2013-05-19

Nerdery: Tools for nomadic route planning

author: mbrewer (written a few weeks ago) I've been trying to figure out, as I travel around, how I can keep track of where my friends are so I can make sure to swing by and say hi when I'm in the neighbourhood. It turns out that figuring out what to do and where to go is a massive information organization problem. I've got schedules of classes from different sources, bits of data people tell me. Some cool things to do are periodic or seasonal, some are one time only, and some are static and mostly stay in place. Given those constraints figuring out where to go and what to do has been a surprisingly daunting task. It's like trying to solve travelling salesmen where things come and go, and each point is weighted and you can drop points, and you only have partial state. I'd be really surprised if a generalized version of "where do I go" isn't non-determinstic exponential.

But, I'm a computer scientist as well as hippie abo trail trash. And I can't just throw up my hands at an information organization problem. Jess actually first suggested the idea of building an app to do this. Before embarking on that though I started scanning around to see what's out there and get an idea what I *would* build if I built something.

I don't have a perfect solution, but I have some partial solutions interesting enough that I thought I'd share. What's below sounds trivial, but actually tracking it down is several evenings of legwork. Before going on I should note my assumptions as far as resources I have available for these needs.

  • I have an android phone. I mostly use it off-line actually to save on phone bills, but for planning a road trip or what I'm up to next I figure coffee shops will work fine - or I can pay $2 and use the phone for the day (it's a tmobile prepay by the day plan, it's there a swear just hellishly hard to find).
  • I currently track my contact list via Google contacts. It's generally pretty convenient and "good enough".
  • Most people seem to put their address information on Facebook or at least their city, and very few put it in google+ or anything similar.
  • I have a laptop as well.

Finding Friends

A while ago I found a cool app for android called "contact map". It's a Google map mashup and will display all your friends in a map of the world. You can zoom in and out and cool stuff like that.



This certainly doesn't have all the features I want, but it's a great start to experiment with and try and understand my use-case. There's just one flaw. I don't want to type in all my friend's addresses by hand, and what if they move! Keeping an address book is hard work, and like a good computer scientist I'm lazy.

Recently I got a facebook account again (I gave in, it's too useful). And today I found this application: http://www.friendstogmail.com/

Using friends to Gmail I generated a CSV file and imported it into Google contact. This is perfect since I didn't have to give my google credentials to the app, and I'm not concerned about the security of my facebook account. This solution is not perfect since it doesn't sync on an ongoing basis, but it means I can at least just repeat the process every so often (auto-merging contacts each time) to keep up to date on where my friends live.

So, the idea is now when I'm planning a trip and realize I'll be traveling through Vermont or Missouri I have an easy way to check who I should try to drag out on a backpacking trip, or who to bug for crash space :P.

It's an imperfect solution though, because most people don't put their address online at all. Of my over a hundred current contacts on facebook and several hundred Google contacts, I have something like 75 actual addresses :(. So, sadly, for now I'll have to continue curating my address list manually. It's a start though!

Scheduling and event tracking

I'm also using several Google calendars. One is a calendar of what I intend to do, one is a calendar of especially interesting events that Jess and I share, and one is the public calendar you see at www.smalladventures.net/mbrewer.

In addition to THOSE, Jess and I ALSO share a document of cool opportunities, people to learn from, somewhat static classes we'd like to take, and vaguer ideas for neat things to do.

conclusion

So, right now I have 3 sources of data I stare at to try and plan out what's going to happen. It's definitely ugly and offends my sensibilities as far as data organization goes, but you've got to start somewhere. I'm hoping as I come to understand the problem better I can refine this process a bit. Some randomness is fine, I'm not actually looking for the traveling salesmen solution alluded to earlier. I just want a good way to view all the data in a way that makes the good options obvious.

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