Thursday, April 30, 2009

Minimalistic Web Designs Are More Effective

Its easy to see that minimalistic web designs are more effective - just compare with and then compare the stock price for each. One glance at is enough for you to know that Google does search, what does tell you? search? email? cars? real estate? news? personals? dating? Less is in fact more.
The major component of a simple web design is plenty of white space. It is harder to focus on the content when the site is cluttered. So Keep It Simple, Stupid.  
Make good use of typography. Do this to compensate for using less graphics and pictures. With a simple and not cluttered design, you are actually maximizing the impact of images.
Finally color is very important. The old blog template used here did not use color very well and did not help with making the content stand out.  It is also very important to have a specific purpose for the blog, this blog has more of a purpose today than it did last year. It also has a focal point, the most important content is here.

So tonight a new template was chosen, one with less clutter and more white space, better use of color and typography and all of this coincides with the change in direction I started a month go to have a more defined purpose and that is presenting My Thoughts on Technology and Web Applications.

Recursive Search in Google Maps - Why is it interesting?

Apparently this has been out for some time now, but I am able to run recursive searches on Google Maps. I have used the "What is nearby" searches, but I was unaware I can do this from the search field.

What is a typical search on Google Maps?
Obviously the most common would be something like "2000 Main St. Hamilton, ON"

Then there is a slightly more interesting search query...
something like "Coffee in Toronto" is something typical to have on a location map

Finally, there is the ultimate - so far - location query; the recursive query
for example "Coffee near highway in Toronto"

I like it, I like it a lot actually. 

So how about we use some nested recursion?
"Tim Horton's near airport and Starbucks"

Now this is getting really interesting, you can now see the bunch of points around Pearson and another bunch around the Island and some orphaned point by Scarborough. This is beyond finding directions, one could use this for some analysis on where specific brands focus their stores, or even which regions in a city different brands clash ex. Tim Horton and Starbucks. Actually it would be useful if Google Maps colored each marker differently in the above recursive search, ex. red vs. blue. This way I can actually see where Tim Horton and Starbucks are throwing punches at each other.

Let me just check one of these locations, and make sure there is actually a Starbucks near the Timmies - just to make sure Google Maps is not pulling my leg here.

I picked that point marked "A" on the very left, and searched nearby locations...

and sure enough that Tim Horton is near a Starbucks and the airport. You can even click the markers to view the info windows and verify this yourself.

So next time you use Google Maps remember you can do more than just a location search.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Thinking Out Loud: Content Personalization - Tell Me Who Your Friends Are

"Tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are"

That saying cannot be more true today - especially with all the available social networks. How does Amazon make recommendations to its users? While they don't tell us everything they do, Amazon does reveal one part of it at least when you login:
"These recommendations are based on items you own and more"

I don't find recommendations based on items I own very interesting, I am more interested with the two words at the end - "and more". What other ways are there to provide recommendations?

User demographics have been the most popular way to do this for the longest time now, and with the rise of social networks I believe this is about to change. What is the problem with using demographics for recommendations?

The biggest problem I see is demographics and statistics go directly against personalization by definition. A decade ago that was probably as close as one can get to personalization, but today is this still true? Today, everybody - including the neighbour's cat - has a Facebook profile. All these social networks are sitting on a gold mine and they know it. Demographics are useful when the medium you are delivering the content through delivers content by the same demographics such as a TV. As a TV advertiser you need to know the demographics of the product you are advertising to know at what time of the day you can maximise your reach to that demographic. Unfortunately today's web does not work that way - imagine Facebook where on weekdays between 10am and noon you can only add and talk to stay at home moms? or between 4pm and 6pm its kids between the ages of 8 and 15, or between 8pm and 11pm its men between 30 and 40.

Today's social web is not divided by demographics, whether you are 15, 25, 35, 55, or 60 you can still get on Facebook and find content that interests you.

Consider the iTunes Genius feature that recommends songs? How does it do it? Obviously there is some complex algorithm that answers the question: "If user 1 purchased songs a,b and c, and many many many users purchased songs a , b and d, what is the probability that user 1 will like song d if song d is the same genre as songs a and c for user 1?" This is the bottom line of the majority of today's recommendation engines. Based on my experience as a customer it comes down to:
  • What did I already buy? - or listen, or view, or read, or...
  • What did others buy? - or listen, or view, or read, or...
  • How big is the intersection between our product selections? and is it enough to conclude that I may like what they bought?
So is this personalization? Isn't this similar to how radio stations select songs?

For example, what I would like to see on Amazon is the recommendation engine would learn about me based on what I provide on the profile. By pointing Amazon to my Facebook, blog, twitter, linkedin, bookmarks and more, Amazon would learn about what interests me based on my thoughts here, my rants on twitter and who I follow, my friends on Facebook, the events I attended and who from my friends went there, and so on.

Finally, if all this sounds like too much information to give away, although it is already publicly available, then you don't need to use it. Think about it how neat would it be if Amazon was able to learn through my twitter that I started learning CakePHP and sends me a special offer for 50% off a CakePHP book? or that I started using twitter 3 weeks ago which coincided with when I started posting more often on here and recommend a book about promoting my blog via social media?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Google Maps Swine Flu Timeline

A few hours a go I wanted to see a timeline of the Swine Flu and I just found this Swine Flu timeline on Google Maps Mania.

Using the Google Earth plugin and the data from the same map I posted earlier that timeline was created. Very neat.

Help me find the other two requests.

Track Swine Flu On Google Maps

Google Henry Niman has published a Google Maps application to track the recent Swine Flu outbreak around the World. Google Google Maps platform is a great way to quickly publish applications regarding current events.

For a Swine Flu tracking application I would like to see someone do any of the following:

  • add a timeline and be able to view how the disease spread, just like the Google News Timeline launched at Google Labs
  • notification via e-mail or twitter if there was a case reported around your location
  • be able to compare the patterns of this outbreak with that of SARS or some other disease
Comment if you know of any application that does any of the above.

Free Ad-Hoc Business Intelligence and Database Reporting

I struggled for the past week searching for an easy to use, intuitive and ad-hoc business reporting tool. Today I came across Wabit from SQL Power - a Canadian consulting firm that specializes in business intelligence reporting. There are a lot of software out there, but they were either not free, complicated to setup, or required SQL knowledge.

Wabit is really easy to use and SQL Power did a really great job making the interface as intuitive and easy to use as possible. One thing I really needed is the ability to drag and drop tables onto my canvas and select which columns I need for a specific report. Wabit does exactly this, and does it very well.

It also comes with a WYSIWYG editor to design the report, you can drop labels in, drag in the queries you built and finally export the report to PDF.

When I started looking for a Business Intelligence database reporter I started looking for web applications, I figure that would be easiest way to get one, but I was wrong. The first database reporter I came across seemed promising after using the online demo was xreporter. It turned out to be complicated to setup with different components that needed to be installed and configured separately and then I was not able to get it to work. To make matters worse the available resources did not help me figuring out what I did wrong.

Slowly over the past week I came to accept that free, opensource, online BI tools are either non existent or very badly marketed. Today I decided to change my search angle, and decided to look for BI tools for Macs. I have a Mac and when I need an application for something I had no troubles finding it. Lo and behold after 20 minutes of searching there it was - the business intelligence tool for the rest of us. If you are not looking for bells and whistles in your BI tool, give this one a try.

Finally Wabit comes for Mac OS, Windows and Linux which is the other secondary requirement. I'm a PC and my customer is a Mac, so if I were going to walk him through using it, or troubleshoot problems I need to have it as well so this is great.

One problem I did find - not directly with the application but with Postgres - is that Postgres does not support cross-database queries. After generating a query through the GUI and then dropping the query within the report you will get a :

"ERROR: cross-database references are not implemented".

To resolv this just edit the SQL Wabit generates and remove the [DATABASE_NAME].[TABLE_NAME] from the FROM and WHERE clauses.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Wordle - Still Beautiful Word Clouds

Generating a tag cloud is an art in itself, Wordle has perfected this art. I will try and generate a word cloud from this blog every month to try and visualize the topics I have been talking and ranting about here. Heres today's Wordle - click it to view a large size.

Wordle: today's wordle

Tag clouds do not just have to convey information using the size of each word, we are already restricted about what we can convey so one really needs to maximize the number of ways information can be conveyed. Word size is only one way, but we can also think about orientation of the words and color as Wordle does very well.

I have not seen a tag cloud yet that relates which words show up together. For example, am I using Twitter as an application? or a Twitter for advetising? or Twitter to expirement with advertising my blog?

If you know about a word cloud that makes use of more than just font size, color and orientation please share here. I'm always interested in different ways to visualize data especially when you are constrained in what you can do to visualize it.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Pimp Your Slides Using

Learned about this neat presentation online application called Prezi. 100% online, free to use with some limitations (no private presentations, 100MB limit). Still awesome application, easy to learn and fun to use.

Love it.

Decided to give it a test drive and make a prezi out of my last topic "How To: Use Twitter Feed and Bitly to Promote your Blog"

Sorry about the bad quality images, I just saved them off the sites.

Link to it here or view full size/full screen:

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How To: Use Twitter Feed and Bitly to Promote your Blog

A couple of weeks ago I joined twitter in effort to experiment more with promoting my blog and get a bit more traffic.

Before I get into that, rule number one in generating traffic is

Content is King
Now I am not an expert in advertising via the social media nor advertising via any media, but I have learned a lot about promoting your blog and self using twitter over the past few weeks. As I learn more I will share more.

Seed your blog with content first
Don't start promoting if your blog is empty. Seed it with good, interesting and valuable content. Whether it is advice, comments on something you read in the news, challenges and how you overcame them (or if you did not, then what did you try and did not work) . So have some content on there so that when someone does visit, they are not welcomed by just a few short posts that do not add any value.

Creating good titles for your posts
When you create a post the first title you save it with is used to generate the URL for that post. So titles are very important and a good title will help that content get ranked on search engines and help your blog overall. A good tip I read was to first pick a series of words that will describe the new post best. For this post I picked "Use Twitter Feed Bitly Promote Blog Tips Suggestions". Publish the post with that title and then go back and add a proper title to it.

Join Twitter
Twitter is more than just reading what your friends are up to. Use twitter to stay up to date on news, weather, topics, technology, cars or whatever else interests you. Don't limit your follows to people you know, follow people based on what they are contributing - if what they posted today was valuable to you, odds are something they will post tomorrow will also be valuable. A lot of companies have joined twitter and promote their products and services on twitter. Follow these companies to get updates, news, and even help with their products.

Unlike Facebook where you can get 10,000 friends without even knowing 2% of them, you need to add value for someone to follow you, sure you can follow him, but the idea is to build your online identity; an interesting online identity. If your online identity revolves around following 10,000 people and not adding value then the opportunity you had there will not come again. Celebrities are a special case, even if they don't post that often. (If you are a celebrity and reading this post please leave a comment, if your're not still comment!)

Blog. Check. Twitter. Check. What's next?
So by now you have some good content on your blog, and you have built a small network on Twitter. Now what about Twitter Feed and Bitly?

Twitter Feed
Twitter Feed will publish your posts on Twitter on your behalf. Just sign up for an account and authorize it to do so by providing your username and password for Twitter or by authenticating your Twitter Feed username with Twitter. You can configure how often you want it to check your posts and what to prefix each post with.
Most if not every blogging tool provides you with a URL where your blog's RSS feed is published to. Simple point TwitterFeed to that RSS Feed and you are done.

Why use #hashtag for your blog posts?
I used #NESBlog to prefix my blog tweets giving me a way to easily search Twitter and see if any of my posts were retweeted. None so far, but I only started this yesterday. I'm optimistic I'll get my moment of fame sooner or later. is a url shortener. It also allows you to track each url and see how visits each got. Sign up for an account and configure TwitterFeed to use your username and API key. There are many other services that do this, was just the first I signed up for and so far its working out well.

Next time TwitterFeed reads your blog's RSS feed it will send your last post as

Note: If your posts show up on twitter with a "You must be authentication to a ..." the API key is incorrect. Copy it and paste it back in again carefully.

That covers the set of tips I learned over the past few weeks at promoting my blog using Twitter, Twitter Feed, and Bitly url shortening.

Don't forget to comment and let me know what you think or share some other tips!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

PhotoMap: Snap, Grab and Walk away

Following an earlier post about improving university campus maps I found this neat mobile application that allows you to make better use of a physical map.

Basically you snap a photo of the map whether its at a theme park, mall or university and have the application read your phone's GPS coordinates at two landmarks and mark the landmarks on the image.

Now you can walk around and follow yourself on that map. Definitely a handy little app to have next time you are feeling like a tourist or a freshman on a campus on your first day of classes.

Twitter Mail and Blogger Atlast

Since I joined twitter a few weeks back I have been trying to figure out how to get my posts here automatically tweeted without me having to tweet each one individually. I was going about it the wrong way, I was looking for a widget that would do this.

I was just looking over my settings and I noticed this "send posts to e-mail" field where I had my own email in there to get my own copy of my posts somewhere other than just That's when I had an 'Aha' moment and decided to look for a service that would provide me with an e-mail and they would post the e-mail message to twitter - enter TwitterMail.

You login with your twitter credentials and then you can pick your email address
(something long and that you cannot remember)

Then give that e-mail to blogger and bookmark it in gmail, hotmail, yahoo, or outlook if you are still using that - so you can use it there too.

So this post is a test of this process.

There is also twitterfeed that I have seen people use, so thats always another option.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Upgrade your university's campus map

One of the recent projects we worked on was a campus map for the University of Ottawa (uOttawa). The great thing about this map, is that it is not the usual image or PDF map that seems to be the standard on a lot of universities' websites:

For example the McMaster University Campus and the University of Toronto Campus use images along side image maps and tables to present information.

There are some universities with more interactive maps such as MIT's beta campus map which utilizes the Google Maps platform. This is a good sign and hopefully means the days of maps delivered via PDF or images are numbered.

Google Maps includes a lot of information pertaining the location you search, for example if we search "University of Ottawa" on Google Maps we would get the following:

View Larger Map

This is great stuff that Google provides, but it won't fly with universities although it is already miles ahead of an image map, it does not deliver the required content one would hope to find on a campus map. There is also very little you can do to brand it, customize the look and control the data. For example a big problem with Google Maps, is the data can get old and an old map is useless when its missing the new Faculty of Engineering building at McMaster University.

Onto the good stuff, the Google Map is one right path, but we want more control over the data. What if we want to provide routing between buildings? You might say "wait a minute, Google Maps already does that", but what if we want to route through buildings, along overpasses or even between buildings? What if we want to allow the student to pick whether they want to see the shortest route or the warmest route? Where are the wheelchair accesses?

Now I leave you to the following demonstration: (Thanks to Tim Merrill for putting this demo together - and for the record the background music is perfect)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Neti Pot

This may be a strange post and certainly not a topic I usually rant about, but this thing is ingenious!

I came down with a bad flu, cough and the works last Thursday and been on a bunch of meds but this one really clears out the sinuses. Its a weird feeling, but it works. *Atchoo!*

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The first McMaster website? possibly

I just came across the internet archive - WayBack Machine. Always wondered how the first websites for different companies and organizations looked like.

This is the first McMaster site for everybody I know who studied there, or is still there:

The first site. What is really interesting, is that Google remained mainly consistent and they maintained the simplistic approach from the start.

The first Yahoo! website. Again interesting, Yahoo! did not believe in simplistic designs from day one. In fact their site just got even more complicated over the past 13 years.

And finally, who remembers the first Etisalat website?

So much can change in 10 years, who knows what the world will be like in another 10.