March 30, 2011 | 5 comments

OnfloodFriday night was sleepless for me. I couldn’t stop thinking about a simple idea I had, riffing off of Color and some of the technology I’d built for OutMap:

What if you could hook messages, photos, files and metadata to a particular location in space, and create an ad-hoc messageboard with this information based on where you were in the world?

I couldn’t put the idea down – so I built it.

To start, you set a location, either explicitly (by typing in the address) or implicitly (through your device’s location functionality). Onflood looks at the proximity of the messages around you, and sets an appropriate radius that it’ll draw messages from. For example, if there’s a lot of activity right near you, it’ll probably set a tight radius: if you’re on Edinburgh’s Princes St, you’ll only see messages within a mile of you. Meanwhile, more sporadic activity lends itself to a wider radius: at the time of writing, if you’re on Market St in San Francisco, messages are drawn from up to 606 miles away from you. This way no user is ever made to feel alone or like there’s no activity. You can, of course, manually widen or tighten the radius. You can also jump to other locations by entering a new address or clicking on messages around you.

My hope is that it’ll be useful for conference backchannels, neighborhood-specific information, and as a message-passing medium for local swarms like demonstration protests.


Onflood takes your location using the HTML5 geolocation API, which means that if you’re browsing on a GPS-capable device, it’ll use that, and otherwise it works out your location based on IP address and other ambient details. All compatible web browsers ask you for this information, so it’s never done behind your back, and you can always choose to manually enter a location instead.

Both geocoding latitudes and longitude coordinates from place names, and reverse-geocoding names from coordinates, are handled by OpenStreetMap’s awesome Nominatim API. I’d previously used Yahoo APIs for OutMap, but I found the OpenStreetMap endpoints easy to work with, largely accurate and developer-friendly. Plus, of course, you can run Nominatim from your own servers as well as OpenStreetMap’s hosted version. Open source wins out here.

So what’s to come? Right now, authentication is handled solely from Twitter. This is clearly something that I intend to change – OpenID and, yes, Facebook are to follow. I also have yet to implement photos and files (which will both be stored using Amazon S3). Finally, RSS and ActivityStreams feeds are also required.

You can think of this as a starting point. I’ll keep it up and running, and will continue iterating it. If there’s demand for it, I even have a solid business model in mind that will make it more than self-sufficient without annoying existing users.

Give it a try, and let me know what you think.

How times change

March 29, 2011 | 1 comment

Time Magazine, March 1995:

The main gauge of change in information delivery is the boom in sales of modems, which are expected to grow at an average rate of 17.2% worldwide (22.4% in Europe alone) between 1994 and 1998, and the expanding reach of the Internet and such commercial operators as CompuServe. “Sales of CD-ROM drives are doubling and tripling this year,” says Deborah Monas, an analyst at London’s Kagan World Media.

The New York Times, December 1995:

At present, the market for enhanced disks is limited by the relatively small proportion of households with computers equipped with CD-ROMs, said Deborah Monas, an analyst with Kagan World Media. In Britain, for instance, only 7 percent of homes have CD-ROMs, about the same percentage as in Germany. In other European countries, the figures are lower. It will be another five years before there is a widespread market for enhanced CDs, Ms. Monas said.

Deborah Monas, former analyst at Kagan World Media, is my mom. She’s a sixth grade physics teacher now, a job she completely enjoys, and I’m writing this while she grades her students’ work across from me on her kitchen table. Between us is my iPad, a paper-sized device that stores many, many CD-ROMs worth of information. Right now, there are three of us in the house, we have seven Internet-connected devices switched on, and the world of CD-ROMs and modems seems like a long time ago.

Notes from SXSW

March 19, 2011 | Leave a comment

SXSW 2011SXSW 2011 was among the best events I’ve ever attended. It was vital, fun-packed, and hugely educational – I have no doubts about coming back next year.

The Interactive Festival is exactly what I want to see from technology: it was optimistic, sociable, diverse and full of really interesting discussion, which ran the gamut from the highly technical to liberal arts. My two panels were well-received (thanks to Blaine Cook and Jim Moore for inviting me to The How & Why Of Decentralized Web Identity and Wikileaks, the Web & the Long, Strange Journey of Journalism respectively), and the quality of debate from the audience totally blew me away.

What I find really exciting is that technology has definitively grown out of its geeks-in-bedrooms phase (as much as it was ever there). Geek is fully reclaimed as a term of respect: someone who is smart, focused, and changing the world. I was lucky enough to meet a lot of people who are changing the world this week. I feel privileged to have had a modest impact through my work on Elgg; with latakoo, I’m enjoying once again working on a project with a global reach, and the conversations I had at the conference were inspiring.

It was striking to see so many companies move into the real-life space – it seemed like everyone was peddling apps designed for mass-market non-technical users to interact with on the go. People don’t seem to be focusing on early adopters any more, and rightly so. It’s no longer good enough to build something cool, or scratch your own itch. Now, finally, you’ve got to build something that makes peoples’ lives better.

If you can, find your way to Austin next March. For the conversation, the perspective and the sheer fun of it all, it can’t be beat. My one regret: I didn’t take a single photo, or a minute of video. I was simply too engrossed.

Photo: SXSW 2011 by Betsy Weber. Shared under a Creative Commons license.