Magic, Technology, Synthesis


“We need to not be building the Marauder’s Map and instead be building the Weasley Clock”

Kevin Marks (as reported by Dennis Crowley)

To get it out of the way up front, let me just say this: I’ll stipulate to deserving a certain amount of mockery for thinking for so long about a Harry Potter reference, if you’ll all stipulate to bite me, it’s actually a good metaphor, okay? It’s a really interesting metaphor.

If you need context for this you could check the relevant Wikipedia page, but I’ll strip it down a bit for you:

  • The Marauder’s Map is a magical map of the Hogwarts school that shows where all the school’s inhabitants are, in real time.
  • The Weasley Clock is a magical “clock” that has one hand for each member of the Weasley family, with locations or statuses where the hours would normally appear: Home, School, Work, Travelling, Lost, Hospital, Prison, and Mortal Peril. At any given point in time, then, the hand for each family member points to the appropriate status.

And what does that suggest for the world outside the pages of somewhat overrated children’s literature?

Well, think about it: you’ve got one artifact that shows you a constantly changing, basically unfiltered stream of what’s happening right now, and another that reduces a similar complex set of real-time data into a simple form that is immediately accessible and useful in a specific context. The clock offers a reduction—an obvious, almost ridiculous oversimplification—of what is offered by the map, but that reduction is what makes the clock useful. The clock tells you basically, not exactly, what’s going on.

[Editorial Note: I love that it’s one of the founders of Foursquare that pointed to this quote, since that confirms my suspicion that the Foursquare guys are well aware that “where are you right now? is only a part of what we need going forward, and they’re already scheming schemes to build on top of that now.]

I’ve already written about aggregation and accretion, so today we’ll roll the two together into synthesis. There are, and will continue to be, cases where we want direct access to the full detail of real-time information, but there are many more where we want that data synthesized into an accessible (and yes, very oversimplified) view of what’s most important to us right now. We need to not be building the Marauder’s Map, and instead be building the Weasley Clock.

The really difficult part of this undertaking is that it takes us beyond the first four Ws generally addressed by the emerging now web—who, what, where, and when—and starts pushing us into number five: why?

The Marauder’s Map solves the easier problem; reporting on exactly where a lot of people are right now is no mean feat, by any measure, but consider the implications of that “mortal peril” spot on the Weasley Clock.

That’s an important status update, but it’s probably not an explicit update. Unless one of the Weasley kids is thoughtful enough to Twitter “oh, shit, I’m in some serious mortal peril he…” then setting that status presupposes reducing all of the other data points we’ve got—both aggregated across sources and accreted over time—to figure out why we should synthesize a “mortal peril” status now, out of the various non-mortal peril snippets that we’ve got.

I don’t mean to minimize the significance of (nor the difficulty of building) the services that are making it worthwhile to provide this real-time data, but I think that things get really interesting when we start figuring out the “why” behind that data and doing something with it.

Also: this really isn’t totally abstract musings. The thought process here has started helping me figure out where RSScloud and PubSubHubbub can mix in, so I feel like I’m making some progress towards things that do stuff. Go, me.