Tide: An App That Helps Me With Concentration & Focus

I’d be lying if I said that I am not going through a lot of stress these days. In the last two weeks, I have seen myself not very motivated to do things that I love to do – write, read, explore. In order to distract myself from all the stress, and to sort of get my concentration & mojo back, I decided to explore technology a little more than I usually do, and dive into the world of apps – apps that will possibly help me regain focus, and be more consistent with all the things I do. Maybe they will help me get even more creative, relaxed, and productive.

Is that too much to ask for from apps?

Tide

I am not the guy who listens to music when I am writing. I typically require peace and quiet around me for that, and that’s why I don’t like going to coffeeshops to write. My personal heaven is a library or my own apartment, at 5 in the morning. The pin drop silence early in the morning works wonders for me – no  traffic outside, no loud beeping of garbage trucks reversing and maneuvering to get to the dumpster, no chatter from people around me.

A week or so ago, I discovered Tide in the app store. The concept of Tide is simple – it has a few sounds that you listen to while working on things. Nothing more, nothing less. Apparently, it helps you stay focused. It had good reviews and ratings.

My apprehension immediately kicked in because of reasons mentioned above. However, I decided to give it a shot. It’s a free app after all – what have I got to lose?

The app has five sounds you can choose from – Forenoon, Rain, Forest, Muse, and Cafe. Forenoon is basically the sound little waves make when a boat glides through water. Muse is soft, relaxing piano music. The rest are self explanatory.

I cannot explain what really happened, but when I tried this app, by starting with Muse, I immediately got hooked. I was astonished by how instantly effective Muse was. I immediately had razor sharp focus, and forgot about everything else around me. I was calm. Not distracted at all. I gave it a few more listens (while writing and researching for my blog), and felt the exact same focus. In fact, I have written a couple of  posts for Assistive Technology Blog now while listening to it, and I am listening to it now as I write this post. The app uses Pomodero technique that set the timer to 25 minutes (by default) and provides 5 minute breaks after each 25 minute cycles.

Based on my experience with Tide the last few days, I will go as far as to say that I am slowly getting addicted to it!

The interface is minimal – it has a calming photo in the background, a round, sleek countdown timer, and an inspiring quote. If you care about statistics, it also keeps track of how focused you were each day, and gives you weekly, monthly numbers etc.

I will try the other sounds soon (probably) but I think I’ll definitely avoid Coffee Shop. That’s definitely not my cup of tea.

If you struggle with staying focused on things, or generally need some white noise/ background noise to stay calm, I highly recommend this app.

Image Gallery:

Download Tide here.

Hate Crime Statistics Right After US 2016 Election Results

After the huge spike in hate crime right after the 2016 election results in the US, I decided to keep track of what kind of hate crime was being committed  across the US, and where. The dashboard below, based on articles from various news sources, and stories by individuals on Facebook & Twitter, should be able to provide you with some statistics around what’s been going on around the country.

I was looking for a data source that would update periodically but I couldn’t find one, so I compiled all the data manually. I read articles and stories, and put them all in one csv. For that reason, this is not a complete list, and I am way behind. As of 11/22/2016, I only have 30 data points, although according to Southern Poverty Law Center, the count is over 700.

Disclaimer: This dashboard comes with all sorts of disclaimers. I trust the articles from various news sources but the personal accounts from Facebook have been taken at face value. If I find out that any of those personal accounts are false, I will remove it.

This dashboard, by no means, shows all reported/unreported hate crime. I have been manually compiling all this data (as and when I find them/someone shares with me) so I am super slow. I am hoping that I will be able to spend some time on it regularly and keep it updated.

This dashboard is interactive. Click on the dots on the map or charts to drill down on information. Hover over charts to see more.

Tip: Click the diagonal arrow at the bottom right corner to enlarge the dashboard.

Source csv file can be found here.

 

 

Automate Your Business Activities With Microsoft Flow (using a combination of Facebook, Excel, Email, Dynamics CRM, and other productivity tools)

In an every day office setting, we go through many routine activities. Interacting with several entities like emails, social media, task lists, project planning etc. are so ingrained in us that we just consider them to be ways of life. In most cases, we are using a combination of these entities, sometimes in a sequence, to accomplish greater tasks. As one gets involved more in these greater tasks, a desire for automation arises at some point –  it doesn’t matter whether you are a small or large business. The complexity and occurrence of the tasks may be different, but the desire to reduce manual effort  exists across all sorts of businesses.

What do we mean by automation though? An extremely simple example would be getting an email notification when someone posts on our Business’s Facebook page. Maybe we want that person to become a lead in our CRM automatically so we could start a lead nurturing program. How about when someone emails us a file, it gets extracted and stored in a OneDrive folder so every team member now has access to it? There are definitely tools available to automate these processes, but they come at a cost. For small businesses though, spending on automation tools may not be an option. But what if a broader platform is provided to them that is not only free but also works very well with almost all the products they use on a daily basis? Wouldn’t it be nice to have smarter processes in your business that will make it easier to get notified, create records automatically on certain triggers, extract files from emails, insert rows into Excel for data analysis, create task lists, convert to text to audio where needed?  As you can see, these are tasks that we are used to doing every day. In most cases though, we do all of this manually.

Microsoft Flow is a new web based service that strives to do just that – automate activities that we perform every day. These activities can be based on various triggers/actions/conditions;  can be in a sequence, and can interact with social media, productivity tools (like Email, Excel, OneDrive, SharePoint),  planning tools (like Project, Wunderlist), translation tools (translating to various languages, text to speech), and various other technologies and products that we use on a regular basis. By using Flows, we can not only automate tasks but also increase productivity, improve collaboration, speed up communication, and save time.

Let’s look at a very simple example to see Flows in action. Let’s say you are a small, web design shop. You have not more than 5 people in your company, and you also occasionally collaborate with other freelancers. You have a blog where you post weekly updates about your company and your services. The weekly blog is posted to Facebook every Monday. Someone, a prospect, who is researching web design companies, is intrigued by your blog post on Facebook and writes a question on your page. Wouldn’t it be nice if you got an email notification when someone wrote on your Facebook page? If your coworker is blind or has visual impairment, the Facebook posts can also be converted to text to speech and emailed to that person. Typically, you would want to not only just answer their question but also have them as a prospect in your CRM for nurturing purposes.  While you answer the question, how about this status message gets directly entered into Excel so your social media person could report on that information?

Let’s see how we can automate these two processes using Microsoft Flow. The first activity, which is automating posting our blog to Facebook regularly, is short and sweet. (Video length: 44 seconds)

The next step of activities are initiated when someone, who presumably likes what we post on our Facebook, posts something on our wall, showing interest in our services. This is when we insert the Facebook message and other details automatically into Excel (beneficial for reporting and analysis on our social media activities), convert that message to audio and email it to someone within the company, and enter the person who posted on Facebook as a Lead in Dynamics CRM.  Let’s see how all this is done in a Flow. (Video length: 10:52 minutes)

So, let’s fast forward a bit – the prospect liked your messages, and after a little bit of nurturing – a few emails, phone calls, and appointments, they sign up for your services (and thus become a client), and the project starts. During the project, there is a lot of email exchanges that happen between you and the client. The client sends you files that are to be used by other members of your team and also the freelancers throughout the duration of the project. Would you forward that email to everyone involved so they all have the files? Or would you extract that email attachment into a One Drive folder that all team members have access to? In either case, you have to manually take some action. How about the file is extracted automatically without you having to worry about it ? If you are collaborating with various people, you would also create tasks in something like Wunderlist. How about those project tasks are created automatically as well?

The Flow below shows how all that is done. (Video length: 7:29 minutes)

 As you can see, you can automate various activities, often times in a sequence to enhance collaboration between team members, improve communication, save time, and alleviate human error. What we see above is just the tip of the iceberg. With some planning, you can get some really cool “Flows” running, that will enhance your days at work, and help you achieve more!

Note: Microsoft Flow is still in preview. I had a few inconsistent results while testing but those should be taken care of when it comes out of preview.

Amazon Echo: A Great Internet of Things (IoT) Device

Amazon Echo

Off and on, you may have heard or read about Internet of Things (IoT). In the coming years, it is supposed to be a new phenomenon (it actually already is) that will make everything much easier and convenient for everyone. But what does it mean? What exactly is it, and how would it help people with disabilities?

Let’s start with the basics – What is Internet of Things? In the simplest of terms, it means that you, as a person, control everything around you (yes, everything!) through the internet. What that also means is that you don’t have to physically access an object to make it do something.

Let’s simplify this a little more further.

Let’s say you have a set of lights in your bedroom – one is a bulb in the ceiling and the other is a bedside lamp. When you go to bed, you physically reach the switch on the wall to turn off the ceiling light, and do something similar with the lamp as well (push a button on it to turn it off). In the morning, when you wake up, you push the button on the lamp again to turn it on, then stumble into the bathroom and look for the light switch, turn it on, and do your business. Everything after that (morning coffee, for example) requires a manual interaction with specific devices also.

With Internet of Things, everything is automated. Before going to bed, you either tell a “smart” device – “turn off all lights”, use an app on your phone, or make a gesture towards a smart device that it understands as a “turn off all lights” signal. When you wake up in the morning, you can have your bedroom lamp and bathroom lights turn on automatically at the same time. Half an hour later, coffee would be ready.

The basic idea here is that everything around you is connected to the Internet – from your lights in the house to your garage door to your car. With voice commands, mobile apps or gestures, you can set up a sequence in which everything you need readies itself without you having to manually interact with them.

Sticking with our example above – after you drink your morning coffee, you ask a device what the weather is like, what the news headlines are for today, and when the next bus is arriving at your nearest bus station. That device will answer all of your questions without you having to open up your other devices (computer, tablet, phone) to find those information.
Makes sense?

There are several companies that have made lots of amazing innovations in the IoT world. One of those innovations is Amazon’s Echo – a little, innocuous looking device that just sits in a corner, but does so many unbelievably powerful things. As a user you can just speak to It and ask it to perform certain actions, and it will do it for you in a jiffy.

What kind of things can it do though?
1. To begin with, it can tell you the weather and traffic conditions. (“Alexa*, what’s the weather like?”, “Alexa what’s the traffic like?”)
2. Read Kindle and Audible books to you, and play music for you. (“Alexa, play the Kindle book ‘Be Here Now'”, “Alexa, play ‘The Beatles’)
3. Look up events and appointments on your calendar and let you know what your day looks like. (“Alexa, what does my day look like?”)
4. Help you go to the movies by finding the nearest theater and local timings. (“Alexa, where is Deadpool playing?”)
5. Find local businesses and restaurants. (“Alexa, what time does the nearby pharmacy close?”)
6. Add items to your shopping list and also re-order previously ordered items from Amazon with just one voice command. (“Alexa, reorder laundry detergent”, “Alexa add coffee filters to my cart”)
7. Helps you keep track of important tasks. (“Alexa, put ‘file taxes’ to my to-do list”)
8. Control all lights and other devices around your house. (“Alexa, turn on light 1”, “Alexa, turn off the TV”)
9. Control your thermostat. (“Alexa, set my bedroom temperature to 68”)
10. Play games, order an Uber ride, order a pizza from Dominos!
11. Lots and lots of other things!

*Amazon Echo is always listening for the keyword “Alexa”. If you start a sentence with Alexa, it knows that it is directed towards it (her?).

This video should give you a good understanding of how a person with disabilities can use Echo/Alexa at home.

Automation, in general, is a big victory for the regular consumer in terms of convenience. However, it brings a much bigger convenience and independence factor to people with disabilities, especially anyone who is blind, in a wheelchair, paraplegic, bed ridden because of a spinal cord injury, or doesn’t have good motor skills. It saves them a lot of time and energy by not making them interact with other devices that they may not have skills for or are unable to use them because of various disabilities. The only device they interact with is Echo, through voice, and it provides them with the results and information they are looking for instantly, and thus, saves them a lot of trouble. A person in a wheelchair doesn’t have to try to reach a light switch that’s in an awkward corner of a room, a person with not good motor skills doesn’t have to flip through pages or operate an e-reader to read their books, and a blind person doesn’t need to navigate a website on an electronic device to order a pizza anymore.

Automation through Internet of Things doesn’t only have to be at home. A device like Alexa can be installed by an employer at work as well so that employees with disabilities can be more comfortable in their work environments. A device like Echo is not expensive ($179), and it just makes the ability to provide accommodations an inherent part of the system, and not an afterthought.

This is just the beginning though. The kind of features Amazon keeps adding to Echo is mind boggling, and very exciting to say the least. Keep watching the IoT space to know about more innovations and automations for people with disabilities!

Image Source: Amazon

This post first appeared here.