Tipa.li – a Tool for Easily Finding Polio Vaccination Clinics

No one is sure what caused the Polio virus, eradicated from Israel since the1990s, to reappear. The virus was detected in sewage samples in the south of the country in early summer and began spreading northwards, prompting Ministry of Health to start a massive vaccination drive.

Parents of children under the age of 9 were asked to bring them to the nearest Tipat Halav clinic for vaccination. Country-run Tipat Halav (in Hebrew, “drop of milk”) childcare clinics are a household name in Israel. Spread throughout the country, they helped it reach some of the world’s lowest infant mortality rates.

The Ministry of Health decided to create a mobile application to help parents find the nearest clinic. It commissioned one of the country’s largest development shops to create it. They decided to create a native app. This is the Android version:

It’s in Hebrew, but you get the idea

I assume the iOS version is still undergoing the App Store approval process.

We discussed the app during lunch at Gizra. We’re no doctors, but we thought we could do something about the software. Going with a native app didn’t seem ideal for a single-use application which needs to be deployed on as many platforms ASAP. As for the UI, I’ll leave the image above as an exercise to the reader.

Lunch concluded with a particularly good Malabi. It’s one of the few deserts I ever bother with, so I’m pretty sure the extra sugar is the reason I shot off a message to the Public Knowledge Workshop mailing list as I got back to my laptop, asking who’s with me – help me scrape the clinic data and I’ll take care of the front end.

Malabi, by naamanus. Best desert ever.

Malabi, by naamanus. This is good.

Within a few hours, a person I’ve never met sent me a link to a JSON file with all the clinics. I still have no idea who this is and how s/he had this file. I geo-encoded a few, put the data on map using GitHub’s geoJSON support, and sent a link back to the mailing list. At 1am that night, Alon Nisser (whom I’ve also never met before) sent some patches that fixed the major missing parts in my code.

By morning we had a working prototype. Meanwhile, Udi Oron and Erez Segall – yet another two people I’ve never met – announced they were working on a more robust scraping code to get all the data from the MoH’s website and encode it reliably.

With the data in Alon, Udi and Erez’s capable hands, I focused on the front end with the goal of keeping it server-free – only HTML/JS code – thus allowing us to develop a quick, simple solution that’s easy to deploy and scale.

The final app is extremely simple. When opening tipa.li (Hebrew wordplay meaning “My drop” or “Tiny drop”) the user is presented with a map, zoomed to the city level and centered on her current location, showing nearby stations. Touching a marker (design donated by Ilan Dray, who I’ve also yet to meet) reveals its street address, opening hours and a phone number.

Tipa.li UI. This is all of it.

Tipa.li UI. This is all of it.

That’s all. No search or distance filtering features to clutter the UI. The user knows better – a more distant station might have better parking, for example. All the stations in the country are the one geoJSON file, so users can find clinics in other locations by just zooming and panning around.

The code is as simple as the UI. The app is one geoJSON file rendered on a MapBox map with the excellent Leaflet.js API. No searching, no AJAX calls to a backend server. Everything is client-side, served from the ultra scalable (and only occasionally down) GitHub Pages.

I’m pretty happy with tipa.li. It’s one of these rare cases where things just work right, from the start – the code, the UI, the development process. The media in Israel liked it too, giving it some nice coverage on Haaretz, Calcalist and some national radio/TV shows, helping us further the cause of opening government data. As for users – within 12 hours of posting the site on Facebook, we’ve passed MapBox’s free quota of 3000 requests. It was a good week.


KalSMS Growing

It’s been a good first year for KalSMS, which I’m particularly happy about since I didn’t really have much time to work on it myself (nor, evidently, on this blog). It truly took on a life of its own.

In India, Sheldon D’Souza was using it to power a food ordering startup and contributed some polling code to the codebase (it’s still in a separate branch, I really didn’t have much time for non-work stuff).

In Liberia, local activists were using John Etherton’s Ushahidi KalSMS plugin to track conflict indicators and humanitarian needs.

I had the opportunity to give a talk on KalSMS at the inaugural Dar es Salaam GTUG meeting. Allen Machary, one of the engineers I met in Tanzania (an impressively sharp and passionate group, btw), later joined Bienmoyo and ended up using KalSMS for part of a mobile pregnancy care program he was working on. Here’s a photo I got from Lushen Wu, Allen’s colleague, of a training session in Tanzania.

KalSMS is not pictured, but is somewhere around here

I’ve been hearing from people interested in putting it to various other uses: cross-network SMS service in Poland, salsa club promotion in LA, activists communications in Northern Africa, marketing for a fashion boutique in Finland and so on. Who knows how many of these got built, and how many others I never heard of.

All that has been a pleasant surprise, since about a month after I released KalSMS Ushahidi project launched SMSsync, which has similar goals and obviously much more resources behind it. With my rapidly shrinking spare time and negligible Java skills, I assumed KalSMS was done for. But people still seemed to find a use for it, and improve it.

I was particularly happy to get an email recently from Jesse Young of Envaya, who have taken the codebase and added a LOT of functionality. Envaya’s version is now out as EnvayaSMS, the history page lists the major features they added.

If you’re looking for new features, EnvayaSMS is your best bet. I’m still going to keep KalSMS up, with minimal maintenance, in the same place, and it’s also out on the Amazon Appstore now for easier download. There may be a place for having a minimal feature and the super-simple UI it enables.

When I get some free time, I might integrate some of EnvayaSMS new features down to KalSMS, keeping the UI minimal. If Python/Ruby/etc on Android ever become viable I’d be happy to rewrite the whole thing in a language that doesn’t feel like it was designed by a committee of lawyers.

It’s been a fun ride so far. It’s a great feeling to see my code gets picked up and used all around the world, and have much better programmers than myself take it places I never thought it’ll get. Thanks everyone. Keep KalSMSing.

Open Sourcing Crowds Machine

I’ve been way too busy recently to give Crowds Machine much attention, and since it’s such a resource hog I’m frankly not that motivated to improve it – better performance will just mean more users which will lead to higher hosting costs.

So I figure the best thing to do is open source the code, so that people would be able to install their own instance (and hopefully give it some much needed TLC): http://github.com/niryariv/crowds

The code is layers upon layers of Rails, much of it written when Rails (and myself) were young & naive. I updated it from time to time, but it’s not my submission to Beautiful Code. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported – if that’s a problem, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.

Backing Up MySQL Database with Subversion

While working on a recent Rails project, I wanted to occasionally backup the database to a remote location. Since we were already using Subversion for source control, I figured I could just use it for storing the DB contents as well and came up with a short Ruby script for this, called dbbackup (ironically, stored on a Git repo – I guess it could use a –use-git option ;)

The only Rails tie is that it uses config/database.yml to get the database name and login info, so you could easily adapt it to run on non-Rails projects too. It’s built so that it can be ran by a nightly cron task, and since it’s only sending the diffs it wouldn’t be too resource-heavy.

I wouldn’t use this for Facebook’s production servers, but if your needs are more moderate you might find it useful. Feel free to send over any questions or patches to niryariv@gmail.com. Here’s the repo URL again, with the script and an explanation on how to use it: http://github.com/niryariv/dbbackup/tree/master

How Open Wins

Yesterday this image made it to Digg & co:

Ubuntu Theme Proposal

It was presented as the next Ubuntu theme, but it’s not – the linked page was quick to post an explanation: “I’m sorry to say that this is not planned to be the next Ubuntu theme. It has been passed it up to the art team, and there’s a lot of work ahead”

However, he adds – this is the cool part – “If you are visiting and you do have ideas or suggestions, please post them here! There’s an entire sub-wiki just for your input!”

Compare this to Apple sending a legal “please don’t send unsolicited ideas” letter to an 8 year old girl who wrote them. Not because Apple is mean, simply because that’s how it works in that type of business. Who do you think will eventually build the better product?

Ubuntu Brainstorm

Ubuntu’s Brainstorm app is very cool. Basically it lets users post suggestions, bugs and requests for Ubuntu, and rate/comment other users’ posts. It enables users to get involved in the process and lets developers know what users are missing most and get ideas for future additions. It’s a new interface for discussion, something new on top of forums, bug tracking apps etc.

(Dell’s Ideastorm, predates Brainstorm, but the concept will probably work better with Open Source projects where users are more accustomed to this kind of feedback process. Ideastorm’s own top items are almost all Open-Source related. Having less of a life also makes some difference I suppose ;))

You can get the source at Ubuntu’s repository but unfortunately there isn’t a downloadable standalone package for this yet. It would be great to have an simple install of this, I think almost any product and company could benefit from something like this.

This is why open source software is growing so fast: it’s a positive feedback loop, its products feed its own growth. Good to see Ubuntu growing so nicely, with Vista & Leopard we definitely need an alternative.

Sandro’s Open Source Marketing Consultancy

My friend Sandro Groganz announced recently he’s starting a marketing consultancy business focused on Open Source software.

I think it’s a fantastic idea and confident Sandro will do well. Marketing for Open Source requires strong understanding of developers’ mindsets and needs, and Sandro is one of the very few people who combine a strong OSS development background with an understanding of marketing & business.

How do you know your marketing consultant understands Open Source? When he actually shares his knowledge and advice regarding OSS marketing on his blog and wiki, I’d say it’s a pretty good sign :)

I think Sandro is tapping into a huge force here. In my opinion, after the Web x.0 hype settles Open Source is what we’re finally left with as the most important change in our times, which will go way beyond software. User Generated Content is just a preview of things to come when this method of building software gets applied to a host of other uses. Good luck mate!