I like to think we're somewhat of an eccentric crowd here at Active, at least on the engineering side. Case in point, watch our very own Marc Leglise, blackbelt and Senior Software Engineer, break bricks while still a student at UCSD:
Our very own Marc Leglise brought a new toy to work today to harass his co-workers with. Check out this Parrot AR Drone 2.0 in action flying over desktops and skimming people's heads here in the office.
Our Results development team has spent the past few months building a brand-spankin' new product to replace the old one. And in order for this brand-spankin' new product to work properly, we need to move data into it from the old database. Well, they decided to add a little liveliness to an otherwise boring exercise which can be witnessed below:
We've been proud users of Google Maps on Active.com for 3.5 years. We used them to show where events are happening and provide driving directions to participants. Underneath the hood, we used Google's Geocoding API to discover the latitude and longitude for events so we could properly render them on maps. Geocoding also enabled searching by location on Active.com Search.
But then, on 26 October, 2011, a date that will live in infamy, Google announced usage limits on Google Maps. The new terms limited websites to 25,000 free map renderings per day. And Google reserved the right to put ads on those using maps for free. Or, websites could negotiate a usage-based deal with Google should their volume exceed 25,000 per day. In our case, we were looking at millions of renderings per day.
We scrambled for options.
Our first was to approach Google and try to work out a deal. After several email exchanges and phone calls, we just couldn't justify paying hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for maps. Second, we looked at Bing's offering and found their terms to be similarly disagreeable.
Then we found OpenStreetMap. And after more digging around, we discovered that MapQuest was huge proponent of OpenStreetMap (God bless 'em), which lended credibility to the service (as did recent accusations of Google's tampering with OpenStreetMap data). MapQuest had developed an open service called Open Platform Webservices which was built on top of OpenStreetMap's abundant data sources. The platform offered to free access to what are called "tiles" - images pieced together to render a complete map. It also offered access to a service called Nominatim, which could geocode our events like the Google Geocoding API used to.
Armed with a good alternative we set forth and worked to replace Google Maps with MapQuest's offering. In the spirit of being good citizens and not overloading MapQuest's "open" servers, we did the following:
Nominatim is our primary geocoding provider. We fall back to other commercial offerings when Nominatim is unable to deliver the precision (address-level) we need. Geocoding is abstracted by an internal service.
I think it's a good move for Google to look for financial compensation with its Maps product. I'm sure they ran the numbers and expected some developers, like us, to jump ship while others would embrace their new cost structure. In our case, the numbers didn't make sense, especially with a great alternative like MapQuest on OpenStreetMaps.
Today I'm happy to announce that we've released an optimized version of the event details pages on Active.com. About 60% of our events will have this new format, and we're working steadily in the background to get this number to 100%.
The old version made use of tabs and had pertinent information scattered throughout the page.
The new version of the page completely does away with tabs, has all of the pertinent information needed to make a registration decision up at the top (including details on whether or not the event is almost full, and whether or not the price is going to change). We also feel that the new design is much cleaner than the old and hope you have a better experience getting the information you need when signing up for an event!
We've been hiring like crazy here and have had to move some furniture out of the way to open up space for new folks. I took this as an opportunity to improve the work environment. Previously, our setup looked much like this:
We tore down those cube walls and assigned teams to sit together in pods of four. Engineers, QA and Product Manager are all mixed in together. Here's the result:
The environment is much more open and collaborative. And, perhaps counterintuitively, it's quieter. I suppose folks are more aware of each other and keep their voices down as a result.
Yesterday I did the final interview for a position we're hiring for on Active.com. I pulled one from the Google playbook, and toward the end of the session we had dialog that went something like this:
[Me] "Tell me something you think I don't know"
[Candidate] "What, like about me?"
[Me] "No. I mean some historical fact or process or something."
[Candidate] "Oh. Well...do you know how nuclear fission works?"
[Me] "No man. Tell me about it."
The candidate then described how nuclear fission works. His interest had been piqued by the recent disaster in Japan, so the topic was fresh in his mind. But this was an impressive response to a discussion that could have gone down any number of paths. I love to see this kind of creativity and interest in how things work in people we look to hire.
The upgraded Comments Box uses social signals to surface the highest quality comments for each user. Comments are ordered to show users the most relevant comments from friends, friends of friends, and the most liked or active discussion threads, while comments marked as spam are hidden from view.
We had a mandate in Q3, 2010, to conceptualize a product that showcased what a regionally-focused Active.com could be. After myriad brainstorming sessions, several user research trips, and executive coaxing we landed on Active Local.
Active.com Local has one mission in life, and that is to connect active people with the things active people do. Active.com Local is tightly integrated with Active.com, which has an awesome listing of activities to register for. All of those great activities have made their way to Active.com Local, too.
But we want Active.com Local to be about more than just the big events people register for. We're striving to be the definitive guide to activities happenning in your neighborhood - activities like morning rides, yoga in the park, afternoon runs and nearby hiking treks. We did our research and found that local bike shops and running shoe stores, the running club down the street, your favorite yoga instructor, or the local climbing store all put on an incredible number of free activities right where you live. So we're working in conjunction with these activity hosts to build up our inventory of things to do in the Bay Area.
In this way Active.com Local can be used not only to register for the Bay to Breakers, for example, but also to find a 6am run to join on Monday mornings.
We're also promoting local activity hosts - small shops and clubs - by making it easy for you to find your favorite bike shop and the morning rides it puts on, for example. The most active clubs and businesses are featured on our homepage. And you'll also find them listed on Near You map.
Public Beta Release
Active.com Local is targeted towards people in the San Francisco Bay Area. And starting now, users from that region who visit Active.com will see a ribbon encouraging them to visit Active.com Local.
A few months ago Amazon contacted me about our usage of Amazon Simple Notification Service (SNS), a messaging platform that enables topic-based messaging between applications. At the time we were one of the biggest consumers of SNS, and they were curious about what we were doing with it. I pointed them to http://realtime.active.com and explained our realtime architecture to them. Intrigued, they showed a few of their engineers and later decided to write a whitepaper about Active.com Realtime and SNS.
Active.com was looking for a way to analyze a user’s click-stream in near real-time to deliver pertinent trending information in a timely manner. One of the fundamental ways that Active.com enhances user experience on its website is by understanding and anticipating user needs- surfacing relevant content dynamically to users whenever possible. This is reflected in the “Popular Near You” feature on the homepage, or the “Events Near You” feature on the channel pages, such as active.com/running.
I've gotta give props to Kevin over at Amazon for driving this whole thing. And of course, I've also gotta give props to the two guys who built Realtime, Brian Levine and Rob Cameron!
Today I got an email from Groupon for half off Americana restaurant in Del Mar. The day before I got an email for half off a facial at a local day spa. While these deals no doubt are appealing to many folks and cause these local businesses to be inundated with new, coupon-weilding customers, I couldn't be bothered. They just don't match my interests or needs. Groupon's problem is that its only niche is location. But what if there were a deals service that offered deals based on location + interest?
Enter Schwaggle, Active.com's deals site for active people. "Schwaggle" was derived from "schwag" + "haggle". It is designed to present deals that appeal to Active.com's audience, such as today's deal for 50% off Bay to Breaker's registration. Other such deals might include $50 off a bike tune-up, etc. And the point is that all of these are deals that I, as an active person, am more likely to find interesting than a $5 pedicure.
Schwaggle is launching in the San Francisco Bay Area. It will slowly roll out to other demographic areas as deals are sourced and we learn about how people receive the product. But today, at least, Schwaggle's deal sold out in a matter of hours, which shows that people are interested.
Inspired by Yelp, Twitter, and Fred Wilson, we had our first annual Active.com (internal) hackathon last week. Through prodding, coaxing and bribery, we ended up with 20 teams vying for the title of "Best Hack". Teams could consist of no more than two, in part because I couldn't allocate the grand prize, a trip to the Web 2.0 Expo, to more than two. UX people paired with hardcore engineers. Web App Developers paired with Web App Developers. And some just went it alone.
The rules were strict. All code written had to be produced during the hackathon, which started at 12am PST on 16 December and ended at 9:45am PST on the 17th. Hackers were, however, allowed to use Active.com or open source libraries. Two very inventive teams, however, incorporated devices such as the Arduino into their hacks. This was a pleasantly unexpected outcome. And also to my surprise, many teams hacked for over 24 hours making good use of the time alloted.
As the clock winded down I prepared the meeting room for hackathon demos. I'd assembled a team of 6 high-ranking judges from various disciplines - VP of Technology, Vice President of my division, Senior Director of IT Operations, etc. This team would be responsible for determining the overall winner, as well as the winner of each category, which were Most Original, Best Execution, Most Business Potential, and Best Demo.
Each team had three minutes to demo, along with a 2 minute question/answer/transition session. Teams from China had begun hacking on their 16th of December and submitted screencasts for me to play during the demo. They, unfortunately, didn't get a question/answer session. The meeting room was packed with geeks and business folks alike. Our COO would later comment to me that he noticed a lot of laughter during the demos, but that people weren't laughing because what they were seeing was funny. They were laughing because what they were seeing was blowing them away.
At a minimum people walked away from this experience with a realization of just how creative software engineers can be. As one colleague puts it, in many ways, engineers are like artists. But instead of having a canvas, they have an IDE. And two of the ideas have already been inserted into our roadmap for next year, which is an awesome outcome.
Best Hack (Overall Winner)
Team Me - Rob Cameron
Rob created an RFID checkin system to get around the issue of a user needing a smartphone to check in to venues or events.
SF Here We Come - Marc Villanueva, Chris Ferguson
Marc and Chris created an RV route finder that uses Google Maps and the Active.com Camping API to show where you might park your RV on your cross country trip. They also integrated into the Yelp API to pull up a list of REIs along the route but hit their quota limit before doing the demo.
Team Tunes - Eugene Correia
Eugene integrated the last.fm API into our Active Trainer Beta to produce a song list for training plans.
Most Business Potential
Real Deal - Airey Baringer, Chris Smith
Airey and Chris built a prototype that showed how we might port Active.com event listings into Facebook in order to reach a broader audience in a more social way.
Team Sweden - Hakan Lindestaf
Hakan integrated a realtime notification service into an LED display for Active Golf.
I was fortunate enough to be asked by Mashery to speak at BAPI New York and BAPI San Francisco this year. I gave a quick presentation on the reasons why we need to endeavor to understand the impact our API has on our business. Check out the presentation I gave in San Francisco: