Looking for a place to live in Berlin

I've been in Berlin three days. I more or less have work sorted out so I can afford to eat. However, I don't have anywhere to live after the end of this month.

In this post, I'll try to use social media to find an apartment in Berlin.

What's the German for "lazyweb flat hunting"?

One thing I've quickly learned about Berlin is that while month to month rents are far more reasonable than London, you need to jump through quite a few hoops before you can rent on a formal basis, and renting through an agent involves paying some fairly hefty fees (often in the region of two month's rent plus VAT).

So, after seeing a friend, Jon Worth find a place without having agents take their pound of flesh, I figured I might give it a go.

Granted, he has a very well established online presence as a blogger, speaker, writer and trainer, so his post probably reached more people than this will, but it's still worth a try, right?

So, what am I looking for?

Location - ideally around Neukölln, but Central/South East works too

The majority of my friends, and members of my girlfriend's family seem to be congregated around Kreuzberg and Neukölln so far, and the coworking spaces that catch my eye are fairly close to Kotbusser Tor, or Mitte, so that's where I'm looking at present.

That said, Berlin's transport system is good enough that I'm not religious about Neuköln. It's just the neighbourhood I know best so far.

Flat size and features - kitchen, 3-4 bedrooms

After a fantastic send-off party back in London last Sunday, I now have a sizeable backlog of people who want to visit, and I have a fellow Londoner, Debbie Davies, coming to live with us in Berlin too, so we're looking for an apartment with three bedrooms (ideally four, to use as a home office without disturbing people visiting).

We're ideally looking for an unfurnished place, with a balcony, but we'd need a fitted kitchen (Einbauküche).

Why a fitted kitchen? One thing I've learnt is in Berlin, you're often expected to bring your own kitchen when you rent, and funnily enough, we don't have any fitted cabinets and worktops among the boxes of stuff we're schlepping to Germany once we find a place.

 Cost and availability - €1000-1200, April onwards

Me and my girlfriend are in Berlin now, and we're looking at spending something in the region of €1000-1200 warm (i.e. including the cost of heating), based on what we think we're looking for, and what we can find available on immobilienscout24.de, nestoria.de, and wg-gesucht.de.

We're happy with subletting (untermieten), and but we'd need to be able to do the whole "put your name on the door" thing, so we can get a bank account, and the SCHUFA-Auskunft, that allows for renting in a more formal fashion.

We're looking to move in the first week of April, although we have some flexibility there if need be, and stay there until at least the end of summer.

Reckon you can help?

I'd really appreciate any help in my search, as I post this on Facebook, Twitter, and this blog, so if you know anything, please tweet me at @mrchrisadams, leave a comment below, or send me an email.

Alternatively, if know someone who might, and you shared this page through your own networks, I'd be a pretty happy kid.

Lets see if this works (crosses fingers).

Farewell Blighty, hallo Berlin!

I've been meaning to write this post for about three months.

The thing is, every time I sit down to write about when and why I'm moving to Berlin, something urgent comes up, and this ends up on the back burner.

Which is stupid - one of the main reasons for getting this post online was to help me find work, establish a network before I arrived, and most importantly, find somewhere to more to live.

But now, three days after arriving in the Berlin, I'm finally getting it out the door, onto the interwebs.

Oh well, better late than never.

Why Berlin?

I was born in Australia, and came to London at 8 weeks old. I've lived in the capital pretty much my whole life, and it's been pretty good to me.

I've grown up in London, studied in London, and worked in London, and I've considered myself incredibly lucky to have done so.

I maintain that if Earth were to ever have a capital, it would be London.

That said, it would be nice to live in another large city, in another country for a decent chunk of time before I die, so I've been looking around at options over the last year or so.

So, I've been looking for a city that isn't London, that is:

  • Affordable, and ideally reachable without flying
  • Friendly to native English speakers, with limited experience in other languages
  • Home to a decent tech scene, for work and personal development
  • Home to enough history and culture to allow for a rich life outside of my little tech bubble

I considered Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona (I even worked remotely from there for a couple of weeks while at AMEE in 2012), but Berlin was the city I kept coming back to.

Why? Well, lets see how it compares.

It's a £50 train ride away, and I can afford to live there

It's straightforward to travel from London to Berlin by train, and if you book early enough, it's pretty cheap too. You can travel from London to Berlin by train for about £50, leaving at 7am, and arriving at around 17:30 the same day - in fact this is how me and my girlfriend made it here.

Also compared to the eye-watering costs of living of London, Berlin feels almost comically cheap.

The same money I was spending to rent a 1-bed flat in Newington Green gets a comparatively palatial 3-4 bedroom apartment. I'm finding the price of food, and going out comparing favourably to my London life too.

You can get by while you learn the local language

This is a bit of a double edged sword, but after being Berlin a week in December, and being here a few days, I'm a) initially relieved at how little German I need to rely on to get by and b) worried if this means I'll ever attain any level of fluency.

That said, I am setting aside some time to learn German, which is turning out to be much more fun than I expected.

This largely down to Duolingo (see Shit Duolingo says to understand why) and the German For so far, and the highly amusing way German compound words can be formed, as outlined you can see in Rhabarberbarbara:

The tech scene is fantastic

In London, the tech scene is almost absurdly good - there's just so much happening, and so much of it is accessible.

In fact, this is largely how I found my feet in tech - through meeting people at hackdays, meetups, coworking spaces and suchlike, I found gainful employment in the city, in a way my 18-year-old self would have thought impossible.

In London, over the last few years, I was able to work on growing WP-London then Cleanweb London, into healthy communities in their own right.

Barely after being in Berlin for three days, it's been trivial to fill my calendar for the next month with similar events, and while working with a few volunteers to get Cleanweb Berlin off the ground, finding a venue has proved to be surprisingly straightforward.

Berlin is soaked in history

When I've been in Australia and America, the idea of ancient history being a mere two or three hundred years or so, has tickled me, after growing up in country where you can drink in pubs that have been serving beer longer than the United States has existed.

Berlin, by contrast, is almost overwhelmingly heavy with history. You can't walk streets without seeing constant reminders of the devastation of the World Wars, or the division of the city by the Berlin Wall, and there are myriad museums and galleries around the capital.

What now?

I had planned to find work freelancing with a few of the tech startups that I've been interested in while in London.

However, after letting clients and acquaintances know I'd be leaving in advance while back in the UK, I appear to be pretty much booked up for the forseeable future, so when I'm not working with London clients, from one of the many co-working spaces in town, I'll be concentrating my time in Berlin on growing the cleanweb community, and getting to know my new home town.

Wish me luck!

Me and my girlfriend both have friends in the city, and I'm currently staying in a room booked on Airbnb, for the rest of the month, while we find our feet. We're working our way through Jon Worth's guide for moving to Berlin as best as we can, now that we're already here.

If you know me and you live in Berlin, or you're coming to Berlin any time soon, let me know, the chances are it's been too long since I last saw you :)

Also, if you're feeling generous, I'd be very grateful if you can help me find somewhere to live.

WhatsApp and App.net on why they don’t sell ads

I don't really use WhatsApp much, but their post last year about why they don't sell ads came up in my stream this weekend, and it seemed worth noting:

When we sat down to start our own thing together three years ago we wanted to make something that wasn’t just another ad clearinghouse. We wanted to spend our time building a service people wanted to use because it worked and saved them money and made their lives better in a small way. We knew that we could charge people directly if we could do all those things. We knew we could do what most people aim to do every day: avoid ads.

No one wakes up excited to see more advertising, no one goes to sleep thinking about the ads they’ll see tomorrow. We know people go to sleep excited about who they chatted with that day (and disappointed about who they didn’t).

It's echoed somewhat by the initial post by App.net founder Dalton Caldwell:

Years later a site called Github came out. It was good. They had no advertising, but charged money for certain features. They quickly became profitable because the service was so good and so important, people were willing to pay. Github has become a much-loved brand and service, and many would agree that it is a key piece of infrastructure in the technical renaissance we are currently experiencing. Github is apparently profitable, and it sounds like the people that work there spend their time trying to make the best service possible, as opposed to spending their time trying to extract additional pennies out of their users.

Also, given the revelations about GCHQ and the NSA indiscriminately listening in on what we previously thought of as private spaces, the idea that personal data isn't the currency you pay with to access a useful service is an attractive one.

And as a result, I'm giving it another go today, to see how well I get on with the service. Matt Gemmell's post earlier in April this year is a good background if the service is new to you.

Unsurprisingly, I'm mrchrisadams on app.net, - say hi.

Connboxes, project looking glass, and ambient videopresence in 2013

I’ve had this post in a tab on Chrome on my iPad for yonks now, and finally this weekend I finally got round to reading the lovely BERG piece about the Connbox project they did with Google back in 2011.

There’s a reason the post lingered in Chrome for as long as it did – it’s a typical Matt Jones behemoth of a post, and it takes a good 20 mninutes to read through fully and watch the videos to fully understand the nuances of the prototype physical products they’re building.

Carve out 30 minutes

If have any passing interest in product design though, or how people relate to each other through computers, I’d recommend making the time to work through the piece – it’s easily one of the most satisfying pieces I’ve read in some time, especially when you bear in mind this was all done in 2011.

Ambient videopresence in 2013

Since this work was originally done, Google Hangouts has been launched, and if there are any remote workers, the majority of tech companies I have friends in use daily.

What’s also interesting is that we’re seeing some of the ambient qualities of video being picked up outside of top secret projects like this:

It’s not uncommon to have long running Google hangouts in use for staff to dip into, like extremely high bandwidth IRC now. There are even [hubot plugins] specifically to make this easy to do], from more commoon Campfire or IRC chats used in tech teams.

As the price of these gadgets heads ever downwards, you’re also seeing similar projects appear as well, with full instructions for setting these up yourself. Tom Taylor’s recent piece, Project Looking Glass is a fantastic post to look into if any of this has piqued your interest, as it explains how he did this for hook up the Glasgow and London offices of Newspaper Club.

Taking the digital out of video conferencing

One thing that really struck me where when reading both Tom and Matt’s piece was how all the high tech gubbins affords much more analogue, interactions with each other again.

Watch this video here, showing a) using scribbled notes to communicate textually, and crucially toward the end, how they use a fleeting glances at the screen to find cues to speak to communicate with each other.

You can see the same with Tom’s looking glass too:

Through the Looking Glass

Reading this post has inspired me somewhat to pick up a Raspberry Pi and see if I can get Herenow working on it, to see what I can learn about using small, internet connected boxes and physical presence.

There go the next few weekends…

Further reading

  • Connbox – Prototyping physical presence
  • Project Stargate – always on video connection for remote offices
  • Project Looking Glass – Tom Taylor’s variant, made from Raspberry Pis, spare monitors, and cheap webcams, for about £150.
  • Matt Web’s Glancing – an early, fascinating experiment in capturing the fleeting, ambiguous quality of real life interactions.
  • HereNow – A toy app I’ve been building, to allow people to automatically declare their presence to small groups of friends in spaces served by wifi.

At Facebook, this is pretty standard practice. We test many different interesting ideas that come out of hackathons or team brainstorms, like the ability to save posts for later, useful if you’re in a hurry and see a post that you want to respond to or an article you’d like to read later. However, we only wanted to launch the feature if enough users used it and found it valuable. If not, then it wasn’t worth taking up space as yet another action link on every story. A test helped us verify that it was, in fact, something only a small group of people used, so we decided ultimately to not launch it.

Nice story about how Facebook takes into account the extra cognitive cost of having a feature added in the UI, after deploying, and then using that decide if they want to launch a feature or not.

Ways to make money around open data

Over the last few months, I've been thinking about open data, partly at where I used to work in my old job, and in my own time.

The field is currently very young, so I thought it worth sharing some examples that I’ve found particularly interesting.

Four ways of making money around open data

Selling access based on timeliness

In some industries, timeliness is the difference between making a decision that makes millions, or one that gets you fired. Bloomberg have made a lot of money from selling the same data they make available publicly, available a few milliseconds earlier to paying customers on trading desks, and across newswires.

In the open data world, the musicbrainz database, used by the BBC for its programming, and its live data feed product is a good example of the same open data being sold on timeliness, rather than content.

Selling more detailed versions of the data

Elsewhere, giving away data, to sell access to more detailed data is common, and a tried and tested approach, used when selling business information.

While this is hardly new, one of the most interesting examples would be Duedil - you can retrieve a wealth of information on their public website, (the kind you’d easily pay hundreds, if not thousands of pounds for access to), but sell premium services for further data, beyond what is available on their pages, and for certain kinds of API access.

Letting people pay to go private

In some cases you might want take openly licensed data, and either build upon it, or incorporate it into an existing body of info, to give your business an edge over competitors.

In this case, you’d license the data under different terms - this approach is often called the dual licensing approach, and is common in the software industry. Oracle and 10Gen both take this approach, licensing versions of some their respective products, MySQL, MongoDB differently.

In the world of open data, Open Corporates is another good example; you’re free to use their data, as long as you share it under the same terms, and credit them as the source. If you want to use their database without sharing the changes back (say, in a product you’re building that uses the data that you want to charge), the same data is available under different terms.

Selling services around the data

Another common use of this would be providing services that tailor how existing data is presented, to provide specific insight more quickly, more cheaply, or in ways simply not possible for a customer to access themselves.

UK startup GrowthIntel do this, using a combination of open data from the UK government, and screen scraped content to build proprietary business intelligence products.

Another good example of turning open data into money like this would be the work done by the [Prescribing Analytics][12] project for the NHS.

A group of doctors and technologists took anonymised, open data provided by the NHS, about which drugs were prescribed each year around the UK, processing it to find patterns in how the NHS buys drugs.

Among other findings, they found patterns where branded drugs, costing 10 times as much as generic, off-patent equivalents, were routinely being prescribed, for the same therapeutic benefit to patients.

So far, this has uncovered potential savings of around [£200million in 2013, just when looking at single drug so far][13].

Summary

Hopefully, I've shown that while open data is an interesting idea, it's not so new and different that all existing knowledge about how to run a business around information ceases to apply.

UX Thursdays #1 – Nudging people away from landfill at the London Olympics

When I refer to UX, I'm referring a human-centred process of either designing products, or services that has somewhat fuzzy edges with other disciplines like service design, and I'm including examples that occur in the built environment as well as just onscreen.1

Nudging people away from landfill

One such example is the smart move to nudge people away from landfill at the London Olympics, captured by Richard Pope last summer here:

making the landfill bins shorter than recycling ones at Olympics

It's not a huge intervention, but making it slightly more awkward to condemn otherwise recyclable waste to a fate in landfill somewhere, is a lovely touch - the implicit communication here acts as a elegant trigger for the question:

Could what I'm about to throw away be recycled instead??

That said, I'd love to know if there was any data about if it affected recycling rates, beyond just looking like a clever idea.

As an aside, you could do a lot worse than follow what Richard Pope is up to: in addition to being one of Govuk's first hires, he also has a habit of making lovely little things, the most recent being his Bicycle Barometer.

Which seems like a fine candidate for a future UX Thursdays post - that's all for now, hope you enjoyed it!

 

 


  1. I may be on safer ground referring to this as design thinking, but UX Thursdays, sounds so much snappier. 

Introducing UX Thursdays

For the last few years, I've been keeping a scrapbook where I screenshot or take photos of clever little design ideas, either online, in products, or in the built environment, that either gracefully guide behaviour in a particular direction, or otherwise represent some noteworthy example of considered interaction design.

Sharing one, each week

They'd be more useful shared online than just on my 'pooter, and this blog seems a good a place as any other.

So, every Thursday, for as long as I can keep it up, I'll be posting something from my scrapbook onto this blog for your perusal, dear reader.

Let's see if this works.

 

 

When the cloud is like a box of apples

Last week, I gave a talk at LDNdevops, about the steps that you can take as a devops engineer to make your cloud computing more planet friendly, and while I was there, watching Sam Pointer's talk about using Chef to manage thousands of virtual machines, I learn of an interesting side effect of Amazon providing abstract virtual machines through its compute cloud AWS, rather than selling actual servers.

When you have a box of apples, some are going to be bad

Back when I used to work at Headshift, I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine, Stu Calum telling me how he had heard AWS being described as something like create of apples - Individually they're fine, but every once in a while you come across a bad apple1.

So whenever you're working out how you might build out infrastructure, you need to expect that one or more nodes will be will blink out of existence with little or no warning, on a more regular basis than that provided by more traditional colocation, or virtual private servers.

Not so much bad apples, as good, great, okay, bad and terrible apples

One thing that that really leapt out at me was how Sam in his talk mentioned how they use Chef to provide an audit of the 'quality' of their machines by benchmarking how well the difference virtual machine instances they have compare to the baseline in a graphical fashion.

They do this because while we as customers are buying "large", "small", "medium" and "extra large" virtual machines, we have no real idea what the actual hardware they run really is, or where the metal lies in a typical server lifecycle. So on one day you could be spinning up a load of aging servers, that are being sold as "medium" VM instances but are much slower than normal, but another day you might luck out and spin up some virtual machines running on superfast, shiny new hardware, giving you loads of free performance.

This graph they use helps them visualise the relative performance of the machines they're using, by comparing the area underneath the graph:

bang_for_buck

In a given corner if the area is large, they have a load of fast machines, and they're better off holding on to them. If the corner is smaller, it may be worth switching those VMs off, and spinning up some new ones to do the same job the old ones were doing, in the hope that they give more bang for their buck.

There's more available in this published paper on USENIX here, and if you find this interesting, you'd do well to follow Sam Pointer's blog - it's full of little gems like this.


  1. To give full credit, I think this description came from Stephen Nelson Smith of Atalanta Systems

Ted Nyman on remote working

I found out today, that Ted Nyman, @tnm on twitter will be speaking at the coming Monkigras conference later in January/Feb.

Having never heard of him before, I googled him and came across a great post about the cultural benefits to a company of providing for remote workers, but also how important it is to go all in if you do decide to go down the remote worker route:

So look beyond. GitHub employs Midwestern homeowners, Texans with gardens, European urbanites, climbers in the Pacific Northwest, British guitar players. We've even allowed in several Australians. This helps temper the worst cultural excesses and business cul-de-sacs rampant in Social Hybrid Cloud Web 3.0. It broadens our vision. It reduces local bubble think. In short, geographic diversity helps keep the organization grounded in reality.

The effectiveness of remote work, and the extent to which it can help your culture, depends on how much a company encourages it. If you're going to do remote, you must do it all the way.

Consider job postings. "Remote work possible for the right candidate" is awful. "Work where you want" should be the message.

A company can't just begrudgingly accept the possibility of remote work. It must embrace it.

I'm now quite glad I bought that ticket - he sounds like a smart chap.