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Barnesian logic

Eighteen thousand kilometres from home, wandering through the 2,000-year-old ruins of a Roman city, Glen Barnes had a vision of the future.

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Photograph by Simon Young

Eighteen thousand kilometres from home, wandering through the 2,000-year-old ruins of a Roman city in 2004, Glen Barnes had a vision of the future. “I was walking around Pompeii and I wanted to do an audio tour. I was wearing my original iPod, and I thought these could be one thing—my nice headphones with my nice iPod, listening to the audio tour.”

As often happens, his insight was immediately followed by a reality check. “Really the technology wasn’t there yet, because you’d have to download the tour before you left home, and who knows that you’re going to do a Pompeii tour when you’re in New Zealand?” So he filed the idea away as cool but problematic—until an even nicer piece of technology arrived. “It wasn’t until the iPhone came out that it started to make sense.”

He discussed his idea over coffee with consultant and pundit Lance Wiggs, who liked it, and soon the pair were working with developers and designers on MyTours, an iPhone app for downloading and listening to audio tours.

But the software is just part of MyTours. To be useful, it needs audio content—lots of it. So rather than trying to source or create new audio tours, MyTours was created as a white-label app that any organisation can use to create its own tours.

My interest in open data and open government doesn’t really come from a transparent-democracy kind of thing ... We should be getting open data so that people can build really cool services

The first is WellyWalks, a Wellington City Council project that combines several walking tours in the capital. Other MyTours apps have followed for Scotland’s famed St Andrews golf course and Invisible Paris—a collaboration between MyTours and a French blogger—and apps are in the works for Auckland walks and a series for a Florida tourism operator (not the one with the murine mascot). Some, like WellyWalks, are free, and others carry a small charge. The tour creators can build their own apps through a custom MyTours website that makes assembling the tours a snap. A version of the forthcoming Windows Phone system is also in development, and Barnes expects to ship a MyTours-branded app this year that allows users to purchase and download tours from many sources.

Though he hopes to have 50 MyTours apps available within the year, it’s still early days. “We’re lucky to have day jobs,” says Barnes, who is MyTours’ chief executive. But he’s used to mixing roles: if Barnes were a rugby player, he’d be Isaia Toeava—happy anywhere in the backline. He’s an entrepreneur, collaborator, cajoler, lobbyist, bureaucracy detangler and open-source cartographer.

Apart from MyTours, he also works on the technology and strategy behind the www.realestate.co.nz website, launched property intelligence website www.zoodle.co.nz and he works tirelessly to unlock public data and make it available to developers and the public.

How does he balance his private and public-benefit work? Well, he doesn’t really. “My interest in open data and open government doesn’t really come from a transparent-democracy kind of thing. It’s about being more efficient, and doing things better. We should be getting open data so that people can build really cool services, which makes life easier.”

As an example, he cites a proof-of-concept website that suggested areas for London home buyers based on their desired house price and maximum commute time. “You can say, ‘I want to leave from work no earlier than this, I want to spend this much money, and I want to the place I live in this to be this beautiful.’ And it could actually crowdsource geo-tagged photos to rate how beautiful the area was. So there was the whole map of London, and as you changed the sliders it just started shrinking down to the individual little pockets of places you could live and afford.”

Here, Barnes and others are using open data from LINZ to map the Chatham Islands on the OpenStreetMap project, a Google Maps-like service created with the same public collaborative model as Wikipedia. “If you look at the Chathams on Google Maps, Bing Maps and then OpenStreetMap, you’ll see the first two have absolutely no coverage whatsoever. And our one has got individual trees plotted, cattle stops, everything—and we plan to do the whole of New Zealand.”

It’s a uniquely 21st-century model for innovation: the wisdom and scale of the crowd, the resources of government and the insight and curation of tech-savvy entrepreneurs. It also fits the Kiwi style of working—flexible, diverse, and not requiring lots of up-front cash (the MyTours team works in return for sweat equity).

And it’s a virtuous circle. MyTours doesn’t (yet) have a Chathams tour, says Barnes, “but MyTours uses OpenStreetMap too. So by making OpenStreetMap better, it makes the maps that MyTours has better. It all feeds to the end user.”