Will Dean's Ideas Factory: Everything you wanted to know about your city


Will Dean
Wednesday 09 May 2012 22:42 BST

This column previously covered a neat experiment that was using open data for London's air quality to point out automatically areas of iffy air quality on Twitter.

Researchers and developers at University College London's innovative Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (Casa) have worked on a similar if more ambitious basis to create CityDashboard.

Their creations extract data from a variety of data feeds to create living profiles of cities around the UK. There are dashboards available for Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, London, Manchester and Newcastle.

The amount of information available on each depends on the relevant local feeds. "London's Datastore [data.london.gov.uk] has led the way to London being a great city for open data access," explains Ollie O'Brien, one of the Casa researchers behind the project. As such, the London board with TfL, Tube, live-traffic and bike-sharing data looks a lot busier, but thanks to figures from ScotRail, Defra and others, the dashboards for the other cities are pretty handy too (the Casa team are hoping to expand the others).

I asked O'Brien what the dashboard can be used for. "CityDashboard is an attempt to visualise a city's current state," he explained, via email. "By seeing a wide set of data on their city on a single screen, the hope is that local residents, commuters and visitors will be able to, at a glance, get a feel for how their city is doing – what people locally are talking about, how happy they are, what the weather is like and how their transport is moving."


World's slowest experiment is not one for drips

It's the scientific equivalent of the 639-year-long recital of John Cage's "As Slow As Possible" (a performance of which in Germany is currently in its 11th year and with a new note due on 5 July). In 1927, Professor Thomas Parnell, the first physics professor at Australia's University of Queensland, decided to create an experiment to demonstrate the surprising properties of everyday objects.

In this case, he wanted to demonstrate that pitch, a derivative of tar which looks and feels solid (and can even be smashed with a hammer), can actually display the properties of a liquid. Parnell took a heated-up sample of pitch, put it into a sealed funnel for three years and then removed the seal to see whether the pitch would drip (see picture).

And did it? Yes, except it dripped at such a slow rate that now, 85 years later, the pitch-drop experiment's ninth drip is only just beginning to form.

Thankfully, modern technology makes monitoring the drips easier than in Parnell's day – the university has set up a live webcam. Which, despite not much happening, is still better viewing than most things on ITV2.

Watch live!: ind.pn/longdrip

Fixing a city's coffee cup problem

It may be an uptown problem but, still, it's a problem all the same. Copenhagen, a beautiful city full of people swigging expensive cups of coffee, has a litter problem. Not from people chucking their rubbish on the floor (this is Scandinavia, after all), but from public bins being quickly "filled" by uncrushed paper cups, ie, by lots of empty space.

Blogger Sandra Hoj was sick of seeing bins surrounded by empty coffee cups, so she took decisive action, creating a tubular bin – The Test Tubes – for empty coffee cups to stack up in. On it, she wrote: "Empty Cups, minus lids."

Hoj erected them next to two bins in the city and waited to see the results. Six days later, not only had the tubes been filled (leaving the rest of the bin for other rubbish), but they'd been emptied. A success! Sort of. On day seven they'd been removed by local officials. Oh well.


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