This Battery-Laden Backpack Charges Your Gadgets as You Carry Them

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Heads up, urban mobile workers: If you already spend too many brain cycles hunting for available power outlets at coffee shops and dealing with near-dead devices on long road trips, then AMPL Lab’s latest creation is totally your bag.

The AMPL SmartBackpack is a backpack with a mobile power station stashed inside. Charge your devices large and small—phones, cameras, even your laptop—while you haul them on your back. And while you’re walking around, you can monitor and adjust the charging activity via an app on your phone without having to open the pack.

Beginning today, AMPL will start a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. Customers will be able to pre-order the bag for $225, with a planned commercial release later in 2015.

So, this is not just another battery bag for storing and charging smart devices. It is itself quite smart. Sensors inside and outside of the SmartBackpack monitor environmental conditions like temperature and push those stats (along with battery level) to an touch-capable OLED screen on the top of the pack, as well the AMPL mobile app for your smartphone. With the app, you can not only monitor conditions, but also check the charging status of your individual devices and prioritize the power allocation to each device depending on its level of importance (the batteries use Qnovo’s adaptive charging tech). Of course, if you’re charging your phone while you walk around, you can keep it plugged in and secure in a holster on the left shoulder strap.

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Every bag has an integrated 5,000mAh battery, which has enough juice to charge your smartphone two to three times over. There’s a docking system inside that allows for three more modular batteries, each of which has varying degrees of power and is sold separately: A second 5,000mAh (18.5Wh) battery, a larger 14,900mAh (55Wh) “LaptopBoost” battery, which charges most PC laptops, and a battery/power inverter combo, which you can use to charge a MacBook, or just about anything that plugs into a wall. Configured to the max, you can get up to 147Wh of charge.When you need to recharge the internal packs themselves, you don’t need to remove them from the docking bay. A power cable pulls out of the top of the bag, so you can just plug it into the wall. And if you find yourself in need of a quick boost, the modular batteries work completely independently of the bag. Just undock them and take them along even when you’re leaving the backpack behind.

Internal storage niceties include a hanging tablet sleeve and an adjustable laptop compartment that can be accessed from the top or from the side. The laptop pouch also unzips and lays flat per TSA requirements.

Sounds like one heavy backpack, right? The answer is yes, it’s going be heavier than your standard cloth or canvas backpack. However, AMPL has taked the weight of the components into consideration and adjusted the exterior material to lighten the load significantly. The exterior fabric will also be treated with a hydrophobic, water-resistant coating.

This isn’t a pack for casual commuters. If you’re only spending an hour or two per day away from an outlet whilst in your car or on a train, the SmartBackpack probably isn’t a great fit for you. It’s also on the spendy side—it’s $225 for the Indiegogo Earlybird special, but then moves to $250 after two days.

But if you live for the long haul, or if you work out of coffee shops, or if you’re just a power user who frequently finds her phone or laptop at 19 percent before 3 pm, take note. Really the AMPL is for anyone tired of doing “battery math” and meticulously budgeting device usage instead of getting the most from gadgets meant to enhance—not complicate—the mobile lifestyle.

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Why a Netflix-Killer Will Be AT&T’s Smartest Move Yet

Illustration: CSA/Mod Art Collection via Getty Images

In the frenzied race to move television online, AT&T will not be left behind.

At least, not if they can help it. On Tuesday, the telecom giant announced that it’s teaming up with The Chernin Group, a media and entertainment company, to create a new joint venture dedicated to internet video. AT&T and Chernin have committed a total of $500 million to “acquire, invest in and launch over-the-top video services,” according to a press release. In other words, they’re gunning for Netflix and Hulu.

The news comes on the heels of similar announcements from Verizon, Dish Network, and Disney. The question is whether any of these traditional cable companies, internet service providers, and media companies will really get it right — whether they’ll go whole hog with these services, unafraid of cannibalizing their existing old-school services. Though many of these tech and telecom juggernauts put one foot into the future, they keep another in the past. The Supreme Court battle raging between Aereo and a slew of major television networks is one example. Comcast’s attempt to ban Netflix from its set top boxes is another.

The news comes on the heels of similar announcements from Verizon, Dish Network, and Disney. The question is whether any of these traditional cable companies, internet service providers, and media companies will really get it right

That may sound like smart business, but history has shown us that it’s the companies that are willing to take risks, undercut their existing business models, and invest in the future, who ultimately survive. Just look at Philips, the world’s biggest manufacturer of incandescent lighting. Rather than fighting the natural migration to LED lighting, which could have killed the company if they had resisted the change, Philips led the charge. It became the first lighting manufacturer in North America to begin phasing out incandescent lightbulbs, and therefore, the company best positioned in the market when the U.S. instituted its light bulb ban earlier this year. Sometimes, undermining your business is the best way to preserve it.

Which is why, as tempting as it is to write off AT&T’s foray into online video as an also-ran service in a world dominated by Netflix, Amazon, and, yes, even, Hulu, it’s important to remember that this is a smart, bold move on AT&T’s part. “They would be in worse shape if they didn’t have an alternative offer,” says Mike McGuire, a Gartner mobile marketing analyst. “Otherwise, they’d be feeding broadband to everyone else like Netflix. Better to have an alternative in place, than watch competitors take money out of your pocket.”

But it has to be done right, and that means that AT&T must be willing to build a standalone service that gives consumers what they want to watch, when and where they want to watch it, regardless of whether they’re AT&T customers. HBO’s stab at online video with HBO GO, by contrast, has somewhat missed the mark. It gives users a slew of a la carte viewing options on almost any device, but only people with cable connections can sign up. It’s a perk. But to truly win consumers over, AT&T would have to avoid the temptation of releasing just another feature to prop up its own fiber optic cable service U-verse.

All that said, there are still plenty of ways this could go terribly wrong. For starters, there’s a potential conflict of interest in this deal. If AT&T is behind both a Netflix competitor and the ISP that enables services like Netflix, it could run afoul of regulators down the line. “I think that’s very likely to come up,” says McGuire.

Meanwhile, AT&T will now be in the content game, which is foreign territory. That’s why the telecom giant partnered with The Chernin Group, which was founded by former Fox Broadcasting Company head Peter Chernin. Despite Chernin’s pedigree, though, it seems the group’s only significant foothold in the video content world right now is its majority stake in the anime streaming site Crunchyroll. That means the new joint venture still has a lot of work to do to acquire content. “They’re now in the same boat Netflix is in, which means you need to come to the table and start negotiating. The others have an advantage,” McGuire says. “AT&T really knows communication. Do they know content? We’ll find out.”

Patent Troll Strikes at the Very Heart of Google’s Empire

Patent Troll Strikes at the Very Heart of Google’s Empire

Google boss Larry Page. Photo: Alex Washburn/WIRED

Google boss Larry Page. Photo: Alex Washburn/WIRED

In the 1990s, Lycos was one of the most popular sites on the web. The search engine and onetime owner of WIRED Digital was one of the primary portals onto the internet in those days. Fifteen years later, the Lycos website still exists but is all but forgotten, thanks in large part to the rise of Google. But this week, other remnants of the company rose zombie-like from the grave and took an enormous bite out of the search giant that killed it.

In Virginia, a federal judge has ruled that Google must pay 1.36 percent of revenues from its Adwords online advertising system to a tiny company that purchased a group of patents originally filed by Lycos, as first reported by Ars Technica. That is no small thing. Adwords is Google’s golden goose, the system that funds almost everything else it does.

Today’s court ruling underscores the incredible power of “patent trolls,” companies that use patents solely as a way of making money from other businesses. Google is fighting all sorts of patent holders — including a mega-troll called Rockstar, which is backed by Apple, Microsoft, Blackberry, and others — and these legal wars can affect practically any part of its business, including the very heart of the operation.

That is no small thing. Adwords is Google’s golden goose, the system that generates almost all of its revenue, the system that funds almost everything else it does.

Google is known for a wide range of products and services, including the Android operating system, the Google+ social network, and now robotics and home automation, thanks to its recent acquisition of startups Boston Dynamics and Nest. But the bulk of its revenue comes from advertising sold on its flagship search engine. Despite all its interest in robots and mad science, Google is still very much an advertising company, and AdWords drives most of its advertising dollars.

In 2011, a company called Vringo acquired a set of advertising-related patents from Lycos and then sued Google over Adwords. According to Ars Technica, Vringo is a publicly traded company with its own a smartphone ringtone business, but it has never earned significant revenues, and it has spent around $10 million on legal expenses, an indication that its real business model is patent trolling.

After it first sued Google, Vringo won a cool $30 million. Then Google changed its ad auction system to avoid additional payments, but this week, the court ruled that the new version wasn’t different enough. The judge decided that the intellectual property in question contributes to about 20.9 percent of Google’s Adwords revenue, and that Google will have to pay 6.5 percent percent of that 20.9 percent to Vringo. This could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Vringo also named AOL, Gannett, Target, and IAC — all of which use Adwords — in the lawsuit, but it indemnified them in the case, meaning it took on legal responsibility and will not seek money from them as well. Vringo also sued Microsoft, which settled last May for $1 million plus five percent of what Google ends up paying.

Google has vowed to appeal the case. It has a history of fighting patent trolls. But like so many others across the industry, it doesn’t always win.

The Next Big Thing You Missed: The Sharing Economy Goes Corporate

The Next Big Thing You Missed: The Sharing Economy Goes Corporate

Jeremiah Owyang, founder of Crowd Companies, which is working to bring Airbnb-style startups together with big corporations such as Walmart, GE, and Home Depot. Photo: Talia Herman/WIRED

Jeremiah Owyang has a co-working space, not an office. He has an executive assistant that he assigns tasks online, but has never met in person. He outsourced decisions involving his new company’s logo, its web design, and even its name to a world of strangers across the internet, or what he sometimes calls “the people formerly known as consumers.”

“We have to rethink the crowd as part of the company,” Owyang says. But he doesn’t believe this advice applies only to his own business. He believes it applies to all businesses. And his new venture, Crowd Companies, aims to help them realize the possibilities.

Over the past few years, Owyang has achieved a quintessentially early 21st-century kind of internet fame. As one of Silicon Valley’s best known social media gurus, he has expended countless posts, tweets, and talks urging companies to get wise to the new kinds of conversations made possible by Facebook, Twitter, et al.

But now, he has a new cause. Social media may have changed the conversation. But he thinks the emerging “sharing economy” is changing the entire business model. The “I sell you stuff, you buy it” premise of the consumer economy is being undermined, he says, and big companies that want to survive need to learn to share. Not because it’s the nice thing to do but because, like the internet itself, it’s becoming an unavoidable part of doing business.

“Just as we saw social networks emerge, now we’re going to see sharing networks emerge,” Owyang says. “The physical world is becoming socialized and democratized.”

Of all the big ideas to emerge out of Silicon Valley in the past decade, none seem to resonate with personal computing’s counterculture roots as much as the so-called sharing economy. In short: We all have stuff that often goes unused: our cars, our homes, our talent. So instead of buying more, let’s share. And let’s use our connected devices to make that sharing easier than ever. What better way to undermine the excesses of consumer capitalism?

As it turns out, however, sharing has also shown itself to have striking profit potential. Airbnb and Uber, the two companies most often tagged with the sharing economy label, are reportedly worth billions. And countless other startups are figuring out ways to take a cut when we the people use their software platforms to share. The subversion under way is much less “hippies versus the Man” and much more “Netflix versus Blockbuster.”

If you’re the CEO of a Fortune 100 company, such news should be making your shoulders sag. You’ve seen this movie at least twice before — first Google, Amazon, and the web, then Facebook, Twitter, and social media. You don’t want to sit through it again.

Crowd Companies is designed to make sure they don’t have to. He says he has signed up such corporate giants as Walmart, Home Depot, General Electric, Whole Foods, and Ford to send delegations to his “council.” The goal is to connect them with exemplary practitioners in what he describes the three main subdivisions of sharing: marketplaces, makers, and “co-innovation.” From sharing-themed startups, big brands get new ideas. If the connections are fruitful, the smaller companies get to see their ideas spread on a multinational scale under the logo of brands known by billions.

Owyang cites several examples of sharing-themed corporate initiatives already in play: BMW offering subscription-based car-sharing. GE opening up some of its patented technology to users of Quirky, a well-funded platform for crowdsourced inventions. Nordstrom partnering with TOMS to solicit shoe designs from shoppers themselves.

One of the most radical examples already under way is a collaboration between eBay and Patagonia to promote a marketplace for the outdoor clothing maker’s used jackets, fleeces, and other gear. In other words, Patagonia is actively encouraging one of the sharing economy’s primary values: access over ownership.

Such an approach might seem like business suicide. But Owyang collaborator Lisa Gansky says it’s an example of how the traditional ways of measuring value in the consumer economy are becoming stale. The U.S. measures GDP in terms of production and consumption, says Gansky, author of The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is Sharing. By those metrics, Patagonia’s program isn’t contributing to economic growth. But what if the value Patagonia was creating was measured in “adventures per jacket”?

“We’re sort of playing soccer, but we’re out on the field with lacrosse sticks and the wrong gear,” Gansky says. “We keep score in the wrong way.”

Nevertheless, even by the old ways of measuring, the sharing economy isn’t doing too badly. In a November report, Piper Jaffray analyst Michael Olson compares the rise of Airbnb, Uber, and similar sharing startups to the industry-transforming effects of Amazon and eBay that began during the first dotcom bubble. And he sees their prospects for growth along a similar curve.

“Just like any other significant transition in an industry, there’s going to be those that embrace the change and those that push it away,” Olson says. “The smart will embrace the trend and find ways for it to positively impact their business.”

The language of corporate competition doesn’t always sit that comfortably with the rhetoric of sharing, which largely originated among grassroots internet communities and non-profits. Like so much else in the history of the web, which began as a more decentralized, bottom-up approach to publishing and communication, the corporate co-opting of sharing is already well under way.

That could mean the exact kind of centralized control the sharing economy’s democratizing effects were supposed to undermine. Or it could mean that sharing goes from a niche market of tech-savvy early adopters to a mainstream reimagining of consumer culture as commonplace in Sarasota as San Francisco. Or, as is the case with just about everything else online, it could mean a little of both.

Killing the Fail Whale With Twitter’s Christopher Fry

Killing the Fail Whale With Twitter’s Christopher Fry

Christopher Fry. Photo by Josh Valcarcel/WIRED

Christopher Fry is Twitter’s 43-year-old senior vice president of engineering. He runs everything engineering-related at the company. This means he’s the guy whose job it is to make sure Twitter can handle the massive volumes of tweets that flow across its servers every time, say, Miley Cyrus learns a new dance move at a strip club. He’s a big dude — a surfer and sailor — who came to the company from Salesforce. He also did a post-doc in computational neuroscience from Berkeley, where he studied the auditory cortex of zebra finches. WIRED sat down with Fry to talk about how Twitter will continue to grow, what keeps him up at night, and to find out whatever happened to the Fail Whale.

WIRED: Is there anything about the language of song birds that you can apply to engineering at Twitter?

Fry: The interesting thing about bird songs is they’re learned. They’re this example of this complex learned behavior that’s passed down. Actually, a lot of the original work was done here at Berkeley. They studied basically the dialects of birds in the Bay Area. So there are whole maps of white crown sparrows and how their language changes across the geography of the Bay Area.

Once I left academics, I started doing startups and started moving into the technology world. But one of the things I bring to every job is this love of learning. One of the things we did this year was found Twitter University, which is really about creating this locus of learning inside the organization and building a learning organization. We acquired Marakana and got two really great founders to come in and basically build a world class technical training inside Twitter, provided for free. Every engineer could become an expert in Android or iOS. We have all kinds of different programming languages. It’s really been this incredibly fun thing to create. We want Twitter to be able to do whatever we need it to do within three months, the whole organization. The university gives us that ability to adapt and learn.

“The Fail Whale image is not served by Twitter anymore. It had a long history and some of our users feel very connected to it. But in the end, it did represent a time when I don’t think we lived up to what the world needed Twitter to be.”

WIRED: I’d assume you’d want engineers to have ownership of specific projects. Does that mean that, like, you would want your people who are on iOS to know also about Android as well, just to know it?

Fry: You know, it’s generally good if, one, people appreciate what everybody else is doing and, two, have general knowledge and can work around the systems. So, just like any system, if you have too much specialization you get brittle and you can’t change quickly. In a perfect world, everybody would be able to do everything. You obviously have specialists, and specialists are important. But to the extent that our engineers can have a high degree of aptitude in any discipline, it’s good for us. Good for the teams and good for what we need to do.

WIRED: So, do you have people who are working on multiple projects at once?

Fry: We do. It’s interesting. When we were looking at scaling out mobile, we wanted to make sure that we moved away from this one team inside Twitter building mobile products to scaling out mobile across engineering. So, what we did there was train up a bunch of people to work in Android and iOS, and then we took the mobile team and we left sort of a core team intact but put the mobile engineers out onto the different product teams so that we built a mobile capacity across all of engineering. Twitter has a long history of being mobile-first, but we wanted to extend that even more. We make sure every place we’re building a product, we’re building it onto mobile devices. So, part of what we did was, one, bring up experts in whatever it was and then, two, distribute the teams but still keep core teams that focus on the core mobile infrastructure in place. So, that’s the best long answer to your question.

WIRED: We’re hitting the point where more than half the world has a smartphone. People are coming online, many for the first time, in countries where they’re buying things like twenty-five dollar Android handsets. What type of engineering challenges does that pose?

Fry: There’s two or three things that you have to think about. One is, people are used to working on the web where you can know everything that’s happening in real time. One of the strategies you have to take — we’ve taken this and are pretty prepared for it — is building in all the infrastructure so that you have on the web onto your mobile frameworks. This gives you the ability to experiment, the ability to try things out, the ability to iterate quickly. People sometimes think about mobile products as these shipped, static products and web products as very dynamic and pliable. You have to create the infrastructure to have a dynamic and pliable infrastructure in mobile. On the web, you can track every click. To build great products you have to have that insight into mobile.

Generally, not everybody around the world has the latest iPhone or Android device. So you have to basically tailor your product to run well in places where there are lower-end devices, and maybe not as good networks, or even very unreliable networks.

WIRED: Do you engineer for the lowest common denominator?

Fry: You don’t engineer for the lowest common denominator, but you do tailor the product that you deliver to the market you’re going into. So you’ll have a team that’s focused on creating the Twitter experience for that market.

WIRED: I want to talk about scaling and stability. I read something you said that, €˜Twitter was trying to solve its problems by throwing machines at them rather than from an engineering standpoint€™. Is that…

Fry: Did I say that? I don’€™t think I said that.

WIRED: I believe you did? [Ed note: He didn’t say that! It was Raffi Krikorian, in a blog post here.]

Fry: Twitter definitely has had scaling issues in the past, and one of the opportunities I saw coming into Twitter was both scaling out the infrastructure and scaling out the organization at the same time. Having gone through that at Salesforce, I was able to bring that learning with me. When I think about the infrastructure problems we had, there was a key problem that we had to solve which was decomposing our monolithic code base. We had a monolithic Ruby server and we were able to basically decompose that into a set of services. Then applying Mesos as that layer of indirection gives us a way to pack services onto machines to get higher utilization. We can get reliability and efficiency at the same time on top of faster developer productivity as well.

WIRED: Tell me what Mesos is if you don’€™t mind.

Fry: Mesos is our version of elastic compute. It sits between the hardware operating system and what developers deploy, so it gives you a scalable way to deploy services to a set of boxes. It becomes like the operating system for a data center, if you will.

WIRED: Other people are using it as well, right?

Fry: Yeah, it’€™s used outside Twitter. I think it’€™s used a bunch of places. It’€™s an open source project…

WIRED: You smiled when you said that. Are you proud that it’€™s used…

“When we think of the purpose of Twitter, what we’re able to do, making it so any person in the world can communicate with any other person, connecting all the people on the planet, that is an incredible mission to be on.”

Fry: I am, I am, I am. I think it’€™s currently used at Airbnb, and I was trying to come up with a list of other ones but I just don’€™t have a quick list. But it’s used in a bunch of places and it’s a very successful Apache project. Twitter has a long history of giving back to open source, and Mesos is one of our probably biggest open source successes right now, I would say.

Part of the Twitter service itself is the free flow of information, and so I think a lot of people that come to work here have a passion around that. Generally, inside Twitter engineering we prefer things to be open rather than closed, so where we can share we do. So yeah, it ties into the culture of Twitter itself and the product and how we build it.

There are some great benefits to open source. One is obviously you end up building quality into the product because it’€™s very transparent, everybody sees what’s happening. And then you get contributions back into the project, so then you can create a platform on which people can build new things and you can bring them back into the company.

WIRED: So is the Fail Whale a thing of the past now?

Fry: The Fail Whale is a thing of the past. Actually, this summer we took the Fail Whale out of production. So if you come to Twitter, and there are always gonna be problems, no service is ever perfect. But right now you will see robots instead of the Fail Whale. So the Fail Whale image is not served by Twitter anymore. It had a long history and some of our users feel very connected to it. But in the end, it did represent a time when I don’t think we lived up to what the world needed Twitter to be.

We are a service that people turn to in moments of joy, and also when things are going horribly wrong in the world. So I feel a personal commitment, as does I think does everybody that works here, to having a service that’s available when anyone needs it. And sometimes Twitter may be the only thing that’s working during a flood or during a major disaster. So we’re very committed to being the most reliable service that we can be.

WIRED: Do you view Twitter as a key piece of communication infrastructure?

Fry: I do. When we think of the purpose of Twitter, what we’re able to do, making it so any person in the world can communicate with any other person, connecting all the people on the planet, that is an incredible mission to be on. We’re probably still early in that mission, but that is the goal: that any one person can communicate with every other person in the world.

WIRED: If you say you deleted Fail Whale, then people can’€™t get on Twitter, it seems like that’s really opening yourself up to criticism.

Fry: We even debated internally whether we would talk about that outside of the company because we’€™re still going to have issues here. We have had a long period of much more reliable service which gave us the confidence to say, €we really feel we’ve made a substantive difference versus just a small change in how the service is operating.€™ There will always be issues with Twitter. When I think about things that keep me up at night, one is the reliability of the service. The other is are our engineers as efficient as they can be? Do we have all the infrastructure to make sure they can rapidly deliver code so that we can iterate on their product quickly? I think we still can. I think there’s a world of innovation that is ahead of us with Twitter, we’€™ve only scratched the surface and there’€™s way more to come. Even though we’€™ve accomplished a lot, I think there’€™s still a lot to do.

If you’re always fighting reliability fires, you’re not innovating a product. So you have to have that core infrastructure layer in place so you can then make it more efficient and iterate upon it and build great consumer experiences. I think getting reliability in place is the first step towards really doing product innovation. Sometimes, you will feel like they’re in conflict. I don’t feel that way. I don’t.

WIRED: Is that why there have been so many new products coming out recently?

Fry: I do feel like going through the steps of creating a reliable service, getting to scale, making it efficient and then creating this mobile infrastructure where we can rapidly iterate has meant that we’ve been able to do things like MagicRecs and Event Parrot. Those are two of the things that I think really represent a special experience of Twitter because they’re in the moment.

So if you take Event Parrot… it’s sometimes hard to explain what Twitter is, but when Event Parrot’s on your phone, you become the first person in the world, maybe in your network, to know about something that’s happening. So it really brings the news quickly to you and what’s happening in the world. It makes Twitter very accessible. So I think this story of going from reliability to product innovation has let us experiment with things like that.

WIRED: What advice would you give to those tasked with fixing Healthcare.gov to make it more stable and scalable? Are there general principles or practices they should follow to fix a massive product that can’t go down while it’s being fixed?

Fry: I would give the same advice to almost any software organization: stay close to the people who are going to use your product, don’t spend a lot of time writing specifications, try to iterate quickly and get to a v.1 as soon as possible. You’ll want to get your software in the hands of people that will use it. It’s important to get a steel thread of functionality working end-to-end rather than building it out in layers, so work through a single use case that has you build some UI, logic and backend. Almost all software organizations end up fixing the plane while it’s flying.

Yes, MapQuest Still Exists — And It Has an Awesome New Mobile App

Yes, MapQuest Still Exists — And It Has an Awesome New Mobile App

The MapQuest app gives you the option to reroute if bad traffic crops up. Images courtesy MapQuest

You might remember MapQuest from 1999, back when you needed a printer to spit out your route before embarking on a road trip. While many of us have moved on to Google, Waze, or even Bing for our mapping needs in recent years, MapQuest actually still commands 20 percent of the mapping space. But the company is hoping some slick new mobile app offerings for iOS and Android will help the mapping icon become a household name once again.

MapQuest’s reinvented mobile apps don’t waste effort on fancy flyovers or 3-D views of buildings — it focuses on getting you where you need to go, as quickly and reliably as possible. To do that, it employs a clean, easy-to-use layout, and customization features that make the app more efficient. The experience, while not as robust as Google Maps, manages to feel fresh, and offers convenient one-click features for some of the actions you use the most.

A slide out menu on the right side of the app gives you the option to add a variety of layers to the basic map: traffic data, satellite imagery, hotels, food, and gas, among others. You can also personalize it by adding your own options to this menu: “In-N-Out Burger” or “Starbucks,” for example, if you crave burgers or pumpkin spice lattes while you head down the highway.

In the app’s left hand menu, you’ve got more options, including buttons for “Go Home” and “Go to Work.” Input those addresses, and you can find your way to either location in a split second no matter where you are.

When you navigate to a location, the app automatically adds traffic information, showing areas where congestion is in yellow or red instead of the normal bright blue used to highlight your route. It monitors traffic conditions every few minutes. If the app determines that congestion will significantly delay you, and has an alternate route you can use, it gives you a full page pop up alerting you and giving you the option to reroute. It even shows how much time you’ll save, what street you’re going on instead, and your estimated time of arrival at your destination.

As you’re traveling along your route, the app also displays a handy progress bar along the top of the screen showing how far along you are. This bar mimics the same color scheme as your route on the map, so if you are stuck in a block of yellow traffic, a glance at the phone display will tell you you’re almost out of it (or not).

The app also offers thoughtful micro directions along with the standard list of turn-by-turn ones. Things like “Bryant Street is just past Harrison Street. If you reach Brannan, you’ve gone too far,” which are good for your passenger seat navigator to be aware of as they read directions out to you. Of course, you can also just have the app read the directions aloud itself.

The MapQuest app currently sticks to driving or walking directions — you’ll have to use another app if you want biking directions. Transit directions are coming next year. It’s available for iOS and Android today.

How Google Flu Trends Blew It

How Google Flu Trends Blew It

Thomas Claburn
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Last year, Google Flu Trends made a mountain out of a molehill by overestimating the incidence of influenza. Blame the media.

Thomas Claburn | October 28, 2013 09:06 AM

Google made its name by counting online links as votes for the most relevant answer to search queries. In response, Internet users began gaming Google’s election count by voting early and often — creating extra links to make their websites rank higher in Google’s index — and Google was forced to take countermeasures to defend against manipulation.

Yet the company had to learn this lesson again with its Flu Trends website. Google created Flu Trends in 2008, based on the insight that searches about the flu have some correlation with the number of people dealing with the flu.

“[I]f we tally each day’s flu-related search queries, we can estimate how many people have a flu-like illness,” the company said in 2008 when it launched the service.

Google’s laudable goal was to provide people with more timely information about the spread of the flu than traditional epidemiological surveillance data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control. But the company has to had to revise its approach to ensure that its data, in addition to being timely, is accurate.

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During the 2012-13 flu season, Google Flu Trends got it wrong. As the company documents in a recently published analysis of its approach to disease tracking, Google overestimated the incidence of flu in the U.S. by more than six percentage points, almost six times higher than the highest estimation error seen since the site launched. In the week of Jan. 13, 2013, Google put the incidence of flu in the U.S. at 10.56% of the population. The CDC put the number at only 4.52%.

What went wrong? Two words: The media. Google says it has concluded that its disease-detection algorithms “were susceptible to heightened media coverage.”

This probably wasn’t a difficult conclusion to reach because Google has been aware of the problem since it launched Flu Trends. Following the website’s debut in 2008, the New York Times published an article about Google Flu Trends and included an example query that Google was actually monitoring in its flu prediction model. As a result, many Internet users tried that search term, driving up query volume and skewing Google’s results.

 

The lesson here is rich with irony: To effectively assess data from a public source, the algorithm must remain private, or someone will attempt to introduce bias.

Google has been relying on “spike detectors” to compensate for surges of “inorganic” search traffic. But it turns out that Google underestimated the influence of the media. The company anticipated that search query spikes would last three days to a week. During the 2012-13 flu season, they lasted for months.

Google also notes in its analysis that it did not update its flu prediction model annually because the one built in 2009 had been performing well.

So to make its flu forecast more accurate, Google adjusted its spike detection algorithm to better assess the influence of the media. It also modified its algorithm by applying a statistical method called Elastic Net. Using these techniques, the variance between Google Flu Trends and CDC data last season would only have been about one percentage point.

Google Flu Trends is likely to remain a useful complement to traditional epidemiological surveying. But Google and other companies looking to leverage data harvested from the Internet might need to start treating what they gather not as low-hanging fruit but as something already poisoned.

Emerging software tools now make analytics feasible — and cost-effective — for most companies. Also in the Brave The Big Data Wave issue of InformationWeek: Have doubts about NoSQL consistency? Meet Kyle Kingsbury’s Call Me Maybe project. (Free registration required.)