More on the democratisation of the dev; open data, via a detour into air travel

You may have noticed that I travel quite a bit. Which probably gives someone in at least two organisations a mild headache. Only one of those two organisations is Google.

Every time I travel, I have reason to smile. Often. I’ve come to the conclusion that a sense of humour is one of the most important things you need if you’re a frequent traveller. I’ve tried everything else: staring quietly while smoke comes out of your ears; pretending that the only language you speak is an offshoot of Finno-Ugric; practising hyperselective deafness and blindness; following instructions to the letter. It doesn’t matter, somewhere between entering one airport and exiting another, your patience will be tried. Extensively.

So I have learnt to detach myself from myself as I go through the shenanigans of air travel, concentrating on observing everything around me as dispassionately as possible. What Bruce Schneier called “security theatre” I try and segment into Comedies, Tragedies and Histories; I have reserved the term Romances for now.

I try and spot Six Impossible Things before Check-in. I know, that’s cheating. It used to be hard when all you could do was queue at a counter. Now, with the web and the phone and the kiosk, even the impossible is commonplace, so much to observe, so much to smile at. How many times will I be asked the same question? How many ways can I get to “It is not possible to check you in at this time. Please take your documents with you and leave forthwith”.

When I’m the other side of the Comedies, I concentrate on other puzzles. For example, I analyse all the different ways I could get from my erstwhile location to the place I need to be at. Then I rank them in terms of the quality of the obstacle course so presented. Will they make me go downstairs so that they can make me go back upstairs somewhere else? Will they lull me into complacency by giving me a gate a stone’s throw away, only to bring forward boarding by forty minutes because we were going to be bused to the aircraft? That in turn makes me check the weather. If there’s blue sky visible and no hint of rain whatsoever, I discount the likelihood of buses. After all, what’s the point of sending passengers on to buses if you can’t watch them do their drowned-rat-with-gangantuan-hand-luggage act? Buses go with rain.

Once I get on the plane, I can play more sophisticated games. In how many ways can I be interrupted while trying to do something where interruption is not particularly enjoyable?

Which reminds me. The democratisation of the dev. Ah yes.

One of the things I do when I’m travelling is to observe and understand the DNA of the communications that take place. The terms and jargon that are the making of air travel. Take airport codes for example. IATA codes dating back to the 1930s are still in common use, paying no attention to political and geographical shifts in the eight decades that have passed since. So Mumbai is BOM, Chennai is MAA and Kolkata CCU. [Calcutta is where I was born, where I grew up. Kolkata is where I go when I visit].

I smile when I see them. I smile when I land in Beijing and see PEK. I smile broadly when I land in St Petersburg and see LED; I haven’t been to Nizhny Novgorod, but if I had I would have smiled at GOJ. All this gave me the incentive to look into the history of the codes. Last week I flew to and from EWR. Why EWR for Newark? Because the Navy reserved everything starting with N and the FCC wanted W and K to be similarly protected, poor Newark had nowhere else to go but EWR. And when I learnt that the mayhem actually had rules (like “the first and second letter or the second and third letter of an airport may not be duplicated with less than 200 nautical miles separation”).

I found it hard to believe that these codes were set in stone in the 1930s and left unchanged. So I looked into it, and I wasn’t surprised to see that there had been attempts to modernise the codes. I went and read up on the four-character ICAO codes and realised that there was a treasure trove of comedy there, to be saved for a rainy day when I would be taken by bus to the plane and off it. A part of me is still trying to figure out how ICAO told the Scots and the Welsh that their airports had the prefix EG (for England). O frabjous day! Callooh callay!

Poor Edinburgh. Someone thought that EDI wasn’t clear enough so it needed to be called EGPH. Uggh.

Why do these things happen? Because people need a common language, common labels, to be able to communicate with each other, to know when and how they mean the same thing or different things. You say tomahto and I say tomayto.

Take something as trivial as train timetables. I’m led to believe that there was no concept of global standard time until train timetables came along. Time was something that was local. The sun rose. The sun set. Stuff happened in between. Stuff happened betwixt. And that’s all she wrote.

Then people wanted to know what time the Stockton train was to arrive in Darlington. And they realised that this needed Stockton and Darlington to have a common view of time, a common frame of reference.

Time is a label. Which is why you should never be able to patent or copyright Tuesday. [Otherwise there will be a whole new meaning to Cat Stevens’ wonderful Tuesday’s Dead]. [If you really want to laugh, take a look at the conspiracy theorist conversations analysing the lyrics here].

Location is also a label. When and where are questions one should be able to answer outside copyright. [Which is why a part of me curls up and dies when I see monopolies in geographical information].

Life is full of labels. Labels that don’t just tell you when and where, but what as well. Part numbers. Chemical element names. Compound names. Generic drug names. The classifications of flora and fauna. SKUs.


There’s one label more important than all the others.

Who. Yes, identity.

As the Cluetrain guys said, markets are conversations. Conversations that take place because of the relationships that exist. Conversations that may, and often do, lead to transactions.

Relationship before conversation before transaction.

If conversations are what make markets happen, then they need to be understood consistently by participants. You say tomahto….

I live in hope for a world where many of these conversations have most of their frictions and latencies taken away from them, so I can devote myself to growing chillies while printing new books and restoring old ones, and spending time with anyone who wants to discover the joy of reading.

For this world to exist, a number of things that are closely held today will have to be held more openly tomorrow:

  • time, date and place labels
  • identity information
  • labels like part numbers and skus and bus names and hospital names and disease names and plant names and generic medicine names and doctor’s surgery addresses and primary care trust locations
  • combinations of these that plot frequency, so people can inspect the incidence of a plant (or a disease) in a neighbourhood (or primary care trust)

Note I never mentioned detailed individual transaction-level information. That’s a different class of information, and something I will speak about some other time.

A lot of this is created using public funds. Some of it may be privately held, but is nevertheless likely to be regulated at industry level. Years ago, in a discussion between Doc Searls and Don Marti over at the Linux Journal, I remember them talking about information wanting to be $5.99. Not free, but close enough to free for someone to be able to recoup justifiable costs.

When I hear the term Open Data, this is what I think of. That one day soon, much of this will be available to the newly democratised devs, allowing them to perform magic. They have access to low-cost compute and storage and bandwidth already; the barriers to design and code expertise are reducing, as they move into the streams and filters and drains world; new barriers can and will emerge, such is the nature of the beast. But.

If the names and labels and frames of reference get freed up as well, time to value will shorten at a rate of knots. And adoption will grow as people see the value flow to them. And God will be in His Heaven and All will be Well with the World.

Utopia? Of course. Always. Particularly when the future’s here.

In this context, read what Nigel Shadbolt had to say today, both in the Times as well as on his ODI Blog. Go attend the ODI Summit taking place this week. [Sadly I can’t, I am committed to be at the Web Summit in Dublin, another don’t miss event]. Read the coverage on “smart disclosure” in Mashable earlier today.

One way or the other,  inform yourself as to what is happening in the open data space. Public open data. Private open data. Smart disclosure. Whatever.

Inform yourself. Because that data is the DNA that makes the dev even more democratised today. Big data is big. But. Big data is not that big if it has no frame of reference. A frame of reference that comes from open.




5 thoughts on “More on the democratisation of the dev; open data, via a detour into air travel”

  1. ODI resonates on my interests in a common language, common labels, to be enable horizontal business software at Google scale.

    You say tomahto, I say tomayto, and computers say tomahto != tomayto.

    As you point out you should never be able to patent or copyright Tuesday (or we’ll never get the enterprises running in real time).

  2. You are quite right JP, and the democratisation of the dev is already happening.
    With the birth of organisations like the ODI, movements like and the Open Data User Group and government pushes towards transparency, opportunities for the motivate developer are growing.

    I was lucky enough to begin a journey of creating a company ( that has its roots in open data, we have pushed for the open release of interesting data ( and, and there is lots more out there to come e.g. MOT history and mileage data.

    Interestingly, I think the use of open data has a strong positive correlation with Doc Searls “because of effect” (you first introduced me to this concept at BT), the business models employed with open data really have to think carefully about adding value and being useful.

  3. This got me thinking about one of my favourite book titles “Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things” all about how different cultures choose to categorise things.

Let me know what you think

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