Posts Tagged ‘mobile’
Today was the first day of the seventh edition of the PICNIC festival in Amsterdam (hashtag #picnic12. The festival’s goal is “to discover opportunities for transformation: processes, cultures, products, services, models and experiences”. The theme for the year is New Ownership: the shift from top down to bottom up. This is my first time attending the festival. I am on the lookout for interesting insights and connections around the topic of how to innovate at scale. Below some of my general notes and thoughts on the day.
George Dyson – There is Plenty of Room at the Top
Dyson‘s title is of course a reference to Feynman’s 1959 talk There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom. He talked a bit about Feynman’s role at Los Alamos. The digital world we live in today is the result of a “deal with the devil”: if scientist would help the government get nuclear weapons then they would get the computers.
There is room at the bottom, but there is also room at the top: a development of a global intelligence through networked machines and computation at all levels. We are starting to make machines that can think, machines that can replicate themselves and evolve. The founders of the computing age already saw this coming and questioned what this would mean and where it would take us (e.g. Norbert Wiener in Cybernetics).
His whole talk was looking back at what people have said 50-100 years ago and how those statements translate to current times. I can see why the festival programmers decided to open with him, but his talk was all description and very little prescription which made it less than interesting for me.
Byron Reese – The Great Disconnect
Reese started talking about how it used to be that most of the basic elements of life where decided for you at birth. A lot of aspects of your life came from where you were born and in what type of family. These things did not change, there was very little mobility. Today, if there is something about your life you don’t like, you have the ability to change it: you are unthethered. Who you are is no longer a set of circumstances, instead it is a set of choices. There is self-determination. If we combine that with the freedom of conscience then we can have a set of beliefs that can actually underpin a nation.
These changes are driven by the enormous amounts of technological developments that are happening around us. He thinks we are on the cusp of eliminating poverty, hunger and disease by solving them as technological problems (this reminds me of the book Abundance I recently read). I guess Reese is a true techno-optimist (unfortunately without the sense to talk about how many people in the word aren’t “unthethered” yet). He beliefs that even though we are unthethered, we aren’t used to that yet and still behave as if we are thethered in many ways. His advice: “make the most of it”.
Rich Pell – Strategies in Genetic Copy-Protection
Pell is director of the Center for PostNatural History, basically a museum dedicated to living things that were altered by people.
PostNatural is an adjective defined as biological life that has been intentionally and heritably altered by humans. This usually requires human mediated and controlled production. This leads to ethical questions, mainly around the ownership of life. There are now patents on life forms (Pasteur actually had the first patent on a life form: on yeast for beer) and a few strategies for genetic copy prevention are emerging:
- Security through obscurity: not giving any information about what your organism is or does.
- Genetic control: built-in reproductive control in the genes, initially a way to make sure that it was possible to contain the genetically engineered organism.
- Contractual agreement: a contract that prohibits breeding (standard in pure-bred lines for dogs for example).
Pell then showed Monsanto’s terms of agreement for farmers wanting to use their seeds. A legal text scrolled by for a long time of which the main point is that the seed is single-use and that the farmer doesn’t own the seed. You agree to the terms by opening the bag of seeds. Pell had to do some smart legal and physical “hacking” to be able to put Monsanto corn legally in their museum.
Dale Stephens – The Empowered Learner
Stephens didn’t enjoy school when he was twelve. He found a group of unschoolers and quit school with the reluctant permission of his parents.
Unschooling is a set of ideas that try to solve the current failings of education (cost are going up, while value of the education is going down (see here), no equality of opportunity, academic rigour disappearing). The term was coined by John Holt who wrote two books titled How Children Learn and How Children Fail. Holt was inspired by theSummerhill school (the school as a democratic community). Growing without schooling was a magazine that came out of this movement. I am surprised Stephens did not quote Illich’ Deschooling Society which will become a very important text in the next few years I believe (it is listed on the uncollege reading list I now see).
Unschooling is not the same as homeschooling. It isn’t isolating, Stephens learned in a group of 30 unschoolers who created their own learning experiences (“collaborative learning groups”). The basic idea is to trust people’s innate capacity to be curious.
When he didn’t go to college he was asked: “But what about beer and the girls?”. His standard answer to that question is now “I actually prefer guys and champagne”. Stephens has founded Uncollege (read the manifesto here) with the goal of decentralising education and has written the book Hacking Your Education through interviewing fifty people who have done something interesting with their lives without taking part in the traditional educational system.
Mike Lee- Macrometaengineering
Mike Lee talked about the creation of Appsterdam. Appsterdam is now 18 months old and Lee is the “mayor”. It is his attempt to create a tech ecosystem. In his talked he answered a few questions that I guess you could term macrometaengineering.
How do you attract entrepreneurs? You just have to better than the default (which Silicon Valley) and then you have to be easy to get to. One thing that is nice about Europe is the patent law. He quickly took a jab at patent law in the United States and how ridiculous it is to own ideas. Ideas come from zeitgeist, it is all about implementation.
How to create jobs? By making talented people and creating a technical labour surplus.
How to fund your company? It is incrediby easy to find money in the Netherlands. Check out le.mu.rs to see what he’ll be doing with his funding soon.
How to promote diversity? Very easy: stop discriminating and make sure that everybody is welcome.
How to open your data? How to keep your subsidies? How to resolve the crisis? Share the information with everyone in the world, please don’t care about borders.
How to build the future? Let’s figure it out if we are all fingers on the same hand. The future is ours to create.
I will have to take a closer look at Appsterdam as it seems like Lee has created a force for change out of nowhere.
Michael Schwarz – Re-Design for the Era of Sustainism
According to Schwarz we are in a new cultural era. To bring new culture into existence we first have to rename the world. So they came up with the word Sustainism (the new modernism: “less is more” is modernist, “do more with less” is sustainist) which is a lens to think about the world. Sustainist design is where connectivity (technology), sustainibility (nature) and community (people) meet. Everything is seen as interconnected and interdependent. Global goals are connected to local initiatives. Local is an ethical, aesthetic quality. Sustainism is not just the name for an era, it also is a movement and even an ethos. This makes sustainibility and social good the new drivers for innovation and design. Open source is the cultural operating system for this time. You are what you share (rather than what you have).
How can we design for sustainist qualities? And redesign the world? To summarize, you need to start with the following sustainist values in your design briefs and use them as key drivers for innovation:
- Connectedness – everything is connected
- Localism – Local as a quality
- Sharing – You are what you share
Also check out Open Sustainist Design.
Bas van Abel – If You Can’t Open It, You Don’t Own It
Van Abel started his talk with a picture from Occupy Wallstreet of a guy holding up a board saying: “Shit is fucked up and bullshit”. He is convinced that it is important to open up stuff because that allows you to understand the systems behind the stuff and that will enable you to take action.
Companies don’t like you to open up their things. Nintendo uses proprietary screws so that you can’t open their DS devices. Our “Electronic Anorexia” is a driver for thinner and thinner devices. These devices (e.g. the latest generation of Macbooks) are nearly impossible to fix yourself.
Van Abel then showed the problem with mobile phones and how they are produced. To solve this problem he is working on Fairphone an effort to bring a fairly produced smartphone to the market.
Anne Shongwe – Empowering Bottom Up
Shongwe from Afroes is working on a process that tries to inspire young Africans to re-imagine Africa. How do you move the mindset of young people from hopelessness to entrepreneurial and progressive? Mobile is the fastest growing media platform in Africa and has surpassed even radio in its usage. 73% of Africans have a mobile phone and this will be 85% by 2015. 450 young people in Africa have access to a mobile phone. Many organisations in Africa already use mobile technology to their advantage.
The mobile revolution is a social revolution for young people. Young people love playing games, so they’ve decided to create educational games. Their first game is Moraba a mobile game on the topic of gender based violence. They’ve put quite a lot of thought into how this works pedagogically.
Bonnie Shaw – Playful Communities and Urban Experiments
Shaw is dean of a chapter of the Awesome Foundation in Washington DC. She described herself through a Venn-diagram (a nexus between people, place and technology). The first few minutes of her presentation was completely conceptual and used words like collective individualism, aggregated, scale, disruptive, networks, local, etc. She completely lost me as she did not relate these themes or words to anything concrete. She then went on to talk about Snap-Shot-City as her introduction to social technology.
The Awesome Foundation chapters fund projects through $1000 grants that are scraped together by the chapter members. An example of a funded project is Petworth Jazz Project (Why is EVERYTHING called a project nowadays? Why isn’t this called a festival or a concert? I am starting a crusade with The New Vocabuary against the use of the word). I guess this is basically a localised version of crowdfunding.
Cesar Harada – Open Hardware for the Environment
Cesar asks the question of whether open source technology can help clean up or ameliorate our man-made natural disasters. He was in Kenya working at the iHub when the BP Oil Spill happened. Ushahidi was used to map the oil spill. He was then invited to MIT to work on oil spill clean up technology. They were working on long term, expensive and patented technology. Even though this was his dream job he decided to quit, because he wanted to make more impact on the short term. He connected to the public laboratory which was mapping the oil spill with balloons. He then focused on trying to clean up the oil spill with robotic sailboats.
He started Protei in which already a couple of engineering problems that came from trying to drag something heavy and still sail into the wind seem to have been solved. They created a robot boat with two steering rudders (front and back) and the ability to articulate itself. The boat is actually creating a whole new set of physics for sailing. This is community-generated technology: people from all over the world help to iterate this open hardware design.
He calls this way of producing “using an innovation network”.
Daan Roosegaarde – The Business of Soft and Hard Capital
Daan Roosegaarde runs an international design laboratory for interactive projects. He thinks artist nowadays have to be half priest (ideology, the vision to go somewhere) and half entrepreneur (the ability to make it happen). He showed some interesting projects humanising technology.
Things like Dune which is a set of fibers reacting to their environment:
Or Intimacy a dress that changes transparency based on how intimate you are with somebody (as measured by your heartbeat):
And a few other of their projects. This was easily the best talk of the day.
The designers of the festival created a small game to get people talking to each other: playing scrabble with the letters on your badge. See some of the results here. If any team needs an “E” (worth five points) tomorrow, just ping me.
I haven’t been blogging much about Moodle lately, but this news excited me very much, so I’ll do a quick write-up.
Moodle HQ has decided to move away from native mobile Moodle app development and will switch to developing with HTML 5 and the open source mobile development framework Phonegap. This will allow developers to work on a single codebase and compile a release for all mobile platforms simultaneously. The important part in the news item is this:
The app will be highly modular, and allow the community to contribute to development just like Moodle itself. [..] Although we will lose a little speed and smoothness in the interface when moving to HTML5, I think the idea of building up community effort around a cross-platform mobile client will far outweigh that and sets us up better for the long term. [..] The app will be licensed under the GPL. You are allowed to fork it and build your own custom apps if you wish. (Institutions may want to rebrand it and modify it for their own purposes).
This is the first open source project that I know of that has taken this approach. I’ve always found the way that the mobile space fragments development efforts irksome. I’ve also seen very few true open source projects targeting mobile technology. This masterstroke of Martin Dougiamas solves both of these problems. Once again he is at the vanguard of community based software development. His has my attention!
Update: I’ve now learned that this approach towards mobile started at CV&A Consulting, a Moodle partner in Spain. Kudos to Juan Leyva for coming up with Unofficial Moodle Mobile which will now drop the “unofficial” part!
The final themed session at Lift 11 France is about OPEN – What happens when barriers to innovation become drastically lower?. From the introduction:
The Internet has radically open innovation systems in digital products, content and services. Today, the same is happening to manufacturing, finance, urban services, even health care and life sciences. What will this new innovation landscape look like?
She starts her talk by showing how large Africa truly is. Ushahidi shares a heritage of openness with the Internet. Africa is getting connected fast and the costs of the connection keeps on dropping. Eventually this will change the rural landscape. Initially a lot of web 2.0 services where local copies of silicon valley services, but now we are starting to see services being developed for true local (check out iHub).
Mobile technology plays an important part. The coverage is getting better. In 2015 they expect to have 7.2 billion non smartphones and 1.3 billion smartphones in Africa. Mobile money is an innovation that is a third world first. More than 20% of Kenia’s GDP flows trough the mobile money system. It is transforming many (government) services: for example prepaying for electricity.
By making the tools open source, people can take the tools, use their own data and make it their own: it really lowers the barriers for people to use the technology. Ushahidi as a platform is now used for all kinds of use-cases that were never imagined. Crowdmap has pushed the number of Ushahidi implementations to over 15.000.
Of course there are challenges: the last mile stays difficult. Nothing is as big a showstopper as power black outs. She then goes on to critique Facebook as a walled garden for its lack of generativity. When there are closed walls around technology it becomes much harder to innovate (hear, hear!). So her advice is to bet on generativity and open source.
Homesense started with a blog post. She got a bit sick of the idea of the “smart” home. Every home is different. She thought it would be a good idea to give this new simple open technology to “normal” people without any specific interest in technology and let them use it in a creative commons way. She then went looking for people who were willing to get people to volunteer their home for experimentation. In the end they found 6 households in 4 countries.
So what happened? People were given a “homesense kit” based around the Arduino. The households worked with technological experts to create things that were useful to them, like a robot that would tell you when you left the toilet seat up, or a little map that would show you were the shared bike-hubs around your house had bikes available, or something that would turn off the light when there was enough light around the house.
Then suddenly the project received a cease and desist letter from a large manufacturer who has a trademark on the word “Homesense”. Luckily, after some legal advice, they could go on. Now they’ve been invited by the MoMa to exhibit their project in the Talk to me exhibition.
Open innovation is hard to do when you are an organization. It is very hard to do when you are a big business. Smaller outfits can do this much cheaper and get the results shared much more quickly.
Brazil is now the 5th largest Internet audience with only 38% penetration. A new digital middle class is coming up in Brazil and they are the most intense social media users in the world. Portuguese is the second most spoken language in Twitter and Brazil is the 2nd largest Youtube audience in the world. Why is this the case? Brazilians are social by nature. A global average social media user in the world has 120 network friends, in Latin America this is 176 and Brazil this is 230 friends.
What happens when you mix all these ingredients? You can get things like Queremos with five guys organizing concert by disintermediating all the people that are normally between a band and the attendee. It works like this:
Another example is how they used WordPress to invite consumers to really help in designing a concept car. The Fiat Mio concept car had 17.000 consumers bringing in their 11.000 ideas in about 15 months. It is fundamentally changing the way that Fiat Brazil wants to work going forward.
What are the 3 key learnings from this?
- A collaborative environment should never be based on anarchy. Leadership, stimulation, organization and ground rules are very necessary.
- It doesn’t mean that everyone interested in your cause will feel thrilled to collaborate effectively. Make room for all interested people.
- Even for the most collaborative cause, at the end, the motivation for any and every participant will be extremely individualist.
Jie-Eun Hwang and Yasmine Abbas are leading a workshop titled: Memory Feed: Reclaiming a Sense of Place through Mobile Augmented Reality. From their introduction:
With Mobile technologies, Augmented Reality (AR) entered a whole new phase. Mobile AR promises to enable in-situ activities and kinds of communications that allow people to solicit memories of places. Nevertheless, a series of mobile apps that simply overlay bubble icons on the camera viewfinder rather limit our imagination for what we could do with this (possibly) innovative, necessary, and if not useful channel of communication.
This session is held in a small sweaty square room in a building that has the boring non-appeal that only municipal buildings can have. After a struggle with both the beamer and the Internet connection (for security reasons nobody can go on the network…) we manage to get going.
The group of participants is diverse: there are some people who consult around social media or around innovation (e.g. Merkapt), there is somebody working in the research department of an office furniture manufacturer and thinking about the future of work and the workspace, there is a student who is building a web platform for managing student events, there is the CTO of Evenium, the app that is used at the conference and there is somebody who has started an organisation focused on urban memory as a way to improve the perception of the suburbs.
Jie-Eun is teaching in the department of architecture in the university in Seoul. Yasmine is also an architect, writing a book a neo-nomadism. They both focus on how to integrate digital technologies in the urban fabric. They are currently focused on mobile technologies, mainly augmented reality. How we translate our memories into digital media. Can these technologies be used to regain a sense of space when travelling through the city as a nomad.
Mobile Augmented Reality
Jie-Eun is part of a team developing an AR management platform for the web titled Cellophane funded by the culture/tourism ministry. One part of the project is mapping cultural expressions (like movies, drama, pictures, drawings and advertising) onto the city. Imagine being able to watch a movie and seeing a place you are interested in. You would then be able to visit the place either virtually or in real life. It can also work in the other direction: what movies are shot in the area? The tool comes with a nice admin interface allowing you to match the cultural expression to the physical space with a simple point and click interface.
They have the ambition to push beyond the current capabilities of apps like Layar. They overlay some icons and text on the camera view. For some reason it is quite difficult to use and doesn’t have a very good user experience.
What invisible elements can we reveal through this medium? What types of data would we like to get (that go beyond the obvious things like gaming and tourism). In small groups we prototyped a couple of ideas using a use-case template.
I worked with Catherine Gall, Director of Workspace Futures at Steelcase. We first thought about the potential for mobile augmented technology to help in never making the same mistake twice. This could be at the level of the individual, the organisation or maybe even larger concepts like cities. How come you make the same mistake on that tax form every year? Why do you go a second time to a restaurant that you don’t like. We reflected on how a sense of space could help you in memorize things. We finally settled on an idea titled Location based well-being analytics. Certain places (in the sense of locations, but also spaces), events and situations affect our well-being in a consistent matter (be it positively or negatively) without us necessarily being aware of that. Many companies our now designing little monitors that measure your body for things like activity/movement, calorie intake, blood pressure, temperature, sugar levels and more. In the future these devices might even measure some form of quantified emotional state. Some mobile technology could combine your (intended) location with the historical data of these devices to predict how the location will affect your well-being and give out recommendations. This could be useful for people with fragile health or people who are rehabilitating. Alternatively it could just help people become more aware of their own well-being and how the environment affects this.
Other groups had ideas like:
- Moody community: in a community you would have a wall where you would be able to see the mood of the community as it is aggregated by individual “mood” statements by the residents of the community. This could actually help build a community. Who would use this data?
- An augmented mirror that you can use to try on clothes in which you can easily change the colour or fit etc.
- Supporting professional teams during crisis with incredibly relevant and targeted information.
- Maintenance: the system would recognise the part you are working on and it would recognize the context of what you are trying to do. The system would then be able to overlay extra information on reality, including maintenance history, particular advice or the gesture that you need to do.
My personal open questions after the session
- All of the solutions assume that you are connected to the net for them to work. Can we afford to make this assumption or should we still explore ways of having the data that augments locally? Might there be other models? Mesh networked? Where the device would get the data from the environment on demand?
- Imagine a future in which everything you do is recorded in many dimensions (solving the problem of needing to capture your learned lessons). Would this help you in not making the same mistake twice? What kind of interfaces and experiences would be necessary to not only learn from your own mistakes, but learn from other people’s mistakes? How would you now a “lesson from a mistake” would exist? Would it need to be pushed to you?
- For current mobile performance support technology we usually think about location, direction, and maybe some RFID technology as “cues” to match the virtual content to reality. What other cues can be used sensibly? Light? Sound? Temperature?
- A recurring question for me in the last couple of years is whether we start lusting for a non-technology mediated experience of reality. Will we put a premium on experiencing something for “real”? Can you see a future where you have “Augmented Reality Retreat Zones”?
Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. This time we decided to write about what makes Goodreads a great website. First we sat together for an hour and used Gobby to collaboratively write a rough draft of the text. Each of us then edited the draft and published the post separately. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.
What is Goodreads?
Goodreads is Facebook and Wikipedia for readers: a social network of people that love to read books, full of features that readers might like. It allows you to keep many “shelves” with books that can be shared with other people on the site.
Here are some of the features (in no particular order) that make Goodreads work so well:
- The site is not only useful when you are a member. Even if you are not logged in it still is a pleasant site to read and browse for book lovers.
- It allows you to keep track of your own, yout friends and “the crowds” books. If you see an interesting book you can put it on your to-read shelf, if a friend reads an interesting book than he or she can recommend it to you.
- Statistics can suggest recommendations based on my shelves, reviews and friends.
- There is a distinction between friends (a symmetric relationship) and followers (an assymetric relationship).
- There is a book comparison feature: it finds the books you have both read and compares the scores you have given to those books.
- It is very easy to invite your friends into the site. You can put in their email address, or you can give Goodreads access to your webmail contacts (sometimes this is a questionable thing, but Goodreads isn’t to pushy (it doesn’t send out Tweets without you knowing it for example)).
- They have a great “universal” search box where you can search books on author, title or isbn from the same field.
- It makes use of Ajax in the right locations, allowing you to update small things (“liking” a review, noting what page you’ve reached, handing out stars to a book) without having to reload the page.
- The user profile page is related to the contents of the webservice: for example, it allows you to say who your favourite authors are.
- The site supports many different ways of viewing and sorting your shelves. You can look at covers or at titles and sort by author, by score, by last update and more.
- Before building a great iPhone app, Goodreads made sure their website had a great mobile version of their website. When you access the website with a mobile browser it automatically redirects to a mobile version of the website, so even if you are accessing the site with your Windows Mobile device you have a great experience.
- Not only is it very easy to put data into the Goodreads ecosystem, it is also very easy to get your data out again. You can download a CSV file with all your books (including the data you added like reviews, date read, your rating and the metadata about the book that Goodreads has added like the ISBN or the average rating). The smart import feature looks at an HTML page (e.g. an Amazon wishlist page) and imports all the ISBNs it can find in the source code of the page. Like any good webservice it imports files that are exported from their competition (Shelfari, Librarything and Delicious library).
- There seems to be an evolving business model. Initially there were only (onubtrusive) adds, but now they are starting to sell e-books, integrating this into the social network.
- Often when you read a book there are sentences or passages which really impress or inspire. Most of the times you then forgot these. Goodreads allows you to favourite and rank (and thus collect) quotes easily by author or by book. You can add and export quotes as well.
- Sharing your Goodreads activity to other important webservices is built in. There are integrations with Facebook, Twitter, WordPress Blogs and MySpace. Goodreads also provides embeddable widgets that you can put on another website (e.g. a box with the most recent books you have read). A simple integration allows you to instantly find a book that you are looking at in Goodreads in your favourite online bookstore. And of course there is the ubiquitous RSS.
- A site like Goodreads get is value from the data that its users put in. Goodreads allows this at many levels. There are trivial ways of adding information (i.e. saying you like a review by clicking a single link, allowing Goodreads to display useful reviews first), but there are also ways of adding information that take slightly more effort. For example, it is fairly easy to get “librarian” status which shows the site trusts their users. As a librarian you can edit existing book entries. A low entrance level is key to crowd sourcing. Another way to involve people is to allow them to add their own trivia that other users can try and answer in trivia games.
- It allows users to flag objectionable content.
- Goodreads has its own blog, keeping you up to date about the latest features and their direction.
- It has an element of competition, you can see how many books are on your shelf and how many books are on other people’s shelf, but there are more metrics: you can see who has written the most popular reviews, your rank among this week’s reviewers, or who has the most followers
- It has a great and open API. This allows other people to build services on top of Goodreads. The potential for this is huge (the very first Goodreads iPhone app was not made by Goodreads itself, but was made by a Goodreads enthousiast) and I don’t think we have seen what will be possible with this yet. A lot of the data that Goodreads collects is accesible through the API in a structured and aggregated form. It should be very easy for other book related sites to incorporate average ratings from Goodreads on their own pages for example.
- It is in continual beta and their design process seems to be iterative: it keeps evolving and adding new features at a high frequency like the recently added stats feature.
- It is easy to delete your account, deleting all your data in the process. This makes for complete transparancy about data ownership, an issue that other sites (Facebook!) have been struggling with lately.
- It has a kind of update stream which let’s you easily keep up to date with your friends, groups and favourite authors status.
- The service has ambitious and lofty goals: “Goodreads’ mission is to get people excited about reading. Along the way, we plan to improve the process of reading and learning throughout the world.” (see here). I do believe that this clear mission has led to many features that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. For example, there is a book swap economy built into the site allowing people to say that they own the book and are willing to swap it for other books. Another book lovers feature are the lists. Anybody can start a list and people can then vote to get books on the list. Examples of list are The Movie was better than the Book or Science books you loved. Another feature are the book events. You can find author appearance, book club meetings, book swaps and other events based on how many miles away you want these to be from a certain city or in a certain country. Of course you can add events yourself, next to the ones that Goodreads imports from other sites, and you can say which events you will attend, plus invite friends to these events.
How Goodreads could improve
As said, Goodreads is continuously changing, there are still some things that require some change in the right direction:
- Ocassionally the site feels a bit buggy. I have had a lot of grief updating the shelves of books using the mobile site with it not doing the things I wanted it do.
- It is not always clear what kind of updates are triggered by an user action. I am not sure what my friends see. Sometimes you find your Facebook Wall flooded with Goodreads updates because your friend found a box of long lost books in the attic which he entered in an update frenzy.
- Usability: Some features are hard to find. Like the new stats feature discussed above, you can only find it hidden away on the bottom left of a page in some obscure menu. Other features are hard to use, requiring many more clicks than are actually necessary.
- They could improve on localisation and on the translations of books. In your profile settings you can select your country, but you cannot select in which languages you are able to read books.
- The graphic design of the site isn’t top notch. When people initially see Shelfari, it might have more appeal just because it looks a tad better.
- In-app mailing or messaging systems are always beyond me. Goodreads also has an “inbox” where you can send mail to and receive mail from your Goodreads friends. I would much rather use my regular mail and use Goodreads as a broker so email addresses can be private.
Some thoughts on the process of writing this post
Gobby is a multi-platform text editor that allows multiple people to work on the same text file in realtime. It uses colours to denote who has written what.
This was an experiment to see how it would feel to work like this and whether it would be an efficient and effective way of working together. I thought it was quite successful as we produced a lot of material and helped eachother think: building on the point of the other person. It was helpful to do an initial draft, but it does require some significant editing afterwards. I thought it was interesting to see that you feel no compunction to change the other person’s spelling mistake, but that you feel less free to change the contents of what they are writing.
This time we were sitting opposite each other while writing. In the future it would be interesting (firewalls permitting) to try and do this over a longer distance. Then the unused chat-window might become more useful and important.
You can download the original Gobby file here (it requires Gobby to make sense).
Hopefully this post about Goodreads is an inspiration to anybody who tries to build a social network around a certain theme and remember: if I know you I would love nothing more than to be your Goodreads “friend”.
Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. For this post we agreed to create a design concept for a mobile Moodle application. The concept should include screen mockups. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here. This month we are delighted to have two guest writers writing about the same topic. Marcel de Leeuwe (read his post here) and Job Bilsen (his post can be found here).
Mobile applications have taken off. This is largely due to the trailblazing work that Apple has done with the iPhone and the App Store. If you have been watching my Delicious feed, you will have noticed that I too have succumbed and will be part of the iPhone-toting crowd (I will write more about me losing my principles later).
Nearly every web service that I use has a mobile application. Examples are Last.fm, Flickr, WordPress, Dropbox, NY times, Paypal and more, the list is endless. Moodle, the web application that I use most often, does not have a mobile app yet. There have been a couple attempts at creating themes that display well on a mobile (such as here). These mobile themes usually try to deliver all of Moodle’s functionality, which often limits their phone specific interaction and their user friendliness. Other applications use JAVA applications that gives people access to specific Moodle functionality (examples here and here).
It would be great to have a true mobile Moodle application. Here are some initial thoughts for a design.
The audience for this Moodle application would mainly be students/participants. I want the functionality to focus on things that are easily delivered on a mobile platform. I don’t think grading and reporting interfaces lend themselves well to a smaller screen. The things that people like to do with a mobile device are usually: seeing what has happened/is happening, plan and communicate. This Moodle application will enable the users of a Moodle installation to do exactly those things.
Getting rid of the course paradigm
Moodle is extremely course centric. I have always thought that this has some great advantages, mainly that all the learning is very contextual. Students, however, often have to “multi-course” (doing multiple courses at the same time). A mobile application should make the most urgent or current events, actions and resources bubble to the top. This requires the application to get rid of the course paradigm and show a personal page per user.
People that have used Moodle for a while might know of the “My Moodle” page. This page also tried to pull up the most relevant information for a particular user, but would still display this information on a course by course basis.
This application will consist of four main screens. Each screen has its own icon at the bottom of the screen that stays available at all times. Each screen could of course lead to other screens that take you deeper into the Moodle installation.
1. Recent activity stream
Facebook and Twitter have really taught us the use of activity streams. These pages display short status messages about what is happening in reverse chronological order. Moodle has had an activity stream since its inception: the recent activity block. This block shows what has been happening in a particular course. Examples are forum posts, work being handed in or materials being added by the teacher.
This screen will work in a similar way, but will include all the courses a user is participating in. I would imagine that each update on the screen would include a date and a time, would link to an extended version of the update and would include a user image if the update concerns another user, or an activity icon if it concerns a particular activity. The newest updates would be at the top of the screen and the user would be able to scroll down to see older entries (very similar to Twitter). See below for an example:
You would have to think about each Moodle module and decide what a status update would look like for that particular module. Some examples of events that could trigger a status update:
- A forum post is added to a course of which the user is a member.
- An activity becomes available (either because it was added or because it had certain time that it would become available, like the choice or assignment activity) or a deadline has passed.
- An entry is added to a database activity or a glossary that the user has access to.
- A topic or week has been made current by the teacher/facilitator.
- A message has been sent to the user.
- The user hands in work for an assignment, fills in a choice, starts a lesson, gets the results for a quiz or starts a SCORM object.
- A change is made to a wiki page that the user has access to.
These status updates could announce themselves on the home screen in a similar way to how the mobile platform shows that you have new email messages: by showing how many new updates are available.
2. Upcoming events
This screen is also an extension of existing Moodle functionality made course independent. Conceptually it is what you would see if you would scroll up on the recent activity screen. Upcoming events that can be displayed are:
- Anything that is in the user’s calendar.
- Activities that will become available or that have a deadline.
- Courses that will start and that the user is enrolled in.
This screen would look very similar to the “Recent Activity” screen as shown above.
3. Social: contacts, interests and messaging
A mobile device is used for communications and a mobile Moodle application should facilitate that. This screen is an alphabetical list of all the users that a student/participant shares a course with, combined with an alphabetical list of all the interests that a user has put in their profile and all the courses the user is enrolled in. See example:
Selecting a user will take you their profile page. This page will focus on the ways that the user can be contacted. You can message the user from here, call (or Skype) them, send them an email and click on the links to their external websites (a blog, Twitter, Facebook, etc.). See this example:
Selecting an interest or a course will apply a filter to the alphabetical list. It will now only show users that share this interest or this course. It might allow the user to contact all these users in one go (if this role has been given the permission for this capability).
4. Browsing courses, activities and resources
I really like a side scrolling drill down navigation (examples are the way that email works on the iPhone or the “Slider view” on Grazr). A mobile Moodle application should allow the user to navigate to activities and resources in their course by constantly drilling down. This can be done it two ways: course centric or activity-type centric. The application should probably support both.
The first screen shows a list of all the courses the user is participating in and below that a list of all the activity types that exist in Moodle.
Clicking on a course will make the previous screen slide to the left and display a new screen. The first option on this screen will be called “Course overview”. If you click on this you will see all the section/topic summaries, all the activities and resources and all the labels in their correct order (blocks are completely ignored in this mobile application). Below the course overview are links to the overview pages of each activity type. Clicking these will display all the instances of a particular activity or resource.
If you click on an individual activity or resource you will be shown that activity (again by making the screen slide to the left). What is shown here and what interactions are possible is dependent on the activity module. The minimum it would show is the title and the description. This would probably be the case for SCORM modules for example or for “upload a file” assignments. You would not implement a mobile SCORM player, nor will people likely have files for upload on their phone. The one activity that would benefit from being a bit richer would be the forum activity. It should be possible to follow and contribute to a forum discussion from the mobile Moodle application.
The (start of a) functional design that I describe above will certainly have technical consequences (not to write obstacles). Below some of my first thoughts:
- What platform? The nice thing about web applications is that you only have to develop them for one single platform: the platform that the server is using. Of course it would be possible to create a mobile version of a Moodle site, but this would negate some of the great things that a native application can do. We are now in the unfortunate situation that we have multiple mobile development platforms. The two obvious choices for mobile development would be an iPhone app and an app for Android. But what about people who use a Blackberry, or a Symbian or Maemo phone? I have no knowledge of how easy it is to port an Android app to the iPhone, but I do know that multiple platforms will be a reality in the next couple of years. You better write portable code!
- Where does the code live? It is easy for Facebook to create an iPhone application. They run a single installation and can have server-side code and client-side code to make it all work. Moodle’s install base is completely decentralised. That means that Moodle installations will have to get some code that will allow a client to talk to it. In the client you will then need to be able to say what Moodle installation you want to connect to. This poses a couple of questions. Will a mobile Moodle app require a special server module? Will Moodle 2.0 expose enough of itself to an external API to make a client like I describe above possible? Should one client be able to plug into multiple Moodle installations at the same time? I am not a software architect, so I would not have any answers to these questions, but they will need to be resolved.
- Performance? Moodle’s data structure is course-centric and not user-centric. Moodle currently does not have internal functions that deliver the data in a format that the Moodle client can use. I think that the query to deliver a recent activity feed that is cross-course and has the perspective of a single user is very complex and will create a huge performance hit on the server. Again, I am not an architect, but I would imagine that this requires a special solution. Maybe more push and less pull? More database tables? Server-side pre-caching? Who knows? I certainly don’t!
- Roles/permissions/capabilities? Any new Moodle client that uses existing Moodle data (as opposed to new modules) needs to be very aware of any existing capabilities. All of these need to be checked before information can be shown to the user. I am sure this has further performance implications.
- Online/offline? A lot of mobile applications cache their information so that a user can continue to use the application even if an Internet connection is not available (e.g. the New York Times app). Even though it might be useful for a Moodle application too, I wouldn’t put any initial effort into solving that problem. Smartphones that have decent application support function well in a context where there is persistent mobile broadband. It is therefore okay for the first version of mobile Moodle application to assume that it is online.
A note on prototyping/mockups
I used the excellent Balsamiq to create the mockups that go with this post. This easy tool delivers quick static results, although it lacks a bit of precision that I would like to have added. Moodle has Balsamiq integrated into the Moodle Tracker, making it trivial for anybody to add a user interface mockup to any issue. There are other tools that could be used to do iPhone prototyping. This blog post gives a good overview.
Continuing the dialogue
I would really like an application like this (or something similar) to come into existence. I look forward to working with other people with a similar interest (bored developers? Google Summer of Code students?). Let’s make this happen! Any and all comments are welcome…