TOPP Labs needs a new name

For the past year or so, the group at TOPP that I manage has been known as TOPP LabsTOPP Labs was originally chosen not because it was the best or most compelling name, but because as we were dialing back work on the OpenCore project, we needed a name that was better than "The Team Formerly Known as OpenCore," or "Non-geo TOPP" (since OpenGeo is TOPP's other main software group).  Without a whole lot of thought, we settled quickly on TOPP Labs, as it was better than nothing and it generally evoked the spirit of experimentation and innovation we were hoping to embody after working for a long time on a single, large project. Since then, TOPP Labs has come a long way.  We've re-imagined ourselves as an incubator for new enterprises and initiatives that make cities work better, and have taken off down several paths: information systems for public transit (under the OpenGeo Transit brand); tools to facilitate citizen engagement, such as FixCity and Community Almanac; and initiatives to help public agencies get on board with "open," such as Open311, OpenMuni, and the NY Transit Data project.  We've been busy connecting with the open government, open cities, and progressive planning communities, and have been documenting our progress on our blog, The Civic Hacker. But now, the time has come for us to choose our grown-up name.  This was spurred in large part by our new Executive Director, but I fully agree that the time is come, and that we should have a name that does a better job describing what it is that we do, and perhaps more importantly, what we can offer.  As I've written before, I've always been conflicted about the "TOPP" acronym, as it's not self-evident what it means, and of course the same goes for TOPP Labs. Of course, I'm not just writing this for my own good, I'm writing because I need help.  Please help me choose a new name for TOPP Labs.  Let's make it a good one.  Thank you in advance for your thoughts here.  To help this along, here are a few things that should inform the choice of a new name: First, what we'd like the name to evoke:

  • Technology, innovation, and creativity

  • A strong commitment to civic issues and the goal of making cities work better

  • A serious, competent organization that can deliver quality products & services

Second, here's what we'd like to avoid:

  • Terms or phrases that could easily become cliche or dated (for example, Labs, or e, or i)

  • Anything that sounds overly silly and not business-y enough (e.g., the Super Awesome Group)

  • Anything that sounds overly business-y and not creative enough

  • Open Abuse -- there's only so much "open" people can handle

Lastly, it should be informed by the things that we actually do, such as:

  • Find opportunities for software and technology to help make cities more livable, communities more engaged, and government more effective.

  • Develop open source software products that accomplish the above, selling our services to government agencies, foundations, and other partners.

  • Cultivate communities of open source developers and other civic technologists.

  • Help liberate data for the public good.

So far, the strongest contenders for names have been something like the Civic ____ Group, where the blank is "tech," "dev,"  "data," or something similar.  I'm not opposed to those approaches, but I still haven't fallen in love-at-first-sight with a name, which I'm hoping is still in the cards. Other names I've noticed lately that I like are the Office of New Urban Mechanics, which is Boston's new office for civic technology innovation, led by their innovation director, Nigel Jacobs.  Also, I dig John Tolva's title at IBM of Director of Citizenship and Technology.  We could go the city-analog route and name ourselves the Department of Public Networks or the Department of Civic Hacking (I could be Commissioner), but that's almost certainly too cheeky. So, that's where I'm at.  The clock is ticking, as I need to make a decision by the end of the day tomorrow, Friday 2/19. What do you think, intertubes?


Phone Idol: an experiment in web-enabled telephony

At work recently, we've been exploring the idea of integrating voice and/or SMS into our applications.  Much of what we do has to do with people responding to their physical environments -- their neighborhoods and the streets and public spaces that constitute the bulk of our public experience. So, I decided to take on a small weekend project, to experiment with voice and SMS.  There are several tools that help you do this, including Mobile Commons, Tropo, and Twilio.  For my first experiment, I chose Twilio, as the start-up process was really easy and they have a super well-documented API.  Twilio claims that you can get a voice/sms app up and running in five minutes. Here are the project goals I was shooting for:

  1. Something that can be done over a weekend, ideally in a small enough amount of time not to piss off my family.

  2. Something simple and useful.

  3. Something that demonstrates the power of connecting a phone experience and a web application experience, seamlessly tying the two together.

  4. Something that takes advantage of the native capabilities of a regular phone.  In other words, something that wouldn't be better implemented on a smart phone.

As the result of this experiment, I'm proud to present Phone Idol, a phone-based online singing competition.  You know, kind of like that other idol thing, but using a phone and with no big prizes. Here's how it works:

  • Pick a song you want to sing, and think you can sing well (or at least humorously)

  • Dial (718) 775-3384

  • Sing your song!

  • Go to and listen to your recording online.

  • Then, America votes, choosing their favorite tracks through online rating

Looking back at my project goals, I'd say this definitely accomplishes #1, #3 and #4.  It was done quickly, using just the Twilio API and a simple WordPress install, it demonstrates the power of connecting phones to web apps, and it works well using a regular phone.  However, it's definitely not what I would call simple and useful.  But it was fun to make, and has spurred some more thinking about what's possible here. In the spirit of a weekend project, here are the things I didn't do, but that I think would be cool:

  • Identities and account management. Right now, all I know about each submitter is his/her phone number, which I don't want to publish.  I am intrigued by the idea of web accounts that are bootstrapped and managed by phone only, not email.  One of the next features I want to build is to connect submissions to online identities.  This would be easy to accomplish by creating user accounts based on phone numbers and sending a text with credentials, and could easily connect to existing social networks.  I admit that without this, the site is much less fun than it could be.

  • Content management. Right now, there's very little meta data associated with each entry.  For example, I would like to include the name of the person who submitted it, as well as the title of the song.  Given the phone as an interface, this is bit tricky to manage, but not impossible.  Two ways this could be accomplished:  1) after submission, send the user a text asking them to respond with their name and the title of their song.  This approach would either require multiple texts (expensive) or a special syntax;  2) text the user a login link and their credentials (see Account Management, above) and ask them to log in and update their submission with details.  Neither of these approaches is perfect, and I'm sure there are other alternatives I'm not considering.  However, doing at least something would definitely be possible.

  • More social integration. This could be huge on Facebook.  For now I just have standard Facebook and Twitter sharing links, but I could imagine maybe trying for deeper Facebook integration, maybe as a Facebook app.  Out of scope for a weekend project, but maybe worth doing.

And here's a little bit of info on how it's wired together:

  • Twilio is configured to route calls to (718) 775-3384 to a script at Phone Idol, which produces TwiML, the markup language that serves instructions to Twilio.  You can see the XML output here.

  • These scripts are written as a WordPress plugin, so that after the final step in the Twilio workflow, the response data (most importantly the URL to the recording) is posted to WordPress as a new post.  Given more work on account and content management, as described above, I'd make more use of the WP API.

  • The website is an adaptation of the Stripey WordPress theme and uses a few plugins, most notably Audio, GD Star Rating, and Sociable.

That's about it. Now time to tweet out the vote and see if anyone wants to sing us a song....


Introducing The Board

A few weeks ago, I created a small web app for scheduling project teams at TOPP Labs.  At any given time, we've got anywhere between 10 and 20 active projects, so keeping track of it all is difficult, and planning ahead requires a good clear overview of everything that's happening. Why create something new? Good question.  Before I started making a custom app, I experimented with a few existing tools.  I started with a basic spreadsheet.  Then, I tried dedicated project scheduling tools like OmniPlan.  While each of these tools got me part of the way there, nothing was exactly right.  Spreadsheets were too slow and OmniPlan was too complicated.  I really wanted to do one simple thing: drag people around from project to project on a weekly basis -- including the ability to experiment with different configurations.  I didn't need to get more granular than "project", "person", and "week", and I needed something that would let me change these parameters easily and quickly.


The inspiration for what I wanted came from my time as a ballboy at the US Open tennis tournament.  At the Open, there are 18 courts, ~300 ballpersons, and 4-5 shifts per day.  At every shift change, a crew of 6 ballpersons is assigned to each court -- each team consists of 4 "backs" and 2 "nets", and the team makeup (ratio of veterans to rookies, etc) is critical.  The staff at the Open manages all this is with a giant magnet board, holding one magnet for each ballperson.  Before each shift change, the staff sets up "crews" by dragging the magnets around the board, grouping them, and finally assigning them to courts.  It's a perfect system for the job -- just the right amount of detail, and highly visual and tactile. In many ways, that was exactly what I needed.  The result is The Board -- a virtual magnet board for managing teams.  Check out the demo to poke at it and the project page for code.  Enjoy!


Goldilocks and the RSS Theme

For your reading pleasure, the Broadsheet Wide theme for the Vienna RSS reader.


Same Bat Blog, New Bat Look

This week, we launched the new, improved GothamSchools.  GothamSchools is the latest media / advocacy initiative from The Open Planning Project, and our first foray into the world of education.  We've got a great team of reporters in Philissa Cramer, Elizabeth Green, and Kelly Vaughan, and the new site website was put together by the talented Chris Abraham and Phil Ashlock. GothamSchools the news outlet is just the beginning; look for more as we build up community and tools around this initiative.


Coming soon: Park(ing) Day 2008

In the spirit of blogging all the cool stuff we're doing at TOPP, I'd like to announce the launch of a new website: Park(ing) Day NYC. Park(ing) Day is a global event, originally conceived by awesome SF-based arts collective REBAR, where for a single day, regular parking spaces are "leased" for use as temporary public parks. This year's Park(ing) Day will be held, worldwide, on September 19th. Here's the description from the national Park(ing) day website:

On November 16th, 2005, REBAR opened eyes worldwide by transforming a metered parking spot into a park. Locating a site that was underserved by public outdoor space, we installed a small, temporary park that provided nature, seating, and shade. By our calculations, we provided 24,000 square-foot-minutes of public open space that afternoon. See the original PARK(ing) video!

Since the initial PARK(ing) project was created we've been contacted by people worldwide. What began as a simple, playful idea has become a lively and visible symbol of the desire to reprogram the street and increase public open space in cities all over the planet.

TOPP produced the website that supports Park(ing) Day NYC, working with Transportation Alternatives, who is organizing and promoting the event here in NYC. TA is giving out mini-grants of $200 each for Park(ing) spot makers, so apply now. This year's event is also co-sponsored by the EyeBeam Art & Technology Center, who will hopefully encourage some creative submissions.

(For you web geeks out there, the Park(ing) Day NYC site was made using Pylons and jQuery, and was built using the codebase we originally created for Block Party NYC)

Be sure to check out these videos, which are the best way to get the feel for the event.

The original Park(ing) experiment in 2005:

The first Park(ing) Day in SF in 2006: and Park(ing) Day 2007 here in NYC:


Streetfilm about Bastille Day


Bastille Day on Smith Street is one of my favorite days of the year.  It's great fun: the streets are closed, sand is trucked in, and a giant Petanque tournament is held.  But the tournament is just an excuse to be there: the real fun is the great food & drink put out by Bar Tabac and other neighborhood restaurants, live music all day long, and hoards of neighborhood folks who come out to spend the day lounging in the streets. This year, Nick Whitaker from Streetfilms and I spent the afternoon filming the event, and the result is the Streetfilm you see above.  Can't wait until next year! More on this year's event from Pardon Me for Asking and McBrooklyn.  Also, I heard a rumor that there's a time-lapse video of the setup, event, and tear-down from a few years ago that I'll try to get my hands on.


New TOPP Website

Over at The Open Planning Project, we've always had a bit of a hard time explaining what we do.  That job just got a little bit easier, with the launch of the new-and-improved TOPP website last Friday.  Reactions from within the staff have been remarkably similar: something along the lines of "Phew, now I can finally tell people what the heck it is we do here!'. Kudos to Vanessa, Jackie and Cholmes for distilling a lot of information about our various projects and goals into something remarkably coherent.  I'm proud to work at TOPP, and now I have somewhere to point people when I want to show it off :)


Slip-n-Slide Photo Gallery

A few months ago, I wrote up a simple javascript photo gallery viewer for a side project, so I thought I'd offer it up to the world. It's unobtrusive javascript, and it takes a simple list of photos and turns it into a slidey slide show. It's built on top of the Ext Javascript Framework, but could easily be adapted to work with others. More info, download & demo Enjoy!


Coming soon... The Livable Streets Network

For the past several months, my coworkers and I over at The Open Planning Project have been hard at work on an important redesign and new product launch. I'm now excited to say that the final launch is, ahem, days away.  Streetsblog and StreetFilms have been hugely popular since they launched two years ago, making an impact here in NYC and beyond, and developing a great community of readers.  The Livable Streets Network, as we're calling the new, unified effort, intends to take this to the next level, by providing more online tools and new opportunities for collaboration.

We've code named the project "Woonerf," which is dutch for "a street or group of streets where pedestrians and cyclists have legal priority over motorists."  It's an apt title indeed for a group of sites that aims to unite and motivate citizens across the country who want to make their cities more comfortable, livable, and sustainable. While we're not quite ready to flip the switch, we do have a live demo that folks can check out in the meantime.  If you'd like to see it, just fill out this short form, and we'll send you a link. Expect more soon as we approach the launch.  Here goes nothing...