Wherecamp and Bikes in Berlin

I was in Berlin last weekend for Wherecamp EU – the European neogeo unconference, which was previously in London. The unconference took place in the pleasant campus of a language school in the north-east of the city. As well as the session rooms, there was an outdoor area for snacking – with giant salted pretzels! – and informal discussions. A wide range of spatial developers and technologists were present, from the UK, Germany and around Europe, although all sessions were in English.

There were some very interesting sessions – I particularly enjoyed Chris Osborne’s closing talk showcasing the latest ITO visualisations of travel, including a “coloured lasers” animation of John McKerrell’s movements over several years, and Peter Batty’s look behind the work of his company – Ubisense – indoor navigation, including tracking cows!

My own presentation was a summary of CASA’s current research, with a focus on some of our recent visualisations, particularly of transport and social network data. I also touched on my bike share work. Steve, my co-worker who was also at the conference, presented in more depth on visualising georeferenced social network data, such as Twitter and Foresquare, and also mentioned GEMMA, the JISC project that we are both working on at the moment. We’ll be going into GEMMA in more depth at State of the Map EU, in Vienna next month.

I also took the time to have a look at the bike share scheme in the city, which is called Call-a-Bike:

It has been around for a few years, as a fully distributed system, where users, on finding a locked bike anywhere in the city, call a number on the bike to receive an unlock code, then do their journey and leave it locked. Last week, it relaunched as a dock-based system, with bikes grouped at docking stations, and terminal screens:

Interestingly the bike docks are just concrete blocks with simple holding gates – so the bike itself knows if its locked (and presumably via RFID in the dock where it is) rather than the data being transmitted through the dock itself. There is also no power attached to the stands. In London, the information presumably gets passed through the docks to the terminal which then broadcasts it to the scheme operation system – and the dock recharges the lights on the bike. In Berlin, each bike itself does the broadcasting, and the bikes have a long-life battery. Having the simple, unfixed concrete blocks allows docks to expand much more easily. In London, it’s a big deal to get the planning permission, install the underground connectivity in the pavement and hatches for the docks, and finally put the docks in themselves.

I was excited to see that the terminal screens have maps showing the empty/full status of the surrounding docking stations. The terminal screen maps appear to be using a custom map, similar to Google Maps, as their background, with the statuses superimposed on top:

Interestingly, the empty/full information displayed on these screens is not available on the scheme’s public website, so I have not been able so far to include it in my bike share map which now covers 32 (non-German) cities. I would love to know the source of the data for the maps in the terminals…

The map in the terminal has some obvious flaws, such as if you zoom out:

The scheme is quite expensive – 15 EUR for a 24 hour hire (compared to £1 in London) and, like London, you get charged additionally for journeys that last longer than 30 minutes. There is also a pay-per-minute option of 8 cents per minute, which works out quite well for shorter journeys but is still quite an expensive option (half an hour would be 3 EUR). The scheme has only just been relaunched, but I noticed only one person using a bike share bike in the several hours I spent wandering about the area, whereas in London you can’t move for Boris Bikes in certain areas…

The bikes themselves seem to be in good condition, and have a generous area for stowing bags, on the back. I hope the scheme does continue to grow.

This was what I found most upsetting about the trip, as a London cyclist:

Notice the dedicated cycleway, which is using coloured bricks (rather than paint), is raised to the level of the pavement, and has priority over side-streets that it crosses. But the thing which made me wish I was a Berlin cyclist and not a London cyclist, was the deliveryman. Notice how he is carefully unloading the boxes from the lorry and stacking them up on the narrow space between the road and the cycleway. If this was London, the lorry would first be parked across the cycleway, or failing that the boxes would be piled up on the cycleway. Non-cyclists in London just don’t respect cycle facilities.

Anyway I enjoyed my Berlin trip, it was a good unconference, both interesting and informal, and I look forward to future Wherecamps!