For the last 5 months I've been working with friends at Ushahidi and Meedan on a project nicknamed "Swift."
Our goal with Swift is to provide a crowdsourcing platform for "data triage." Imagine something like Mechanical Turk used only for tagging news, photos, microblogging and videos. There's no business model or anything like that — it's strictly Open Source Nonprofity Goodness(tm). Meedan and Ushahidi are partners in hacking it out.
As a user of Swift you can sit down at an "assembly line" of news and tag it. Swift gives you a straightforward aggregator for news (say, news about earthquakes in california) then asks you to tag all of the people, places and organizations in that firehose of data. With a little bit of effort (collecting a few rss feeds and marking up all the content) it becomes possible to put a very bright light on an emerging part of the web. You can, for example, tag violations of electoral code in an election, as we are doing with Vote Report India, which uses Ushahidi and Wordpress as a platform for grassroots reporting in the month-long Indian election.
I'm especially interested in knowing how much we can actually do with the public data that emerges in realtime during a crisis. From a journalistic perspective, it seems like there is an opportunity to understand more concretely what the hell is going on.
For Ushahidi, Swift is an extension of their exisiting SMS reporting cycle. By "listening" to the "outside" web in a more structured way, the hope is that we can provide more relevant alerts to people on the ground in a crisis.
For Meedan, Swift is a tool for a team of editors who need to produce interesting content for their digital newsroom. Because it is an aggregator, Swift serves naturally as a listening post as well as a tagging workbench. Rope in a few feeds (such as Twitter search results feed for "election" ) and then do location extraction for the Middle East with Calais on that feed, and you have a pretty cool stream of entities.
Today we had a great meeting at InSTEDD, with a crazy good crowd of people — everybody was in town for the conference at Berkeley. Thanks to everyone for their ideas and support!
Here's my presentation from today:
All of the photos and links can be found on my Flickr page.
Swift seeks to publish all of the entities that concerned communities publish about crisis, both hot flash and slow burn events. The core use case is for the period immediately following a disaster or crisis, during the hours and days of confusion.
One thing that is always interesting about Swift is that it is a very unusual use case. The tragedy of a crisis creates a temporary period of great social empathy during which many "rules" of interaction design break down. This is a design opportunity. Many people are willing to match their #have to someone else's #need, but they don't have a medium for volunteering, or a network of supporters who can contextualize and respect their work. We just watch CNN and feel powerless; we would love a way to help, as an individual, from across the world. An improved marketplace of volunteerism is possible if we can design the appropriate interactions.
Dealing Lightning with Both Hands
On December 9, 1968, Dr. Douglas C. Engelbart and the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at Stanford Research Institute staged a 90-minute public multimedia demonstration at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco. It was the world debut of personal and interactive computing: for the first time, the public saw a computer mouse, which controlled a networked computer system to demonstrate hypertext linking, real-time text editing, multiple windows with flexible view control, cathode display tubes, and shared-screen teleconferencing. It changed what is possible. The 1968 demo presaged many of the technologies we use today, from personal computing to social networking. The demo embodied Doug Engelbart's vision of solving humanity's most important problems by using computers to improve communication and collaboration.
In the Bay? Buy a ticket already.
Ushahidi for the iPhone
Update: The Ushahidi team has released a strong new open source iOS codebase.
After a few months of work, we have gotten a new wireframe of the mobile app running on the iPhone.
[http://www.ushahidi.com/images/buttons/ushahidi_button4_170.gif "Ushahidi: Crowdsourcing Crisis Information"]
Lately I've been volunteering a little bit for Ushahidi. Ushahidi is an open source tool for monitoring crises and disasters. It recently won the the NetSquared challenge and was called one of the top startups to watch in the MIT Technology Review. Man, I really don't have to give up anything to work on this one — it's really a top notch operation going on. Other nonprofit and open source teams could learn a lot from the Ushahidi project.
Some of the amazing things about the Ushahidi project include:
- Participatory design. Everyone is invited to comment on these designs and hack on the psd files we created.
- Rapid prototyping. (Really rapid: the first version of the app was built in a weekend.)
- The application is completely open source.
- It's a platform, not a web application: you can get the code and extend it for your own uses.
- Strong user-centered design principles.
- Great attention to detail in the design and insistence on top-notch interfaces (including the marketing website and the admin pages of the application).
Anyway here's the latest mockup. Here's the latestsource PSD. It's v0.2 and still has a long way to go. We did the iPhone app first and will be using lessons learned from this one to port the project to other platforms.
I did most of the sketching and developed the concepts that were flying around, and then my man Joe Jones did all the real work in Photoshop. It's been a really fun time so far and I am looking forward to implementing some of the changes being discussed on the Ushahidi blog.
Also make sure you check out some of the geniuses behind the project:
Monday Night Telly
For the User Experience people: Bill Buxton is a genius. Got me sketching. (And redefined "sketching.") 1.5 hr. lecture. Teaser: includes the phrase "Charlton Heston flying through the air." Oh and also please buy Sketching User Experiences. Operators are standing by.
For the type nerds: Erik Speikermann is my idea of what real men are like. The opening jingle made me shoot beer through my nose. 6 minutes. Just watch it. Check out his blog too.
For Architecture Geeks: Stewart Brand is brilliant and insane. Fun SF footage too. Feature length PBS type thingy: Part 1 of 6.
For Anyone Who Uses a Computer: Doug Engelbart is my hero. "Dealing lightning with both hands," indeed: this is the public debut of the freaking mouse, hypertext, screensharing and the networked office. This is where it all went down, in 1968 San Francisco (think about it), to a standing ovation in a auditorium full of geeks who had their minds blown. (Bonus points if you know Stewart Brand's connection.) Long and really boring honestly. Use this like TV Guide, but watch the video on Youtube. If you look close you can see Skype crash.
Mozilla, The AP Aurora Concepts, and Open Source UX Design
Today Adaptive Path, the godfather company of the interface and experience research industry, released the first of some amazingly high quality concept videos about the web browser of the future.
I'm really impressed, even though I spent most of the day grousing about some of the details of the interface they showed — my nitpicking is really just evidence of how much detail there is in the video.
Anyway, the real importance of the videos is not specific to any of the UI details — it's about what's happening at Mozilla, and the new inclusive approach they are taking to visual and experience design.
I couldn't put it better than Dan Harrelson did this week:
Joining an open source software project usually requires one thing: the ability to cut code. If you live in the world of functions, methods, Git, SVN, and SQL, you'll find many a friend in open source. If you instead work with Photoshop, wireframes, sketches, and stickies, you'll find it is a bit of a challenge to join an open source project. The community of developers has a history of shunning anyone who is a not programmer. Plus, open source software projects are not heavily promoted in the design community.
UPDATE: My buddy Andy pointed me to the Mozilla call for participation, which does a great job of summarizing the initiative.
Today we're calling on industry, higher education and people from around the world to get involved and share their ideas and expertise as we collectively explore and design future directions for the Web. You don't have to be a software engineer to get involved, and you don't have to program. Everyone is welcome to participate.
Thursday Morning TV
Actually this is better than Thursday morning TV, which, in my hometown at least, was pretty weak. This stuff is amazing.
- First some of the best nonprofit advertising I've ever seen.
- Second a great bike water filter pump.
- Lastly a favorite app redesigned.
(more type video if you're into it)
And the bike:
The wacky bike was designed by IDEO people — I'm also impressed with their recent riff on the magazine quiz (maybe think madlibs): A Rockefeller sponsored guide to creating social impact with your design firm.
And the App:
FrontlineSMS is a thoroughly wonderful idea in many ways ... I mean, if you're into international rural research with mobile phones. A tool worth watching very closely, it's what I think is the leading platform of the mobile research "industry". (if there is such a thing.)
They just released a major new milestone and have bunch of great new branding. Great work, Ken!
Book of the Month Club for Interface & Design Geeks
It's been a good book month for interface geeks and IXD/UX people. Congrats to AP on the new book and kudos especially to upstart publisher Rosenfeld for the innovative stuff they are doing, including user testing of their 500-page, large font digital versions. Rock on, you madcap publishers you. You're gonna make it big working like that.
All of these are worth buying (plus extra to give to clients):
- Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks by Luke Wroblewski
- Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior by Indi Young
- Subject To Change: Creating Great Products & Services for an Uncertain World: Adaptive Path on Design by Peter Merholz, Todd Wilkens, Brandon Schauer, David Verba
Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty? (Readers' Digest Version)
So I went to this Street Hacks talk 2 nights ago is here: http://www.janchipchase.com/ (it was awesome, you missed it. Clam Pizza.) And then it turns out Chipchase just got all famous this week, seriously: First a rad video in the Economist.
And then in the New York Times.
Here's my Reader's Digest version, since I know you are graphing how much time you spend on blogs.
About Chipchase, who really is a super-nice guy:
"To an outsider, the job can seem decidedly oblique. His mission, broadly defined, is to peer into the lives of other people, accumulating as much knowledge as possible about human behavior so that he can feed helpful bits of information back to the company, to the squads of designers and technologists and marketing people who may never have set foot in a Vietnamese barbershop but who would appreciate it greatly if that barber someday were to buy a Nokia. ...
About getting over your hatred of your cellphone (cursed device efficiency-obsession). This bit hit a nerve for me:
Understanding [stuff] requires forgetting for a moment about your own love-hate relationship with your cellphone, or iPhone, or BlackBerry. Something that's mostly a convenience booster for those of us with a full complement of technology at our disposal — land-lines, Internet connections, TVs, cars can be a life-saver to someone with fewer ways to access information. ... Jan Chipchase and his user-research colleagues at Nokia can rattle off example upon example of the cellphone's ability to increase people's productivity and well-being, mostly because of the simple fact that they can be reached. There's the live-in housekeeper in China who was more or less an indentured servant until she got a cellphone so that new customers could call and book her services. Or the porter who spent his days hanging around outside of department stores and construction sites hoping to be hired to carry other people's loads but now, with a cellphone, can go only where the jobs are. Having a call-back number, Chipchase likes to say, is having a fixed identity point, which, inside of populations that are constantly on the move displaced by war, floods, drought or faltering economies can be immensely valuable both as a means of keeping in touch with home communities and as a business tool.
On the incredible value that can be provided by something so simple, like SMS:
"... public health workers in South Africa now send text messages to tuberculosis patients with reminders to take their medication. In Kenya, people can use S.M.S. to ask anonymous questions about culturally taboo subjects like AIDS, breast cancer and sexually transmitted diseases, receiving prompt answers from health experts for no charge.
On Microfinance and the bottom of the Pyramid:
... A cellphone in the hands of an Indian fisherman who uses it to grow his business which presumably gives him more resources to feed, clothe, educate and safeguard his family represents a textbook case of bottom-up economic development, a way of empowering individuals by encouraging entrepreneurship as opposed to more traditional top-down approaches in which aid money must filter through a bureaucratic chain before reaching its beneficiaries, who by virtue of the process are rendered passive recipients.
Now you have to read the whole thing.
The Future of Money
If there is anything I hate more than cell phones, it's money.
I mean, of course everybody likes money, but seriously, who wants to actually deal with it? Going to the bank, cutting checks to the landlord, saving receipts, budgeting, negotiating salaries, calculating the tip, trying to find stuff on sale, thinking about taxes ... man, I have so many more interesting things to do. It's all just exhausting, if you ask me.
But. As usual. I'm griping.
Imagine a world without access to banks and the services they provide - baseline services such as credit, money transfers, savings. For many of the world's poor this is the everyday reality and it's a space where in part due to the spread of mobile telephony there are disruptions and innovations.- Jan Chipchase
So, ok, reality check. When it comes down to it: A) Thank Allah I've got enough to live on and B) Thank Jesus that I have some sort of infrastructure to deal with it in the first place. As in — literally — I'm thankful that I have a bank, and receipts and all that crufty stuff that makes it all actually work.
Because a hell of a lot of people don't.
Here's Chipchase on it earlier this week: "Imagine a world without access to banks and the services they provide - baseline services such as credit, money transfers, savings. For many of the world's poor this is the everyday reality and it's a space where in part due to the spread of mobile telephony there are disruptions and innovations."
And, Hey! Look! there they go again, those damned Cellphones! :)
Since this money stuff seems to have some potential influence on the future (who knew!), I'm actually really excited to be heading to BarCampBank San Francisco next weekend, to talk about cell phones and money. With a bunch of finance geeks. The point of this unconference is to dig into some of the newest, craziest ideas in finance technology, to "foster innovations and the creation of new business models in the world of banking and finance."
I'm hoping for some discussions about peer-to-peer lending a long with a bunch of talk about the future of mobile currency exchange. In general I'm hoping that there are some folks there who really grok the reality that mobile phones are the most important platform for application development in the developing world.
In this context, I don't care about iPhones, I don't care about web apps; I'm talking about paying your rent via SMS. I'm talking about currencies and payment methods that aren't defined by a government or even a bank!
Or something. This stuff is all so crazy I get the feeling nobody really knows what's obviously essential vs. obviously stupid as hell.
Anyway, I hope it will be a good conference that gets to some of the more important ICT4D issues. You really never know with unconferences. If we all want to talk about Baudrillard and Obama, that's what we'll do. (They're exciting that way. Who knows, maybe I'll lead a session on user-centered design, like I know anything. It would be better than the Baudrillard and Obama session at least.)
Here's to some exciting innovation at BarCampBank on Saturday ... maybe I'll see you there.
Things are looking great so far with this hairbrained project of ours.
Fabulous, actually: Bolt | Peters is super interested in the project and wants me to work on it for some percent of my total time at work. Which is fan-freaking-tastic! Thanks BP!
If you have no idea what I am talking about, check out my last post about it.
But, in short, these are the three things that I love about Kestrel already:
Kestrel is a web application for farmers. Kestrel is a participatory design project. Kestrel is an open source project. Kestrel is a user-centered project. (Deeply so; as in, we won't build it if it doesn't solve real-people problems.)
Ok that was four. Anyway, I've gotten so much great feedback already by email phone and comment — and I am now setting up interview dates. Let me know if you would like to talk on the phone for about an hour. We'll be gathering feedback about the initial concept and looking at some first drafts of first drafts. Basically, we're gabbing on the phone for a bit and I'm taking some notes.
You can participate in a number of ways:
- Giving feedback based on your professional experience (as a farmer, user researcher, designer, guru ...)
- Giving feedback based on your experience with other applications for famers.
- Giving feedback as a CSA manager, owner, or eater.
- Giving feedback as one of my parents, friends or online weakly linked nodes.
Please leave a comment or email me at unthinkingly at gmail if you want to participate. You know you wanna. Research is fun!
We're conducting real live conversations, not just email exchanges, though email is also a great way to give feedback. Also, note that, as much as possible, we'll be recording interviews; part of the point of this project is that the methodology will be completely documented. We record stuff partly just part of the public nature of participatory design, partly because we want to get as much informed criticism as possible, but also because we want to teach other communities of practice to create a web app!
Dammit, if we (as a very small, active team) can build something that work really well for 50 farmers, then we probably have created something that will work really well for 50,000 farmers.
Thanks to tes, Andrea, Beck, Mary, Chris R., Rick, Ben, Mike, Nate and Anne for commenting already on the previous post; we already have strong support in San Francisco, Portland and Central NC.
Kestrel: A Simple Web App for Community Supported Agriculture
I'm just getting started on a new project nicknamed Kestrel.
The basic idea a simple and user-centered web app that helps facilitate ordering, billing and member management for CSA's. Things are JUST getting started and I am soliciting help in doing some feasibility research as well as a basic evaluation of existing CSA management applications.
A CSA, (for Community Supported Agriculture) is a way for the food buying public to create a relationship with a farm and to receive a weekly basket of produce. By making a financial commitment to a farm, people become "members" (or "shareholders," or "subscribers") of the CSA. Local Harvest
So far were in stage zero: Over the holidays I was brainstorming with some of my agri-geek friends in North Carolina, notably tes thraves. (I like to say that tes is to poverty + agriculture issues as Jay-Z is to hip-hop — a badass producer who just makes things happen.) :) So far there's been a lot of excitement about it from both consumers and producers.
- Stage zero is lots of talk over drinks around the New Year's bonfire, basically. Check.
- Stage one is research about what real CSA's need.
- Stage two is getting a few CSA's to pilot test a first iteration for a season.
- The rest is iterating and improving based on real feedback. This is the hard part. And the fun part.
The only real spec so far is an application that is incredibly simple and driven purely by a real understanding of the users' needs.
There is no timeframe yet. I imagine things could take a year or so; nobody's getting paid by Kestrel.
Codewise, I've done some simple scaffolding of the application, but really I think the requirements for this type of thing are simple — the codebase is not really the issue. Just a few forms, login/out and billing. So I'm not looking for help from coders as much as I am trying to garner some interest from A) the users of the application, farmers and consumers and B) people with experience in user-centered application design and user testing.
The goal is a management tool that would simplify the process of ordering food from your CSA, but also serve as an educational model of CSA best practices.
Right now I'm thinking a hosted solution, almost certainly built in Rails. And of course completely Open and Free.
The basic use case comes from my mom : she doesn't like very much lettuce in her box. Last year she got six heads of lettuce at a time. So ideally mom could just login and set her preference, pay her bill, update her address, give notice that she's out of town for a month, etc. The farmer then knows exactly how many heads of lettuce to harvest, and can keep the rest in the ground until going to the market on Saturday.
It's not a new idea, I know. There are several in San Francisco. I haven't seen them yet. But I am sure that they're not as good as they can be and I want to put the users at the front of developing a new open source solution.
CSA's are great for environmental, social and economic reasons. And they're really just a lot of freaking fun. So if you are a consumer or producer with opinions about what you'd like to see in this type of software, let me know in the comments or unthinkingly-at-gmail.com.
On Teachers Moving from Web 0.5 to Web 3.0
David Warlick posts insightfully about the uses of technology in education. Right now he seems like a pretty stressed out guy.
I'm not an educator (though I do work in education via nonprofit evaluation). And I don't get quite as excited as he does when discussing the latest crop of communication technologies.
But in one of his most recent posts on his blog 2 Cents, I am right there with him pulling out my hair. The story is kind of funny actually, in a sick way (kind of like the way it's funny when Cheney shoots a 78-year-old man).
The story is like this: Warlick presented to a large group of teachers here in North Carolina recently and polled them informally about the technologies they used.
"How many were blogging, I saw only three hands. How many read blogs? Perhaps 20. How many had listened to a podcast? Maybe ten. How many had podcasted? Zero! How many used flickr? Zero! How many knew about social bookmarks? Zero! Delicious (del.icio.us)? Zero!"
This is all really not that surprising to me. I know that two years of hype about blogging has done little to clarify its value as an fun, educational tool. And these are a particular type of hype-prone ("Web 2.0") technologies.
And yet, really, these things are exciting and useful. Teachers would love these things. They aren't just hype. I only wish teachers knew more about these great, fun technologies that kids would love. For sure, I have seen great integrations of podcasting (AKA: grassroots audio) and blogging (AKA: networked writing) into the classroom — and I have seen how serious critical thinking skills are engendered in the use of these technologies.
So I think these teachers' technological literacy is unfortunate, but I don't think it's a tragedy, as David might say at this point. I think we are just at an early stage, and we (progressive type/educational bloggers) are impatient to show off the great strides the internet has made in recent years. Or at least, that's the polite way of putting it.
But when I read the following I was a little more disturbed:
"I asked how many of them had used Gopher. About three-forths of the hands went up. This surprised me. I asked about Telnet. Again, a vast majority of the hands when up."
That's right. Gopher and Telnet are not only still on people's radar, but teachers are apparently much more familiar with these medieval implements than blogs. Why is this so difficult to catch on to? It's just writing on the internet. Where are the barriers to understanding and use coming from? I know that technological literacy and the digital divide are real complex issues, but dammit, I don't get it. Why did people stop paying attention when it got interesting? Blogging is so much more engaging and Telnet was ... just such a drag!
As David writes: "These are educators who, in the early 1990s, were on the edge. They were paying attention, recognizing an emerging revolution in information, and latching on. What happened between then and now? Why have they missed the new revolution?"
I hope that online communication will become much more mainstream this year. But for now I think that white-hot hype + cold, ivory-tower perspective of technologists has done a lot to keep powerful new communication tools out of the mainstream, locked in some elite computer lab. For now I resolve again to remember that I'm part of an extreme minority of addled programmers and gizmo fetishists. I want to do what I can to remind people that simple, free, worldwide publishing and distribution is now a reality. And for now I just hope that educators aren't teaching kids that dial-up BBS's define the world of technology.