Twittering Thames

Jan 14, 2009 07:10 · 660 words · 4 minute read code hacks riverthames Twitter

[![Thames] One of my usual London commuting routes has me walking along the riverside past City Hall in the morning, and back the same way in the evening.  It’s a fairly uninspiring inland view, because it’s home to a succession of utterly forgettable glass boxes housing the likes of Ernst & Young and Norton Rose - which does at least have the benefit of making me thankful that I work in an environment where people actually do wear space cadet uniforms to meetings.

The river itself, though, more than makes up for the corporate drone hutches.   From this side, you can see the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, and just along from HMS Belfast there’s moorings for the MV Tidy Thames, which shuttles up and down the river as a floating dustcart removing the odd dead whale now and again.   This, and all the other routine traffic like the police launches and the ferries make the River Thames seem like a real, live entity that is a pale shadow of its former self - but still alive if often overlooked.

One of the things that intrigues me about the Thames is that it’s tidal, with about 6 to 7 metres of rise and fall between high and low tides.  You don’t think of rivers as being this dynamic, and it seems to change the personality of the Thames every six hours or so.   At low tide, the mud and the shingle is exposed, and it looks like a sluggish stream - but six hours later, it’s less than a metre from the top of the embankments and there are ominous whirlpools that suggest that falling in would be a Very Bad Idea indeed.

Although I walk along it most mornings, once I’m in work I can’t see the river unless I hang out of a window and annoy the bosses - so the connection gets lost.   My connection to the web is pretty much constant during working hours on the other hand, which gave me the idea of making the river twitter.  After all, if Tower Bridge can twitter when it’s going up and down, then why not the river itself?

The Port of London Authority publish the tide tables online, but in a format that’s pretty much useless (or far, far too complicated) to grab and parse into a Twitter feed.  The BBC, on the other hand, have a nicely-formatted version which lends itself rather well to being scraped.  So every hour my server grabs the page and parses it to check if there’s a high or low tide predicted within the next 60 minutes, then tweets the time and the depth if there is.  It’s fairly simple stuff with a cron job, the Hpricot parser and some Ruby glue.

Taking a cue from Tower Bridge, I think it’s important that it’s done in the first person - after all, the river’s known as Old Father Thames, and it’s easy to anthropomorphise.   I also tweaked the wording of the tweets so that if the tide is due within the next 10 minutes, the river urges you to hurry up so as not to miss it.

It’s a very trivial example of making real world objects interactive, but I think it’s indicative of something quite interesting - something that Russell “Interesting” Davies has explained far better than I can.   Buildings and other inanimate objects do get human traits associated with them, and I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of the company - something that doesn’t physically exist, but yet has tangible manifestations.  One of my absolute favourites is Laphroaig whisky, who allow you to “claim” a 1 square foot patch of land alongside the distillery.  Laughable if you think about it too hard, but a great way of establishing some kind of deeper “bond” with your customers (or drinkers).

And the possibilities are quite literally out of this world, at least if Lowflyingrocks has anything to do with it.