Recap: DemoCamp Edmonton 29

Edmonton’s 29th DemoCamp took place tonight at the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences (CCIS) on the University of Alberta campus. I wasn’t able to make it unfortunately, but I did follow along with each of the demos via Twitter (thanks to Karen Unland). In the spirit of continuing to document the startup scene in Edmonton, I wanted to do a quick write-up. You can read my recap of our last DemoCamp here.

DemoCamp Edmonton 12

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. 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:

Home Tribe debuted back in October at Launch Party Edmonton 6. It’s a new way to explore real estate. They have a feature called Home Tribe Match which Karen described as “sort of like a dating site for you and your future home”. I saw the demo back at Launch Party and found it to be a clever way to sort through MLS data. Instead of just looking by location, you fill out a questionnaire of preferences and Home Tribe uses MLS and other datasets to narrow down to the best matches for you.

Shelfie is a project of some Jobber employees. It’s a “small library management” tool. You can scan books to add them, you can rent books with a single-click, and you can keep track of what you’ve read. Sounds a little like GoodReads but for libraries. The application won fourth place in the 2015 Rails Rumble hackathon, which is a distributed programming competition with participants from all over the world. Great to see an Edmonton team take part and do so well!

Run-WithIT strikes me as one of those things you have to see to get, but I’ll try. The website says they “create a continuous simulation of your future field conditions complete with real data and millions of metrics so you can have IT all figured out before release.” I gather it is a tool for planning through simulations, and those simulations are really about the performance and scalability of web applications. Karen wrote: “The field is the greatest teacher, so Run WithIT simulates the field so IT pros can learn.”

FitCoins sounds like a wonderful idea, though there’s nothing on the website to explore yet. Just an explanation that “Fitcoins are an activity based point system that allows kids to earn screen time.” It’s a smart way to tackle the challenge of getting kids to be physically active when all they want is to message their friends or whatever it is kids do these days on their devices. Sounds like FitCoins is still at a very early stage, as Karen noted: “Really neat to see a demo at the stage that FitCoins is at. It’s Arduinos in a box, but it works.”

The final demo was from CareNetwork, which also presented at Launch Party 6. It’s an app and service that “helps acute-care medical teams stay in sync without breaching privacy,” Karen wrote. It has a very clean and modern design with features like a newsfeed on each patient. I talked with the team at Launch Party and learned they have had difficulties piloting in Canada, which is why they’re focusing on the US to start. There’s huge potential for a service like this, so I hope they find success abroad and here at home.

Karen tells me every demo tonight was impressive but highlighted how interesting FitCoins was. I think there’s a certain appeal to the straight-from-the-garage projects, which is not meant to be a negative comment. But everyone can rally behind that “yay it works!” feeling that you get from seeing something early and rough and full of opportunity.

Some upcoming events to note:

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.

Want to work with a local startup? Jobber, Home Tribe, Granify, Drivewyze, and Invidi Technologies are all hiring, so get in touch with them!

See you at DemoCamp Edmonton 30! (hopefully)

TELUS focuses on the connected lifestyle with its new store at Edmonton’s Southgate Centre

In today’s world, the smartphone is at the centre of almost every digital experience. In addition to a smartphone, many of us carry headphones, perhaps a battery pack, a fitness tracker, and maybe even a cable or two. The smartphone itself connects to a whole world of other devices on top of that, like so-called “smart” locks, thermostats, speakers, and video cameras. Can TELUS capitalize on this brave new world with its new store to change the way you buy electronics and perhaps make TELUS your preferred partner for the connected lifestyle?

Back in 2008 I wrote about the brand new Future Shop in South Edmonton Common, described at the time as “the future of Future Shop”. It was a curious time to be launching a fancy new electronics store – just a month or so before it opened, Circuit City down in the US had filed for bankruptcy protection. The Source had recently shut down more than 60 stores across the country and its parent company InterTAN had just filed for bankruptcy protection too. It took a bit longer until Best Buy felt the effects of online shopping, but in the last five years they’ve been hit hard with declining revenue (though recently have become profitable again). Earlier this year, Best Buy discontinued the Future Shop brand and closed 66 locations across the country, including that store in South Edmonton Common. And down in the US, RadioShack filed for bankruptcy protection too. It has been a rough decade for bricks & mortar electronics retailers.

But maybe it’s too easy to blame online shopping and showrooming for the difficulties facing Best Buy. The Apple Store has had incredible success during that same time period and is still expanding today, and others like Microsoft have followed suit with their own stores. Why go to Best Buy when you can go right to the source? Not to mention the experience of shopping at a Best Buy is nothing like shopping at an Apple Store. Maybe there’s hope for electronics retailers after all?

New TELUS Store at Southgate

It’s with all that in mind that I accepted an invitation to check out the new TELUS Store at Southgate Centre here in Edmonton. I joined fellow blogger Nugglemama for a tour of the new space, located directly across from the old TELUS Store near the stairs in the southeast part of the mall. Marc Jamieson, Director of Marketing, Merchandising, and Design at TELUS and Koodo, was in town to show us around and to explain all of the features of the new store.

New TELUS Store at Southgate

The existing TELUS Store at Southgate was about 640 square feet, and it’s safe to say it was a traditional phone company store (it will soon become a Koodo store). Most of the space inside was dedicated to counters where you’d spend lots of time waiting for a phone activation. There was very little product on display, and the whole environment was fairly uninviting. A few years ago TELUS launched its “G2” stores to try to change that perception. They were larger, brighter, and featured more phones and a limited amount of other merchandise, like cases and chargers. But they also made heavy use of digital screens and more or less kept the same core interaction – a TELUS employee on one side of a desk and you on the other. I’ve visited the G2 store at Edmonton City Centre a few times, and while it has always been a positive experience, I do find the store somewhat unfriendly thanks to the cold surfaces and dozens of screens.

New TELUS Store at Southgate

Now TELUS is introducing a new generation of store with some much bigger changes. The new Southgate store and the new store at Toronto’s Eaton Centre are “Connected Experience concept stores” that TELUS says “are an evolution of our retail shopping journey.” There are currently no plans for additional new stores, but if these two are successful you can bet that will change.

“There’s no doubt that our smartphones are a central part of our lives and how we’re using them changes almost daily – from listening to tunes, to tracking our fitness to monitoring our home – our devices can really enrich our lives. With our new Connected Experience stores we’ve created a playground where customers can touch, test and play with more than 1,000 specially curated products that help enhance their digitally connected life.”

The new TELUS Store is the largest in Canada at roughly 3,400 square feet. It officially opened on October 21, just eight months after the original concept was created (the Eaton Centre store opened October 14). It features a bold green exterior and a wide entrance, and is immediately more welcoming than previous stores. As you walk in a greeter will say hello, and you’ll find the store roughly split in half. The left side is where you can go to quickly purchase merchandise, and the right side is where you’ll go to sign up for a TELUS service.

New TELUS Store at Southgate

But perhaps the most obvious difference from other TELUS stores is the array of non-TELUS products on display and available for purchase. You can’t miss the Fitbit and Nest displays, for instance. The new TELUS Store features a series of categories, each with an anchor product partner. You’ll find:

  • Health & Fitness, anchored by Fitbit
  • Audio, anchored by Beats
  • Essentials, anchored by Mophie
  • Fashion, anchored by Kate Spade
  • Devices, anchored by Apple and Samsung
  • Lifestyle, anchored by GoPro
  • Home, anchored by Nest and Optik

Each category anchor can change over time, and there are more brands available in each. For instance, there is also Sonos, Bang & Olufsen, Jaybird, and many others available in Audio alongside Beats. The Fashion section (bags and cases) features Kate Spade but also Ted Baker and Rebecca Minkoff. Prices are comparable to other retailers.

New TELUS Store at Southgate

The items you’ll find at the TELUS store are all connected to the smartphone in some way. Fitbits, headphones, Mophies, Nest, and even toy drones, are all things you pair with your smartphone. I asked Marc if there were some things that just don’t belong in a TELUS store, noting the lack of laptops. Marc said that “there are things we have decided not to focus on, and laptops are one of those things.” He noted that even the tablet display was pretty basic. The focus is on “connected experience” devices – things you need a smartphone to get the most out of.

The new store is staffed more heavily than other stores, and all the staff have been trained on how to use all of the various products available. There’s a real focus on demoing, so you’re invited to try everything on display, and the staff all carry devices with the necessary software to show you how things work. I asked Marc if he was worried about showrooming, and he said he’s so confident in the training of the reps that he’s not concerned.

New TELUS Store at Southgate

There are some pretty cool displays to help with all that demoing, like the interactive sound bar for wireless speakers. It uses an app built by Stingray Music to allow you to compare different speakers and different styles of music. Above each table are attractive sound-dampening features, something you’ll find throughout the store actually.

New TELUS Store at Southgate

The new store has incorporated lots of feedback based on previous stores and also research that TELUS has done at its retail lab in Scarborough. There’s more quantity and variety of seating, because customers often spend a lot of time in the store. While the G2 stores featured Optik and other Future Friendly Home devices, they were hidden away. The new store puts them out in the open so that customers can better envision how the boxes will fit into their homes. There’s also a kid-friendly area and lots of carpet in the store. Instead of a single retail counter, there are eight point-of-sale stations throughout the store.

New TELUS Store at Southgate

Near the front of the store you’ll find a recharge station for your mobile device, and on the tables throughout the store are wireless charging pads (which my Lumia worked with immediately). There’s also free Wi-Fi at the store, though it wasn’t working on the day I visited. All of these things are open to all, even non TELUS subscribers!

To celebrate the grand opening of the new stores in Edmonton and Toronto, TELUS is offering 15% off accessories until November 23. They’re also encouraging you to share your experience on social media using the hashtag #ExploreTELUS. If you do, you’ll be entered to win one of the prizes they’re giving away weekly until December 14.

So, will I shop there?

I really liked the new store. It feels warm and welcoming especially when compared with its predecessors. There’s a lot to see and do in the store, and it definitely will feel approachable to anyone who likes the Apple Store in that it is experiential. When I made the comparison, Marc felt strongly that “aesthetically they are different” however, even if only thanks to the liberal use of the green and purple brand colors.

I can’t see myself buying my next Fitbit at the new TELUS Store, however. When it comes to electronics, I do a lot of research online. I compare and read and watch reviews and look up specs. I dig into forums and sift through social media to see what real people are saying and what issues they’ve run into. Then when I know exactly what I want to buy, I look around and compare prices. Often Amazon wins, especially as I’m a Prime member. The new TELUS Store isn’t competing on price and despite promises that the staff are exceptionally well-trained, I’m skeptical that they’ll have the level of knowledge that I would be looking for.

That said, as a TELUS mobile customer (since the Clearnet days!) I like the idea of a flagship store and would definitely visit the next time I need a SIM card or to talk with someone about my plan. It’s the same reason why I visit the Apple Store or the Microsoft Store – I expect a better experience and the flagship stores offer that.

But I’m probably not the target customer anyway. Marc mentioned that the new store has seen a large increase in foot traffic, and it’s the folks that are either casually looking or not willing to do all of that research that are the real target for TELUS. Have a smartphone and interested in getting an activity tracker? Head to the TELUS Store and they can help you get setup with the one that works best with your device.

It’s unlikely that selling Fitbits or Nests is going to measurably impact the $12 billion in revenue that TELUS generates each year. But if the new store can indeed become a hub for customers looking for the connected lifestyle, then it could positively impact wireless, Internet, and Optik subscriptions which is what TELUS really wants. The new store is about creating that halo effect. Will the new TELUS store be the last of its kind or the start of a successful strategy shift? Time will tell!

Win a Nest or Jaybird X2!

After I visted the store, TELUS was kind enough to send me a gift basket. Included inside were a couple of pretty expensive items which would be inappropriate for me to keep, so I’m giving them away to two lucky readers!

Nest and Jaybird X2

To enter my contest, simply leave a comment below by November 30 telling me how you currently like to purchase electronics and if you plan to shop at the new TELUS store. I’ll draw two valid email addresses at random from the comments and will contact the winners on December 1. Just in time to help with your Christmas shopping!

10 days with Windows 10

Windows 10 was released on July 29 and I was one of the millions who upgraded my PCs right away. I had been running the preview builds for a few months on a test machine as one of Microsoft’s five million or so Windows Insiders, so I knew more or less what to expect. After running Windows 10 for ten days on my main PCs, I’ve found some things I like and some that I don’t. The upgrade process was smooth, Cortana and Continuum are great new features, but Edge is disappointing and OneDrive integration could be improved. Here are my thoughts.

windows 10 hero
This is the new Windows 10 hero image, which you can learn more about here

Upgrading

If you’re running Windows 7 or Windows 8 and have all the latest service packs installed, you can upgrade to Windows 10 for free until July 29, 2016. So should you upgrade and if so, when?

I don’t think there’s any compelling reason to stay on Windows 7 or 8. The design philosophy for Windows 10 seems to have been to combine the best of both its predecessors and for the most part, I think they have succeeded. If you avoided Windows 8 because it took away the Start Menu, you’ll be happy to hear it has returned for Windows 10. And likewise if you enjoyed the touch features of Windows 8, I think you’ll find the approach that Windows 10 takes is familiar, if a little incomplete. Users of both Windows 7 and Windows 8 should feel right at home in Windows 10. It’s new, but it’s still Windows.

If you reserved your upgrade then it’s probably best to wait until you’re notified that the upgrade is ready. That way you can be sure that drivers and other aspects of your computer will continue working properly after the upgrade. If you’re a little more adventurous, you can of course go ahead and upgrade now using this tool.

I got the notification to upgrade right away on one of my PCs and of course went about manually upgrading the rest of them. The only problem I ran into was on my Surface Pro 3, because I had VPN software installed. The good news is that it takes just a couple of clicks and a few minutes to go back to your previous OS, which I ended up doing a few times while troubleshooting. It’s incredibly comforting to know that you can revert back to exactly the way things were before if the upgrade doesn’t go well.

Windows Central has a solid roundup of other upgrade issues you may encounter and how to resolve them.

You should note that not all Windows 7 PCs will be upgradable to Windows 10. They still need to meet the minimum requirements. I tried to upgrade my old Toshiba Portege M200 for example, but of course it didn’t work because just like Windows 8, the PAE, NX, and SSE2 processor features are required for Windows 10. So if you have really old hardware, don’t be surprised if it won’t upgrade. Anything in the last five years should be fine though.

Start

As mentioned, the start menu is back in Windows 10. When you turn your PC on, you’re presented with your desktop rather than the start screen that appeared in Windows 8.1. And when you click the Start button, you now get a more or less familiar looking menu. There’s “all apps” from Windows 7 and also tiles from Windows 8. You can resize the start menu to be skinny like Windows 7 or to take up more of the screen, similar to Windows 8.

start menu
My start menu right now

I like the live tiles, so I have made the start menu on my desktop PC three groups wide. On my Surfaces, where there is less space available, I’ve shrunk this down. If you had groups of live tiles in Windows 8.1 those will be combined into a single group in Windows 10, so you need to reorganize them again. It’s annoying but only takes a few minutes.

My main complaint about the new start menu is the wasted space on the left. It doesn’t seem like “Most used” is actually accurate and there’s an awful lot of blank space between that and the primary commands at the bottom (because I have resized the menu to be taller). It feels like the perfect spot to let me pin a few more things. I wish the tiles for desktop apps looked better too.

On the plus side, opening apps is done the same way it has been since Windows 7: simply press the Windows key, start typing, and hit enter.

Tablet Mode (Continuum)

Windows 7 worked on touch-enabled devices, but it was horrible to use because everything was designed for mouse users. Windows 8 focused on making the touch experience great, but many feel that negatively impacted mouse and keyboard usability. Windows 10 tries to find the middle ground.

The new thing is called Tablet Mode, or Continuum as it also known. If you’re on a touch-enabled device, you can turn on Tablet Mode which expands the start menu to take up the entire screen (kind of like on Windows 8.1), opens apps in full screen mode, and adds a handy back button to the taskbar. When you swipe in from the left, you get the new Task View, which lets you pick from the running apps. And of course the on-screen keyboard pops up as appropriate in this mode. The other big change is that you can swipe an app down from the top to close it, just as you did with Metro apps on Windows 8.

tablet mode
Same start menu, but in Tablet Mode

On devices like the Surface that have a detachable keyboard, you’re prompted to switch in and out of Tablet Mode when you disconnect or reconnect the keyboard. By default Windows will ask you every time but you can tell it to remember your selection too.

You can see a video of how this works here.

After using Tablet Mode for a while, I’m finding I like it a lot more than I thought I would. It’s a really great experience on my Surface Pro 3 and I don’t mind the prompt to switch modes at all. The marketing speak is that it “puts you in control” but I’m finding that to be true, sometimes I want one mode and sometimes I want the other mode and I get to pick when.

Cortana

One of the compelling new features of Windows 10 is Cortana. I’ve been using Cortana on my Windows Phone for a while now and was eagerly awaiting a version on my PCs. Unfortunately Cortana is not yet available in Canada, though Microsoft has promised that’ll happen before the end of the year. If you want to use Cortana now, you can change your region to be the US instead of Canada. The only downside I have found to this is that the Calendar app will display temperatures in Fahrenheit instead of Celsius (the Weather app let’s you choose and the News app still lets you pick Canada as your region).

I’m a big fan of Cortana and the Windows 10 implementation is off to a great start. You can enable an active listening mode so that simply saying “hey Cortana” engages the assistant, or you can simply click the button. Cortana will surface your calendar, news related to your interests, weather, stock prices, and much more. I’ve found the speech recognition to be surprisingly good and am thrilled that Cortana does an increasingly useful list of things, like converting measurements. For anything else, you’ll get kicked out to Bing.

cortana
Cortana telling me about Edmonton and Microsoft

Probably the most useful aspect of Cortana is reminders. You can set reminders by time, place, or person (“remind me to tell Mike congrats when I speak to him next”). It’s very handy to be able to quickly ask Cortana to remind me about something. Unfortunately, reminders don’t currently sync from Windows 10 to Windows Phone 8.1, but that problem will go away as soon as Windows 10 Mobile is released in the fall.

I really like the direction Microsoft is going with Cortana.

OneDrive

One of the biggest differences between Windows 8.1 and Windows 10 is in how OneDrive is handled. In 8.1 we had placeholder files, so you could open up your OneDrive folder and see all of the files there even though they weren’t actually there. If you tried to open one, Windows would magically download the file then launch the correct application. It was pretty handy, because on devices with limited disk space you could see everything without wasting gigabytes of space.

Well in Windows 10 none of that works. Now you have to select which folders you want to sync, and after you’re done choosing, OneDrive does a more traditional sync where the files actually exist on disk. But if you have folders you haven’t chosen to sync, you won’t see those unless you go to OneDrive on the web as there’s no longer a OneDrive app either.

For the most part, this hasn’t bothered me too much. There are some folders that I use all the time so I set them to sync, and others that I use almost exclusively as cloud storage, so I don’t need those on my PCs. Depending on how you have your files organized, this may or may not be an issue. I hope there are improvements on the way though, because it would be nice to have an app again to manage all my files without necessarily syncing them.

The other point to make here is that if you use Office, the placeholders were always unnecessary and so your experience in Windows 10 shouldn’t change much. You can simply open Word, Excel, or PowerPoint and choose your OneDrive files from there without syncing. Same goes for OneNote, it loads your notebooks from OneDrive automatically.

Microsoft Edge

While Windows 10 does ship with Internet Explorer 11, the default browser is a new one called Edge. In theory it is a faster, slimmer, more compliant browser without all of the legacy cruft that IE carried. And while it is those things, it lacks key features right now that make it feel like a step backward in many ways.

edge
My blog in Edge

Let’s start with the things I like. The minimalist interface is great, and I love that there’s an option for a dark theme. I like the integrated reading mode and reading list features. The ability to draw all over a web page and send it to others is also extremely handy as a Surface Pro 3 user. I’m also optimistic about Cortana integration. And…that’s about it. Yes, it renders web pages correctly. But that’s its primary and most important job so I don’t count that as a positive.

There are many, many issues with Edge right now. Simple things like the fact that it won’t remember window locations (so if I open it up, move it to my second monitor, close it, and then open it again, it appears back on my first monitor). More significant things like the fact that back and forward gestures are gone from touch devices, something that made Metro IE a joy to use. Favorites do not sync between PCs like they did with IE. When loading pages in many cases scrolling doesn’t work until the entire page has loaded, which makes it feel frozen or slow. There’s no ability to choose where to save a download, nor is there a proper download manager that will continue when the browser is closed. Actually you can’t even choose whether or not to start a download, if you click a link to a file it just downloads it. You can’t hold the back button down to access recent history. There are no jumplist options, so you can’t right-click on the taskbar icon and start an InPrivate window, for instance. The list goes on, as you’ll see in the Windows Feedback app. Edge is half-baked at best.

I want to like Edge, but it’s just not there yet. Hopefully some of these shortcomings are addressed in an upcoming update. And I know Microsoft has already said that some features would be coming in the fall, like support for extensions. I’m using it day-to-day for now, but if it doesn’t improve quickly I may have to switch.

Also: I think it’s pretty ridiculous how many “reviews” of Edge I have seen that are positive, apparently just because the reviewer has some hate for IE. Have you actually used IE11? It’s a good browser.

Other things I like

  • Dark theme. I like that Windows 10 by default has a dark look to it, and I hope that this is expanded on in the future. You can of course change the color to suit your mood.
  • Task View (WIN+TAB) I know that OS X users won’t be impressed as they’ve had Mission Control (Expose) for a while now, but the new Task View is fantastic. You can still Alt-Tab of course to get to your apps as you always have, but Task View is critical for touch devices and works well.
  • Multiple desktops. I guess this is a bit of a power user feature, but having the ability to turn on multiple desktops baked into Windows is a win. I can keep my email, notes, and other productivity stuff on one desktop and my development apps on another. You can switch between them using Task View, or by pressing WIN+CRTL+(RIGHT/LEFT).
  • Feedback app. Have a problem? Don’t like something? Fire up the Windows Feedback app and see if someone has already reported it. You can upvote things or you can submit your own feedback. Hopefully Microsoft acts on all this feedback quickly.
  • Groove Music. It’s basically the same as the old Xbox Music app, but with a new name (which I like) that hopefully means it can stand on its own (this is a good sign).

task view
Task View is pretty great

Other things I don’t like

  • Too much white. There’s no contrast anymore! File Explorer is blindingly white for instance, and most Win32 apps now have all-white title bars and menu structures. Some color would be much appreciated.
  • Lack of features in Mail. It’s inexcusable that with an apparent focus on keyboard and mouse users, the Mail app in Windows 10 doesn’t let you select multiple messages using CRTL+SHIFT+ARROW like pretty much every other app in history does. There’s a long list of other limitations too (switching between accounts feels half-baked, for instance). Outlook, it is not.
  • Battery life. I haven’t measured it, but anecdotally the battery life on my Surface Pro 3 seems to be maybe slightly less than it was with Windows 8.1. But on my original Surface Pro, it’s abysmal. There’s definitely room for improvement.
  • Volume mixer still needs work. I was really hoping for change here, but no such luck. Some apps have individual volume controls, but others (like Songza) do not. It’s annoying. I want better control over this!
  • Minor bugs. There are still little annoying bugs all over the place. On my desktop, choosing what apps to show on the lock screen doesn’t work. On my Surface, the Mail live tile never seems to update. Once or twice in tablet mode Windows has seemed to get stuck in right-click mode, requiring a logoff to fix. That kind of thing. If you’re concerned, wait til the fall when I’m sure these and other issues will have been largely addressed.

Xbox, Phone, and beyond

Windows 10 is not just a desktop OS, it will also run on a variety of other devices. The user interfaces may look different, but the core is the same as are the services that run atop the OS. By the end of the year, Windows 10 variants will be released for the Xbox One and for Windows Phone devices. I’m very much looking forward to Cortana on my Xbox, not to mention an update to my Lumia to better align it with my PC.

Yes I have a slight bias toward Microsoft products, but Windows 10 has still impressed me, and it’s only going to get better from here. I absolutely think you should upgrade!

Maybe next time Elections Alberta can spend $1 million on something useful

Well there’s $1 million down the drain. Voter turnout for the 2015 provincial election here in Alberta ended up being 53.7%, down from 54.4% in 2012. The flashy ad campaign that Elections Alberta ran probably had very little impact on those numbers, if it had any impact at all. I’d wager than anger against the PCs and enchantment with the NDP’s orange crush did more to impact voter turnout than #ChooseYourAlberta did.

choose your alberta

They could have spent that money on things that would have actually, measurably impacted turnout. Like more voting stations. Or better educational resources on how to vote. Or online voting. Or, as I will argue for in this post, on a better website and on open data. Let’s start with the website.

Is a functional, reliable, up-to-date website too much to ask for in 2015?

The Elections Alberta website is an unmitigated disaster. It’s garish, uses tables for layout, and is horribly unfriendly to use on a mobile device. Worse, there’s not just one website, but many. Here are some of the subdomains I’ve come across:

There are probably others that I haven’t even found yet, too. Each of those sites has a different navigation menu even though they share a similar design, which makes them very disorienting. Worse, they change seemingly on a whim. Links are removed or change, redirects are put in place, and there is no revision history.

I suppose you could argue that we don’t have elections very often so it’s not worth putting a lot of money into the website. But I’m not talking about a fancy, complicated, expensive redesign. I’m talking about a simple, responsible, and trustworthy website that is actually useful.

I think being trustworthy is especially important. Elections Alberta is the authority on elections in Alberta – I would expect to be able to go their website to find accurate, reliable information. But it’s hard to trust a site that is constantly in flux, with information appearing for a few days and then disappearing again, or links that look like they were added almost as an afterthought.

For instance, I downloaded a list of candidates in the 2015 election in Excel format a few weeks before election day, as I was building my results dashboard. It was somewhere on the WTV site. Today that page is gone, and the WTV site redirects to results. Thanks to the Wayback Machine, I can see that a completely different site used to be there, with the link to the Excel document I had downloaded. Why remove that?

It seems they have removed nearly all of the previous information and functionality now that the election is over. Searching for your candidates has been replaced with finding your MLA. Which kind of makes sense, except that you’re on the Elections Alberta site, not the Legislative Assembly website. I expect to find election-related information at Elections Alberta, thank you very much!

A small fraction of the $1 million ad campaign budget would have gone a long way toward addressing these issues with the Elections Alberta website.

It’s time to get on board the open data bandwagon

I really like building things for elections. Whether it’s a results dashboard, a where-to-vote tool, a sign management system for a campaign, or something else entirely, I enjoy it all. These projects generally need data. Sometimes you crowdsource the data (where did volunteers drop all of the signs) but often you want official data from the election authority. In the case of the provincial election, I wanted to build a site that was useful before and after the election, with a where-to-vote feature, information on all of the candidates, and a results dashboard. I needed some data from Elections Alberta to make it happen. Here’s a rough overview of what I wanted:

  • A list of all parties (ideally with contact info)
  • A list of all candidates (ideally with contact info, their electoral district, etc.)
  • A list of all electoral districts (ideally with returning officers and other info)
  • A list of all polling stations (ideally with addresses and contact info)
  • The geographical boundary data for each electoral district
  • The geographical boundary data for each polling station
  • Results data for the 2015 election
  • Historical results data

Each of those datasets would allow me to build additional features, especially when combined with my own data. All of them are fairly straightforward in my opinion, and should be things that the authority on elections would have. Once I knew which datasets I needed, I set about finding them.

My first stop was the Alberta Open Data Portal: “The portal makes data the provincial government collects on behalf of citizens publicly available in machine readable formats with an open licence.” Like the City of Edmonton’s data catalogue, the Alberta Open Data Portal should be a one-stop shop for open data. But unfortunately, it contains no election-related data. I of course submitted a dataset request, but knew it wouldn’t be actioned in time. I still haven’t heard anything back about it.

I knew at this point that I’d have to hunt each dataset down individually, likely on the Elections Alberta site. And given what I wrote above about the website, I knew that was likely to be problematic.

As mentioned I found the list of candidates in Excel format. I also managed to find the electoral district boundary information and the polling station boundaries here. I ended up scraping nearly everything else, including the list of electoral districts. Just four days before the election, after repeated requests that went unanswered, they added an Excel document of all the polling stations (which you can see here via the Wayback Machine).

I’m pretty happy with the way the results dashboard turned out, but again it was all scraped. Instead if making a results feed available, or any kind of structured data, Elections Alberta only provides a static HTML page (which of course does not validate correctly making scraping even more difficult). Now that the election is over, I see they have added the resultsnew site, which appears to provide an option to download the results in Excel. Too little, too late.

One quick note on historical data. You can get PDFs here, but that’s pretty useless for anything other than manual lookups. I couldn’t find anything else. The only reason my results dashboard is able to show results data from 2012 is that I had saved copies of the static HTML results files that year.

This situation is untenable. Scraping data, hunting around a constantly changing website, and pleading for more complete datasets is not my idea of an open and accessible government. Open data is not a new concept, and the Province already has an open data catalogue. All Elections Alberta needs to do is make their data available inside of it.

There’s plenty of time to fix this before the next election!

I know that election time is crunch time, and that the folks at Elections Alberta were probably incredibly stressed out and constantly faced an uphill battle. And I know there are smart, dedicated Albertans who work there. Keila Johnston, Director of IT and Geomatics for Elections Alberta, was particularly helpful. But now the election is over, and I’d really like to see some positive change.

It would be an incredible shame if we got to the next election here in Alberta and found ourselves in the same position: with a website that’s out-of-date and unreliable, and a lack of open data to power new tools and experiences for voters. Elections Alberta has the talent and ability to fix both of those issues, if they prioritize it. And the best part? It shouldn’t cost $1 million to do so.

Recap: DemoCamp Edmonton 28

Edmonton’s 28th DemoCamp took place last night at the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences (CCIS) on the University of Alberta campus. We had six demos, including two from Computer Engineering students at the U of A. You can read my recap of our last DemoCamp here.

DemoCamp Edmonton 28

In order of appearance, last night’s demos included:

Our first demo was from Trevan, Jeremy, and Jordan who showed us the game they built at MADJAM 2015. The theme was “What do we do now?” and they had just 48 hours to build their game. Called Super Time Warp Battle Force, the game is “a web-based multiplayer deathmatch-style game where you control your avatar through three different eras, each with their own unique mechanics.” The game won third place! They used socket.io for multiplayer and pixi.js for drawing things on screen. You can play the game here.

Michael and Craig from OMx were the second demo this evening (they were at Launch Party Edmonton 5 back in October). They showed us their beta kit, which includes a urine collection cup, two sterile test tubes, some wipes, and a plastic bag. You provide the urine sample, put the tubes in the bag, and ship it back to OMx and they analyze it and provide a report. They are hoping to be able to measure 120 different things, but are starting with a smaller subset intended to help you “optimize your diet, form healthier habits and learn about your body.” This field of science is called metabolomics – there are apparently more than 4000 indicators in urine. They recommend the easypost API if you need to ship something!

DemoCamp Edmonton 28

Our third demo was from Drivewyze. They’ve been around for a while, as they participated in Launch Party Edmonton 4 back in November 2013 and were founded in 2012. Sean showed us their system, which uses GPS and geofences to provide drivers with weigh station notifications and alerts via dedicated physical devices like the PeopleNet Blu2 or mobile phones. So that’s the first part – they save drivers time by allowing them to legally bypass weigh stations (in 34 states currently). The second part is that they’re collecting a lot of data behind the scenes, and it’s clear they are hoping to extract some value from that.

Up next was Tim who showed us LinkMetrics. The service allows you to create trackable links for your website that provide you with extensive information about what the user did after clicking, such as which pages they visited, how long they were there for, and more. The idea is to provide you with insight about whether or not it is worth following up with that individual. The service can also provide you data in real-time!

Our fifth demo was from James and Jesse who showed us what they call the Burgess Wireless System (which is their 4th year Capstone project). Focused on retail environments, the system allows a store manager to see a live map of the store that uses Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to determine where customers are, who hasn’t been helped in a while, and where the closest employee is. The service provides both real-time and historical data which can be useful for analysis over time. Because it was a learning project, they used dozens of different technologies to power the system.

The final demo of the evening was BarTinder from Jacob, Andrew, and Chris. Theirs was also a Capstone project and it was inspired by Darkhorse Analytics and their use of D3.js. The responsive website shows a visual representation of a cocktail and its ingredients, and also provides instructions on how to make the drink. You can also input what you’ve got in your bar and the website will tell you which drinks you can make. If you want BarTinder to suggest a random drink, simply click the “I’m Feelin’ Tipsy” button. It reminds me of an app I use on Windows called Cocktail Flow.

DemoCamp Edmonton 27

I really liked BarTinder because it was both entertaining and useful. Apparently Darkhorse Analytics owns the intellectual property, so it’ll be interesting to see if they do anything with it. I continue to be intrigued by OMx. I’m sure that the self-diagnostic space is going to heat up considerably so they’re probably positioned well to take advantage of that.

Some upcoming events to note:

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 29!

Review: Inateck USB 3 Enclosure & Wireless Presenter Stick

From time to time I get invited to review various things here on my blog. I usually turn those invitations down, but sometimes I’m intrigued and agree. That’s what happened back in December, not long after I purchased the Inateck PCI-E to USB 3.0 Expansion Card that I wrote about yesterday. Someone from Inateck emailed asking if I’d be interested in reviewing a couple of their other products. I hadn’t ever come across the brand until I started looking for that USB 3 expansion card, and I was surprised that they reached out so quickly after my purchase. I was happy enough with the expansion card, so I figured, why not? Let’s see what else they’ve got!

They invited me to pick a couple of items off their website to review (and they sent me one of each for free). I decided on the Tool Free USB 3.0 HDD Enclosure (FEU3NS-1E) and the Perfect Laser Pointer Pen for Presentation (WP1002).

Tool Free USB 3.0 HDD Enclosure

An enclosure might seem like a strange thing to want to try, but I have used quite a few over the years. It seems I always have a hard drive that needs attention. Currently I’ve got a few Vantec NexStar enclosures, but nothing with USB 3, and I liked the idea of a smaller one for 2.5″ drives.

Inateck USB 3 Portable HDD Enclosure

The Inateck USB 3.0 HDD Enclosure comes with the HDD case, a short USB 3 cable, and a user manual (which is completely unnecessary). The enclosure is made of plastic and is really light at just 70 grams. It supports 2.5″ SATA HDDs and SSDs, as long as they are 9.5mm thick or less. For 7mm drives, there’s an extra foam pad that you can use to stabilize the drive.

The main problem with most enclosures is the time it takes to get them open, screw the drive in, and then close them back up again (for temporary jobs, I have started using the NewerTech USB 3.0 Universal Drive Adapter, which is awesome). That’s why the “tool free” nature of the Inateck enclosure really appealed to me.

Inateck USB 3 Portable HDD Enclosure

To open the enclosure, all you need to do is slide the top forward. Then you can lift it up, revealing the connector for the drive. To close it, you simply reverse the action. Even though it’s plastic, the build feels solid enough that I wouldn’t worry about it breaking with use (as opposed to say, the plastic releases on the QNAP TS-451 that I recently got). To get the drive itself in, you just need to align it with the connector, and then push. There are two small screws that you could remove if you had trouble with this for any reason (they are the only thing holding the connector to the case…I see that Inateck is now selling the connector as a standalone product basically too).

After the drive is in and the enclosure is plugged in, you simply flip the power switch. There’s a handy LED that comes on too. I have seen a few criticisms of the USB cable, as the enclosure uses the Type-A cable, as opposed to an A to Micro-B that you likely use for a mobile phone. Just don’t lose the cable that comes with it I guess!

Inateck USB 3 Portable HDD Enclosure

I tested the drive with both an HDD and an SSD. I’m a Windows 8.1 user and had no problem with plugging the drive in – it was recognized right away with no reboot or driver install required. I didn’t measure the transfer speeds, but it was as quick as expected. The enclosure does support UASP (USB Attached SCSI Protocol) if your controller supports it and you’re using an SSD.

The Inateck enclosure is currently just $23.99 at Amazon, which is very affordable. So would I buy one? If I needed a basic 2.5″ enclosure, yes. The main selling feature to me is the ability to swap drives in and out very quickly. If that’s important, then the Inateck enclosure would work very well. If I was looking for an enclosure for one drive that I didn’t anticipate changing very often, I might look for something sturdier.

Wireless Presenter Stick

The second item I chose was the “Inateck Perfect Laser Pointer Pen for presentation”, which is a mouthful, so I’ll call it the Wireless Presenter Stick. It’s one of those devices you hold when you’re running through a PowerPoint presentations to switch the slides without having to walk over to the laptop to do it. I’ve never had one of my own, though I have used tons of them over the years.

Inateck WP1002 Wireless Presenter

The Wireless Presenter Stick requires one AAA battery, which is not included. It’s made of plastic and is really light at just 24 grams. Inateck says it has a range of 20m. It requires a little USB dongle that is conveniently stored in the base of the stick itself with a magnet for good measure. Bluetooth would have been nice, especially if the MacBook-led trend of fewer ports continues, but it’s not a deal-breaker. The stick also features a laser pointer, which is handy for pointing to thinks on the screen/wall.

Inateck WP1002 Wireless Presenter

I feel like a wizard wielding a wand when I hold the stick! It’s about 5 inches long, so it’s certainly going to be noticeable when you hold it. Most of the edges are rounded, except for the top edge which is straight. While it does help you orient the stick in your hand, it does make it a little less comfortable to hold. There are five buttons and a power switch on the stick. The three buttons along the top are the forward and back buttons, plus the laser pointer button. Along the right side are the Tab and Enter buttons. The left side is where you’ll find the power switch (the stick will automatically enter sleep mode if you don’t press anything for a while to save battery power).

I have used the Wireless Presenter Stick for maybe half a dozen presentations now, on a few different computers. No drivers or installation is required, you simply plug in the USB dongle and you’re good to go. I didn’t test the range but in a big conference room it never failed to work as I moved around. I am a little surprised to see some wear on the buttons already, maybe from dirty hands? Nothing functionally wrong, just some markings on the plastic.

I have also used it in a group presentation during which we passed the stick around to a few different presenters. Pressing the buttons always works, there’s never a stutter or pause, and you never have to press it more than once. But, the one problem we did run into, is that everyone kept pressing the wrong button! When you hold the stick properly (the way that feels comfortable), the “previous” button is at the top and the “next” button is at the bottom. But invariably people try to press the top button for forward/next! It’s a minor annoyance I suppose, but I was surprised at how consistently the issue came up with new people. Because there’s no software to install, there’s no way to remap these buttons, but that would have been one way to solve the problem.

Inateck WP1002 Wireless Presenter

You can use the stick for more than just presentations. If you’re inside a browser, you can use the up and down arrows to scroll the page. You can also use the tab button to move from link to link, and enter to select one. This is a lot slower than the mouse or touch of course, but it can be done. It would probably make most sense as part of a presentation.

Inateck’s Wireless Presenter Stick is currently $26.99 at Amazon. The most direct competitor is probably the Logitech Wireless Presenter R400, which is nearly double the price. The Logitech one is about the same length but is wider and thicker and slightly heavier. The Inateck stick is decidedly less ergonomic, but compared to most of the other options out there, it’s slim and light. It gets the job done for a great price.

Keeping my desktop computer fresh with recent upgrades

Yes, I still have and use a desktop computer. This post might be a little geeky for some of you, but I wanted to document this!

I bought my current desktop computer back in June 2010. It’s a Dell Studio XPS 9000 and I paid just over $1,500 for it at the time. I ordered it with a Core i7-920 processor (it’s a quad-core) and 12 GB of DDR3 SDRAM, so it was pretty powerful right from the start. I also included an NVIDIA GeForce GTS 240 video card and 1 TB 7200 RPM SATA hard drive.

Dell Studio XPS 9000

I have upgraded it over the years, which is one of the great capabilities that a desktop offers. I’ve added additional hard drives for data, I updated my dual monitors to 23″ displays, and I’ve added lots of peripherals like webcams, and various mice and keyboards. I have also upgraded the OS of course, from Windows 7 to Windows 8.1, and I plan to upgrade it again to Windows 10 when it is available later this year.

My desktop will be five years old this summer, and I have thought about replacing it. But I have also thought, as a I do more with mobile devices, that perhaps I don’t need a new desktop. Maybe I could extend the life of this one instead?

The main limitation to further upgrades is the motherboard, which only supports the LGA 1366 socket for processors. That limits me to Core processors built back in 2011, as it has now been replaced by LGA 2011 and LGA 1150. I think the best processor I could get to replace my existing one is the Core i7-990X, released in February 2011, but availability is limited and prices are high. It just doesn’t seem worth it.

So after I eliminated the processor as a potential upgrade, I started to think about what else might give me a performance boost. The first thing I decided to do was add a USB 3 controller to make importing photos and video quicker.

inateck usb 3.0 expansion card

I did a bit of research and landed on the Inateck Superspeed 4-port PCI-E to USB 3.0 Expansion Card, which I got for $26.99 CDN on Amazon. I wasn’t familiar with Inateck, but their stuff seemed to have a ton of positive reviews. Installation was quick and straightforward, and Windows 8.1 recognized the card right away. I did experiment with a couple different driver versions, and found the best performance using the latest driver (unsurprisingly).

I have both an external USB 3 hard drive and a USB 3 hub hooked up to the card now, and everything has been working great. Even though it is hidden away under my desk, I like that the card has a dark face; it’s interesting and different. This was definitely a worthwhile and pretty inexpensive upgrade.

Speeding along with an SSD

After I had the USB 3.0 upgrade working, it didn’t take long to land on the hard drive as a possibility for the next improvement. I had been reading about solid-state drives and I knew that having an SSD could make a big difference with start and load times. I’ve always marvelled at how quick my Surface Pro starts up and I’m sure the SSD plays a big role in that.

So I decided to purchase an SSD. I went with a Samsung 250 GB 840 EVO, which I got at Memory Express for $149.99. It seemed like pretty good price for a reasonable amount of space and solid performance. It’s not the biggest or fastest SSD, but it’s definitely not the smallest or slowest either.

samsung evo 840 ssd

I already had one drive for the OS and applications and one for data, so I just replaced the OS drive with the SSD. I decided to do a fresh install of Windows 8.1 and all my apps, because I had read some negative things about trying to do a migration or backup/restore. Now clearly a fresh install of Windows 8.1 will make a difference when it comes to performance, but not this much!

Before the upgrade it took:

  • 43 seconds to get to the login screen
  • 23 seconds to get from the login screen to the desktop being visible
  • 2 minutes, 46 seconds until startup was done

After the upgrade (and after installing all updates and all the usual software I use) the times are:

  • 23 seconds to get to the login screen
  • 4 seconds to get from the login screen to the desktop being visible
  • 23 seconds until startup was done

That’s a big, very noticeable improvement (and yes the stuff running on startup is comparable if not identical). Application launch times are also noticeably quicker now that they are running from the SSD. Overall I’m really happy with the upgrade. It was definitely worth the money!

Will I have a desktop computer in the future?

This may be the last desktop I’ll ever own, actually. The performance and capability of mobile devices has come so far, there’s less and less need for standalone desktop machine. I can already use my Surface Pro for pretty much everything. Combined with external displays and input devices, it could definitely serve as my one and only computer.

On the other hand, the cloud is (for me at least) dramatically changing how I think about my devices. The days of “that’s on my desktop” or “that’s on my laptop” are long gone. So are the days of “that’s on my USB key”. Now my stuff is available on every device all the time, and the definition of “my stuff” is expanding too. With OneDrive, my files are accessible no matter where I am. When I log into Windows with my Microsoft account, my settings and apps are also available. When I sit down at my desktop computer, it looks pretty much the same as when I am working on my Surface. In other words, there’s no need or advantage to having just one computer.

So maybe it does make sense to have a computer that just sits at my desk, permanently hooked up to large displays and the ergonomic mouse and keyboard that I love. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that the my current desktop is the last “tower” that I’ll ever own. I have been looking at is Intel’s “Next Unit of Computing” or NUC form factor. The idea is basically to shrink the desktop down into something that fits in your hand. I can imagine having a powerful, tiny box on the corner of my desk to drive a few large displays. They’re relatively inexpensive too. One day maybe.

Until then, I’ll make the most of these recent upgrades to my desktop!

Recap: DemoCamp Edmonton 27

Edmonton’s 27th DemoCamp took place tonight at the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences (CCIS) on the University of Alberta campus. It was hackathon night at DemoCamp, as more than half the projects demoed were created at a hackathon of some sort.

DemoCamp Edmonton 27

Teams from two local hackathons that took place recently were on hand to demo tonight. First was the MADJAM Global Game Jam hackathon that took place over the January 23 weekend. It had 72 participants and 15 teams that took part.

“MADJAM is an Edmonton-based, year-long event that is made up of quarterly game jams, each associated to a global or local event. At the end of each jam, the games will be judged by our panel of experts and voted on by the public. The developers of the best games will be awarded points. These points accumulate and the developers with the most points by the end of the year will win totally rad rewards!”

Their next event is coming up the week of April 26 – May 3, called GDX Super Jam.

The other hackathon was the HackED Computer Engineering Club Hackathon, which took place on January 31. About half the participants in that hackathon were software based, the other half were hardware based. The hackathon offered $2,000 in prizes and just 24 hours to build something cool.

In order of appearance, tonight’s demos included:

DemoCamp Edmonton 27

The Bees is a game that has you controlling a swarm of bees after the hive has died. “The bee colony must forge on, in hope of escaping a terrible fate,” the description reads. The team used an iPhone to compose the music, and built their game using the Unity engine. The bees swarm because the emit pheromones, and to keep the game interesting, the team made the seasons change. They focused on what could be done in just 48 hours. Wondering how the game ends? Well no matter what you do, the bees die! In a future version, they’ve talked about maybe having nanobots instead of bees.

DemoCamp Edmonton 27

After Hours was also powered by Unity, and is a side-scroller not unlike Super Mario Bros. The team wanted the game “to be tough but fair” and also wanted it to be complete. They decided to do pixel art, because it went well with the music. They added a multiplayer mode too. The goal of the game is basically to make it through the level before the time runs out. If you do, you get to go for a drink!

DemoCamp Edmonton 27

The third demo was my favorite of the night – Broom Blaster. It won second place in the HackED hackathon and is essentially a tracker for curling brooms. Inspired by the Fitbit, Jacob, Jared, Stephen, and their fourth teammate decided to add pressure and motion sensors to a broom that could be paired with a smartphone over Bluetooth low energy. The system tracks both frequency (how many times you sweep) and pressure (how hard you sweep). The team wanted hardware that could be added to an ordinary broom, to make it more cost effective. The app collects the data, and can give training and coaching information. A possible future upgrade? A speaker, so the broom can yell “hurry hard!” at you.

DemoCamp Edmonton 27

Fourth was SafetyNet by Jobber. Ben demoed his app, which is essentially an online utility to backup your data from QuickBooks Online. He built it at a recent Intuit conference that featured a hackathon and took home the $15,000 prize in the new app category. For some reason QuickBooks Online doesn’t already have a backup feature, so Ben used the REST API to create one. He had just 36 hours to build it, but was able to come up with a simple-to-use but efficient tool. Built in Rails with Bootstrap on the frontend, the app encrypts the data and offers one click to save and one click to restore.

DemoCamp Edmonton 27

Our fifth demo was WANDA. Built by Visionstate (with some help from Dark Horse Analytics), WANDA is an interactive touchscreen for washroom management. Carolyn showed us how it can be used to give patrons an easy way to submit a request for cleaning or to alert staff that a resource (like toilet paper) is low. When staff go to clean the washroom, they use WANDA to record what they did and when they did it. You’d probably think twice about touch a screen in a washroom, but WANDA features an antimicrobial overlay on the displays. The backend dashboard by Dark Horse lets you make sense of the data, such as determining optimal cleaning times.

DemoCamp Edmonton 27

Our final demo of the evening was Trajectory from Rocketfuel Games. Matthew showed us a few examples of how Trajectory can make training and certification much more enjoyable and effective. Instead of just embedding a PDF on a web page and telling new recruits to go read it, Trajectory can make the experience much more interactive. Everything a user does is tracked, including how they take to do it, but that data isn’t visualized just yet – that’s coming next.

DemoCamp Edmonton 27

A few upcoming events were mentioned. Startup Weekend EDU Edmonton is taking place at NAIT from March 6-8, and will be a great opportunity for transforming your idea for improving education into reality. The first ever Polyglot Alberta Unconference is taking place in Calgary on March 28 (and will alternate between Edmonton and Calgary). Preflight Beta is taking place at Startup Edmonton again on February 19, and is a great opportunity to learn about the Lean Canvas Model. And finally, on March 21, Startup Edmonton is hosting the Student DevCon at the Shaw Conference Centre.

DemoCamp Edmonton 27

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.

You can see more photos from the event here. See you at DemoCamp Edmonton 28!

Get your digital house in order for 2015

Maybe you make new year’s resolutions, maybe you don’t. Either way, a new year always brings the feeling of starting fresh! That thing you’ve been putting off? Now’s the time to wipe the slate clean and tackle it. With that in mind, here are some tech-related things you might consider starting 2015 with.

Backup your stuff

It’s always a good idea to backup your stuff regularly, and now’s as good a time as any to set this up if you’ve been putting it off. Any backup strategy is better than no backup strategy, but ideally you’d have multiple copies of important data, stored locally and in a remote location. Have some really important stuff? Put it on a USB drive and stick it in a safe deposit box. For most data though, a combination of a local drive and the cloud is probably the way to go.

Backblaze 2.0 (fisheye)
Photo by ChrisDag

I have been using Backblaze for a couple of years now. For $5 per month or $50 per year, you get worry-free, unlimited backup. You simply install the software on your computer (Windows or Mac) and Backblaze will send everything up to the cloud automatically. You don’t need to worry about choosing specific folders to backup, and everything is encrypted. If you ever need to restore something, there are three options: you can download a zip file for free, you can pay $99 to get up to 128 GB sent on a USB flash drive, or you can pay $189 to get up to 4 TB sent on a hard drive. If you’ve ever lost something important, I think you’ll agree that Backblaze is totally worth the price.

Store stuff in the cloud

Related to the backup task, now’s a great time to take advantage of cloud storage. If you save stuff to the cloud regularly, I think you can worry about backing it up a little less. Saving data to the cloud is like backing it up immediately! You’ve probably been exposed to Dropbox and that’s a fine service but I’m a big fan of OneDrive.

OneDrive

With Dropbox you only get 2 GB of storage for free, but with OneDrive you get 15 GB and it’s really easy to earn more (and as an Office 365 subscriber I get unlimited storage). OneDrive supports Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, and Xbox. I use it for everything, especially OneNote as I wrote about last year. I can’t recommend it enough!

Another service to keep in mind is Mover. They’re a local company, and their service can help to migrate your data from one cloud storage provider to another. That might be useful if you plan on testing a few out. You could also use Mover’s backup service for $4 per month. Another great addition to your toolkit!

Get organized

Are you a to-do-list person? Maybe you like sticky notes? Spreadsheets? There are countless ways to organize your tasks and ideas, and I have tried my share of them. But over the past year, I’ve found that Trello works best for me.

Trello

Trello is the right combination of simplicity and power. You can create boards, which contain lists, which contain cards. You can then move cards from list to list. A typical setup will have “To Do”, “Doing”, and “Done” lists. And let me tell you, moving a card into that “Done” list is super satisfying! Trello works across devices and platforms, has a great responsive website, and is free!

A local service that you might use in a similar fashion is Stormboard, which provides a shared, real-time sticky note whiteboard. It’s a great tool, focused mainly on collaborating with others (which Trello can do too). Check out the tour to see all that Stormboard can do.

If more traditional task lists are your thing, then I’d recommend Remember the Milk. The service has been around for 9 years already, which feels like an eternity in the web space, but it’s still here because it is excellent. It too works across devices and services, and has a pretty advanced set of features.

Improve your security

Security was a big topic last year and will continue to be in the headlines this year. It can seem incredibly daunting to try to protect yourself in the post-Snowden world, but here are two really important things you can do.

First, stop using the same password for everything. In the security world people often talk about “attack surface”, and a different password for every website you use really decreases your attack surface. Because if one service is hacked and you use the same password everywhere, then all of your other accounts would be vulnerable too!

If you only use one or two websites, it’s easy to remember a different password for each. But more than likely you use dozens of services. That’s where a tool called a password manager comes in. I use LastPass because it works across devices and uses strong encryption to keep my data safe (I have used Passpack in the past too). When I sign up for a new website or app, I add it to LastPass and use a strong password that it generates for me automatically. If I had to remember every password, I’d be much less likely to use a strong password (random combination of characters), so that’s another benefit of using a service like LastPass (I take it a step further and generate random answers to the very insecure password recovery questions too).

So, what happens if LastPass gets hacked? Good question. Certainly their approach to encryption is one level of protection, but two-factor authentication is another. And that’s my second security tip – enable two-factor authentication wherever possible!

2FA

Two-factor authentication (2FA) makes your accounts more secure by requiring additional information when logging in. Typically this is a code sent to you via text message or generated in a specific app, the idea being that even if someone had your password, they’d also need your phone to login. It takes a few extra seconds when logging into a website or app, but it’s worth it. There’s an excellent list of websites that support 2FA here. For services that support software-based 2FA rather than text messages, you’ll need an app like Google Authenticator on Android or iOS, or Authenticator on Windows Phone.

Maybe you don’t want to enable 2FA on every site, but you should enable it on your email account at minimum (and get a new one if yours doesn’t support 2FA). So much of our identity and security online is tied to our email accounts, so it’s a critical area to focus on. Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo all support 2FA. I also use it on key social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Of course I use it on financial services like PayPal wherever possible too.

Backup your data, start using cloud storage, use an online tool to get organized, and take some simple steps to improve your security. All the best in 2015!

Hello to the Lumia 735!

Christmas came a little early for me this year! My present to myself, a new phone, arrived yesterday morning. After two years, it was time to replace my HTC 8X. It was a great phone, but with the latest updates to Windows Phone, it had become buggy and slow (I like to have the latest and greatest so run the Developer Preview builds), and the battery life was poor. As I anticipated earlier this year, my new phone is a Nokia Lumia.

Lumia 735

I decided to go with the Lumia 735, also known as the selfie-phone thanks to its full HD 5MP wide angle front-facing camera. The 735 is a mid-range Lumia, not quite as powerful as the 830, 930, or 1520, but with some higher-end features compared to the 535 or 635. I’ll be honest: this phone is meant to last me 12-18 months, until Microsoft launches a new flagship phone with Windows 10. At just $347 from Expansys, that’s less than a dollar a day, even if I replace it next Christmas!

There are some pros and cons with this phone, but it hit the sweet spot for me in terms of features for price.

Design

I really loved the 8X shell, with it’s matte finish, blue color, and velvety feel. I always got compliments on it. The Lumia 735 has a replaceable polycarbonate shell, which is cool. It feels a little more plasticky than the 8X. I went with green, and it sure makes a statement! Even though it’s a little bigger, the Lumia 735 weights just 4 grams more than the 130 g 8X. The Lumia 735 is thinner too, at 8.9mm versus 10.12mm for the 8X. The 8X included dedicated capacitive buttons, while the Lumia 735 foregoes those in favor of on-screen buttons. Not sure how I feel about that yet.

Performance

So far, performance is fantastic, even running latest Developer Preview build. Night and day compared to my 8X. Both phones have 1 GB of RAM, but the Lumia 735 features a quad-core Snapdragon 400 processor at 1.2 GHz, compared to a dual-core Snapdragon S4 at 1.5 GHz. Apps load quickly, there are hardly any “loading” or “resuming” dialogs, and everything just feels speedy.

Display

The Lumia 735 has a 4.7″ display, slightly larger than my 4.3″ 8X, but the pixel density is not quite as good, 316 ppi vs. 342 ppi. The screen still looks great though. Both phones have a 1280×720 resolution. The 8X had Gorilla Glass 2, while the Lumia 735 has Gorilla Glass 3 (don’t ask me what the difference is…the screens look and feel the same).

Battery Life

I haven’t run through an entire day yet, and I suspect I won’t get to do a “normal day” test until after the holidays, but so far there’s no comparison. Maybe my 8X was just old, but the Lumia 735 battery life seems amazing. It’s also bigger: the 8X had an 1800 mAh battery while the Lumia 735 ships with a 2220 mAh battery. It’s replaceable too and the Lumia 735 features wireless charging using the Qi standard. I could barely make it through the work day with my 8X, but I think I’ll easily make it through an entire day with the Lumia 735, probably without dipping into Battery Saver territory.

Camera

The rear camera on the Lumia 735 is a 6.7 megapixel camera with an LED flash. The 8X featured an 8 megapixel rear camera. I haven’t done much testing with it yet, but I think the Lumia will likely take better photos. The front cameras are much different – 2.1 megapixel on the 8X versus a full HD, wide angle 5 megapixel camera on the Lumia 735. Hence the nickname “selfie phone”. One compromise is that the Lumia 735 doesn’t feature a dedicated camera button, evidently a feature reserved for the higher end Lumias. I’ll miss that for sure.

Connectivity

The Lumia 735 uses a Nano SIM versus the Micro SIM in the 8X. I’m on Telus and after putting in the SIM, activating online, and restarting the phone, I have the same LTE connectivity as the 8X had (I have the RM-1039 variant). The Lumia 735 also features Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, and screen projection. The 8X was NFC-capable and shipped with Bluetooth 3.1.

Storage

The 8X came with 16 GB of storage, while the Lumia 735 only comes with 8 GB of on-board storage. That’s fine with me in the age of cloud storage and cheap removable SD cards, because the Lumia 735 features a microSD slot! I picked up a 32 GB microSD on Amazon and configured Windows to store everything on the card. It’s crazy how much of a premium you pay for online storage.

Lumia 735

Windows Phone made switching to the Lumia 735 super easy. I did a backup of my 8X to the cloud, then when I logged into my Microsoft account on the Lumia 735, chose to restore. After about an hour, all of my apps, settings, messages, and other files were on my new phone, just as I had left them on the 8X. It felt like magic!

Once it became clear that Microsoft was not launching a new flagship phone this season, I decided I couldn’t last another year on my 8X. I began looking around for an interim phone, and so far I’m pretty happy that I settled on the Lumia 735. This review was definitely a factor in my decision, as was the reasonable price at Expansys.

I remain a happy Windows Phone user!