Tech For Good: Be My Eyes

In the spirit of keeping things positive, and looking on the bright side of technology, I’ve been keen to explore some of the more interesting things technology can do to enhance our lives, and the lives of those around us.

Our iPhones (other phones do exist, or so I hear) and iPads have improved our lives in numerous ways. They help us find our way, capture and share magical moments with friends and family, and even let us browse through pages and pages of cute animals at a whim.

Many of us spend hours reading reviews about the latest and greatest To Do app, or email client, but there is often not much said about how these powerful devices can be used to not only help us remember to put the bins out on a Tuesday, but also enhance and even improve the lives of those in need around us. Allow me to change that, in my own little way, with a very specific use case.

I recently discovered an app called ‘Be My Eyes’. The team behind the app provides this short, but succinct, description about what it’s all about:

Be My Eyes is an app made up of a global community that connects people who are blind or have low vision with sighted volunteers and company representatives through a live video call.

In essence, it’s very simple, but it can have a huge positive impact on someones life. After downloading the app, you create an account, let them know what languages you speak and you’re done. You then sit back and await a notification indicating that one of the currently ~100,000 blind members of the community need some assistance with something. The assistance will, as you can imagine, involve helping an individual to read a letter or notice they’ve received, read an instruction manual or perhaps describe an item of clothing the individual has received as a gift.

I was first turned onto the app via the Late Night Alternative With Iain Lee podcast, which also spoke a bit about another alternative app, called BeSpecular which is the same idea, but a little less direct. At the time of writing, the sign-up page for BeSpecular seems to not be accepting new applicants, but you can sign up still from within the app itself.

If you have a little time on your hands on occasion, in-between cute cat videos on Reddit, it would be a great idea to take advantage of one of the above services to improve someone’s day, even if just a little bit. Not only will you be helping people, you may even find it quite fun and, BeSpecular in particular, could even be a fun game to play with the help of your children. It’ll teach them the importance of helping others, and to also make them aware that not everyone is life is as able bodied as others, and we could all use a helping hand at times.

If you get one of the apps above, and give it a try, I’d love to hear about your experiences with it. Please feel free to give me a shout on Twitter.

📺 Backing Up and Organising Shortcuts

Former Workflow team member Matthew Cassinelli recently shared a fantastic idea for both backing up and organising Shortcuts on iOS, on his new podcast (which he co-hosts with Alex Cox, called Supercomputer.

I’d planned on sharing this idea here in a simple blog post, but I thought a short video would perhaps work a little better in explaining the process. To that end, I recorded and edited a short video which you can see below.

While this was fun to make, I clearly have a lot more to learn on this front. I also need a new background image of the 2018 iPad Pros. This one looks pretty dated …

Are You The Product?

As the big technology companies we know and love today continue to grow, there are fewer and fewer facets of their businesses and models to differentiate them. Almost all of the huge technology companies today harvest us for our personal data (both knowingly and sometimes even unknowingly to help fund, and enhance, their offerings.

These companies will often give you a service or feature for free, though they are very rarely really free. Just because you don’t physically pay for something, it doesn’t mean it’s free, however. Companies like Google and Facebook have a need to collect, share and monetise the data you’re giving them, to better sell ads, which is how they ultimately make their money. You are not a customer to Google or Facebook, you are a commodity. You pay for the use of all of Google’s services by providing them with a ‘data currency’. Much like I cannot dictate to Apple what they spend the money I have given them for my iPhone on, I also cannot dictate where Google spends my ‘data currency’.

For many people, this is both obvious, and completely acceptable. For most, the return you get from Facebook or Google is well worth the cost you pay, in terms of privacy and control of your personal information. This is, of course, a completely valid way to do things, and I’m not here to tell anyone otherwise. I’ve been a heavy user of Google for many years now, though I am trying to find alternatives to many of my use cases, so I can take back control of my data a little.

The point of this article isn’t to convince anyone that they shouldn’t use data harvesting services, it’s more a Public Service Announcement that there are alternatives out there which are completely viable. While Facebook and Google are at one end of the spectrum, Apple has positioned itself well and truly at the other end. I have, clearly, very much brought into the Apple ecosystem and find myself sharing many of the same beliefs and viewpoints when it comes to how my data is used. If you want to read into Apple’s own stance on privacy across their devices and services they have a fantastic micro site which I would highly recommend running through. They clearly take this very seriously.

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Finding Alternatives

Many of the services we use today, for the various things we do one the web, are so engrained into our brains, and even muscle memory, that it’s difficult to even consider using something else. When someone says they are going to look something up online they don’t say ‘I’m going to go and look that up online’ they say ‘I’ll just go and Google that’. It’s become second nature, so it’s easy to see why people often won’t even consider alternatives, or even know where to look. The list below, and the rest of this article, is just an informational piece about what else is out there, that will respect your desire for privacy, but that will also help you to be productive online. Take from it what you will.

Search Engine

Even for people that don’t generally use Google services, it’s often hard to escape Google as a search engine. As mentioned above Google is search for many people. That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of alternatives out there. Seeing as this is an article about privacy, however, there is really only one recommendation I can make, and that’s DuckDuckGo. While this search engine is near enough the least used of the major players trailing Google, it’s seen some massive growth recently. It was a big spike a few years ago when Apple added them to its list of built in search engines in iOS and again, more recently, following some high profile privacy issues from Facebook et al. I’ve been using DuckDuckGo on and off over the years, and it’s really grown a lot better over this time. It’s my default on iOS now, and the occasions I have to fall back to Google are few and far between. DuckDuckGo doesn’t track users, it doesn’t show you ads and it’s got a few interesting unique features. To save taking up too much space and time here, I’d recommend checking out their About page which has a lot of great information.

Maps / Navigation

As an iOS user, you don’t have to look very far for a Google Maps alternative. Apple Maps launched with iOS 6, way back in 2012 and, whilst it took a lot of heat at the time, this also has been steadily improving over time. Lane guidance has been added recently and Apple are in the middle of a huge redesign operation. I’ve been using Apple Maps as my default navigation and mapping system for a year or so now and it’s been very good in my experience. The navigation side of it is slowly improving as well, with ETA accuracy now getting very good. If you haven’t used it for a while I would recommend checking it out.

There’s more to Maps than just navigation, however. The Google timeline can be very helpful or interesting to some people. This feature shows you all the places you’ve visited, thanks to the 24/7 tracking Google can do of you, and your phone. If you want this information, but you don’t particularly want Google (or others) having it also, you’re in luck. I recently discovered a small little app called Visits. Visits tracks your location throughout the day and presents a local copy of this in the app. You can then simply browse through your timeline whenever you want.

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You can edit each location to give it a custom name, also, which is a nice touch. The developer stresses that your data is your own, and that privacy is very important to them. You can only trust this so far, I guess, but it seems legit and it’s a nice, streamlined way of getting some interesting metadata in your life.

Photo Storage

Google Photos is a service which is pretty hard to beat. As long as you’re happy with some quality degradation, you can store as much as you want in Google Photos. Not only that, but Google’s algorithms will parse your photos and put them into albums, or even add some automatic editing effects. Why would Google give you such a robust system for free? Well, once again, this is far from free, in many ways. You can get away without paying a penny, but this cache of millions of people’s photos must be an absolute goldmine for feeding Google’s AI / Machine Learning juggernaut. While, presumably, no real humans are pouring over these images, Google’s AI system most certainly is.

As with Maps, iOS users again don’t have to go far to find a powerful, alternative to Google Photos. iCloud Photos / Photo Library allows iOS (and macOS) users to store as many photos as they like (storage space permitting of course, unlike Google’s free tier). With Apple’s offering, however, you’re again a customer, not a ‘data cow’, ready for milking. So, while there is a cost associated (once you’ve used up your meagre free 5GB) you remain in control of your content. Apple does recommend some tweaks, or will create smart albums (called Moments) everything is handled on device.

What can’t be replaced … yet?

What’s pretty self evident from the above is that, for the most part, not only are there great third party alternatives to many Google / Facebook / other data gathering companies products, there are also great first party ones too. The iWork suite can replace Google Docs and Sheets. iCloud Drive can handily take on Google Drive and Maps is getting there when compared to Google Maps. There are, however, certain products or services that seem to have no real counterpart whatsoever.

YouTube has a complete monopoly on ‘home made’ video content. Your best bet in this case is to use YouTube logged out, though this does still allow for a modicum of tracking. Many tracking companies use some pretty sophisticated ‘digital fingerprinting’ these days which aim to match your data across services you’re logged into, with those you’re not, by analysing behaviour and even the IP of the device you’re logged into. There really is no escaping it.

The market is crying out for a viable alternative to YouTube, though it’s a service that, I would imagine, is never going to get a privacy focused version. No one is going to pay for a YouTube competitor at this point, and I can’t see how else you could fund something like that without it, without resorting to ads. This is one you’re likely stuck with I’m afraid.

Beyond this, it’s clear that we have a lot of options in what services we use, if we want to have privacy at the forefront of what we do. It’s also clear, sadly, that Apple are one of the few major tech companies that, on the face of it at least, are really taking this seriously and giving their customers the power to control this. It seems that, by using iOS / macOS, which I assume you do if you’re here, you’ve already taken one of the biggest steps you can to ensuring you’re the customer not a commodity.

Designing Apple Watch faces on the iPad

If you’ve been on Twitter over the the last week or so you may have seen an explosion of Tweets from various developers sharing some new Apple Watch face designs.

It all came about after prolific iOS botherer (I hate the term spelunker for some reason), Steve Troughton-Smith, created an Xcode project, utilising SpriteKit, which can simulate custom Watch faces. The key term here for me is simulate, however. These are not real Watch faces in the classic sense. These are basic apps that’s only function is to display a Watch face. I know this seems like a petty distinction, but it’s an important one. Once you’ve used Xcode to side load the apps onto your Watch, the nice custom face will only display as long as that app is open. If you open something else, or if you set your Watch to not keep the last open app active indefinitely, you’ll be back to whatever real Watch face you had active.

While these faces are fun, they are not the (long overdue) real custom Watch faces many Apple Watch fans have been asking for. They are, as said, still getting a lot of traction online and it seems many developers are having a great time creating some really interesting designs.

I’ve been watching (pun not intended) this transpire via Twitter, from a distance, not really caring that much about it. That changed today, however, when Steve Troughton-Smith once again tweeted something very interesting:

As soon as someone mentions ‘iPad‘ my ears instantly prick up, so I’m quite excited to download the Playgrounds Book from Steve’s GitHub Page this evening and have a play with this. It wont be possible to put these onto an actual Watch, which is a bit disappointing (and greatly reduces the usefulness of this to be fair), but it’ll still be fun to have a play around with. I’m no developer or designer, but if I come up with anything interesting looking I’ll be sure to share.

 

Get A ‘Real’ Camera

This post is a follow-up / addition to a post written a couple of weeks ago, called The Best Camera …. Feel free to check that article out beforehand, for a little more context).

I love photography. I love looking at beautiful works of art, on sites such as Instagram or EyeEm . On occasion, I also very much enjoy trying my hand at photography myself. While I may not be very good at it , it doesn’t stop me enjoying it. It’s my hobby.

According to Dictionary.com, the word hobby is defined as:

An activity or interest pursued for pleasure or relaxation and not as a main occupation.

Keep this in mind, it’ll be important later.

The last real camera I owned was a Canon EOS 500D . While, even at the time, it was not the newest, most powerful or generally impressive of devices, it did an admirable job, and it made me feel like a real photographer while I used it. The thing is, quite often, I found my time with the camera neither pleasurable or relaxing, so could my time using the camera really be called a hobby? My main issues with using it are as follows:

  • Any time I took the camera out had to be a planned trip, generally specifically designed to use the camera. I had to make sure it’s somewhere I can go to with a bag , or where I had time or the ability to stop and change lenses etc. and it had to be somewhere worth going so I can get some decent shots.

  • The Canon camera wasn’t huge, or particularly heavy, but it does need careful handling, to avoid bumps or dust. Heck, it feels like you could do some sort of damage to a SLR with a stern glance.

  • Most images you see in magazines or newspapers have been edited. The best photos on 500px and similar sites have been edited also. So, even after parts 1 and 2 above have been taken care of, there is still a general need to do some kind of post-processing. The images need to be uploaded to a computer (or iPad in my case), copied into Lightroom (or similar), edited and then finally shared. Again, more of a chore than anything else.

A big part of photography is the composition, which can still very much be learnt whilst using an iPhone. An image doesn’t have to be 100+ megapixels in size, or pin sharp with perfect composition to be a work of art. As Ansel Adams once said:

There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.

I often share an iPhone image to Twitter, or other social media sites, only to be greeted by the words: ‘If only you took your proper camera.’ I’m always a little thrown by this statement. Not because I’m particularly upset or concerned by the comment, but, I guess, I just don’t get it. There seems to be a feeling around that the camera makes the photo, not the photographer. The following image, taken with an iPhone, by the very talented Kim Hankskamp illustrates my point perfectly:

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Image by Kim Hankskamp (http://kimhanskamp.tumblr.com)

Kim’s image was awarded 1st place in the ‘People’ category in the 2013 iPhone Photography Awards, and is extremely reminiscent of a well known image of Sharbat Gula, a young Afghan girl. The image was taken by National Geographic Society photographer Steve McCurry and is undoubtedly a work of art. The image was taken in 1984, so the chances are the original negative wasn’t amazingly high resolution, yet it’s quality cannot be denied. The same can be said, in my opinion, about iPhone images. If the composition of the shot is to your liking, then the image is art. Whether anyone but you likes it is not the point at all.

My 3rd point, mentioned above, when discussing the aspects of SLR photography that frustrated me a little, was the editing required to get the most of the images. Another thing I love about iPhone photography is just how easy it is to get some very decent editing done, and these days there are some truly amazing, ‘desktop quality’ editors out there. My main workhorse is the app Darkroom which is an extremely powerful RAW editor for iPhone (there isn’t currently an iPad counterpart unfortunately). This article would be an epic to put War and Peace to shame if I listed all of the great Photo Editing options you have available to you right from the device you’re shooting from. Believe me when I say you will not be disappointed with the vast majority of the options available to you.

The camera doesn’t take the photo, the photographer does. I’m not particularly good at taking pictures with an iPhone or an SLR, but I know which one I enjoy more as a hobby. My ‘eye’ needs to be improved, there’s no question in that. This is, again, something that I can do just as well with an iPhone as I can any other, more specialist equipment. This is, of course, only my humble opinion, and the point of this article isn’t to try and convince anyone in one direction or another, though as always it’s fantastic that we have choices.

Am I less of a photographer because I use an iPhone? Quite possibly, at least in some measurements, but I can safely say that if the iPhone (or any other smartphone I may choose, don’t email me …) wasn’t such a powerful, capable camera, among many other things, I wouldn’t be a photographer (I use this term very loosely, by the way. I appreciate I am amateur to the nth degree) at all. I would not have literally tens of thousands of photos of my daughter growing up, which I treasure, or some other more traditional photos that I’m extremely proud of.

🖥 An Introduction to Drag & Drop on iOS

About a week ago, someone from the Pocket Sized Podcast Slack group mentioned that he’d like Scott and I to talk about Drag & Drop on iOS. We ran out of time in the episode after this request came up, unfortunately.

In order to make amends, and also to give me an excuse to have a play with a new app (Luma Fusion) I recorded a short tutorial / walkthrough of how to use Drag & Drop and shared it privately with the group. Now that I’ve launched this blog, however, I thought I may as well publish it here also.

If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re already familiar with Drag & Drop, but I saw this video as more something you’d perhaps share with a less tech savvy family member.

All in all, it’s a lighthearted first stab at a tutorial with some, interesting shall we say, editing via Luma Fusion on iOS, let me know your thoughts.

Better Folders with Shortcuts

A few weeks ago, David Sparks posted an interesting article over on his blog about a Siri Shortcuts Homescreen. The basic premise of the article was about how David had replaced the apps on his home screen with just Shortcuts actions. This was done by creating various Shortcut Shortcuts (is that what you call them?) and then simply adding them to the home screen with custom names and glyphs. David created a video detailing his setup, if you want to explore this further.

I thought this was a super interesting idea, but also incredibly limited if you use this to simply launch apps which you could launch far quicker via invoking Spotlight search and finding your app there. The idea of fully replacing my home screen with Shortcuts didn’t strike me as something I’d like to do.

After running through the video, however, it struck me that this method could be used, sparingly, to replace the tired home screen folder implementation that we’ve had on iOS for years now. I’ve always avoided having folders on my main home screen, for whatever reasons, so this seemed like an ideal workaround. I could, essentially, avoid the need for folders, but also retain / gain an ability to have more apps accessible from my home screen.

I can now, for example, quickly launch my ‘Entertainment’ Shortcut to get access to music, podcasts, books, audiobooks, or games etc. The flow below, for example, launches some options to listen to some things (an audiobook in  Books in this example).

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This action does, of course, jump into Shortcuts while it runs through each step, allowing you to choose options from a menu, so it’s not a hugely elegant solution. This still looks far better than the now dated and ugly home screen folders, however.

Creating a Shortcut like this yourself is incredibly easy, should you want to. You just need to use the ‘Choose from Menu’ action in Shortcuts to setup your initial selection. As you do this, each option you create will create sub sections below, which you can then populate with various ‘Open app’ actions, or even nest another ‘Choose from Menu’.

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You can download my example to use as
a base, if that sounds easier, though it is only really made up of the 2 actions mentioned above.

Shortcuts continues to be one of my favourite apps / features in iOS to date, and this simple solution to a long running problem is another example of its versatility.