Category Archives: Close Reading

Listening for Mosquitos

The ubiquitous mobile phone has opened many possibilities for citizen science. With most citizens equipped with a phone, and many with small supercomputers in the purse or pocket, it is easier than ever to collect data from wherever humans may be.

These devices are increasing the range of field studies, enabling the identification of plants and animals by sight and sound.

One key, of course, is the microphones and cameras. Sold to be used for deals and dating, not to mention selfies, these instruments are outstripping what scientists can afford.

The other key is that mobile devices are connected to the Internet, so data uploads are trivial. This technology is sold for commerce and dating and for sharing selfies, but it is perfect for collecting time and location stamped data.

In short, the vanity of youngsters has funded infrastructure that is better than scientists have ever built. Sigh.


Anyway.

This fall the Stanford citizen science folks are talking about yet another crowd sourced data collection: an project that identifies mosquitos by their buzz.

According to the information, Abuzz works on most phones, including older flip phones (AKA, non-smart phones).

It took me a while to figure out that Abuzz isn’t an app at all. It is a manual process. Old style.

You use the digital recording feature on your phone to record a mosquito. Then you upload that file to their web site. This seems to be a manual process, and I guess that we’re supposed to know how to save and upload sound files.

The uploaded files are analyzed to identify the species of mosquito. There are thousands of species, but the training data emphasized the important, disease bearing species we are most interested in knowing about.

A recent paper reports the details of the analysis techniques [2]. First of all, mobile phone microphones pick up mosquito sounds just fine. As we all know, the whiny buzz of those varmints is right their in human hearing, so its logical that telephones tuned ot human speech would hear mosquitos just fine.

The research indicates that the microphone is good in a range of up to 100mm. This is pretty much what you would expect for a hand held phone. So, you are going to have to hold the phone up to the mosquito, just like you would pass it to a friend to say hello.

At the crux of the matter, they were able to distinguish different mosquitos from recordings made by phone. Different species of mosquito have distinct sounds from their wing beats, and the research showed that they can detect the differences from these recordings.

They also use the time and location metadata to help identify the species. For example, the geographic region narrows down the species that are likely to be encountered.

The overall result is that it should be possible to get information about mosquito distributions from cell phone recordings provided by anyone who participates. This may contribute to preventing disease, or at least alerting the public to the current risks.


This project is pretty conservative, which is an advantage and a disadvantage. The low tech data collection is great, especially since the most interesting targets for surveillance are likely to be out in the bush, where the latest iPhones will be thin on the ground.

On the other hand, the lack of an app or a plug in to popular social platforms means that the citizen scientists have to invest more work, and get less instant gratification. This may reduce participation. Obviously, it would be possible to make a simple app, so that those with smart phones have an even simpler way to capture and upload data.

Anyway, it is clear that the researchers understand this issue. The web site is mostly instructions and video tutorials, featuring encouraging invitations from nice scientists. (OK, I thought the comment that “I would love to see is people really thinking hard about the biology of these complex animals” was a bit much.

I haven’t actually tried to submit data yet. (It’s winter here, the skeeters are gone until spring). I’m not really sure what kind of feedback you get. It would be really cool to return email a rapid report (i.e., within 24 hours). It should say the initial identification from your data (or possibly ‘there were problems, we’ll have to look at it), along with overall statistics to put your data in context (e.g., we’re getting a lot of reports of Aegyptus in your part of Africa).

To do this, you’d need to automate the data analysis, which would be a lot of work, but certainly is doable.


I’ll note that this particular data collection is something that cannot be done by UAVs. Drones are, well, too droney. Even if you could chase mosquitos, it would be difficult to record them over the darn propellers. (I won’t say impossible—sound processing can do amazing things).

I’ll also note that this research method wins points for being non-invasive. No mosquitos were harmed in this experiment. (Well, they were probably swatted, but the experiment itself was harmless.) This is actually important, because you don’t want mosquitos to selectively adapt to evade the surveillance.


  1. Taylor Kubota, Stanford researchers seek citizen scientists to contribute to worldwide mosquito tracking, in Stanford – News. 2017. https://news.stanford.edu/2017/10/31/tracking-mosquitoes-cellphone/
  2. Haripriya Mukundarajan, Felix Jan Hein Hol, Erica Araceli Castillo, and Cooper Newby Using mobile phones as acoustic sensors for high-throughput mosquito surveillance. eLife. doi: 10.7554/eLife.27854 October 11 2017, https://elifesciences.org/articles/27854#info

“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. http://www.gamesforchange.org/2017/07/announcing-the-2017-g4c-student-challenge-winners/

 

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. http://unityinc.org/cultural-based-wellness-app-to-launch-at-national-native-youth-conference/

 

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.