A few months back—while we were discussing the number of talking objects appearing on twitter—Jenny pointed out to me that all Heathrow airport arrivals and departures data is online. That set my mind racing, as if you know all the flights leaving that currently controversial airport, there are all manner of things you could begin to do. Working out miles travelled and carbon emitted, spotting delays, and so on. But at the time it all came down to a quick note in Things to some day set aside time to explore.
That day arrived this week. The data turned out to be pretty simple to scrape, with a quick wrapper around hpricot, and to throw into an SQLite database using datamapper to give me a little abstraction and a place to throw a variety of methods to make my code simpler. And then it was a small matter of employing John Nunemaker’s twitter gem to set up regular tweets letting followers in on how many flights in and out of Heathrow there have been lately.
The result is a rather pleasing hourly summary, that adds a little rhythm and background awareness into my day. You can follow it at http://twitter.com/heathrowtower.
Perhaps the biggest frustration with the data is that all destinations/origins are given as city names. Given that city names are hardly unique, and even if they were a given city may have several airports connecting with Heathrow, that makes it a bit trickier to do some of the more sophisticated calculations. My hope is that the flight codes (which are given) can soon be transformed into a list of airport codes, which can then open up a route to more useful and interesting data. (if anyone knows of an existing database that does that mapping, please let me know!)
I’m looking forward to that, but I’m also anticipating the ambient awareness that having the bot running will create. Will the hourly ritual of seeing a sentence or two about Heathrow activity reveal any patterns? If they do, maybe I’ll update the code to make more of those. We’ll see.