Dev Project: Boston Bicycling Mobile App

Ruff Ruff

Your smartphone is a sophisticated, connected sensor platform. The City of Boston is rolling out apps to improve quality of life through its "new urban mechanic" initiative. Through apps like Citizens Connect, we can report graffiti, get streetlamps fixed, and (maybe) even automatically detect potholes. I am working on a project with Nigel Jacob, owner of the mechanic project. As a cyclist, I'm prototyping a mobile app that will make life better for bikers in Boston. If it looks good, his department may invest the time to release it as a production-quality system. This would be a great and low-cost way for the Mayor to follow through on his promise to make the city a "cyclist's dream."

Here's my question for you: What do you want? How can we help? What cycling frustrations could be solved with a mobile app? A few ideas to start the conversation:

  • Need: finding bike lanes. Help with route planning.
  • Frustration: cars parked in bike lanes. Submit photos of offenders? Automatically detect swerving into traffic when in a bike lane?
  • Need: automatic dispatch of police/ambulance after an accident. Detect sudden deceleration followed by extended immobility, message 911 with current location.
How can we use technology and the support of the city to make this a great place for cyclists?

Image licensed Creative Commons by abbyladybug.


Strategy and Stupidity

Corporate strategy is often presented as being like a game of chess. (Better yet, "go" or "pente".) You make your plan, seek to outwit the competition, and emerge victorious through superior execution. The dumber your competitor, the more likely you are to win.

I first became aware that this view was incomplete during my startup days. Our product category represented a tiny but disruptive opportunity to a much larger market. Arguing with or belittling competitors wouldn't just be childish, it could shake confidence in the entire nascent industry.

I am taking a B2B marketing class at Harvard this semester and we just saw a video of an executive who stated this wisdom concisely (I paraphrase):

It's terrible to compete against someone stupid, especially if they don't understand their own cost structure. They'll send themselves into bankruptcy and may drag you with them.

It's easy to recall industries poisoned by unethical competitors; energy trading will live under the shadow of Enron for a generation. I can't think offhand of any industries or markets that were destroyed by a stupid competitor, but imagine that it wouldn't be too hard to find one after some research. Are there any on your mind?


Language: Gendered Address

I am taking a German class this term in preparation for potential post-graduation employment through the MIT-Germany program. It's been fun to reacquaint myself with the language and I'm looking forward to it. There's one unusual wrinkle, though: our professor is a visiting scholar from Wellesley (a women's school). Some Germans have a verbal tick in which they insert "meine Damen und Herren" (ladies and gentlemen) into their speech for emphasis or to pause.

Our professor, on the other hand, repeatedly asks questions like, "Wo denken sie, meine Damen, dass Europa beginnt?" Or, "Ladies, where do you think Europe begins?"

Fortunately, the three Herren in the class think that it's more funny than bothersome.

Note: Photo courtesy of Brown University showing an anatomy class for women in 1900.


Product Review: Agloves

I never imagined that on a tech-centric blog I would be doing fashion reviews, but Agloves sit somewhere between "garment" and "tool." When I found myself on a walk manipulating my touchscreen with my nose, I knew something needed to change. Agloves are a liner-thickness glove threaded through with capacitative silver so that every part of the hand registers on the touchscreen. The fit is a bit strange, but they work as advertised.

Because the gloves are thin, I can do precision targeting like typing. Even hitting small countries in Lux DLX is pretty easy. I'm not sure that the full 10-finger response is all that necessary. I'd probably be happy with an index and middle finger. The real advantage to the sewn-in conductivity is that the lack of a conductive pad means that the gloves can be accurate and have a natural feel. Though not as warm as my nice Black Diamond skiing gloves, they seem insulative enough for most urban applications. They're not stylish, but I'll call them attractive enough that they don't embarrass me.

Unfortunately, these gloves are hard to find at brick-and-mortar stores so you may have to iterate to find your right size. I used the company's online sizing tool (which measures only the width of your palm) to order a M/L pair and had to exchange them for an XL. These gloves have very short-cut fingers, so the M/L pair left me with uncomfortable webs of fabric almost behind my knuckles. Even with the XL gloves, I wish the fingers were longer. Their customer service rep was helpful and friendly, replacing my gloves quickly and without fuss. I was a bit bothered that I had to pay for return postage. Given how personal glove sizing is, I would feel more confident buying with a Zappos-style prepaid shipping return label.

If you want to check your mail during the winter, these will get the job done. I wonder if this will start to become an expected feature in most gloves by next year.