Thoughts on CityCampSFPosted: June 18, 2011
Today I went to CityCampSF, an unconference focused on innovation on local issues. This is the first time I’ve been to an ‘unconference’, although I’d really wanted to go to TransportationCamp but for some reason couldn’t make it.
I was bit worried there was going to be a lot of the social media BS or obsession with apps that seem to plague San Francisco tech events but happily it wasn’t like that at all. Most people resisted playing with their phone/ipad/laptop the whole time too.
Not knowing how an unconference generally works and not being familiar with the projects already going on I hung back and waited to see how it organised itself. People write ideas for sessions on pieces of paper on the wall, put tick marks on the ones they are interested in and then similar ideas are aggregated and scheduled into the four or five spaces available—proper rooms with projectors for the more popular sessions or a group of chairs in the atrium for the smaller ones.
Initially it looked like everything I was interested in would overlap but fortunately one was moved back. I took off at lunchtime as there seems to be less going on in the afternoon and I was dead tired from sailing and staying up too late the night before.
SF Dept of Technology/Municipal Wireless/Dark Fiber
Jay Nath (@Jay_Nath) of the City’s Department of Technology talked about some upcoming initiatives they are planning—I won’t write any details since they are still developing and may turn out to be completely different.
Then it was onto municipal internet and “Dark Fiber” which someone had written in ominous wiggly letters on the ideas board. I knew what dark fiber was but didn’t see what the connection could be. Well it turns out the City owns a whole bunch of fiber all over the place—I guess they laid it in the 90s when everyone was doing that kind of thing, and although it was laid for official purposes (connecting City departments etc) if you’re digging a trench to lay one fibre pair you may as well shove a whole load of them in the hole. Thus the City is sitting on a vast amount of unused fiber capacity.
Of course this only connects certain locations (although I think it includes the Farallons), but one of these is up on twin peaks which gives good line of sight to many parts of the city so with a wireless link to a repeater internet access can be provided to a vicinity. I think this means folks in affordable housing are getting 80-100 Mbit internet connections for nothing while I pay Comcast $60/month for rather less than that.
The City has of course attempted municipal wifi access before, but tried to partner with commercial firms who either couldn’t agree terms or were otherwise occupied with going bankrupt (I forget the details). There was some discussion of where this system can go from here. One important point was that this stuff isn’t that hard to set up (the wireless gear is cheap and easy to install) but it’s ongoing maintenance that is an issues, and currently this is done by a few people in their spare time.
I think scalability is an interesting issues here. The fiber connections have essentially unlimited capacity, but only go to select places. Wireless is wonderful when it works, but useless when it doesn’t, and prone to all sorts of interference and signal problems (hello AT&T). Meshes of wireless networks have been tried but I don’t think have ever been really successful. I was intrigued by the ides that when a street is dug up for some other purpose we should take advantage of the opportunity to shove some fiber under there.
Digging just to lay fiber costs a lot; telecoms spend billions on this and are recouping it though your monthly bills. Laying some cable in an already dug up street still costs something but if you take a long term view you can slowly build up a wired infrastructure at a much lower cost. But you have to start taking a decades long view for this, spend some precious City money and probably expect huge opposition from Comcast and AT&T.
The dd-wrt (and others) project was also suggested, where a custom firmware could be provided that allowed people with home internet connections to open a second publicly accessible network, but this breaks the terms of service for home Internet customers.
All-in-all pretty interesting. I live in a building that is a little taller then most of those around it and also within line of sight to twin peaks so I might look into installing a wireless repeater up there. Until then, I’ll keep paying those Comcast bills.
This was originally paired with another card that read “real sim city” but that got split off to an afternoon session. I worked with GIS in the 90s and am still interested in a lot of that stuff so I though this would be pretty good.
It stared off interestingly (and I’m surely misquoting and misattributing here) but the person who kicked off the session talked about how open-source mapping tools were the essential in the inital response to Haiti etc to which someone else immediately called bullshit. There was a bit of too and fro about first responders (who certainly aren’t using open source map data) and so on, but fortunately they agreed to disagree and we moved on. This is actually my favourite aspect of these types of discussions; the open-source idealism meeting the pragmatism and compromise of the real world.
[Actually the session started with a mention of SF Fire App, which I will get to later]
The session leader (who I guess is whoever has something to say and has their laptop plugged into the projector) talked a bit about OpenStreetMap and other open GIS initiatives. Now I’ve always thought OpenStreetMap was pretty silly ever since I first saw it as a dorkbot presentation in London 6-7 years ago; why spend all this effort on data that already exists? Sure, it’s restricted by licenses but the huge effort to recreate all of it is surely more than working out how to liberate what is already out there. In the UK the Ordnance Survery’s data was so much more comprehensive and accurate (after all the government relied upon it) than OpenStreetMap’s (who had managed to make a painstakingly detailed map of Hoxton) that it just seemed stupid. The government needs and actually produces high quality geographic data so let’s work on making that available rather than trying to duplicate the effort.
Happily move on we did and, with a brief diversion into the myriad open standards that the OGC endorses, talked about what data is available in San Francisco. The City obviously has a lot of geographic data and makes a remarkable amount of it available via datasf.org; so should the City be making this all available via the One True Format of the moment (through a REST service of course)? No. The City has better things to be spending its money on, and it’s responsibility should be to make sure the data is good and accurate. If the community wants it in whatever format via whatever service the community can sort that out itself.
There were a couple of folk from the City and it was good to hear what they had to say. Geographic data is spread between departments and obstacles to getting it are more likely bureaucratic than anything else. Plus it’s probably going to be in the format of party concerned’s GIS software. And if the data doesn’t exist, or only exists on paper, they’re not going to go and create it just for you.
This session was pretty cool and I hadn’t previously looked at what was available on afdata.org which I’ll definitely check out now. Also notable was that transit was never mentioned, but since it has it’s own camp that’s fair enough.
SF Fire App
There were a couple of people there involved with SF Fire App—a smartphone app that can locate a nearby AED (Automated External Defibrillator) in the event of someone having a heart attack. Use of an AED can be crucial to survival before professional medical help arrives.
I thought this was interesting because although there was talk of clouds, geotagging, yadda, yadda what they really need is feet on the ground checking out the locations of AEDs. The existing data is terrible, and they need to know exactly where it is (not just a google maps-ish vague location) and whether it is available (it’s in a business that’s closed? Too bad). The website is a bit unclear on how one can help but I’m going to sign up and see if I can at least improve the data for my neighbourhood.
It was fun and I’m glad I dragged myself out of bed (which I dearly wanted to stay in) to go; in compromise I left after lunch. I’m definitely going to dig around on afdata.org and maybe follow up on the municipal wireless thing.
There were of course a lot of other things going on that I didn’t go to (and a few operatives for various mayoral candidates) but I’m sure that will be covered elsewhere.