118. Geo

Paul Boag

On this weeks show we look at geocoding, Tom Coates talks about Fire Eagle and find out how we achieved the tabbed menu effect on the Headscape website.

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News and events

New tools for web designers on the way

A few months ago the guys over at clear:left put up a holding page for an application called Silverback. Exactly what Silverback was became a topic of much discussion and a considerable amount of buzz.

This week Andy Budd has finally revealed exactly what Silverback is on his blog. He describes as…

An OSX application to help people run their own low-cost Guerrilla usability tests. It captures screen activity, records audio and video from your built in iSight, and then composites it into a handy Quicktime movie for later use.

I have been fortunate enough to play with an early beta and I have to say it’s a great idea. It has the edge on other "screen capture” programs because it is designed specifically with usability testing in mind. For example, you don’t need to export the movies as soon as they are recorded. You can save them until you have finished a day of testing when more time is available.

If you ever do user testing get yourself over to the Silverback site and signup for the beta.

It would of course be remiss of me not to mention GetSignOff.com as we are on the subject of tools for web designers. Like clear:left Headscape have been developing an application and this week we provided our first walkthrough showing exactly what it does.

In essence GetSignOff is a web application that allows you to present designs to clients in a more professional manner, manage the feedback you receive from them and organise the multiple iterations of each design.

To really get a sense of what it does you need to view the screencast so be sure to check it out.

Effective online delivery of video

There can be no doubt in anybodies mind that online video is huge. It has taken a long time to arrive but with broadband so widespread it is now a reality. Increasingly users are expecting video content from websites and it is up to us as web designers and owners to deliver.

Delivery is fairly straightforward when you can use sites like YouTube or Vimeo. However, that is not always possible. Constraints on size and quality can make these services unsuitable. Not to mention their over demanding terms of use. So what do you do if you are forced to host and deliver video yourself?

My advise is to read an excellent article on the Digital Web Magazine that looks at the various approaches for delivering video over the internet. It explains concepts like progressive download, RTMP streaming and HTTP streaming. It is a superb source of information for anybody who has to host and deliver their own video content.

Some Javascript slight of hand

Our next story is some slight of hand by Robert Nyman.

I find myself increasingly using Javascript to show and hide content. However, being a well behaved standards designer I have to be careful how I build pages. I avoid hiding content with CSS because if I do and Javascript is disabled, users have no way to show the content again. Instead I use Javascript to hide the content so that if it is disabled the hidden elements will show by default.

The downside is that you can get flashes of content because Javascript has to wait for the page to fully load before it can hide content.

Fortunately Robert has come up with a nifty little workaround where he uses Javascript to load a CSS file, which in turn hides the content. This happens before the body has been loaded avoiding the flash of content.

If like me you occasionally suffer from content appearing when it should not, then bookmark this approach for later use.

Overcoming creative block

Our final news story today is a post on overcoming creative block. Creative block is something we all suffer from whether our job is perceived as being a creative one or not. Every job requires some degree of creativity and we all know what it feels like to stare blankly at a computer monitor unsure of where to begin.

This post provides a list of excellent tips on how to overcome brain freeze from going for a walk to throwing away the piece you like most. It really is a superb read. Another one to bookmark for the next time your creative juices fail to flow.

Surprisingly he has missed my number one technique, sitting on the toilet… or is that just me?

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Feature: Location Aware

The web is full of exciting innovations at the moment. However, it is geocoding that personally excites me the most. In this weeks feature I explain what it is and why I believe it offers so much potential.

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Interview: Tom Coates on Fire Eagle

Paul: Ok, so joining me today is Tom Coates from Yahoo. Good to have you hear Tom

Tom: Nice to be here

Paul: So I’ve just been hearing from Tom that he’s got a massive line up of interviews to do for a product that he’s been involved with called Fire Eagle. So he’s talking to the Guardian, the BBC and lots of important people, but thank you for sparing a few minutes to talk to us too. We’re very honoured.

Tom: No problem at all.

Paul: So, lets kick off for those who haven’t come across Fire Eagle before. I think you talked about it at dConstruct last year.

Tom: Yes

Paul: That was when I first heard about it, perhaps you could tell our listeners a little bit more about what it is, and what it does.

Tom: So Fire Eagle is a service that helps you share information about your location, online. So that’s both for people, and more importantly for different sites and services. The other side of it is that it sort of fixes a problem with the development community for the use of applications that use your location. In that it makes that process much easier. So in principal, it means that from a user’s perspective, you can capture information about your location and use it in lots of different places. And from a website owners perspective you can start to think about how your service can respond to someone in the world without having to do a lot of donkey work.

Paul: So it’s not primarily, in itself, like another web application like Twitter where you’ve got to sign up for and take part
in it? I
t’s more of a API framework type of thing.

Tom: Well, when you think about it, it is both, because if you think about it as a place to sort of store information about your location. We give you the tools to go in and update that information, decide who to share it with, and manage that information. So in some ways it’s like your location preference page, which helps you control that information. So yes you do sign up for it, it uses a Yahoo ID, the same one you use for Upcoming and Flickr, but really, once you’ve started capturing your location or sharing it with particular services, you don’t really need to come back. We’re not trying to build a sexy fun service for day-to-day use, but we’re trying to make something that makes it easier for you to build, and other people to use, services.

Paul: OK, so how exactly does the service work Tom. I’ve seen other location based stuff where you have to do horrible things like enter grid references or terrible stuff like that. How do you use Fire Eagle?

Tom: What you do with the site, is you go to the site, and you log in with your Yahoo Id and you do a simple terms of service thing, which asks how often you want to be reminded that you’re sharing your location. From that moment on you’re up and running. The simplest thing to do, is go to a web page called where am I, and you can type in your address and, we will work out where you are in the world, and we’ll plonk it on a map. Now that in itself isn’t terribly interesting. So the interesting thing about it, is that we’ve opened up the API’s so that anyone in the world can build something that could update your location, and anyone in the world could build something that could use your location. So we have an application gallery, and you could go along to that, and on that at the moment there are services like Navizon, which work out where your location is by nearby wifi signals. Or Loki which is from SkyHook the same people who power the iPhone location thing, and Dopler and all kinds of stuff. You can tell those services that you’re OK sharing that information with Fire Eagle. So I have an application on my phone at the moment from Navizon that works out where I am every 10 minutes and tells Fire Eagle where I am. So that location just sits in Fire Eagle and then I can decide to share it with people. So as an example a plug-in for movable type that Ben Trott has built and that means that you can put on your blog, a little map of where you are right now which is quite fun. What we do is, to help maintain your privacy, you choose which services you’re comfortable with sharing your location with, or get an update from. You can say to what level of granualarity you’re comfortable sharing with it. So you can say, just share my city, or my state (if you’re in America) or your neighborhood or your exact point. Then you can hide information at any time, or delete all information in the system.

Paul: Oh, OK.

Tom: So basically it means that you would go and find one really good way to get where you are, or lots of little ones all around the place that compliment each other, and sort it out into the middle of this little repository of data, that you can then say, yes I’d like to use this on Flickr, or on Facebook, or on moveable type, or wherever.

Paul: So the way you’re describing it is that there are multiple entry points into it, where you type in your exact location, weather it’s your mobile phone updating it?

Tom: Yes

Paul: You know I even noticed from looking at the site that you can now Twitter your location in.

Tom: Yes

Paul: And that there are multiple output points, where it’s going to Movable Type, or to wherever else.

Tom: Yes

Paul: So what type of things are we going to see with this. What are you expecting people to develop? Is there any cool stuff at the moment that you can tell us about?

Tom: Yeah, well there are a fair number of cool things that have already come out, which is kind of interesting. I mean one of the things on the engineering side – so there is a bit of a problem with location based services, and everyone’s been talking about it for a very long time, you know they have all these kinds of things that you couldn’t find friends more easily, or find out things about your neighbourhood or whatever. And the problem is, and has always been, that it’s quite hard because what you have to do is, every time you want to use an application like that, you have to install another application on your phone, or go through another extended rigmarole about how to do it. So our plan is that we take that away, so what you basically do is you find any piece of software that gets your location usefully, and you install it, and it updates Fire Eagle. So from that moment on any application in the world that is Fire Eagle enabled can go and get that. So any website in the world could respond to where you are, without ever having to build the thing that works out where you are. So some examples – Navizon as I said is this lovely little application that runs on most mobile phones, captures your location. There is a thing called Fire Bot, which is a Twitter Bot, and on that one you can do a Twitter direct message, with a text string of where you are. So you can say I’m in San Francisco, or I’m in London, or I’m in.. as I am now, at Yahoo’s offices at 125 Shaftesbury Avenue. And you can type that in and you can then share that with all the applications you’re comfortable with. We’ve also taken Cell ID information, so if you have a mobile phone, many of those on a technological side expose the Cell ID. So that’s the tower, or mobile phone mast kind of thing. Quite a lot of people are doing interesting mappings based on that. That in particular is at a very early stage so we don’t actually get much good information from that, but, you know we do take in all different types of data. You could have a GPS log coming from a mobile phone, or anything that could get long/lat coordinates, or anything that could get text string of the place you’re in. On the other side, is the things that could use it, which is where the fun starts. There are all kinds of things that people have built. And more coming. So there is a service that Leonard Lin, the founder of Upcoming made for us, called FireBall, and FireBall was particularly useful in San Francisco in the last couple of weeks because of the Web 2.0 Expo that was out there.

Paul: Oh yeah.

Tom: And the idea with that was you could either send a Twitter message of where your location was, or if you were getting it from FireEagle, it would automatically use that. And at any point you could say "Where are my friends” and it would go to Twitter, find out all your Twitter friends and plonk them on
a map for you. And you could do that on the iPhone as well because it would send you a file that could then be opened by the Google maps thing. So you could literally call your little maps thing on the iPhone and it would say "Here’s where all your friends are”, which is really lovely, and really nice, because it’s all about your friends there.

We’re building a Facebook App, this is no particular secret, we’ve talked about this before, and its going to be one that means you can decide to share your location on Facebook with your friends, which is going to be quite fun. A guy called Simon Willison who I used to work with, who has built a thing called WikiNear. There are over a million geo-coded articles in Wikipedia, which basically means someone has put in the longitude and latitude of where the thing talked about in the article is. So Simon’s thing is a little web page for your mobile phone, and you bring it up and it says "Here are the 5 nearest interesting things to you”.

Paul: Cool!

Tom: Which is pretty fun, so you can wander around London and here’s the British Museum and you can click on that to go to the media wiki page to talk about that.

Um, there are other things like that, I mean LightPole is a little company that we’ve been working with. They’re doing things like local services around you, which again is mobile phone focused. A company called Outside.In, they do things like try to work out where all the blog posts and news stories are about, and they can bring that information to you if they know where you are – and they are going to get some of that information from FireEagle – which is really cool. So as I said we’ve got this Moveable Type thing. So there are all kinds of stuff that is going on at the moment. We build these wonderful little widgets, which I really like, they are for OS 10, and one of them is a little updater. You can type in your location, press a little button and it will update it to FireEagle. One of them tells you the weather where you are right now. So if you travel a lot, it will give you the weather forecast of where you are. And one of them shows you nearby flickr photos, so it just goes and gets those geocoded photos from Flickr and gives you every day a little photo montage of all the cool things that are going on around you. So lots of interesting new uses really.

Paul: It’s interesting you mentioned Flickr. I mean you can imagine the reverse of what you just described with Flickr, so if your location is been taken each time, it would know the location where you took that picture and geo-code that picture on Flickr. Is that the kind of thing that you’re planning to do?

Tom: I mean there are a lot of really interesting uses based around geo tagging. So whenever I write a blog post, it would be really awesome if my Moveable Type blogger could go and look up on FireEagle where I was, and say "This article was entered here”. So you could say "What do you think about Gordon Brown in Edinburgh” as apposed to "What do you think about Gordon Brown in London” or "Wales”, and that would be really fun as a good way of slicing through this enormous amount of blog posts that are out there.

Twitter messages as well, that would be lovely – it would be really great if every time you wrote a Twitter message they went and grabbed your location, and you could say, well I want to explore the public conversations going on in my neighborhood right now. That would be lovely. Um, and with Flickr as well, when you click on a photo on your phone, uploading it immediately. If you havn’t got the location on that device, being able to get it from FireEagle would be really useful. And you know obviously whatever amount of information they can get, so perhaps FireEagle only knows you’re in London, that’s still useful – you know you can still help people find photos just because they are in London. Or if they are at an exact point that’s also good. The only thing about Flickr is that often people take photos and upload them later. And at the moment because we want to make sure that we’ve thought about all the implications, and we don’t want to weird any one out, we’re making sure that we don’t keep any ones history.

Paul: Oh Ok

Tom: So it’s literally just your current location we look after for you.

Paul: Ah, that’s good.

Tom: Yeah we’ve talked to a lot of people about this, and we have been very careful about the privacy and control. These are the two watch words of the project. We are incredibly conservative, we don’t want to worry’s any one out. So at any time you can press a button to hide your information. Information will still come into FireEagle, but it won’t go out. Or you can delete all your information on FireEagle at one time, so we won’t keep any records at all if you do that. At the moment we don’t keep any location history at all – any tracking, or location history there. And we even by default will send you an email once a month saying "Are you still OK sharing”, and if you don’t reply to the email, or you don’t click on the link in the email, then we’ll stop immediately. It’s just so there is no risk of you doing anything, you know, accidently, exposing it in ways you’re not comfortable with.

Paul: I mean when I first heard you talk about this it struck me as hugely exciting, that location based information is an area that I’m massively excited about. And I think there is so much potential to add a new level of context, you know, on the data that we see on the web. Something that has been very much lacking since the beginning. And there is so much potential here, for pretty much anyone listening to this show, whether you’re a design or a web site owner.

Tom: Yeah

Paul: So where would people start to find out more information about this. Where’s the good place to begin?

Tom: OK, so one of the parts of the project that took surprisingly the most time, was actually making sure that the documentation was really good. At the moment it’s an invitation only service, so we have a few thousand people using it and testing it at the moment. We’re opening it up to more invitations pretty regularly. It’s only been out in the wild about 6 weeks. So if you’re interested in using FireEagle, just go to the website, put your email address in the box, and over the next few weeks we’ll be sending out more invitations.

Paul: And what’s the website address?

Tom: Oh, it’s FireEagle.com

Paul: OK

Tom: So that should be nice and easy to find. On that site, if you can get an invitation, and if anyone spots us around the

place, ask us, because we have little cards we can give out. There is extensive documentation on how it works, that really falls into two big chunks. Partly it’s this use of this new standard called OAuth. Which is a really good way, meaning sites can talk to each other on behalf of users, and you can set your preferences around that. So getting your head around OAuth is really useful because so many services – I think Google and Yahoo have both announced that there is going to be support for OAuth as a standard now. So that’s really great, we’re all really happy about that. And the other side, is the FireEagle APIs themselves, which are very simple, sort of three main ones. 1. Where is the user. Again, all of this only happens if the user has given explicit permission for this service to see it.

Paul: Sure

Tom: One is update the location of the user, and one is ambiguous query, so such as, you say you’re in London, which is great, but there are hundreds of London’s in the world. So there is one service where it says "which London” and you can say "this one”. So they are the three core queries , it is very very simple. We have another couple of ones, for particular web services, to bring back users of my application within that particular area, like SOHO or London.

Paul: Yep

Tom: Another one, bring back the hundred who have updated their location most recently. So just think, just to make it easier for developers to build useful services.

Paul: Cool, that just sounds really exciting, and I can’t wait to see some of the stuff that is developed in the future. Tom, thanks so much for coming on the show.

Tom: No problem, I hope that was useful

Paul: That was incredibly useful, and I’m sure there will be a lot of people hounding you for invites, well there probably already are thousands of people hounding you for invites. Have you got any idea when it’s going to go "Full Open”?

Tom: Yes, I do have an idea when it’s going to go full open.

Paul: But you’re not going to tell me.

Tom: Well its within the next couple of months. We want to make sure we’ve had conversations with some really interesting people, so that we have some really cool stuff to show off at the same time. So you’ll just have to wait and see on that line I’m afraid.

Paul: Oh, so that’s really exciting and thank you again for coming on the show.

Tom: No problems. Cool.

Thanks to Nathan O’Hanlon for transcribing this interview.

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Give Away: Fire Eagle Invites

So as we mentioned in the interview, Fire Eagle is currently in beta, but if you can’t wait for the full release and want to get playing with it right away your in luck. We have around 20 invites available for boagworld listeners. To claim one, e-mail ryan.taylor@boagworld.com with the subject heading of "Fire Eagle Invite" and Ryan will send you your code, while stocks last…

All tickets have now been claimed!

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Listeners feedback:

Tabbed menus?

David Bridle writes: How did you get the tabbed menu to work in the headscape website?

When writing the answer to this question, it turning into quite a lengthy explanation. So I wrote a blog dedicated to it, which can be found here.

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