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?

The best civic apps for Chicago

Finding people to test civic apps is no easy task but here are some of the best civic apps in Chicago, according to the Chicago Tribune:

Foodborne Chicago Many people don’t report food poisoning to the health department, slowing responses to outbreaks of food-borne illnesses. This service scans Twitter looking for anyone complaining of food poisoning and flags anything that appears to be legitimate and local. A real person reviews the flagged tweet and, if it checks out, sends a reply via Twitter asking them to report the poisoning to the health department via an online form. (Developers: Joe Olson, Cory Nissen, Scott Robbin, Raed Mansour, Daniel O’Neil)…

Spothole Do you see a pothole? If so, click “Spot a Pothole” and easily file a complaint from your mobile phone. The app then uses an algorithm to rank the potholes, allowing city crews to address the most critical ones in a given area. (Stefan Draht, Brett Schnacky)

Can I Bring My Bike on the Metra Right Now? Simple question. Simple answer. Plus additional information on bike parking around Metra stations. (Steven Vance, Francesco Villa)

Clear Streets A more muscular version of the city’s Plow Tracker. This site reports which streets have been cleared of snow and includes a “plow leader board” of most active trucks. (Forest Gregg, Derek Eder and Juan-Pablo Velez)… Type in your address and find out when your street will be swept. Register for an email, text message or calendar alert — or all of the above — to remind yourself to move your car to avoid a ticket or tow. (Scott Robbin)

Was My Car Towed? Supply your license plate number and find out whether the city towed your car. (Scott Robbin)

These could be very useful in a pinch. I get the idea that these apps are intended to help residents improve and understand the services in their city. At the same time, the apps listed by the Tribune seem fairly negative (potholes, avoiding tickets, making sure restaurants are clean, etc.) and giving citizens tools by which to complain about or track what the city is doing with their tax dollars. What about civic apps that help residents enjoy the city more? Perhaps this has already been taken by apps like Yelp. Plus, do apps like these take out the randomness of urban life or simply free people up to enjoy the city even more?

Website of the day:

Perhaps it is finals week that piqued my interest in this particular website: There is a lot of fascinating information on this site about college grading trends in recent decades. Yes, my own institution is represented on the site.

If this puts you in the grading spirit, you can try out The Grading Game app which one Wired reviewer liked:

I’m frankly surprised by how much I like The Grading Game. It is ultimately about grading papers and looking for spelling errors, but somehow the intense time limit, scoring mechanics and various modes wrapped around that seemingly bland premise make the game super addictive. And, as someone who does a great degree of text-editing, I suspect that this simple iPhone app is making me better at my job.

Not quite the same experience but it is an attempt to put grading through the gamification process.

Highlights from the Nielsen Social Media Report 2012

Nielsen just released the Social Media Report 2012 (more data here). Here are a few things to note:

Facebook remains the most-visited social network in the U.S. via PC (152.2 million visitors), mobile apps (78.4 million users) and mobile web (74.3 million visitors), and is multiple times the size of the next largest social site across each platform.  The site is also the top U.S. web brand in terms of time spent, as some 17 percent of time spent online via personal computer is on Facebook.

-More than 70% of Pinterest’s users are female.

-The top three reasons by far for why social networks users become connected/friends: know person in real life, interested in keeping up, mutual friends. This is more evidence that social networks are mainly about maintaining existing connections rather than creating new connections.

-Watching TV is increasingly linked to tablet, smartphone, and Twitter usage. Multitasking is alive and well and perhaps TV can be interactive after all.

There is also some fascinating data at the end about social media usage around the world.

A world where “the city talks back”

Taking part in a conference in Germany about megacities, sociologist Saskia Sassen makes an interesting comment linking technology and cities:

The effects of the digital revolution shape the urban space and the access of city dwellers to their environs. The focus here is on technologies that allow us, within and with the city, to communicate with buildings and objects. “The city talks back,” says the renowned sociologist Saskia Sassen, one of the most distinguished authors who has published on the sociology of urban development and shaped the term ‘global city’. Felix Petersen, who has recently triggered a trend with his opinion platform Amen, will get together with other innovators to discuss his visions of location-based services. A brief run-down of new technologies will be presented in the “Elevator Pitches” session. Raul Krauthausen provides a new kind of access to cities by way of his Wheelmap application.

I’m intrigued by the idea “the city talks back.” This could simply refer to material objects; city residents and visitors will be able to quickly see more about buildings and objects. For example, Google is working on developing maps of building interiors. Or perhaps all buildings will be equipped with Siri-like voices that can respond to basic questions. However, I wonder how much of this is really about creating another avenue for interacting with other humans in the city. Buildings don’t “talk” – even the artificial intelligence of today has to be programmed.

More broadly, this reminds me of Simmel’s early 1900s ideas about “the stranger” in the city and the general lack of intimate relationships. Through apps and new technologies, we may have more people to “talk to” or “interact with” but are these deep urban relationships or even helpful ones? Or is this just more clutter, another category of urban stimulation that leads to a more “blase” attitude (following up with Simmel)? I suspect Sassen is right that new technology will change how we see cities and the objects and people within them but I also suspect it will have a mix of positive and negative consequences.

Let’s just hope the city talks backs in forms other than advertisements…

Why sociologists should make their own apps

A sociologist who has made her own medical sociology app argues that her colleagues should be making their own apps:

My decision to make an app stemmed from two major reasons. First, I have long been interested in the ways people interact with computer technologies, and have published some research on this in the past.

More recently my interest has turned to health-related apps available for smartphones and tablet computers. I had been researching the various apps available for such purposes and had noted that many apps have been developed for teaching purposes for medical students.

Second, we have mobile digital devices at home that are very popular with my two school-aged daughters. I had noticed the huge number of educational apps that are available for children’s use, from infancy to high-school level. Some Australian high schools, including my older daughter’s school, have acknowledged young people’s high take-up of mobile digital devices and are beginning to advocate that students bring their devices to school and use them for educational purposes during the school day.

The relevance for tertiary-level education appeared obvious. I wondered whether many universities, academic publishers or academics themselves had begun to develop apps. Yet, having searched both the Android and the Apple App Stores using the search term of my discipline, ‘sociology’, I discovered only a handful of apps related to this subject for tertiary students. Nor were there many for other social sciences. There seemed to be a wide-open gap in the market…

My app is very simple. It is text-based only and has no illustrations or graphics, but there is provision for these to be included if the developer so chooses. Apps developed using this particular wizard are only be available for use on Android devices, but having looked at similar app makers for Apple devices I was put off by their more technical nature and the greater expense involved.

In just a couple of hours my app was ready. I had typed in over 25 medical sociology key concepts (for example, social class, discourse, identity, illness narratives, poststructuralism), plus a list of books for further reading, chosen a nice-looking background and paid US$79.00 for the app to appear without ads and to guarantee that it would be submitted to the Android App Store.

Three issues I could see with this:

1. How much demand is there really for such apps? I can’t imagine too many people look for sociology or social science apps. Of course, it is relatively easy to make so it isn’t like tons of time has to be invested in such apps (though there could be a relationship between the time put into an app and how engaging it is).

2. The assumption here is that people want to use these apps for educational purposes. Would this work? Can apps effectively be used for education

3. How much better is making an app than putting together a website?

I’m glad to see more sociologists venturing into new technologies but it is worthwhile to consider the payoffs and how they are really going to be used.

“Home is where the hub is”

A recent study looks at how being connected through the Internet and other gadgets at home changes what home is:

What the web has inspired, then, is a postmodern understanding of what “home” is: a de-physicalised, conceptual and psychological phenomenon that externalises its invisible meanings. And interaction designers recognise this: the web is another castle that the Englishman can live in, and he seeks to create virtual places that have as much effect on pride, self-esteem and identity as the bricks and mortar version where he sleeps…

I am constantly connected when I’m at home. It is my companion when watching a movie, it is my entertainment system when listening to the radio, it is my connection to the family and friends I speak with on VoIP. Sociologist Kat Jungnickel and anthropologist Genevieve Bell suggest that my over-networked experience isn’t unusual in Home is Where the Hub is? Wireless Infrastructures and the Nature of Domestic Culture in Australia: “Some read their emails and Google for news in front of the TV while others breastfeed while surfing the net. In the kitchen, they look for recipes or talk with friends via IM. In bed they write emails or shop on eBay.” The rooms once allocated for specific purposes have been co-opted by other (digital) tasks.

This isn’t always welcome. In one of Jungnickel and Bell’s case studies, a participant describes the conflicts that arise from home-multiplicity: “Sal tells of the congestion zone caused by the chameleonic characteristics of the kitchen table,” they write. “During the day it is her new computing space, and at night it is the social, cooking washing-up space for both of them.” Each online activity has imposed itself on our home-practice. We are experiencing a domestic transition as the web collaborates and competes with old “new” technologies such as the TV, the researchers argue. It “complicates” characteristics of the physical space.

We are adaptable creatures and will work within the confines of our existing homes to integrate this new creature into our lives. We have already made the web part of our domestic ecologies and we continually imbue it with a sense of place. Perhaps its malleability is why it has been so successful and why we are willing to bring this interruptive technology into our most intimate worlds.

In recent decades, commentators have suggested that Americans have retreated into their large homes and lost their connection to their communities. But this may be suggesting that while Americans may have withdrawn, they are still interested in being connected. However, this connection looks different than it has in the past. The connection now happens at the times of the individual’s own choosing, it is done at a distance, and it is unclear how much this translates into offline world action.

I don’t think we should be too surprised that the concept of home is changing. Our current understanding dates back roughly to the mid 1800s when homes were built with separate rooms to separate uses: sleep in one room, eat in another, cook in another, etc. Before that, homes were more multi-use as more people used their home for work as well as family life. It would be interesting to think about how the quick expansion of Internet connectedness might lead to new designs for homes or introduce interior spaces that enhance this connectedness. Already, we have more static gadgets that have been adapted, such as televisions including Internet apps, so why not dining rooms, bathrooms, and front porches plus back patios?

The first Apple sociology app?

I didn’t see this coming:

Wiley-Blackwell, the scientific, medical and scholarly publishing business of John Wiley & Sons, Inc., is launching its first mobile application in Sociology, accessible via iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch.

Wiley-Blackwell Sociology Spotlight is a must-have app for all Sociologists. It shines a powerful spotlight on Sociology, enabling you to instantly read all of the latest news and developments in the field. Whether you want to keep track of broad trends across the discipline or focus in on a subfield, Sociology Spotlight is an essential tool for your research and teaching.

A few questions:

1. Is there a market for this? It does appear to be free…

2. Might this set off an arms race among publishers to make their content available through apps?

3. The iTunes preview app page suggests certain articles have “video abstracts.” Is this the new wave of the future?

Free apps from the US government

Parade provides a list of smartphone applications that are free for download from the United States government. From the Parade list and the online list at, two of the useful and interesting options: Enter any food, medicine, or product to learn whether it has been the subject of a safety recall. [I’ve wondered how consumers are supposed to know whether an item is recalled or not. An app like this could be very useful.]

My Food-a-Pedia Type in any food to see how many calories it has and which food-pyramid requirements it fulfills. [Sounds like good basic nutrition information.]

I can’t imagine this app will get too much use:

Alternative Fuel Locator Looking for a tankful of bio-diesel? This app will show you the way to the nearest station. [Perhaps not enough bio-diesel users out there.]

And I’m not sure what users will think of these two:

FBI’s Most Wanted Browse a list of the country’s most dangerous fugitives and submit a tip from your phone if you spot one of the criminals. [Could be a way to kill time – or confirm one’s suspicions about the shifty guy on the subway.]

NASA App [Could be really cool – or a bunch of bureaucratic stuff.]

Not owning a smartphone, I haven’t spent any time browsing the application stores to see what is available. But if the government has jumped into the game, it sounds like we are well on our way to having many more apps…