New app aims to crowdsource cycle safety

cyclingsafetyCycling in London can be a pretty hair raising experience.  Traffic tends to be very dense, and you need your wits about you constantly to ensure you’re in the right position on the road and are aware of what other road users, and pedestrians, are up to.  Just around the corner from me sits one of the more dangerous parts of the capital for cycling.

So notorious is the Elephant & Castle roundabout that it is to undergo a £25m revamp over the next few years in an attempt to make it safer.  Central to this claim was the sad fatality of a gentleman earlier this year at the hands of a heavy goods vehicle, and you sense that these highly publicised events, which are sadly all too frequent, do a lot to drive the agenda.

What about all of the unreported incidents or near misses that all contribute to how safe a cyclist feels though?  You sense there is an information gap there between what policy makers know about cyclists behaviour and what actually happens on the roads.

WeCycle aims to plug that gap.  It’s a new mobile app, developed by TravelAI, that aims to record the cyclists every movement.  The app will monitor what cyclists get up to, and then feed that data to local authorities and transport planners in order to hopefully better inform the decisions they make about road design and layout.

In addition to tracking the movement of cyclists, the app can also do the same for motor cars, which suggests that the app may have scope for doing a lot more than simple tracking cyclist movements.

Once you’ve been using the app for a little while, your personal calendar of journeys and movements will begin to be populated.  It’s an interesting project, which will hopefully inform planning decisions more than is currently the case.

A couple of caveats however.  It does seem a little like reinventing the wheel.  There are already an awful lot of cyclists using services such as Strava to track and monitor their cycling.  That service alone must generate a whole lot of data about cycling patterns in major cities, such as London.  The success of WeCycle will largely rest upon the number of cyclists that use it, so it seems a bit of a shame that authorities aren’t working with services that already exist and already have a large user base.

My second concern about the app is a practical one.  All of these tracking services, and WeCycle is no different, offer a rather blunt look at the cyclists journey.  They don’t really provide any insight into the quality of that journey.  Were there any near misses en route?  How safe did you feel?  What was the state of the roads?  Did you take your specific route so as to avoid a particularly unpleasant part of town?  All things that could greater inform planning decisions, but all things that tend to get omitted from the information provided by apps such as these.

Don’t get me wrong, I think getting the crowd to provide this information is the only real way to get the scale and quality of information required to make informed decisions.  I just think that WeCycle has a few holes in its methodology that limit its effectiveness.

Study shows what we really do on conference calls

boring-conference-callWith the amount of flexible working on the (gradual) increase, so too the amount of time spent in virtual meetings is on the rise.  The technology has long existed to allow people to dial in to meetings from wherever they may be, but just how effective are these coming togethers?  I mean meetings where we can see the whites of peoples eyes are hardly productive whirlwinds.  How much tuning out goes on during conference calls?

A recent survey from conference call company Intercall suggests that our level of attention when on a conference call is patchy to say the least.  It highlights the vast range of things many people get up to whilst on the conference call that have nothing at all to do with that call.  Some of the roll of shame include:

  • 60% admitted to doing some kind of other work during the conference call
  • Over 50% were eating something
  • Just under 50% owned up to going to the toilet!
  • 27% admitted to having fallen asleep at least once during a meeting
  • Around 20% are doing some online shopping
  • Just under 10% admitted to working out during a call
  • Whilst 6% are actually on two calls at once

Staggering isn’t it?  I mean how can you exercise whilst on a conference call?  It emerged that a major factor behind our mental wanderings was that we are increasingly using our mobile devices to dial in to conference calls, and these mobile devices afford us an array of alternative ways to spend our time than simply concentrating on the task at hand.

The mute function was also much more popular when we dial in using our mobiles rather than a landline telephone.  According to InterCall, something like 80% of us are more likely to hit the mute button when we call in on our mobile.

It begs the question however, of whether people are similarly tuned out during physical meetings, yet they don’t have the opportunity to engage in other things. It also underlines the importance of working collectively in much more efficient and effective ways.

And this matters, because of all of the new wave of communication tools in place in our offices, a Deloitte study recently found that video conferencing was far and away the most prevalent.  So what is responsible for all of this?

Intercall themselves suggest that a major part of the problem is simply too many meetings, with employees often confusing activity with productivity.  They also suggest that the immediate nature of our technology driven workplace makes the temptation to reply to incoming mail/instant messages and so on, a very real one.

So how can this be improved?

Well, one obvious option is to lift the veil of secrecy that protects callers on an audio call.  By showing people on the screen, then it certainly makes it harder for them to doss about doing who knows what.  It also makes the whole experience rather more engaging as you can solicit the various non-verbal communication cues that are so important.

How else do you think conference calls could be improved to make them more efficient?

When citizen science saves lives

volcanoCitizen science has been one of the most effective and exciting applications of crowdsourcing, with a whole heap of fascinating projects benefiting from pulling the crowd of enthusiastic amateurs into their endeavours.  Whilst many of these projects have important goals in mind, there is one that has arguably a more important outcome than most.

In the Ecuadorian Andes is a volcano called Tungurahua, or the Throat of Fire as it’s known.  Living safely in the vicinity of such an active volcano requires diligent monitoring and planning.  A job for the experts you would imagine.  Except that crucial role is taken by a team of 35 citizen scientists, known as vigias.

A recent paper shows the extent of their role in keeping the neighbouring area safe.  A recent eruption of the volcano led to the 25,000 inhabitants of nearby Banos being evacuated.  But leaving homes, land and livelihoods was hard, and the community rallied together to over-run checkpoints and re-occupy the town.

“This pattern of re-occupation is common in volcanic areas and after other natural disasters. The people of Baños wanted to go home even though it wasn’t safe. The vigías are members of the community who help scientists collect data about volcanic activity, are part of a vital early warning system for eruptions, and facilitate evacuations of the community during a crisis.

“The network enables citizens to continue to live and work in a hazardous area by enhancing their capacity to respond quickly to escalating threats. The ideal risk reduction scenario would be to move people out of the way of the volcano permanently, but clearly this is not always practical – people often want to live and work in particular locations for a number of reasons, and anyway – there are few places that you can move in the Ecuadorian Andes that aren’t threatened by one or several volcanoes!” the researchers say.

One particular eruption in the summer of 2006 is focused on in the paper.  It highlights how the citizen science network of the vigia saved a considerable number of lives during that disaster.  What’s more, subsequent eruptions last year suffered no casualties at all, which again, was largely attributed to the work of the citizen volunteers and their swift response.

“Community based monitoring has the potential to reduce risk by providing useful data, fostering collaboration between scientists and communities, and providing a way in which citizens are empowered to take actions to preserve lives and livelihoods,” the researchers say.

In an attempt to understand why the citizen science network was so effective, the researchers conducted a series of interviews with the volunteers.

“The area is potentially becoming more dangerous with villages and grazing lands around the volcano’s base particularly at risk. One of the reasons why the vigías network really works is because they have a vested interest to be ready for the next eruptive event. They want to work with the authorities to help their communities,” they say. “Scientists are considered friends and colleagues, which also has a big impact on the success of the network. The vigías act as a bridge between the community and the scientists. The communities are able to more rapidly trust and act upon advice from the scientists and authorities, because of the vigías.”

With something like 600 million people around the world said to live close to a volcano, this kind of citizen science network could play a crucial role in securing the safety of those people.  Another cool example of the power of the crowd.

Bringing the armchair crowd to live sports events

fanmodeThe recent football World Cup highlighted just how global the game is.  Whilst thousands flocked to stadia throughout Brazil to watch matches live, there were billions watching the game on television in pubs, homes and other venues around the world.  Organizers are obviously keen to encourage an excellent atmosphere in the stadiums themselves, but a new app is aiming to bring some of those armchair supporters into the collective atmosphere too.

The app, called Fanmode, aims to offer armchair supporters a range of ways they can contribute their support to the venue itself.  For instance, if they swipe the app, it registers a cheer.  If they swipe down it’s a boo, a tap is a clap.  Heck, you can even wave your phone like you’re waving a flag should you wish.

If you register a set number of these actions, you qualify for a ‘super cheer’, which can be delivered by swiping right on your phone.  Now, suffice to say that none of these things actually have any impact upon the noise in the stadium itself, although they can be collectively added to what is known as a ‘Vibeboard’, which is a digital dashboard that fans access online, but that can also be displayed live in the stadium should the organizers wish.  The suggestion is that this will allow players and other fans to see the support they’re receiving too.

It all seems a far cry from the traditional football going experience, and there is a hardcore matchgoing group that are opposed to all of these type of developments.  This group is perhaps typified by supporters of the Dutch team PSV Eindhoven who during the opening match of their season against NAC Breda protested against the decision by their club to offer Wi-Fi at the stadium.

The fans were angered by the decision because they thought that it would encourage people to have their heads stuck in their phones rather than watching the match and supporting the team.  Banners were hoisted around the stadium protesting the decision, adorned with messages such as Fuck Wi-Fi, support the team.

When I read about the Fanmode app, I pictured those same PSV fans and the expression on their face as they see people cheering on their team by swiping their finger across a mobile phone.  It all seems just a little bit naff, even if done in a pub or something.  After all, half of the pleasure of watching a game, live or otherwise, is the camaraderie you have with your fellow supporters.  It’s hard to see how mucking about with your phone will do anything but harm that.

What do you think?  How would you feel if people started doing this whilst you were watching the game?

Bringing the sharing economy to your mailbox

pumpipumpeThe sharing economy has been fantastic in both encouraging and facilitating the utilization of previously under-utilized stuff.  Whether it’s lending out spare equipment or selling un-used facilities, the sharing economy has been a boon for maximizing what we have.  As the industry has grown, so too have the number of innovative ideas looking to tap into the burgeoning marketplace.

One such has launched recently in Switzerland.  The company, called Pumpipumpe, brings a low technology approach to sharing the kind of items we have but no longer need.

Whilst many players in the sharing economy marketplace are deploying apps and various other digital tools to enable sharing of goods, Pumpipumpe take advantage of something much simpler.  Their site encourages residents to place stickers on their mailboxes to signify the items they’re prepared to lend out to their neighbours.

Interestingly, the origins of the site emerged from the cycling community.  The idea was for people to place a sticker on their mailbox if they had a bike pump in the house that fellow cyclists could use should they suffer a puncture.  Hence the name, you see?

From this early origin however the site quickly expanded to allow residents to begin offering any object they fancied to their community.  Participation is really straightforward.  The site provide all the stickers you need, which can be ordered from them.  You then place the small blue squared stickers onto your mailbox to signify what items you’re prepared to lend out, whether that’s a bike pump, kids toys, maybe even your wi-fi.

The hope is that passers by will see the stickers and realise that the home is ok with them knocking on the door and asking to borrow whatever item.  All very low tech, yet all very community based.  With Swiss origins, most users thus far are in Switzerland and Germany, for whom ordering the stickers is free.  If people from other countries wish to participate the shipping fee is €4.

It’s a really nice idea that shows that if community spirit exists then the true sharing economy can emerge in very low tech and simple ways.  Do you think such a scheme would thrive in your own neighbourhood?

Adi Gaskell on Social Business - Bringing the world of social business to you