20p books and the Decorated World

Anmesty bookshopThe Bristol Amnesty International Group has a bookshop on Gloucester Road. I walk past it and can’t help but beachcomb through the 20p shelf they have in the street, despite the dangerous state of my overloaded bookshelves.

From yesterday’s semi-random purchase, Ernest Bevin – Unskilled Labourer and World Statesman, by Mark Stephens:

There were a number of Socialists who hoped that any serious threat of war would inspire an international general strike. At least they had high hopes that the working people of Britain and Germany would join hands in fraternal unity and refuse to take up arms.

Amongst those who thought this way was Ernest Bevin. Over the weekend while the London Socialists were holding a massive anti-war rally in Trafalgar Square, Bevin was on a soapbox on the Bristol Downs roundly condemning militarism and urging all working people to refuse to do their government’s bidding in the event of war.

[Chapter 3 - First World War]

I didn’t know that. If I hadn’t randomly picked up this book, put 20p through the shop’s letterbox, and idly flipped to page 28, I still wouldn’t know it. We can do better than that.

bristol downs I’ve been to the Bristol Downs hundreds, maybe thousands of times since I moved to Bristol in 1991. There are Web pages about Bevin (Wikipedia), and about the Downs. There are computer markup languages for geography (GML), for data syndication (RSS/Atom), and experiments in combining those two worlds via the Semantic Web. The (very nice) Mobile Bristol Riot! “voice play” shows something of what can be achieved with geo-tagged multimedia content. The big challenge is to combine such approaches, so this world-decorating content can be made by the masses, for the masses, accessible through open standards and protocols. Once that’s done, then we’ll have the problem of figuring out whose decorations to believe. And that’s a healthy kind of a problem to have.

I’ve said before that we need technology to engineer more coincidences in the world:

FOAF was designed as technology to encourage coincidence. You’re walking past a pub… you go to a conference… you’re standing at the barracades… or sitting in an interview… and the last thing you’d expect… a friend of a friend. Everything’s connected. Who’d have thought it?

The idea that it might be within our power to make this world a more co-incidental place… sounds at first, like magic. But really it isn’t. It’s just engineering. In the world of everyday information, people and places are the hubs around which everything else spins. When we can describe locations and people to our poor, simpleminded computers, and tell them about the things people have made and done, then those same machines are surely capable of reminding us when the moment’s right.

Another great example of local data for local people, of the kind of data that we ought to be able to “put on the map” with just a little bit more markup technology, is the Relay project, an audio walking tour of Stokes Croft here in Bristol. I took the liberty of making a version of their page that uses a clientside HTML imagemap to associate their soundclips with areas on the map they provide. How many more tags would we need to add to go from that to geo-tagging the media files themselves? HTML imagemap technology is showing it’s age, but W3C’s more recent work on vector graphics for the Web, SVG has been designed with such issues in mind.

Here’s a concrete goal. Imagine you’re writing a page in Wikipedia in a few year’s time. You’re adding an entry describing Nye Bevin’s soapbox speech on the Bristol Downs prior to the first World War. Imagine you want your description to be accessible to mapping-based sites, digital city sites, location-based mobile phone services, and local historians. What should Wikipedia offer to make your life easier? Presumably some kind of scrolly-clicky map thingumie. And how should it share that data with other sites around the Web, so that the annotation can show up in a thousand relevant Web sites, 3D globe viewers, mobile phones and local guides… rather than be buried inside a 20p book at a charity store? That last little bit is the problem I’m obsessessing on lately. How hard can it be?