Design at Linux Tag 2014

Going to a Linux conference as a designer might sound like an exotic idea on first sight. While this should receive a second thought (see later), I have to admit that I had a special approach, too, when I went to this year’s Linuxtag at Station, Berlin: I went there as part of the SaSER research team at IDL which is (on the top most level) concerned with defining new more efficient, reliable, and secure communications on the internet. So we were in the sys admin domain already (although Linux is far more than for admins but that might be what you think of).IMG_9091

Visual Analytics for Security Admins

We gave a talk on our interim results, which are visual analytics tools to investigate huge log files (i.e. text files): Opening Treasure Boxes. Exploring log files with visual data analysis to detect security breaches (slides). As part of the “Tracing and Logging” track, we talked to system administrators and security analysts and everyone else interested. It was a great opportunity for us to extend our contact with users, get feedback, acquire new use cases. We assumed that we would also “evangelize” a little in favor of visual analytics and visualizations beyond bar and line charts. We were quite right with that: our ideas were partially seen as strange and  unusual but we also received quite some thankful feedback by analysts who said our ideas opened new opportunities for them.Screen-Shot-2013-10-31-at-3.45.06-PM___elasticsearch-org

A view of the Kibana interface (image from Elastic Search)

A view of the Kibana interface (image from Elastic Search)

But I also want to point out that a couple of tools in the same track provided a very decent user interface and good visualization support. This is especially remarkable as log files are abstract things and enormously large, which makes providing a grip on them a real design challenge. Lennart Koopmann of Torch presented greylog2, with an interface to query large logfiles, get an overview over values in the file, and also get visual support for results in the form of time lines. Even more dedicated to a graphical user interface was Kibana (which builds on logstash and ElasticSearch), presented by Bernd Erk of Netways. I was impressed by the visual support for building and modifying queries, the ease of building graphs, and the clean overall interface. In many regards it reminded me of Splunk, which is also a great but not an open source software. As we found during the preparation of our talk, also the event monitoring system Icinga2 starts including interesting visualizations – Markus Frosch (of Icinga) just didn’t put a huge focus on the new interface.

Design for Open Source Software (needed!)

Coming back to the (suspected) design – Linux repulsion or even design – open source repulsion: open source software gained a bad reputation for having ugly or “just enough” user interfaces, with little help for users to find a workflow or just please the eye (things like Firefox or Fritzing are an exception, of course, but they are also rather recent offsprings). It seems as if open source is much more appealing to developers than to designers. I have no instant explanation for that – if you do, please let me know! I have to admit that a lot of the software I saw during Linuxtag unfortunately confirmed this prejudice. The more delighted I was when I saw how well crafted things like Kibana were.

It might be worth noting that Edna Kropp and Nicole Charlier of akquinet gave a basic introduction into user centered design and how they work as “on-site UX consultants“. While it was pretty basic for a designer, it was probably new and remarkable for many of the developers (hopefully) listening. I think much more talks like this are necessary to get to a common understanding between developers and designers in the open source scene.

Further notes

The bare crypto stick (it has a modest but nice casing in the final version)

The bare crypto stick (it has a modest but nice casing in the final version)

For the real paranoid cautious people, there is a Crypto Stick: looks like a thumb drive but actually hosts a micro-processor, a smartcard, and an SD card. You can use it to establish secure connections from untrusted systems (like internet cafés), store your passwords, and other things. You can even transport documents “plausibly hidden”, e.g., in case you get searched at an airport – and you don’t have to think of Snowden to understand how relevant that can be. I liked the idea to have a “security thing” that is really strong but also makes it easier for people to stay safe online/digitally.
Btw: it’s open software and open hardware, so you can build it at home (although the small form factor makes it complicated)

UDOO: Standard PC interfaces for the "Linux part" seen at the front here, with pin headers in Arduino due format at the back

UDOO: Standard PC interfaces for the “Linux part” seen at the front here, with pin headers in Arduino due format at the back

Even physical computing was a topic and the only other presentation given by an interaction designer: Michelangelo Guarise presented UDOO, which combines an Arduino Due-derived board with a Linux system running on a powerful quad-core ARM chip. This “natural” combination pops out in various flavors at the moment, combining the sensor-friendly, real-time interaction capable Arduino architecture with high-performance computing. I hope they will soon add their platform as a part to the Fritzing library and I’m curious about the projects building on that single board computer!

And I got a trusted certificate from CAcert to (soon) sign my email and ssl server connections – yeeha! I was impressed by how serious they take the process, with several people checking my ID cards separately. Trust on the internet is a delicate thing and digital signatures can help a lot here.



Why Google loves Open Source

Marvin the android by kertong

Marvin the android by kertong

As (one of?) the first developer of an open source operating system for mobile phones, at least at a large scale, Google put a lot of effort into something that is available for free to anyone. Cnet was asking Andy Rubin, responsible for mobile platforms, to explain why. I found his answers so interesting that I want to wrap up some bits here:

Rubin/Google says they will profit from open access in the end (the more searching the more advertising exposure). “There’s a natural connection between open source and the advertising business model: Open source is basically a distribution strategy” with no barrier for adoption and thus maximizing outreach.

This is the definition of openness: it’s not just open source, it’s the freedom to get the information that you’re actually looking for.

This reads like from the Hacker Manifesto! It’s worth noting that Google by its sheer size can be a threat to this ideal…

They think they would loose more revenue by attempting to lock up their services just for their customers than by sharing an as open as possible internet with their competitiors:

We’re confident enough in our advertising business and our ability to help people find information that we don’t somehow demand they use Google. If somebody wants to use Android to build a Yahoo phone, great.

With Google not know as being overly philantropic, this makes a pretty strong argument against walled gardens, from a business point of view. It appears to be heavily based on Google’s dominant position in the (ad) market, however.

Android at Google's HQ by secretlondon123

Android at Google’s HQ by secretlondon123

Some nice side effects: Having a cross device operating system makes it easy for third party developers to get their services onto various devices–which will make Android more attractive, again. And it’s a great thing for software companies to provide a more consistent user experience (so designers should like it).

Good to know: In Asia, stylus input is often prefered over fingers because writing Asian letters is easier and more accurate this way.

thanks to fee for twittering this.


buddies and business

L'épicerie in Lyon

The more I get into relation detection via communication data, the more services come to my mind. But of course, I don’t invent this wheel for the first time (Pete Warden’s blog brought a lot of evidence to me): In an article two years from now (already!) ZDnet UK has a nice portrait about the emerging business of email analysis. A positive focus is put on Clearwell Systems because of their special (unique?) ranking algorithm (oha! — I bet Google pays very close attention). Its software

weighs the background data and content of each email for several factors, including the name of the sender, names of recipients, how many replies the message generated, who replied, how quickly replies came, how many times it was forwarded, attachments and, of course, keywords.

Well, so do I… But in the light of a fully grown business, ranking emails gets away from a personal (autonomous) assistant that is just nice to have, handy and good for reflection. With the huge amounts of email produced every day and about every topic relevant to any business process, corporate email archives contain pretty any information a manager, and — more delicately — a prosecutor can desire:

Email has come to be viewed as a source of truth. If you want to know what really happened, you look at the email.

As it became clear to me, too, during my research, collecting and archiving (intercepting?) all electronic conversations improves the the basis for statistical analysis and heuristics and hence the quality of the ranking a lot. A lot of entities (Google, security authorities) are after our data, consequentially.

Pete Warden has to receive an honrable mention once more because his position of “trying to generate a useful index with no human intervention” resonates with my basic motivation, too. I find his blog to be imensly interesting and very relevant for my thesis: Like expoiting the time information inherent to email that I thought of using in some kind of “contact profiling”, all the privacy issues entangled, especially in business context, and drawing profit from the knowledge that accumulates often unnoticed in a company (or workgroup). And he complains about the missing Gmail Api, too. All written in a very comprehensive manner.


Let’s do…

scenario: swim together small

Of what use is a well structured address book, as it will result from my master thesis research? We engage in a lot of our activities jointly with our friends; different cliques that form anew each time we start out for a new band to discover or quite stable teams for sports. Today, we have to collect all necessary addresses by hand or rely on static groups that we configured in advance before we can send a group email or SMS. A socially aware digital assistant (e.g. on our mobile phone) could keep track of our communication and would be able to make some good guesses about these groups and theire dynamic developments. For our activity planning we could use our address book group-oriented compared to individual-oriented.