be used to find health and other open data. Inspirational stuff! Follow him as @Skram on Twitter.

Yann Heurtaux (@Shalf) talked about how health data hacking is an emerging topic at UniverCity (@univercity_ch), the open, community-driven, education and research laboratory he works at in Renens, VD (Grand Lausanne area) where coworking meets citizen science, DIYbiology, all kinds of maker activities and hacktivism. He shared perspective on biohackers in Switzerland such as hackteria.org who first paved the way. Yann co-founded Hackuarium.ch /  wiki.hackuarium.ch in February 2014, and the community is now a part of UniverCity. One of the main projects being addressed by the Hackuarium community at the moment is the Open Food DNA Project. It was started because it is relatively easier to work with food chemistry and genetics data as compared to data on human health, and to try to provide education and awareness of the general public on those topics.

Addressing this on November 5, Yann will be hosting and co-organising a Biomedical Data & Ethics meetup in Lausanne. The next annual Opendata.ch/2016 conference will be in Lausanne next summer and might have this as a big topic on the agenda, so there will be plenty of opportunity to showcase open health data projects. As a call to arms, Yann also shared the latest announcements of a new Paris-based cancer research collaboration between Roche and potential biohackers: Epidemium.cc, and the medtech expo at SXSW he attended this year. See 2015 talks on the subject of health and especially Open Health Data as an Open Challenge, also on the Open Knowledge blog.

Via Manfredo Atzori, the team from medGIFT Research Group will be holding a networking session at ICT2015 (20-22 October, Lisboa, Portugal) – aim is to foster exploitation of clinical data fostering the creation of proposals to share, standardize, protect and analyze clinical data under a common framework – thus advancing learning healthcare systems. Suggestions & co-participants welcomed.

Evelina Georgieva from Swiss startup Pryv wrote in to say there will be another hackathon focused on health soon. At Pryv, they are already supporting Hacking Health Zurich and the Ark Foundation in Valais for the next events. We will be glad to learn more about this young startup and it’s exciting open source development platform.

A quick reminder that the Swiss Federal Elections are coming up, and health policy is a big and controversial topic on the minds of the electorate. We will run several meetups like the one next week in Lausanne, and a national hackathon on September 4 & 5: details and sign up on make.opendata.ch/elections

As our association’s president André Golliez encouraged us during the call, let’s go ahead with a Swiss Open Health Working Group and an Open Health hackday in 2016, connected to the My Data movement and the kind of disruptive thinking that our community brings to the fore! Join the conversation by commenting your thoughts here, on our mailing list, forum or social media, as your interest and encouragement can only help us to accelerate for better health with better, more open data.

How I became @sodacamper

This is part personal story, part prosaic longread. TL;DR: I am trying to bring the School of Data into Switzerland, with a twist.

Did you know that the word school derives from the Greek σχολή, originally meaning “leisure”? The German-language Wikipedia reminds me that at the beginning of all scholastic learning is the privilege of being able to apply our time to learn freely.

Eine Schule (lat. schola von griechisch σχολή [skʰoˈlɛː], Ursprungsbedeutung: „freie Zeit“, „Müßiggang, Nichtstun“, „Muße“, später „Studium, Vorlesung“)

With this in mind, the search for (Open) Knowledge, and in particular the discovery of new knowledge through Open Data needs to begin at home, not only in the workplace. There is an overwhelming, paralysing array of possibilities: new data sources, new ideas, new programming languages, new movements… You name it – it’s out there, beckoning for attention, discovery, and the never-ending pursuit of truth. What are the forces that compel us to passively accept, instead of to filter, analyse, relate, rediscover? What is richness and poverty in a century when, more than ever before, knowledge is power, and our individual, limited, flawed, fungible, human attention span – the resource?

Allegory of Prudence by Titian

Throughout the past decade while working to various capacities in IT, I have been struggling to explain my passion for information technology to friends and family. At the end of the day, with all these tricks and tools: am I able to make wiser life choices? Am I making full use of some part of the flood of information going through my electronic devices? Am I becoming a better person by practising what I preach? Since the start of the year this inquiry has become more urgent, and I have reduced my engagements to focus on looking after my children, and thinking about some of these unsettling questions – with a view to starting up a new venture. Some of you reading this might guess at my response, as we have spent the time together to work through the problem and design possibilities. Thank you for your life schooling and helping me through this phase – it is not quite over yet, but I already hope you will stick around and be part of the next!

So, let’s get back to the headline: we were saying something about a school? In my case, it is more of a school of thought than an actual institution in the usual sense of bricks and glass and chalkboards. The original seed could be found here on this blog: last summer the thought evolved into the idea to fork and apply the excellent open educational resources of the School of Data, a working group of Open Knowledge, one of the parents of the association Opendata.ch. The more I learned about the School of Data, the more excited I was – and also daunted by their ambition of changing the world one class at a time. The concept is brilliant – hire trainers well versed in the wizardry of data, from pivot tables and databases to CKAN, JSON and D3. Coach them and bring them out to places around the world where data can make a difference. Not just a change in direction of a multi-year corporate strategy. We are talking about making a difference in the daily lives of hundreds or even thousands of people in a matter of weeks, sometimes days. And it is working. I would really love to see more support and funding for this disruptive organisation.

I considered applying to be a Fellow, while thinking about ways to have a similar, if somewhat less ambitious, impact right in my own neighbourhood. I didn’t need to think long – all I had to do was collect some data: take note of complaints, listen to people angry at their social network, their train schedule app, their online map, their spreadsheet, and so on. Computers are fading into the background, while we get busy living our data-enabled lives, and we are frustrated by our inability to control and channel the data we are interested in – and even creating ourselves. A lot of people have written smarter things about this, all I am saying is that it is easy to notice the trend. We ‘get’ where this technology is promising to take us, becoming independent of devices and filesystems, but we are roadblocked by incompatibilities, frustrating design flaws, the vestiges of the Desktop Era and proprietary lock-in. Meanwhile the IT industry is going through one crisis after another, unable to let us relive the happy fascination with computing of the early 80s and late 90s, continuing to test our patience with ridiculous fees for tiny amounts of bandwidth. The lack of universal WiFi / 4G may the last real consumer hardware problem.

None of this matters as much if we look behind the curtain and learn how to accept both the “hard” structural changes of technology, and the “soft” cultural changes in the way we talk about it, the way we set expectations of each other and ourselves in regards to communication and information. It seems to me that the hardest part in this is confronting the existential problem that the Internet poses to our brain. In a world where all knowledge is interconnected, how is original thought still possible? Useful? Relevant? Wouldn’t a more natural response be to directly connect our hour-by-hour choices to a balance in a Bitcoin wallet, and optimise, optimise, optimise? Are we really afraid of living in the Matrix, or just of taking the red pill? Google’s answer: watch those cats

While we await the catopalypse, my answer to this is a School of Open Data Arts – a meeting point in the heart of densely developed, busy, interdependent Old Europe to share tools and skills and the impetus to take our search knowledge back to the roots, by applying the effective methods of data science to the compelling narrative of an artwork. For example: a beautifully designed infographic as a political message, an intricate interactive app for a purely hypothetical business plan, massive amounts of information used for a one pixel exhibit, and anything else that makes fun of data, makes it fun to play with data, lets us make our lives more data-ful without overdosing on technology and losing sight of nature. Putting the Art into Open Data a techno-political movement and philosophy.

I have heard it said that at some point in life, everyone wants to start a school. I’ve really enjoyed my chances in the past year to teach classes at university (a tip of the hat to my friend Matthias Stürmer for getting me through the door), as much I have tutoring kids and friends learning to code. Maybe it has something to do with a tipping point, when our curiosity and ambition to grab as much information as we can transforms into an inexplicable need to give it all away? Who knows. It just makes perfect sense, as does a quote on the pillar of a church in town where I wandered in by chance today:

2015-04-21 14.33.07

heureux celui qui a trouvé la prudence et qui peut s’adresser à un auditoire attentif [Ecclesiasticus (Sira) 25:9]

To sum up, it seems I am finding myself at the helm of a budding project that should set this record straight. A motivated and interesting team has quickly formed, and we have room for more coaches and supporters. At some point there may be opportunities for partners, sponsors, investors. In the meantime, we want eager participants and fellow students – no matter your level of IT anger/expertise. See you and your data at school!