Categories
Photography Technology Travels

London Part 1

On Sept 15th, 2011, I began the lifestyle that would define me for the following months; that of a backpacker. My goal was to explore the world, learn about other cultures, and meet new people solely through mobile applications and social networks. Armed with an unlocked iPhone and 7 days worth of clothes, I made my way around based on the recommendations of friends and followers.


Traveling from Brighton to London seemed like it would be easy enough. However, when I arrived at the train station, I found that service to London had been canceled due to some sort of security issue. All was not lost however, as one of the friendly train attendants were able to help me figure out a route into the city using a variety of transfers.

I eventually arrived in East London and specifically to Cheshire Street, where my friend Blair and her husband Patrick live. Although she’s originally from South Carolina, I know Blair from Chicago, where she lived briefly to attend the School of the Art Institute’s graduate program in painting. At some point, Blair left to study abroad for a semester where she met Patrick. Fast forward a few years, and they are now married and living together in London.

My visit to London just happened to coincide with the Bermondsey Street Festival, where Blair was showing some of her artwork. Unfortunately, it also coincided with Patrick being out of town for a friend’s bachelor weekend.

After resting a bit at Blair’s flat, we made our way over to the gallery for an opening cocktail reception. There I met several of her friends and other artists who were participating in the show. I had a thrilling discussion with one gentleman, Alex, on the artistic merits of digital tools for artwork and the case for, and against, and the brilliant Japanese animation film Akira.

The next day I set out with Blair and several of her friends to the actual Street Festival. After an hour or two, I decided to split off from the group to venture out and explore London. I figured I would take the time to get to know Gowalla‘s newly revised iPhone app and its ‘Gowalla Guides’ feature. For those unfamiliar with Gowalla, it is a location-based social network that previously was built around “checking-in” to a venue similar to Foursquare (which I wrote about when it debuted at SXSW ’09.)

Recently Gowalla decided to concede the check-in war and revamp their app in a different direction. Their approach was to feature ‘city guides’ and recommendations of things to do. I was a big fan of the old app, so I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to give the new one a go.

First things first, I head off to find the Apple Store Regent Street

Yes, I’m a nerd, I know. But Apple Stores are a godsend to travelers in all seriousness. The stores feature free Wi-Fi, clean bathrooms, water fountains, and usually (but not always) a place to sit down for a while. Apple is also very particular about where they build their stores and the design of them. So if you can find a city’s Apple Store, not only will it generally assure that you’ll see some beautiful architecture, but you’ll also find a lively shopping district with good (albeit expensive) places to eat.

Once I’d caught up with everything I needed to, I popped open Gowalla to look at what was nearby. When I saw that London’s famous Picadilly Circus was a short walk away, I decided to head off in that direction. From there, I made my way to Green Park and eventually Buckingham Palace.

The Palace is a sight to behold that, unfortunately, was closed when I arrived at 6pm. Thankfully, I was still able to see the guards from the gate and talk to some of the assigned police officers. I also got a bunch of great shots from the monument across from it.

I wandered on further through the Palace parks and noticed that I could see the famous ‘London Eye’ from the park. So I decided to walk towards it, where I eventually discovered Big Ben and the bridge between them. The area around Big Ben was very alive with street performers and tourists, and I got a good laugh watching them. From there, I decided to take the advice of Jim Binder via Twitter and caught a cab over to ‘The Old Red Cow’ for a bite and a drink. Sure enough, Jim’s suggestion was spot on, and ‘The Old Red Cow’ was a cozy bar with a great atmosphere, a friendly bartender, and a heck of a burger. Shortly after that, I headed back to Blair’s via the Underground and called it a night.

Photoset now posted here.

Categories
General Photography Technology Travels

Grid Meets Road – World Travel in the Digital Age

On the 19th of September I will embark on an adventure that will almost certainly change my life. I am heading overseas to Europe to travel full time until February of next year.

Along my way I will use digital devices and social media tools to explore and find what to do in each respective city. I will document my experience on this blog, Flickr, Twitter, Google+, Facebook, FourSquare, GowallaTumblr & and maybe even YouTube. I will attempt to find places to say either with friends from these services or using sites like CouchSurfing and AirBnB.

The idea is to “crowd source” my adventure, asking for you, the reader, to supply me with input as to where to go, what to see etc.

My end goal will be not just to explore the world but to really test the limits of our global communications network, the so-called “global community”. Can we, “the internet”, actually supply what one person needs to know on such an adventure? How connected are we really through these services and how easy (or hard) is it to maintain the relationships with your loved ones while traveling full time?

I have also submit a panel to next year’s SXSW Interactive Festival and hope to be able to share the results of my trip with you there as well as eventually publish a book on the experience.

I will share more details about the trip as we get closer to leaving but for now I could use your help.

Please do me a favor and vote for my panel to be accepted to SXSW… the voting period ends tonight Friday the 2nd at midnight. You can do that here.

And if you’re so interested you can donate to my experiment as well here.

Anyone who donates me any money (doesn’t matter how much or little) will have their name on a slide at our SXSW presentation should it be accepted. Thanks!

Categories
Photography Travels

Into the great wide open.

Open on FlickrA week ago I had my final day at Apple Inc.

As much as I deeply love Apple it was one of those things where it was just time for me to move on. The constraints of working a retail job have been a challenge to my personal creative pursuits for some time so after six and a half year I’ve decided to move on (for now at least).

Today marks the beginning of something else entirely. Today I am leaving on what I hope to be the first of many road trips across the United States, during which my goal will be to write and publish a photo set daily from the road.

On this trip I will be accompanied by the always awesome and always funky fresh James Vest. The two of us will be exploring our way down to New Orleans and back over the course of 8 days.

We’ll be reaching out on Twitter to crowd-source the things we do in each city and others are welcome to meet up with us if they so choose.

I have to cut this short as I still have a few things to take care of before hitting the road. Expect another blog later today but in the meantime here is how you can follow us:

John
Twitter | Flickr | FourSquare | Gowalla

James
Twitter

Categories
Technology

FourSquare: Social Networking for the Social Drinker

A few weeks ago, I was in Austin, TX, for the South By Southwest Interactive conference. While there, through word of mouth, I heard about FourSquare.

FourSquare is a new service for smartphone users from the creators of Dodgeball, a startup purchased and then shelved by Google. FourSquare utilizes your phone’s GPS to “Check-in” to different places you go, see where your friends are, and allows you to “Shout” status updates to your friends. On the surface, it seems similar to other “location status” services such as Brightkite or Loopt. However, FourSquare goes a different route than its competitors; it emphasizes the social potential of location status by turning it into a game.

I was, at one point, a big proponent of Brightkite. While there were functions of the service that I did like, I’ve started to question more and more why I used it. “Who cares that I’ve checked-in to my apartment? Do I really want people to know where my apartment is? If I am going to restrict the visibility of my location—why am I even using this service, to begin with?” The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a handy way for someone to stalk me and not much more.

FourSquare takes a different approach. It focuses on bars, clubs, and restaurants rather than just arbitrary check-ins to every location. It intends to connect you to your friends in a nightlife setting.

Although I’ve been using it since SXSW, it wasn’t until this weekend on a trip visiting NYC, that I really saw the potential of FourSquare. The service awards your “check-ins” in a variety of ways. For each check-in, you earn points, and you get bonus points for doing things like hitting multiple locations in one night. You can also unlock badges (yes, like in Boy/Girl Scouts) for accomplishing an objective, similar to many video games. Lastly, by checking into a location on multiple occasions, you can become its “Mayor” if you’re there more often than someone else. Each city has it’s own set of badges and Mayors (currently, there are 12 supported US cities.)

My FourSquare activity tells an amusing story about my trip to NY. According to Foursquare: I got “Crunked” on Thursday night bar-hopping through Brooklyn, earned extra points meeting up with my friend Tom (who saw where I was via FourSquare and proposed we meet up), and went on a 4 day “Bender,” which culminated in me becoming the “Mayor” of the Coyote Ugly Saloon Saturday night (yikes.) Hopefully, you can see why I’m enjoying this.

Something else that I really enjoy is the ability to build to-do lists of things/places you want to visit and view local to-dos that other users have posted. This allows for someone to craft their own adventures and come up with creative experiences. The service also includes a weekly leader board that lets you see where you rank among users in your community.

The result is a service that feels like a giant mobile web scavenger hunt that encourages users to challenge each other and compete.

Though the service is not without its flaws: Many bars and restaurants don’t show up in the listings, and there are many quirks to the website and application itself. Its creators have acknowledged that the service is still very much in development, and honestly, it sometimes feels like a very public beta. They’ve reportedly set themselves a June 1st deadline to iron out the kinks and get it working the way they want. Even taking all that into consideration, the service is very functional and very impressive.

Some things I’d like to see in future revisions:

  • More visibility to user profiles and to-do lists: I’d really like to discover new people to connect to. Right now, there are very few ways to do this. I wish profiles listed a clearer stream of what I did, when I did it, and what rewards my actions earned me. In 6 months, I’d like to know which 4 bars I went to that unlocked the “Crunked” badge.
  • Less walls between cities. It’s strange that I need to switch a drop down to see different sets of information for different cities on the website. I want the ability to see everything at once and also see my local updates. The walls are weird. They discourage people from being friends cross-city. My friend Frank has an account, but I’ll likely never see what he’s up to unless I switch my location to where he is. Sure local users should be prioritized, but just because I can’t get to Washington to meet up with Frank tonight doesn’t mean I don’t care.
  • Badges also suffer due to these walls. I like the idea of having different goals in different cities, but it seems silly that I’ve now earned the “Newbie” badge a few times and that I have to go out 4 nights in a row again to earn the “Bender” badge in Chicago because the one I earned was in NYC. Perhaps there should be global badges and specialized local badges?

These are just my 2¢. I’m excited to continue using FourSquare and to see where the service goes in the future. It’s genuinely a lot of fun. I recommend checking it out via their website: playfoursquare.com. An iPhone application is available via the App Store, and a mobile-optimized version of the website available for Android and Blackberry users for now.