Tagproduct design

Fisherman’s IoT

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We spent a week in Anstruther, Scotland for an #OpenIoT design sprint organized by Mozilla and the University of Dundee. Here are some thoughts reflecting on our work there.

The Reaper is a traditional fishing vessel from Anstruther, Scotland. Built in 1902 as a sail boat, and retrofitted with an engine 14 years later, it continued its career as an active fishing boat until the late 1950s. Now the Reaper is a museum boat (museum’s Reaper page), maintained by the Scottish Fishery Museum in Anstruther.

I believe we can learn quite a bit from boats like the Reaper for the way we design contemporary #IoT systems, services, and products.

Learning about historic boats
The Reaper’s deck. More specifically, the Reaper’s capstan.

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Understanding the Connected Home: Who has root access to your home?

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Understanding the Connected Home is an ongoing series that explores the questions, challenges and opportunities around increasingly connected homes. (Show all posts on this blog.). Update: As of Sept 2015, we turned it into a larger research project and book at theconnectedhome.org.

Your apartment is yours alone, and unless you share the key with someone, only you have access. Right? But that may be about to change: With connectivity come power struggles and access & rights management as well as security issues.

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Smart appliances & consumer priorities

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The other day I ordered a new washing machine. Our old one had broken down, mid-wash, and the cost for the repair would have been out of proportion. So I quickly checked a few reviews and settled on a new one, ordered it online to be delivered a couple days later and was done with it.

Yesterday it occurred to me – 9th of April is Internet of Things (IoT) Day, you see – that it never even crossed my mind to check for a smart, connected washing machine.

The Internet of Things is on my mind every single day in work and peer discussions. I have a conference about it (ThingsCon)! And still, not a single thought about a connected washing machine.

Habit? Maybe. Was I in a hurry to replace the old machine? Certainly. But mainly I think it’s a matter of priorities, of actual problems to be solved. It’s just not currently important enough as an issue.

As the smart folks over at BERGCloud have demonstrated, a smart washing machine would be very useful and nice, if done right:

 

Cloudwash: the connected washing machine from BERG on Vimeo.

 

But this got me thinking about solutionism, and how many IoT products currently are solutions looking for a problem, diluting a field that’s hard to grasp for consumers to begin with.

Also, I started a quick search for current connected washing machines. Turns out quite a few brands do offer smart machines right now. But I dare you, right now, to try to figure out details for, say, a Miele smart machine. It’s impossible to navigate and figure out online what’s going on. After some embedded, hard to read, PDF-ish magazines with praising connectivity in general, I gave up. It almost seems like they aren’t even trying to communicate their offers in the field.

Add the relative longevity of household appliances and connectivity isn’t such an easy sell.

My laundry, for better or worse, will be washed without smartphone for a while to come.

Startups: If you want to earn money, get your invoices right.

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International rollout is hard for startups. There are complex, tough questions to sort though: legal regulations, cultural differences, language and interface barriers to name just a few.

And then there are issues that are really, really easy to fix. Those shouldn’t get in the way.

One of them is invoicing. There are some questions there that are not completely trivial, like when to charge VAT and how much. Asking your tax advisor might be the only way to sort out these questions, but you can do this gradually whenever a new situation comes up. So over time you build a knowledge base (template base even) that makes it easier over time. But most of the time, invoicing is easy.

Here’s an invoice generated by FancyHands (with the help of Recurly):

 

Invoice 36427 Fancy Hands Screenshot of FancyHands invoice, lacking all kinds of information to meet German legal requirements.

 

Note that there’s not even information in there that I need to edit out in the image? About me, it contains ONLY a zip code and email address. About FancyHands, only the logo.

More importantly, it doesn’t mention how I paid, or what company is behind FancyHands’ logo, or where my company is registered.

(At least it does mention the amound and the currency (USD), which is a start. Also, a date.)

Earning money with a startup is possible. In fact, for this service I happily paid. (I even wrote a lenghty, indepth side by side comparison of FancyHands and local competitor AskGeoffrey.) What you really don’t want to get in the way of earning money is your invoices.

Getting invoice templates isn’t a hard problem to solve. Include more information — the company knows its own address, and mine, too — rather than too little, and you’ll be set for most jurisdictions. Otherwise your customers will go to the local competitors.

As an extra service, here’s a list of requirements as researched by FancyHands own researchers on my behalf. I didn’t double check, so use at your own risk. It does look pretty ok, though:

Reference http://fncy.it/14FKtW6 (proz.com) Information that invoices must contain

  1. Full name of the service provider.
  2. Complete address of service provider.
  3. Full name of recipient.
  4. Complete address of recipient.
  5. Service provider’s tax number (Steuernummer) or VAT ID (for those liable for VAT).
  6. Recipient VAT number, if recipient is VAT-registered.
  7. The date of issue of the invoice.
  8. For all invoices, a unique (alpha)numerical identifier (a simple serial number suffices).
  9. A brief description of the service(s) provided.
  10. The date or period during which the service was provided.
  11. An itemised list of each service provided with the unit price (e.g. €65 per hour), the total amount for each service, and the grand total, or a fixed charge, without VAT.
  12. For a final invoice, all advance payments (for which invoices also have to be issued).
  13. The amount of VAT and the rate applied. If VAT does not apply (only for those liable for VAT), a simple statement explaining why.
  14. The (grand) total including VAT.
  15. Any discount granted before VAT and the discount rate applied.

TL;DR: Some problems are hard to solve. Invoicing isn’t.

A service pack to take the pain out of event organizing

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the night before. setting up for Cognitive Cities Conference

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about how to streamline event organizing. There are a lot of tools out there, some of them excellent. Some aspects of the org phase get a lot more love than others, it seems. For example, I’d consider ticketing to be a solved problem thanks to Eventbrite, Amiando and all the others.

Slightly less solved: The other parts, like programming (partly solved, but tougher), content aggregation and follow ups (partially solved by Lanyrd at least for the more web savvy conference crowds).

Largely unaddressed, it seems, is the handling of speakers. So far, as far as I’m aware, this is done these days by a mix of spreadsheets, a flurry of email, and frankly a mix of metaphorical love, spit and duct tape.

In terms of all-around solutions, there’s a quite decent-looking app package on Podio called Conference Management that uses Podio to screen, rate and (potentially?) sign up speakers, run sub events, manage venues and invite people. I’m a big fan of Podio’s flexibility, but never really got into using it on a regular basis.

One thing I think is missing, or maybe I’m just not aware of it, is this:

A software package (probably web plus a set of mobile apps) that

  • gives users a program overview, some hands-on info (like location maps) as well as notification of last-minute changes, and allows for simple spontaneous meetups (“ping – wanna meet now? i’ll be at XYZ.”)
  • gives speakers their most relevant data, like speaker contacts, their presentation time slot and location, their profiles (editable), as well as a channel to communicate with the organizers and contact other speakers
  • gives organizers a way to collect and re-distribute (to the website, etc) speaker profiles, push out last-minute notifications as well as updates to both speakers and audience, and ping speakers that way to update their speaker profiles

All of that, of course, can be synced to your phone for offline use in case you’re roaming or wifi doesn’t work.

Does something like that exist and I just haven’t found it?

Update: It seems like the app behind this mobile site might cover some aspects. Will investigate further!

Avoid creepiness

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A couple weeks ago, the New York Times had a pretty decent article about the internet of things (IoT), The Internet Gets Physical. The focus was on the more industrial side of things as opposed to Arduinos and the maker culture.

And in between a number of pretty awesome-looking projects like the UN’s Global Pulse, I noticed this (highlights are mine):

Researchers at General Electric, the nation’s largest industrial company, are working on such applications and others. One is a smart hospital room, equipped with three small cameras, mounted inconspicuously on the ceiling. With software for analysis, the room can monitor movements by doctors and nurses in and out of the room, alerting them if they have forgotten to wash their hands before and after touching patients — lapses that contribute significantly to hospital-acquired infections. Computer vision software can analyze facial expressions for signs of severe pain, the onset of delirium or other hints of distress, and send an electronic alert to a nearby nurse.

So now there we have an interesting case. A scenario that both makes rational sense and is at the same time absolutely unthinkable. Yes, in this scenario we would use technology to reduce risk for patients. But it would come at the cost of the most severe privacy violations, particularly in a situation as vulnerable as a hospital stay.

The fact that the cameras are mounted inconspicuously on the ceiling only reaffirms the impression that they shouldn’t be there in the first place. (I also doubt that facial expression would even work reliably when, for example, you’re attached to a respirator, but that isn’t even the point.)

For IoT applications to get more widely accepted, they should be more human, humane, and human-friendly. The Nest thermostat is a good example. It’s helpful, looks good and is decidedly non-creepy.

Being non-creepy is good.