Category Archives: mobile apps

“Games For Change” 2017 Student Challenge

And speaking of mobile apps with a social purpose….

The upcoming annual Games For Change (G4C) meeting has a lot of interesting stuff, on the theme “Catalyzing Social Impact Through Digital Games”. At the very least, this gang is coming out of the ivory tower and up off their futons, to try to do something, not just talk about it.

Part of this year’s activities is the Student Challenge , which si a competition that

“invites students to make digital games about issues impacting their communities, combining digital storytelling with civic engagement.

This year’s winners were announced last month, from local schools and game jams in NYC, Dallas, and Pittsburg. (Silicon Valley, where were you?) Students were asked to invent games on three topics,

  • Climate Change (with NOAA),
  • Future Communities (with Current by GE), and
  • Local Stories & Immigrant Voices (with National Endowment for the Humanities).

Eighteen winners were highlighted.

The “Future Cities” games mostly are lessons on the wonders of “smart cities”, and admonitions to clean up trash. One of them has a rather compelling “heart beat” of Carbon emissions, though the game mechanics are pretty obscure, doing anything or doing nothing at all increases Carbon. How do I win?

The “Climate Change” also advocates picking up trash, as well as planting trees. There is also a quiz, and an Antarctic Adventure (though nothing even close to “Never Alone”)

The “local stories” and “immigrant stories” tell stories about immigrants, past and present. (This kids are from the US, land of immigration.) There are two alarming “adventures” that sketches how to illegally enter the US, which is a dangerous undertaking with a lot of consequences. Not something I like to see “gamified”.

Overall, the games are very heavy on straight story telling, with minimal game-like features. Very much like the “educational games” the kids no doubt have suffered through for years. And not much like the games everyone really likes to play. One suspects that there were teachers and other adults behind the scenes shaping what was appropriate.

The games themselves are pretty simple technically, which is inevitable given the short development time and low budgets. The games mostly made the best of what they had in the time available.

I worry that these rather limited experiences will give the students a false impression of both technology and story telling. The technology used is primitive, they did not have realistic market or user testing, and the general game designs are unoriginal. That’s fine for student projects, but not really a formula for real world success, and has little to do with real game or software development.

Worse, the entire enterprise is talking about it. One game or 10,000 games that tell you (again) to pick up trash doesn’t get the trash picked up. If you want to gamify neighborhood clean up, you are going to need to tie it to the actual physical world, e.g., a “trashure hunt”, with points for cleaning up and preventing litter.

These kids did a super job on their projects, but I think the bar was set far too low. Let’s challenge kids to actually do something, not just make a digital story about it. How would you use game technology to do it? I don’t know. That’s what the challenge is.

  1. Games for Change, Announcing the winners of the 2017 G4C Student Challenge, in Games For Change Blog. 2017.


Native American “Wellness Warriors” App

At this week’s conference, the United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY), released their new “Wellness Warriors App”.

There are probably a bazillion “wellness” apps out there (and, confusingly, more than one “wellness warrior”).   This app is distinguished by begin designed to be culturally-based for Native American youth.

Cool! This is the kind of thing I hope to see more of: digital apps that strengthen community and culture rather than eroding it. So I had to take a closer look.

The idea of the project is to promote “wellness from a cultural perspective – fitness through cultural dance, healthy eating with traditional Native foods, and more.” These activities already enjoy considerable participation as an expression of cultural identity and solidarity. The app adds in an emphasis on the health benefits of these activities.

These are real world, face-to-face activities. What can a mobile app really do?

From a brief trial run, it looks like that one contribution is social connection with a digital community that promotes a broad solidarity across many locations and specific tribes. The app seeks to,

encourage Native youth to interact with each other in a way we’ve never seen before.

I’m not sure that this has never been seen before (I’m pretty sure that Facebook and everything else is already widely used by these kids), but it bundles all the stuff into a single, “just for us” app.

I admit that I don’t really know all the features WWA has, or how to use it reasonably. (I, for one, could use some directions! But I’m not in the target demographic, who are digital natives.)

Many of the features are familiar from generic apps, including sharing and messaging. The “wellness” aspect including some fitness tracking and charts (I don’t know how to use them), space for contributed regional recipes and a planner.

The ‘cultural sensitivity’ appears in many forms, such as the graphic design and in channels for various Indian languages. The “wellness tracker” itself is a self report meter through which you enter your current state of physical, mental, social, and spiritual wellness. These dimensions are probably used by many such wellness apps, but in this case they should be interpreted in the context of tribal heritage. The “social” and “spiritual” dimensions definitely have important and specific meanings for Native Americans.

This app, like any mobile app, is mainly talking, not doing. The activities of interest (eating, exercising, helping each other) are real world, face-to-face things. Digitally augmented talk is not necessarily going to promote wellness or fitness.

In general, I’m not optimistic on the effectiveness of any self-reported tracking features. Aside from the problematic nature of this kind of introspection, interrupting your life to fill in the data just seems too intrusive to work for long.

Also, I’ve never been interested myself in sharing fitness data (or recipes), so I wouldn’t be motivated by these features, even if I did take time to record my wellness. But lots of people, especially you youngsters out there, like to do this sort of thing. So there you go.

All that said, the cultural solidarity represented by UNITY should, in principle, add motivation and intrinsic rewards that make this app work better than a generic app with similar features would. It is also true that there already is a social network (UNITY and its many affiliated youth organizations), so this app overlays existing social connections, and therefore is more likely to be effective.

In other words, a digital app might or might not be especially effective for promoting wellness, but one that is embedded in a strong and positive cultural context might work better. As they suggest, the aim of the  game is “Finding wellness and healing within our cultures” which is a lot more meaningful than just “promoting wellness” in general.

This app inspires me to think of additional features that might make it even better. There are many possibilities that could be done technically, though I don’t know what will fit the spirit and practices of this group.  (Perhaps spinn off apps, if these are too far afield from “wellness”..)

Things that occur to me:

  • A gratitude meter–express gratitude every day
  • Ambient nature awareness channels, e.g., Bison cam streaming coverage of reintroduced Bison herds.
  • informal (social) games (in local languages!), with cultural content. E.g., guided meditation/story telling with traditional themes and images.
    • (can you make the game so great that kids everywhere–not just Native Americans– will want to practice Native American spiritual values, because its just cool?)
  • Idea market for mutual help (think “mindsharing”, with a cultural twist)
  • Platform cooperatives for sharing stuff (think Uber or AirBnB, except owned by the users). In this case, should be embedded in cultural heritage surrounding sharing and gifts.

Anyway, I look forward to seeing what happens with this app.

  1. United National Indian Tribal Youth, Cultural-based Wellness App to Launch at National Native Youth Conference, in UNITY – News. 2017.


Robot Testing Of Apps

Ke Mao and colleagues at University College London write about their research on “Robotic Testing of Mobile Apps[1]. As they say, testing apps on mobile devices is a very difficult challenge. Contemporary handhelds have so many possible inputs, they are used by everyone in all kinds of situations, and apps run in a complex environment potentially interacting with other apps, networks, and services. Throw in security, privacy, and operator safety. And so on.

It’s almost as if those hardware guys were trying to create a system that can’t possibly be programmed! 🙂

Ono of the key problems is that testing software on a handheld device requires some way to test, well, holding in hands. Much testing must be (literally) manual, and that’s difficult, slow, and expensive. Testers augment manual testing by capturing human tests and replaying them, possibly with variations. These are simulated interactions, which do not necessarily use the device realistically.

Mao et al. argue that the way to go is to develop robots that simulate human hands and motions. This may not be perfect, but, as they say, “the robotic gestures will at least be physical gestures”. Ideally, robots may work faster, more consistently, and cheaper than human testers, allowing more coverage.

a robotic-test generator for mobile apps. Here, we compare our approach with simulation-based test automation, describe scenarios in which robotic testing is bene­ficial (or even essential)

The robot also has the advantage that it can be directly linked to automated test generation, pushing test scenarios into the robot’s code to be executed. The researchers use manual tests and also have a model to extrapolate new test cases that are “realistic”.

Their current implementation is actually limited to finger taps. That’s probably useful, but surely we want two whole hands, to hold, turn, shake, and drop the device.

I imagine that this idea will be widely used for both testing and implementing simulated users (i.e., ‘bots’ in the software sense, run by actual physical robots!).

However, there is still a need for as much human testing as possible, particularly field testing. Personal devices must operate in the real world, which is full of unexpected and unforeseeable surprises, not least of them being those darn users, who do the daftest things.

Robot hands are a great addition to the testing arsenal, but scarcely replace existing methods.  More testing is always better than less testing.  Better testing is always better than poorer testing.  But test software as much as possible in  as many ways as possible.

  1. Ke Mao., Mark Harman, and Yue Jia, Robotic Testing of Mobile Apps for Truly Black-Box Automation. IEEE Software, 34 (2):11-16, 2017.

The Social Psychology of IOT: Totally Not Implemented Yet

Murray Goulden and colleagues write some interesting thoughts about the Internet of Things combined with ubiquitous mobile devices, specifically, “smart home” applications which can observe the user’s own behavior in great detail. In particular, they point out that these technologies generate vast amounts of interpersonal data, data about groups of people. Current systems do not manage and protect individual personal data especially well, but they don’t have any provisions at all for dealing with interpersonal data.

smart home technologies excel at creating data that doesn’t fit into the neat, personalised boxes offered by consumer technologies. This interpersonal data concerns groups, not individuals, and smart technologies are currently very stupid when it comes to managing it.

The researchers discuss social psychological theory that examines the way that groups have social boundaries and ways to deal with breaching the boundaries. For example, a family in their home may have conversations that they would never have anywhere else, nor when any outsider is present.

This isn’t a matter of each individual managing his own data (even if the data is available to manage), but understanding that there is a social situation that has different rules than other social situations, rules which apply to all the individuals.

In-home systems have no understanding of such rules or what to do about them, nor are there any means for humans to manage what is observed.

Their paper makes the interesting point that this stems from the basic architecture of these in-home systems;

The logic of this project – directing information, and so agency, from the outer edges of the network towards the core – is one of centralisation. The algorithms may run locally, but the agency invested in them originates elsewhere in the efforts of the software engineers who designed them.” ([3], p.2)

In short, the arrogant engineers and business managers don’t even understand the magnitude of their ignorance.

I have remarked that many products of Silicon Valley are designed to solve the problems that app developers understand and care about. The first apps were pizza ordering services, music downloads, and dating services. There are endless variations on these themes, and they are all set in the social world of a young, single, worker (with disposable income).

For more than two decades, “smart home” systems have been designing robot butlers that will adjust the “settings” to the “user’s preferences”. I have frequently questioned how these systems work when there is more than one user, i.e., two or more people live together. The lights can’t be perfectly adjusted to everyone, only one “soundtrack” can play at a time, etc.  Noone has an answer, the question isn’t considered.

I will say again that noone with any experience or common sense would ever put a voice activated, internet connected device in a house with children, let alone a system that is happy to just buy things if you tell it to. Setting aside the mischief kids will do with such capabilities, what sort of moral lesson are you teaching a young child when the house seems to respond instantly to whatever they command?

Goulden doesn’t seem to have any solutions in mind. He does suggest that there needs to be ways for groups of people to “negotiate” the rules of what should be observed and revealed. This requires that the systems be transparent enough so we know what is being observed, and that there be ways to control the behavior.

These issues have been known and studied for many years (just as a for instance take a gander at research from the old Georgia tech “Aware Home” project from the 1990’s,  e.g.,[1]), but the start up crowd doesn’t know or care about academic research–who has time to check out the relevant research.

Goulden points out that if these technology are really obnoxious, then people will reject them. And, given that many of the “features” are hardly needed, people won’t find it hard to turn them off.

Their current approach – to ride roughshod over the social terrain of the home – is not a sustainable approach. Unless and until the day we have AI systems capable of comprehending human social worlds, it may be that the smart home promised to us ends up being a lot more limited than its backers imagine.

  1. Anind K. Dey  and Gregory D. Abowd, Toward a Better Understanding of Context and Context-Awareness. GIT GVU Technical Report GIT-GVU-99-22, 1999.
  2. Murray Goulden, Your smart home is trying to reprogram you in The Conversation. 2017.
  3. Murray Goulden, Peter Tolmie, Richard Mortier, Tom Lodge, Anna-Kaisa Pietilainen, and Renata Teixeira, Living with interpersonal data: Observability and accountability in the age of pervasive ICT. New Media & Society: 1461444817700154, 2017.


Freelancers Union: The App

n the early twenty first, there’s an app for everything. Indeed, some people seem to think that if you don’t have an app, you aren’t for real.

This week the Freelancer’s Union (I’m a proud member since 2015) released a new ‘app’. As their web page puts it, “Solidarity? There’s An App For That.” This isn’t my grandfather’s union, that’s for sure!

OK, I’m game. Let’s do some more close reading here.

First, let me be very clear. The Freelancers Union is doing important stuff, and I strongly support them. You can’t talk about the future of work without talking about the future of workers.

But that does not mean that I will not do a close reading of their narrative or their recent forays into digital products.

Looking At The App

Just what exactly does this ‘Solidarity Forever: The App’ actually do? Does it connect us to our brothers and sisters in the Union? Does it help recruit more members? Does it host digital rallies? Does it ping our elected representatives about legislation? Could there possibly be a playlist of inspiring songs? Dare I hope for live sing alongs with our comrades around the world?

Maybe in version 2.0.

The current version does only one thing: connects you to legal advice.  Sigh. Useful, I suppose, but not nearly as exciting as on could hope.

You App Reveals Your Psyche

While I think this app misses an opportunity to show off FU as truly the new way of work (see below), it does reveal some facts about the FU and our members.

First of all, the fact that there is an app at all, indicates the desire for conventional branding, especially, to be current. The Union is real unless it’s got an app. Box checked.

Second, we find confirmation that the backbone of the union is in the ‘digital creatives’, especially in NYC. The release is accompanied by a social promotion campaign (standard fare for digital advertising), and the instructions simply say,

Post a photo of yourself holding up the app, with the caption “I stand with freelancers because [write your reason!]. #FreelancersUnionApp

It is obviously assumed that we know what “post” means, and think that posting selfies is a meaningful political act.

We also see clearly what is at the top of the worries for the union and the membership. The app does only one thing: it refers you to a lawyer. Glancing at the app, we see a list of the common categories of problem, and the number one suggested topic is  “nonpayment”.

The FU has been pointing on its #FreelancingIsntFree campaign for more than a year, so we get the picture. The same bastards who hire temps instead of permanent employees, also find it cost effective to not pay the temps.

Another glaring point is that, like much of the union’s activities, this offer is only available in NYC initially. The Union is open to everyone, even schlunks like me out in some cornfield, but they are effective on the ground only in a few cities, and mostly in NYC where they HQ. I’m pretty sure that the union would like to spread the goodness everywhere, but it tends to be a perennial disappointment out here in the cornfields, where we can read about, but not really get much real union action.

Anyway–see how much we can learn from close reading an app!

Let me try to be clear. There isn’t anything really wrong with this app, and I certainly support the FU and the purpose of this app.  The point is to see what the app really is, and think about what it could be.

Please let me go one more step and make some suggestions for version 2.

First of all, there could be a specialized social network, with union themed features. The network should be totally flat, because everyone is in one union. PMs should be limited to pings that say, “I got your back” (forget about “like”—we don’t have to “like” each other, just fight for each other :-)). The union might circulate petitions and calls to contact politicians.

Second, there could be solidarity themed ‘togetherness’ activities. Simple ways for the Union to organize flash crowds, marches, or picnics, where feasible.  Other activities might include walkabouts that alert you when union members are near (a la Look Up or even AR Pokemon).

In cases where, we can’t meet in person, lets have digital solidarity. Digital sing songs. Digital dance alongs. Casual games

One game I can think of is a simple trivia game to learn about the union an dits members. Flash cards with simple (non-invasive) information, like where, what you do, and a tag. Remember the most Union members and be famous! High multipliers for locations outside NYC, and for statistically unusual tags (rare occupation, older worker, etc.)

If we want to go Augmented Reality, then we could make union badges that are AR markers. When you encounter someone with their badge on, point the app at her or him. Poof, they are surrounded by halos and unicorns! Or some other magic, magic that only happens when two union members are together in physical space.

The point is, if you make the app cool enough, people will want to join the union, just to get the app!  Let’s put the union in the lead of social technology.

Join the union.

Close Reading Apps: Brilliantly Executed BS

One of the maddening things about the contemporary Internet is the vast array of junk apps—hundreds of thousands, if not many millions—that do nothing at all, but look great. Some of them are flat out parodies, some are atrocities, many are just for show (no one will take us seriously if we don’t have our own app). But some are just flat out nonsense, in a pretty package. (I blame my own profession for creating such excellent software development environments.)

The only cure for this plague is careful and public analysis of apps, looking deeply into not only the shiny surface, but the underlying logic and metalogic of the enterprise. This is a sort of “close reading” of software, analogous to what they do over there in the humanities buildings.  Where does the app come from? What does it really do, compared to what they say it does? Whose interests are served?

Today’s example are two apps that pretend to do social psychology: Crystal (“Become a better communicator”) and Knack (“for unlocking the world’s potential”).

[Read Whole Article]

Yet Another Security Flaw In Your Mobile Device

It seems like every week brings a new study that demonstrates that your mobile device is a sieve of information about you, potentially hackable in any number of exotic ways.

This week we learn that not only can hackers manipulate the motion sensors in your phone, they can read the motion sensors and guess what you are typing. Specifically, Maryam Mehrnezhad and colleagues at Newcastle University published a paper demonstrating that a simple hack can seal your 4 digit PIN with greater than 50% hit rate [1].


This attack takes advantage of the fact that most operating systems allow programs to access the motion sensors without asking permission. This has many potential security implications, but in this case they are looking at the use of numerical key boards type in PINs. They use a Javscript loaded in a browser to snoop on the sensors while when another tab asks for a PIN.

They train a classifier that learns to recognize the motion of the phone as numbers are tapped. The data uses features including orientation, acceleration, gravity, and so on. The resulting model then can guess what number is typed with absurdly high hit rates, even then a different person types the numbers.


The researchers note that this vulnerability needs to be addressed by operating systems and standards. Essentially, motion and touch sensors should be treated as IO devices, and managed similar to how microphones, cameras, and so on. (It is slightly scandalous that these sensors are so poorly protected, even after all these years.)

However, it isn’t really clear what kind of management would work, since the attack is done through the web browser.

The study also examined user expectations. The main point, of course, is that none of use would intuitively expect that our PIN could be stolen via these sensors. For that matter, many people don’t know about or understand these sensors.

You can’t do the right thing if you don’t even know it is there, and there isn’t any way to do anything anyway.

Double sigh.

  1. Maryam Mehrnezhad, Ehsan Toreini, Siamak F. Shahandashti, and Feng Hao, Stealing PINs via mobile sensors: actual risk versus user perception. International Journal of Information Security:1-23, 2017// 2017.