Apps

Tired runner

Running Data: Damn Nike – Part 2

In Part 1 of this series I gave a “brief” outline of my journey through running and how I ended up using particular training tools and apps. The purpose of this post is to highlight an issue that is important to me, but echoed by a startling minority. The scary part is that it basically affects anyone who uses a device to track fitness, activity or workout data – and yet the number of people table-flipping, making a fuss or even aware of the issue, is depressingly low.

I am talking about data access (or ownership). The Fitbit on your wrist, the GPS watch you’re using for your runs or even your smartphone, are all recording data that you generate and send to companies who analyse the data and give you interesting insights on your activities. They can tell you how much REM sleep you get at night, give you an overview of how active you were during the day, or summarise how well you did on a training run (by providing information on splits, pace, cadence and/or heart rate).

Werable devices on wrist

Wear all the wearables! Source.

In the rapidly growing industry of wearable technology, companies are trying to add as many analytics and features to their devices as they can. Unsurprisingly, their shotgun approach can still not provide the specific insights you’re after. But it’s ok, you can just dive through the data yourself and easily pull out the metrics you need or are interested in, right? NOPE. What, not even simple data you could look at using the built-in functions of Excel? HELL NOPE.

And this is the problem. The data is there. You’ve created it – it’s a quantification of you and it’s just sitting there. Sometimes, you can jump through certain hoops to get it, and other times you have to drag yourself over a mile of broken glass… using only your face.

Man screaming in frustration

The frustration (or pain) is real. Source.

The problem can be split into two interacting parts:

  1. Current apps don’t provide analytics or metrics that are of interest to you, or if they do they charge you for it (these can vary from really basic information to advanced analyses).
  2. These apps make it difficult or impossible to export your data.

The first part wouldn’t be so bad if not for the second. The only reason I can think of for companies to make it difficult to take data out is to force platform (and brand) loyalty. This is complete and utter bullshit. If a company’s product is good enough to solve any issues I would have with problem #1 then I wouldn’t even want to extract my data. Basically, the company is aware their product is below-par and the only way they can keep people using it is to lock them in. That is not sustainable.

I’m going to talk about the running apps I am familiar with and you should be able to get an idea of the scale of offending that is out there.

Runkeeper

Runkeeper is actually the best out of the three when it comes to exporting training data. Reason being – they actually let you. You can export all your data within a custom period to a .zip of GPX files (these contain GPS data) which can be easily imported into other platforms. Fantastic! The metrics and analyses Runkeeper provides are quite basic. Individual workout data is fine – but if you want to look at how you’ve gone over time (to see how training is going) the only thing you can look at is distance. Duration, speed, pace, heart rate, or elevation? Bah, who needs that info? Unless you want to pay for it (30 USD a year)! No thank you, but I am grateful they made it easy to get all my data out (‘Export Data’ is in the ‘Settings’ menu), and do not contribute to problem #2.

Runkeeper logo

You’re doing good Runkeeper. Not fantastically… but good.

Endomondo

Similar to Runkeeper, Endomondo requires a subscription (29.99 USD a year) for you to see any type of data that includes more than one workout. However, they also contribute to problem #2, by limiting data exporting to one workout at a time (manually). I have 152 workouts on Endomondo so uh… if it takes me about 2 min to download one workout (navigating to the workout and saving it)… that’d take me… five freakin’ hours. That’s the thanks I get for subscribing for a year.

See, most people wouldn’t bother trying to get there data out so in a way their strategy of locking people to their platform must be working to some extent. However, as soon as I found out I had to continue my subscription to see detailed analytics, I was ready to jump ship.

Fortunately in the case of Endomondo, there is an easy solution. Endomondo Export is a handy tool that allows you to bulk export your data with an easy-to-use interface. I did have some problems with missing elevation data in the GPX file outputs, and wrote a Python script to help clean these. I suspect the data was bad because of my phone (Galaxy SII), but if anyone else tries to use the export tool and has problems let me know, and I’ll see if my script can help you out too. If you are a bit more technically inclined, there is also this Python script but I cannot verify its effectiveness.

Bear in mind that Endomondo can change access to their API at any time which could make either of these tools defunct. I would suggest you create backups now, while you still can – otherwise you may find yourself in the same situation as I did with the final app…

Apparently this hand gesture indicates "meh".

Apparently this hand gesture indicates “meh”.

Nike

I use a Nike+ GPS Sportswatch and I love it. However, for a 100 billion dollar company whose market ranges from suburban mums to the world’s most elite athletes, the design of their website and app is absolutely terrible. For the few years I’ve been using it, there have been no significant improvements in the user interface design or functionality of the website, which in this fast-paced world is totally crap. I’ve had problems logging in, maintaining sessions, viewing activity data, and browsing friends’ data. Admittedly, it’s all free – but that is not a valid excuse. Individual workout metrics are fine and over time metrics include things such as average distance and pace changes. Still not as in-depth as it could be, but sufficient for most people.

That being said, my recommendation is to stay away from Nike+ and its Running app. This is the absolute worst example of a company trying to lock you into their platform. You absolutely CANNOT export any data – not even individual workout data. Previously, you could use third party tools similar to Endomondo Export that would allow you to bulk export workouts from Nike. However, Nike have recently shut off access to their APIs except for official “Fuel Lab Partners” or whatever they’re calling them. Basically, other companies that Nike are working with because despite their wealth and resources, they can’t build a decent app on their own.

The closing off of their API has meant that the third party tools I used no longer work, and the developers of those apps have retired them or stopped updating them to keep up with Nike’s changes. I have figured out a way to still get my data out and export it to my platform of choice (RunningAhead: I can’t say enough about how good it is, even if just to park data). At the moment, the process is a little convoluted, but I am interested to know whether there are people who do want to get data out from Nike. If there are, I will try turn it into a web solution – or at the very least, post how to do it and wait to see how long it takes Nike to do something to prevent or block it.

In the meantime, I’m syncing my data to RunningAhead and saving up as fast as I can for a new running watch.

Ironically, the Nike tick showed up when I image searched "good". Fortunately, I was able to find enough fingers to give it.

Ironically, the Nike tick showed up when I image searched “good”. Fortunately, I was able to find enough fingers to give it.

 

Waze: The Best Navigation App You’re Not Using

Face it, Auckland traffic sucks and it’s getting worse. The current work on our traffic infrastructure and investment (or lack thereof) into public transport will not have tangible effects for years to come; all the while, people will continue to spend countless hours getting well-acquainted with the rears of the vehicles in front of them.

Image of a Rodius

A ghastly rear to be acquainted with. Source

Empirical knowledge only helps to avoid traffic when destinations and times are familiar. For new trips Google Maps (and navigation), which usually provides the most direct route and an estimation of traffic conditions, could be used. The traffic conditions are based on GPS data Google pulls anonymously from cell phone users and the amount of data must be tremendous. This will likely affect how fast the data can be processed and updated, meaning that changes in conditions are not quickly updated. Furthermore, there is limited information on why traffic might be like it is, which reduces the ability to plan. For example, traffic caused by rubberneckers can clear relatively quickly, while roadworks can cause more permanent delays.

Wouldn’t it be better/faster if someone stuck in traffic could say to Google maps, “traffic is currently [expletive] here because of [reasons]”, and the traffic information at that location is then instantly relayed to other drivers considering taking that route?

This is the essence of Waze: a crowd-powered traffic navigation app that was in fact acquired by Google. Its maps are charted by the community, meaning it remains up-to-date and provides more accurate mappings in less accessed locations.

The Power (Pros) of Waze

Waze functions much like any other navigation app. You type in where you want to go and it figures out the quickest way to get there. It even has other map APIs built in, such as Google’s to pretty much guarantee it’ll be able to find the destination you’re searching for. What sets it apart, is the user’s ability to log the following information which is made available to other Waze users (Wazers):

There are options to provide all sorts of information

Report all the things!

Traffic

Stuck in traffic? Log it through the UI (less safe) or by using voice commands (totally safe). Waze will then mark the stretch of road you’ve been travelling as having traffic and the approximate speed. This can be done for varying traffic conditions, and you can even do it for opposing traffic. Once you’re past the slow zone you can even log the cause, such as an accident, breakdown or hazard.

Construction/Detours

Temporary hazards or effects on routes, such as detours and road closures can all also be logged within Waze. Combined with the traffic data, this allows Waze to adjust the routes it suggests when navigating to reduce journey times.

Police Checkpoints

Similar to current GPS navigators, Waze also has fixed speed and red light camera locations and warns you if you’re approaching them. In addition, users are able to add locations of speed traps and checkpoints of marked and un-marked vehicles to the maps.

Petrol prices

Waze also tracks petrol prices. I find this useful when looking for a place to fill up in an unfamiliar area and need something quick and cheap(er).

Social Features/Integrations

A navigation app shouldn’t really need to be social, but Waze gives you points for using it and bonus points for reporting traffic and hazards. As you level up you can unlock different avatars to use on Waze, which is how other Wazers will view you on the map. You don’t have to be visible on the map, but doing so will allow you to interact with other Wazers if you want to. A more useful function is the ability to share your drive with friends so they can see where you are currently and your ETA.

Not only that, but Waze can pull meeting location data from your calendar, and you can send automated text alerts to your co-conspirators so that they can tell how far away you are from the rendez-vous or whether you’re going to be late. They don’t need to have Waze to receive text alerts and even have the option of viewing an in-browser map of your route to track your progress in real time.

Uhhh, what're you doing on K Road at 2 am buddy?

Whatcha doing on K Road at 2 am buddy?

Limitations of Waze

Waze is fantastic and I use it whenever I need help navigating. My main problem with it is that sometimes the routes it suggests are not optimal and can be a little counter-intuitive. Sometimes this works out really well (Cool, a new faster route I can use in the future!) or not so well (Where the feck are you taking me?!). So for now, I have to use a bit of common sense and discretion in conjunction with the navigation provided by Waze.

I believe the main reason for this is a lack of user-provided data, particularly in New Zealand. Hence this blog post! I am hoping that some of you will try it out, and see its potential. Waze will only be as powerful as the number of people using it so go and spread the word – it’s available on Android, iOS and even Windows Phone.

I am hoping that as the number of Wazers grows, it’ll be able to take advantage of machine learning/AI to better understand the routes it suggests. For example, it might realise, “Ok, it took you 10 minutes to turn right at this four-lane intersection so the next Wazer going this way will instead use a traffic-light controlled intersection further down”. Eventually it’ll turn into some high level traffic management system that autonomously guides flows of traffic everywhere with optimal travel times for everyone.

The other thing Waze could have is more voice commands. Traffic reporting is down to a cinch, but other hazards and commands need to be supported too – just to maintain safety while driving. I am quite confident that this will be added soon enough.

The Sweetener

All in all, Waze is awesome, and does everything your current navigation app does and then some. If you’re still not convinced, consider this. To help promote the latest Terminator movie, Arnie has lent his voice to Waze. So, if the idea of the T-800 telling you to, “Turn left if you want to live”*, doesn’t make you want to use this app, I don’t know what will.

"You've arrived at your destination... Get out!"

“You’ve arrived at your destination… Get out!”

 

* Disclaimer: Arnie doesn’t actually say things like this all the time (a huge shame!), but if he’s not your cup of tea you can also get instructions from Colonel Sanders or some NBA players (lol).

 

Inbox by Gmail Review

I’ve been using Inbox by Gmail since late October and I am hoping I will never need to go back to old school Gmail… ever. In case you don’t know, Inbox is Google’s latest attempt at controlling how we receive and manage email, and it has been met with mixed responses from the internet denizens. In this post, I will share my experiences with it and explain why the approach Google has taken seems to be in the right direction for me, an organisational nightmare with constant backlogs of email up to my ears. Inbox is able to organise email and has advanced search features that can help to keep track of the swathes of information, documents and files that inevitably accumulate over time. Note: When I refer to “Inbox” I mean the application as a whole, and by “inbox” I mean the inbox within Inbox.

Shown below is a screenshot of the main view provided by Inbox in the web application. I mostly work on a PC during the day so am using the web application of Inbox more often. I use the app on my phone or tablet only when I’m out prowling the streets. Immediately noticeable, is how clean it is – a single column of content that displays emails in discrete time blocks – e.g. This month, Yesterday and Today. Attachments are immediately accessible and actions (described later) are available for each email. The top left button provides a comprehensive menu with Inbox’s additional functionality, and if desired a Hangouts panel can be opened and pinned. The advantage of this clean layout is that it is easily reproduced on mobile devices so there is no difference in interaction, whether you are on a phone, tablet or desktop computer. And the best thing? No ads!

Screenshot of the Inbox Desktop App

Screenshot of the Inbox Desktop App

Inbox tackles email in a noticeably different way, and to me, this is the crux of the innovation of the approach behind it – other reviews seem to have missed this concept and complain that it does not facilitate the way they’re used to emailing, or that adapting to Inbox is a chore. Change is almost always met with some resistance, and adjusting may require some habitual fixes, but that being said, Inbox is not really blowing the concept of email right out of the water. Instead, Inbox gently reshapes emailing by presenting it to the user as a more manageable To Do or task list, instead of purely as a messaging system. The layering of new terminology, such as replacing “archive” with “mark done” is not only superficial, but also includes the underlying framework to support task management processes. These features are summarised as follows:

Inbox Actions:

The consideration of emails as tasks is most apparent in the available actions provided for each email. Besides the usual Reply, or Forward, Inbox provides the buttons shown below:

Main actions for emails, from left to right: Pin, Snooze, Mark Done, and More

Main actions for emails, from left to right: Pin, Snooze, Mark Done, and More

Pinning an email marks it as important, and requiring further action. In doing so, a Reminder can be added to the email which shows up under the Subject heading as a cue to the reason the email has been pinned (e.g. to reply to later or for future reference). All pinned emails can be viewed instantly through the toggle located on the top menu bar. Once emails are marked as done, they are automatically unpinned and removed from the inbox. However, for some reason, pinned items cannot be removed from the inbox and retain their pinned status. This means that pinned items can only be removed from the main inbox view when marked as Done, which seems counter-intuitive since they can still add to the visual clutter – just like in regular Gmail.

Example of a Reminder on a pinned email. The icon and note are visible beneath the subject.

Snooze is a new feature that mimics the snooze feature of an alarm clock. The email being snoozed is removed from the inbox and redelivered at a specified time (any date or time). This emulates some of the features provided by third party extensions for Gmail and makes it much easier to come back to emails that require an action. Having the email delivered at a later time means that it no longer clutters your inbox and you don’t have to worry about remembering to reply.

Marking emails as Done again emphasises the task-oriented nature of the emails. Instead of marking them as ‘Read’ or archiving them, the user indicates that they are done with it and no further action is required. This complements the other activities: pinning – i.e. to do; and snoozing – to do later. Emails can be marked as done individually, as a Bundle or for the entire inbox (Sweep). When the inbox is swept everything is removed except for pinned items. Snoozed items will be delivered as if it were a new email.

Bundles:
These essentially replace the Labels system used in Gmail. There are pre-determined Bundles (categories), such as Travel, Purchases, Social, Updates, Forums and Promos, which Inbox automatically sorts emails into. You can set up your own Bundles based on criteria you specify, similar to creating email filters. The main feature of Bundles is the ability to easily group similarly topical emails and specify a fixed time for them to arrive. For example, I have my Promo bundle sent to me once a day (at the moment, the time is fixed at 7 am, but I would eventually like the option to specify the time). This means I can glance through it quickly, and for the rest of the day I won’t be bothered by the tonnes of emails I get from daily deal sites, other retailers and promotional activities. I am therefore, not inundated or distracted by unimportant emails throughout the day – I only get them once, quickly sort through them and that’s it. Bundles can also be Swept, so the whole lot can be removed from view with a single click to maintain a clutter-free inbox.

The caveat with Bundles is that it may take time to set up. Existing filters are carried through from Gmail, but this may require some tweaking to make use of the Bundles provided and to create your own. I had previously made use of Google Labs’ multiple inbox add-on, and approached bundling by deleting all my filters to set the bundles all up from scratch. For the first week, I also had new Bundle emails delivered as they arrived so that I could check the sorting was happening correctly and I wasn’t missing anything important. Now, I’m not so worried about it and haven’t missed anything too important yet.

Search:

Inbox supposedly leverages off some powerful search abilities. I have yet to test this thoroughly, but so far it seems like past emails and resources are easily found and displayed for me to search through. The jury is still out on whether this is more accurate with a complex labelling system and keywords – for example, I found “labels:chats” really useful for dredging up information from conversations over Gchat and this behaviour is not reproduced in Inbox.

Summary:

My experience with Inbox has largely been on the desktop version as that is where I do most of my emailing. Many reviews focus on the mobile platform version – which I suppose is what it was originally designed for. I have gone full early-adopter and completely transitioned to using Inbox for all of my emailing, and noticed a substantial drop in the amount of time I spend sorting and clearing unwanted and non-productive email (more time for YouTube!). The task-oriented nature of the approach has aided me in keeping track of actions I need to take, and reducing noise and clutter. Right now, I have seven pinned items and a few snoozed emails that will be coming back to me over the next couple of months. On Gmail, I would be struggling to keep items in my inbox below 50 – a self-imposed maximum that dictated how many could be shown on the screen at a time (I despise having to look at a second page of emails – it’s like who ever looks at the second page of Google results?).

I’m hoping that Inbox doesn’t fade into oblivion like Wave and Buzz, and from that I’ve seen, the general response is positive. Come full release, I hope it remains ad-free, and would like to see improvements that allow pinned emails to be hidden, desktop notifications, more flexibility in managing hangout chat popups and chat history, and greater stability (infrequent crashes were experienced). The fact that the latest Gmail mobile application (released 6 November) actually looks quite similar to Inbox is encouraging because it would suggest a smoother transition (and potentially higher adoption rate) to Inbox. However, if you are already in control of your email and have an effective labelling/filtering system in place – Inbox by Gmail might just mess it all up and not be worth the switch.

I still have several invites for Inbox, so if you’re wanting to give it a go, get in touch. Currently, you’ll need a Gmail address.