Monthly Archives: March 2015

Oh, We’re Halfway There!

During this Sprint, BRiDJ made a lot of progress on UniTrade and had a blast doing it!

We all attended a Hackathon hosted by the UT Journalism School at the Austin-American Statesman. One of our biggest achievements of the Hackathon was getting some use testing done. We had a friend of ours, Molly Stier, go through our app and let us know what we’re doing right and what we needed to change. We also scoped out a color scheme. Check out our individual blog posts for a recap of our experiences and our Hackathon accomplishments!

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On the coding side, we were able to make our app do things! We implemented the core function of our app: creating a listing. Users can now tap on a “+” button and create a new listing for an item they’re selling. Once they enter all the data required, their listing gets sent to the server.

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To display the listings in the app, we pull data from Parse (the service we’re using to host our data).

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We cache the listings that the user has pulled before, to minimize the requests we make to the server and the amount of data the user’s device has to receive from the network. Basically, once you access a listing, the data gets stored locally on your device. We only pull the data again if changes have been made to the post. Users can tap on a listing to view the data entered by the the listing’s owner.

The process of listing goods and accessing other listings will be duplicated for housing listings. The first version of our app is almost done!

As for communications, we’ve gained some more followers on Twitter and likes on Facebook. Darice and Brittany have been working on generating content for Facebook and Twitter. One of the content plans they created was to pull Facebook posts from different UT buying and selling groups and highlighting the “worst” post of the week. We’ve also decided to start pushing our app to different Facebook groups for students.

For Twitter, we’re working on increasing our interaction and putting out some interesting tweets. We’ve also been planning promotional give-aways to generate a user base for our app, such as free t-shirts and pugs (our team has an obsession with pugs).
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Things are looking good on both the technical and social ends. Onwards and upwards!

Crunch Time for profsUT

Blog post 6? Whaaaa? This semester is passing by faster than the blink of an eye! Yeah that’s right, Teacher’s Pet can spit some rhymes here and there! But seriously, where has the time gone? The saying must be true: time flies when you’re building an app. Okay, maybe that isn’t really a saying, but profsUT is keeping the team extremely busy! Unfortunately Spring Break 2015 is over. Teacher’s Pet enjoyed the time off, but we’re excited to be working on the app again and can’t wait to see where the second half of the semester takes us. We’ve made some great progress since our last blog post, so let’s get you caught up on the action!

Journalism Hackathon

The first ever Journalism Hackathon at the Austin American-Statesman was a great experience for the profsUT team. The Hackathon was still a great opportunity to work with other students and professionals with journalism and computer science backgrounds. We received great feedback that helped us iron out specifics that we had trouble finalizing. Although Zac, Miles, and Bryant worked on personal projects, Mercedes and Landon used this opportunity to interview some students from class about what they’d want to hear from the professor interviews. As a result, their responses helped us finalize the questions and direction we wanted the interviews to go.

Social Media Presence

Over the past few weeks we’ve shown some nice improvement on our Facebook and Twitter accounts. Our Facebook page started off strong, but recently the likes have stalled. We’re up to 65 as of now, but we’re hoping to get that number up to at least 80 by the end of Sprint 3. However, our Twitter page has been very successful! We now have 100 followers! Whoooo! The rise in followers is a result of being stalkers on Twitter. Okay, not really stalkers. But Mercedes and Landon decided a good idea might be to look up journalism students since they are partly the focus of our app. The idea worked in our favor! Once we started following some students, more began to appear in the “Who To Follow” page in Twitter. The more students we followed, they slowly began to follow us back. Journalism professors have really helped advertise our social media presence by retweeting us and favoriting our tweets. It lets us know that we are reaching our targeted audience. We’re happy with 100 followers, but we aren’t completely satisfied! We know that number can increase by the end of the semester, so we will continuously attempt to improve our followers. So if you haven’t already, please like our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter!

Faculty Meeting

We also had a meeting with some of the stakeholders in the app: Journalism school faculty! We introduced them to our idea of shooting videos that allowed them to detail the highlights of their courses, and they all were enthusiastic. Since the meeting, we have begun sending out emails requesting video shoots with professors.

Nerd Stuff

Finally, we made a lot of progress on the “nerd” stuff. While the technical work of a team is often reduced to four words – “it’s in the cloud” – it actually is quite complicated! We made the app more attractive and finalized scrapers, the things that get information off of websites for our app. We also “deployed” the service that gives our app information on a server from a service called Digital Ocean. We weren’t satisfied with the ability of the server to scale to the type of scenario our app will face if the journalism school wants to use it: A huge number of users in a short amount of time during registration, followed by periods of little to no traffic at all. For that reason, we’re transitioning our “nerd stuff” over to an Amazon service called Elastic Beanstalk. Essentially, using Elastic Beanstalk means that Amazon takes care of the problem of traffic to our image and video files, and when our app gets more or less traffic, they intelligently scale up and down the amount of technology that is being used to handle it. By the first week of Sprint 3, we expect to be done with this transition, and we’ll only have one technical hurdle left: deciding how we want to encode video.

 

We need a dollar dollar

We thought we had figured out most of the fundamental challenges of completing the Echoed app. We were wrong. Transcription has become a huge problem … and it’s an expensive one.

An enormous part of Echoed’s ideal functionality includes (included?) the ability to directly transcribe phone calls.  Our research into transcription methods, has shown us that voice-to-text is going to be a huge hurdle to overcome.  The main problem is that as a group of five students working without a budget, we can’t afford the options out there. As Sam said, “transcribing just may not be practical for our app.”

Currently we are looking at different options to make this transcriber a reality. We have gone through several platforms, each with their own disadvantages.

Google Voice will only transcribe audio for a whopping 15 seconds, and is limited to 50 transcriptions per month. As we all know, most journalists have phone interviews longer than that. So we crossed that off our list.

Next we turned to Dragon, a popular speech recognition software. As far as we can tell, Dragon is great! Except that it is expensive… really expensive. So we cut Dragon too.

Lastly, we began looking into Clarify, a cheaper HP voice recognition that can identify keywords. The way identifying keywords works is by identifying “special” words and finds them in the audio and finds information to recognize other words, called indexing.

We have considered several possible solutions to this problem:

  1. Pay for a transcriber and make this a separate version of the app available for “power users.”
  2. Cut the process completely from our app
  3. Create a mixture of bundled packages, offered with discounts and purchase specials, that allow users to pay the different amounts for what they want to use. Transcription could be an additional fee.

We haven’t given up on our original goal of having an app that successfully records and transcribes phone calls though! This transcription dilemma will take more work than we originally anticipated, but the end result will be worth it.

On a more positive note (there are positive notes), Sam and Jacob have set up the app’s backend so we can now make and record phone calls- one of the fundamental purposes of our app. We are on our way!

Additionally, Faith Ann has created screens on Adobe Illustrator for the app. The goal was to create a feel that was easy and comfortable to use by designing a look similar to the Apple phone application.

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Andy has set up a test group of reporters from institutions like the Austin American-Statesman and the Texas Tribune to preview our app’s design. We hope this will give us some relevant insights into how our target demographic will use the app.

Ciao,

Taylor and the rest of the Quagswag team

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Actually Peanut Butter Coding Time

For the last two weeks as a group, we at Peanut Butter Coding Time (possibly also “Talk Nerdy to Me” more on that later) have done the thing we were all most excited to do: code.

Duff and Laura (our two computer science students) were obviously ecstatic to transition into something they are more accustomed to and familiar with. Additionally, Doug and Danielle (our two journalism students) were eager to learn what the buzz surrounding coding was all about.

First things first, spring break was very kind to us. We all had a very relaxing week off and honestly didn’t meet up too much to discuss app stuff. However, at our meeting Monday we really got after it.

Duff finished up the design by adding a gradient look to the current dark blue color scheme we decided to go with and we got rolling on the coding.

That’s when the moment happened; Duff looked at Doug and said, “Hey Doug, you think you want to maybe code for one of the more simple views.”

Doug looked at Duff with panic in his eyes. He knew this moment would come (he spent half his bandwidth downloading xCode) but he never expected it would come so quick.

“Sure,” Doug said, “but don’t make me do something that’s super complicated.”

And just like that, they were off. Doug, with Duff’s guidance, created the lock screen views for the phone for when the alarm goes off. He learned how to create a simple NSLog function within xCode. At the end the page was finished and Doug (and the entire team) was satisfied.

“It was a really cool experience coding for the first time,” Doug said. “Especially with help from Duff. He knows exactly what he’s doing and he guided me through the process.”

All in all, we had a very productive couple of days before our Sprint 3 in class and were able to get a lot of things accomplished that we originally did not think we could get to.

For instance, we didn’t even put any type of coding in our plan for Sprint 3 because we didn’t feel like we had the time for it. We really got the ball rolling in these past couple of weeks and have exceeded even our own expectations.

The best is still yet to come from us at Peanut Butter Coding Time so keep your eyes peeled for some extreme user testing among other things before we speak again in our next blog update.

 

And we’re back

From outer space.

Just kidding, space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence. We’re actually just back from spring break, where we took a short break from everything but now we’re back, (kind of) refreshed and ready to get back to getting this app up and running.

Before we left, however, we digitalized the wireframes so we had a clearer idea to work from when we actually started building this thing. If you want a peek at what we’re going for, have a look at the photos below.

At this point we’re past the planning stages and delving deeper into actual development. Vicki and Xiarong have been hard at work on coding and Sami and Rachel have been turning the sketches into actual design components, and creating our social media identity. Somehow it all feels like a lot more work than it looks like on paper.

We’ve also made a sincere effort to start interacting more with our homies on Facebook and Twitter, and it looks like it’s paying off. We’ve reached 90 page likes on Facebook and 30 followers on Twitter.(If you’re just now tuning in, feel free to go follow us, we post a lot of cute puppies). Plus, we have a website now! 

Since we’ve got something you can at least interact with on a phone screen now, we’ve also started some basic user testing. So far we’ve only shown it to a few of our friends, but we’re planning on expanding that tester circle soon so we can get as much feedback as we can.

On the coding side, Petwork now has official log in and sign in screens, which are kind of important if we want people to be able to use our app. The camera and photo library functions are also officially set up, so once you start an account you can get right to business. We’ve also got a homescreen! And our talented coders have ensured you’ll be able to sign in with an existing Facebook accounts, we know it’s annoying to have 87 different accounts and passwords. We got your back.

From here on, we’re hoping to expand our social media presence, you can never have enough followers right? Like, for publicity. Please don’t stalk us, we’re nice people.

As mentioned earlier, we’ll also be testing more, so let us know if you’re interested in seeing what we’ve got and giving us feedback! Also (duh) we’ll keep working on the code so we’ve got all the capabilities and functions down. We’re committed, y’all.

Only one more month to go, wish us luck!

Humble Beginnings

Sprint 2 marked the first real stretch of programming for the choreBoard development team, and it has been a bit of a rocky start. Our programmers were tasked with learning a brand new programming language (Swift), on top of all of the intricacies that come with XCode and iOS development. As this sprint comes to a close, we have definitely made some significant progress, although most of it isn’t tangible. We have the humble beginnings in code of what will (hopefully) be our finished product, but more importantly, our developers have made great strides in terms of understanding. Three weeks ago, things like “implementing view controllers” and “declaring protocols” would have been completely foreign concepts to us. But now, we have the tools to master swipe gestures, data manipulation, and in-app navigation.

When we left the Austin American Statesman’s Hackathon the Thursday before spring break we were assured, “Half the time, it’s this idea that ‘I didn’t finish anything, or I barely started. But I learned something.”

That was from Christian McDonald, the Statesman’s Online Projects and Data editor. His words made us feel a bit more confident about the baby steps.

In our next sprint, we’ll work on adding even more functionality to choreBoard, as well as exchanging data with our backend database.

There’s been quite the learning curve on the social media side of things as well. While we have professional experience with social media management on our team, handling social media for an app has been tricky. Why? Because there’s a saturated market of new apps being developed, it’s hard not to come across as spammy and promotional. We have no issue getting attention in general – from talking tech on Twitter to posting a funny meme on Facebook to gaining attention with a video of the Statesman’s press room on Instagram. However, getting feedback for the app specifically via social media has been tricky.

Two of our members at the Austin American Statesman's Hackathon. Note that although we only have 20 Instagram followers, this post was pretty popular. Lesson learned: Hashtags work.

Two of our members at the Austin American Statesman’s Hackathon. Note that although we only have 20 Instagram followers, this post was pretty popular. Lesson learned: Hashtags work.

Social media is both an art and a science. Interaction with your audience so that you don’t come off as a senseless robot, while tracking analytics to see what kind of posts are working at what times requires organization (and decent Excel skills). For our next sprint, we we want to switch the focus from setting specific expectations for a specific number of followers on each platform to brainstorming innovative ways to interact with our existing audiences in the best way we can. In that way, follower count will grow organically when the Interwebz notices all the interesting content we’re putting out. Wish us luck and send us good vibes!

Hacking Crime at #JHacks15

The professional life of a technical expert is often one of seclusion. Armed with a good idea and a basic idea of where to start, it is easy to retreat to a corner and begin slaving away on a project, emerging only when the project completes. Particularly for me, someone with a proclivity for short bursts of intense, singular focus, followed by periods of drifting interests, reading, and social groups, this lifestyle seems suitable. When I am stalled for a project, there is no editor demanding that I have a story today. When I have my teeth sunk into a project, the computer doesn’t judge me for working from 10 am to 5 am, and skipping “work” the next day.

Nevertheless, like any relationship, this dynamic can turn toxic. I can find myself stuck in that corner, stuck on too many ideas and with my back towards helpful outside influences. The UT-Statesman Journalism Hackathon found me at one of those times. For the hackathon, I decided to work on a long-running project we have at the Daily Texan: collecting all of the information that Austin produces on crime reports, and putting it in one standardized place. In short, I wanted to make a crime API. I already had an idea of how to build it: I would scrape the 200,000 plus crime reports that APD makes available on a poorly built public facing form, place them into a geospatial database, and serve them up in a standardized format based on their latitude and longitude using an API. However, the hackathon allowed me to hone my idea, and make it something actually suited for reality.

When I first entered at 1 p.m., there weren’t many “hackers” at the hackathon. This allowed me to get some one on one time with people who could help me with my project. I started off talking with Andrew Chavez of the Statesman about performance. An API has to serve up information quickly, and I was very worried about the ability of my structure to serve the hundreds of requests per second I knew it would need to endure when we built a map on top of if at the Daily Texan. Andrew gave me invaluable tips on how to enhance the performance of my API. He also connected me with Ashlyn Still of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, who built a rather similar crime information portal to what I’ve been aspiring to.

By the end of the day, with help from Chris Chang, formerly of the Texas Tribune, I had a working database of crimes and an API endpoint for accessing them. I presented my project at the end of the hackathon, and got helpful feedback. I also asked about a certain ethical issue that had been troubling me for the past month. How do I make my API something that is useful for gathering statistics and details on crime in Austin, but not for telling if your next door neighbors had the police called during a fight? This question was best answered by a representative of the Knight Foundation. He said that his organization deals with data like this often, and terms it “dirty data”. Christian McDonald jumped in to complete his answer, suggesting that I take the simple solution of “rounding latitude and longitude at a higher decimal value” when I return API results.

The hackathon was a rewarding experience. I stayed longer than I planned to, and went from no product to first API version by the end of the day. I have since improved on the API, bringing my database queries down from a full second to 20 milliseconds, and I plan to improve further before releasing the API. More than that, I was reminded of the power of working with other talented and motivated people who have an interest in the success of my product. Finally, I was motivated to continue on my current career interest, data journalism, by the simple scale and ongoing work of the Statesman. Touring the facilities with Christian McDonald, and witnessing the giant presses, and open newsroom, I got a powerful reminder of the storytelling and information gathering mission I aspire to be a part of.

A New User Experience

When I was headed to the Hackathon, I wasn’t sure what to expect since I had never been to one before. Once I got there, the environment was a lot more relaxed than what I thought it would be. While I was there, my group spent time user testing our app.

My friend, Molly Stier, came with my group to the Hackathon to check it out and while she was there, we put her to work. She went through our app and played around with features.

We asked her what she thought of certain functions and the wording of them. Molly gave us some great feedback that Roman and Jeremy are going to use to tweak the features of our app.

While we were at the Hackathon, someone messaged us on our UniTrade page and told us about an app called Wallapop which at face, seems very similar to our app.

We checked it out and it helped solidify certain parts of the app. We realized what we did want and didn’t want our app to look like.

Aside from the work we did at the Hackathon, I also had a chance to sit down and talk to R.B Brenner. We chatted about UniTrade among other things; it was great finally getting to meet him.

Overall, the Hackathon was different than I expected. The environment was super laid-back and everyone was eager to help. It was definitely a cool experience!

Two Heads are Better Than One

“I am a total newb.” Spoken by Faith during the “demo” at the end of the day, this really expresses the entire idea of a hackathon. Well, maybe just for me.. I am a computer science major, so I’m sure there are many other journalist who attended who felt like more of a “newb” than I did, but the hackathon was a new experience for me. I’ve always been very intimidated by the outside extracurricular activities involving other code-loving people, particularly because they tend to be male dominated.

For me, the experience really opened my eyes to the fact that you don’t have to be the smartest person ever. You don’t have to be a hacker. (I know I’m certainly not one). A hackathon is really about taking your skill – what you do have – and not being afraid to just let yourself try something new. It’s about not being afraid to fail; something that most of us fear all the time. In fact, I failed for a good while on Thursday. As a newbie to Objective-C programming and mobile development in general, I’m still trying to figure out all of these NS objects and all the different names that I’m going to have to get used to seeing as an iOS developer. For a good hour, all I was trying to do get the alarm to go off right on the minute versus at say 8:20:38 AM (or 8:20 am with 38 seconds). It was a surprisingly easy fix in the end, but the difficulty for me was just understanding what all of these different names mean.

The team hard at work

The teams hard at work

By the end of the day, I think as a team we definitely got some great things done. I’ve been talking all about myself, but when it comes to it, I think the best work is done as a team. Two heads are better than one, and as cliche as it might be, it’s true. It’s about giving ourselves a chance to explore ideas with others and perhaps even develop a better one than any of us could have come up with on our own. I also feel that trying to branch out and learn something you didn’t know before. Either by googling or asking someone for help. Sometimes it’s scary to ask others for help, but that’s what this experience is about. Duff learned a little bit about that. He told me, “I learned that Jeff is smarter than Google”. There’s a lot of information on the internet, but learning to ask for help when we really need it is important to get over those obstacles and help us push forward. Overall, I think the experience was a great one and one that I would definitely consider again!

My First Journalism Hackathon

Before my visit to the Austin-American Statesman, I would have never thought that the newspaper industry was the least bit interesting. Because of my major, never in my life would I have ever had a reason to set my foot in the Austin- American Statesman.  When I first arrived at the Hackathon, I saw that everyone was engaged in their own projects. There were a ton of snacks for us to eat while we worked. Within the 5 minutes of arriving at the Hackathon, Christian McDonald asked us if we wanted to go on a tour. At first I thought we would only be seeing their cubicles and their workspace, but to my surprise, he also brought us to the large facility where they print the newspapers. Although I am not a journalism student,  I was very interested in how newspapers were produced and I was very surprised that the newspapers were being printed right where the newspapers were being written.

My team and I worked on and completed our digitalized wireframes and we are ready to begin testing them for user experience. We also figured out how to include Facebook integration into our app. Towards the end of the Hackathon, I spoke with Professor Robert Quigley about the idea behind the Journalism School sponsored Hackathon. “Media has changed a lot within the past few years and there are less jobs available in the traditional newspaper business.” Quigley said. He says the reasoning behind the event was to encourage more journalism majors to be interested and exposed to coding. Because digital media is becoming increasingly popular, students need to adapt to the change and immerse themselves in technology to give them a better chance at landing a job after graduation.

Being a computer science major, you would expect that this would not be the first Hackathon that I have attended. However, because the word “Hackathon” sounded pretty intimidating to me, I never attended one until now. Although the Hackathon was small, I believe that this was a great experience for me because now I have an idea of what a hackathon is like.  Overall, I believe that this Hackathon would be a great experience for all majors and I hope that it is able to have a bigger turnout each year.