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Real-time on the Social-web for the World Series of Birding

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Suppose, just for fun, that there was a 24 hour event happening, covering the whole state of New Jersey from end to end, and you, single-handedly, wanted to document it in real time, using the social web…twitter, blogs, and associated tools…so that anyone who wanted could experience it from, shall we say, ground level? Suppose. What tools would you use?

In my work life, I am the Observation Product Specialist for Carl Zeiss Sports Optics, makers of binoculars and spotting scopes used in birding, and all types of wildlife observation. For 27 years we have sponsored a team, Team Zeiss, in the yearly World Series of Birding competition, and for 6 years we have been the sponsor of the Carl Zeiss Youth Birding Challenge. The WSB raises funds for conservation through per-species pledges to your favorite team of birders, who then go out for 24 hours, midnight to midnight, in the state of New Jersey (or some designated sub-section there-of) to count as many different species of birds as they can identify by sight or sound. It draws well over 200 of the best birders in the US, in over 50 teams, to Cape May, NJ each May. Most teams come in a few days (or weeks) early to scout the area where they intend to count…then there is the day itself…24 hours of driving crazy distances to hit the hot-spots and staked out birds…the Finish Line were, just before midnight, the teams bring in their totals for verification…and then, the next morning at 9AM sharp, the Awards Brunch where, after a lavish breakfast, the highest totals are recognized with various awards, and each team gets to briefly tell its best story of the day. It is marginally insane, considerably inspiring (if you are into birds…they have raised over $9 million for conservation in the 27 years of the event), and a whole lot of fun!

This year, I decided to try to document the whole thing in something approaching real time. I planned to be in a chase car, and follow Team Zeiss through some of the scouting and preparations, then through the 24 hours of the event to the Finish Line, and to the Awards Brunch the next morning. I planned to twitter and FaceBook the whole thing, with sound-clips, pics, and maybe some video…perhaps to do some live blogging on our WordPress blog…and, of course, to bring back enough photos and video for follow-up blog posts and web pages. It was only slightly more insane than the event itself.

You can see the results, all of the posts from the field, considerably expanded with images, video, and bit of commentary added after the event, at Team Zeiss: A Complete World Series of Birding Saga.

If you want to know how I did it, read on.

I have an iPhone 3G (not, unfortunately for these purposes, the 3GS with video), a Canon SX20IS which shoots excellent stills and HD video, an very portable Aspire Timeline 1810TZ CULV netbook/laptop, a Verizon USB mobile broadband doggle, a cigarette lighter power supply that puts out both 110 volt AC for the computer and USB power for the iPhone, and, obviously more enthusiasm than sense.

Experimenting before-hand I settled on the new Hootsuite app for iPhone for my twitter and facebook posts. I knew I would be twittering on 2 accounts: my own @singraham and the Zeiss account @zeissbirding_us. The facebook posts were going to my own profile. I needed an app that would post to all three simultaneously. Hootsuite looked like it would do the job. Since you can open it in menu mode, without downloading any streams, it is quick to post from. When I got to Cape May, I found that the Hootsuite app, on AT&T’s 3G network, was failing about half the time when I attempted to post a pic with the tweet/facebook update. Trying again sometimes worked, but I needed something more reliable.

I already have a Posterous blog set up, and have used it to post instant galleries of images via email when I have more than one image to post at the same time. You can set up Posterous to auto post to any number of twitter and facebook accounts, and if you make the title complete, it can act as a tweet or post in itself. You can even include hastags for twitter in the title. Posting from the iPhone is as simple as taking the pics with the camera app, opening Photos, selecting the ones you want to send and choosing email. You enter your Posterous address, and it is away, and posted to your twitter and facebook accounts soon after. The advantage is that Posterous automatically formats multiple images into a galley with an index and viewer.

Posterous will also take video, directly or as a link from YouTube…which is good, since I encountered the dread “caught in the processing loop” YouTube bug when attempting to upload video from Cape May. Not via 3G either…this was from my hotel room over a wifi network. I tired many times. Nothing worked. While Posterous video is not has high quality as HD on YouTube, it is certainly serviceable for my purposes with the WSB.

Posterous does have its own app for the iPhone, which allows you take pics directly and upload them into galleries on your blog, but I find that it is actually much easier to do it from the Photos App via email.

As it happens, Hootsuite updated their iPhone app while I was in New Jersey, and the new version seemed to work much better with pic uploads, even when I lost 3G and had to work on EDGE in the far reaches of the state.

I ended up using both Hootsuite, and Posterous via email, as the situation demanded and as the spirit moved me. 🙂

When I picked up my rental car, the first thing I checked was the number of cigarette lighter sockets, as I anticipated having to use my iPhone part of the time as a GPS. The Jeep Compass they gave me has only one cigarette lighter socket…but low and behold, it has an actual 110v, two prong socket, just like your wall sockets at home. I could plug the Acer in directly, and, since i use a Kensington Ultra Compact Power Supply while traveling, which has its own USB power port, and was packing a Griffen PowerJolt Dual with two more USB power ports for the cigarette socket, I was all set for power. I did not even have to set up the excellent Radio Shack compact power inverter I always have in my laptop bag.

As it turned out, I never even plugged the Acer in. It was just too close quarters with 3 of us and all our stuff in car, I was driving at least a third of the time, and we made stops too frequently to consider the laptop useful. That meant that I did not upload any video until the event was over.

Most of the pics were uploaded direct from the iPhone’s camera. I am impatiently waiting the arrival of the 4G iPhone with what one hopes will be a decent camera (rumors say maybe even HD video), but you make do with what you have. Since I was shooting most of the time with the SX20IS as well, the pics from the field were more or less placeholders anyway…I replaced most of them with SX20IS shots when I built the blog post…though I hope the iPhone shots added at least a little to the experience for those following my tweets and posts in real time.

I did process a few of the more marginal shots using the Adobe PhotoShop app for the iPhone before I posted them. I used, until this most recent version of the Adobe app, PhotoGene, which I really like. PhotoShop is just a bit faster on most operations, at least on my 3G phone, and, in the field, where you are posting mostly while hurrying back to the car or between stops, even that little speed difference can be critical.

While I had not planned to do it, since I was using Posterous, it occurred to me on a hill far into the outback of Sussex County, New Jersey, moments after mid-night when the team was listening for high flying migrants in the dark, that I could post audio. I made a few recordings during the night at various stops, while it was still too dark for photography, using the built in Voice Memo app on the iPhone, and uploading them to Posterous via email. Of course, since the Team was using their ears, I could not play them back to see what I got. They went out over twitter and facebook just as they came from the iPhone.

It was not long into the dark night when Hootsuite and Facebook stopped cooperating. I never did figure out what was happening. The app gave me a “failed to post on Facebook” message about 2 out of 3 tries. This was from the hinterlands and I suspected the EDGE connection, but when I got back to civilization and 3G it was no more reliable. It could have been an issue with Hootsuite at that particular time, or with Facebook, or with the iPhone. All of which make me rely more on the Posterous connection than I might otherwise have.

I am hoping, of course, that the folks who followed the tweet stream in real-time got a sense of how the event unfolded that is never available in hind-sight. (Though, honestly, I am pretty sure no one caught my tweets posted from midnight until 4 am. 🙂 )

Tuesday, safe at home with the Acer firmly anchored to a desk, and my wifi connection humming, I processed all the images (Lightroom) and some of the video (NeroVision) I shot with the Canon SX20IS. I also used Tweetake to capture all my @zeissbirding_us tweets into a spreadsheet, where I could sort and edit them into something like a coherent narrative. Using the tweets as the skeleton, I added images and video from the Canon, and a bit of commentary, to fill out the story. I used a few of the original iPhone shots where I did not have something from the Canon, but when I did, I grabbed them from Posterous or into Picnic for a bit of improvement before posting them back to the blog.

I intend to do a more reflective and thoughtful piece on the whole experience, the WSB experience that is, not the technical experience, when my mind fully recovers from sleep deprivation. (If my mind ever recovers…) But for now, the post referenced above stands as one man’s view of the World Series of Birding as done by Team Zeiss in May of 2010.

Next year I hope to have an iPhone 4G and even better apps. (I also hope, of course, that AT&T will have improved service throughout New Jersey, though I have to say, there were very very few places where I could not tweet!) In hindsight, and maybe foresight if the technology does not change much before then, I would set up a unique Posterous blog for the event, and post everything there, with auto post to twitter and facebook. Of course with the 4G iPhone posting live to WordPress may be practical by then. Who knows.

Much may change by next year’s running of the World Series of Birding. Team Zeiss is already committed to doing it again…for conservation…and for the fun of it…and I plan to be there, making the best use of Social Media I can, to give those who can not be there a ground level view of the World Series of Birding. As it happens. In real time.

Which is one thing, certainly, the Social Web can do better than any other tool we have ever had to work with. It can only get better.

Maybe I can take pledges: So much per tweet for conservation. That will make the birds happy. 🙂

Written by singraham

May 20, 2010 at 2:17 pm

iGmail: finally Gmail done right on the iPhone

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One of the great disappointments of my iPhone life is how utterly bad Gmail is on Mobile Safari. For whatever reason, Gmail crashes Safari on my 3G iPhone with OS3 every time. Even when it was working, it did not work well…since the way Safari handles text entry and scrolling does not allow you to easily trim email replies using the Selection tools built into OS3.

And I never did warm to the Mail app. It works. You can actually trim emails using Selection. But it does not thread emails as Gmail does…and, like many Gmail users, threaded emails is one of the things I have really come to appreciate about Gmail.

I have been using PerfectBrowser on the iPhone for my Gmail account…and it works really well. It is fast. It preserves the functionality of mobile Gmail faithfully, and you can trim posts relatively easily. It also works well with Calendar, Tasks, Reader, etc. I have been using it for all my Google needs.

However, recently I have returned to using a newly updated MobileRSS for Reader. I like that it does not open always to the unsorted list of new items (as Reader in PerfectBrowser does, though I have tried repeatedly to teach it to open to the Feeds view). That got me wondering if anyone has published a stand-alone Gmail app since I last searched.

In the past I tried GmailApp. It really is nothing more than a dedicated browser, built on the OS browser calls, for Gmail, and works no better, or differently, than Gmail in Safari.

However, somehow I missed iGmail, now in version 3.0.1. From the review in the App store, it seems like it might have had some growing pains, but the app as now offered pretty much provides everything I had wanted in a dedicated Gmail app for the iPhone.

It is really fast. It has great navigation controls (they literally float on top of the standard controls…see screen shots). It has an excellent composition view with a generous sized text entry box that allows relatively easy trimming of replies (and scrolls correctly as Safari does not). The built in browser handles links really well…and does just as well with Calendar and Tasks as PerfectBrowser does. It even handles Reader, though in exactly the same way as PerfectBrowser. 

The floating controls, by the way, are more than window dressing. They make up for a real lack in mobile Gmail, which in a browser requires considerable scrolling around to accomplish many actions. In iGmail the center floating reverse arrow will return you to your inbox without scrolling to the top of a long email. The forward and back arrows on the right and left will advance you the the next or previous email, and the top and bottom arrows take you to the top and bottom of your displayed inbox items, or the top or bottom of the open email, depending on what you are viewing (which is handy for reaching the reply button in an email…though there is a reply in the drop down menu next to Archive and Delete). You can hide them and reveal them using the little blue arrow at the bottom of the screen. Very slick and very useful! They work, by the way, just as well in the in-line browser.

But of course, its main attraction (and and one of the few things the iGmail developers charge for) is Push. For $4.99 you get a year of Gmail push to your iPhone. It is dead easy to set up. I have not yet decided whether I want Gmail push on my iPhone…considering the volume of mail I get in a day, and the fact that I already have push for Twitter, TWC, and FlightTrack…annnnh…not sure I want my iPhone beeping at me every two minutes for an email I may or may not want to read. Still I know it is a feature many have been looking for.

And I may actually buy a year’s subscription…if for nothing else than to support the efforts of the authors…since the app itself is free in the App Store. I can always turn Push off, or just leave the badge numbers on. (By the way, iGmail keeps an accurate count of unreads, even if you open emails from another app (Mail, Safari, or on your lap- or desktop in the browser.)

You can also install a little script on your own computer, if you have one that is on 24/7, and for a one-time charge of $2.99 set it up to handle your own push needs. This has the advantage of being a totally private solution since you do not have to share your Google password.

And finally, if you use Gmail through a dedicated url via Google Apps, iGmail has you covered. Again for a one-time charge they will set you up so iGmail works just as it does with addresses.

The only thing it will not do, and this seems to be a limitation of how the iPhone syncs contacts since it does not work in the Apple Mail app either, is to use your contact groups for addressing group emails….groups are apparently simply not synced to the iPhone.

So, all in all, I can’t quite figure out why any Gmail user who owns an iPhone would not be using iGmail. The app itself is free. It works great. You can add Push if email push is your thing. You can use it seamlessly for accessing your Google Calendar and Tasks (or even Reader or your other Google stuff). What is not to like?

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Written by singraham

January 3, 2010 at 8:08 am