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Apple Watch – Internet of Humans

Published in Apple, Technology

The wristwatch was an invention of convenience for extreme conditions. Previously the pocket watch provided an elegant and portable mechanism for discerning the current time. However increasing complexity of military maneuvers in the 19th century and more civilly and popularly with the advent of planes, pilots wanted precise time measurements without getting in the way. So ingeniously they strapped the watch to their wrist in order to free the hands to fly the plane yet still provide quick access to time.

Apple Watch CoffeeOver more than a hundred years, the wrist watch had become as much a mechanism of fashion as information. It is maintained as the only general cultural acceptable display of machinery on our bodies. From digital devices in candy machines to bejeweled masterpieces, the fundamental concept of a watch is global.

However the utility of personal display of time is stagnant and arguably antiquated. It is difficult to avoid seeing the time displayed with nearly ever glance to a wall, building, or device. Yet alternative wearable devices have attempted to emerge into consumer mainstream for decades. Often cumbersome, complicated, and limited, no amount of marketing has sustainably become part of our wardrobe.

Who needs pants?

A survey found in 2014 that people perform over 220 tasks per day on their phone and carrying one more often than they are wearing pants. There is also the emerging preference of current tech versions over trendy clothes. The handheld window to the web and our digital communities found a visceral niche in our psyche that dramatically altered our behavior.

Like our aviator predecessors, the concept of a hands-free, glance-able information display felt right. While the underlying technology available is tremendously complex, when it comes to our bodies we are reticent to display or deal with complex and awkward devices.

So when it comes to expanding technology out of our pockets and laptops it makes perfect sense to adopt acceptable form factors and instead transparently transform the interactions we have with these objects.

Fashionable Cyborgs

While a smart phone is something that carried with us nearly constantly, a smart watch has the unique and paradigm altering position of becoming part of my biology. Smart Watches are a watch only in shape. To consider them as a timepiece is a gross misconception. A smart watch is a network-connected, sensor-laden, interactive computer which is always visible and constantly in touch with my physical body.

At any moment it measures my heart rate, temperature, motion, skin galvanic, salinity – as well as the external environment including light luminance, light direction, air temperature, humidity and sound.

These data are then captured, connected, and streamed to mobile and remote processors. This is our first, subtle step to cyborg. So the question becomes, what do we want to do now?

Personal Big Data Device

I rarely want to know What time is it?

Rather I want to know How much time until my next event? Time is merely data, what I want is information. The conversion of time data requires balancing my schedule, current location, transit, pending tasks, and a myriad other factors. Computers, and more recently smart phones provide tools for balancing all of this data and providing alerts or suggestions based on our preferences. However these devices can afford to be verbose in their management and interaction. We immerse ourselves into the action of using them in order to extract information.

By contrast, wearable devices like smart watches are antithesis to this immersion. They must instead by passive – raising only relevant information in the appropriate context that balances time, location and urgency. I permit this device to live on my body but the requirement is that it must be a good citizen and behave itself. Failure is banishment.

To succeed, wearable devices must become Big Data Devices. They must capture and process huge amounts of data in order to discern the small, highly relevant bits of information that require my human awareness and intervention. They must really be smart in truth, not merely in name.

Internet of Humans

There are tremendous opportunities for smart devices. Consider that smart watches have a constant monitor on my current health. I don’t care about my current heart rate – but I do want to know if over the past four months a heart arrhythmia is detected and I am notified to contact my physician. In fact, all historic heart data can be sent ahead and used as part of the diagnosis.

Heart Rate

What if a smart watch could detect a heart attack and automatically send an alert to emergency response including location and other important health and contact information?

Apple in particular is clearly signaling their intent on this direction. They are providing frameworks such as HealthKit and AirStrip as well as more mundanely Home Automation, location, and others in order to encourage innovation of domains while they offer the platform of human bodies pumping out data and attention.

Watch Apple’s WWDC 2015 keynote to see how they are building predictive analytics into their software. Your iPhone will be aware that each morning about 8am you go for a run and listen to particular genres of music. So as you head out your door and start your workout an appropriate album starts playing and your fitness tracking app starts logging.

Consider that applied to home automation including thermostat, lights, security system – or purchasing behaviors through Apple Pay that correlate to your activity and health – or even restaurant venue quality measured through ambient consumer devices that are on everyone’s wrist throughout the day.


Five years ago, Apple acquired a company called Color. There was much derision due to the pre-launch nature and cost of the acquisition. Color’s business was using every sensor on a device in order to capture, share and replay the entire environment around a person. Carried to it’s end, with sufficient full coverage from every digital device throughout the day across the world – they were inventing a form of Time Travel. Not the teleportation kind – but the ability to replay in full clarity, from any vantage point, any previously recorded event and navigate through as an observer. Much like Microsoft Photosynth.

However a phone is often in your pocket or a bag – muffled by fabric, data suspect due to mixed environments, handling, and visibility. Instead, these devices are emerging into the light and given prominence – and most vitally, access – to the world, to the web, and to our physical beings.

The future is not an internet of things, it’s an Internet of Humans.

Professional Civic Engineering

Published in Government, Technology, Web

“Unruly Nature”

Roads are particular engineering feat that deeply affect our regular lives yet pass by largely unnoticed. So effectively designed and implemented, we typically only notice them through relative minor, but annoying, failures such as potholes or flooding. Periodically, a major catastrophe reminds us the nature and importance of these infrastructure components and the imperative to design well, maintain regularly, and replace when necessary.

There are extremely well established practices for the design of roads, bridges, and nearly all physical infrastructure that compose our built environments in cities and communities. Centuries of practice, wisdom and science have been boiled down to codes and standards that prescribe the design of a road. Civil engineers rarely have the opportunity to truly design a road; more often they receive guidelines to be accomplished based on traffic volumes, load limits, environmental conditions, and available materials. Using processes of checklists, tables, and formulas, they crank through these to determine the basic characteristics of bed depth, width, rebar size and density, curb heights, etc.

Bridge Blueprint

At the beginning of the 20th Century as expansion thrived across the western United States, government agencies were dealing with a multitude of varied permits, maps and engineering plans for new infrastructure. A land surveyor, having just started as a state engineer of Wyoming in 1903 “was immediately confronted by the unruly nature of engineering and land surveying in this vast, largely undeveloped state where hungry prospectors and developers were rushing to gain access to state water for irrigation purposes.”

To address this issue, they developed the National Society of Professional Engineers and the Licensed Professional Engineer.

A century ago, anyone could work as an engineer without proof of competency. In order to protect the public health, safety, and welfare, the first engineering licensure law was enacted in 1907 in Wyoming. Now every state regulates the practice of engineering to ensure public safety by granting only Professional Engineers (PEs) the authority to sign and seal engineering plans and offer their services to the public.

Qualities of a Professional Engineer

PE StampThe Professional Engineer, or PE, is a certification that requires practitioners to prove their capabilities to design within standards, abide by a code of ethics, and have the experience and mentorship of another PE. After at least four years as an active engineer working on projects and passing a rigorous proficiency test, people are then qualified to approve engineering projects.

Today there isn’t a road, building, bridge, or airplane built that has not met with the approval and stamp of a PE. As such, the engineer is putting their name and qualifications on the line that the design and construction meet industry standards and is reliable enough for the public to safely use. This responsibility is important to ensure that our local and national infrastructure incorporate the long history of engineering wisdom to protect safety and ensure operation.

  • Only a licensed engineer may prepare, sign and seal, and submit engineering plans and drawings to a public authority for approval, or seal engineering work for public and private clients.
  • PEs shoulder the responsibility for not only their work, but also for the lives affected by that work and must hold themselves to high ethical standards of practice.

Open Civic Engineering

As I mentioned in my previous post, the government information architecture is a new type of civic infrastructure that citizens and communities increasingly rely upon. Through web and mobile applications, news feeds, and online forms we use the internet as a primary tool for engaging with city services. Fortunately API’s and other open information architecture developers can create unique and novel applications to improve community livelihood, visiting tourists, and growing business opportunities.

However, beyond novel applications, as a civic technology community we are now building new tools that support basic services such as 311, housing, emergency response and safety. If these services are an integral part of our society, should we now expect the same level of quality and stability we do of our roads and buildings?

Recent history is replete with application contests, prototype apps, local civic hacks, and even startup or large-scale companies that built technology that did not sustainably scale to the region it was meant to serve. Is this something to be expected or should we be developing a code of conduct and patterns by which we guide and even enforce quality and long-term maintenance of this new class of infrastructure?

Civic Imagination

“The Street finds its own uses for things— uses the manufacturers never imagined.” – William Gibson

CrisisCommons HackingThis is not meant to curb the surge of energy and innovation that has also entered government through the rapid pace of technology development. The potential for new ideas to quickly emerge and evolve can dramatically improve civil society across every level of government. If government is the platform, then it is imperative to leverage this platform to build applications into the hands of real users. Government serves the long-term requirements of citizens but technology has the capability to address emergent needs and interfaces. By contrast we’ve likely all experienced attempting to use a government website that states our browser is ‘too new’ and may not work with the application.

So we need to balance this unmitigated rush with consideration for the impact and expectations it will have from these very real people with real expectations. What is a good balance between “cowboy coding” and “stagnant kludge”.

Towards a code of conduct

Fortunately, I believe that the field of open citizen development is maturing. Organizations such as Code for America, Sunlight Foundation, OKFN, and agencies like the new 18F and UK GDS provide the forms to professionalize ‘civic hacking’ and develop codes of conduct for volunteers and companies that can address the issues noted above.


(All the jokes aside) using standards is the first necessary step to an operational and sustainable civil application. This means more than just JSON (which is an encoding) and more about the actual schema and structure. There are numerous existing standards, and increasing a set of commonly used and understood standards. Civic organizations should develop guidance on the baseline required standards and the optional additional standards to use.

In some case it makes sense to develop or evolve standards – but consider how this impacts existing tools and how to build community and adoption with new and existing applications.


Few things are better than real experience. The wisdom gained from successes and failures provide the best guidance for building reliable applications. Each day a new developer joins the community, excited to build tools for themselves and their neighbor. Beyond simple “how to program” we should be providing the mentorship on technology architecture, testing, usability, government processes and accessibility. The Professional Engineer requires at least four years of mentorship and their approval for your acceptance of the license. What is the equivalent “merit badge” to demonstrate the acquired skills to appropriately design, develop and operate these technologies?

Operational Plans

We build applications with the awareness that they have a lifespan. We will conceive, launch, grow and finally retire everything that we build. Nothing is eternal. At the beginning we should design into our applications the long-term maintenance and final transition plan. What is the plan to scale or grow to meet new requirements? How does data gathered be preserved and migrate to the next generation application so that we don’t lose years of valuable information and history. These don’t need to be the ultimate plan, but should include the consideration and plan that will evolve as much as the application does itself. But it is a maturity to plan for that final obsolesce on day one and as part of the entire engineering design.

TechCamp Ramllah.jpg

TechCamp Ramallah – mentoring the next generation of Civic Engineers

Today, anyone with a computer and a bright idea can build an application to improve the lives of citizens. As a community, we should work together to ensure their idea meets the needs of those citizens and can grow to become part of the broader civic technical platform. If you’re at this week’s Code for America Summit I would love to chat about this topic – or feel free to reach me directly here, on Twitter or via email.

Desire Paths to Open Data

Published in Government, Technology

Last week I made a quick statement sharing my concern for civic organizations promoting ETL – Extract Transform and Load – of open data instead of developing APIs. I felt it warranted a more thorough response than the terseness of microbursts.

Desire Lines and Road Surfaces

Walk through most parks and any college campus you will quickly notice that dirt worn pathways that connect between the sidewalks indicating pedestrian shortcuts. These desire lines indicate an initial and repeated optimization that lay outside the paved paths. Often these ad-hoc networks are a type of ‘footstream’ that are adopted and paved – or they are left to individual use, muddy in rain and undocumented or supported through groundskeeping. At scale this often explains entire city and county or even national road networks that started as ‘cowpaths’ and through continued and growing usage became official infrastructure – roads and highways – which are relied upon as a matter of business.

Desire Paths - Virginia Tech - DigitalGlobe.png

This road network is the infrastructure that government develops and promises to support as a necessary mechanism for citizens to build communities and businesses to operate commerce. Information infrastructure is the next generation that government is developing which increasingly becomes the relied upon and required tools for community and commerce. Tim O’Reilly has referred to “Government as a Platform” which means that we must be able to rely on these services as a durable backbone where which we build our numerous and diverse applications.

Opening Data: Prototype or Infrastructure

Open data started as simple file sharing. In my own city the data catalog was a large and easy to read list of datasets with metadata, links to common formats, and updated dates. Through a series of public contests, developers used these file downloads to build some compelling applications to highlight the future of Government IT. In 2008 Apps for Democracy was (link dead) and (link dead) and again in 2009, Apps for America winner was (n.b. link is dead).

It should be apparent that these contests and applications were interesting desire lines that did not provide or sustain a platform of information which citizens could rely on. Albeit just simple examples, they are indicative of the tendency to build simple one-time applications which unfortunately miss that next step of becoming part of the platform they seek to improve. I’ve heard similar examples from other cities where civic hackers created well-meaning and well-built applications but that sit so far outside the existing government operations that they require continued manual maintenance by these unpaid volunteers with the common outcome that the service stops updating (maybe while even still operating, arguably a worse condition than simply shutting down).

Unfortunately, even the original data catalog has slowly atrophied. Based on my own experience when looking for more recent crime data (the data catalog stops about September 2013) I learned that the internal system was being migrated and the transformation process had faltered and it just wasn’t a priority to get the system back online. It was too removed from their actual job of analyzing and responding to crime to make a separate feed available with any defined timeline.

Federal Highway Intersection.jpeg

Which is a stark reminder that despite the amazing capabilities technology can deliver, Government is foremost responsible for serving people, not serving technology. Everything it does in the end is to serve the communities that elect, fund, and generally are employed by, these governments. When most civil engineers are designing roads they don’t apply grandiose design aesthetics and creativity. They pull open their codes & standards, determine the appropriate concrete mixture, depth and rebars based on specs, and get to work developing the road that fits the expected and reliable operations that citizens need.

Operational Open Data is Sustainable Open Data

There are numerous studies, reports, case studies and general community practice have made the case that open data has a great potential benefits to civilian and business communities. Not least of which is the ability for government agencies to more easily share data between one another in addition to improving business efficiency and consumer decision making.

Government has a difficult and extremely important job. As an entity, it is not enamored with new techniques or formats. Attempting to create unidirectional bifurcations of the data create strain which will eventually give way when there is any pressure: time, fiscal, or personnel. New technologies need to understand these processes and costs in order to align themselves if they are to ever become part of the government platform.

For open data to move from a shortcut to part of the stable infrastructure, we need to design it from the beginning to be practical, sustainable and ultimately operational. Open data needs to be the way government operates, and it needs to be part of the living systems that manage and process the data as part of day-to-day business.

To the original question, generalized techniques such as ETL – extract, transform and load – have tremendous flexibility to explore new paths and opportunities. By enabling freedom to explore applications, new formats, and communities, government can observe and understand these desire lines. It can then make the decision if these paths become part of the supported network or if they indicate a necessary redesign of the large system to accommodate these concepts. Personally I’ve seen, and built, many ETL tools and community applications that worked on the outside of government. While fast moving an extremely agile, they ultimately are untenable to provide ongoing and durable platforms for information access.

By comparison we should be encouraging and working directly with government technical staff to specify and prototype API – application programming interface as they provide an excellent mechanism for this prototype to adoption. By developing an external interface to a service the provider is making a contract with end-users that is independent of the implementation details. This enables a developer to use their tools of choice with the intent that it could be rebuilt within government infrastructure while maintaining the promised interface that applications already rely upon. And finally like the observing the increasing depth and width of a dirt path the measured analytics behind and API help prioritize incorporation and operationalization.

Exemplar of this has most recently been the DCAT distributed catalog specification. Neither new nor novel as far as federated data catalogs are concerned, it was an API that was created in conjunction with technologists and government agencies and adopted independent of any technology implementation that is now poised to easily share links to data between numerous national and local government agencies, all in the public. Instead of building more data harvesters, an API means that anyone can both participate in production as well as usage of the open data however best fits their needs.

Desire to Collaboratively Craft

Perhaps the most exciting thing I have observed in my six years living in DC and watching the Open Government movement surge has been the positive growth and excitement of people within government to actively and publicly collaborate. More than merely publishing a catalog and running a competition, government representatives are eager to talk about ideas, share code and data, and hear where they can open their infrastructure for these types of creative developments.

While much of the commercial web is becoming ‘appified’ (and often eschewing access via common or open APIs), perhaps this is one case where it’s superb the government moves more slowly and is just now entering the time of the programmable web. For many of us who volunteer our time and expertise hoping to improve the civil societies in which we live, the best thing we can do is work closely to advise and create the best platform possible.

The Fourth Screen

Published in Technology

People viscerally engage with their personal technology devices. Recent studies indicate that we spend 6.5 minutes of every hour awake with our phone, and even more time than we do with our partner. Anecdotally I have heard that we have mobile in our hand more often than we are wearing pants.

Fortunately we adapt. At least in my experience etiquette now precludes phones being left on tables during meals or friends reading during a conversation. We modify our behavior to selectively utilize and then put away our technology. Send that message and the device is then relegated back into the dark, invisible recess of our pockets or bag.

iPhoneBook.pngWhat made mobiles initially so pervasive as information access devices was that they were prevalent, but more importantly non-invasive. Unlike a laptop which creates a physical perceived wall between the user and public – a phone masqueraded like a hollowed book as a normal device in which a person could hide the internet. This cloak faded as people acculturated the new interfaces.

Displays continue to shrink and conform. The Kindle broadly introduced the concept of a screen that performs as a book, and little else – affording an acceptance much as someone reading the paper. We now have the emergence of a new paradigm of social device interaction.

Fourth Screen

In the early 20th century, at the birth of aviation pilots found it precarious to operate their aircraft while using pocket watches to plan flight paths. As a result, wristwatches were created to enable pilots to quickly and constantly monitor the time without removing their hands from the flight stick. This new heads-up type display became extremely popular over the following century until it was in fact replaced by the aforementioned mobile phone.

9580161610_1eb56845cf_m.jpgBut the wrist-watch again has the opportunity to replace our pocketed phones and provide us with a heads-up interface to our connected devices. The recent Pebble Watch displays incoming messages, calls, and can even be extended to call to various web services for weather, delivery information, and location.

This is not entirely new. I had a DataLink watch in 1995 that wirelessly synchronized to my computer via a mesmerizing flickering display. These smartwatches, dating back to 1972, have iterated through popular and usable formats but, like the early smartphones or a web desktop required several cycles to truly establish.More recently Samsung released their Galaxy Gear Watch and you have been able to wear your iPod Nano as a watch for a few years. There are rampant rumors that Apple is working on a Watch.

Google Glass is the harbinger of ocular augmentation that directly overlay on our visual field. There already exists a backlash over the obtrusive glowing screens and the concern if someone is paying attention to you, referencing something, or even photographing you; much to the chagrin of nearby people .

Ambient Awareness

Connected watches and other wearable devices offer a larger opportunity for ambient awareness. Our sensor-laden mobile phones, replete with microphone, light sensor, accelerometers, and GPS, are enclosed in dark caves of our pockets; missing so many contextual clues.

By contrast our wrists remain exposed – constantly dappled by the light, reverberating from the punctuated sounds, sensitive to air temperature changes, visible to wireless signals, and even experiencing a wide range of motions from walking to waving, shaking hands, and opening doors.

d119772edbe3756052ca37ad125f03dd.jpegAs a highly-ambient information display, the watch offers an unparalleled platform. Consider also that Apple bought Color, a team experienced with multi-sensor fusion and device content distribution and a future of integrated contextual passive alerts with casual interaction appears imminent.

Surreptitious Engagement

In the end, computing is becoming ubiquitous, pervasive, and non-invasive. We accept new technology with its foibles and obligations but we ultimately desire it to blend into our periphery where we can always engage, but never interfere.

Fortunately it is still about the human interaction, even if we get a little machine help in the process.

Codename Farewell or Clone at your Own Peril

Published in Design, Technology

Buran space shuttle/></a>Last week <a href=Aaron and I were discussing how the web facilitates inspiration and sometimes even copying of other sites or applications.

This is a positive outcome of open access that can create evolutionary improvements. However in my experience I have also seen people clone an interface where they missed the larger context of the interaction, or even worse they cloned something that was internally known to be a quick hack or incomplete solution that was delivered to meet a deadline or as the first phase of a multi-phase story that was never completed.

Buran and Enterprise

This reminded me of the fascinating history of the U.S. and Russian space programs. During the space race of the 1970′s and ’80′s the Russians were known to be accessing the unclassified engineering plans for the upcoming Space Shuttle. While this was a necessary, and arguably a greater good to science and industry, the US program did not want the Russians to beat them to the delivery of a reusable launch vehicle.

I proposed using the Farewell material to feed or play back the products sought by [the Soviets], only these would come from our own sources and would have been ‘improved,’ that is designed so that on arrival in the Soviet Union they would appear genuine but would later fail. U.S. intelligence would match Soviet requirements supplied through Vetrov with our version of those items, ones that would not — to say the least — meet the expectations of that vast Soviet apparatus.

From “How the Soviets stole a space shuttle”. And apparently this ploy was successful: “Soviets have ablative material in their elevon gaps, just like we did. We fooled them and now use tiles in the gaps.”

Receiving inspiration, and even copying the aspects, of other applications is clearly an effective means to jumpstart features. However this should not preclude your own diligence in engineering and design to ensure you have appropriately incorporated these concepts for an effective, and operational, means.