The Weekest Links : open food, open city, Malte Spitz

Hello everybody, welcome back to the show. You might have noticed my absence last week and I'm sorry about that, but sometimes it really pays off to be a freelance writer for an outfit like - a girl can be flexible, if you know what I mean. Anyway, on with the program, this week we'll be looking at the wonderful world of open data and how it has gone from the hype to the street, and back again. Our electronic skin is extremely porous now, constantly sweating, little data drops plof ploffing on the network's floor, forever captured in distributed datasets and all kinds of siren servers. What we choose to do with the data is now a defining characteristic of lifestyles, philosophies, and national security agencies all across this great planet of ours. Today we'll be looking at how food, urbanism, and politics can be affected by greater access to data and to the creative tools of digital communications.

Here it comes

The week of the 3rd to the 10th of June, 2013

Open Restaurant Day ( via Dan Hill )

According to the legend, the Open Restaurant Day started in Helsinki when a group of people got tired of waiting for the city to expedite the opening of new restaurants. Instead of protesting, they came together and chose a day when everyone in the neighborhood could prepare and sell food out of their own apartment, house or front yard. It struck a chord. Pretty soon there were more people doing it, then it was city-wide, and now the Open Reastaurant Day is "a worldwide food carnival when anyone can set up a restaurant, café or a bar for a day." There are now an estimated 1701 restaurants in 200 cities.

There are a few important details in this story. First of all, the Open Restaurant Day is kind of illegal. In most European cities, and especially in Helsinki, you can't just sell food on the street, you'll get your muffins and your empanadas voraciously confiscated by the city's health authorities, only to be then served with a hefty fine by the tax office for daring to engage in that most dreaded of activities - the informal economy. How can something like the Restaurant Day survive and expand? 

It probably wouldn't have if this was a different kind of 21st century, without local communities that feel entitled to have a large degree of freedom and control over what happens in their neighborhoods and cities. Getting together with your neighbors and sharing some cake while you laugh and hang out in the street is such a harmless and posivite actvity, such a kind and warm-hearted expression of what it means to be an urban citizen, that no city official in her right mind would dare to crackdown on the kitchen-mongers. Further, that city official would of course soon be tempted to get in on the action.

But there's obviously also the digital detail, the Facebook part of the baking equation. Open Restaurant Day  was, from the get-go, a wired operation. "Networked neighbors unite and cook with a vengeance" could have easily been a headline, for not only did the good people of Helsinki unite but they also organized a two-day hackathon and came up with their own mobile app - with different versions for each of the smartphone platforms. Things got extremely real then, and the Restaurant Day crossed that original and unique contemporary threshold of bottom-up empowerment  and political legitimacy.

Fast forward to today: one-day restaurants have popped up in 45 different countries, from Kazakhstan to Venezuela. They have a very elegant website with a powerful map-based application to help you find the movement in a street nearby. Go and have a look. Also related are Open Kitchen and the Helsinki Bread Revolution, two other projects that mix a love for food, community, and digital openness.

Code for Europe ( via Lisboa Participa )

Local government has been one of the hot topics when it comes to open data applications and services. Everybody wants in on the transparency and accountability bandwagon and increased efficiency and citizen participation are more than desirable side effects of a sound open government strategy. 

Code for Europe is one of the most interesting developments of this conversation in Europe, a project co-funded by the E.U. to "enliven a culture of innovation" in a number of partner cities like Amsterdam, Berlin, Barcelona, Rome and others. The method is very straightforward: get local authorities to share their data, find software programmers, designers, and urban community developers, get them all in the same rooms talking about how digital communications can improve the lives of ordinary people. 

It's actually easier than it looks, and more important than it sounds. The ability to complain about a broken street sign or a pothole in the street using your smartphone is cool, but open government data enables the production of much more sophisticated applications. Like being able to know in real-time which decisions are being taken about your neighborhood, or being able to compare public infrastructure in different parts of the city and relate that to income and education levels. 

Code for Europe has already spawned interesting partnerships, like the City Service Development Kit, a package of open interoperable standards and guidelines to work with municipal data. The trend, in Europe and elsewhere, is becoming clear: the city shall be opened through the use of software. Data points are just boring and meaningless numbers until they are coded, networked, and let loose in the world. The important question then goes from being one of access to one of literacy: when numbers become this powerful, mathematics is an indispensable skill. Software programming is now too important to be left to developers.

Malte Spitz and the Tell-All Telephone ( via Benedict Evans )

Malte Spitz is a young German politician. In 2012, he was involved in raising awareness about data retention - the practice of telephone companies retaining their user's call logs and information for up to 6 months. With the increasing use of smartphones, phone companies now also have access to a user's geolocation and internet data. Herr Spitz sued T-Mobile and reached a settlement, gaining access to over 35,000 lines of code that represented his electronic shadow.

Soon after, Malte Spitz handed the information over to Zeist, the German publication, which developed a very cool mashup of the phone records, geolocation, and other web activity like Spitz's Twitter and blog feeds. Overlayed on a map, the data becomes a movie that you can play at different speeds and use to visualize an individual's movements and activity over that period of time.

Why does this matter?

For all his good intentions and willingness to share his experience, Herr Spitz is still a politician. His fight against data retention, all his talk about privacy is, in the end, part of a specific political agenda. This case matters because it illustrates how easy it is for the open data debate to slide into a privacy scare and the usual Big Brother rhetoric. The recent PRISM scandal is another good example of how novel the current state of affairs really is. It's not about Big Brother, it's about Big Data - as in, there's a lot of it. Some of it will be open and available, some will held by not-so-benevolent institutions and agencies, and some will forever remain inside the servers, never actually seen by human eyes. What's important is to realize that this is how it's going to be from now on: our shadows will tell their own stories when queried and there will be different stories depending on who asks the questions.

What does your data life look like? What stories is your shadow telling the world?


This is, live from the city of Lisbon. See you next week.

Alice Politics