Archived entries for Mobile

Meter Beaters

Meter Beaters is an app to find free parking spots in Chicago. With so much freely available civic data you would imagine that there would be plenty of apps like this, but the city keeps it’s parking data close to the chest. I know because I tried to build something like this 6 years ago.

Meter Beaters

I wanted an app to show me where residential parking zones were so I could spot the non-zoned streets and find free parking. This is particularly difficult in neighborhoods such as Lincoln Park. I tried filing a FOIA request to get the data, but they were only willing to provide it as 100s of pages of printouts. I build a web scraper in Processing to walk through a GIS database and query each street section through their parking zone look-up form, but then they installed a CAPTHA on the form. I asked the Chief Data Officer of the city in the nicest way I could, but nothing. After a while, I just gave up.

All I can assume is that the city does not want to provide easily accessible access to this data, so I’m glad to see that someone has taken up the challenge. The app isn’t perfect, I have critiques of the interaction model and I’ve found flaws in the data. They have a way to submit corrections though, so hopefully it will improve over time.

Second-hand Spam

Previously, I wrote about how many spam text messages I get here in India. My colleague, and new roommate, Randy has started a blog to catalog them all. Now you can pretend your phone was constantly buzzing with these amazing offers just like ours.

Mobile Spam

I have a separate mobile phone here, an old Nokia with a Mumbai SIM card in someone else’s name because you have to be a citizen to get a phone number. I also carry my iPhone for internet access since it has an unlimited international data plan. Only one person has ever legitimately texted or called me on my Nokia, but every day I get at least 3 spam messages.

This never happens in the US, and thank god since we pay for our incoming texts and calls on most plans. Everything incoming is free here, but this is still super annoying. It’s to the point where I don’t even check when I hear that I got a new message since the signal to noise ratio is so high.

When I first got the phone I was getting these spam messages along with lots of daily trivia: questions about India mythology, celebrity quizzes, and riddles. I thought these were spam at first too, but a co-worker showed me how you could turn them off through deeply buried settings in the phone. Oddly, I’ve been told that many people actually like these messages. Maybe it has to do with the mobile being the primary source of connectivity and information, like how getting physical mail used to be exciting even when it was just a mass mailed catalog.

The other fun thing is that I’m having to learn T9 texting all over again. I’m crazy slow and have regained empathy for my old-school friends who respond to my long, grammatically correct texts with a simple “k”.

Being there, actually and digitally

I spent the last 6 weeks doing a project San Francisco, a great opportunity to live and work in a different context for a while. It was nearly a perfect amount of time to really experience and begin to understand a place without losing touch with home. I ended up exploring a good amount, here’s a map of everywhere I went.

In Chicago I do a lot of things by myself, but given my living situation in San Francisco I found myself going out alone even more often. Whether it was a restaurant, park, coffee shop, or music venue I ended up reflecting on how I was relating to the places and people around me, and what role technology was having in helping or hindering that relationship. My iPhone was invaluable for finding my way around public transportation and pointing me towards good restaurants, but once I arrived somewhere it felt like a crutch, something I receded into. With my glowing rectangle in hand I could be anywhere, reading my friend’s updates or world news, oblivious to my surroundings and broadcasting that message to everyone else. It reminded me of Chris Ware’s brilliant cover for the New Yorker nearly a near ago. Needless to say, I tried to keep my phone in my pocket.

Recently, the New York Times published an article on this topic that makes a conclusion I disagree with. In E-Book Readers Make People Less Isolated the author argues that the iPad and Kindle provide more openings for strangers to engage someone using these devices than if they were reading a book. One of the quotes is that “Strangers constantly ask about it,” which gets precisely to what I think is the misinterpretation. These are heavily marketed consumer devices that receive attention because they are new and shiny; the interest is in the thing, not the person. There’s little wonder that this particular article was published in the Fashion and Style section and features a photo of a runway model holding an iPad.

In my experience, there is a huge social difference between using an iPhone and physical media such as a book or magazine. The numerous possible activities afforded by an iPhone creates a “down the rabbit hole” effect that draws the user deeper into their own self and projects an unapproachable air to others because they can not gauge the purpose, or level of intensity, in which you are engaged. In contrast, a book or magazine projects a temporary, non-transactional activity, and the trivialness of interruption is obvious.

These are hardly original thoughts, but in an era when social media increasingly claims to be contextual to your location I think it’s an important time to reflect on what is really enhancing a sense of “thereness” and what is using mobility and location as merely a search query or as communication to others not present.

Last week I stopped by the Processing.Android conference at UIC to see talks by Malcolm McCullough, Ben Fry, and Casey Reas. It was inspiring to see the state of Processing and the breadth of ways it is being used, but Malcolm’s talk is the one that’s been rattling around my head in relationship to this topic. The presentation covered familiar points from Digital Ground concerning street level media, foraging vs. searching, urban markup, and general discussion of embodied interaction in public space. At the end of the Q+A Malcolm asked us what we thought of the state of locative media, after bringing up examples including Yelp Monocole, Loopt, Layar, and of course Four Square.

I started considering his question in relationship to this topic of digital isolationism. What strikes me about locative media today is the weakness of connection to what is actually present. A vision that Malcolm puts forth in his book is a world of embodied technology, of sensors and computation found in buildings and the environment that one can interact with directly. A survey of today’s mobile applications would disappoint if that was the expectation, since they mostly use location as an input to a constrain a search in a remote database.

Our devices may always be connected to the internet, but they are rarely aware of each other or connected directly with technology embedded in the environment. Instead, a semi-accurate GPS coordinate is sent through our increasingly strained and spotty mobile data network, a solution that greatly limits the possibilities and autonomy of our devices in their relationship to their surroundings. A Four Square check-in is the digital equivalent of an “I was here” graffiti tag. It establishes territory, but does it connect you more deeply to a place? One need not even be present to “check-in”.

Perhaps we have simply not yet caught up to Japan and South Korea, and once the catch-22 of device and infrastructure roll-out is solved we we will find RFID and NFC integrated in our devices and paving the way for different types of touch-based connections to our environment. It’s interesting to consider how this would alter the social situation of using our devices in public, especially if you consider the possibilities for gestures that are more physical and placement-oriented instead of screen-based. NFC capabilities are hardly a guarantee of anything, but they do open the door for truly local services. The next evolution of locative media will not be something that mass market companies like Four Square can offer on their own, since it will need to involve the owners and maintainers of the physical environment. That local quality may be exactly what we need for these interactions to feel more authentic and present.

McCullough talks about a goal for embodied interactions as being “slow and close”. I’m still exploring what that can mean, but it sounds like a great thing to work towards.

Reflection in social media

Earlier this week Dave Blanchard, a colleague of mine, asked an interesting question on Twitter:

Has social media pushed self-reflection out in favor of self-projection? Is there time for both?

Reading this made me first think of Slow Design, a movement I’ve been tracking for a few years now. It began as an offshoot of the Slow Food movement and holds similar goals of fostering deeper connections, promoting reflection, and focusing on longer time frames. A slow design is one that affords and promotes these types of behaviors. Can social media be slow?

The second thing I thought of was an episode of To The Best of Our Knowledge that I heard on NPR recently. The first segment was an interview with David Bainbridge, biologist and author of Teenagers: A Natural History, on the makeup of the teenage mind where he discussed the intensity of the brain’s growth during that time period and how it leads to an almost overwhelming level of self-reflection unlike any other time in our lives. Given this, do teenagers tend to use social media simultaneously for reflection and projection? Anecdotally, it seems like teens mix these modes more than adults. I makes me want to dig into danah boyd’s ethnographic work on teens and social media to learn more.

Finally, it reminded me of Momento, an iPhone app I’ve been enjoying “which provides a quick and easy way to record ‘moments’ throughout your day.” It is essentially a diary app with a subtle and beautiful interface design, but the twist is the way it connects to and displays your social media projections alongside your private reflections. The integration of the two is simple and straightforward; it displays Twitter posts and Flickr photos chronologically mixed with your Momento entries. The effect, however, is much more profound as it promotes additional reflection on the difference in tone and content between the private and the social.

The reason Dave’s question prompted me to make these connections, and to write this post, is that I hope social media isn’t having this effect. Obviously there are those who use it only for self promotion, but as the medium matures perhaps we will see more adaptations like Momento that build upon these platforms in new ways. Perhaps the accumulation of social media over many years will grow to naturally promote reflection as our archives mix the self-projection of today with that of a very different future self.

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