Friday, September 30, 2011

Weasley Clock as Tube Map?

This post is about how we can improve on a normal map to show the members of a work team where everyone is in real time.

Introduction: One of the most fun of the magical items in the Harry Potter world is the Weasley clock .

It shows the general location of all family members with a hand for each family member  (the photo above shows a mock up with not enough hands).  Various hackers have had fun building real non-magical versions.

Whereabouts Clock: Back in 2006 the basic idea was taken by Microsoft and developed to an actual device which showed location of workers in their team to each other.  It proved popular with the team who liked being able to see where people were at a glance and found it useful to see who was in the building.  Key characterstics:
  • It was an actual physical device and was always on
  • It used a weasley clock analogy with people's icons moving between 'home', 'in the building' and 'out'
  • Worked off SMS checkins
  • Only available for the work group, e.g. could not be shared with family groupings.
Google+ and Latitude:  This post from the 'about Foursquare' blog notes that the Google+ circles idea and Google latitude checkins is a powerful way to share 'where am I' information without running into privacy issues.  E.g. it allows me to checkin to a supermarket so that my girlfriend knows I'm doing some shopping whilst not telling my boss because it's during work hours.

The Whereabouts Clock appears to have never been developed beyond the original concept.  Recent developments in Google+, Latitude and mobile devices leads me to think it's a concept that is worth revisiting.  In the rest of this post I'll look at the problem purely from the visualisation and usability angles and produce a mock up of the main interface for a smart phone app.  There would be a lot of work necessary on the technical side to make my ideas work but having a workable visualisation system is the core problem IMHO.

Work Journey Tube map:  My solution is to suggest a single train or tube line map analogy for displaying the information.  I've actually taken the background of the screenshot from a train journey planner app I have on my iPhone.  This design comes from the idea that for a work team the key information is knowing where a person is on the usual home to work route*.  In the UI sketch above, what were the train stations have been replaced with specific locations (Home desk, Office desk) but also with general areas (on campus, in transit.  Strictly 'in transit' isn't an area but it is really:  The space I move through to get from home to University Campus).

Description: Team members are represented by colored blobs, their smart phones are tracking their position and converting that into general information for the visualisation, the arrows represent direction of movement of each team member.  Jim is at his desk and his smart phone (or login from desk computer) predicts he is not moving at the moment.  Dave is on campus and has just reached the Shackleton building and is coming in.  Meanwhile I (Rich) have just got off the bus and am on campus heading to the Shackleton building.  Sam is somewhere else than his work route in the UK.

By clicking 'Rich' the screen displays my estimated time of arrival at various locations (blue text), shows my annotation saying what I am doing (yellow box left) and grays out the stations I've come through

Key Information and Outward links: The visualisation offers key information on one screen, users would have no interest in where I am in Hampshire on my normal train journey, they just want to know I'm on the train headed to work.   However, they are interested in fine grained data such as am I at my desk or elsewhere in the Shackleton building.  Other information such as where I am on campus if not in the Shackleton building can be accessed by clicking on the map button bottom left which will link to a standard latitude map visualisation.  The calendar icon (bottom) links to the team calendar since the ability to schedule a meeting will often be wanted if a team member is not immediately available.

But is it a Map?  I would argue that it is because it is showing locational information.  It just happens to do it in a highly stylised manner. Like the tube map it warps real space as a way to improve clarity in terms of line length, however, it goes one step further as it takes polygons of a large variety of sizes and represents them as one 'station'.  On the tube map this would be the equivalent of grouping together  a number of stations and representing them as one.

Provisos:  I think the idea will appear in some form or the other in the future but there are a number of conditions that need to be met some of which I discuss below:

  • Mobile Devices:  Obviously the system needs data input from smart devices so the whole team will need them.  The data input could be from check ins or from passive tracking.  I think there is every reason to expect the vast majority of people to have smart phones in the next few years.
  • Can I track you?:  As with many social network technologies, this one requires a critical mass of people to be using it for it to really take off.  To start using it people would have to be happy with people tracking them.  At the moment I think most people would have reservations but just as 'I don't want to be contactable all the time' was a common moan about mobile (cell) phones when they became common in the 90's I suspect over time people will come to accept broadcasting their location provided they have control over the data.  Google+ circles provides just the sort of system.
  • Model: If the system incorrectly predicted my movements you can imagine that users would soon abandon it, the model that predicts my movements needs to be smarter than just calculating that I am travelling towards my work desk therefore I am likely to end up to it as I may just happen to be walking from meeting to meeting and heading in a general deskward direction.  The model therefore needs a certain sophistication and it could be a complex problem to solve.  It could be mostly solved by tracking people for a month and using a combination of calendars and previous journey data to predict movements.
And Finally: One aspect of the Weasley clock was not a location at all, it was  'mortal peril'.  I doubt that could be incorporated on my map anytime soon.  

*This assumes that as in my work place, people work from home a lot.

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