Dreaming of a better commute

Travelling in and out of London this week for the course I’ve been attending has reminded me why working from home (mostly) is a huge blessing. At least 4 hours’ travel a day for a relatively simple 60-mile commute? No thank you!

I did, however, use two different routes with contrasting experiences and that made me think – why does it have to be this way? And what might it be like one day?

Commute route 1: Olney to London via Bedford (Thameslink/East Midlands Trains)

After driving to Bedford and finding a space in the car park (not always easy), the next question was where are the ticket machines? The option to pay and display with optional mobile phone/SMS/app payment seems to have been replaced by a system to pay as you leave the car park on foot (albeit with an optional mobile app). It uses ANPR to recognise my car but the user interface is confusing and there’s no option for contactless payment (surely a perfect use case for fast commodity transactions like this?). At £7.90 for a day’s parking (when the only reason you would ever park there is to catch a train!), it’s expensive too.

Then, at the station I bought a ticket – again falling foul of a confusing user interface (not helped by Thameslink’s corporate colours not really highlighting what I need to see). I switched to another machine and followed a different (but more familiar) purchase journey on the touch screen whilst another customer switched queues because of a broken card reader in the machine she was using.

Catching the train is simple, with frequent services but lots of stops and the (07:34) train is packed well before reaching London.

The good thing about this route (on Thameslink – not on East Midlands Trains) is that it goes right to the heart of the city (not the West End) although I change at Farringdon to get on the underground towards Tower Hill. Sadly, with no barriers to pass through and crowds of commuters I didn’t see an Oyster touch in/out machine, which I realise after boarding the train – wouldn’t it be good if there were more of these machines or if you could swipe on the train!? I touch out at the end of the journey but am charged the full fare and it takes me a lot of time on the phone waiting to sort out the charging…

Commute route 2: Olney to London via Milton Keynes (London Midland/Virgin Trains)

After a faster drive to Milton Keynes (MK is famous for its roundabouts but there’s a real benefit in the national speed limit grid road network), I park close to the station. The actual station parking is extortionate (so much so that I know some people who don’t pay, preferring to take the risk of an occasional fine) but off-street parking is available and half price if I pay by phone (£4.18).

I buy a ticket at the station but know to always allow time for queuing: there are 6 machines and 4 booths but that’s never enough! It’s 06:54 so I dash for the 06:55 London Midland service, but see that the (faster) 06:53 Virgin train has only just arrived (even though it’s showing as “on time”).

We set off towards London, only to be delayed by a vehicle striking a bridge at Watford and are overtaken by the slower London Midland service that I nearly caught earlier! Eventually, we get moving and arrive in London 20 minutes late…

A dream of a better commute

These real world stories are just single journeys and it could all be so different on another day. So let’s compare with what it could be like:

  • My calendar shows that I’m planning to be in London for the day.
  • My alarm wakes me with enough time to get ready, and the lights in the house gently warm up to wake me from my slumber.
  • I drive to the station and, as I park my phone recognises my location and that I’m stationary, asks me if I need to pay for parking and then takes care of the details.
  • Arriving on the station concourse, my digital personal assistant has pre-bookèd my train ticket and there’s a boarding pass on my phone. No paper tickets are required as the barriers can simply scan a QR code on my screen (or even use NFC?)
  • There’s a steady flow of trains (on time of course!) and as I switch to the Underground, payment is dealt with as I pass through turnstiles using a contactless payment card – and, even if I end up on the platform via a different route I can pick my boarding point (verified using location services) and ensure I’m correctly billed, using a smartphone app…
  • Realising there are delays on the line, my phone reschedules appointments as required, or otherwise ensures that contacts are aware I will be delayed.

It’s not difficult – all of this technology is available today but it just doesn’t quite work together… all of this talk of an Internet of Things brings it tantalisingly close but train companies, car park operators and other organisations still cling on to outdated methods. So it seems I’ll be dreaming for a little while longer…

 

Short takes: tl;dr; online influence (#digitalsurrey); and the Internet of things (#cloudcamp)

It’s been another crazy week without any time for blogging so here are some quick highlights from the stuff I would like to have written about (and still might, time permitting!)

tl;dr

I was reading one of Matthew Baxter-Reynold’s articles on the Guardian website a few days ago and he gave a summary of the key points under the heading tl;dr.  I hadn’t seen that before but it turns out it’s an Internet meme – tl;dr is an abbreviation for “too long; didn’t read” – something that I suspect many of my blog posts suffer from. Maybe I’ll start including a tl;dr section in future…

Return on Influence

On Tuesday evening, Mark W Schaefer (@MarkWSchaefer) spoke at Digital Surrey about the use of influence marketing on the web. It was an enlightening talk and certainly something to consider as organisations increasingly judge our online influence in deciding how to (or whether to) react to and interact with us. My personal view is that Klout and its ilk are over-rated (Klout in particular is very much led by volume of online activity – if I go on holiday for a few days, my Klout takes a hit) but, if I were to give a “tl;dr” view on Mark’s talk it would probably include this diagram:

  1. Surround yourself with people who care about you (and your views) and have a pre-disposition to “move” (i.e. like, retweet, advertise, etc.) your content.
  2. Create unique and interesting content – have something to say (in order to make it “move”) – make it relevant, interesting, timely and entertaining.
  3. Be consistent in engagement – not just broadcasting but being authentically helpful and looking for opportunities to interact.

Common sense? Perhaps – but it’s how Mark suggests we build influence.  Read more in Mark’s book – Return On Influence: The Revolutionary Power of Klout, Social Scoring, and Influence Marketing.

(Jas Dhariwal has made a recording of Mark’s talk available.)

The Internet of things

The Internet of what? Well, depending on your source of technology reading material, you might have head that we’re increasingly connecting lots of “things” to the Internet – sensors, for example – and Wednesday saw a CloudCamp Special in London on The Internet of things. As usual, the evening was introduced by Simon Wardley (@swardley) with his well-practiced (but still interesting) talk on the cycle of innovation leading up to his vision of “augmented intelligence” supported by utility computing (cloud), big data, and intelligent mobile applications.

Then, onto the lightning talks with: Andy Bennet (@databasescaling)’s introduction to the Internet of things (it’s not new!); Raphael Cohn’s fascinating recital of how Smith Electric Vehicles overcame a major business issue in that “electric trucks rule, but batteries suck, and mobiles die”; Kuan Hon (@kuan0)’s rundown on cookie laws (which have a much broader impact than just websites); Paul Downey intruducing us to the wonderful world of open source hardware (which is far more extensive than I ever imagined); and Chris Swan (@cpswan)’s review of the Internet of Things in some of his favourite science fiction novels. Oh yes, a a couple of guys from Betfair stood up and tried to plug their new application cloud, which I’m sure is very good but seemed a little too like a vendor pitch to me…

Wrapping up with a panel discussion, before beer and pizza, it was a thoroughly agreeable way to spend the evening and I learned loads about the Internet of things… hopefully I’ll write some more on the topic over the coming weeks.

Starting to play with the Internet of things

Unlike some people, who find it invasive, I love the concept of the Internet of things. I’m truly excited by some of the possibilities that a world driven by data opens up. Sure, there are issues to overcome (primarily around privacy and connectivity) – but anyone who believes their data isn’t already being captured by service providers (even if those providers don’t yet know how to handle the massive volumes of data) is in for a shock. So why not embrace the possibilities and use our increasingly smart world to our collective advantage?

In my recent presentation to the BCS Internet Special Interest group, I referred to the Technology Strategy Board‘s Future Internet Report, which talks about [emphasis added by me]:

“An evolving convergent Internet of things and services that is available anywhere, anytime as part of an all-pervasive omnipresent socio–economic fabric, made up of converged services, shared data and an advanced wireless and fixed infrastructure linking people and machines to provide advanced services to business and citizens.”

The report also acknowledges the need for more than just “bigger pipes” to handle the explosion in data volumes. We do need a capable access mechanism but we also need infrastructure for the personalisation of cloud services and for machine to machine (M2M) transactions; and we also need convergence to enable a transformational change in both public and private service delivery.

That’s the big picture but scaling back down to a personal level, one of my colleagues, David Gentle (@davegentle – who happens to be the main author of Fujitsu’s Technology Perspectives microsite) highlighted a site called Pachube to me last week. I first came across Pachube a few months back but [partly because it used to be a chargeable service (it became free at the start of this month)] it got added to my “list-of-things-to-have-a-better-look-at-one-day” (that day rarely comes, by the way!). This time I had a better look and I found it to be pretty cool.

Pachube is basically a cloud-based broker for connected devices with a web service to manage real-time data and a growing ecosystem of applications to feed and consume data. That sounded like it might need some programming (i.e. could be difficult for me these days) but then I found a method to hook an energy monitor up to the web, with no coding required!

I’ve written before about the EnergyFit (Current Cost) power meter that E-ON sent me. I wasn’t a fan of E-ON’s software so I hooked it up to Google PowerMeter for a while, but that service has closed down (along with Microsoft’s Hohm service – which I don’t think even made it to the UK). Using a USB to serial driver and a companion application I now have one of my computers feeding data from my Current Cost meter to the Pachube website, where it gets transformed into JSON, XML or CSV format and “magic” can be performed. I used the Mac OS X software versions of the driver and the application but there are also Windows (driver/application) and Linux (driver/application) variants that I have not tested. The process of setting up a Pachube feed has also changed slightly since the original guidance was written but the basic steps are:

  1. Install the USB-serial drivers.
  2. Install the application
  3. Run the application and select the appropriate serial port (for me, on my Mac, that is /dev/tty.usb-serial).
  4. Create a feed (a push feed – and however many times I turn it private it seems to switch back to public…).
  5. Paste the XML version of the feed into the application.
  6. Set up a secure sharing (API) key (you probably don’t want to use the master key) and paste it into the application.
  7. Save preferences and wait for the application to start feeding data, at which point the feed should show as live

The application I used and the Pachube website seem to work together to configure the datastreams within the feed (one for temperature and one for power) and it’s all set to go.

Once the feed is live, there are a load of apps listed on the Pachube website with everything from graphs and visualisations to mapping tools and augmented reality. I decided to create a page to display some of these, starting out with a customisable PNG-based graph from my feed. That worked, so I added another, together with a PachuDial and a couple of PachuBlog gadgets (sadly, these are Flash-based, so don’t work on the iPad…). Next I created a second feed to consume the power usage from the first one and measure the associated carbon footprint.

Having played around with energy usage, I found that I could also use Pachube to monitor my Twitter account (a pull feed this time) – which might be useful too.

Now I’ve mastered the basics with my Current Cost meter, I might try some home automation using Arduino devices – although that looks to have quite a steep learning curve on the electronics front… In the meantime, you can see the Home electricity usage and Twitter statistics pages that I created using just the Pachube platform and some basic HTML.

[Update 30 November 2011: added comment about Pachube becoming free to use]