Category Archives: Design

Public Transit Adds Data Points

Here in DC, WMATA (Washington Metro Area Transit Authority) has started putting up signs at all its bus stops that have a unique stop number on them.

wmataWhat this number symbolizes is a unique ID that riders and WMATA operators can use to point to an exact location and stop.

As you can see from the sign, it’s not exactly intuitive what this number is for, but you can call that number and tell the system the unique stop ID and it would tell you when the next bus is coming.

More useful is that WMATA has put up a mobile version of the same functionality at http://www.wmata.com/mobile/ which allows you to go on your iPhone or whatever and type in the stop # to find out when the next bus is coming.

This app also lets you check when the next trains are coming on the Metro, once you’ve entered the station.

But I think there are some interesting applications more on the bus side, what with WMATA having to add the pictured signs to ALL of its bus stops.  This is no small number; according to Wikipedia, that number is 12,301 total bus stops.

It will take some time for WMATA to get signs on some of the lesser-traveled stops, but I’ve noticed that a lot of the work’s already been done as I travel around town.

That means there are now 12,301 new data points (maybe not new to WMATA’s internal logs, but certainly new to us) that could be used.  Right now, people can’t interact actively with those data points.

But I could imagine that if the data points were all mapped onto Google Maps or OpenStreetMap, then interesting things would begin to emerge, e.g. emergency responders could be told that there’s an injured person at that location.

This might be done by turning the bus stops into communication posts:  the sign itself could be connected to a WiMAX network and thus displays the next-bus time without you having to look it up.  But it could also allow for emergency requests, or you could touch your phone or an RFID-enabled device to it to get more information on whatever was needed; this information would be primarily localized, like where the nearest convenience or grocery store was, etc.  This would make up for a lot of the shortcomings that still exist in being able to use the GPS/triangulation on your phone but still not having any context on your map that’s meaningful beyond what cross-streets you’re at.

New York supposedly is about to try out its own version of having next-bus displays at bus stops, according to the NY Times.  It’s not entirely clear to me what their technology is although they claim it is some sort of “mesh network technology” which to me sounds like it’d be fraught with errors and lost coverage.

The new data points could be used in different applications:  you could check in to FourSquare from them as you travel around town, playing its social game.  If WMATA played ball and opened up the data, you could calculate total hits on a station by a bus over a year.  Even more interesting would be if you could see how many people were on each bus, to see how congested things are over time (I can already see privacy zealots complaining about that).  How about figuring out overall transit times for Metro users?

What else could we do with this stuff?

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Communications, Computers, Design, Government, Internet, Openness, Policy, Tech, Web

Future of Web Apps, Miami, 2009

Back last semester, I decided to pony up the resources to travel to Miami to attend the Future of Web Apps conference run by Ryan Carson’s Carsonified.  The ticket cost $200 for just the conference day (the workshop day was on the prior day but cost quite a bit).  It ended up that I had to skip two classes in order to arrive on Monday, get settled in, and make it in time the next morning on Tuesday for the lectures to begin.

So I decided to book a night at South Beach hostel, having learned from my Australia trip never to stay in a hotel if I’m by myself or with a buddy.  It cost only $15/night in Miami Beach, which was across the causeway from where the conference venue was.

Took a shuttle from MIA airport (which is nowhere near as cool as Ft. Lauderdale).  I’m sure there’s a cheaper way to get into town but it sure is a pain in the ass.  Nothing like going to Reagan National from Georgetown…which is a shuttle and a metro ride away, very conveniently.

The hostel was awesome.  Reviews on online hostel sites complained about the recent construction but I didn’t think it was as bad by the time I got there.  I had an 8-person co-ed dorm room.  There were only like 5 of us in there though.

The great thing about hostels is that everyone’s there to hang out and they’re from all over.  One person I met is a forensic linguist in grad school.  His friend is a masseuse from up north.  Another roommate didn’t speak English and I can only assume she was shy and Scandinavian.

I ended up only checking the beach nearby out for a little bit since it was overcast and a little chilly.  Met up with a friend of mine and ate at a cool Cuban joint down the street called Puerto Sagua, a low-key, family-style place with great food that a Miamian at Georgetown recommended to me.  I got the bistec de Palomilla, also on her recommendation, to go with plantains.

After that, I went back to the hostel and ended up hanging out the rest of the night in the lounge/bar area that had a pool table and a great vibe.  My roommates and I played pool and shot the shit until late.

So much more value in a $15 hostel than in a $100+ hotel room, for sure.  If you don’t mind communal bathrooms and bunk beds.

The next morning I checked out and took the public bus across the causeway.  Checked in.

Jason Fried began the day.  He heads up 37signals, a cool company that sells project management web app services like Basecamp and Backpack.

This company is interesting because they keep a small staff and have varied ways of distributing and charging for their products.  Their book, “Getting Real”, is excellent and is available to read free online, but pay if you want a PDF or physical book.  Basecamp lets you run a small project off it but for more features and access, you subscribe.

Fried set the tone early in his talk by contradicting popular startup notions.  For one, he said startups should not see failure as something to be proud of, as many entrepreneurs do.  You should learn from all the small successes you make, not the big failure or big successes.  That is, how did you win these clients?  How did you identify this target base to go after, leading to increased sales?  The small things you learn through experience and not through books or blogs.

Fried said that the oil and lumber industries learned to turn their waste into more successful products.  Sawing wood produced sawdust and wood chips, that became marketable.  Oil by-products allowed for plastics.  So startups should find ways to use the by-products and waste of their main projects to see if they can turn in to products of their own.  I think Basecamp was a result of 37signals needed a project management suite to run their interior operations, for example.

Fried also said he doesn’t believe in giving your service away.  The relationship between a company and a paying customer is key — Fried noted examples of companies that got bought out and then ceased to operate, partially because they had no more responsibility for their users.  This contradicts the belief in advertising and radical freemiumism that is popular now among startups.  Fried believes people will pay for a product they love.

And finally Fried said that if you’re going to hire for a position, you need to know how to do that position in some capacity first.  Else, how would you know what to hire for and who to get?  Are you going to just let HR take over?  What does your business need?  How can you give orders to someone if you don’t know what he does?

So I really liked Fried’s lecture.  He tells you what you don’t want to hear:  charge for your product instead of try to build users first.  He questions assumptions.  He has a good product.

Ben Galbraith of Mozilla and Dion Almaer formerly of Google spoke about four changes coming down the pipe for browsers.  They likened the switch to when AJAX came out in terms of how our web site experience changed.

They talked about Web Workers, which is similar to Google Gears in that it takes scripts out of the browser, which can only really handle one script at a time, and can poll them when needed.  This allows for thread-like browser operation.

They also extolled the virtues of Canvas, which lets you (I assume) create in-browser Javascriptish 3D interfaces using the HTML standard.  So, think gaming. (what is Quake Live using?)

Then they talked about increased rendering capability in the browsers due to optimization, which will mean web apps will respond far faster and allow for things like Photoshop through the web.  And finally they brought up how something like Ubiquity can make browsing a more natural experience for you than “click to go to destination” and have content that doesn’t ever match you.   It’s somewhat like a command line for the web.  An implication of all this is that web apps will be readily converted into native apps as needed.  As Al3x of Twitter said, “They could rename the “Future of Web Apps” conference to “Past of Desktop Apps”. I still wouldn’t go, but they could.”

So our user experience with the web is going to fundamentally change yet again.

Joe Stump of Digg was interesting because he talked about keeping his developer teams small enough in essentially military-squad sizes of 5-6, even if there are far more developers than that.  It keeps them in the loop with each other.  Stump also advocated any project using a code repository and keeping a consistent documentation style, along with e-mail addresses to claim blocks of code.  Stump says developers are meant to be lazy…they know they can automate something with code so they don’t have to worry about it anymore.

Aza Raskin talked about Mozilla Weave — your “state” follows you from desktop to cellphone, as an example.  He calls for Tabs 2.0, a breakthrough in our still clunky tab management as many of us keep 10+ tabs open in our browsers now.

Dave Morin and Josh Elman promoted their company, Facebook, with Facebook Connect, which looks like Facebook is now allowing you to link any site to your vast (hopefully) Facebook friend network/social graph, thus immediately populating a new account with any of your friends also on the service.  This is a great change from the past where friend networks on each site take ages to develop.

The implications for what Facebook is doing are staggering.  They are creating a massive data feed of your social graph so you can employ your friends in participating in your life, your causes, etc.  At the same time, Facebook will eventually start letting you promote products to your friends (Beacon) across various networks, bringing in serious cash.  All this while we spend hours doing social grooming on Facebook with our friends, sharing more and more content with less and less concern about privacy.

It’s no wonder Facebook is taking over in countries all over the world, even against steadfast competition.

FOWA did this lameass panel on diversity on the speaker tour at one point.  It was good to see Chris Messina up there, a huge advocate for OpenID and also pushing for co-worker, providing shared spaces for people to be creative…  Kristina Halverson was also on the panel, after giving what was really a pretty boring speech on creating good copy.  Halverson was complaining about the lack of women at the conference and speaking on stage.  Wow, really?  You mean at a coder/developer conference, there aren’t many women?

I agree that there are awesome female coders and women working in Web 2.0.  Fine, great.  And to be honest some of them are more famous than most of the men…  So why aren’t they speaking?

Maybe specifically finding women to speak is something to keep in mind for the conference, but how about just finding entertaining, informative people?  It’s only a day of talks.

If you want to talk about gender equality and inclusivity, the conversation should be around earlier programs to get kids into engineering and math and science.  The rest of the fucking argument is moot.  Coders don’t disrespect women…they want to work with whomever can get the job done.

After a brief lunch there was a Phizzpop contest.  The first team of three guys created a Kiva-like funding site for space research.  It had a great Flash interface, funny video, good presentation.  These guys couldn’t have been very old.  The second team was made up of these old guys and their presentation was flat.  Wiry, blocky graphics, no coherent business strategy or model, trying to get astronauts and Twitterers to talk and share photos in space?  The presenter was horrible and said nothing of value.  The first team won, no contest!

One thing I think is interesting is how pro the web community is with slideshows.  If you’ve ever seen a military PPT or business PPT, you know how BORING they are.  300 slides of 100 words per slide.  Miserable…no fun.

But you get startup and web people, who are so used to pitching ideas and having fun, and you get these slick, fast-moving presentations that are engaging and interesting.  Something cool I noticed.

Joel Spoelsky gave a great talk on how he thinks attracting talent is the main aspect you should focus on.  Don’t skimp on the code or you’ll get a skimpy product.  To get great talent, pay up for it.  And buy good equipment for them, like adjustable desks and Herman Miller chairs.  Give the developers private offices around the business floor so they minimize distractions.  Developers die with every interruption; they need privacy to store lots of variables and thoughts in their short-term memory while coding.  Leave them be.  Only have meetings right after lunch to minimize distraction periods.  Coders only need to feed once a workday.  Closed door means no talkie.  Have a team lunch every day in the office’s kitchen at long tables to promote a good work atmosphere.

Alex Hunter from Virgin gave my favorite talk of the day about Brand 2.0.  You could tell he’s been talking with Gary Vaynerchuk a lot because both of them are always going on about going out there and ripping it and killing it when it comes to promoting your business and engaging your customers and fans.  They’re so animated when talking about ways to engage and interact.  How do you get a consumer to love you?  Then Hunter previewed the new Virgin web site that will affect all of Richard Branson’s properties.  The site has a sort of reputation system and virtual currency and rewards you for contributing to it.  Pretty cool!  I love to see that level of interaction with the customer…  He announced that Richard Branson and Ryan Carson and Gary Vaynerchuk would be blogging on the new Virgin site.  That’s a LOT of passion right there in those names.

Makes me desire even more to have my own web startup and spend much of my day engaging customers!  That was the goal of this conference, for myself:  to get myself totally psyched to work.  As if I weren’t enough already…

After Hunter finished his great talk, I had to leave.  I caught a cab to the airport and suffered a gate change and muzak.  MIA airport really is bad.  And I missed the launch of 280atlas (interface to quickly make web apps) and Gary Vaynerchuk, who’s always hyper and always awesome.  He finished off the day and judging by the FOWA tweets, everyone was loving what he had to say.  [edit:  here’s his video] But I had a great (but brief) time, even missing all that.

Bottom line, I learned a hell of a lot, and seeing these people in person made it more personal to me.  Seth Godin would call it seeking to be part of the tribe.  I can’t afford to go to any more of these things, and I am not friends with any of the people involved yet, but perhaps that will change.  For now, though, I felt it was an awesome, informative trip for a multi-disciplinarian who’s studying international affairs and international development.  It was invaluable to see where the future of things is going.

1 Comment

Filed under Business, Design, Internet, Tech, Web

Walking Surfaces

Today it was rainy in DC and I was walking to the Exorcist steps to do my workout (chin-ups and 5-8 laps up the stairs) when I saw this guy fall flat on his ass on slippery stairs outside.  He was wearing flip-flops, so he had no traction.

I know this feeling well.  Georgetown has a lot of smooth-surfaced brick walkways, so if it’s wet or icy, you will slip on it in any kind of shoe, but particularly in flip-flops or dress shoes.  During the winter, the campus lays out salt, but you still see people fall on their butts constantly.

We spend so much of our days walking.  It seems like someone could make a game-changing company out of an invention that applied traction surfaces to walkways.  Perhaps even making bricks more like rough, uneven concrete, and then giving it a slightly sticky surface to increase walkability.  It would have to be easy to install and easy to replace, since so much damage and maintenance is inflicted upon city streets.

Now that we’re making chemical and mass-produced breakthroughs and are looking creatively at industrial design, we will start to make our world more liveable and more aesthetic.  And more fun.

Here’s a vid of the Exorcist steps:

Leave a comment

Filed under Design

Imprinting

I opened up a Shelfari account and populated it with most of the books I’ve read from 2005 on — I don’t have a list of what I read before then.

It’s quite an easy service to use. Search for your book and edition, then add it to your shelf. Then add in some other metadata about it easily. I have little interest in writing reviews for books because that would take too long — I never wrote reviews on Amazon.com either. I guess I don’t have enough particular experiences from a book (save for the passages I dog-ear that I wish I could digitally copy into my computer or something) to want to write about it.

Contrast this with Yelp, which I just started using to rate and review stores and restaurants in the US. My dining and shopping experiences are very particular and very keyed in to all my senses, whereas a book isn’t. So I’ve felt like writing quite a few reviews on Yelp.

But one thing I noticed at Shelfari was that they show your books from the front cover art. I thought this was dumb at first, since you can’t display as much data quickly as you could if you just had a list of text.

But then I realized that I identify a lot of books purely from the cover art. It irks me in fact to see older cover art, or modified cover art for re-issued books. The cover is as much a part of the book as what’s in it, in terms of identifying it.

When I go abroad to Europe, all the books have different cover art in the bookstores and it really throws me off. It’s like reading in a different language you’re not fluent in — I have to slow down and read each book title instead of glancing at the cover and knowing what it is.

Here’s a quick experiment. Take the paper cover off your hardback books and look at that ugly hard cover that it has underneath. The book’s meaning and feel change completely.

I thought about how this affects experiences in e-books and on the Kindle. Books sort of become faceless through digital readers because you don’t see the cover every time you open the book. It’s just another digital file. Is there some way to replicate the experience through good design?

I then thought about whether music albums have this same imprint. I have not bought an album in ages — I download a lot of my music. So I don’t even really know what the cover art looks like for the music I listen to.

But that doesn’t matter because the personalities I listen to have large media presences and style themselves in flamboyant and stereotypical ways. I know my music through photos and TV. I also know my music through the way a band sounds — you can identify music pretty quickly from the guitarist’s sound or the voice of the lead singer.

Maybe albums need to take a cue from the visual imprinting of a book’s cover art and develop a musical imprint to put on albums and songs and artists.

This is essentially creating a brand appropriate to the media it promotes. Can I brand my web site better? Can I brand “Ben Turner” better?

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Design, Marketing