Utilizing productivity software to schedule family life

Organize your family with Slack, Google Calendar, and Trello (among other options):

Asana said it doesn’t collect data on the various “personal-use cases” its software is put toward. But Joshua Zerkel, the company’s head of global community, says that in talking with people about how they use the product, he hears many say it comes in handy for nonbusiness purposes, such as planning a wedding or a move. When asked how Asana might be designed differently if it were intended for personal use, he said, “I don’t know that that much would actually change.”

“We think of Trello as a tool you can use across work and life,” says Stella Garber, the company’s head of marketing. “The example we had on our homepage for a long time was a kitchen remodel. On our mobile app the example was a Hawaiian vacation. We know humans have a lot of things they need organized, not just what they have at work.” (Slack declined to share any information about how people use its software, and Atlassian, which owns Jira, did not respond to a similar request.)…

Mazmanian says that these programs might be of particular value to households with two working parents, an arrangement that more children grow up with now, compared with a few decades ago. Without one adult in charge of the professional domain and one in charge of the domestic domain, there’s more coordination of who’s in charge of what—which is something productivity tools can assist with.

Perhaps the desire to streamline home life is also a product of how much employers ask of today’s knowledge workers. “I see the use of business software within households as an effort to cope with feeling too stretched at work,” says Erin Kelly, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and a co-author of the forthcoming book Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It. She says that the “escalating demands” of many white-collar jobs leave workers (parents or not) increasingly frazzled and worn out—so the same tools that systematize their workdays might appeal as a way to cut down on the time they spend organizing life at home.

There are lots of potential trends converging here including changing labor conditions, changing family life, the rise of productivity software, and the ubiquity of smartphones.

On one hand, this does not seem like a problem at all. Humans have a tendency to use all sorts of mediums in distributed cognition where we can offload our individual responsibility to a helping device or person. Think of making a shopping list: instead of having to spend the energy memorizing a list in our own mind, we write down the items on a piece of paper that we can then trust to have a record of what we were thinking. This new software takes advantage of new efficiencies and new devices to do something humans are used to doing.

On the other hand, the article suggests this software could harm authentic or idealized family life by turning it more into a business or organization rather than a loving group. What happens when partners or parents and children primarily communicate through this software? What if family life only becomes a set of tasks to accomplish (with helpful or annoying reminders along the way)? Where does the blending of work and home life end?

I am surprised by two omissions in this article:

-The amount of experience children in school have with such software that schools and teachers may use to help organize homework, projects, and online learning.

-The lack of specific software/apps aimed at families that could cater more to some of the concerns expressed or provide features kids and parents like.

Making carpooling in America great again

A scientist discusses the issues that need to be solved for Americans to voluntarily carpool in larger numbers:

Maybe carpooling apps should let drivers set clear terms about the kind of behaviors they expect and encourage in their car, says Glasnapp. Maybe they permit conference calls and snacking, or maybe they’d prefer friendly, food-and-phone-free conversation. (Or total silence!) Riders should have the option to choose specific types of in-car experiences, too, with the understanding that the lower cost they are paying to carpool comes with a different set of expectations than does ride-hailing.

Technology has simplified the logistics of the rider/driver experience, says Glasnapp, but that sometimes comes at the expense of control. Most carpool apps offer specific time brackets during which drivers and riders can schedule rides—for example, on Scoop, morning trips have to be solidified by 9 PM the night before, and evening trips by 3:30 PM the same day, and matches are made after that deadline. That clarity is nice, says Glasnapp, but it’s almost too inflexible, since the system penalized him for making changes afterwards, and didn’t notify him if his ride offer had been accepted until after the cut-off. On the other hand, Waze operates its carpool system at any time of the day that drivers are on the road, which can be somewhat chaotic for riders’ expectations, says Glasnapp. The best carpool app will find a balancing point between structure and flexibility…

Finding the sweet spot for payment might be the most elusive goal for a great carpool system. Each app Glasnapp tested had their own approach to setting prices and payments for passengers and drivers: On Waze, riders pay a price that reflects the federal mileage reimbursement rate of $.54 per mile; this money is transferred directly to the driver. Lyft took the approach of setting flat fares, where carpool drivers earned up to $10, and riders paid anywhere between $4 and $10. Scoop pricing follows a similar model, and it also partners with local employers to provide discounted trips for riders, Glasnapp says. So long as drivers are still getting their cut, that’s an attractive strategy for all parties.

Even if the mileage rate is attractive on its face, though, the length of the journey has to match up to the driver’s expectation of fair compensation. If you’re already driving 40 miles to work, a request from a rider who is 17 minutes out of the way might require a pretty healthy compensation for you to accept—more than, say, the $10-and-under that a standard Lyft or Waze trip paid. “I think there is a magic number for every driver based on amount of inconvenience,” Glasnapp says. This is also sort of a chicken-and-egg problem—if there were more carpool drivers on the road, they wouldn’t be receiving such far-flung requests. But a great carpool app will need to nail the (highly individual!) question of pricing, so that more drivers want in.

A few other problems I could imagine:

  1. The lack of personal space. Is there a way to design carpool vehicles where each person has this own compartment? This would cut down on the problems of differences in behavioral expectations and have the passengers and drivers not even interact or possibly even see each other.
  2. Can everyone who wants to find someone to carpool with? I’m imagining it would be tougher for those with irregular work hours or who live in certain locations (or have unique paths). Would this be seen as a penalty for certain people for circumstances that may be difficult to control?
  3. Is the answer necessarily an app?
  4. The article suggests Americans have done this twice before – World War II and the 1970s Oil Crisis. This could be reassuring …or not. Might it suggest that Americans will only carpool when circumstances really demand it?

Using smartphones to collect important economic data

Virginia Postrel describes a new app used in a number of countries to gather economic data on the ground:

Founded in 2012, the San Francisco-based startup Premise began by looking for a way to supplement official price indices with a quick-turnaround measure of inflation and relative currency values. It needed “a scalable, cost-effective way to collect a lot of price data,” chief executive David Soloff said in an interview. The answer was an Android app and more than 30,000 smart-phone-wielding contractors in 32 countries.

The contractors, who are paid by the usable photo and average about $100 a month, take pictures aimed at answering specific economic questions: How do the prices in government-run stores compare to those in private shops? Which brands of cigarette packages in which locations carry the required tax stamp? How many houses are hooked into power lines? What’s happening to food prices? Whatever the question, the data needed to answer it must be something a camera can capture…

The result is a collection of price indices updated much more frequently and with less time lag — although also fewer indicative items — than monthly government statistics. For Bloomberg terminal subscribers, Premise tracks food and beverage prices in the U.S., China, India, Brazil and Argentina, using indices mirroring government statistics. It gets new information daily; Bloomberg publishes new data twice a week. Premise tracks a similar index in Nigeria for Standard Chartered bank, which has made the aggregate data public. (Premise clients can drill down to see differences across products, types of retailers, or regions.) While more volatile than official statistics, the figures generally anticipate them, serving as an early-warning system for economic trends…

Premise has government clients, and it carefully positions its work as a complement to official statistics, as well as to the academic Billion Prices Project, which scrapes massive amounts of price data from online sources but can’t say what cooking oil sells for in a corner shop. Make no mistake, however: Its methods also provide valuable competition to the official data. The point, after all, is to find out what’s actually happening, not what government reports will say in a few weeks.

This is an innovative way to get data more quickly. It would be interesting to see how reliable this data is. Now it remains to be seen how markets, governments, and others will use more up-to-date information.

More broadly, smartphones could be used to collect all sorts of data. See previous posts on using the microphone and the use of additional apps such as Twitter and Waze.

New gadgets, apps want more location data from users

Location data is valuable and more new gadgets make use of the information:

Location-tracking lets developers build fast, useful, personalized apps. They’re enticing, but they come with tradeoffs: your gadgets and apps maintain a log of where you’ve been and what you’re doing, and more of them than you think are sharing that data with others.

It’s going to advertisers, mostly, so they can lure you into the Starbucks a block away or the merch tent at Coachella. It’s as creepy as any other targeted marketing, but most of us have come to accept that it comes with the territory. Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says it goes deeper. Your data might get sold to your credit reporting agency, which wants to know more about you as it determines your credit score. It might go to your insurance company, which is very interested in your whereabouts. It might be subpoenaed by the government, for just about any reason. Maybe none of that is happening. Maybe all of it is. There’s really no way for us to know…

Your phone’s ability to pinpoint your exact location and use that info to deliver services—a meal, a ride, a tip, a coupon—is reason for excitement. But this world of always-on GPS raises questions about what happens to our data. How much privacy are we willing to surrender? What can these services learn about our activities? What keeps detailed maps of our lives from being sold to the highest bidder? These have been issues as long as we’ve had cellphones, but they are more pressing than ever.

Another major trade-off that I suspect most users will make without much fuss in the coming years. The cynical take on the advantages for the user is that this is primarily about customizable marketing that can account for both your individual traits and where exactly you are. In other words, sharing location data will give consumers new opportunities. More consumerism! On the flip side, it is less clear how or when location data might be used against you. But, when it is, it probably won’t be good.

The broader issue here is whether people should have geographical freedom that is not known to others. This is increasingly difficult in today’s world even as we would celebrate the mobility Americans have within their own communities, country, and to travel throughout the world.

Waze app ruins tranquil Los Angeles streets near major highways

Drivers have flooded a number of residential streets near major LA highways thanks to apps that reroute drivers around congestion:

When the people whose houses hug the narrow warren of streets paralleling the busiest urban freeway in America began to see bumper-to-bumper traffic crawling by their homes a year or so ago, they were baffled.

When word spread that the explosively popular new smartphone app Waze was sending many of those cars through their neighborhood in a quest to shave five minutes off a daily rush-hour commute, they were angry and ready to fight back.

They would outsmart the app, some said, by using it to report phony car crashes and traffic jams on their streets that would keep the shortcut-seekers away…

There are some things that can be done to mitigate the situation, said Los Angeles Department of Transportation spokesman Bruce Gillman, like placing speed bumps and four-way stop signs on streets. Lanes could even be taken out to discourage shortcut seekers, but a neighborhood traffic study would have to be done first.

A fascinating confluence of driving culture and new technology. Now, no street near the major highways are safe from traffic!

It will be fascinating to see how the city responds to complaints from local residents. Having rush hour congestion on your residential road can make for quite a different experience. It is a quality of life issue – who wants to have bumper to bumper cars in front – and I suspect the residents are also worried about their property values. Yet, what about the concerns of drivers on highways like the 405 that handle over 375,000 cars a day? This is a classic stand-off between individual drivers and individual property owners – who should win between the prized American driver and property-owner?

The real solution here is to keep looking for ways to reduce the number of vehicles on the highways in the first place. However, such plans at this point in LA’s development require a long-term perspective and lots of money.

“New Apps Instantly Convert Spreadsheets Into Something Actually Readable”

Several new apps transform spreadsheet data into a chart or graph without having to spend much or any time with the raw data:

It’s called Project Elastic, and he unveiled the thing this fall at a conference run by his company, Tableau. The Seattle-based company has been massively successful selling software that helps big businesses “visualize” the massive amount of online data they generate—transform all those words and numbers into charts and graphics their data scientists can more readily digest—but Project Elastic is something different. It’s not meant for big businesses. It’s meant for everyone.

The idea is that, when someone emails a spreadsheet to your iPad, the app will open it up—but not as a series of rows and columns. It will open the thing as chart or graph, and with a swipe of the finger, you can reformat the data into a new chart or graph. The hope is that this will make is easier for anyone to read a digital spreadsheet—an age-old computer creation that’s still looks like Greek to so many people. “We think that seeing and understanding your data is a human right,” says Story, the Tableau vice president in charge of the project.

And Story isn’t the only one. A startup called ChartCube has developed a similar tool that can turn raw data into easy-to-understand charts and graphs, and just this week, the new-age publishing outfit Medium released a tool called Charted that can visualize data in similar ways. So many companies aim to democratize access to online data, but for all the different data analysis tool out on the market, this is still the domain of experts—people schooled in the art of data analysis. These projects aim to put the democracy in democratize.

Two quick thoughts:

1. I understand the impulse to create charts and graphs that communicate patterns. Yet, such devices are not infallible in themselves. I would suggest we need more education in interpreting and using the information from infographics. Additionally, this might be a temporary solution but wouldn’t it be better in the long run if more people know how to read and use a spreadsheet?

2. Interesting quote: “We think that seeing and understanding your data is a human right.” I have a right to data or to the graphing and charting of my data? This adds to a collection of voices arguing for a human right to information and data.

Measuring spirituality via smartphone app

A new app, SoulPulse, allows users to track their spirituality and researchers to get their hands on more real-time data:

It’s an “experiential” research survey inspired by pastor/author John Ortberg and conducted by a team led by Bradley Wright, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and author of “Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites … and Other Lies You’ve Been Told.”

Twice a day for two weeks, participants receive questions asking about their experiences of spirituality, their emotions, activities and more at the moment the text messages arrive.

Were they feeling satisfied, loved, happy, hostile, sleepy or stressed? Were they more or less aware of God when they were commuting or computing or hanging out with family and friends?…

SoulPulse participants will receive an individual report, reflecting their different temperaments and temptations. Ortberg said his personalized report has already changed his life.

See the website for the app here.

At the least, this could help researchers with more data. Many studies of religiosity rely on asking people about past events through surveys or interviews. The information given here is not necessarily false but it can be hard to remember too far back (thus researchers tend to ask about a short, more defined time period like the last week or month) and there is potential for social desirability bias (people want to give the response they think they should – might happen some with church attendance). Additionally, time diaries require a lot of effort. Thus, utilizing a new technology that people check all the time could be a nice way to reduce the errors with other methods.

While the reports might be helpful for users, could they verge into the gamification of spirituality?