World Password Day 2018

There really is a day for everything and today it’s World Password Day! With the beautiful weather we’ve been having lately you’re probably thinking about cleaning, gardening, and all of the other renewal-driven projects that this time of year brings. Though we’d rather be outside, spending a few minutes to “spring clean” your digital security is well worth it.

This is also a good time to remind yourself to be on the lookout for fraud – I’ve received email scams recently related to the Canada Revenue Agency and tax time. Stay alert, and don’t fall for it!

According to the annual fraud survey commissioned by the Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada, “more than seven-in-ten (71 per cent) of those surveyed agreed that they are concerned about identity theft.” Almost four in ten respondents fear their personal information has already been compromised! Protecting your personal information is important, but with so much of our lives online now, it can be difficult.

security

Having strong passwords (and password hints, security questions, etc.) and good password management practices are critical for protecting yourself. Unfortunately, too many people simply don’t pay enough attention to this. It doesn’t have to be difficult or time consuming to make some simple changes that will really make a difference.

Here are my tips!

Use strong passwords and change them semi-regularly

According to Troy Hunt, a security expert who built and operates Have I Been Pwned (more on that in a minute), most passwords are terrible. “In other words, 86% of subscribers were using passwords already leaked in other data breaches and available to attackers in plain text.” The top ten includes passwords like “123456”, “qwerty”, and the ever-popular “password”.

Don’t use those passwords! Instead, generate a unique, strong password for every account you use. There are plenty of tools to help you generate passwords that are strong and that match the varied requirements that different sites have (like length, special characters, etc.). Here’s the one I use from LastPass.

It’s important to use a different password for each account. That way, if one site is compromised, your credentials can’t be used to get into other sites too. It’s also a good idea to change your passwords once or twice a year, to decrease the likelihood of a compromise. Of course, if you know a service you use has been hacked, you should change your password there right away.

Get a password manager

With a different, randomly generated password for each account, how do you remember them all? You can’t. This is where a password manager comes in! Think of it like a digital vault in which you store all of your account credentials. Then instead of remembering each one, you only need to remember the master key that you use to get into the vault.

There are a number of good password managers out there like 1Password, Dashlane, and Passpack. I use and recommend LastPass. All of them provide tools to generate strong passwords, encrypt and store them, offer browser extensions and mobile apps to make logging in easier, and typically provide ways to securely share passwords with others. One of the cool features LastPass offers is Security Challenge, which analyzes your passwords and gives you a score along with step-by-step instructions on how to improve your passwords.

While there are pros and cons to each service and their various philosophical approaches to storing your data, I don’t think you should spend too much time worrying about that. You can get a more secure solution if you’re willing to do some work and give up some convenience, but if it becomes too cumbersome to use, then what’s the point?

Use a passphrase for your password manager

With a password manager you only need to remember one password – the one to get into the password manager! So you should make it as strong as you can. One way to do that, while still ensuring it is memorable and easy to type, is to use a passphrase instead. Whereas a password is a random list of letters, numbers, and symbols combined, a passphrase is more like a sentence, though it can still have those elements.

password strength

So a passphrase might look like: “trusted walrus shows off 500 petty limes”. I generated that using this Passphrase Generator, but there are plenty of other tools you can use. The key is to not use a phrase or sentence that is common or easily guessable. It should be nonsense! You can also consider running it through the Pwned Passwords tool to see if it has ever been exposed in a data breach.

Don’t use real answers for security questions

So now you have strong passwords and a password manager to help you organize them. The front door to your digital home is secure, but what about the back door or the side doors? Many sites will require you to set some security questions in case you forget your password or sometimes to confirm you are who you say you are when logging in from a new location. Don’t answer them!

Well, don’t answer them factually. Instead, generate a new random response for each question and store them in your password manager! This way, if an attacker figures out your mother’s maiden name or your favorite school teacher or your first car, the information won’t help them break into your accounts.

Turn on multi-factor authentication

Another thing you can do to improve your online security is to use multi-factor or two-factor authentication wherever possible. This means that in addition to your username and password you need another piece of information to login, usually a generated code of some kind. Most of the big sites like Facebook and Google support this, and it only takes a few minutes to enable. If you have the option of using SMS or an app, go with the app. I recommend the Microsoft Authenticator app which you can download for Android, iOS, and Windows Phone.

You can see a full list of websites that support two-factor authentication here. If nothing else, turn this on for your email accounts (Gmail, Outlook, etc.) and Facebook or any other site you often use to login to other sites. Of course, you should also enable this for your password manager!

Get educated and stay informed

Once you have done the above, stay informed. It doesn’t have to be all boring technical stuff, a lot of great information has been made available that is much more accessible. Here are some suggestions:

That’s it! Happy World Password Day – stay safe!

Edmonton is a world leader in the science of artificial intelligence

Though he works in perhaps the most hyped field of science there is, Dr. Richard Sutton comes across as remarkably grounded. I heard him described at the 2018 AccelerateAB conference on Tuesday as “the Wayne Gretzky of artificial intelligence” and he’s often called a global pioneer in the field of AI. Sutton has spent 40 years researching AI and literally wrote the textbook on Reinforcement Learning. But he spent the first part of his closing keynote discussing the tension between ambition and humility. “It’s good to be ambitious,” he told the audience tentatively. “I’m keen on the idea of Alberta being a pioneer in AI.” But he tempered that by discussing the risk of ambition turning to arrogance and affecting the work of a scientist.

AccelerateAB

“I think you should say whatever strong thing is true,” he said. Then: “Edmonton is a world leader in the science of AI.”

Sutton made sure to highlight the word “science” and noted that we fall behind when it comes to the application of AI. And of course, he backed up his claim with sources, citing DeepMind’s decision to open an international AI research office here at the University of Alberta, and pointing to the csrankings.org site which ranks the U of A at #2 in the world for artificial intelligence and machine learning.

So how did Edmonton come to be such a leader?

It started with Jonathan Schaeffer’s work in the 1990s on Chinook, the first computer program to win the world champion title in checkers. The U of A’s growing expertise in game AI helped to attract a number of AI/ML professors and funding from the provincial and federal governments throughout the early 2000s. Edmonton’s rise to AI prominence was cemented with DeepMind’s recent decision to locate here.

Sutton showed the following timeline to help illustrate Edmonton’s path to AI-science leadership:

AccelerateAB

Sutton then outlined some of the key advances that have happened in the field of artificial intelligence over the last seven years:

  • IBM’s Watson beats the best human plays of Jeopardy! (2011)
  • Deep neural networks greatly improve the state of the art in speech recognition, computer vision, and natural language processing (2012-)
  • Self-driving cars becomes a plausible reality (2013-)
  • DeepMind’s DQN learns to play Atari games at the human level, from pixels, with no game-specific knowledge (~2014)
  • University of Alberta program solves Limit Poker (2015) and then defeats professional players at No-limit Poker (2017)
  • DeepMind’s AlphaGo defeats legendary Go player Lee Sedol (2016) and world champion Ke Jie (2017), vastly improving over all previous programs
  • DeepMind’s AlphaZero decisively defeats the world’s best programs in Go, chess, and shogi (Chinese chess), with no prior knowledge other than the rules of each game

Though the research taking place here in Edmonton and elsewhere has helped to make all of that possible, “the deep learning algorithms are essentially unchanged since the 1980s,” Sutton told the audience. The difference, is cheaper computation and larger datasets (which are enabled by cheaper computation). He showed a chart illustrating Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns to make the point that it is the relentless decrease in the price of computing that has really made AI practical.

“AI is the core of a second industrial revolution,” Sutton told the crowd. If the first industrial revolution was about physical power, this one is all about computational power. As it gets cheaper, we use more of it. “AI is not like other sciences,” he explained. That’s because of Moore’s Law, the doubling of transistors in integrated circuits every two years or so. “It feels slow,” he remarked, and I found myself thinking that only in a room of tech entrepreneurs would you see so many nodding heads. “But it is inevitable.”

Given this context, Sutton had some things to say about the future of the field:

  • “Methods that scale with computation are the future of AI,” he said. That means learning and search, and he specifically called out prediction learning as being scalable.
  • “Current models are learned, but they don’t learn.” He cited speech recognition as an example of this.
  • “General purpose methods are better than those that rely on human insight.”
  • “Planning with a learned model of a limited domain” is a key challenge he sounded excited about.
  • “The next big frontier is learning how the world works, truly understanding the world.”
  • He spoke positively about “intelligence augmentation”, perhaps as a way to allay fears about strong AI.

Recognizing the room was largely full of entrepreneurs, Sutton finished his talk by declaring that “every company needs an AI strategy.”

I really enjoyed the talk and was happy to hear Sutton’s take on Edmonton and AI. It’s a story that more people should know about. You can find out more about Edmonton’s AI pedigree at Edmonton.AI, a community-driven group with the goal of creating 100 AI and ML companies and projects.

If you’re looking for more on AI to read, I recommend Wait But Why’s series: here is part 1 and part 2.

Amazon Echo Dot vs. Google Home Mini

Virtual assistants like Alexa, Cortana, and the Google Assistant are at times frustratingly limited, but I also think they are the future. It still feels a bit magical when they work well, and they’re improving every day. In fact, as I have been working on this post over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had to update it a number of times as both Google and Amazon have made improvements that conflicted with what I had previously written! So that’s the first thing to know – the device you buy today won’t be the device you have tomorrow.

I’ve had the Amazon Echo Dot since December and the Google Home Mini since February. To be honest, I am surprised at how quickly they’ve become a regular part of our home. Why do we have both? So I can experiment and compare, of course!

Amazon Echo Dot & Google Home Mini

Here’s a category-by-category comparison of each, based on our experience thus far. I’ll generally just refer to “Echo Dot” or “Alexa” and “Home Mini” or “Google Assistant” to make this less verbose.

Wake Word

The “wake word” is the thing you say to trigger the device to start listening. Amazon wins here. Saying “Alexa” is infinitely better than “Hey Google” or “OK Google”. Try saying it a few times, and I think you’ll agree that the latter gets old really fast. You can change the wake word for the Echo Dot, but you can’t obviously do that on the Home Mini (though I’ve read that some people have been able to do this by training the way you say “Hey Google”).

For this reason, I would say the Echo Dot is our go-to device.

Hardware

I like the overall look of the Home Mini better, with its fabric cover and overall sloped shape. Both devices are about the same size, and the Echo Dot really does look like a hockey puck! For usability though, I’d say the Echo Dot wins, for two reasons. First, the lights on the Home Mini are so much harder to see than the light ring on the Echo Dot. The light ring reminds me a little of the Cortana circle with the way it lights up differently depending on what is happening. Second, the physical buttons on the Echo Dot are nice when you want to adjust the volume quickly. You can do it on the touch-sensitive Home Mini, but I never seem to tap in the right place.

I think the audio quality of the Home Mini is better than the Echo Dot, but neither of them are great (you’ll need to go with the larger versions if you want a really good speaker). Both devices support connecting an external speaker via Bluetooth, and the Echo Dot even has an audio out port if you’d rather go with a cable.

Music

This is probably the task we use our devices for the most. We have a small Bluetooth speaker that we move around the house but in the past we’d have to pair it to my phone, or Sharon’s tablet, or whatever device we wanted to use as a source. Now we just leave it paired to the Echo Dot, and ask Alexa to play music that way. There’s a bit of a delay sometimes when powering on the speaker though, so you miss a few seconds of whatever audio the Echo Dot is playing. I’m not sure if that’s an issue with the Echo Dot or with our speaker, but it’s a minor annoyance.

As Amazon Prime members we get access to Prime Music, so that’s pretty great. You can just ask Alexa to play a song, or an artist, or a genre, and it just works. The selection isn’t always as good as Spotify though, so sometimes we’ll specifically ask to play it “on Spotify”. The playlists on Amazon Prime seem fairly limited by comparison.

The great thing about Spotify is how they’ve implemented device management. I can ask Alexa to play something on Spotify, and then I can see and control it on my phone. Or I can be on my computer and play something on Spotify and tell it to play on the Echo Dot. That flexibility just makes the experience so much better.

Music works just fine on the Home Mini too, with either Google Play Music or Spotify. The ability to ask the Google Assistant to “play that hipster song with whistling” is pretty much just a gimmick though, it’s not something I’d ever use in practice.

Timers & Reminders

Setting a timer is the next most frequent task we use the Echo Dot for. I really like that you can name the timers, and it brings me endless joy to hear the way Alexa says “tea timer” (if it doesn’t know what name you’ve used, it just sets an unnamed timer). When the timer is up, Alexa says “your tea timer is done”. In contrast, the Google Assistant just plays a sound, though you can name your timers there too. Both devices let you query how much time is left, pause, resume, or cancel any timers.

Podcasts & News

I use Stitcher for podcasts, and it’s a bit frustrating how specific you need to be with the command for Alexa. I have a news playlist setup and I have to say “Alexa, ask Stitcher to play playlist news” exactly like that in order for it to work. But at least it works! I can’t ask the Home Mini to play playlists on Stitcher, as “voice actions are not available for that app.”

Amazon Echo Dot

That said, the Home Mini might still have the edge when it comes to podcasts. I can simply say “Hey Google, play the Daily podcast” and on comes Michael Barbaro from the New York Times. Or I can open Stitcher on my phone or tablet, and cast the audio to the Home Mini. That’s pretty powerful. I also get a notification on my phone if Sharon starts casting a podcast from her device.

Both devices handle news pretty well. I can simply say “what’s in the news” and both will give me the latest audio updates. Via both apps you can configure the sources and order of the news briefings, too. We use this first thing in the morning most often, while drinking coffee and browsing the newspaper.

We also use our devices to listen to the radio, and though we struggled at first to find the right commands, it turns out you can simply say “listen to CBC Radio One” and it’ll start playing. You can be more specific with Alexa and specify TuneIn.

Home Automation

I’ve experimented with some different brands and settled on TP-Link’s Kasa devices, as they were the least hassle and most reliable in my experience. In the living room, we have the LB120 Smart Wi-Fi A19 LED Bulb, which is dimmable and lets you adjust the color of the white light from 2700K to 6500K. In the nursery we have a Smart Plug Mini with just a normal lamp plugged into it. In the bedroom we have our humidifier plugged into a Smart Plug with Energy Monitoring.

Both the Echo Dot and Home Mini can control these devices – turning them on or off, adjusting settings like color or brightness, etc.

The Kasa devices support “scenes” which let you configure a bunch of settings into one command. For instance, we have one called “Feed Emily” that turns the living room light on to a really warm, dim white. Both Alexa and the Home Mini support this, so we can simply say “turn on Feed Emily” and the scene is executed. I’ll give the Home Mini the edge here, as it automatically discovers new scenes. With Alexa, you have to open the app and “Discover Scenes” in order for it to show up.

Before I had any of these devices, I mostly thought home automation was unnecessary, especially in a small condo like ours. What’s wrong with a simple LED bulb and good old light-switch? But now, carrying Emily into the nursery to change her diaper, it’s incredibly powerful to simply say “Alexa, turn on the nursery light” on the way, no hands required.

Information Lookup

Most of the time we’re asking about the weather or sports scores. Both devices are great at these kinds of queries. Alexa is probably a little better, because her answers are a little more complete. Ask about the temperature and you’ll get the current conditions plus a sentence about what to expect today. That’s two separate queries with the Google Assistant. Likewise, ask Alexa what the score is in the Blue Jay’s game and if it is over, you’ll get the score and when the next game is. Again, two queries with the Google Assistant.

Sometimes our questions are more trivia-like, things like how old someone is, or who was in a particular movie, how far it is between two places, that kind of thing. Generally speaking, the Home Mini wins here, because the Google Assistant is able to give much better answers thanks to Google Search. If it doesn’t know the answer definitively, it’ll give you a brief readout from the top search result. Alexa more often than not simply doesn’t have an answer. There are odd exceptions, of course. For some reason Alexa has no problem telling me how old Genie Bouchard is while the Google Assistant tells me it doesn’t know how to help with that yet. And I would say that Alexa tends to be better at Hollywood-related questions, presumably because Amazon owns IMDB.

Google Home Mini

Information lookup is even better if you have an Android smartphone (or maybe the Google app is enough). I can ask the Home Mini about travel times or bus routes and in addition to a verbal answer, the Google Assistant will popup a card with more information on my phone. Super handy. You can’t do that with Alexa.

Asking for general information is simultaneously the best and worst thing about these devices. When they have the answer, it feels like magic. When they don’t, even for something that seems simple, you can’t help but feel let down.

Calendar

I don’t often use either device for calendar information, to be honest. Mainly because my calendar is always front and centre on my phone, tablet, or desktop. And unlike asking for the weather, listening to a bunch of calendar entries just isn’t as useful as a quick glance.

I use Office 365 and Outlook.com for my calendars. Sharon uses Google Calendar and Outlook.com. We have shared all of our calendars with one another, so they open up just fine on whatever device or app we’re using. We have a shared Family calendar in Outlook.com, and that’s the main one we’d want to inquire about with the Echo Dot or Home Mini.

The Home Mini only supports Google calendars, so the feature is essentially useless for me. The Echo Dot supports Google Calendar, G Suite, Office 365, Outlook.com, and Apple iCloud. You can only link one Microsoft calendar currently though, so you have to choose between Office 365 and Outlook.com. No problem, my Outlook.com has access to all of my calendars, so that’s the one I linked. It works really well, and I can easily ask Alexa about upcoming events. The only issue I ran into is that it only displays 10 of your calendars at a time, so any more than that and Alexa simply won’t see them.

Other

Those are the main things for us thus far. Here are some other random thoughts:

  • While Alexa now supports “Follow-up Mode”, so that you can give multiple commands, it currently isn’t supported in Canada. The Home Mini handles this just fine – I can say “turn on the living room light and what’s the weather” and it does both actions.
  • The Home Mini has a feature to set the volume to a lower level at a certain time, and it would be great if the Echo Dot had this too. Loud responses during the day are fine, but at night, quieter is better, especially with a baby in the house!
  • Sharon and I are mindful that bossing these assistants around likely won’t set the best example for Emily, so we try to remember to say please when issuing a command and “Alexa, thank you” after she responds. It would be nice if this were a little more natural though (not having to use the wake word to say thanks). Amazon must agree, because they have just announced a Kids Edition of the Echo Dot that includes a “Magic Word” feature and other kid-friendly settings. It doesn’t appear to be available in Canada yet, however.
  • Both smartphone apps are pretty similar. They let you see previous commands or queries, configure some settings for the hardware, and set some defaults for the assistant, like your location, language, etc. The Google Home app is better integrated with Android though, of course.
  • We don’t have a Fire TV or Chromecast currently, so I can’t compare the ability to control the TV. We have an Xbox One and regularly use its voice commands. We have said like “Alexa, watch TV” a few times when we meant to say “Xbox, watch TV”.
  • Both “app stores” – Skills for Alexa and Actions on Google for the Google Assistant – seem to be filled with a lot of useless junk. That said, it is nice how the Google Assistant doesn’t require skills to be “installed”. They just work.
  • Both devices let you setup a voice profile. In theory this means Sharon and I could get personalized results. But in practice, we haven’t found a reason or need to take advantage of the feature.
  • As a Windows 10 user I have Cortana on my PC, but I don’t use it, because it’s just so slow. If you want to appreciate just how quickly and seamlessly both Alexa and the Google Assistant respond to your queries, try asking Cortana for something. And don’t even get me started on Siri…

Bottom Line

Amazon Echo Dot & Google Home Mini

So if I was shopping for one today, which device would I go with? The answer is not obvious as there are strengths and weaknesses with both. If you’re fairly invested in the Google ecosystem, go with the Home Mini. If you’re an Amazon Prime member, go with the Echo Dot. Or do what I did and get both! The arms race underway between the two is only going to make them both rapidly better.

Disclosure: This post includes Amazon Affiliate links.

Recap: Edmonton’s HealthHack Competition

Yesterday afternoon I had the opportunity to help judge the City of Edmonton’s HealthHack Competition. Connected to Edmonton’s Smart Cities Challenge, the competition invited citizens to propose innovative approaches to improve the four health indicators of mental health, physical health, social health, and economic health. Nearly 40 proposals were submitted, and a previous round of judging (that I was not involved in) narrowed that down to the top 5, who were invited to spend a month working on a prototype which they demoed at the event yesterday.

HealthHack Competition

These were the top 5 teams who presented a prototype:

Buddy Benches
Submitted by Troy Pavlek

“The City of Edmonton started the work on reducing social isolation with our buddy bench program, now I propose to take that simple act of saying “hello” online as well and make it easier and more persistent to connect with those around you. By connecting physical locations in Edmonton to a persistent online community we can reduce social isolation, improve mental health and get people out in the community.”

Cannabis Ecosystem
Submitted by Joe Dang and Reed Sutton

“With the legalization of recreational cannabis throughout Canada rapidly approaching, there is a significant lack of data regarding its use and effect on various aspects of health. By leveraging blockchain technology, Edmonton has the opportunity to shape a new national ecosystem surrounding healthy cannabis consumption and regulation, while simultaneously generating open and transparent data that will have global implications.”

Fitness App for Non-Athletes
Submitted by Dr. PJ Rawlek, K. DeZutter, N. Twal, C. Nicole, E. Barbaric and B. Poetz

“The current problem with the thousands of fitness app technologies is they’re designed to compete for that market of those 15% of Canadians, the highly motivated, exercise-experienced. Alternatively, the GoGet.Fit solution is designed to specifically target that 85%, the under-serviced mostly apprehensive exercise-naïve population. This solution will provide solid evidence-based strategies early-on to support the pursuit of a healthier active lifestyle and will optimize success through providing valued support from a professional team – their healthcare provider networked with a community-based exercise specialist.”

Urban Design/Mental Health App
Submitted by Fahim Hassan, Rokib S A, Mohib Khan and Hamman Samuel

“Develop an interactive web application that will collect geo-coded Twitter data, analyze the text and link it with socio-economic data. The insight will help planners and policy makers to improve urban design and achieve mental health outcomes.”

Wheelchair Accessibility Tracker
Submitted by Martin Ferguson-Pell

“We wish to make significant modifications to a research prototype to enable us to improve accessibility and provide information to wheelchair users about the physical effort needed to propel a wheelchair in our built environments (summer and winter).”

Thoughts on the competition

Picking a winner from those proposals was not easy! We scored each prototype on three criteria: health impact, innovation, and completeness. After each presentation, we had a few minutes to ask questions of the presenters. Everyone did such a good job of describing their prototype and fielding our queries.

HealthHack Competition
Members of the winning teams

Congratulations to Martin Ferguson-Pell, who took home the grand prize of $5,000 for his “Fitbit for wheelchairs”. While there could be advantages to trip planning using the data that the device collects, I actually think it would be more impactful to map areas of the city and use that to improve infrastructure and design. Pushing around a stroller these past couple of months has made it clear just how difficult it can be to traverse our city sidewalks, so I can’t even imagine what it must be like for wheelchair users. Apparently 75% of wheelchair users report shoulder issues, so anything we can do to make the ride smoother would have a big impact.

I love the premise behind GoGet.Fit: that most existing fitness apps and technologies are targeted toward people who are already active. The other 85% of the population needs some help, or we’re all going to pay for it via increased healthcare costs. Rather than just count steps using a Fitbit, GoGet.Fit connects you with professionals (doctors, nurses, fitness instructors, etc.) so that they can take a more active role in ensuring that you get active! They already have hundreds of users, and have conducted a successful pilot with a PCN.

Troy’s presentation for extending buddy benches into the digital realm was very engaging. Using NFC to quickly connect you to a community of people who have physically been where you are is a great idea. A little like checking in on Foursquare used to be, I guess.

The “Urban Design/Mental Health App” was a neat use of Twitter data, and is something I have often thought about. What can we learn from geotagged tweets that could help us improve the way we build our city?

I’ll admit that a bunch of red flags went up for me on the Cannabis Ecosystem prototype. Blockchain and cannabis? Talk about going after buzzwords! That said, the application of blockchain technology to safely collect and share data on cannabis use is intriguing, and the system they presented seems to be very well thought out. I look forward to seeing how they take it forward!

This being the first year that the City has held the HealthHack competition, they opened it to everyone, which means we ended up with an interesting mix of both existing and brand new projects. We struggled with that as judges. In future years, breaking proposals into two categories would be a good way to allow for both while making the judging a little more fair.

Well done to the finalists and indeed to everyone who submitted a proposal!

Health Innovation in Edmonton

Though they share a similar objective – innovation in healthcare – the HealthHack competition should not be confused with Hacking Health, an event that first happened in Edmonton back in 2013. That said, both events help bring the vision that Mayor Don Iveson first shared in 2016 of “positioning Edmonton as a world class health innovation city” to life. It’s exciting to see some real on-the-ground activity!

HealthHack Competition

Why Edmonton as a health city?

“The Edmonton ecosystem has a range of assets in the health innovation space. This includes Canada’s largest integrated health system and a readiness to diversify the economy; researchers and entrepreneurs who have created and will create new products, devices and system innovations; and a willingness to take risks in order to drive growth.”

You can learn more about the Health City Initiative here.

Recap: DemoCamp Edmonton 40

Edmonton’s 40th DemoCamp took place at the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences (CCIS) on the University of Alberta campus on Wednesday, March 14. The event marked 10 years since Edmonton’s first DemoCamp which took place back on March 26, 2008. Here’s what I wrote in my recap of that event:

I counted about sixty people at one point, with some standing along the back walls.
It’s great to see the community growing like this in Edmonton, and I have no doubt that the next DemoCamp will be even better!

To celebrate ten years of DemoCamp, the 40th edition included some demos from past years, for a sort of “where are they now”-style demo. There was also a nice round of applause for Cam Linke, who started DemoCamp here in Edmonton despite others saying it would never succeed.

DemoCamp Edmonton 40

In order of appearance, the demos were:

BritBot, a follow-up to Kory’s previous demo on the improv robot at DemoCamp Edmonton 34, is a new project in conjunction with an art project from the UK focused on Brexit and what it means to be British. With a microphone attached, you fire up BritBot to answer a series of questions. It went a bit crazy during the demo, but we got the idea. The bot tracks user engagement, what the user is saying, and both how complex the answers are and how well they match the questions. To ask new questions, the bot is simultaneously searching a series of neural networks. There are 34 topics and 900 questions. BitBot tracks offensive speech and hate speech, “because people start insulting these things relentlessly,” Kory said. Cool stuff!

Gotta Style is a mobile-first CRM for the hair salon industry. They’re trying to tackle the problem of under-utilization, where the salon is full of empty chairs. Customers with the app can browse styles, see available salons that are on the platform, and can choose a stylist and book an appointment. As a stylist, they can accept and manage bookings, take photos of the haircut so both have a “hair fashion file” of the styles you’ve got, plus add notes for future bookings. They noted they could expand in the future to nail salons, etc. The app also supports social media publishing, if the client approves it, which is something I’ve noticed is pretty popular on Instagram.

Drivewyze, which first demoed at DemoCamp Edmonton 28, does a pre-screening mobile app for long-haul trucking, similar to Nexus. They describe themselves as “the nation’s largest weigh station bypass service” (meaning the United States, they’re active in all but 5 of them). There are about 200,000 vehicles on the road right now that the system handles. They moved their backend to Amazon AWS last year, so their demo showed off the behind-the-scenes and all of the intelligence and automation they’ve built around it. Sean noted they have gone from “hope and pray” to “know and be proactive” over the last two years with all the changes. It was pretty cool to see!

Yardly offers an online service for lawn care and snow removal services. There’s an admin app, a provider app, and a customer app. Yardly can be used for one-time service, or also longer-term or recurring service. They showed off the MVP which looked pretty polished. The service enforces a bit of a workflow – for instance, providers need to take before & after photos with the app. They don’t have any plans to do “inside the house” services, they are focused on outside the house, and want to make sure they get that right.

DemoCamp Edmonton 40

Elsi was up next. Jerry showed off his approach to make managing passwords easier. No sensitive information is stored on your phone, instead there’s a little card-like device that you use that communicates with your phone or other computers via NFC. It uses a patent pending system that “relies on user intention”. Think of it like a security badge that you’d use to access different parts of a building. The purpose of the card is really the fear of having something like your phone with all your passwords connected to the Internet, Bluetooth, etc. I can see the appeal for a subset of people, and it did look really easy-to-use.

ScopeAR, which first demoed at DemoCamp Edmonton 34, was back to show off WorkLink, a tool for building step-by-step instructions or training using the company’s augmented reality platform. The result can then be published and consumed on a device like an iPad (they support iOS, Android, and Windows 10). You can of course use a head-mounted display like a HoloLens, but it also works on a tablet (just not as well). Turning a paper manual into a digital manual can take something like 3 minutes per step, depending on how fancy you want to get. They’re focused on B2B right now and have some big customers, like Caterpillar and Boeing!

Frettable was up next, to show off automatic music transcription. Greg started working on it at a hack day at Startup Edmonton! He promised “one minute of talk, six minutes of rock” and performed a Metallica solo for the crowd! The music is recorded locally and the transcription happens up in the cloud. In addition to a mobile app, there’s a web interface. Once the audio has been processed, you can see a MIDI of what the AI recognized and then download the automatically generated sheet music. Pretty darn cool. Right now it has to be a single instrument at a time, and you can also do vocals.

SAM, which first demoed back at DemoCamp Edmonton 22, was our final demo of the evening. Sean showed off the new Alerts product, which “turns unstructured social media chatter into actionable insight and awareness.” The service, which launched about eight months ago, processes Twitter information exclusively, to the tune of about 10 million tweets per day! There’s automatic classification but moderators can also adjust the classification of tweets. All of that data allows the models to be regenerated every night making the system even better. They’re actively working on new features too, like the ability to extract the number of people hurt in an event. Alerts is English-only for the moment, and counts the New York Times as a customer. The pitch is that Alerts is an early detection system, so news organizations can still apply their due diligence over top.

There were a few demo gremlins, but for the most part, everything went smoothly!

DemoCamp Edmonton 40

It was great to see so many students in attendance! If you’re a student, find out what Startup Edmonton has to offer.

If you’re looking to grow your own business, check out the new Talent Membership. “More than a connection to students, the Talent Membership gives you access to all of the activations we produce to help you recruit and retain our city’s brightest to your teams, from junior developers to mid-career marketing leads.”

Here are some upcoming events to note that were mentioned in-between demos:

See you at DemoCamp Edmonton 41!

Recap: DemoCamp Edmonton 38

I really meant to post this recap back in November, but for a variety of reasons, I never got around to it. I did take notes as usual though, so better late than never? Since then, DemoCamp Edmonton 39 took place on January 31. I missed that one, but for a good reason!

Edmonton’s 38th DemoCamp took place at the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences (CCIS) on the University of Alberta campus on Tuesday, November 21. Here is my recap of DemoCamp Edmonton 37) which took place in October.

DemoCamp Edmonton 38

If you’re new to DemoCamp, here’s what it’s all about:

“DemoCamp brings together developers, creatives, entrepreneurs and investors to share what they’ve been working on and to find others in the community interested in similar topics. For presenters, it’s a great way to get feedback on what you’re building from peers and the community, all in an informal setting. Started back in 2008, DemoCamp Edmonton has steadily grown into one of the largest in the country, with over 200 people attending each event. The rules for DemoCamp are simple: 7 minutes to demo real, working products, followed by a few minutes for questions, and no slides allowed.”

In order of appearance, the demos included:

I always love seeing what local entrepreneurs and developers have been working on! It was great to see some demos from the Student Hackathon, and some hardware-focused demos too.

The first team’s project used three.js (which is a JavaScript 3D library) and the top 100 gifs from Gfycat to do some cool 3D rendering on the web. “To make a long story short, we essentially learned javascript on the fly, and made a cool 3D gallery app that gets GIFS from Gfycat, and displays them in 3 dank modes.” Not too bad for their first ever hackathon!

The second team showed us an “Internet of Things” coffee sleeve that sends you a tweet if your coffee is too hot. It does this by monitoring the inside and outside temperature of the cup and using IFTTT as a backend. Unfortunately, that means there are a bunch of live wires inside the cup! They called it “pretty sparky” coffee. They were inspired by the “useless shit that nobody needs” hackathon and finished their project in about 9 hours.

The third team showed us a real-time logging and data management application that was built for the student electric vehicle projects. Built using Django, the app sends 1 packet of data every half a second to provide information for the dashboard. They said teams would be using the app in upcoming competitions in California and London.

The final student hackathon demo was the most colorful: “an Arduino-powered, speed-detecting light show on your bike.” There’s a small magnet on the back wheel to track the number of revolutions per second to cycle and color the LEDs according to the frequency of revolution. Kevin told us it took about 300 lines of code and can handle up to 400 revolutions per second, which works out to 288 km/h. Cool stuff.

Next up was Rui who showed us a security app called Umwelt that he has been working on. The idea is that when you get up from your desktop, you generally take your phone with you, so why not detect that to lock the desktop? The app does this by measuring the strength of your Bluetooth connection. Too weak and it locks the machine. As you come back it gets stronger, and the desktop is unlocked as a result. It’s a cool idea, though not perfect, as Bluetooth can be affected by a large number of factors, not just distance. Rui said that Wi-Fi Direct would be better, but many phones don’t support it.

Our sixth demo was from Deo who showed us an AI-based transcription service he has been working on. The app uses IBM’s Watson services behind the scenes, and at the time worked on the web only though a mobile app was in the works. In addition to transcribing audio and providing a nifty editor, LiivLabs can take the transcribed text and summarize it into some key bullet points. It can also detect and recognize different voices to label them differently. Oh and by the way, Deo is still a high school student!

The next demo was from John who showed us Run for Stuff, an app that lets you earn rewards as you walk, run, job, or take the stairs. You can then redeem those rewards for active wear and other items from partners like HelloFresh. For every 100 steps you take, you earn 1 activity point on Run for Stuff. The app launched on iOS in August and uses the Apple Health SDK and built-in pedometer to track your activity. Since DemoCamp, the app has also launched on Android.

Our final demo was of Elev8 from Visio Media, an advertising platform currently active on screens in elevators throughout the city (including in the building I live in). The platform uses computer vision to do anonymous facial recognition for demographic analysis to serve you targeted ads. Basically, it can make an educated guess at your age, gender, and attention, and can show you ads that target that information. Other factors like the time or weather can also influence the ads you’ll see. Visio isn’t currently doing any eye-tracking, but they can detect if someone is facing the screen or not. They promised that no personal information is stored, just aggregated metrics to provide advertisers with some measurability. Visio Media was one of the presenting companies at Launch Party 4 back in November 2013.

There were the usual startup announcements sprinkled throughout the evening, like who’s hiring. Be sure to check out the job board for opportunities.

Some upcoming events to note:

If you’re interested in demoing at a future DemoCamp, you can apply here.

See you at DemoCamp Edmonton 40!

Recap: DemoCamp Edmonton 37

Edmonton’s 37th DemoCamp took place at the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences (CCIS) on the University of Alberta campus last Wednesday. Here is my recap of DemoCamp Edmonton 36 which took place in May.

DemoCamp Edmonton 37

If you’re new to DemoCamp, here’s what it’s all about:

“DemoCamp brings together developers, creatives, entrepreneurs and investors to share what they’ve been working on and to find others in the community interested in similar topics. For presenters, it’s a great way to get feedback on what you’re building from peers and the community, all in an informal setting. Started back in 2008, DemoCamp Edmonton has steadily grown into one of the largest in the country, with over 200 people attending each event. The rules for DemoCamp are simple: 7 minutes to demo real, working products, followed by a few minutes for questions, and no slides allowed.”

In order of appearance, the demos included:

I always love seeing what local entrepreneurs and developers have been working on!

First up was WedImage which is “an online wedding vendor marketplace with an emphasis on wedding photographers.” It started as a hobby site in 2010 but now features more than 1,600 different photographers. WedImage isn’t just about photographers though as they also hope to connect brides with other vendors they’ll need for their wedding, things like jewelry, food, decorations, etc. Key to WedImage is the use of real photos and not stock photos, so that brides know what they can expect.

The Low Road is a graphic adventure game from XGen Studios set in the 1970s. You play as an intern at a corporate espionage agency. You’re kind of like James Bond, or at least you want to be, but you quickly realize that the world isn’t quite as you pictured it. Your goal is to get out into the field as a spy by lying, stealing, manipulating, and blackmailing your co-workers. The game has been in development for 3 years and launched this summer on Steam for Mac and PC. They’re also planning a Linux version, and are considering the iPad as well. The game features over 32,000 lines of dialogue written by Leif Oleson-Cormack and just won a Digital Alberta award for “Best Game Experience”!

Our third demo was of You Can Benefit, a website that aims to reduce the barriers to accessing benefit applications. The project is “a partnership between the City of Edmonton, E4C, and volunteers from BetaCityYEG.” It’s still under construction, but one of the key features is that administrators from E4C can update the data without having to do any coding. The site is focused on Edmonton and Alberta right now.

Foosify was supposed to be our fourth demo, but the demo gods didn’t want to play ball. Developer Sheldon told us about it briefly, saying that initially he just wanted to parody startup culture so he threw up a landing page. He got so much interest though that he decided to go ahead and build it anyway! Foosify promises to “up your office’s foosball game” and essentially is a way to track matches. Sheldon hopes to add tournaments in the future.

Our fifth demo of the night was Vaniila Moments, which is a way to capture and share live events. The idea is to provide a better user experience than alternatives like Twitter Search. You can cover events live (called a Live Moment) and then readers/viewers can replay the archive later (called a Moment). You can also collaborate with others to produce a Moment together. I love dogfooding at DemoCamp – the team used Moments to cover DemoCamp all evening long!

The final demo of the evening was Cognilit, which is a “fully immersive brain training program” that uses your mobile device and a VR system like Google Cardboard. It promises to “improve your attention, cognitive processing speed, peripheral awareness, working memory and perception of complex movement.” Simba showed us a virtual world with different colored balls that we had to follow and then identify after they stopped moving. Imagine those “which box is the pizza in” or “which cup is the ball under” games that you see on the big screen at hockey arenas. I feel like the demo just scratched the surface, but it was still pretty cool.

All the presenters did a great job, even when things didn’t go as planned! There were the usual startup announcements sprinkled throughout the evening, like who’s hiring. Be sure to check out the job board for opportunities.

Some upcoming events to note:

  • Edmonton Startup Week takes place October 16 to 20. There are more than 30 events scheduled throughout the week!
  • Launch Party 8 takes place on October 19 inside Ford Hall at Rogers Place. Here are the presenting companies. Tickets are just $25, or $15 for students!
  • The next Monthly Hack Day is coming up at Startup Edmonton on Saturday, October 14.
  • Prelight is Startup Edmonton’s year-round program “dedicated to supporting your efforts to build, launch, and grow a tech-enabled product.” The next workshops are coming up soon, so apply here if you want to participate!
  • There are always lots of great meetups taking place at Startup Edmonton!

If you’re interested in demoing at a future DemoCamp, you can apply here.

See you at DemoCamp Edmonton 38!

Recap: DemoCamp Edmonton 34

Edmonton’s 34th DemoCamp took place at the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences (CCIS) on the University of Alberta campus on January 24. It’s always a great opportunity to see what others in the local tech scene are up to. Here is my recap of DemoCamp Edmonton 33 from back in November.

DemoCamp Edmonton 34

If you’re new to DemoCamp, here’s what it’s all about:

“DemoCamp brings together developers, creatives, entrepreneurs and investors to share what they’ve been working on and to find others in the community interested in similar topics. For presenters, it’s a great way to get feedback on what you’re building from peers and the community, all in an informal setting. Started back in 2008, DemoCamp Edmonton has steadily grown into one of the largest in the country, with over 200 people attending each event. The rules for DemoCamp are simple: 7 minutes to demo real, working products, followed by a few minutes for questions, and no slides allowed.”

In order of appearance, the demos included:

The demo gremlins were alive and well that night! Many of the demos had technical issues or were otherwise unable to fully show off everything they wanted to. Still, we were treated to everything from a new platform for lawyers to an improvising robot. Very cool to see such variety!

First up was Scope AR, no stranger to DemoCamp – they started at Startup Edmonton about five years ago! WorkLink is one of their products and it can be used for interactive user manuals, among other things. Need to fix your sink? In the future you might have a Scope AR-powered guide to help you through the process, with digital overlays on exactly the parts you need to touch. They also showed off Remote AR, which they described as “kind of like FaceTime with annotations on the world.”

Next up was Get Rich Interactive, an intriguing new approach to digital storytelling. It focuses on the world of Wolfgang and Hayes, and you’re invited to explore their house, look at their stuff, and have some fun along the way. It’s part web comic, part interactive world, and part animated series. Gaian has been working on it for a couple years now and plans to continue growing the world with new storytelling elements.

Our third demo was UUORKBOOK, a platform for jobs, candidates, and the hiring process. Miguel has combined some elements of LinkedIn with some additional tools for recruiters to make scheduling easier and to conduct remote video interviews. Built using Angular JS, Laravel, and NodeJS, the product has been in development for about a year.

DemoCamp Edmonton 34

Next up was Reveal a makeover, an open source CSS and JavaScript library for reveal.js. Arjun started using reveal.js, which is a framework for building interactive slide decks, and quickly found he wanted themes. So, he came up with a solution! Makeover is a tool for developers and designers to make and take themes for reveal.js.

Amir is also no stranger to Startup Edmonton as deacloser was one of the participating companies at Launch Party 7. “dealcloser is an online platform designed to modernize the art of the deal, bringing to the future the archaic, paper-based process used ubiquitously by law firms around the world.” The goal is to streamline 40-50% of the deal process, and they’re getting ready for a real-world pilot this month.

Our final demo was A.I. Improv, Kory’s attempt to build an improvising robot. He’s a PhD student in Artificial Intelligence at the University of Alberta, so I’m not going to do the science behind the robot justice, but know that it’s legit. Kory combined neural networks trained on the Open Subtitles dataset with a general purpose Blueberry robot to come up with his solution. He joked that his goal is to one day have two robotic improvisors performing for a room full of robots.

DemoCamp Edmonton 34
Kory Mathewson demos his improv robot

Some upcoming events to note:

  • Preflight Beta is coming up on February 14. Preflight helps “founders and product builders experiment and validate a scalable product idea.” Applications are now being accepted.
  • Founders & Funders is coming up on February 23 at Startup Edmonton. Tickets are $20.
  • The next Monthly Hack Day is taking place on Saturday, March 4 at Startup Edmonton. It’s a great way to get in the habit of building.
  • There are meetups almost every night at Startup Edmonton, check the calendar here.

If you’re interested in demoing at a future DemoCamp, you can apply here. The next event is scheduled for Tuesday, March 7.

See you at DemoCamp Edmonton 35!

DemoCamp Edmonton 34 – January 24, 2017

Edmonton’s 34th DemoCamp is coming up on Tuesday, January 24, 2017. DemoCamp is a great way to see what local entrepreneurs have been working on and to network with developers, creatives, and investors in Edmonton’s local tech scene. The rules for DemoCamp are simple: 7 minutes to demo real, working products, followed by a few minutes for questions, and no slides allowed.

DemoCamp Edmonton 14

DemoCamp Edmonton 34
WHEN: Tuesday, January 24 at 6:30pm
WHERE: CCIS 1-140, University of Albertamap
RSVP

Here’s a sneak peek at the line-up for Tuesday’s event (subject to change):

Augmented reality, an improvisation bot, and a platform for closing deals are just a few of the things you can expect to see in action. Should be a fun night! Experienced DemoCampers will know the event takes place in two parts – demos and networking. After the demos are finished at CCIS, join the crowd over at RATT (Room At The Top) on the 7th floor of the Students Union Building, to keep the conversation going.

To get a sense of what to expect, check out my recaps of previous DemoCamps here. If you can’t make it in person, you can follow along on Twitter with the #democampyeg hashtag or on Snapchat by following StartupEdmonton.

DemoCamp is just one of the many events organized by Startup Edmonton, an entrepreneurial campus and community hub. You can learn more in this video:

See you at DemoCamp Edmonton 34!

Recap: DemoCamp Edmonton 31

Tonight was robot & games night at Edmonton’s 31st DemoCamp which took place at the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences (CCIS) on the University of Alberta campus. After missing the last two, it was great to be back to see some inspiring new projects and entrepreneurs. You can read my recap of DemoCamp Edmonton 29 here.

If you’re new to DemoCamp, here’s what it’s all about:

“DemoCamp brings together developers, creatives, entrepreneurs and investors to share what they’ve been working on and to find others in the community interested in similar topics. For presenters, it’s a great way to get feedback on what you’re building from peers and the community, all in an informal setting. Started back in 2008, DemoCamp Edmonton has steadily grown into one of the largest in the country, with over 200 people attending each event. The rules for DemoCamp are simple: 7 minutes to demo real, working products, followed by a few minutes for questions, and no slides allowed.”

In order of appearance, tonight’s demos included:

DemoCamp Edmonton 31
Bento Arm

Rory & Jaden showed us the latest version of Bento Arm, a 3D printed robotic arm. It features pressure sensors in the finger tips, servo motors that track velocity and other metrics, potentiometers, and even includes a camera embedded in the palm. The idea with having all of those sensors is to use machine learning to improve its capabilities over time (for instance the camera might recognize objects to help the arm pick them up). The demo showed how the hand could be controlled using a joystick, moving the arm around, and opening and closing the fingers. Bento Arm runs on the Robot Operating System and the team plans to open source everything, hardware and software. To the end the demo, they played rock-paper-scissors against the Bento Arm, which won. Welcome to the future!

DemoCamp Edmonton 31
vrNinja demo

Nathaniel & Alexendar were up next and they showed us vrNinja, a ninja simulation game built for the Oculus Rift VR headset. In the game you are a ninja and you must learn and use new weapons as things get faster and faster. The game features positional audio and requires you to move quite a bit in order to play (so be careful what’s next to you). The team are hoping to release it in the Oculus store in the next month or so, and they have plans to look into the HTC Vive VR headset as well. If you’d like a closer look, you can check out the game this weekend at GDX Edmonton.

DemoCamp Edmonton 31
Anthrobotics

Next, Ian & Evan showed us what they have been working on with Anthrobotics. The idea is to build robots that do all the boring, redundant tasks that we all need to do each day. They showed three prototypes. The first was an anthropomorphic named Robio who sat in a wheelchair. Unfortunately the demo gods got the better of him and the speech demo didn’t work. They said they liked the humanoid form (even though it is difficult to build) because they think it has the greatest potential for being useful in our world. The next two prototypes were a hand that featured and opposable thumb and a leg that could move both entirely and just the foot. They are using Arduino boards right now but have plans to add Raspberry Pis in the future. Their robots are very much in the prototype stage, but if this is what they’re doing in high school, I can’t wait to see what they build in the future!

DemoCamp Edmonton 31
Hugo, the Twitter-powered robot

Jeff and couple of his colleagues from Paper Leaf were up next to show us Hugo, the Twitter-powered robot that you probably tweeted inappropriate things to last year when it launched. The way it works is you tweet something with the hashtag #hugorobot and Hugo will speak it aloud. You can read more about Hugo here. Hugo was a big success, and even helped Paper Leaf to win an ACE Award. At the experiment’s peak, Hugo was receiving 3100 tweets per hour and more than 7000 people watched the livestream. Hugo was posted to Reddit, 4chan, and 9gag, all of which meant that the team had to work hard to keep the blacklist updated. It’s a fun project and Jeff says you could apply the same concepts of social media and crowdsourcing elsewhere.

Our final demo of the evening was from Matt & Logan who showed us RunGunJumpGun. It’s a 2D side-scrolling “helicopter-style” game that they first prototyped at least year’s GDX Edmonton. Now a year later, they have improved and refined the game, and plan to release it this summer. The game features 40 levels that increase along a difficulty curve so that as you progress you should master the skills needed to win. Though honestly the last level looked impossible to pass! There’s a certain amount of frustration that comes along with the style of play, but it also has a high degree of replay-ability. They plan to launch an iPhone version at some point too.

DemoCamp Edmonton 31

Some upcoming events to note:

  • Monthly Hack Day is coming up this Saturday at Startup Edmonton
  • GDX Edmonton takes place Saturday and Sunday at the Robbins Health Learning Centre downtown
  • Preflight Beta takes place Tuesday at Startup Edmonton and “helps founders and product builders experiment and validate a scalable product idea”
  • The full Preflight program started today!
  • The next ROS Robotics Meetup takes place on May 19 at Startup Edmonton

Over 150 meetup events took place at Startup Edmonton last year! Keep an eye on the Startup Edmonton Meetup group for more upcoming events. They have also added a listing of all the meetups taking place at Startup to the website. You can also follow them on Twitter.

See you at DemoCamp Edmonton 32!