Computers are for computing

by Sebastian Benthall

One of my favorite talks from FOSS4G this year was Josh Livni‘s talk on Walk Score, a web service that calculates the “walkability” of an area based on publicly available data.  Walkability is calculated efficiently right against the database according to an algorithm that takes into account how easy it is to get around–and get to points of interest–by walking.  Then it displays the results using Google Maps.

It took me a while to realize what I liked about Walk Score so much.  It isn’t a fully open source stack, and though “walkability” is important to me, I don’t really have a use for this service beyond checking out the walk score of my home town.  And yet it appeals to me and has been a generally popular site.

Then I realized: this project appeals to me because it computes something interesting.

A frustrating aspect of the world of open source web GIS is that most projects appear to be hung up on the problems of making data available over the internet–in various formats, in certain combinations, with certain metadata, but otherwise essentially untouched.  Where modifying data is supported (say through WFS-T), it has to be done painstakingly by hand.

I don’t want to minimize the challenges of building the foundations that have taken so much effort so far.  But I think that what gets missed in the process is the fact that the most compelling applications compute something useful.  What people really want and need is software that thinks for them.  Or, maybe, discovers something for them.

What Walk Score does, which few applications I’ve seen this week do, is calculate something interesting for people.  Livni had the creativity to turn a human interest into a quantitative, algorithmicly calculable metric, and found a way to report that metric back to people in a way they could understand.  It provides people with something two steps ahead of them, just beyond the horizon of what they can imagine.  That’s true progress.  I hope to see more of it in FOSS/Web/GIS applications in the coming year.