Thursday, December 17, 2015

How to Trick Yourself into Healthy Living: Plant Nanny

This is going to sound like an advertisement, so forgive me.

Getting someone to do something is probably the most challenging enterprise by any organization. Whether it is an advertising company, business, or often in my former field, a health endeavor, customer acquisition of whatever action you want people to do is difficult.

For example, the benefits of staying hydrated.
Drinking enough water yields benefits from proper circulation of nutrients through the body to preventing colon and bladder cancer by 45-50%. In a developed nation like the United States, where a clean source of water is right at your kitchen, there is no reason not to be hydrated.

Yet, how many of glasses of water have you drank today? Based on your body weight now, do you know if you are drinking the required amount?

Knowing what you should do and actually do end up doing are two separate things. Which is why I was pleasantly surprised by Plant Nanny.
Plant Nanny is a free app you can download for either the Android or Apple. Its premise is that you are given a virtual plant buddy that grows based on the amount of water you consume throughout the day. Drink a glass of water, tap a button, and both you and your buddy are happy. That's it. A virtual reminder to drink water.

After downloading the application, you provide your body weight and the app determines the amount of water you should drink in milliliters or fluid ounces depending on your preference of measurement. I chose milliliters just because that's what I notice when purchasing bottled water.

Next, you choose your plant, there are plenty of free options to choose from, most of them are free. I chose an a dandelion because I missed Spring season in NJ.

Next, Plant Nanny measures out the portions you choose to drink, such as a water bottle (500 ml) or a glass of water (200 ml)

Now, based on the portions of water you pick, the app counts how many times you''d need to drink that size for the rest of the day. For example, my 500 ml water bottle will require six feedings versus my glass of water which will be 11. Because there are multiple containers, you can mix and match and the app will calculate for you. No need to measure out exact milliliters.

The next step is what ties it together. Every time I drink a glass of water in real life, I press a button on the glass in the app and my Dandelion is fed.

Within the first day, I drank double the water I would have normally and the app would offer helpful tips of encouragement. By the end of the day, my plant evolved a level and grew just like a plant with two adorable eyes and no patience would. Helping myself was represented by the virtual avatar.
While I could be tempted to cheat and just keep on pressing the
button. There is no greater reward to do so. Like a running app, I use the app for the express purpose of drinking water. The cute User Interface just gives me an evolving reminder without making that the express reason for the application.

So, what does Plant Nanny teach about successful application interface in behavior change?

1. It has one clear and attainable goal: People want to drink water and have the capacity to do so.
2. It's easy and informative: Download an application, give your weight, drink water and it will be representative of the virtual plant.
3. People feel responsible for other beings: Guilty admission, I found out about Plant Nanny because I looked up "Tamagatchi" on the app store. Having something to take care of made me want to please it by helping myself.
4. It's incentive doesn't get in the way of the outcome. I am likely to drink water out of guilt for the plant's growth, but I don't see the purpose of artificially growing my plant. The outcome will always be my health.

I am curious to see what your thoughts are on this type of interface. For starters, what would you call this style of behavior change in applications? Let me know if there are other apps like this. And if you do use this app let me know if it has helped and if it has lasted beyond the novelty!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Intro to Tech Culture: AT&T Hackathon

Tech culture is fascinating.
When thinking about images that have to do with Innovation, the media of portray the advent of new devices in terms of clashes. The future versus the past, the urban versus the rustic, Skynet versus John Connor.

I admit to being one of them. I gladly hold onto the writings of Wendell Berry and look with a certain amount of horror to how close we are as a society to Fahrenheit 451, a nation  oblivious to being in constant war due to the surrounding noise that comes from having multiple digital screens in front of us.

But that is unfair, civilization has always advanced through two avenues, distance and communication. The roads built by Rome increased trade route and culture, and the steam engine made way for the Industrial Revolution. Not to be outdone, communication through the telegraph and telephone helped create a boom into the Roaring 20s.

Now it's the digital age, and as author Peter Wallison asserts in "Hidden in Plain Sight", communication now allows us to do two things, travel through space and travel through time.

We travel through space in the form of a phone call, using internet based interfaces such as Skype allows myself to communicate with a friend using the same as app all over the world. In Kenya, I was able to talk to my parents in America daily, this was something ten years ago that would have been unheard of by volunteers in the same region.

We travel through time in a more beautiful fashion. Letters, sent and received perhaps a in week (or in my case in Kenya, several months), are thoughts and messages from the past that I would read in the future. Now, texting interfaces such as Whatsapp allow us to read these messages in near real time. The time machine becomes more "instant".

For my class Technology Solutions for Development & Social Change, I went to the AT&T Hackathon on November 7th and 8th. A Hackathon is a place where developers mix together to make a solution to a problem using their experience in programming within a short timeframe. Think of a 19th century salon of free thinkers mixed with digital masons. People come together and make solutions
The Venue
The AT&T Hackathon was at the Centre for Social Innovation in NYC, an appropriately named venue. As you can see, the location was a mix of warm informal decoration and open factory like space.
Within this venue were people of various tech backgrounds. I met with back end (coding internally) and front end (visual user interface, the people who design the part you can see and interact with) developers.

I can speak English, Swahili, Bangla, and bits of Japanese, but here people will speaking in languages of Java, Python, and C++ if they loved antiquated language.
People spoke languages of digital synthesis, speaking with their fingers instead of their tongues.

As overwhelming as that sounds, it was impressive. And I have nothing but awe for people who come on a given weekend just to exercise their capacity to build.
The Structure
The set up was that pitches went first, taking a cue from a previous classmate, I decided that my value would be in ideas, so I pitched my idea immediately: A social network interface that connects to Kindle reading apps that allows people to see in real time what others are reading.
Fortunately, there were quite a few developers interested, but the set up of the Hackathon was flawed. Sure enough, after the pitches, there was a presentation about how this Hackathon was set up for AT&T to test their new contextual API feature. In essence, any pitches set up earlier that did not have to do with this API, would not be in the running for the contest.
That said, the API was relatively simple, you call someone and are given additional options. Perhaps that person can send a text message in response to your call saying "I'm not alone in the car, so do not be as informal", or it can create a call log based on how many times you call.
I changed my pitch towards security. I asked, what if you can call someone multiple times, and if there is no response, you can find out their location?
Fortunately, several programmers were interested. These programmers included two Ghanaian classmates who were into the back end and front end respectively, two other American students younger than me, and an older professional.
So we began to code that night

Immediately there were challenges based on the limited of the API. Originally, I wanted to be able to record audio that way the concerned caller could listen in and see if anything was amiss. However, if the user does not pick up, then no further actions could be taken. We compromised by using the call log feature to connect with the app so that the app could prerecord GPS locations and sounds during check ins. 
Management became key, while I wasn't a programmer, I was able to organize the team into back end and front end development and make sure everyone was on task. I also was able to ask questions or provide insight. For example, I helped with front end when I compared interfaces to similar devices, such as Find My Iphone and bSafe.

However, while we left Saturday night confident that we had something we could really work on, an unexpected tragedy occurred. One of the key back end developers got into a car accident, prompting him to go to the hospital. His Ghanian class mate ended up not showing up. Similarly, the older gentleman who showed up the night before left as well.
So what do you do? It was just three of us now We spent four hours continuously coding, working on front end and back end design. However, we reached our limits due to the number of tasks set out and the limited experience everyone had.
Eventually we had to give up.
The Environment
Some passing thoughts, Hackathons are wonderful spaces for a lot of coders to simply just communicate. The previous winner just got other coders in a circle to talk about idea development and overcoming the stress in enacting the idea.
A lot of the challenges in Hackathons or the tech sphere didn't seem to just be about technical skills, but understanding and overcoming personal limitations and grasping behavioral situations, not so different than challenges faced in the development sector. However, unlike the latter sector, I noticed that there is a lot of optimism in this realm about solving challenges using growing digital interfaces that smartphones offer.
Changing the dichotomy of being a passive user of technology
For better or for worse, smartphone use will increase, and I appreciate that it allows for opportunity to grow in ways we never could. However, just scrolling through my Facebook feed is unappealing in what that entails. If I spend several hours reading or liking other people's thoughts, doesn't that fundamentally change me? The Hackathon has showed me the other side of technology, creation.
I have been repeatedly contacted by the older coder to work on the reading app. It is rather poetic to realize that everyday, we create worlds on digital screens, producing content of thoughts, outrage, and passion. I would like to see what it's like to help design something new.
As for the remainder of Saturday?
I made two really good friends, we ended up exploring the building instead, sneaking out to the roof where there not very technological barriers.
It was a beautiful view

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Poems 11/5

Love dyed deep in rust

Fallen soft like feathers doffed

Gently, as it must

(Haiku with the help of an anonymous friend)

This fear is like Fall for ripening leaves

Caught up dancing among the breeze

This fear is abandonment by stalwart trees

Letting go with tacit ease

No one tells you, when your body turns to soil

Where your colors go

                                        Come to me
In this lover's embrace
A once empty canyon
Now filled with your Grace

Your arms are all silk and I am the worm
Wrapped in your blanket, I slowly change form

I abstained from the sky with barely a taste
For what can compare to
Your Heavenly Face?

Come to Be
 Said the Lord of Light
Yet Adam opened his eyes
Only for Eve

Where does love go when lost?

The ocean yearns the moon

Sings a longing cyclone

Released far too soon

A message in a bottle is message from time. And so is this blog post.


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Letting Go of The Identity

This ego of mine is a breath
Defiantly held for a time
Yet one exhale to its death
Meaningless, in design

I write this after not updating my blog for over a year.

I want to write to you about why it's okay and necessary to let go of the past, and that it is not the same as forgetting.

Three years ago, I took a journey to Kenya and embarked on a life that felt meaningful and present. On July 24th, 2014, I returned.

What they don't tell you about joining the Peace Corps is that re-adjustment is often harder than adjustment to site.

It wasn't about the amenities of clean tap water (Nairobi had that), nor ubiquitous smartphone use (I'm editing this on an I-Phone right now). I was born in this culture, after all, and two whole years did little to change America.

No, the element that changed was myself.

I can't sing enough praises to Godrick Mwachofi
I spent twenty four months doing work that completed my need to be of service. I had access to health data for an entire county and was respected by people who made policy. I was free riding on a motorcycle down the dirt roads of a valley aiding my Public Health Officer in giving out polio vaccinations (he gave them, I just did tallying). Key word though, was.

You come back and look into the mirror day by day. The weight you lost will return (even if you do avoid fast food), the weathered hands from gripping a machete and hoe will become soft again from typing on a keyboard. The scar you received under your left eye from where a Nairobi fly burst into acid, the one that burned so much your skin peeled for weeks, well that will fade too.

Eventually the problems you escaped when leaving will hit you with interest, forcing you to come to terms with the fact that the R in Returned Peace Corps Volunteer is the most factual part of who you are now.

Speaking a local language (sorry, foreign and uncommon) doesn't facilitate the ease of your life. Experience in HIV mitigation isn't necessarily an applicable skill.  Yes they are noteworthy, but they aren't as relevant. I'm not even sure I'm knowledgeable enough to tell about all the blank stares I get from federal employers when I mention non-competitive eligibility (US AID will add to your tenure track though).

And it can be overwhelming, knowing that the experiences and pride you felt aren't acknowledged here. And there should be no shame of being proud, you should and must be proud. But there's a difference between holding onto a beautiful snapshot that can be liked a thousand times and a reality that won't wait. Images are static, we are not.

Because, if so much of my identity came from my work as a PCV, how does that hold up when my work is no longer there?

Consciously, you know you are here, moving on with your life, but subconsciously, there is that danger that you are comparing your worth to who you were in the past. But the years move on and realistically, that moment in time will be farther and farther.
I had seriously the co-workers
I had an amazing experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I worked with an amazing medical and community health staff. Indeed, Third Goal is still a factor and I understand the importance of talking about my experiences, but the hard truth is that
1. I won't be back in that capacity
2. Holding onto that nostalgia can affect my performance as a functional adult on an emotional level.
Not everything important is a story
3. I don't want to be a walking anecdote.

So more than a year since being evacuated from Kenya, I'm letting go of the identity, but not the place. After all, it's the community of Peace Corps Staff, Sagalla Health Center, and friends I made,who motivated me to study Humanitarian Policy. Because of our time abroad, so many of us go back rather than stay back, and therein lies the difference.

Whether you have experienced periods of trauma or happiness, it is no disservice to pursue change. It's okay to let go. For my RPCVs who struggled as well, remember that while Peace Corps was such a period of growth, it's because you were the main factor. You can do it again. All you have to do is what you did at staging, being willing to take the next step.

I look forward to using this blog again, I want to create something new and meaningful once more.

With love,
Tanim Awwal
Columbia SIPA 2014-Present