Mobile

Context Aware Programming

I’m increasingly realizing that many of my gripes about applications these days are triggered by their failure to understand my context in the way that they can and should. For example:

  • Unruly apps on my Android phone, like gmail or twitter, update messages in the background as soon as I wake up my phone, slowing the phone to a crawl and making me wait to get to the app I really want. This is particularly irritating when I’m trying to place a phone call or write a text, but it can get in the way in the most surprising places. (It’s not clear to me if this is the application writers’ fault, or due to a fundamental flaw in the Android OS.)
  • Accuweather for Android, otherwise a great app, lets you set up multiple locations, which seems like it would be very handy for frequent travelers, but it inexplicably defaults to whichever location you set up first, regardless of where you are. Not only does it ignore the location sensor in the phone, it doesn’t even bother to remember the last location I chose.
  • The WMATA app (Washington Metro transit app) I just downloaded lets you specify and save up to twelve bus stops for which it will report next bus arrival times. Why on earth doesn’t it just detect what bus stop you are actually standing at?
  • And it’s not just mobile apps. Tweetdeck for Mac lets you schedule tweets for later in the day or on future dates, yet it defaults to the date that you last used the feature rather than today’s date!  How frustrating is it to set the time of the tweet for the afternoon, only to be told “Cannot schedule a tweet for the past”, because you didn’t manually update the date to today!

In each of these cases, programmers seemingly have failed to understand that devices have senses, and that consulting those senses is the first step in making the application more intelligent. It’s as if a human, on awaking, blundered down to breakfast without opening his or her eyes!

By contrast, consider how some modern apps have used context awareness to create brilliant, transformative user experiences:

  • Uber, recognizing both where you are and where the nearest driver is, gives you an estimated time of pickup, connects the two of you, and lets you track progress towards that pickup.
  • Square Register notices anyone running Square Wallet entering the store, and pops up their name, face, and stored payment credentials on the register, creating a delightful in-store checkout experience.
  • Apps like FourSquare and Yelp are like an augmentation that adds GPS as a human sixth sense, letting you find restaurants and other attractions nearby. Google Maps does all that and more. (Even Google Maps sometimes loses the plot, though. For example, yesterday afternoon, I was on my way to Mount Vernon. Despite the fact that I was in Virginia, a search unadorned with the state name gave me as a first result Mount Vernon WA, rather than Mount Vernon VA. I’ve never understood how an app that can, and does, suggest the correct street name nearby before I’ve finished typing the building number can sometimes go so wrong.)
  • Google Now, while still a work in progress, does an ambitious job of intuiting things you might want to know about your environment. It understands your schedule, your location, the weather, the time, and things you have asked Google to remember on your behalf. It sometimes suggests things that you don’t care about, but I’d far rather than than an idiot application that requires me to use keystrokes or screen taps to tell the app things that my phone already knows.

Just as the switch from the command line to the GUI required new UI skills and sensibilities, mobile and sensor-based programming creates new opportunities to innovate, to surprise and delight the user, or, in failing to use the new capabilities, the opportunity to create frustration and anger.  The bar has been raised. Developers who fail to embrace context-aware programming will eventually be left behind.

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Google Glass and the Future

I just read a Forbes article about Glass, talking about the split between those who are “sure that it is the future of technology, and others who think society will push back against the technology.”

I don’t see this as a dichotomy (and, to be fair, I’m not sure that the author does either). I expect to see both, and I’d like to think a bit more about what these two apparently opposing sides mean.

Push back is inevitable. I hope there’s a significant push back, and that it has some results. Not because I’m a Glass naysayer, but because we, as technology users, are abused so often, and push back so weakly, that it’s not funny. Facebook does something outrageous; a few technorati whine; they add option 1023 to their current highly intertwined 1022 privacy options that have been designed so they can’t be understood or used effectively; and sooner or later, it all dies down. A hundred fifty users have left Facebook, and half a million more have joined. When Apple puts another brick in their walled garden, a few dozen users (myself included) bitch and moan, but does anyone leave? Personally, I’m tired of getting warnings whenever I install software that doesn’t come from the Apple Store (I’ve used the Store exactly twice), and I absolutely expect that a not-too-distant version of OS X won’t allow me to install software from “untrusted” sources, including software I’ve written. Will there be push back? Probably. Will it be effective? I don’t know; if things go as they are now, I doubt it.

There will be push back against Glass; and that’s a good thing. I think Google, of all the companies out there, is most likely to listen and respond positively. I say that partly because of efforts like the Data Liberation Front, and partly because Eric Schmidt has acknowledged that he finds many aspects of Glass creepy. But going beyond Glass: As a community of users, we need to empower ourselves to push back. We need to be able to push back effectively against Google, but more so against Apple, Facebook, and many other abusers of our data, rather than passively accept the latest intrusion as an inevitability. If Glass does nothing more than teach users that they can push back, and teach large corporations how to respond constructively, it will have accomplished much.

Is Glass the future? Yes; at least, something like Glass is part of the future. As a species, we’re not very good at putting our inventions back into the box. About three years ago, there was a big uptick in interest in augmented reality. You probably remember: Wikitude, Layar, and the rest. You installed those apps on your phone. They’re still there. You never use them (at least, I don’t). The problem with consumer-grade AR up until now has been that it was sort of awkward walking around looking at things through your phone’s screen. (Commercial AR–heads-up displays and the like–is a completely different ball game.) Glass is the first attempt at broadly useful platform for consumer AR; it’s a game changer.

Could Glass fail? Sure; I know more failed startups than I can count where the engineers did something really cool, and when they released it, the public said “what is that, and why do you think we’d want it?” Google certainly isn’t immune from that disease, which is endemic to an engineering-driven culture; just think back to Wave. I won’t deny that Google might shelve Glass if they consider unproductive, as they’ve shelved many popular applications. But I believe that Google is playing long-ball here, and thinking far beyond 2014 or 2015. In a conversation about Bitcoin last week, I said that I doubt it will be around in 20 years. But I’m certain we will have some kind of distributed digital currency, and that currency will probably look a lot like Bitcoin. Glass is the same. I have no doubt that something like Glass is part of our future. It’s a first, tentative, and very necessary step into a new generation of user interfaces, a new way of interacting with computing systems and integrating them into our world. We probably won’t wear devices around on our glasses; it may well be surgically implanted. But the future doesn’t happen if you only talk about hypothetical possibilities. Building the future requires concrete innovation, building inconvenient and “creepy” devices that nevertheless point to the next step. And it requires people pushing back against that innovation, to help developers figure out what they really need to build.

Glass will be part of our future, though probably not in its current form. And push back from users will play an essential role in defining the form it will eventually take.

Comments: 4 |

NYC’s PLAN to alert citizens to danger during Hurricane Sandy

A mobile alert system put messages where and when they were needed: residents' palms.

Starting at around 8:36 PM ET last night, as Hurricane Sandy began to flood the streets of lower Manhattan, many New Yorkers began to receive an unexpected message: a text alert on their mobile phones that strongly urged them to seek shelter. It showed up on iPhones:

…and upon Android devices:

While the message was clear enough, the way that these messages ended up on the screens may not have been clear to recipients or observers. And still other New Yorkers were left wondering why emergency alerts weren’t on their phones.

Here’s the explanation: the emergency alerts that went out last night came from New York’s Personal Localized Alerting Network, the “PLAN” the Big Apple launched in late 2011.

NYC chief digital officer Rachel Haot confirmed that the messages New Yorkers received last night were the result of a public-private partnership between the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the New York City Office of Emergency Management (OEM), the CTIA and wireless carriers.

While the alerts may look quite similar to text messages, the messages themselves run in parallel, enabling them to get through txt traffic congestion. NYC’s PLAN is the local version of the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) that has been rolling out nation-wide over the last year.

“This new technology could make a tremendous difference during disasters like the recent tornadoes in Alabama where minutes – or even seconds – of extra warning could make the difference between life and death,” said FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, speaking last May in New York City. “And we saw the difference alerting systems can make in Japan, where they have an earthquake early warning system that issued alerts that saved lives.”

NYC was the first city to have it up and running, last December, and less than a year later, the alerts showed up where and when they mattered.

Read more…

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The complexity of designing for everywhere

Author Rachel Hinman on the future of mobile design and UX.

In her new book The Mobile Frontier, author Rachel Hinman (@Hinman) says the mobile design space is a wide-open frontier, much like space exploration or the Wild West, where people have room to “explore and invent new and more human ways for people to interact with information.”

In the following interview, Hinman talks about the changing landscape of computing — GUIs becoming NUIs — and delves into the future of mobile and how designers and users alike will make the journey.

What is mobile’s biggest strength? What about it is creating a new frontier?

Rachel Hinman: Humans have two legs, making us inherently mobile beings. Yet for the last 50 years, we’ve all settled into a computing landscape that assumes a static context of use. Mobile’s biggest strength is that it maps to this inherent human characteristic to be mobile.

The static, PC computing landscape is known and understood. Mobile is a frontier because there’s still much we don’t understand and much yet to be discovered. There are lots of breakthroughs in mobile yet to come, making it an exciting place for those who can stomach the uncertainty and ambiguity to be. Read more…

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With new maps and apps, the case for open transit gets stronger

OpenPlans looks to improve transportation infrastructure with open data and open source code.

OpenTripPlanner logoEarlier this year, the news broke that Apple would be dropping default support for transit in iOS 6. For people (like me) who use the iPhone to check transit routes and times when they travel, that would mean losing a key feature. It also has the potential to decrease the demand for open transit data from cities, which has open government advocates like Clay Johnson concerned about public transportation and iOS 6.

This summer, New York City-based non-profit Open Plans launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a new iPhone transit app to fill in the gap.

“From the public perspective, this campaign is about putting an important feature back on the iPhone,” wrote Kevin Webb, a principal at Open Plans, via email. “But for those of us in the open government community, this is about demonstrating why open data matters. There’s no reason why important civic infrastructure should get bound up in a fight between Apple and Google. And in communities with public GTFS, it won’t.”

Open Plans already had a head start in creating a patch for the problem: they’ve been working with transit agencies over the past few years to build OpenTripPlanner, an open source application that uses open transit data to help citizens make transit decisions.

Read more…

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Mobile participatory budgeting helps raise tax revenues in Congo

The World Bank found the ROI in open government through civic participation and mobile phones.

In a world awash in data, connected by social networks and focused on the next big thing, stories about genuine innovation get buried behind the newest shiny app or global development initiative. For billions of people around the world, the reality is that inequality in resources, access to education or clean water, or functional local government remain serious concerns.

South Kivu, located near the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been devastated by the wars that have ravaged the region over the past decade.

Despite that grim context, a pilot program has born unexpected fruit. Mobile technology, civic participation, smarter governance and systems thinking combined to not only give citizens more of a voice in their government but have increased tax revenues as well. Sometimes, positive change happens where one might reasonably least expect it. The video below tells the story. After the jump, World Bank experts talk about story behind the story.

“Beyond creating a more inclusive environment, the beauty of the project in South Kivu is that citizen participation translates into demonstrated and measurable results on mobilizing more public funds for services for the poor,” said Boris Weber, team leader for ICT4Gov at the World Bank Institute for Open Government

, in an interview in Washington. “This makes a strong case when we ask ourselves where the return of investment of open government approaches is.”

Read more…

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