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Single Question Interview: Matt Jones

So, it’s funny that Brandon just posted about how much he loves the Dopplr Annual Report, because, unknown to him, I had already emailed Matt Jones to ask about it. I thought it would make a good Single Question Interview, a new, and perhaps occasional, feature here on Adaptive Path.

Peter Merholz: Dopplr just released the ability for every use to download a Personal Annual Report of their 2008 travels in PDF, best experienced when printed. In this age of increasing digitization and screen-based experiences, how did the Annual Report come to be?

Matt Jones: Well, we’ve become pretty obsessed with finding new ways to represent our user’s data that’ll let them reflect on the patterns it contains. It’s also become somewhat of a tradition for us, if you can have a tradition 2years, to try and do something with the data generated at the end of the year to sum it up.

Last year we created something we called the Dopplr Raumzeitgeist Map - a socially-generated map of the Earth created by the travels of Dopplr users in 2007. We updated that with the outlook for the summer, and the autumn of 2008, and also started to generate them for individual users and groups to embed on their profile pages.

For the end of 2008, we wanted to go one better. Giving a ‘datagift’ at the end of the year to our users was the starting point, and it felt like that needed to be tangible. All of us at Dopplr are fascinated by the blur between the digital and the physical that it’s becoming easier and cheaper to create (for instance we just helped stage the first ‘papercamp‘ to investigate this) and we were definitely inspired by things like The Day-to-Day Data Exhibition, Lucy Kimbell’s LIX project, Nicholas Feltron’s annual reports and even, Schott’s Miscellany. Creating something proceedurally in print from digital data seemed like the natural next step for us.

I sketched what I thought would be possible and interesting, making use of a lot of the assets we already had created online - like the blocks of colour and CC-licenced flickr photos for cities, and a histogram device we’d already used to display trips - also, then came up with some new visualisations for things like the carbon output of travel.

Tom Insam is a genius developer who can turn his hand to almost anything, and he used something called Prawn to code the generation of PDFs from individual user’s data. We sit next to each other in our little office and spent a long week going back and forth on what would work, what would create the best output with varied and variable data - the design and layout had to be fairly inexacting and robust to make sure that we’d get the best out of people’s data.

We also did a lot of calculations across user-data to find median values to help design with - so that we knew we’d please most of the people most of the time. Also we created a few alternate ‘modules’ to print if the data met special cases, for instance those with few connections with the dopplr network - where we could print messages and statistics from the service to encourage them to use new features…

After a long week, we were happy with our test runs, and set the process running to generate the reports for all our users - which took something like 40 hours or so! In parallel, we had the idea of illustrating the idea of the report by taking Barack Obama’s campaign travel data - which we were able to find from sources online, and create a special report generated with the same code.

The reaction to the report has be pretty great and we’re convinced now that doing more with web services in the blurry physical/digital realm will be something to put more energy into this year.

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