Developers: stop re-AOLizing the web!

No AOLI recently succumbed to the hype and downloaded Mailbox, a mobile email client that tries to help you manage your overflowing email inbox and achieve the mythical “inbox zero”.

Mailbox does this by encouraging you to immediately archive, trash or schedule the email for a re-read or response using a swipe interface. It’s pretty good, actually, and I’ve found myself with fewer new emails just sitting in my inbox waiting for me to do something with them. My older email archive is another matter.

There’s one major flaw however.

By using Mailbox, I’m effectively helping to re-AOLize the web. You see, Mailbox only supports two email providers: Gmail and Apple iCloud.

I find it incredible that an app developer working on an open, well-documented and well-understood platform like email has effectively closed down access to their product to users who are on just a couple of providers.

Don’t get me wrong: I know the problems are difficult, especially as open platforms beget a multitude of implementations.

But by choosing to lock yourself into the Google API, when there is another, really open way to do things, feels like a mistake to me. If Mailbox supported any standardised IMAP provider, they’d no doubt have access to a much wider user base who would use their app across multiple providers.

And they might even be able to charge for the app and make an income – rather than selling themselves to Dropbox to survive.

It doesn’t help that locking me even more to the Google ecosystem and all the threats to my privacy and freedom that brings with it. Dropbox is another cloud company with a questionable approach to customer’s privacy and freedom.

Google (and to a lesser extent) Apple, Facebook and Twitter, have little interest in allowing their products to inter-operate in a meaningful way. Let’s remember that this is exactly how much of the consumer internet worked in the late 80s and 90s: CompuServe only reluctantly added email to its internal messaging and AoL generally preferred to lock down users to its own walled-garden of content rather than having them access the web. Both these networks, once seen as pioneers are now effectively defunct.

When developers choose to lock-in to an ecosystem like Google, they also lock in users. And that’s when innovation dies: users’ choice is restricted, so they demand less (and alternatives don’t get developed). By using it myself, I’m helping depress demand for a good email client that works with multiple providers. That’s not a good thing because it means I’ll have less choice.

Despite email being an inherently tedious form of communication, it’s essential and here to stay. If developers want to play their part in improving email, then it’s not going to be by re-AOLizing the web and locking down to a single provider: it’s going to be by supporting open email platforms that enable a wide range of people to use your product.

As it stands, Mailbox has been a useful so far. But I know my own time with it is limited, as I continue to transition away from closed source, anti-privacy services like Gmail to self-hosted, free and open source alternatives.

And that will be a loss for the Mailbox developers.

The end – or maybe the beginning? 30 Days of Biking: Day 30

Today is the final day of 30 Days of Biking. As I said when I kicked off the month, the goal was to share the joy of riding a bike with as many people as possible, as well as ride every single day.

Liverpool

Well, as it turns out, I rode most days but not every single one of them. However, I did manage to publish a new blog post each day. Perhaps it should’ve been 30 Days of Blogging About Biking…

So it’s time for a brief retrospective.

Have you been inspired to get cycling for the first time? Or have you not ridden a bike since you were a kid? Then check out the free cycle training from Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM). You don’t even need a bike of your own! You can also apply for a free bike and safety kit if you’re starting a new job.

What about if you’re a reasonably confident leisure rider, and thinking about cycling to work? Make sure you check out CycleStreets journey planner to find a sensible route and think about what you might wear whilst riding.

If you just fancy cycling socially, there are loads of events and groups in Manchester that you might want to check out. Next month, the North West Velo Fest will bring many of these together and organise great, fun and accessible cycling experiences. Remember to check where you can park your bike too.

If you consider yourself a pro rider, well I’m not sure there’s much I suggest. If you fancy a great, scenic ride that’s mostly traffic-free, how about striking out to Liverpool or building your own bike?

So what’s next?

I really enjoyed the ride to Liverpool the other weekend. So this year, I’m signing up to a few other big organised rides.

First, it’s the Great Manchester Cycle – a traffic-free closed route cycling event that takes place on the streets of Manchester, including the Mancunian Way! It’s a great opportunity to ride on Manchester’s urban motorway (normally closed to bikes) and the family-friendly event offers different lengths of route (13, 26 and 52 miles). I did the 26 mile ride in 2012 and I plan to do the same again this year.

I’m also hoping to do the big Manchester to Blackpool bike ride. This iconic ride of about 60 miles is a hugely popular event, attended by thousands of riders of all types. This will be the third time that I’ll go on the ride and I’m really looking forward to the atmosphere, the beautiful scenery and the sense of achievement when I cross the finish line.

Way of the Roses mapFinally (for now), my friend Ella has inspired me to consider an even bigger challenge. The Way of the Roses is a fully-signposted cycle route that runs coast to coast from Morecambe to Bridlington. Designed for all riders, from families to pros, the Way of the Roses uses mostly minor roads and traffic free routes to cover almost 200 miles between the start and the end. Most dauntingly, though, it includes some brutal climbs – but it’s no shame to get off and push, I say. The Way of the Roses is fully documented on its own website, with suggestions for how to prepare for the route and where to stay over – the record for completing it is somewhere around 11 hours, but I’m thinking of up to four days.

Coda to the 30 Days of Biking:

Cycling is a joyful and liberating activity that lets you make short journeys quickly and cheaply. You even get fitter doing it and you don’t have to look like a dork (in fact, it’s quite hipster…).

But cycling in the UK is still a growing activity. The more people that get out riding, though, the more fun it will be for everyone. One of the things that can help this is by asking councils and the government to create real space for cycling on our roads.

Later in May, GMCC will be calling on councillors and other politicians to make cycling even safer and more enjoyable. Originated in London, the Space4Cycling campaign has gone nationwide with events in most major cities.

In Manchester, GMCC are organising a mass bike ride to show off the popularity of cycling in our city and to demand improvements in cycling in Manchester from the council. This is particularly important as it’s ahead of the local elections in our city, which is a real opportunity to make change.

So if you’ve been inspired by the 30 Days of Biking to get out and ride or just like the idea of Manchester as an even more liveable city, come along to the Space4Cycling ride on Saturday 17 May from 2pm at Platt Fields Park. I look forward to seeing you there.

And maybe you’ll be blogging about your riding next year?

The Best Bike Route Planning Startup You’ve Never Heard Of – 30 Days of Biking: Day 29

Following yesterday’s blog post about the brilliance of OpenCycleMap and the Wikipedia-like service that it’s built on, OpenStreetMap, I’ve been thinking: wouldn’t it be useful to be able to plan a complete bike-friendly journey, complete with turn-by-turn directions and maps? 

That’s where journey planning startup CycleStreets comes in.

CycleStreets is not-for-profit cycle journey planner for the United Kingdom. Founded in 2009 as an outgrowth of a Cambridge bike journey planning tool, CycleStreets uses the power of OpenStreetMap and other open data to generate sensible cycling routes from and to virtually any point in the UK.

Even though it’s described as “beta”, I’ve found CycleStreets’ journey planning to be far superior to that provided by Google Maps. Their secret sauce is their mapping engine which properly uses bike routes marked on OpenStreetMap and accounts for factors like slowdowns on  hills, traffic lights and other crossings.

CycleStreets offers a desktop site, mobile site and mobile apps for iPhone, Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry (all open source).

CycleStreets screenshot

Try this journey from Chorlton to MediaCityUK – perfect for the new BBC commuter. Each route conveniently gets its own URL that can be shared easily and in addition to the map view, there are turn-by-turn directions below. 

CycleStreets offers a choice of route suggestions: fastest, balanced and quietest, each catering for a different type of rider, and also offers timings based on your average speed (I choose “Unhurried!”). Usefully, there is a ‘quietness meter’ which gives an indication of how quiet/busy the roads will be, based on their size and also an elevation profile so that you can see at a glance if there are any big hills!

That particular route isn’t the most complicated, as there’s designated bike route for most of the way (NCN 55). The difference between the three options is that the fastest route briefly follows a dual carriageway, then offers a slightly hairy right turn (!). Not for the faint-hearted, but you get my drift.

This exposes one of the major flaws with any automated mapping service – the lack of intelligence, but also giving you what you asked for – the fastest route, as calculated. CycleStreets, though, is designed for cyclists by cyclists so a lot of work has gone into making even the fastest routes reasonably sane so as to offer options to stronger riders. The default mapping style also emphasises the quality of the bike infrastructure installed (if any) so users can make an informed choice about the routes suggested. For more info, you can project the route onto other map layers like Ordnance Survey, Google Maps and its Satellite view.

The turn-by-turn instructions below the route also help inform riders of what they’ll experience along the way, including: surface conditions, whether cycling is legally permitted (as you could be routed over a footpath if that’s the best way) or things to watch out for like bollards and level crossings. All of this is based on data submitted to OpenStreetMap.

Conveniently, there’s a link to Google Streetview at each stage but where possible, there’s also a link to CycleStreets’ user-generated Photomap. This means you can see photos of potential pinch points or areas of concern that are bike-only and where Google’s Streetview cars simply can’t reach.

As an example, I added a photo of the Latchford Locks on the Manchester Ship Canal from last week’s bike ride to Liverpool. The map suggests the locks can be crossed – and they can – but adding a photo and some detail can help riders choose a route that suits them. I, for one, would not cross those giant locks at night!

For such a young organisation, it’s a shame that Google stole a bit of their mojo by adding cycle maps in 2012. Still, CycleStreets happily acknowledge that putting cycle route planning into Google is likely to help more people get on their bikes for short journeys. This is a good thing for making cycling sexy… or at least, normal.

Unlike Google though, CycleStreets is free and does not show advertising. However, they’d love a donation, or maybe you know a local authority or organisation that wants to promote alternative travel options? CycleStreets will also happily build a custom mapper or perform a site integration for a sensible fee. Developers are also welcome – check their API and code on GitHub.

CycleStreets is an invaluable, free resource that harnesses the data freely available and volunteered by the public, as well as open data sources, to suggest reasonably sensible bike routes.

Discover new bike routes in your area and try CycleStreets now.

Where can I park my bike? – 30 Days of Biking: Day 28

One of the things that can put people off cycling to a destination is the question: “where do I park my bike?”.

I once recall having to attend a meeting at the Manchester Marriott hotel. I decided to ring ahead and ask if they had any bike parking nearby. They didn’t, but they were very happy to arrange for the concierge to look after it. It was slightly odd to experience him taking my bike and gently placing it in the luggage room, before handing me a ticket – somewhat like valet parking, I guess! But still less convenient than if they just had some bike racks outside.

So where are all the bike racks? It turns out that Manchester City Council don’t actually know. Thankfully, people power comes to the rescue. I use the OpenCycleMap to check routes to my destination and also work out whether there’s any sensible bike parking in the vicinity, as opposed to a piece of street furniture.

Check out this example of the area around Manchester Piccadilly train station:

View Larger Map

There’s bike parking marked with a blue C and the number of spaces. These are all around the station, but there’s also a couple of bike parking locations for which there’s less detail: these appear a small blue square. You can also see the full key.

But what if there’s bike parking in your area, but it’s not marked on the map? Well, put it on the map!

You see, the OpenCycleMap is based on the OpenStreetMap (OSM), a user-editable, free and open map of the world. It’s an incredible project, that works like Wikipedia. It allows anyone to edit and (hopefully) improve the content available, in return for giving that knowledge away for free, forever.

In fact, OpenStreetMap is so detailed that it’s now used by default in popular apps like Foursquare and Apple iPhoto, making it a brilliant alternative to Google Maps.There are also several bike-specific apps that use OpenStreetMap to generate bike routes – notably CycleStreets which is the original and still the best.

But the upshot is that if you know of bike parking in your area, it’s up to you to let everyone else know – just add it to OpenStreetMap! It’s as simple as getting an account, finding where the bike parking is and hitting the edit button. Using the default editor is much simpler than it used to be, if you’ve previously tried OSM. Bike parking is often denoted as a “Point”, which you then identify as “bicycle parking” in the left hand search column. That’s as much as you need to add a point on the map – any more detail makes it easier for map users to choose where they might park though. Make sure you save after you’ve made your change and tell people what you’ve changed in the save description. OpenStreetMap will update in minutes and the OpenCycleMap layer will update in a few days.

Sounds simple, right? For more information, there’s a handy beginners’ tutorial to editing OSM.

So what are you waiting for? Join me in improving the OpenStreetMap and make sure everyone knows about that bike stand at the end of your street.

Bike cleaning day! – 30 Days of Biking: Day 27

It was a pretty nice day, so I decided to do something I’d been putting off for a while – cleaning my bike!

You might think that, as an outdoor vehicle, a bike doesn’t need much cleaning. The fact is that a clean bike will perform better – and no-one wants to ride something so caked in mud that you can’t pedal without hearing the chain grinding!

It ended up taking ages. I usually follow the approach suggested by London Cyclist, though living in apartment, space is at a premium. In the past, I’ve had to resort to desperate measures…

These days, I’m lucky to have a reasonably-sized balcony on which I can wash my bike, whilst taking in the city centre view.

Anyway, after a couple of hours degreasing, cleaning, drying and buffing, I finally have a bike I can show off to the world!

My main commuter bike!

I’m pretty sure it’s never been that clean – some of the components were salvaged from an old bike (the red one pictured above) so had probably been mucky since then.

The cleaning also meant I could activate Tron bike mode!

Commuter bike in Tron mode!

The puncture-resistant Marathon Plus tyres I use come in a ‘Black Reflex’ option that includes a reflecting strip all the way around the rim, making them great for commuting in the dark. As long as you wipe them down once in a while…

Another pre-festival on Sunday – 30 Days of Biking: Day 26

Technically, I missed my daily blog post (and ride!) on Saturday. I’ve been busy with chores and took some work home with me too (excuses, I know).

Did you go to today’s Big Green Happening in Chorlton? If not, never fear as there’s another happening tomorrow – Sunday – at Platt Fields Park. A warm up for the Envirolution festival featuring free bike fixing and related fun.

I’ve been playing with Jonnie’s Garmin GPS unit, setting it up for my bike, so I’ll try to drop in on my test ride tomorrow.

Missed Mass – 30 Days of Biking: Day 25

Due to work commitments, I missed out on a big monthly bike event this evening. Critical Mass is a global (un-)organised gathering of bike riders that takes place every last Friday of the month.

The intention is to share the joy of cycling with everyone else in your city. The group acts as if it was one vehicle, swooping through the city in a direction set by whomever is at the front of the ride.

The Manchester Critical Mass tends to start from outside the iconic Central Library on a Friday evening at 6. Half an hour later, the gathered riders of up to a hundred or so set off on a route around the city centre (and often Salford/South Manchester) for the next hour. Thereafter, the participants decamp to a bike-friendly pub for beer and chat.

It’s quite a sight when the ride is in motion, especially when there’s lots of people out – usually when the weather’s nice. In the winter, riders often light up their bikes with all kinds of pretty arrangements. One of my first Instagram photos features a rider at Critical Mass in December 2010.

Critical Mass is intended to be a fun, safe and family-friendly activity. I’ve often seen families out on the ride with children on bike seats, trailers, tag-alongs or their own bikes. The established cycling fraternity are also out in force, including couriers, fixie skidders and activists from groups like GMCC and GM Love Your Bike. It’s a great place to meet other people into cycling and have fun taking in the city as one big group.

Mike of Mad Cycle Lanes usually attends too, bearing a sound system. Check out his photos below.

Maybe I’ll see you all there next month?