Saturday, June 30, 2012

IPTV - My Experience with Bell Fibe

Over a year ago, we signed up for Bell's Internet TV service (IPTV), Bell Fibe.  Judging from my blog stats the post I wrote on it last year was rather popular. Bell has certainly been marketing the service more lately.

Since last year, there's been improvements to the service and my experience with customer service has changed, so I thought I'd update the post.

First, Bell promised me two years of free PVR and two TV receivers, but then after one year renegged on this after one year. Of course, Bell doesn't put anything in writing, but I have notes from my conversations. After endless calls to Bell's customer service which is extremely painful in how unhelpful they are (this comic describes the pain of dealing with Bell's customer service perfectly), they offerred me a pretty good deal going forward, but refused to rebate me the fees I feel they fraudulently charged me.  Rather incurring more pain in dealing with them, I accepted their offer.  But, once my various contracts are up, I'm switching providers based entirely on this treatment.

Fall 2012 Update:  I had more problems with Bell's customer's service when we moved and tried to get Bell Fibe at our new place.  Without exaggeration, Bell's customer service is the worst I have ever dealt with.  Please see my updated blog post on Bell's bad customer service before considering Bell.

Signal Quality
Since we signed up there has been occasional buggy or down reception. I would say that this is happening less frequently over the past few months. It is rare that the service is down for more than an hour and very rare for it to be down a few hours, but it has happened at least a couple times in the last year. I have never got a rebate or any sort of proactive notice from Bell when the interruptions are more lengthy outages.

Search & Guide 
Users can search by program or actor up to two weeks in advance. At first, I thought this was great, but it doesn't take long to get to know when and which network a fav show is on. It was more useful when we had a free trial with a gazillion channels as I could quickly find Xena playing somewhere at any given moment. A serious flaw, however, is that the actor info for shows only lists up to four actors. And the actors listed may not necessarily be the leads or stars. Frankly stars are the only ones who anyone would search for, so this often negates the value of this feature.

Their tv guide feature seems standard to all tv services now. Listings include title, plot synopsis, date of production, rating, and cast. Similar to the search feature the few actors listed are not necessarily the stars and could unknowns playing bit roles. They have a genre search (e.g. news channels, family, movies, sports, etc.) which makes it easier to browse similar channel offerings, which is nice but is probably more useful for new customers or house guests.

The guide allows one to add and then browse by favourites. A feature they don't have that I have seen and like is colour coding of channels based on channels one gets and doesn't. We have to manually remove the channels we don't get up from our guide, but this means they don't show up at all so we don't know when a channel is offering a free preview.

I like the ability to have the main screen stay open and have another mini-screen appear on the bottom. Also, one can browse the guide and see a mini-screen of a channel without actually having to go to that channel. I'm not sure if these features are standard on other services but they are definitely great for channel surfers such as myself.

Family friendly
I'm not sure if satellite or cable offer this feature, but I really like Bell Fibe's parental controls. I can quickly set the tv to block my kid from seeing inappropriate stuff while we channel surf. The blocking is based on ratings, however, so they are not foolproof. We can easily unlock by show or for a block of hours by entering our four digit passcode. It also blocks the pay-per-view and video-on-demand service, which is great as my 7-year-old already knows how to pull these up and is enthralled by them.

At Christmas for the past couple years, Bell  special channel with games, music, countdown, and links to holiday programs. We loved this, but they haven't had anything else like it subsequently.

Bell Fibe's pricing structures does not appear to be significantly different than other services. One cannot completely custom order channels despite Bell's claims of this. One has to get a certain high and expensive tiered service before being able to order a-la-carte. Their channel packages, as with other services, are ridiculously expensive and bundle a ton of crap with a few good channels. Video-on-demand is also  expensive at $8-7 for new releases and $5 for really old movies. Their VOD offerings, and preview functionality, works great.

On Demand TV
They have a lot of TV shows available to view on demand. Great for when we forgot to PVR them.

Special applications
Since we have had the service, Bell has been rolling out more Internet-enabled features. One can program their PVR via the Internet or mobile device - great in theory, but I can't imagine a urgent need to suddenly and unexpectedly need to record something.

I like their web apps. Facebook and Twitter apps are a fun way to share what you're watching and provide commentary. As I post my photos to Facebook, I really like using this app to provide a quick and easy slideshow. The Weather Network app is also handy, as it quickly pulls up a full local forecast as well other weather info.

As an introductory offer, I'm getting a PVR for free for 3 years. The PVR has been amazing - and has been the real game-changer for how we experience television. Bell Fibe's service integrates really well with the PVR and all the tvs in the house. As Bell states "set, playback, manage your recordings and pause and rewind live TV from any TV in your home" - this is easy and well-used in our house.

I don't have extensive experience with cable or satellite options, so overall to me the determining factor on whether or not I'd renew my service is price. But as Bell continues to roll out more apps and web-enabled features this may prove a determining factor for me in the future. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Prince Edward Island Gets Social Media

Yesterday, I participated in a Facebook event that was so effective and enjoyable that I thought I should share the details, as I think more organizations can benefit from hosting these types of events.

It was a 3-hour group chat, via Facebook's comments feature, with Prince Edward Island (PEI) representatives and tourists. I've participated in chats with organizations before, but this one was different as it offered a range of expert opinions and had a real conversational and personal style.

The organization organizing the event was PEI Tourism, but there were other host organizations from across PEI, such as tour operators, hotels, a heritage association, as well as locals in-the-know.

What I particularly liked about it was that it was a great big conversation about PEI with a bunch of different voices and perspectives. Many of the people writing had a genuine appreciation of PEI and an individual style that came through in their responses.

There is a ton of travel info available nowadays. I still love guidebooks and online resources are equally useful. If anything, there is often too much travel info available - but it's often generic in advice and bland in style. So attempting to get specific or non-mainstream information can be difficult.

This chat offered a chance to get the info I needed. I posted two questions and quickly got great answers. The responses included my name in their replies. This not only alerted me of the reply, but populated my Facebook feed with this.

It would be great if companies, regularly offered Q&A services. I understand this can be expensive to offer, so most companies don't even attempt this and instead rely on FAQ pages or a user base to field questions. These methods sometimes work, but I've seen lots of instances of questions posted that receive no replies, spam, flaming, or useless info. I noticed Tourism PEI always offers the ability to get answers online from a real staff member - but this is really rare nowadays.

But getting answers to my questions wasn't the only reason I thought the PEI Facebook chat was so effective. I also benefited from others' questions and answers and I enjoyed reading other people's fond memories of past PEI visits. This serendipitous discovery of info not only helped me learn more about my future travel destination but also get a sense of the personality and history of the island.

I also liked how the PEI hosts included links to further info or pictures. For example, PEI Museum and Heritage shared a link to their Flickr collection of scanned PEI postcards and asked if we ever received any. As a deltiologist I love looking at retro and kitsch postcards, and I went and checked my collection (some great old ones but so far no matches).

Finally, another useful element was the format of the chat. As it was online, I (or others) can read the chat and investigate further at any time (unlike other "chat" formats such as conferences or some Internet Relay Chats).

From a business perspective, there are numerous benefits to hosting this type of event.

First in terms of finances, such events can directly increase sales. For example, I received recommendations for restaurants that I will definitely be going to (instead of just cooking in our cottage rental). Indirectly, it helps foster a pleasant attitude to the brand, that will likely have future financial benefits.

In terms of promotion, by using Facebook the event uses Facebook's existing user base and social features that easily, and often automatically, extends the reach of such an event.

The conversational quality and earnest responses of this event were essential to this event not coming across as one big shill. This in turn makes the recommendations received more credible and (at least for me) more actionable.

I was really impressed with this event, not only for the serving my needs so well but for representing the ideal of what social media can achieve.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

List of Location-Based Services

Update: This list was updated in a new post in April 2013, check out my new list.

Every couple weeks there are major changes to location-based service. Big players are out, new exciting apps come in, such as YWCA's Safety Siren and Swim Guide.

This month, it's the launch of Google+ Local (replacing Google Places). Lately, Banjo is also getting a heap of buzz. And it wasn't that long ago that Facebook bought Glancee.

Trying to keep track of these apps is rather futile under such conditions. But this list demonstrates the interesting ways location-based services (LBS) can be used and highlights their cool features, so I find it useful to keep updating it.

LBS are mobile device apps are able to able to determine users' physical location and then deliver content or experiences relevant to that location. The list below is categorized based on the application's leading purpose. However, many applications offer overlapping functionality.

The descriptions in quotation marks are taken from that application's website.

Coordination, Communication, and Safety
  • Crowdmap - open-source hosted solution to present location-specific crowdsourced info whether for activism, crises, or community projects
  • Glympse - share your location with your contacts and specify the duration of visit
  • Groundcrew - "coordinates on-the-ground action with your people. Use location, availability, and skills to mobilize in realtime."
  • Guardly - "When an emergency occurs, your personal safety network will always know where you're located....we can pin-point your exact GPS location and provide you with valuable information about what's located around you, and how it can aid your situation."
  • Moby - family member tracking and coordination
  • Swim Guide - find nearby beaches, their safety status, and historical info
  • YWCA Safety Siren - sends geolocation to emergency contacts, maps and directions to women's health clinics & resources, etc.
Commerce and Marketing
  • MapDing- hyperlocal classifieds
  • Placecast - service provider for brands to create geolocative mobile apps
  • Priority Moments - proximity-based promotions & deals (only in London, UK)
  • - allows a user to search and receive info and pix on properties for sale in their vicinity or across Canada. Also offers proximity-based new listings and open houses (Rightmove has this for London, UK)
  • Shopkick - "gives you rewards and offers simply for walking into stores, for scanning products, and for signing up friends"
  • Shopcatch - location-based deals (Canadian company)
  • Sociallight - service provider of geolocative apps
  • Where - proximity-based promotions and deals
  • YellowPages - detects your location or enter one to retrieve nearby businesses or people
  • Flickr - upload & search for georeferenced photos (also the ZoneTag tool from Yahoo appears to facilitate this)
  • Geoloqi - "securely shar[e] location data, with features such as Geonotes, proximal notification, and sharing real-time GPS maps with friends."
  • Historypin - enables users to add old photographs and text narratives to locations
  • Instagram - popular photo-sharing app that allows georeferencing & sharing with foursquare
  • Murmur - recorded oral histories of place, uses old cellphone tech as users see plaque and call specific number to hear targetted message
  • Tagwhat - a "mobile encyclopedia of where you are... learn all about the world around you through interactive stories, videos, and photos"
  • urbantag - tag and share lists of places with friends
Geosocial Networking
  • Banjo - geosocial discovery - helps you find friends and people with similar interests near you
  • BuzzE - proxmity friend finding and networking
  • CheckIn+ - "all-in-one check-in app with augmented reality"
  • Citysense - "real-time nightlife discovery and social navigation"
  • Find My Friends - Apple-based friend finder
  • Glassmap - friend tracking
  • Google Latitude - "see where your friends are right now"
  • Grindr and Blendr gay and straight friend and dating finder
  • GyPsii - claims to be the world's largest geosocial network
  • Highlight - "if your friends are nearby, it will notify you. If someone interesting crosses your path, it will tell you more about them"
  • Hurricane Party - "helps friends find, share, and create spontaneous parties"
  • Locle - geo-based friend finder
  • Plazes - proxmity friend finding
  • Skout -"find interesting singles close-by, strike up a conversation, maybe grab a drink or share a cup of coffee"
Local Discovery and Hyperlocal Information
  • Around Me - find business near your location by biz type (similar for gas is GasBuddy)
  • EveryTrail - "find and follow trips from other travelers"
  • Geopedia - geotargetted Wikipedia entries - as also offered by WikiMe
  • Google+ Local - combines Google's old Places listings with Zagat content and their Google+ social network features
  • Junaio - AR-based vicinity info search, including business and attractions
  • Layar - augmented reality browser
  • Local Books by Library Thing "It shows you local bookstores, libraries and bookish events wherever you are or plan to be."
  • Nearest Wiki - "AR view, with a synopsis against points of interest near you. Tapping on the place you wish to learn more about will give you more in-depth information on the location with images" content from Wikipedia
  • Poynt - local search with proximity based reviews and mapping
  • Star Chart- not exactly local, but uses your position and AR view to offer info on the heavens (Google offers similar functionality with their Google Sky Map service)
  • Trover - "log remarkable places and things by snapping a photo and adding a quick note. When your friends and others pass by in the future they, too, can experience your discovery. Track the paths of friends and other interesting folks using our "follow" mode"
  • Twitter Places - search for tweets within a specified area or tag places in your tweets
  • Zeitag - historical photographs
Location-based Games
  • Booyah - variety of games, including MyTown and Nightclub City
  • My Town - "built around your local shops, restaurants, and hangouts. Level-up, unlock items, and earn cash to buy your favorite real-life locations."
  • SCVNGR - "share where you are & what you're up to with your friends. Do challenges to earn points and unlock badges & real-world rewards."
  • TapCity - "play with friends as you build and defend your very own city made up of your favorite places in the real world."
Navigation and Transportation
  • BlackBerry Traffic by RIM uses GPS and customized maps to "establish your estimated time of arrival, find out if a road is closed, or decide to take a faster, alternate route"
  • MyCar Park - "capture your parking location on a map, add a photo, and comments... Then built in maps direct you to your car from your current location."
  • Nearest Subway - locates nearest subway station for New York, Chicago, Tokyo, Paris, Madrid, etc.
  • Red Rocket - Toronto transit maps, routes, schedules, and nearest stop
  • SitOrSquat - find nearby bathrooms with user reviews of their cleanliness by Charmin (genius marketing effort and I must say the most useful LBS to come along in ages!)
  • Waze - "free, community-based traffic & navigation app"

Personal Efficiency and Organization
  • Siri's Location Services - directions, recommendations, and personal efficiency services based on your location
  • Task Ave - "location-aware reminders. Magically get alerts when you're nearby a task."
  • Voxora - "voicemail for places", integrates with foursquare
  • Social Recommendation and Navigation

  • DeHood - tap into neighbourhood buzz to find local businesses
  • - foursquare-based and only in NYC it sends "a text message when you check into a NYC restaurant that is at risk of being closed for health code violations"
  • Goby - suggests "fun things to do" based on your location or category (US only)
  • Localmind - get answers about a specific place & real-time events by people who are there
  • Urbanspoon - location and shaking based restaurant recommendations
  • Urbantag - customize a list of favourite places and share with friends
  • Wikitude - offers A.R., map, or list view of various types of proximal content (reviews, deals, and Wikipedia entries)
  • Yelp and Citysearch - user-generated local reviews combined with local search engine
Travel and Place Guides
  • Ask a Nomad - answered on your travel questions from fellow travellers
  • Compass by Lonely Planet - "plot itineraries on dynamic, GPS-enabled map. Grab practical information and useful tips using our augmented reality camera view"
  • Gogobot - travel tips from friends & other users
  • MobilyTrip - social networking travel diary app
  • mTrip - "automatically customizes your trip itinerary...guides you to each tourist attraction with directions, uses augmented reality to display tourist attractions in your area, and allows you to share your trip with personalized e-postcards"
  • Ski & Snow Report - detailed ski info snow amounts, traffic volume, weather, lift times, etc)
  • Ski Tracks - a GPS-enabled ski log of your routes, velocity, etc. with ability to geotag your pix
  • TimeOut - travel guide apps for various tourist hot-spots
  • TripAdvisor - get TripAdvisor's content on your mobile with proximity search option
  • Tripbirds - travel tips from friends
  • Trippy - get trip advice from your social network

Early and/or Deceased LBS:
  • Brightkite, Centrl, Loopt, Rally Up, and Gowalla - pioneers in place check-ins(Facebook Places also tried this market and then soon closed)
  • Dodgeball - SMS, pre-cursor to foursquare bought by Google and eventually shut down (see CNET eulogy)
  • Dopplr - social travel planning (bought by Nokia and withered)
  • Flook - offered user-generated geolocated information
  • Glancee - friend finder based on proximity and social and personal commonalities (started in 2010, bought by Facebookand shut down)
  • GeoSpot - started in 2005 and offered location-based information and search products
  • Hidden Park - "iPhone adventure game created especially for young families...lead(s) children into a fantasy world of trolls, fairies and tree genies - right in their local park"
  • Fire Eagle and Friends on Fire - location sharing platform and API, by Yahoo
  • Magitti - local recommendation, from PARC (see ReadWriteWeb article)
  • Mscape - location-based gaming platform by HP
  • Whrrl - users joined interest and brand based groups to get recommendations, tips, and deals

  • Please let me know of any corrections or ones you recommend be added to this list.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Media & Place - Notes from a McLuhan Event

One of the things that drew me to iSchool at the University of Toronto was the McLuhan Program in Culture & Technology. For reasons that have taken me years to partially glean, the program has existed more in name than anything else in recent years.

Over the years, the program has hosted a series of Monday night seminars, as Marshall McLuhan was famous for. At last night's seminar, the program heads announced a stream in culture and technology starting next year as part of the iSchool master's degree and McLuhan's lacklustre building, the Coach House will get a substantial reno. These are all part of the plans to make the Coach House and UofT a centre (again) for thought and discussion on new media and society.
Despite this promising news, last night's discussion on "Making Sense of Place" was disappointing. An unfortunate habit of academics, particularly those tenured, is to abandon the seminar topic and talk about whatever they want. Only one of speakers, Shawn Micallef, addressed the topic. The questions by the audience were also generally off-topic, basic (e.g. "What is Twitter?), or curmudgeonly ("These young people today, there's no hope..." ) so I was only able to gather a few useful morsels from the seminar.

The first speaker Joshua Meyrowitz was a major influential figure in examining the role of media in relation (projecting or negating) to place. Although his talk was mostly about the campaigns of indigenous people to protect their land, he briefly touched upon how current digital media is being used by groups to both chart their own spaces and to use media to bring attention to their cause - to bring outsiders into their place. As one commenter noted, these types of media efforts enable "the co-occupation of imaginary space, leading to empathy, and then hopefully leading to community".

In response, Meyrowitz offered an analogy comparing our relationship to place as a marriage. Where in earlier times, our marriage to place was an arranged marriage in which one didn't have a lot of choice about what places they were attached to. Now we have more choice in our place engagements and more overt expressions of place love, similar to declarations of romantic love. But we also have more divorces, as people are now not as bonded to place and will move or make new engagements as they see fit.

Micallef has an impressive history of place-related media work, including launching one of the first locative media projects [murmur], launching a magazine on Canadian urban landscapes, and his current Twitter and TTC electronic sign project, Stroll City. Micallef discussed his use of digital media both as a creator and audience. He hates Foursquare ("it's geo-spam, as it just says where [people] are") but loves Twitter for the layers of information not otherwise possible. He describes his morning ritual of reading his Twitter feed (1200, including about 800 Torontonians) as gets to "hear the pulse of the city" and get a glimpse into a diverse range of people lives from various parts of the city.

He also found that Twitter has helped him appreciate the places he encounters either through checking out tweets refined by a geographic area or from feedback he gets from others on the places he mentions.

Micallef's work attempts to counter the notion that Toronto is ahistoric, boring, or placeless. His Stroll City efforts have attempted to address this by encouraging people to think and talk about place - to "merge the corporeal and the digital".

I'm looking forward to hearing more from Micallef and the new culture and technology iSchool program.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Putting Facebook and Flickr on the Map

Online user-generated maps aren't new - they exploded years ago when Google Maps released their API in 2005. I've used web-based mapping services to build my own maps for everything from the places I've visited via TripAdvisor to a list of my favourite bakeries via foursquare. 

Of the various user-generated maps, the type I most frequently use is maps of my photgraphs. For a long time, I've been adding the location of the photos I upload to Flickr and Facebook, but only recently started exploring the functionality.

Both Facebook and Flickr have really useful and fun photo map features, but neither meets all my needs completely. 

Facebook Maps
What I like about Facebook maps is that is easy to use. You don't need to know the address of a photo's location to map it. One can add the location by either dropping the photo on a map (a common enough feature) or enter its name and Facebook automatically will find matches (with good accuracy). One can also batch identify the location of photos based, which speeds up the process.  I also like how Facebook doesn't have a cap on how many photos one can upload without having to pay, unlike Flickr.

One of the most useful elements that Facebook's maps offer is that every location automatically links to a Facebook page with info about the location and if friends have been there. The content is mostly populated with Wikipedia entries, but I can see this growing into an interesting hub of place-info.

There are downsides to using Facebook maps. I don't like how when you click on a map to see a geolocated photo, it opens a small window that does not proportionality resize or centre the image, so inevitably the picture is displayed poorly. Facebook only has a map view, instead of also having an Earth view as most online maps now have.

The biggest problem with Facebook is critical mass. If my friends represent a snapshot of Facebook users, almost no one is mapping their photos (or other life-events as Facebook enables). I checked out my friends' maps and they are virtual deserts. It could be a great way to learn more about one's friends or gain some collective insight on places, but that value is only realized if enough people use it.

Also, although it is fairly easy to add location details to Facebook, it isn't easy to access this information. There needs to be a way to explore friends maps without having to go to each friend's page and click on their maps. It's social media, so the maps should enable collective display. Finally, the nature of Facebook - sharing info amongst friends vs. the world-at-large - means that it isn't feasible to share or export one's map or even photos.

Flickr Maps
I haven't used Flickr for years as I reached their 200 free images cap and don't want to pay.  But I wanted to experiment with their mapping feature so I deleted a bunch of old pictures and gave it a try - here's my Flickr map.

As far as I have found, Flickr has the best, publicly-viewable user photos mapping service (let me know if there are better ones out there). But I have had trouble with Flickr map being buggy and not displaying some geotagged photos and with it locking up frequently.

It is also way more difficult than other online map services to geotag a specific location. It doesn't accept the names of places (e.g. organization name or point of interest) or longitude and latitude coordinates, so one needs to know the specific street address to get the map to recognize the location.

Once mapped though, it is easy to view photos on a map. But Flickr doesn't allow one to customize their map beyond sorting by most recent or "interesting"  or searching. One can't have more than one map or customize their map by a specific set or some category.

I really like Flickr's Places feature.  Unlike Facebook Maps, the "Places" feature represents a vibrant social media effort. It displays the collective photos of a place either by recent or "interesting" (Flickr's secret sauce sorting algorithm). It also displays a map of the place that if clicked on opens up to display the geotagged photos charted on a map. Places also offers relevant groups and keywords.  Flickr Places' page for Fergus, Ontario is a good example.

Flickr doesn't enable their map to be embedded in another site, for that they do enable third-party apps.

iMapFlickr & MyPics Map
What Flickr lacks in extensive functionality, it makes up for fostering a wealth of third-party apps (via their "App Garden"). I found a couple, MyPicsMap and iMapFlickr that offer the map functionality that can be embedded in another site.

I tried out these apps on a new page of this blog, My Photos.  Both apps are free, offer some cool features, and are easy to use. They both allow one to display a Flickr collection or set overlaid on a map. Both use Google Maps and therefore offer zooming, scrolling, and map, satellite and terrain views.

On the top of the page, my travel photo highlights are displayed via MyPicsMap.  I like how it uses a thumbnail version of my photo overlaid on a map, so that one can quickly scan the world to see the global highlights.

MyPicsMap doesn't allow one to customize the default view and for some reason it chooses the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It also seems to have faulty display as my images of India and most of Europe do not show up unless one zooms in.

iMapFlickr does allow one to customize the view of the map that is embedded and some other display options (such as height, colours, default map view, etc.).

Instead of offering a thumbnail of a photo overlaid on a map, iMapFlickr displays a flag and then has a scrolling photo viewer below the map (similar to Flickr's map). This isn't as much fun for worldwide photos, but works great when trying to display photos mapped in close proximity. I used iMapFlickr for my local photos (it's the map of Toronto, below my travel photos on My Photos page).

Facebook, Flickr, iMapFlickr, and MyPics Map offer some impressive functionality.  Facebook has the existing social network that has tremendous sharing potential and Facebook also integrates well with specific place pages.  Flickr's has great photos of most places and some cool third-party functionality such as the latter two mentioned. But none of these services offer the degree of customization and social integration I'd like.

Also, I'd love to see functionality that enables these to be converted into an individual location-based service. Still looking for someone to offer that service.