Snow plows, curiosity and letting clever people build pretty things with our data

I am spending my Sunday, somewhat unexpectedly, caught up in the blizzard currently blanketing the East Coast of the US in snow.

That has meant two things 1) I have spent most of the weekend sheltering in my hotel room in D.C. with nothing much to do but refine the way I try to explain why people should bother invest in making the data they hold open, ahead of a planned speaking engagement tomorrow.

And 2) I have a newly found appreciation for the magic of snow plows, snow blowers and snow shovels — none of which I have properly seen before in real life, never mind had reason to use. Thank you North Atlantic Drift.

The one time I did leave my hotel, was for a curiosity/ cabin fever fuelled walk around the empty city at sunrise on Saturday, which was when I encountered this amazing machines. Here is a mini version I followed as it clearing a path just for me (or so it felt) down by the Washington Monument.

These little wonders save lives, and knowing where they have cleared our roadways becomes, I now understand, a vital input into the decision making of people who have no reason but to go outside, especially in a vehicle, whether thats to reach medical aid, or to do your job.

Luckily, the good people of the District of Colombia have built a website — Snowmap.dc.gov — where you can search for information about their snow response. I had a go, and it works OK, with links to webcams and things so you can work out what is going on.

But VERY luckily, the good people of the District also made the data which fuels their application available to developers to access, use and share — they made the data open. AND through magic (or the tech smarts of Tom Lee) you can access it by simply changing the URL. What you get is something that isn’t especially helpful for us humans in its raw form - but which is machine readable, which means that with a bit of coding it can feed things that we can read.

Once data is available in this way, it means that clever, curious and skilled people, like the aforementioned Tom Lee, can play with it and then code and build beautiful and useful visualisations that combine this data with other pieces of information — maps we can easily recognise — and that display the data in creative and instinctive ways — use brightness of colour to signify how recently the roads have been plowed, the brighter, the more recently, for example. Here is a still image of the mapping tool Tom built — you can find the live version here, and info on it — including a link to his open source code — here.

I feel that this wonderfully encapsulates what I have spent the weekend trying to find a way to explain. Which tells me two things.

One) curiosity may leave you with frozen feat and boots filled with snow but following it also leads you to new appreciations and new ideas.

And two) I probably should have spent my weekend learning to code properly instead (especially as my airline cancelled, in turn, every flight that would actually get me to the meeting in time to deliver my talk in person).

Thank you to Stephen Abbott Pugh for the H/T

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