2012

There’s a disturbing trend in public-interest apps: They’re released for free, but without clear open source licensing or access to source code.

I think it’s not that the developers don’t want the apps to be open source — they just don’t think of doing it (and perhaps don’t understand, or don’t know from personal experience, how great the possibilities would be if they did it).

I just saw an example today (hat tip to Noel Hidalgo and Frank Hebbert):

Stop-and-Frisk Watch App

The Stop-and-Frisk Watch app is a terrific idea — at least, if like me, you think the New York City police department’s policy of informally criminalizing melanin possession is a big mistake. Here’s the app’s description:

“Stop and Frisk Watch” – a free and innovative smart phone application that will empower New Yorkers to monitor police activity and hold the NYPD accountable for unlawful stop-and-frisk encounters and other police misconduct.

Stop and Frisk Watch is available in English and Spanish, thanks to a translation by Make the Road New York. Initially available for Android phones, an iPhone version will be released later this summer. The app allows bystanders to fully document stop-and-frisk encounters and alert community members when a street stop is in progress. It has three primary functions:

  • RECORD: This allows the user to film an incident with audio by simply pushing a trigger on the phone’s frame. Shaking the phone stops the filming. When filming stops, the user immediately receives a brief survey allowing them to provide details about the incident. The video and survey will go to the NYCLU, which will use the information to shed light on the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices and hold the Department accountable for its actions.
  • LISTEN: This function alerts the user when people in their vicinity are being stopped by the police. When other app users in the area trigger Stop and Frisk Watch, the user receives a message reporting where the police stop is happening. This feature is especially useful for community groups who monitor police activity.
  • REPORT: This prompts the survey, allowing users to report a police interaction they saw or experienced, even if they didn’t film it.

The app includes a “Know Your Rights” section that instructs people about their rights when confronted by police and their right to film police activity in public. Stop and Frisk Watch is intended for use by people witnessing a police encounter, not by individuals who are the subject of a police stop.

The NYCLU developed Stop and Frisk Watch with Jason Van Anden, a Brooklyn-based visual artist and software developer who previously developed the Occupy Wall Street app, “I’m Getting Arrested.

iPhone version coming soon! Please check back.

But try looking around the app’s web site — can you tell where the code is, or if it’s open source? Nope. And if you follow the “Get the app” link to its app store page…

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=org.nyclu.stop.and.frisk.watch

…there are no details there either. There’s a “visit developer’s web site” link, which looks promising, but if you click on it, it just takes you to www.nyclu.org, which is obviously not a development site.

This matters.

The reason it matters is that apps like this have a core functionality that will be useful in many similar circumstances. For NYC, monitoring and reporting on stop-and-frisk is the thing, but in other jurisdictions, there might be some other activity that people need to record and report on. If they could modify this existing app, the only piece they’d need to tweak is the third part of the functionality, the “report” part. Maybe if enough people tweaked it, the code abstraction would get rolled into the core and we’d have a generic record-and-report app that could be configured for specific activities / jurisdictions / report recipients.

Wouldn’t that be nice? (Hint: yes.) But it won’t happen without access to open source code.

The request at the end (“iPhone version coming soon! Please check back.”) encapsulates what’s wrong here. Instead of having people come back here to check for the iPhone version, just do development in the open and give people access to the repository, bug tracker, etc, so they can follow progress to whatever level of detail they want, at their convenience.

Public interest apps should be open source, because that empowers the people closest to on-the-ground reality to modify the app to suit that reality. The times I’ve talked to an app developer about this, it turns out they weren’t really making a conscious choice at all — it’s just that there isn’t as much of a tradition of open source in mobile apps as there is in, say, server software, so they don’t automatically put an open source license on the code and do their development on a public repository site. They don’t have the same cultural reflexes.

I’m not sure how to start changing that, but if you develop public interest apps, please at least have someone point out this blog post to you :-).

And if you run a large app store, consider having a field that explicitly states “open source” and links to the code, not just a field saying “Price: free”. That one signal would do more to open this particular cultural door than all the blog posts I could write.

Editor’s note: This is the first guest post on rants.org — it was originally an email Winnie Fung sent, but given that, after all, the site’s name is “rants.org”, she graciously allowed it to be posted. I’ve never been an Apple user, so I can’t say this post sums up my feelings, but it certainly sums up my impressions! Apple users out there, any comments? -Karl

I am mad. mad mad mad. …

Apple is trying to control how I do everything, where I do it, on what devices I can do it, where I store it and I HATE IT. I am this close to wiping out my drive and sticking linux on it. icloud my ass. Not only do I have to pay for my .mac address all these years (fair enough I was too lazy to sever my ties), but if I want to keep the stupid address, I must transfer to icloud, oh but you have to upgrade to the newest OS in order to access it which btw will have to pay for.

So basically, I have been living in this address for years, paying the rent, and then one day my landlord comes and tells me that they are renovating the building and they are going to raise my rent and in order to stay in apartment, I must update my interior decoration to match spiffy exterior. No only that, I must buy my furniture from the landlord’s designer stores. And if I want to park my bike and my car at this address, I must also switch my car and bike to my landlord’s brand. Additionally, if I want to lock my bike to the building’s dock, I will need to purchase their special lock which only works for my landlord’s buildings and their company policy is to change the lock socket with every model so I should plan on collecting a pile of obsolete locks… No thank you, I think I will move.

-Winnie Fung

An old tradition holds that the location of the discoloration in the marble of the Washington Monument prefigures the end of the Republic:

The discoloration represents the division between the two phases of the Monument’s construction. The phases used marble from different quarries, resulting in a clear visual boundary. The pause between the phases lasted nearly two decades, from 1858 to 1876, and although the original reasons for it are complicated, it was drastically lengthened and nearly made permanent by the Civil War. We may take the discoloration as representing the Civil War, forever the spiritual halfway point in the United States’ history.

The discoloration occurs at 46 meters up, and the Monument’s total height is 169.29 meters; thus the dividing line is 27.17% of the way up. Depending on whether you use the beginning of the Civil War (1861) or its end (1865), the corresponding end year for the United States is either 2089 or 2104 — that is, the year 1861 (or 1865) occurs 27.17% of the way from 1776 to 2089 (or 2104).

So it looks like we’ll make it to sometime between 2089 and 2104. We had a pretty good run. Maybe someone else will find a use for our Constitution, especially since it’ll be in such good condition. (“Like new! The previous owners barely took it out — it just sat in the garage for the last few years, really.”)

The construction of the Monument is itself is a fascinating story. It turns out that our national weakness of historical amnesia is sometimes a blessing. Then too, it could be said that every nation’s weakness, and blessing, is historical amnesia.

Lesson #2401:

When deploying text input forms on your web site, make sure to add your company’s name to the spell-checker dictionary, so it doesn’t get the jaggy red underline thingy when people type it:


(click to enlarge)

No, I wouldn’t have thought of that either! But I’m going to try to remember it from now on. Is anyone maintaining a checklist for web designers somewhere? If so, please add this :-).