Why I deleted my digital music collection

I deleted my digital music collection on the weekend. More than thirty thousand tracks, taking up over 160 GB of space, all gone. It took me years to collect all of those songs, but just minutes to get rid of them. The story of my digital music collection is probably not very unique, but it does illustrate just how far technology has come in such a short period of time.

It started, of course, with Napster. Everyone was talking about Y2K until Napster came along and stole the spotlight. Like so many others, I downloaded the software and quickly found myself searching through thousands of songs. I tried Kazaa and a bunch of other services too. Those services opened my eyes to what was possible and introduced me to a bunch of new artists. Eventually I learned about BitTorrent. No other service came close to matching the convenience, selection, quality, or speed of BitTorrent. I never had a favorite site, but I did use Suprnova, The Pirate Bay, and Mininova.

Once I realized how useful having music in the MP3 format really was, I used MusicMatch, and later Windows Media Player, to rip nearly all of the CDs my family owned (which, let me tell you, was quite a few). One of the first MP3 players I had was Creative’s Nomad Jukebox. It was huge (and looked very much like a discman), but it had a 6 GB hard drive. I loved my original iPod, well except for the battery life. In 2004, I got the Creative ZEN Touch for Christmas (which despite the name did not have touch functionality). I had a variety of other MP3 players over the years, and my favorite was probably the iPod Touch.

Score! iPod touch!
Purchasing my iPod Touch from the Apple Store in NY in 2007

I have purchased one and only one album with DRM. If I remember correctly, it was Social Code’s A Year at the Movies. Though I had read a lot about artists earning more from concerts than albums, I wanted to try to do the right thing. Turns out syncing it to my devices was not easy. Moving the album to a new computer was even harder. The experience was so horrible that I vowed to never purchase DRM-enabled music ever again.

I tried lots of different software for managing my growing library, but nothing worked better than Windows Media Player. I have never been a fan of iTunes, which is quite possibly the worst software ever written for Windows. Most other apps just fell over when I added the entire library, but WMP just kept working. I spent quite a bit of time organizing songs, making sure they had the right metatags, adding album art when WMP couldn’t identify it automatically.

Now I find myself wondering why I ever put in all that effort. The answer of course, is that I didn’t have any other options. You couldn’t buy digital music at first, and then when you could, it was laden with DRM. Streaming music services didn’t exist probably because Internet connections were slow and intermittent. The “cloud” wasn’t yet a thing.

I haven’t touched any of my downloaded music in months. That’s why I deleted it. I’ve been a paying customer of Rdio for exactly a year now, and I love it. With over 12 million songs in the catalogue, there’s rarely something I want to listen to that isn’t available on Rdio. It works on all my devices and in pretty much any browser. It connects to Facebook to automatically share what I am listening. The audio quality is fantastic. Every album and song is labeled correctly and has album art. It’s amazing that I get all of that for just $4.99 per month. Streaming music services have most definitely arrived!

I know some people prefer to “own” their music libraries, but I have never felt that desire. I never built a massive physical media collection like a lot of people did, so I guess I never developed any attachment to “owning an album”. For me, listening to the music I want, when I want, where I want, is really all that matters. Five or ten bucks a month to have access to an impossibly large collection, on any device, at any time, is totally worth it to me.

As much as I love Rdio, I think I’ll probably switch to Xbox Music when it becomes available. For me it’s all about the ecosystem, and I have chosen Microsoft’s. An inexpensive service that works on my computers, my Xbox, and my phone with a first-class experience on each? Yes, please.

How do I network effectively? Good tools help!

I’m really looking forward to being one of the three panelists at tomorrow’s Capital Ideas Edmonton event tackling the question, “How do I network effectively?” I guess you could say I have had some success with networking and I definitely have some ideas and thoughts on the subject to share!

How do you approach someone in a crowd without seeming pushy? How can you best connect with someone you meet at an event? Should you send a follow up after first connecting? You have been sharing your networking advice, and now we’re asking three Edmonton entrepreneurs to share their experiences.

We’ll get into those questions and many more during lunch tomorrow, and my sense is that we’ll quickly coalesce around the notion that you simply can’t beat face-to-face interaction. We’ll probably touch on technology, but I don’t think it’ll be the focus. For that reason, I thought it might be interesting to share some of the tools I use to help me network effectively.

Business Cards

I look forward to a time when everyone carries around a device equipped with NFC technology so that we can just tap devices and have contact information shared instantly. We’re not there yet however, so most of us rely on business cards to pass our details to someone else. I tried to do away with business cards for a while, thinking that anyone could Google me really quickly. That experiment didn’t last long though – I learned that people like having something tangible. I’m still using the business cards I designed back in 2009 (with some minor adjustments) and I find they work well. I only have my website and email addresses on the front of the card, which reflects my preference for online communication instead of the phone. On the back of the card is a tag cloud with organizations and words that hopefully jog someone’s memory about where or how they met me. Plus, I think it looks cool! The challenge of course is that I always think of things to add to the tag cloud before I run out of cards. Notably absent at the moment? What the Truck?!.

Website

I have resisted the temptation to make my blog the “front page” of my website specifically so that I have a more static place to put contact information, a brief bio, and a photo. I think this useful for people who want to find out more after looking at a business card or my Twitter profile or some other page that lists my URL. I treat my website as a hub for all of my online activities (you’ll find links to most of my social media profiles). One new service that does this for you is about.me and if you don’t already have a website, I would recommend taking a look at it. Here’s my page.

Online Calendar

You can very often find me at Credo Coffee or one of the other coffee spots downtown because I love meeting with people face-to-face. I will sometimes initiate but very often I get messages from others who want to meet with me to discuss something. I found that keeping track of all the emails and going back-and-forth on availability was time consuming and error prone, so I started looking for tools to help. I settled on Doodle a few months ago, which I had already started using to organize group meetings with others.

Doodle has a great feature called MeetMe which gives you a page that others can use to book time with you (Tungle.me is another option). This requires syncing your calendar with Doodle, but it supports all of the popular options such as Google Calendar, Outlook, iCal, etc. You can see my Doodle page here. Scheduling meetings is now really easy – I just point people to my Doodle page and they can suggest a time that works for them! I have scheduled more than three dozen meetings this way, and I now wonder how I ever got by without it. The basic service is free, but there’s a paid option if you want to customize your page.

Email & CRM

I have been a very happy Exchange/Outlook user for years, and last year I made the transition to Office 365 which is Microsoft’s hosted service. Whether you choose Exchange, Gmail, or some other service doesn’t matter too much, as long as you have access to it from anywhere. I don’t currently use a separate CRM tool, though I have given it some thought (not sure it is worth the effort). What I do right now is store contact details and simple notes about people in my Exchange address book, and I store longer form meeting notes (if necessary) using OneNote. I used Evernote for a while, but I’ve chosen the Microsoft ecosystem, and OneNote simply works better with Outlook, Skydrive, my Windows Phone, etc.

Social Networking

Have a favorite service? Chances are I am “mastermaq” there. I have profiles at most places, though my main networks are Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. These services are great for keeping in touch with people, but they are also a great way to augment my address book. My Windows Phone automatically links contacts from my address book and social networking services together so that I have one master contact list. I can’t tell you how many times I haven’t had a phone number or email address in my Exchange address book but have found it via someone’s social networking profile. Very handy! And the best part is that you don’t really have to keep your address book up-to-date – your contacts do it for you.

Reminders

I use a combination of services to make sure that I don’t forget to follow-up on something or with someone, and I have to admit that I still miss things from time to time (I have a terrible memory). First, I make extensive use of flags in my email. If I can’t deal with something right away, I’ll flag it so that I can review it later. Second, I make use of lists and flags inside of OneNote. Sometimes it’s just easier to have a page with a list of stuff that I know to check. Third, I generally set reminders on events in my calendar. Fourth, and probably most important, I use Remember the Milk. There are dozens and dozens of task list or reminder services out there, but RTM does everything I need it and more. It is frequently updated and improved, it works on pretty much every device, it integrates with a ton of other services, and it’s fast and easy-to-use. Best of all, unless you need some of the advanced features, it is free!

Sync & Backup

I guess underlying all of the tools I have talked about above is that everything is synced to my various computers and devices automatically, as well was backed up. I use both Dropbox and Skydrive very extensively. While these are not “networking” tools, they are important to make sure that all the effort you put into writing things down isn’t all of a sudden lost one day!

Other

Although recent devices and software have improved the situation greatly, I think QR codes are still more of a gimmick than a useful tool. My preference would be to use a short URL that is relatively easy to type or write down instead of a QR code.

And finally yes, I will absolutely Google you before we meet!

I hope you find some of these tools useful for your own networking activities. More importantly, I’d love to hear about the tools you use that I haven’t even discovered yet! Let me know in the comments below.

2012 Alberta Election: Social Media Highlights

I don’t think there’s any doubt that social media played a significant role in this year’s provincial election. From witty tweets to conversation-shifting blog posts and everything in between, there’s no shortage of social media highlights to look back on. In an effort to capture how social media impacted the election, I have been tracking some of the most popular and memorable blog posts, photos, tweets, videos, and links.

Very early on, Danielle Smith’s campaign bus was the talk of Twitter for its unfortunate wheel placement. It attracted so much attention that even Jay Leno joked about it! The Wildrose quickly fixed the bus, sharing a new photo on Facebook that was liked nearly 800 times with more than 220 comments.

danielle-smith-bus-628

Social media proved to be an effective tool for the mainstream media to share their stuff throughout the election. For example, CBC’s Vote Compass was shared more than 5300 times on Facebook and more than 870 times on Twitter. Over 115,000 responses were completed.

On March 30, PC staffer Amanda Wilkie (@wikwikkie) posted a tweet questioning Danielle Smith’s lack of children. There was an immediate backlash which forced Wilkie to apologize and delete the tweet. Smith released a statement explaining that she and her husband had tried to have kids with the aid of fertility treatments, and Alison Redford released a statement announcing that Wilkie had resigned. The two leaders spoke on the phone and vowed to move on.

Smith’s tweet was retweeted more than 100 times.

On April Fools Day, the Wildrose issued a news release saying that if elected, the party would pursue a merger with Saskatchewan to form a new province known as Saskberta. It was shared on Facebook more than 2100 times and on Twitter more than 360 times. The Wildrose tweet itself was retweeted more than 140 times:

Candidates first felt the power of blogs on April 2, when Kathleen Smith (@KikkiPlanet) posted her widely-read piece entitled Pruned Bush: Confessions of a Wilted Rose. An impassioned and well-written post, it racked up more than 1400 likes on Facebook, more than 330 tweets, and 136 comments. More than that, it brought “Conscience Rights” into the spotlight.

Kathleen’s post even attracted an angry response from a Wildrose supporter. Paula Simons has a good recap of the whole story, so check it out.

Just two days later, Dave Cournoyer (@davecournoyer) posted an even more popular blog post. His entry titled thorny candidates could be the wildrose party’s biggest liability attracted more than 4700 likes on Facebook, more than 600 tweets, and 150 comments. Though we didn’t know it at the time, Dave’s post would be cited countless times over the next few weeks as Wildrose candidates made gaffe after gaffe. Even his follow-up post on April 16 attracted more than 600 likes, more than 70 tweets, and 75 comments.

The next day on April 5, Dave Cournoyer noticed that a Twitter account named @PremierDanielle had been created and was being followed by @ElectDanielle, Smith’s official account. While it only came to light during the election, it was actually created back on October 12, 2010.

I didn’t think there’d be many audio clips to note during the election, but on April 7 the Alberta Party launched its official campaign song, composed by JUNO winners Cindy Church and Sylvia Tyson. The page was shared on Facebook more than 100 times and on Twitter more than 40 times. The song itself, hosted on SoundCloud, has been played more than 3500 times.

It didn’t take long after Danielle Smith announced a $300 dividend for all Albertans for Sean Healy to launch Dani Dollars, a website that let users pledge their cash “to Wildrose Relief”. It was shared more than 280 times on Facebook, more than 130 times on Twitter, and attracted more than 170 pledges for a grand total of $51,600.

The leaders debate took place on April 12, and while it ended up being fairly boring (aside from Raj Sherman’s unintentionally comedic outbursts) there were a couple of highlights. One was Alberta Party leader Glenn Taylor’s live blog, which was followed by more than 1700 people. It was shared more than 480 times on Facebook and more than 300 times on Twitter.

The debate also resulted in one of the most memorable tweets of the election, retweeted more than 340 times:

Edmonton Journal videographer Ryan Jackson posted a really unique video on April 13. By stitching together four different videos, Jackson made it appear as if you were sitting in a coffee shop with four of the party leaders. The video was shared more than 140 times on Facebook and more than 50 times on Twitter.

On April 14, a new Twitter account known as @Adamwyork posted a tweet about Wildrose candidate Allan Hunsperger. It linked to an old blog post that Hunsperger had written that contained the shocking statement that gays and lesbians would “suffer the rest of eternity in the lake of fire, hell.” You can see a screen capture of the post here. It wasn’t until April 26 that the person behind the tweet was identified. Turns out it was Blake Robert, better known online as @BRinYEG. Paula Simons’ post about the outing has already been shared more than 275 times on Facebook and more than 144 times on Twitter.

Though the original tweet was only retweeted 13 times, the impact it had on the election cannot be overstated.

On April 16, the domain name INeverThoughtIdVotePC.com was registered. A couple of days later, the website launched featuring a short video that asked Albertans to vote strategically against the Wildrose. The website has been shared on Facebook more than 3700 times and the video itself has been seen more than 88,000 times.

On April 17, Vicky Frederick posted a Wildrose-edition of the “Downfall / Hitler Reacts” video meme. The video, titled Inside the Wildrose War Room, has been seen nearly 12,000 times.

It was a busy day on April 17. That was also the day that Wildrose candidate Ron Leech made controversial statements about having an advantage as a Caucasian. The Journal captured a copy of the radio interview here. The tweet from CTV Edmonton breaking the news was retweeted more than 250 times:

That same day, the Wildrose posted its “Momentum” ad on YouTube. With more than 112,000 views, it’s the most popular election-related video.

On April 20, Paula Simons wrote a blog post titled The Price of Free Speech. She discussed Danielle Smith’s stubborn refusal to reprimand candidates like Hunsperger and Leech. The post was shared on Facebook more than 1500 times and on Twitter more than 180 times.

In the final weekend of the campaign, photos of this graffiti wall here in Edmonton started circulating on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere online:

I don’t know how many times it was shared, but I saw it all over the place.

After all of the negativity of the election, I was quite happy to see Ryan Jackson’s next election video on April 23. A “whimsical parody video”, it featured the “strange new species” popping up on lawns across Alberta known was the election sign.

He posted a behind-the-scenes on the video just yesterday.

As the polls opened on April 23, many people tweeted that they had voted while others encouraged Albertans to get out and vote. With more than 200 retweets, Kathleen Smith’s call-to-action was probably the most visible of the day:

On election night itself there were many memorable tweets, but Todd Babiak’s post about how the public opinion polls were so wrong was one of the most retweeted with 195 retweets:

As far as I can tell, the most retweeted tweet of the entire election came at 9:27pm on election night, after it became clear that the Wildrose would form the official opposition. Calgary’s Nick Heer posted this tweet:

It has been retweeted more than 650 times!

Final Thoughts

It’s hard to imagine what the election would have looked like without social media! Through tweets, photos, videos, blog posts, and more, Albertans had no shortage of ways to share their thoughts on the candidates and the campaigns. And because of the nature of social media, those thoughts often spread extremely quickly and were frequently picked up by the mainstream media. Whether you’re a Twitter or Facebook user yourself or not, there’s no question that social media helped make the 2012 provincial election one of the most exciting in Alberta’s history.

Did you have a social media highlight that I missed? Let me know in the comments! For more on the role that Twitter played during the election, be sure to check out AlbertaTweets. Looking for election results and statistics? Check out my #abvote Results Dashboard!

Recap: TEC VenturePrize 2012

tec ventureprizeLast night was the tenth annual TEC VenturePrize awards celebration and to mark the milestone, an evening dinner format was selected instead of the usual luncheon. Hundreds of people packed Hall D at the Shaw Conference Centre to see some of Alberta’s most inspiring entrepreneurs battle it out in three different categories: student, fast growth, and for the first time ever, nano. Over $300,000 in prizes was handed out this year! For those of you who are new to the competition here’s a brief description:

A program of TEC Edmonton, TEC VenturePrize is an Alberta-wide program providing training, professional support and financial incentives to help people build or enhance a viable business. Now celebrating its 10th year, TEC VenturePrize is open to individuals such as aspiring entrepreneurs and faculty and students of post-secondary institutions, or new companies entering the marketplace.

Mayor Mandel kicked things off by welcoming everyone to the event and bringing greetings on behalf of the City. He was followed by the University of Alberta’s Lorne Babiuk and EEDC’s Ron Gilbertson who shared introductory remarks as presenting partners. As he has done for the last few years, Ryan Jespersen emceed the event. Ryan encouraged everyone to participate using the #VenturePrize hashtag on Twitter, and participate they did! It was great to see all of the positive comments about the companies competing. Throughout the evening there were videos featuring participants from the last ten years talking about their experiences with VenturePrize and the impact it had on them as entrepreneurs and on their companies.

TEC VenturePrize 2012

Being the tenth year, time was reserved in the program to honor the organizations and individuals that have been a part of the competition since the beginning. The Edmonton Journal, Field Law, FMC Law, novaNAIT, PWC, and the TSX Venture Exchange have all been sponsors since 2002. Volunteers who have contributed their time and expertise since the start include Colin Christensen, Brian Goheen, Ted Heidrick, Van Konrad, Gord Meeberg, Dennis Pommen, Lloyd Steier, Sam Soliman, and Ted Yoo.

Just like last year, representatives from each of the finalists in the student category participated in a sit-down interview on stage with Ryan. It was a neat way to learn a bit more about each of the companies! The three finalists were:

Founded by 27-year-old Calgary surgical resident Dr. Breanne Everett, Orpyx is behind two highly innovative planar sensory replacement systems, the SurroSense Rx and the SurroGait Rx, that use pressure sensor-embedded shoe insoles to determine force exerted over the bottom of the feet, and wirelessly transmit collected information to a back pad, mobile device or wristwatch worn by the user. Employing the phenomenon of neuroplasticity – the potential of the human brain to rewire itself – the patient is able to interpret the sensory stimulus felt on the back as that from the feet, and positively adjust their gait, balance, mobility and overall health as a result.

Enercal is building CALTrack – intelligent data software for the oil & gas industry. CALTrack provides easy-to-use, intelligent tools to manage critical calibration processes, allowing companies to meet increasing regulation and measurement quality requirements. Enercal was a finalist in Calgary’s STIC competition.

CitizenBridge is a not-for-profit civic engagement organization creating an online platform that will directly connect Canadians and government by facilitating conversations between citizens and their representatives. Capitalizing on the movement of Gov 2.0 in Canada, CitizenBridge’s purpose is to create a much more accessible, transparent and engaging government by using technology to connect constituents with their elected representatives in an effort to strength the overall well-being of our communities.

TEC VenturePrize 2012

There were two finalists in the nanoVenturePrize category, and we got to hear a short pitch from each of them in addition to a video. I think the addition of a nano category is great and will help to cement Edmonton’s role as a key research and development centre for nanotechnology. The products the finalists have created sound really impressive (and way over my head):

Aquila Diagnostics uses the Domino nanotechnology platform developed at the University of Alberta to provide on-site, easy-to-use genetic testing that can quickly test for infectious diseases and pathogens in livestock. The mobile diagnostic platform is portable, low-cost, fast and easy to use.

Parvus Therapeutics’ breakthrough nanomedicines may hold the cure for difficult-to-treat autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and inflammatory bowel disease. Parvus’ new Navacim medicines are nanoparticles coated with immune system proteins that can target specific autoimmune conditions.

There have been a lot of really unique and successful competitors in the fast growth category over the last ten years, so I’m sure the two finalists were feeling the pressure. Neither showed it up on stage though, delivering great elevator pitches before we got to see their videos.

As a combat trauma surgeon, ITC founder and CEO Dr. Dennis Filips was a firsthand witness to bleeding as a leading cause of battlefield deaths. Now a civilian surgeon and entrepreneur, he is committed to inventing point of injury solutions. ITC’s first product, the ITClamp, is a hand-held device that stops bleeding and saves live by instantly sealing a wound until surgical repair.

Pedpad solves a pervasive challenge faced by consumers in the footwear industry: finding shoes that fit. The process of trying on different sizes across different brands and returning online purchases that don’t fit is frustrating for customers and retailers alike. Pedpad solves this problem with a multi-axis, digital shoe-sizing platform. By stepping on the Pedpad device in-store, consumers can immediately determine their shoe size for a given brand. Through a personal Pedpad account, consumers can access their measurements online, obtain precise sizing recommendations across brands, and shop online with confidence.

The keynote speaker for the event was the Honourable A. Anne McLellan, who spoke about the spirit of innovation in Alberta. After attending a bunch of big events in the last week or two where speakers have not been shy about celebrating the positive economic outlook for Edmonton and the province, it was refreshing to hear Anne McLellan take a more measured approach. She said that we can and must do better in this province, that while energy is our traditional industry, it won’t always be enough. “Complacency is the biggest threat facing Alberta,” she told us. Her remarks covered a lot of ground, including the role that government should play in economic development. “Government should pick the races we’re in, not the winning horses,” she said. I wasn’t sure at first if McLellan was the right fit for a VenturePrize keynote, but I’m glad the organizers picked her!

TEC VenturePrize 2012

While I enjoyed the longer dinner format for the special 10th anniversary, I do think the program was a bit too long. It was well after 9pm by the time we got to the winners! The first award was the Screeners’ Award of Merit, presented by the Alberta Business Family Institute’s Shauna Feth. The award, which recognizes a business plan submission that shows excellent promise, went to Raw-Bitz.

Stephen Lougheed from Alberta Innovates Technology Futures presented the award to the winner of the student category, Orpyx Medical Technologies.

Dan Djukich from Alberta Innovates Technology Futures presented the inaugural nanoVenturePrize award, which went to Parvus Therapeutics.

TEC VenturePrize 2012

The two finalists in the fast growth category could not have been more different. I think Pedpad is on to something interesting, though as Sharon remarked to me when I told her about the company, you really have to try shoes on to see how they fit, because materials and other factors all play a role. Still, companies and products that mix the physical and online worlds are intriguing to me. As for ITC, I still can’t quite believe that their product doesn’t already exist. It looks and operates just like a hair clamp, and doesn’t look very complicated to my untrained eye (though I’m sure there’s more to it). But it obviously works and works well, so I hope it catches on!

TEC Edmonton CEO Chris Lumb had the honor of presenting the award to the winner of the fast growth category: Innovative Trauma Care.

Congratulations to all of the participants, finalists, and winners! Thanks also to TEC Edmonton for saving me a spot at the media table – much appreciated! You can see more photos from the evening here.

Building a Results Dashboard for the 2012 Alberta Election

Like many Albertans, I have spent a significant amount of time over the last month paying attention to the election! Reading about the candidates, following all the drama, and spending lots of time with the #abvote hashtag on Twitter. As the candidates were making one final push over the weekend before the election, I decided to build a results dashboard. I like a good challenge and enjoyed building it, but it was especially rewarding to see that it proved to be quite popular too! In this post I’ll tell you a little about how and why I built the website, and what I learned from it.

abvote results

If you haven’t checked out the dashboard, you can see it here. I’ve added a bunch of stuff since election night, which I’ll explain below.

The Idea

By late Friday afternoon, my thoughts had drifted to election day itself. I started to think about how exciting it would be to see the results come in – I love election nights! I knew there would be television coverage and that the media would have some web coverage as well, but I also felt that I could build something unique and valuable. If only I had the data! So I looked around, and found the Elections Alberta results site. At that time, the results page was full of test data. I immediately saved a copy to my computer, and saved a few of the electoral division pages too. That proved to be a wise decision, because a few hours later the site went offline!

elections alberta

Before I took a crack at scraping the website, I wanted to know if there was a data feed of some kind available. I blindly emailed the general Elections Alberta address, and to my surprise, received a response shortly thereafter! Unfortunately there was no data feed available, so I set about writing a scraper. Within a couple of hours, I was correctly scraping the main results page as well as all of the electoral division pages. Now that I had the data, I felt pretty confident that I could build a dashboard over the weekend. I didn’t get back to the project until Sunday morning, so that meant I had to prioritize what I was going to build. It took about six hours, but my I finished my initial version late that evening.

The Design

This was not my first election results dashboard. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll recall that I built a dashboard for the municipal election here in Edmonton back in 2010. I learned a lot from that experience, and I remember it being a lot more rushed and difficult than this dashboard! Among other lessons, it was clear that design and colors matter, and that mobile devices are important (even then lots of people were asking for mobile support). I also knew that forcing users to refresh the page is less than ideal – it’s not a very delightful experience, and it puts unnecessary strain on the server. I also disliked the limited real estate that I had to work with (the current ShareEdmonton page width is fixed…but I’m working on a new version that is fluid).

So, I wanted a mobile-friendly, fluid-width, Ajax-enabled, attractive looking design. I immediately decided to use Twitter Bootstrap. I have used it a few times now, and I absolutely love it. I can’t thank the folks at Twitter enough for making such an excellent framework available for free! It gave me everything I needed to get going from a UI perspective. In particular it features responsive design, which makes it possible for the pages to scale from the desktop down to mobile devices without much work. For the backend, I used ASP.NET MVC 3. I use it for everything, so I know it well.

For performance reasons, it definitely made sense to cache the data. I decided on a fairly straightforward approach: I’d scrape the data from Elections Alberta and would store it using Memcached for two minutes. That meant that every two minutes, a request would take slightly longer because it had to download the data again, but this seemed reasonable (and as it turned out, the Elections Alberta site was incredibly quick). I also designed the pages to poll for new data every 30 seconds, which prevented users from having to reload the page manually.

The Cloud

When I built the ShareEdmonton dashboard a couple years ago, it was hosted on one of my servers. That worked fine, but it did slow down under load and I didn’t have much ability to scale up or out without a lot of additional cost, time, and effort. I really wanted to avoid that situation this time, so I decided to host the dashboard using Windows Azure. I’m in the process of migrating ShareEdmonton to Azure, so I already had an account and was pretty familiar with how it worked. Deploying to Azure is so easy – I simply had to add a deployment project in Visual Studio, and then I could deploy new versions in just a couple of clicks.

Windows Azure supports a range of instance types – basically you get to choose how big and powerful you want your server to be. I started with “Extra Small”, the least powerful and therefore least expensive type. As the polls were about to close at 8pm, I scaled up to “Small”, which meant redeploying the app (which took about 8 minutes, but happened completely behind-the-scenes). About half an hour later, I had to add capacity because the site was starting to get quite sluggish. This time I scaled out, by adding a second instance. All I had to do was change a configuration setting in the Azure management console, and the service took care of everything. Within a few minutes, I had two load-balanced “Small” instances. The performance boost was immediately noticeable. About an hour later, I added a third instance, and kept the system running that way until about 1am. I scaled it back down in stages, and now have it running as a single “Extra Small” instance again.

Two Key Decisions

I think the two most important decisions I made were:

  1. Using Twitter Bootstrap
  2. Using Windows Azure

The decision first meant that the website looked good and worked across browsers, screen resolutions, and devices. I got all of that engineering effort and testing for free, which meant I could focus on building an election results dashboard rather than building a website. I didn’t have to figure out how to lay things out on the screen, or how to style tables. The second decision was perhaps even more important. By using Windows Azure, I could deploy new versions of the dashboard in minutes, plus I could scale up and out simply by changing a few settings. That meant I could quickly respond when the site came under load. The other big advantage of using Azure was the cost – running the site on election night cost me just $1.54. Incredible!

Some Statistics

The dashboard served around 60,000 page views on election night alone, which is pretty good for a website launched just hours before the main event. Keep in mind that because the data on the site automatically updated, users didn’t have to refresh the page which kept that statistic lower than it would otherwise have been. The visit duration metric is another way to see that – 20% of all visitors spent at least 10 minutes on the site. I actually would have guessed a higher percentage than that, but perhaps the high mobile usage was the reason.

The top screen resolution for visitors was 320×480, not a desktop resolution! Roughly 36% of all visits that night were made on mobile devices (which includes tablets). The iPhone was the most popular device, followed by the iPad. Clearly using a framework like Twitter Bootstrap with responsive design was a good decision.

The other statistic worth sharing is that the vast majority of visitors (about 73%) found the site by way of social networks, and two in particular. Facebook accounted for 78% of all those visits, while Twitter accounted for 20%.

Recent Improvements

Since Monday I have made numerous improvements to the dashboard. Here’s a brief overview of the new features:

  • All the data is now stored locally, which means I’m no longer reliant on Elections Alberta. They have made numerous updates over the last two days, and I have updated the site’s local data store accordingly.
  • I updated the voter turnout chart and added regional voter turnout to the front page. I also added a table of the five closest races.
  • District pages now show voter turnout and the list of polls is now sortable.
  • There’s a new Districts Grid, which lets you see lots of information about all the districts in a single, sortable view. For example, you can quickly see which district had the best voter turnout, which were the closest races, and which had the most candidates.
  • There’s also a Candidates page, which lets you see information about all of the candidates in a single, sortable view.
  • Last night I also added a Maps page, which has interactive maps for the province, as well as zoomed-in maps for Calgary and Edmonton. Click on any region for details and a link to the district page.

What’s Next?

I plan to keep the dashboard up as it is now, though at some point I’ll probably transition it from being a dynamic website to a static one (far cheaper to host over the long-run). If you have any suggestions on things to add or improve, let me know! I hope the site will serve as a valuable reference tool going forward.

Thanks for reading, and thanks to everyone who sent positive comments about the dashboard my way. It’s great to hear that so many people found it useful on election night!

Recap: DemoCamp Edmonton 18

Last night was our eighteenth DemoCamp here in Edmonton, and it was awesome! We had an excellent turnout – probably one of our best – and seven really great demos. It’s so inspiring to see local folks working on some really unique and creative projects. You can read more about DemoCamp Edmonton here, and you can read my recap of our last event here.

DemoCamp Edmonton 18

Tonight’s demos, in order of appearance:

  • Backup Box – Eric and Mark showed us their online backup utility, a project they started working on at the Startup Hackathon / Global Game Jam back in January. Backup Box makes it easy to transfer files from a variety of different services, such as from FTP to Dropbox. There’s a big need for a service like this. I love that their website says “Proudly made in Edmonton” right on the front page!
  • Life Goes On – Susan, David, Eric, and Ian demoed their very creative game, something they also started back at the Startup Hackathon / Global Game Jam. I just love the idea behind the game – you solve puzzles using your characters dead bodies. From the website: “Sacrifice an endless stream of fearless knights into the arsenal of spike pits, flamethrowers, sawblades, and lava to make progress through a deadly gauntlet filled with elaborate deathtraps!” You can download the demo now, and watch for a commercial release in the future.
  • PlanHero – Sean, Graham, and Dave demoed their solution for organizing events with friends. You can schedule an event and invite people, and they can then vote on options and pay their share of the costs. I was one of the test users for the demo, and it went really smoothly. Imagine organizing ski trips or pub crawls or hockey pools, those are just some of the events that PlanHero would be useful for. They’re off to a great start!
  • Super Motherload – Skye and his team from XGen Studios demoed their intriguing digging adventure game. From the website: “Super Motherload challenges players to dig deep into the substrata of Mars as they collect increasingly rare and valuable minerals.” I kind of liked that the team basically just sat down and played their game for seven minutes, though a bit more commentary would have been welcome. Looks like fun though!
  • Signia – Next up was Dan who showed us his solution for connecting customer behavior and analytics. It’s a sort of check-in system, so you might use it to track what customers are purchasing and then use that data to create a reward program. Signia was created because Dan’s brother had a specific need, so he just decided to see how far he could get!
  • Technitone – Grant showed us a few things he has been working on, but the big one was a web technology showcase app called Technitone. You’ll want to use Chrome if you check out the website, because it makes use of some cutting edge stuff like the Web Audio API. Using the tool you can compose music using a visual drag & drop interface, but that’s a pretty simplistic description. There’s much information about Technitone here.
  • The Peregrine – Brent came up from Lloydminster to show us his innovative glove for user input. With over 30 touch points and motion sensitivity, you can use the glove to move things on the screen, to type, or to perform other programmable options. Currently you need to plug it in, but a wireless version is in the works. It was very Minority Report-like, and the audience loved it. Here’s a video that gives you a better idea of how it works:

People always love hardware demos, so I think The Peregrine was definitely an audience favorite. Chatting with people after the event at Original Joe’s, it sounds like Life Goes On and Backup Box were also quite popular. The sound effects of your character dying over and over again in Life Goes On had everyone hooked and laughing! I also enjoyed Technitone, because I love that it stretches the boundaries of what is possible today. It offers a glimpse of what’s coming!

DemoCamp Edmonton 18DemoCamp Edmonton 18

There were a bunch of announcements throughout the evening:

  • Work on the Startup Edmonton Space is coming along and we hope to be open in the Mercer Warehouse soon. Memberships will come in two flavors – $275/month for a desk and other benefits, or $125/month for drop-in members. You can apply here!
  • The website for Flightpath is now up! Check it out and learn about the entrepreneur-led, peer based startup accelerator launching in Edmonton later this year.
  • Have an interest in data analytics? Then the Analytics Hackathon is for you! Build something with one or more of the available datasets (City of Edmonton, Edmonton Oilers, etc.) and you could win some big prizes! Submissions are due on April 12, so you need to move quickly.
  • Accelerate AB is back at the end of May! This year the event is taking place here in Edmonton, and it should be a great opportunity to connect with entrepreneurs from around Alberta.

Thanks to everyone who came out last night. See you at DemoCamp Edmonton 19!

DemoCamp Edmonton 18 is tomorrow!

democampEvery couple of months there’s another DemoCamp here in Edmonton. Our last event was in January, and the next one takes place tomorrow evening. If you’ve never been, you should definitely try to make it out tomorrow! You don’t have to be a programmer to get something out DemoCamp.

DemoCamp is an event that 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 200-300 people attending each new event.

The rules for DemoCamp are simple: ten minutes to demo real, working products, followed by a few minutes for questions, and no slides allowed.

Here are the details for tomorrow’s event:

WHAT: DemoCamp Edmonton 18
WHEN: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 at 7pm
WHERE: TELUS Centre 150, University of Alberta
COST: Free! Register here

There are seven demos lined up, so it should be an exciting evening! DemoCamp is a free event, but we do like you to register so we know how many people are coming. After the demos are done, we’ll all head over to Original Joes on 109 Street for post-DemoCamp drinks and conversations. If you can’t make it, follow along online using the #democampyeg hashtag.

In addition to being an excellent opportunity to meet others in the local tech community and to get inspired by what they are up to, DemoCamp has at times been a launching pad for local startups. Back at DemoCamp Edmonton 15 in September 2011, Sam Pillar demoed Jobber. Just a few weeks ago, he announced that Jobber had received a seed round of investment! Likewise, at DemoCamp Edmonton 12 in September 2010, Edmontonians were among the first to see TestFlight. At the end of last year, they were acquired by Burstly!

You can check out my recaps of all previous DemoCamps here, and you can see some photos here.

Oh, and if you’re looking for something to do tonight to get you in the mood for DemoCamp tomorrow, check out the YEGRB meetup. They’re talking about design and are also hosting the first ever Exchange.js talk to chat about JavaScript development.

See you at DemoCamp Edmonton 18!

I love Readability!

readabilityIf you spend any amount of time reading things on the web, you should be using Readability. Yes, I think it’s that simple! I really started using it after Anil Dash blogged about it back in November, and it has made an incredible difference for me. Here’s what it does:

“Readability turns any web page into a clean view for reading now or later on your computer, smartphone, or tablet.”

Simple enough, right? Simple, but powerful. After adding a simple bookmarklet to my browser, I am just one click away from having any web page become instantly more readable. And by that I mean larger text, a consistent font, and no clutter. Or I can save an article for later, or I can even send an article to my Kindle to read on that device instead.

Here’s an example of the difference it makes. The square on the left is the original article, and the square on the right is the Readability page that I get after clicking the bookmarklet (if you’re not logged in, you’ll have to click “Readability view” at the top of that page to see what I am talking about).

The comparison is better when you look at the actual pages, but do you see the difference? The Readability view is just text, no clutter. I could turn off images too, so even the featured image wouldn’t show up.

Here’s another example. Compare this Edmonton Journal article about Stephen Carter and Linda Sloan’s tweet debacle with this Readability view of the article. Which would you rather look at? On my laptop, with a resolution of 1600×900, the actual text of the article is below the fold on the Journal. With Readability, I can start reading right away, with nothing to distract me.

You can control the way it all looks too in the settings. You can pick a different color scheme, a different font size, you can hide images, etc.

In case you’re wondering about lost revenue because the ads aren’t being displayed, Readability has a solution for that too:

“Readability features an innovative way to support writers. Become a Readability Subscriber and 70% of your monthly contribution will go toward supporting great writing. Subscribing is entirely optional.”

“Here’s how it works: Every time you use Readability to read an article, a portion of your monthly contribution is earmarked for that publisher or writer.”

It’s a neat concept.

I love Readability. It makes the experience of reading things online much better. I’m also a fan of the Kindle functionality. Santa gave me a Kindle for Christmas, and with Readability I have been able to quickly and easily get content on it to read on a screen built for reading! I love reading the stuff at Longreads and Longform, but I spend enough time in front of a computer screen as it is, so being able to send those articles to my Kindle is huge.

If you read stuff online, check out Readability. You can see my reading list on Readability here.

Recap: DemoCamp Edmonton 17

democampWith wind chills reaching well below minus thirty, it’s amazing that anyone at all showed up at the Telus Centre tonight for Edmonton’s seventeenth DemoCamp, but they did! While perhaps not our largest turnout ever, we still had a pretty full house for six demos. You can read more about DemoCamp here and you can check out my recap of our last DemoCamp here.

DemoCamp Edmonton 17DemoCamp Edmonton 17

Tonight’s demos, in order of appearance:

  • Zeel – Built by Rocketfuel Games, Zeel is “the topical Twitter app that connects you with your interests.” You can think of it as a layer on top of Twitter that makes it easy to follow conversations on specific topics. You can do that with saved searches of course, but that’s a little more difficult and the experience certainly isn’t as nice!
  • Cross Platform Tablet App using Flash – Randy demoed an application that he built using Flash that was then deployed to the iPad and an Android tablet without requiring any changes. I didn’t catch the name of the app, but it was pretty cool to see the same app running on different platforms.
  • Accessing US-Only Blocked Content in Canada – Ben showed us a trick he shared with the YEGRB group recently. It’s a bit technical, but with just a few steps, you can get access to Pandora, the US Netflix catalog, and other services that block access from Canada. He’s got a screencast that shows you how to do it here.
  • Web Suite ProCollin was really nervous, but did a pretty good job of showing off his online invoicing and CRM app. Web Suite Pro seems very feature rich, with lots of built-in functionality and support for a variety of platforms. FreshBooks is the obvious competitor in the space.
  • Linelo – Terry demoed his solution for recording and organizing large amounts of text. You capture lines of text, and then you can group lines together, format them, collapse them, and more. He’s got support for Android and additional platforms are on the way.
  • Slapshot Heroes – From Visimonde, the folks behind Rinksters, comes this iPad app that is kind of like Angry Birds but with pucks and coins. It started out as a mini-game within Rinksters actually, and was popular enough to stand on its own. Ted was entertaining, just as he was back at DemoCamp Edmonton 15 when he showed off Rinksters itself.

I think Ben’s demo was perhaps the favorite of the night, even though it was a little geekier than the rest. It’s always fun to have demos like that – stuff that isn’t necessarily going to turn into a product or company but which is cool nonetheless. Slapshot Heroes was certainly entertaining, and I’m sure more than a few folks will have already spent the 99 cents to download it. Perhaps not surprisingly, I’m most excited to try Zeel, even though I don’t have an iPhone. I’m always interested in finding new ways to extract value from Twitter!

DemoCamp Edmonton 17

There were a number of event announcements this evening:

Stay tuned to Startup Edmonton for additional events and announcements!

See you in March for DemoCamp Edmonton 18!

More than 3 million text messages were sent for ETS bus schedules in 2011

A little over a year ago Edmonton Transit (ETS) introduced bus schedules via text message. Simply send a message to 31100 from your cell phone with the bus stop number, and ETS will respond with a list of upcoming routes and times. It’s a fantastic service that I have used dozens of times over the last year, and clearly I’m not alone. A little over 3.1 million messages were sent last year! Here’s the monthly breakdown:

ets text messages in 2011

Back in June, when I wrote about the launch of the advertising component to the service, about 1.2 million messages had been sent, or 7050 per day. By the end of the year, the daily average had risen to 8494. You can see that the increase is due in large part to the back to school season – the number of messages sent jumped from 225,730 in August to 333,877 in September.

As expected, increased use of the text messaging service has led to a decrease in the number of calls made to BusLink, the automated 24-hour telephone line for transit information. Nathan Walters from ETS told the Journal that the number of calls dropped by 340,000 in the first nine months of last year to 2.8 million. I suspect it dropped even further when school started up again.

It’s great to see people embracing initiatives like this! ETS recently launched an updated Trip Planner that contains a number of new features like the ability to subscribe to email alerts for planned detours and bus stop closures, and there are additional technology-related services on the way. Should be an exciting year for connected transit riders!