Cambridge Search Meetup: free postcodes from old maps & visualising fish

Last night was a particularly hot Cambridge Search Meetup: someone suggested that next time we lash four punts together and float down the river – would certainly be a little cooler though I’m still not sure how to rig a projector!

Our first speaker was Nick Burch who told us about a fascinating past project of his to source freely available postcode data for the UK. His team collected out-of-copyright maps, scanned them and created a website to crowd-source knowledge of the postcode of individual features (say a childhood home or a church). In 6-9 months they had a database of the first four characters of all UK postcodes (e.g CB1 1xx) and their locations – good enough for many location based services to take advantage of their free feeds. Shortly afterwards the UK’s Ordnance Survey released their own data for free – partly as a result of projects like Nick’s and pressure from the burgeoning Open Data movement. Nick suggested that the best way to approach projects such as this is to look for data similar to what you require, find a way to interest people on the Internet in it, provide an API for corrections and feedback and to release all your data using a permissive license.

Next up was Craig Mills, who provided some background on his past projects monitoring cod stocks (apparently it’s good to offer fisherman a £500 bounty for returning your tagging hardware!) and more recently on tools for monitoring and visualising ecology. He mentioned the open source Sphinx search engine and visualisation tool CartoDB as two key technologies, and talked about how a clickable map interface is often preferred to the traditional search box. An interesting technique was to crowd source photos from around the world and use an algorithm to spot the relative amount of ‘nature’ and ‘man-made’ textures in them – a potentially powerful way to measure how humans are changing the planet.

We finished as ever with beers, snacks and chat in the thankfully cooler downstairs bar. Thanks to both our speakers and all who came – next week we have a fantastic opportunity to join Grant Ingersoll on a free Apache Lucene/Solr hack day – do let us know if you’re coming as space is limited.

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