Signals, messages, clouds… pigeons?

… AKA, how a flock of pigeons ūüź¶ is connecting my past, present and future technology interests.

If I look back at the past 10 years or so of my career, I believe there’s a continuum of interest – from my passion for¬†/ community building around application messaging systems (MQ, MQTT, and others), to building lightweight cloud-based services (Cloud Foundry and API platforms), and now, to working on what you can choose to see as a large scale, cloud messaging platform (Twitter).

Twitter is far more than that, of course. It’s also a platform that humans interact with more so than any of the other systems I’ve worked on in the past. From¬†e-commerce to¬†core banking systems, I’m pretty sure that none of the things I’ve helped to build in the past have had the same scale and impact in the world every day that Twitter has done. It also reflects my passion for people and communities – hell, I’m a guy with a History degree playing at being a technologist, and jumped into social media before the term even really existed, what else would you think I care about? OK, OK, yes I’ve also always been an early adopter of shiny new technologies… but my excitement with technology is almost always about what it enables us to do as humans every day.

So what’s the point of this post, other than to muse on this?

Well, Twitter also represents a nice confluence of my passion for the Internet of Things, sitting between those messaging systems and those cloud apps that I mentioned, and people.

Twitter is real-time, and live. By creating and curating my Twitter timeline, I¬†follow the people (@), topics (#), and well – the things – that I care about most. I receive breaking news, follow along with what my friends and colleagues are up to, and learn about what is happening in the world in real-time. It’s a platform for both messages, and signals. The engineering and support efforts required to support¬†all of this happening, with rapid¬†response times and a solid user experience, are pretty impressive – hats off to my colleagues in those departments.

Twitter is also conversational, which means that it can make a great home for all those conversational interactions we’re hearing about with the resurgence of bots, helpers, and personal agents. In fact, we can think back to not too long¬†after the Twitter API came about, to the Tweeting plant asking for water when the soil was dry, to see that these kinds of applications are no strangers to the platform.

I’ve spoken about these topics a number¬†of times over the past couple of years, most notably at our first Flight conference in 2014, where I covered flood alerting, plants, ferries, sports events, houses, earthquakes, and more!

Soon after starting work at¬†Twitter, I ended up helping a project to connect river sensors online. Right now, you can find local river stations in the UK on an interactive map, and then (if you’re interested) you can follow the ones that matter to you. It’s pretty cool stuff, and can help with flood alerting and monitoring as well as local awareness.

Perhaps¬†you’re interested in the environment around the Dublin Bay Buoy?

Talking of the environment, last year we ran a conceptual contest out of Twitter UK, inviting organisations to think about new ways to use the platform and build applications #PoweredByTweets. One of the winning entries was the idea that pigeons in London could be instrumented with tiny backpacks measuring air quality. At the exhibition of the winning entries in September, there was a display that mocked up how this could work.

Yesterday, the @PigeonAir patrol took flight for real in London, and for another day or two will act as a temporary set of mobile beacons that can report back air quality via Twitter conversations.

I love this – and quite honestly, I remember telling people how barmy I thought it was when we first started looking at it!

Another interesting data point to add to all of is that social signals from Twitter may be more effective than some FEMA models, according to recent research

So what’s next? Who knows. My mind is constantly racing with ideas, and others come up with far, far more interesting ones!

This is not a story about Twitter.

This is the story of how humans used technology in creative ways, to improve their lives and their environments.

 

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