Thursday, December 13, 2012

A new mobile app that gets it right

Mobile apps should do one of two things: present a convenient interface to a certain service, or take advantage of supercomputing power inside a user's pocket. Most existing mobile apps - the ones that make sense, at least - do the former. But it wasn't until I installed the excellent new Sitegeist app from the Sunlight Foundation today that I realized how few succeed at the latter.

The app shows you interesting data about whatever physical location you're in - age and demographic data, house price data, cool nearby places on Yelp, etc. Plenty of existing services do something like this, and this is hardly the first location-aware mobile info app (though it may be the most beautiful).

But once you use it, you realize how few apps really get it right: this little piece of glass in your hand is telling about your physical surroundings in an utterly useful, simple, charming, pleasant way. It's incredibly powerful and sophisticated, but it conceals that power and sophistication effortlessly, only revealing to the user simple, interesting, contextually-relevant facts.

I love that this came from the Sunlight Foundation, too, since they're all about government transparency. This app reveals that they're approaching the concept of transparency in a much more user-focused way than I realized: what's important for an individual person to know doesn't just come from a FOIA request. Walking around a neighborhood and effortlessly revealing how much the houses cost, how rich or young the people living around you are, tells you something civically-important. Democracy isn't just about government, it's about people.

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