Tag Archives: iphone

How Yelp Could Help Save Millions in Health Care Costs

Okay, before I dive in, a few things.

1) Sorry for the lack of posts last week. Life’s been hectic. Between Code for America, a number of projects and a few articles I’m trying to get through, the blogging slipped. Sorry.

2) I’m presenting on Open Data and Open Government to the Canadian Parliament Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee today – more on that later this week

3) I’m excited about this post

When it comes to opening up government data many of us focus on Governments: we cajole, we pressure, we try to persuade them to open up their data. It’s approach we will continue to have to take for a great deal of the data our tax dollars pay to collect and that government’s continue to not share. There is however another model.

Consider transit data. This data is sought after, intensely useful, and probably the category of data most experimented with by developers. Why is this? Because it has been standardized. Why has it been standardized. Because local government’s (responding to citizen demand) have been desperate to get their transit data integrated with Google Maps (See image).

It turns out, to get your transit data into Google Maps, Google insists that you submit to them the transit data in a single structured format. Something that has come to be known as the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS). The great thing about the GTFS is that it isn’t just google that can use it. Anyone can play with data converted into the GTFS. Better still, because the data structure us standardized an application someone develops, or analysis they conduct, can be ported to other cities that share their transit data in a GTFS format (like, say, my home town of Vancouver).

In short, what we have here is a powerful model both for creating open data and standardizing this data across thousands of jurisdictions.

So what does this have to do with Yelp! and Health Care Costs?

For those not in the know Yelp! is a mobile phone location based rating service. I’m particularly a fan of its restaurant locator: it will show you what is nearby and how it has been rated by other users. Handy stuff.

But think bigger.

Most cities in North America inspect restaurants for health violations. This is important stuff. Restaurants with more violations are more likely to transmit diseases and food born illnesses, give people food poisoning and god knows what else. Sadly, in most cases the results of these tests are posted in the most useless place imaginable. The local authorities website.

I’m willing to wager almost anything that the only time anyone visits a food inspection website is after they have been food poisoned. Why? Because they want to know if the jerks have already been cited.

No one checks these agencies websites before choosing a restaurant. Consequently, one of the biggest benefits of the inspection data – shifting market demand to more sanitary options – is lost. And of course, there is real evidence that shows restaurants will improve their sanitation, and people will discriminate against restaurants that get poor ratings from inspectors, when the data is conveniently available. Indeed, in the book Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency Fung, Graham and Weil noted that after Los Angeles required restaurants to post food inspection results, that “Researchers found significant effects in the form of revenue increases for restaurants with high grades and revenue decreases for C-graded (poorly rated) restaurants.” More importantly, the study Fung, Graham and Weil reference also suggested that making the rating system public positively impacted healthcare costs. Again, after inspection results in Los Angeles were posted on restaurant doors (not on some never visited website), the county experienced a reduction in emergency room visits, the most expensive point of contact in the system. As the study notes these were:

an 18.6 percent decline in 1998 (the first year of program operation), a 4.8 percent decline in 1999, and a 5.4 per- cent decline in 2000. This pattern was not observed in the rest of the state.

This is a stunning result.

So, now imagine that rather than just giving contributor generated reviews of restaurants Yelp! actually shared real food inspection data! Think of the impact this would have on the restaurant industry. Suddenly, everyone with a mobile phone and Yelp! (it’s free) could make an informed decision not just about the quality of a restaurant’s food, but also based on its sanitation. Think of the millions (100s of millions?) that could be saved in the United States alone.

All that needs to happen is for a simple first step, Yelp! needs approach one major city – say a New York, or a San Francisco – and work with them to develop a sensible way to share food inspection data. This is what happened with Google Maps and the GTSF, it all started with one city. Once Yelp! develops the feed, call it something generic, like the General Restaurant Inspection Data Feed (GRIDF) and tell the world you are looking for other cities to share the data in that format. If they do, you promise to include it in your platform. I’m willing to bet anything that once one major city has it, other cities will start to clamber to get their food inspection data shared in the GRIDF format. What makes it better still is that it wouldn’t just be Yelp! that could use the data. Any restaurant review website or phone app could use the data – be it Urban Spoon or the New York Times.

The opportunity here is huge. It’s also a win for everyone: Consumers, Health Insurers, Hospitals, Yelp!, Restaurant Inspection Agencies, even responsible Restaurant Owners. It would also be a huge win for Government as platform and open data. Hey Yelp. Call me if you are interested.

Carbon Chaos – Celebrating the Launch of an iPhone App

At the beginning of September Gerri Sinclair and I began scheming around me working with a group of her students at the Centre for Digital Media on a project. My initial idea didn’t pan out (more on that in another post) but the students pitched a new idea, one the maintained the original idea of a game that would be fun and that would carry an environmental message.

The result?

Carbon Chaos – an iPhone game designed and built to be fun while educating those who download it about the various advantages and activities of Translink – the transit authority here in the Greater Vancouver area.

And so, with a ton of pride in the students who worked really long hours to create this in a few short weeks here is some beautiful art work they created…

And here is what the game looks like in action…

In short order I hope to share what I learned from the experience and from the students who worked on this (lots of interesting lessons). Needless to say the students deserve infinite praise and I’m eternally grateful to have had the chance to work with them. Amazing, every last one of them. Big thank you’s should also go to their faculty adviser Patrick Pennfather. And finally I know everyone is grateful to TransLink, who sponsored this application and gave it a home. A forward looking organization TransLink, one thinking hard about how technology can transform it – first they opened up their google transit API to the public, then they launched a partnership with Four Square (making each station and a bus a location where you can check in) and of course, they were willing to engage some students on a game they built.

Never, in all my dreams growing up and playing games did I believe that I might one day be a video game producer. Fun, fun, fun. If you have an iPhone, hope you get a chance to download it and see what some emerging developers were able to code up.

Vancouver Open Data Version 2: New Apps to create

Wow, wow, wow.

The City of Vancouver has just launched version 2 of its open data portal. A number of new data sets have been added to the site which is very exciting. Better still previously released data sets have been released in new formats.

Given that at 5pm tomorrow (Tuesday. Jan 26th) there will be the third Open Data Hackathon at the city archives to which anyone is invited, I thought I’d share the 5 new open data apps I’d love to see:

1. Home Buyers App.

So at some point some smart real estate agent is going to figure out that there is a WEALTH of relevant information for home buyers in the open data catalogue. Perhaps someone might create this iPhone app and charge for it, perhaps a real estate group will pay for its creation (I know some coders who would be willing – drop me an email).

Imagine an iPhone app you use when shopping around for homes. Since the app knows where you are it can use open data to tell you: property assessment, the distance to the nearest park (and nearest park with off leash area), nearest school, school zone (elementary, plus secondary immersion and regular), distance to the local community centre, neighborhood name, nearest bus/subway stops and routes, closest libraries, nearest firehall among a host of other data. Having that type of information at your finger tips could be invaluable!

2. My Commute App:

One of the sexiest and most interesting data sets released in version 2 is a GeoRss feed of upcoming road closures (which you can also click and see as a map!). It would be great if a commuter could outline their normal drive or select their bus route and anytime the rss feed posts about roadwork that will occur on that route the user receives an email informing them of this fact. Allows you to plan an alternative route or know that you’re going to have to leave a little early.

3. Development Feedback App

There is always so much construction going on in Vancouver it is often hard to know what is going to happen next. The city, to its credit, requires developers to post a giant white board outlining the proposed development. Well now a data feed of planned developments is available on the data portal (it also can already be viewed in map form)! Imagine an iPhone app which shows you the nearest development applications (with details!) and heritage buildings so you can begin to understand how the neighbourhood is going to change. Then imagine a form you can fill in – right then(!) – that emails your concerns or support for that development to a councilor or relevant planning official…

For a city like Vancouver that obsesses about architecture and its neighborhoods, this feels like a winner.

4. MyPark App

We Vancouverites are an outdoorsey bunch. Why not an app that consolidates information about the cities parks into one place. You could have park locations, nearest park locator, nearest dog park locator, the Parks Boards most recent announcements and events RSS Feed. I’m hoping that in the near future Parks Board will release soccer/ultimate frisbee field conditions updates in a machine readable format.

5. VanTrash 2.0?

Interestingly Apartment recycling schedule zones was also released in the new version of the site. Might be interesting to see if we can incorporate it into the already successful Vantrash and so expand the user base.

I’m also thinking there could be some cool things one could do with Graffiti information (maybe around reporting? a 311 tie in?) and street lights (safest route home walking app?)

So there is a start. If you are interested in these – or have your own ideas for how the data could be used – let me know. Better yet, consider coming down to the City Archives tomorrow evening for the third open data hackathon. I’ll be there, it would be great to chat.

The iphone review redux

So I’m down in Chicago for the week (at The Drake!) for work and my colleague has an iphone. Some of you may remember my negative predictions when the iphone was first announced.


I have to admit that the iphone is one sexy beast. The screen is stunning and many of the features – such as surfing that web and looking at photos are amazingly clear and fluid. Possibly the coolest feature is how, as you rotate the phone, the image/screen always rotates with you so it remains in the upright position. That’s some clever work with the gyroscopes…

However, the one of the main concerns I flagged back in January was not assuaged. This being that the keyboard, because it is simply part of the screen, is not easy to use. Simply put, your thumb often presses the wrong key making one feel like the fat Homer Simpson in the episode where he needs the special “fat phone” because his fingers are too big to use a normal push button phone. Typing out email on the iphone will likely be too cumbersome and frustrating a process for the regular or business user to do regularly. More importantly, it pales in comparison to the Blackberry keyboard.

But my criticism pale in comparison to this increadibly thoughtful critique delivered by Peter S. Magnusson on Yahoo! (and sent to me by Rikia S.). Sadly, Magnusson’s comments are no longer available on Yahoo! so I’ve reposted them below. I wish I’d been half this clever:

I don’t think the iPhone fundamentally innovates over and above the existing offerings, in the manner that the iPod, the Macintosh, and the Apple II all did in their day. To the contrary, I find that the iPhone reveals that Mr. Jobs, and thus Apple, does not (yet) understand a paradigm of 21st-century computer usage.

At its heart, the iPhone is a projection of the original vision of bringing clunky desktop applications such as e-mail, contact databases, to-do lists, telephones, note taking, and Web browsing to the palm of your hand. Because that is essentially Jobs’s generation – transitioning from the mainframe office environment to the PC-based office – he can’t quite get rid of the notion that a mobile device is nothing but a really small personal computer.

Here’s my theory: Apple can only create really interesting products if Jobs understands the end-user. And Jobs does not understand the 21st-century user. In this century, people don’t send memos to each other.

Today, people chat; they blog; they share multimedia such as pictures, video, and audio; they debate (“flame”) each other on forums; they link with each other in intricate webs; they switch effortlessly between different electronic personae and avatars; they listen to Internet radio; they battle over reputation; they podcast; they do mash-ups; they vote on this, that, and the other; they argue on wiki discussion groups.

With the exception of a minimalist widget for text messaging, the iPhone does not have direct support for any of that. No support for sharing photos, no recording of podcasts, no text communities, no location awareness.

Without going through a computer with a cable, the iPhone doesn’t really communicate very much with anything.

In fact, when you want to communicate with somebody, the method (application) comes before the person. You first have to choose how to communicate (SMS, phone call, e-mail, Web service). Only then can you choose whom you want to talk to. That is a classical “code-centric” view of the world. Apple completely misses the opportunity to present text messaging, visual voice mail, and multimedia e-mails in a coherent view.

This is not a simple lack of features. This is not a “one-dot-oh” effect inherent in a brand-new product category. This is a fundamental lack of understanding of social networking.

What made the iPod a breakthrough product was that Jobs really knows music. He’s an artsy guy. He’s even known to have a really good musical ear. That’s why the iPod was awesome.

Social networking and Web 2.0 are apparently another matter. It’s a generational thing, I guess. Jobs is even older than I am, and I’m having a really hard time keeping up with the times. Plus he’s busier than I am.

What the iPhone should have done was put the social network front and center. It would happily invite the “play” aspect of modern computing, which is increasingly interacting with “work” – personal blogs morph to full-time jobs; YouTube postings lead to advertising agency job offers; entrepreneurial musings lead to investor contacts; and so forth. Chatting and sharing media should have direct support.

But Apple has a unique asset that may yet save the day: the sheer moral support it can draw from the tech community. This past weekend, for example, an entire impromptu developer conference was assembled with the sole purpose of “making the Web a better place for [the iPhone].” So, ironically, social networking technologists are busy arranging themselves such that Apple will, yes, recognize their significance and treat them as first-class citizens. It’s not too late.

I hope Apple listens.

The iPhone – Apple Crumble?

A lot of hoopla being made here up north about Apple’s new iPhone. I admit I’m a bit of a contrarian, but I’m not sure what all the fuss is about or if Apple’s stock deserves the big bump it’s received from this announcement.

Like the iPod this item is targeted at consumers and not business people. This however, presents some interesting problems. US$500 is a lot of money to pay for what is essential a cell phone that will likely only last 2-3 years tops. Moreover, if you are at all interested in having email functionality on your phone (e.g. attention all blackberry users) it’s worth noting that the iphone lacks a key board. It is unclear how easy it will be to type out emails using a screen as a keyboard (Like Homer Simpson, I’m pretty sure my fingers will be too big to type on a key board displayed on the screen).

In addition, the iPod works because of its simplicity… it only requires one program (itunes) that is available and compatible across both the PC and Mac platforms. To make full use of the its functional a suer will have to sync their iphone with not only iTunes (no problem here) but also their email server or software and their calendaring software and their contact manager. That’s a lot of syncing and a great opportunity for things to go wrong – especially when, for most users, this will be across the windows-mac platforms. With luck Mac will make this all seamless and easy for the casual users – one hopes so because at the moment it is probably beyond the skills of the ordinary computer user. Don’t forget there is a whole industry of “sync providers” out there, non of whom have really squared the problem.

On top of all this is the problem that the iphone will only work on a GSM network. Consequently, if you buy the on your own it will only work on Rogers’ network in Canada and Cingular’s Network in the US, effectively locking you into one service provider. Alternatively, if you choose to buy the iphone as part of a subscription package from Cingular or Rogers you know they are going lock you into a 3 year contract.

Maybe Apple’s got all these issues figured out – if so great! It will put pressure on everybody else (like RIM) to get these features done right. If not… well I guess it won’t matter. I’m sure Apple’s stock will be fine and that no one will remember this terrible 7-day stretch of uncritical and dubious story choices that graced the cover of the Globe and Mail.

[tags]iphone, technology, apple[/tags]