Monthly Archives: February 2013

Leaves, snow and birds: real-time updates and user content

I’ve been using three sites which crowdsource information about the natural world and put it out again:

  • Leaf Watch (Disclaimer: this was developed by some colleagues) Collects data submitted from a phone to monitor the extent of leaf miner moth infestation in horse chestnut trees
  • UK Snow Map Collects tweets with the #uksnow hashtag to build up a picture of where snow is falling
  • RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch
    Collects data on birds seen in parks and gardens during an hour in one specific weekend

By their nature, Leaf Watch and the Big Garden Birdwatch take time to build up a picture of the data they record. Leaf Watch periodically publishes a map of aggregate data from its survey. The Big Garden Birdwatch publishes its results a couple of months after its survey, which is then repeated the following year.

Only the UK snow map attempts real-time display of information. Naturally enough you want to know where snow is falling NOW – how near to you is it?

The site also vary in how much they allow users to submit their own content. Leaf Watch doesn’t do this at all. The Big Garden Birdwatch has a ‘Community Group’ forum where people who have signed up to the site can crow (pun intended!) about the birds they’ve seen. Posts appear to be reactively moderated.

The UK Snow Map has a live stream of tweets with the hashtag scrolling beside the map. And this is a problem. I’m not that prudish, but many people seem to be unable to refrain from using obscene language even when tweeting about the weather! Actually I wonder if some people make a point of using it, precisely because they know their tweet will appear on screens across the country. Because of this I can’t recommend the site to my children. (There is a facility for only displaying tweets with a positive rating, but you have set it every time you start up the page and it doesn’t get rid of all the rude ones).

It would be much better if there were some sort of filter which ensured that tweets with potentially offensive words in didn’t get displayed. The ‘Scunthorpe problem’, that of censoring innocuous messages because of a rude string of letters, doesn’t really arise because it doesn’t matter whether any particular tweet is displayed or not. It’s still possible to be obscene without using rude words, of course, but I suspect that the Twitter stream would be cleaned up a lot.

Moving to Google Mail

A couple of months ago IT Services moved to Google Mail, ahead of the rest of Bristol University doing so later in 2013. This has proved controversial but I’ve been on Google Mail long enough now to have collected some thoughts about it.

Rather to my surprise, I’ve enjoyed the change and prefer Google Mail to pine or the Mulberry or Thunderbird software clients which we used to use before. Mulberry hadn’t been updated in years, Thunderbird had fewer features and pine lacks a properly graphical interface, a real nuisance as messages come increasingly with embedded images.

What I love about Google Mail is that being Google it is brilliant at searching. Do I want all the messages over a certain size from one particular source? Do I want all the messages that mention Manchester which I’ve received in the last week? I can get these easily and quickly.

I have a few gripes. One is that you often have to scroll up or down to do commonplace actions such as sending a message or viewing the subject field of a message. The facility for doing these should be on the page at all times.

Being technically minded, I like noticing the ‘space used’ figure at the bottom of each page, and take pride in keeping it low by clearing out old email as the new stuff comes in. A peculiarity is that if you use the ‘old browser’ version of Google Mail, you get to see this figure in much more detail – on the newer one it is rounded down and displays to only .1 GB, and I can’t find any way of getting the more detailed figure.