Dog Monitor on Phone?

A tale of the data dog…tail wagging data.

A dog holding a picture of himself on a phone screen. Cute! From petmagazine. Would a dog monitor on phone be useful?
A Dog Monitor on Phone?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: During the pandemic I was able to work from home and I got the love of my life, a four-footed stray called Bella. She is half Shepherd and half Retriever. Now I have to go back to the City and can’t take her with me.  I miss her and wonder what she does all day. So I installed a web-cam and now I am thinking of adding a next step, a dog monitor on my phone. It attaches to her collar and sends. Then I will know if she is keeping active during the day, not just when I drop in with the camera. My mother who lives a few blocks away thinks that this is crazy. Cade, Napa

Dear Cade: I surely appreciate that your generation is finding new and creative opportunities for tech.  Yet I don’t see the need for either the camera or the dog monitor on phone. For thousands of years  pets have survived without digital tools, and it’s not clear that they are going to survive better with them!

The web cam seems harmless for Bella but I wonder what it is doing for you. When you are at work and you check  back home you are dividing your attention. Phone distraction is subtle. This well cited , but now pop-science study says that an interruption may set you back  twenty plus minutes before you can fully return to your original task. Furthermore, looking at Bella remotely could be emotionally unsettling.  You may feel a loss since you cannot continue the quality time you spent together during the pandemic.

Bella’s P.O.V:

Now consider it from Bella’s perspective. She has no idea that she is being watched on a web cam so it does not improve her situation at all. And, while the tracking device will report how much she exercised, ate, and drank, you can do some of that measurement when you get home from work. Did she empty the bowl? Record this on your own. There is also, I suppose, a tech element to consider. An electronic device fitted to her collar might feel strange to her and the little colored buttons may start blinking for a battery recharge. They could be bothersome.

These dog monitoring devices are fairly new. One I found online said that, “it collects and shares over 150 samples of your pet’s movement every second.” The app promises to tell whether the pet’s behavior is changing after it establishes a baseline. I am not sure how that data will improve the quality of life for either you or Bella. On the back end of this app, I would check out the privacy statement. Since they will be collecting mounds of data, do they sell Bella’s vitals to an outside company or compile a salable list of high tech pet owners?

Seek In-Person First:

If you seek wellness care, say  Bella is doing excessive licking or scratching it’s best if you try to get some face to face information here, not just online. You might find help at a local pet store (usually very informed) or at the dog park with other owners. And, you might want to look into pet insurance for those emergency, last-minute trips to the vet. Ultimately, that might be a better long-term investment than the tracking device. 

Your question is really one about technology. It reminds me that In the 1990’s the Japanese invented a “virtual” pet called Tamaguchi. It was popular with tweens everywhere. The pet owner received ongoing messages throughout the day (via email?) that reminded them to feed their pet, take it out for “exercise”and clean up the poop. Today virtual pets are far more sophisticated.

Artificial Intelligence has tried to capture the companionship of household pets for lonely people or those with memory-loss issues, often seniors. Virtual dogs (and cats) are placed in nursing homes for residents who need emotional connections. Since you lucky enough to have the real thing, but might be short on time, consider some alternatives. Leave the pet with your Mom during the day, drop her off at pet daycare, or simply accept that Bella will be OK. There’s no doubt that some version of this product, say to measure your own wellness and activity, is high on the list for the quantified culture.

A Better Facebook for Family?

Facebook has a new feature that lets you personalize the feed for friends and family posts. This snapshot of their page shows the toggle to do this.
Alternate Feed – Is it A Better Facebook for Family?


Dear Ms. Smartphone: I come from a large extended family and want to keep current with things back home. So I use Facebook to see what is happening. But, I also want to cut back on the time I spend on social media so that I can do my studies. I don’t check Facebook very often these days. My family says I am missing out on wishing happy birthdays and keeping up with news from their country. Honestly, I need a better Facebook for family! Arit, Cambridge

Dear Arit: It’s easy to imagine that you will miss that cute new baby video or a reminder about the birthday. Take these numbers skeptically as Facebook changes the rules frequently but in oldschool 2012 Techcrunch said that FB posts reached just 12% percent of our friends, and in 2020, newschool, an ad agency says it is a microscopic .4%!

Whatever the actual rate Facebook says it now has a solution. They are returning to their roots and announced a sea-change this month. Now you will be able to customize your page so that you see more content from friends and family. Before you start cheering, note that when you open the platform it will default to the home tab with FB’s the“discovery engine.” You will need to reset the “Feeds” tab to see the posts from friends and families instead (see image).

See this, done this:

Facebook has done this wiggle before. Hopefully this new one will present you with the real content you seek. When the platform first began nearly 18 years ago, it was just about the people who followed you and those you followed back. In 2009 they instituted their first algorithm to prioritize content with ‘likes.’ Now, as a giant advertising platform a FB spokesperson boasts that the algorithm ” ...can take in more than 10,000 different signals to predict a user’s likelihood of engaging with a single post.”

Facebook has known for some time that users like you, seek first the news from family and friends, not the other stuff. They have tried this strategy before. In 2018 they ditched the reverse chronological feed to bring, in their words “posts that sparked conversations and meaningful interactions.” Now, four years later they are returning to a chronological feed, alongside the discovery engine (and other options).

Family and Friends Are Buried?:

I honestly don’t use Facebook, but since I do post on Instagram I learned that only about ten percent of followers there see your new post! Here are few factors that determine what we see in our feeds: there are interests, based on what content you care about; relationships, the people you interact with or tag, and those you follow, usage– how you browse, and of course, frequency, how often you use the app and when the post was last shared. Here’s the irony: if you used the app more frequently to view family and friends, the algorithm should ‘know’ your interests better, show you the relationships that matter, and hence improve your usage! We all know it doesn’t work that way.

Hopefully this new Facebook pivot with the ability to customize your feed will resolve this. Even though you log on infrequently you will be able to change the settings to find more content from friends and family, not from outsiders. Perhaps one of these days Facebook will offer us a subscription service, instead of tailoring their service to advertisers. IMHO, If they charge users and dispense with ads, we might have a more valuable service and a better Facebook for family (and friends).

Is Web Camera in Car a Good Idea?

Always looking ahead! Should I think about a webcam?

A picture of a webcam in the front window of a vehicle.
Is web camera a good idea?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Friends of mine have a private airplane and they impress on me the importance of the ‘black box’ that can record errors or mechanical failures. I don’t have an airplane, but curious if cars need their own version of a black box. This got me thinking I would install a web camera in my own car, a Toyota Prius. It’s not a black box but it could notify me if anything went wrong. Do you think that a web camera in the car is a good idea? Gerard, Berkeley

Dear Gerard: My first reaction is that pedestrians and bikers are going to demand their own versions of a black box and mount webcams on their forehead. When they travel they are at far greater risk than drivers! Then we all be in court disputing one another rather than enjoying the open road.

But, on second thought, the web camera in a car can be a good idea, even if you are not at risk of an accident. Today  police vehicles, commercial vehicles, and fleets  use them because they help monitor conditions in the field. It’s less commonly known that some high-end vehicles like the Tesla Y also  have these cameras installed. One of my family members was surprised, but then delighted to discover that his vehicle had a webcam with loop recording. Police alerted him to this hidden camera after the front-end of his vehicle was damaged by flying debris. The webcam helped identify the culprit, a driver in a rogue pick up truck. About 11 to 12 percent of auto accidents in the US involve hit and run drivers (or debris) and the webcam can help you with the identities.

Front, Rear, & Social:

Hopefully you will not be in that situation and can use your webcam for more amusing purposes. One of them would be to post eclectic and novel footage to Instagram or Reddit. A site on Instagram social media that always brings a smile  is called @Bad Prius Drivers. Just a note of caution here before you use the web cam for social media.  Most people make an attribution error and assume that they are good drivers but other people behind the wheel are not as capable. It’s best to install a camera that does dual-purpose, both front and rear -end views. Rear end accidents are the most frequently occurring type of collision, accounting for about 29 percent of all crashes and resulting in a substantial number of injuries and fatalities each year. Not something you learn about on the Instagram site.

Collective Data

If your idea of entertainment is more data minded you can also use the webcam to good purpose and learn about the wild life. In a transportation paper that sampled 96  moose-vehicle collisions, researchers analyzed the webcam footage in a novel way. They measured the effects of road conditions, weather, moose behavior and driver response. They developed a useful statistical model and have  some helpful conclusions should you encounter a a near-miss with a  moose (hint: vehicle slows).

Perhaps you will not encounter a moose, but be prepared to drive in a car with a webcam relatively soon. As vehicles get increasingly automated and closer to autonomous, webcams are going to become as essential as black boxes are to airplanes.  Cameras enable these cars to interpret road conditions and send them to a computer for processing. These cameras, unlike the ones that you install in your car today, will send data back and forth and  completely track your journey. Today’s webcam is resident within your vehicle and presumably has an on -and- off switch for privacy.