BitDepth#972 - January 20

Unipet’s new auto app
Shevvon Ramroop of Alliance Software introduces the new Petrocard app from Unipet at the Radisson Hotel last week. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

Last week, Unipet launched a new combination of a gas card and app for its customers.
I’ll be straight up front with this. I’ve been a Unipet customer for more than a decade, driving straight past an NP franchise that’s much closer to me because of the convenience of their on-pump payment system.

So I had high hopes that the company might be able to leverage that clear sense of customer convenience into the digital realm.
The gas card has its roots in an existing fleet card system for business customers that allows corporate clients to monitor spending on gas purchases for company vehicles.

The consumer card brings the convenience of being able to fuel at a Unipet pump without using cash or a credit card to any customer, while adding useful features that leverage the new app and a still undefined point system of rewards.

The company has also announced a partnership with Sagicor insurance which gives Sagicor General’s motor vehicle customers, on renewal of their polices, a complimentary Unipet gas card. New customers will get a 10 per cent discount on their motor vehicle policies.

The mobile app, developed by Alliance Software and Technology Systems Limited, is the result of a collaboration between the eight-year-old Prism Technologies, Business Communication Systems Limited, Hypertech Caribbean Limited, Prism Services Limited, Ansatz Solutions and Jules IT System.

Unfortunately, the resulting software, available for Android and iOS smartphones, is something of a disappointment.
For one thing, it’s as ugly as darkest sin.
The only visible graphic is a stretched logo that acts as a background for what is, essentially, a series of forms.

Non-Unipet functionality is limited to recording information about your vehicle, though there’s a useful list of emergency numbers and reminders about readily forgettable things like your driver’s license and auto insurance expiry dates.
When you use the card to pay for gas, the app prompts you to record your gas mileage for calculating your gas efficiency and for travel records.

Unfortunately, it’s just a digital notebook and doesn’t seem to have any user facing calculating capabilities.
The process for a new user is straightforward, if a little convoluted and tiresome at the start. You create an account at
the Petrocard site, which provides with an activation code, which you can print to take with you to your preferred Unipet franchise.

It’s a bit of a pain for everyone involved, but from that point on, the card and app can work seamlessly together. You can’t use the card directly on the pump, but you can charge a pump with it via the cashier, and your purchase gets recorded instantly on the Unipet app.

It’s a good idea and a decent, if stuttering start on integrating mobile technology with Unipet’s business, but Unipet’s executives needed to articulate a long term strategy that suggests that this was an iterative project and not a done deal.

But slower more deliberate approaches to extended software development and systems testing tends to be characterised by soft launches and extended beta testing, not speeches and advertising campaigns.

There’s a lot to fix here and it all needs to get done quickly and deliberately if it’s to meet the expectations of the users that Unipet hopes to capture.
As it stands, the company won’t be getting any customers via serendipity, because you can’t even launch the app to use its logging features without activating it with Unipet.

As designed, the Petrocard app exists as an adjunct to the gas card programme and cannot, on its own, lead to any customer engagement.
If you search for the app on any of the stores using the word Unipet, you won’t find anything, which is simply surreal from a branding perspective, let alone supporting a basic search taxonomy.

I’d like to think that these were just oversights, but Unipet managed to host a big launch event at the Radisson Hotel without bothering to mention which platforms the app was available for or where it could be found.

The app and gas card system probably won’t be for everyone, but for families with multiple vehicles or small businesses, it offers a way to manage and monitor multiple gas accounts with little fuss after setup.

Unipet might begin to resolve most of these problems by doing what they did to win my loyalty as a regular customer in the first place.
That would mean thinking through the Petrocard app and its implementation process from the perspective of making the experience as seamless and non-invasive for the customer as possible while offering real rewards for trying something new.

Unfortunately, it’s still some distance from that ideal.

BitDepth#971 - January 13

Why no Waze?
A Waze live map for last Sunday morning, showing users on the move, speed trap submissions by drivers and slow moving traffic in Cascade. Inset is the user menu for the mobile software.

The week before Christmas, I was on my way to St Joseph to visit a friend and realised that my last visit, years before, was but a dim memory.
I called to confirm my recollection of the way to the house, but got asked the kind of question I usually ask others.
“Why don’t you just use Waze?”

That prompted some serious introspection. Why don’t I use Waze?
It’s not as if I don’t know what it is. It’s been on my phone for more than two years, but I’ve tended to use it to look at traffic patterns, not plot my way to destinations, which really is its original purpose.
First a step back, if you haven’t yet made use of this fascinating mapping tool.

The company describes Waze on
its home page as “the world's largest community-based traffic and navigation app,” but Waze takes crowdsourcing to a new, category crushing level.
In an era before Waze, you bought a GPS finder, loaded it with maps for the place you were navigating (there were few for T&T) and used the intelligent mapping system to either plot a course to your destination or be guided with voice prompts turn by turn to where you were going.

It was a system that worked well for countries with detailed maps available, but it was expensive, because those maps had to be created and continuously updated with new information.
Waze flipped the idea upside down. Instead of a few people updating maps, why not let all the users do it?

When smartphone users began using Waze in T&T, the mapping was sparse, just the basic information you could get from any satellite based map system.
As the software became more popular and people began correcting map errors and adding information, it became not just more accurate, but more useful.

Which in turn drove a virtuous cycle, luring more users to download the app, making it even more useful.
Not only does Waze now tell you where you are going, it offers information that suggests where you shouldn’t.

Using fairly crude smartphone GPS tracking, the software is still able to guage the speeds of users while they drive, which in turn allows it to highlight traffic jams or slowdowns on local roads and highways.
This is not only useful for deciding on alternative routes, it’s also a good way to decide when it makes sense to scrap the idea of leaving in favour of just having a Carib instead.

Describing their app and service as operating within “the common good,” Waze states on their website that “By connecting drivers to one another, we help people create local driving communities that work together to improve the quality of everyone's daily driving.”

“That might mean helping them avoid the frustration of sitting in traffic, cluing them in to a police trap or shaving five minutes off of their regular commute by showing them new routes they never even knew about.”
Given all this, you might be correct to wonder why anyone would avoid all this Waze goodness.

Filmmaker Renee Pollonais summed up my sentiments in twelve precise minutes in her
2008 short documentary Directions, but it’s something we all know, that delightful sense of communal confusion that’s prompted by the simple question, “Do you know the way to…”

What ensues is generally a colourful description of the local landscape, peppered with errant actual directions and social commentary on the current state of affairs in the area.
People confuse one corner with another, call a mango tree a soursop tree, reference landmarks that don’t exist anymore and send innocent drivers off on missions of adventure undreamed of.

Nowhere in T&T is that far from anywhere else, despite the efforts of Waze’s creators and users to map every quarter-mile post, but sometimes, getting artfully lost with narratively rich directions is as much fun as actually getting there.

BitDepth#970 - January 06

New Year’s Resolutions
Using the Pomodoro technique, you slice work into smaller chunks (or pomodoros) and work on them intensively for a short time. You can easily find software and hardware timers to support the technique. Photo courtesy

Like everyone, I’ve got my bad habits and blind spots, some large enough to drive a petrol truck through, and this seems like as good a time as any to confess to my failings with tech and to resolve to do better.

Time slice, for real.
I’ve got an array of digital tools sharpened and ready to slice and dice my working day, already a sprawling disjointed mess, into easily digestible bits I can nibble on until work gets done.

This is the freelancer’s eternal dilemma, knowing full well what you need to do, what the deadline is, but choosing instead to feast on every distraction that comes along until nervous clients start knocking. Or e-mailing. Or texting. Or the ultimate nightmare, knocking on the door for real.

But knowing you having a problem isn’t the same as dealing with it effectively.
This year I need to get on top of
the Pomodoro technique, a system for which I have several apps, to begin improving my focus and effectiveness.

In lieu of a boss hollering at you to get off the phone and go back to work, the Pomodoro Technique advocates alternating intense sessions of absolute focus on the task at hand with regular breaks (
Slideshare explanation here).

That means no e-mail, no responding to Facebook notifications, no phone calls. In short, the dream state of every employer, which in a freelancer’s case is a good thing.

Fire bun the bundles.
I have to stop. This is probably a Mac thing, since I don’t see the same thing happening much on the Windows side of the software market, but there have, over the last five years or so, been a rash of very tempting bundles of software offered for sale.

This all began in 2006 with MacHeist, a game-focused website founded by John Casasanta, Phillip Ryu, and Scott Meinzer. The early riddles were fairly simple, and hints were easily found, so even a terminally game challenged participant (that would be me) was able to successfully complete the projects.

Most of the project’s successors have dispensed with the gaming aspect in favour of bundling two or three attractive software products with six or so cheaper, more narrowly focused apps.
You’ll never find the really big names like Adobe or Microsoft participating in these budget shenanigans, but you can find some really useful products in these bundles.

From a user point of view though, you end up with a big saving on something you were planning to buy or upgrade and a downloads folder littered with software you won’t ever find the time to explore successfully. It’s triage time.

Make a consumption plan.
I read a lot, particularly about stuff I’m very interested in and this is a great time to be a reader. Books are available in every imaginable format and lots of sensible advice is available for free as accomplished professionals work hard to elbow each other aside for your attention and the eventual upsell to their paid products.

For a photographer, the abundance is dizzying. Photoshelter alone makes dozens of useful PDFs available for free download and many good seminars offer a recorded component for far less than a plane ticket to the live show.

Needless to say, this stuff piles up quickly and I have a lot of difficulty dealing with it on production computers.
So I’ve finally yielded to that crazy fad and got myself an iPad for the content that doesn’t scale down well for a mobile phone. GoodReader is an exceptional PDF reader and content organiser and OPlayer HD plays every video format I’ve been hoarding.

Both have web servers built in that make transferring content a snap.
Paired with the Android apps Moon Reader Pro for epub books and the Kindle app on my phone, I’ve got no excuse for not making a dent in all this digital content.
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