Thoughts on Government IT

by Rashid Z. Muhammad 15. November 2013 06:00

NOTE: I originally wrote this in October of 2011 but never published it. I have made one modification which was to update the Councilmatic link.

A few weeks ago I went on a mental health trip to Chicago, and the ability of that city to inspire me has not abated one iota. The city was running an "Apps for Metro Chicago" competition where entrants were challenged to turn data provided by the city into useful applications (congrats Elizabeth!). Mayor Rahm Emanuel's rationale as explained during the announcement:

"Help us help you figure out how to make government an accessible piece. Help us write an app. We can't think of everything," Mayor Emanuel told RedEye. "We want the consumer involved in helping draft the applications for that information that they think would be useful for them. If it's useful for them, it's highly likely the other consumers will want similar information."

This idea of the government relying on volunteer efforts to create better products for citizens is one that has caught on as of late and is well represented by Code For America. It's a good approach, but it's only part of the solution. As best as I can tell, most of the applications coming out of these hackathons or public development efforts are essentially new front ends for data published by a government entity. Visibility of information is extremely important, but I would argue that the most important aspects of government IT are the process and systems that go about populating the systems with the data being visualized." Garbage in" and all that.

For example, Code for America lists a project called Councilmatic. The purpose of this application is to lace legislation records with metadata so the city can publish information on current legislation based on properties such as who submitted it, what general subject does it address, and the current status of the legislation. This is a great idea, and will provide a lot of value, but there are big problems on the front end of this process that need to be addressed. Knowing where the document is in the process (e.g. first reading, in committee) is useful, but what is also useful is a record of the composition of the legislation over time. What has changed? Who changed it? When was it changed? Can we broaden perspective by linking the change log to the moment in the video of the council or committee meeting when it was discussed?

In theory these things could be accomplished by using metadata, but it seems to me that the effectiveness of crowdsourcing in data gathering is inversely related to the complexity of the data set being targeted: code compliance artifacts are easier for the masses to manage than legislation data. Some would argue that Wikipedia represents an exception, but my response would be to ask those people to use it for finding the square mileage of the top ten US metropolitan areas.

This type of work requires long term coordinated efforts that can't (or at least shouldn't) be "hacked" into existence. The challenge I see is that acquiring this type of operational efficiency requires long term organizational commitment in operational areas whose policies can often be informed by political considerations. This might require another level of civic engagement where highly skilled people actually take jobs with cities.

Tags:

Code | Politics | Technology

Music Pass

by Rashid Z. Muhammad 28. April 2013 16:51

You might remember back in the late 90s there was a bit of a kerfuffle between the major record labels (Recording Industry Association of America) and a group of upstart software companies that allowed users of their wares to share music files in a peer to peer manner. This situation got nasty when the industries legal options against the companies releasing the software didn't stem the tide of change and they decided to sue the actual users of these services which resulted in situations where housewives and their kids were being sued for tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

To me at the time, the whole thing seemed pretty stupid. Even though I was still in my hyper-leftist socialist sympathizer phase, what annoyed me was that there was a clear market opportunity that the record companies were missing out on. The fact was that file sharing networks were terrible places for people who bought a lot of music to get the product. First off, it was biased toward really popular music so if you weren't listening to top 40 stuff, you'd have to wait for somebody with more nuanced taste to log in - which was frequently not when you were logged in. Next, it was very singles oriented as you were much more likely to find a particular song than an entire album. Finally, there was a huge variance in the quality of the files with most people ripping music at relatively low fidelity bit rates.

These were all problems that the record companies could have addressed by launching their own service and making their entire catalogs available. Instead, they chose to sue. I understand why they did it, the fact that the entertainment industry is notoriously bad at adapting to disruptive change - look no further than Jack Valenti's notorious comment before Congress in 1981 about the VCR:

Now, the question comes, well, all right, what is wrong with the VCR. One of the Japanese lobbyists, Mr. Ferris, has said that the VCR... is the greatest friend that the American film producer ever had.

I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.

Even still, the bigger problem was that customer demand was changing too fast and instead of responding to the change, they alienated customers who were simply telling them what they wanted. This was too much for me and I, the kid who as a high schooler spent his entire allowance on music for years, decided to boycott the RIAA. Not only would I not buy anything from them, I wouldn't even illegally download it. This boycott lasted from roughly 2000 to 2011. What happened in 2011 to cause me to lift my embargo?

The Zune Pass.

When I got my Windows Phone, it came with a service that I found interesting. For 15 bucks a month, you could download or stream all of the music you wanted to be played on your phone or PC for as long as you had an active subscription. In addition to that, you could also download 10 high quality MP3s per month to keep forever. The math to me was pretty simple, if I assumed a song cost 1 dollar, then I was paying 5 bucks per month to listen to all the music I wanted and only buy what I liked. I thought it was a great deal and represented exactly what the industry should have done when the likes of Napster and Kazaa and GNUtella were popping up.

I signed up and haven't looked back.

Today the service has been modified (it is now known as the XBOX Music Pass) and what really differentiated it from a Pandora or Spotify - the 10 downloads - is no longer included, but the idea is that there are now lots of different services that allow you to legally consume tons of music on demand. That is progress. And not only that, every Tuesday I can listen to every new album released as much as I want without paying an additional dime so the costs of my music addiction are predictable. My iPod touch is passe compared to my Lumia 920.

Here are some albums I have enjoyed this year:

Devendra Banhart - Mala: Very quirky lighthearted and enjoyable. You have to hear it for yourself as I'm not capable of doing it justice in words. Favorite song: Your Fine Petting Duck.

Lupe Fiasco - Food and Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album: I'm not 100% on board with his politics, but the fact that a rapper even has politics in his music - much less, articulated in an extremely thoughtful manner - these days gives him cred in my book. Very good all around album. Favorite song: Around My Way (Freedom Ain't Free)

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Mosquito: Their electro-rock sound reminds me a lot of Garbage, and I really dug Garbage. However, what really got me going on this album was a completely out of the blue appearance from the one and only Dr. Octagon. Favorite song: Buried Alive

Snoop Lion - Reincarnated: Honestly, I still don't know what to make of this record. Snoop is a pretty mediocre reggae vocalist, but it takes guts to do something like Reincarnated and I feel like those guts are what make it work... on some levels. Favorite song: I'll get back to you.

Dropkick Murphys - Signed and Sealed in Blood: I dare you to not get amped up while listening to this group chant away. It's like Irish Crunk Music. Favorite song: They are all awesome but I'll go with Rose Tattoo (Prisoner's Song seems like a cheap pick)

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Technology | Music

Random Apple Thoughts

by Rashid Z. Muhammad 14. March 2013 22:51

Lately I have been getting into mobile app development and, as a result, I have purchased an Mac (iMac) since it is impossible to write iOS applications without one. This is the third Mac I've personally owned and the first since the big x86 move a few years back. The Mac and its OS haven't changed much and neither has my opinion of it as a good but highly overrated platform. Still, my return to Appleland has gotten me thinking about a few things...

- I hate Apple's abbreviated wireless keyboard. I don't think the average person would have much of a problem with it but, for a coder and probably a writer, it is horrible with no home end or delete keys (the keyboard has a key called "delete" but it is actually analogous to backspace). Apple sells a full sized keyboard with the caveat that it is wired but jeez, it's hard to not feel nickle-and-dimed being charged 50 bucks to get such basic typing features.

- The Mac has come a long way app-wise. My guess is that the popularity of iOS has gotten a lot of developers familiar with Objective-C and therefore increased the number and quality of Mac developers. The gaming selection is still a little weak but I was able to download Civilization V from Steam so 90% of my personal gaming is covered. It is very cool that a Steam license can cover PC and Mac.

- Once you get used to it, Xcode is pretty cool. I think Visual Studio is a superior IDE in many ways but, like many things Apple, there are small touches that I appreciate. The profiler in particular is very robust (I'm guessing that is a byproduct of Objective-C's lack of garbage collection) and I appreciate having a good one built in as for many years I had to buy RedGate profiler to get decent analytics developing in NET. I also like the little animations that clearly illustrate the positions of code braces and parenthesis.

- I find Objective-C to be a very interesting language. Its elegance kind of sneaks up on you, probably because that NextStep (NS*) prefix on so many classes can make it unsightly at first glance coming from the cleaner naming used in Java and C#. Once I got past that, I have grown to find idiomatic Objective-C to be a nice change of pace. The self-documenting method naming is really cool. Also, I've been learning without Automatic Reference Counting turned on and I have to say that my return to pointer city hasn't been so bad.

- iTunes is as bad on the Mac as it is on the PC. It's just as well because I find that the Zune desktop app and XBOX music / video make iTunes pretty much obsolete anyway for anything other than managing your iOS devices - a practice that is fundamentally obsolete as well.

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Code | Technology

The Arrival - Some Thoughts on Windows Phone 7(.5)

by Rashid Z. Muhammad 28. November 2011 06:00

A Turn of Events

In April of this year, my HTC Touch Pro 2 cell phone developed free will and decided it would only perform tasks it wanted when it wanted and the wishes of its owner - me - would only be worth consideration after prolonged pleading and eventual physical aggressiveness. Its just as well since the Windows Mobile 6.5 operating system it was running was getting long in the tooth a while before the hardware itself revolted. I had been thinking of getting a new phone for months and the opportunity finally presented itself.

I must confess that my wavering fidelity to the Touch Pro 2 predated even Windows Mobile wearing out its welcome. The sexy device catching my eye was the HTC Evo, a large screen brandishing android-powered seductress not only attracting me with her formidable hardware and software assets but also the distinction of being the first high-speed 4G phone on the market. As a 10-plus year Sprint customer, I was a little shocked at the fact that my carrier which, less than 24 months previous, was lagging the smartphone market badly had picked itself up and was now offering some of the most compelling handsets around - sans the iPhone of course but I had no interest in that device to begin with.

Once it was clear that my phone situation was critical, I went to the Sprint store with visions of Android dancing in my head. As I was looking for an extended battery pack in the accessories section I happened to spy a carrying case for a phone called the HTC Arrive. What caught my eye about the Arrive was that, according to the picture on the package, it was running Windows Phone 7-, the recently-released ground-up rewrite of Windows Mobile. I had read a few WP7 reviews at launch, but had never seen it in person. Also, I didn't recall seeing any WP7 phones in the Sprint lineup before which made it a non-starter as I was not interested in switching carriers.

Curious, I asked a salesperson if they had an Arrive in stock and she walked me to the darkest, most remote section of the store where the handset was displayed. After blowing off a thick cloud of dust (I jest), I started playing with the phone and was immediately spellbound.

I read about the phone's Metro user interface in reviews but, despite the positive assessments ascribed it, the pictures didn't look very compelling. Monochrome squares and rectangles on a screen - big freakin' deal. However, once I actually saw - no, felt - the thing in action I was utterly amazed. The user interface on my Windows Mobile 6.5 device had devolved into a handheld slideshow so I figured just about anything would be an improvement, but what I was seeing in WP7 was by far the most responsive user interface I had ever seen. Seriously, liquid is the only adjective that I feel does it any justice.

As I continued to poke around the phone, it became clearer and clearer that I was not going to walk away with the EVO. The Arrive had everything I cared about plus it came in a more manageable size with a hardware keyboard. After about 10 minutes of toying with it, I decided to purchase the phone.

The first month or so with the Touch Pro 2 was great but over time the phone performed worse and worse - like a handheld Windows 95. For that reason, I decided to wait a while before I wrote my impressions on Windows Phone 7. Now, after 6+ months of ownership - and the last 2 months running the 7.5 "Mango" update - I think I have a good feel for the ups and downs of the OS and feel comfortable sharing my thoughts. Please note that this isn't intended to be anything other than my views on WP7 and WP7 alone so my perspective is that of a new user, not somebody trying to exhaustively compare the WP7 OS with any other platform.

The Good

For me, WP7's greatest asset is the User Interface. The fact that it is fast and responsive gets a lot of press -rightfully - but just as compelling is the fact that it represents a fresh take on how the user interacts with the device. Before WP7 most phones were glorified app launchers that presented users with a grid of equally sized icons representing all of the device's installed applications. WP7 has an application list that essentially does this, but the default view is the "Start Screen" implemented as a customizable list of tiles that can represent applications but also other objects such as contacts (single and groups), documents, or even specific pages in applications.

For example, my start screen has all of the important stuff - phone, email accounts, messaging application, calendar and weather - but it also has a shortcut to a playlist in the phone media player application, the scratch notepad in my online OneNote notebook, a link to my cloud-based document repository, a group of contacts for my close friends, and a link to the Foursquare app page for one of my favorite (and most hotly contested for mayor) restaurants.

Taking it a step further, the tiles are not just static icons. For example, the icon for my close friends displays recent social network updates from anyone in the group and highlights if anyone from the group has made an attempt to contact me. There is also a "Me" tile that lets me know if anyone has mentioned me on twitter or responded to a Facebook post, or tagged me in a picture or... whatever. Obviously only so much info can be placed in a 1-inch or so square tile so tapping the tile gets you into the full detail of the notification(s).

The examples I just mentioned are really byproducts of one of the other unique features of the phone: tight social networking integration. WP7 allows you to connect several social networks - MSN, Linked In, Twitter, and Facebook - and aggregate your contacts across them all. So if I have friends that I have connections to through my personal address book, Twitter, Facebook, and Linked In, I can connect them in under one contact entry which will show me all of the messages I've received from the contacts as well as their recent Twitter / Facebook status updates and pictures. It's a really convenient way to keeping track of not only what a person is up to, but also the communication history between myself and that person.

For me the most remarkable thing about the OS is how it tries to de-emphasize the app orientation that has become par for the smartphone course. I'm sure part of the reason is the fact that, while the growth of the app store is brisk, the WP7 platform is vastly outgunned by app marketplaces of its competitors who bring hundreds of thousands of apps to the table. (Having said that, I can't help but be amused hearing Apple enthusiasts try to belittle the high quality WP7 OS because of its lack of apps when those same people used to - and still - try to marginalize the importance of the sheer number of apps when it comes to Mac OSX.) Whatever the reason, I think the idea of making the OS more of a focal point than the apps has paid off, on social networking at least, as I very rarely use the Facebook or Twitter apps. I simply go to the "Me" tile, select "post an update" and choose which networks I want to receive the message. If I want to see updates from others,  I either go to a single contact, a contact group, or my full contact list and swipe to the "What's New" tab. Pretty slick stuff.

There are literally hundreds of cool features on the phone but you can read about those elsewhere. A few more things I like are: the ability to "try" any paid app in the app store, the Bing "Local Scout" which detects the neighborhood you're in and displays all sorts of destinations for activity in the vicinity, the way the media player can show pictures of the artist you're listening to on the phone lock screen, the fact that the phone integrates SMS, Facebook chat, and MSN chat into its messaging application, and the way that the contact list and contract group live tiles will cycle through pictures of people contained within.

The Bad

I'm sure you can tell I like Windows Phone 7 a lot, but it's not without problems. My biggest problem is the fact that the social media integration is confined to the providers Microsoft has built connectors for. Twitter and Linked In didn't become available til the 7.5 update and there are plenty of other useful networks that could be integrated e.g. Hi5, MySpace (I know, but they still have millions of users), or Google+ (ha!). This wouldn't be as annoying if I didn't know as a developer that Microsoft is very good a designing provider models for plug in functionality. There is no good reason for disallowing alternate functionality in the search and map apps either. Yes I know Google is nonplussed about the idea, but since most of their APIs are open that hole can be filled by third parties. Hopefully this problem can be rectified in the future.

A related issue is that the phone synchronization only works through the Zune desktop media player application. In some ways I don't mind this because the Zune software is one slick bit of kit (every bit as slick as WP7 in fact), but the problem is that the Zune player is a media application and media constitutes the least important data on my phone. For me, the phone is a life management tool with its ability to aggregate disparate contact lists and calendars into one cohesive whole and I would like a way to leverage that in an environment other than my phone - namely the computer I sync it with. As it stands, the phone is the only place where I can see all of this information in one location. I don't think there is any reason why the phone data can't be synced with a desktop client. Since Windows has built-in calendar and address book programs that can be default repositories it's ridiculous to me that I have to consult my phone every time I want to add something to a calendar in fear of having a cross-calendar conflict. Even a manual dump would be nice.

Next, the WP7 User Interface, as awesome as it is, can be a liability as well. Most basically, many of the apps use a "panorama" interface where the UI is spread along a single "page" with the phone only displaying one part of the page at a time. Here is an example:

It creates a pretty dramatic effect when using an application, but it's also a fairly novel concept which I imagine raises the cost of development due to the variation in user experience from the other mobile operating systems. It's not a deal breaker, but it can certainly slow adoption and, at this point in the game for Microsoft, uptake is priority one. I admit this is a pretty picky issue.

I talked earlier about how responsive and smooth the phone operates, well sometimes it is a little too responsive. There have been plenty of times where I have barely grazed a button and the phone zipped back to a previous page or launched an application. This could be due to hardware and/or software sensitivity issues but it also appears to be an artifact of software design as one app in particular (the Google Voice client) does it way more often than others.

Conclusion

I don't regret ditching the EVO for the Arrive. I know I've spent this whole write up talking about software and I think that's a good thing. The hardware itself gets out of my way and let's me get things done. What higher compliment I can give?

I have turned into a big fan of WP7. When it was first released there were a number of complaints about the OS being very slick but half-baked. My phone shipped with the first point release - NoDo it was called - and whatever came with that update was apparently enough to satisfy me. With the 7.5 Mango release the phone improved dramatically and even has a few market-leading features.

I think what has surprised me most about my experience with the phone is how my personal preference for dealing with technology has changed. The Windows Phone 7 experience is very cloud oriented with most information being pulled from remote sources so the phone itself has little outside of media files and a few documents saved locally. What local information is saved is either retrieved by syncing with a computer or the cloud, but the file system is not directly inaccessible. Not long ago I would have scoffed at the idea of not directly accessing the data on my phone, but now all I care about is being able to get at it when I need it. I'm wondering if I've changed or if the file access use cases have finally gotten to the point where direct access to the data store has been made less relevant to the experience of interacting with the data itself.

Probably both.

Whatever the case might be, at six blissful crash-free months (yes, zero crashes) in, I'm a believer.

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Reviews | Technology

Steve Jobs. Well played.

by Rashid Z. Muhammad 6. October 2011 13:27

Stolen from http://fortunebrainstormtech.files.wordpress.com/2008/09/jobs_before_afterla.jpg

For me, Steve Jobs recent passing could be squarely put in the "disappointing but not surprising" category. When he resigned as Apple's CEO a few weeks back with a terse message signalling he could no longer perform his day to day duties in the organization, people had to expect the worst. While I respect the brand and have purchased a few Macs for personal use, I myself am not an Apple enthusiast (ThinkPads STAND UP!!!). Regardless, every few years I would check out the highlights of Jobs' various keynote addresses and I will never forget seeing a photograph of him while unveiling the iPad - the guy was a total shadow of himself.

It was shocking to see this titan of the industry looking so emaciated. I've always thought Jobs was an arrogant asshole, that hasn't changed, but over the years I've come to appreciate that archetype and the role it plays in the most important of organizational functions - providing direction. Now it takes more than bullheaded self-assuredness and the audacity to throw it around to lead, Mr. Jobs had that plus a very acute consumer focus and sales acumen that set him apart. The most important lesson I learned from Jobs was how true leaders do what has to be done, regardless of pride or how such action might be perceived at the time.

The moment was Macworld 1997 where Mr. Jobs made his first keynote address as CEO of Apple after being exiled for twelve years from the company he helped found. During the Keynote, Jobs would talk about partnerships and drop several bombs on the audience. The two biggest hits were that Microsoft would buy 150 million dollars in Apple stock and that Internet Explorer would be the default browser in the MacOS.

For those who were in the anti-Microsoft camp those days (as I was), that latter point was especially painful given the fact that Microsoft was being investigated by the Feds for destroying an upstart company named Netscape by engaging in anti-competitive practices of which making Internet Explorer the default browser in Windows was a major one. More chillingly, the enormous visage of Bill Gates smiling and telling the Apple faithful that their beloved company was being given a lifeline by its mortal enemy was probably an all-time low for Apple. Regardless, Jobs put his legendary ego to the side and did what he had to do to save the company. His words:

If we want to move forward and see Apple healthy and prospering again, we have to let go of a few things here. We have to let go of this notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft has to lose. We have to embrace a notion that for Apple to win, Apple has to do a really good job. And if others are going to help us that's great, because we need all the help we can get, and if we screw up and we don't do a good job, it's not somebody else's fault, it's our fault. So I think that is a very important perspective. If we want Microsoft Office on the Mac, we better treat the company that puts it out with a little bit of gratitude; we like their software.

So, the era of setting this up as a competition between Apple and Microsoft is over as far as I'm concerned. This is about getting Apple healthy, this is about Apple being able to make incredibly great contributions to the industry and to get healthy and prosper again.

Not only did Jobs save Apple from bankruptcy, he was given a base upon which to transform it into a company that would transcend technology. He might not have been a nice guy - neither is Gates for that matter - but he was a shining example of a person who knew what mattered for his purposes and relentlessly pursued it - even if he had to take a bite out what must have been the nastiest crap sandwich he could imagine. Jobs indeed got the last laugh, but where might Apple be today had he not swallowed his pride and made this happen?

Well played sir. Well played.

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Technology

About the author

Rashid Z. Muhammad lives in Atlanta and likes to read.

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