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Posted on 9th April 2013 by Johanna Kollmann -
We spent Wednesday evening to Friday afternoon not doing client work, but hacking away during the first Sidekick Balaganathon.
After a round of pitching, three ideas survived the dot-voting, and the Sidekicks broke into three teams (aiming for a balance of skills). We'd like to share with you what we made; this first post is about the winner, Sidetracked.
The design problem
You are taking the train from Scotland down to London, and you have some time. You’d like to get off the train somewhere along the way, to walk around a historic town centre, discover interesting architecture, check out a local museum, or savour a pint in a cosy pub. But how do you find out where is good?
The usual way is to find your route on a website like nationalrail.co.uk or Wikipedia, then do multiple web searches for each station along the way to find something interesting.
Mark pitched the idea of a tool that would accomplish this in one step, focussed on a small number of types of attractions. The Sidekicks voted for it, and Johanna and Alex joined his team to help build it. We called it Sidetracked.
Sidetracked - Discover historic sites, museums and pubs along your train route
Sidetracked shows you what route has the most interesting gems to discover, and makes it easier to plan your trip. Enter where you are leaving from and travelling to, and we’ll show you the top historic sites, museums and pubs along the way.
We love Sidetracked for discovering places to visit, and for finding some hilarious Foursquare places and tips. Very happy to have built something fun and useful for ourselves!
How we built it: the data
We started out by researching data about all the train stations in the UK to allow us to show the routes, and we explored APIs and databases we could use for the recommendations. We decided to focus on historic sites, museums and pubs (ideally those with good beers and real ales), and ended up using the Foursquare and Untappd APIs.
While there is a lot of information available about heritage sites and listed buildings, we couldn’t find any APIs and only a few accessible databases. The most promising one we found was Kasabi’s English Heritage dataset (backed up on archive.org after Kasabi shut down). Unfortunately it’s in RDF format, which none of us had experience with. Converting this large set to CSV with Ruby was an option, but would have taken too long.
For the train times, we are using Realtime Train Info’s API. We had to map the train stations in order to generate a route, and discovered that NaPTAN, the dataset we found via data.gov.uk, had each station, but in Ordnance Survey Grid Reference format. Foursquare requires latitude and longitude. Luckily Alex found this reference for how to convert the data, and did some manual wrangling to make it all work.
The learning: there is less accessible open data out there than we were hoping for. Don’t underestimate the effort it takes to get data into shape.
How we built it: a focused approach
Mark had a very clear vision for Sidetracked. We decided that it had to work for our parents: tourists who are keen to explore Britain’s history and pubs, who will plan ahead, who will use the information on the go, who might not have data on their phones, and who are probably not Foursquare users. This helped us prioritise our efforts during the hackathon, and it also gave us a clear idea of what we still have to build to make it useful for them.
You can see our backlog and an overview of what we’ve built over on Sidetracked.
The learning: making something useful for yourself works. Having a very clear idea of your ideal user allows you to focus your efforts. A leader with a clear vision can settle debates quickly.
Posted on 14th January 2013 by Kyra Maya Phillips -
The story of how I came to first find Sidekick is one of pure serendipitous connection: it all started with one brief glance over a tweet from a stranger I happened to be following proclaiming the brilliance of a blog on This is Helpful, which led me to contact Ted, its author, whom I later met at the Royal Festival Hall, and who then, with what looked like snap judgment, sent a brief tweet introducing me to Adil, Sidekick’s founder. Two fortuitous tweets.
"Do something you love with people you love" is a message that immediately greets entrants to the offices of Sidekick. I remember being struck by it when I arrived for the first time. Its simplicity obscured a much more powerful message: work on things that matter with the people who bring out the best in you.
Some (myself included), may have shrugged the statement off as a simple, oft heard cliché. But on that day, I didn't succumb to that more cynical temptation. Instead, reading it served as one of those important episodes in a career when a hunch in the back of one's mind connects with another, triggering the beginning of an exploration that would lead me to the fascinating study of where creativity comes from, and how we can build the environments that both spur and sustain it.
I've been a huge fan of Steven Johnson, the - in my own humble opinion - most venerable voice on the provenance of good, world-transforming ideas. In his Where Good Ideas Come From, Johnson beautifully illustrates how the environments that are most prolific in the generation of brilliant thoughts are those which allow those thoughts to connect to each other. As most big ideas come into the world more as “hunches” rather than fully complete, sudden epiphanies, they need that other element – that other hunch - otherwise, they die. So, naturally, it is those spaces that allow half baked thoughts to fuse and influence one another that end up being the fertile grounds for innovation.
Only a cursory glance at the some of the world’s most transformational ideas brings this vision to life. It was within the physical and conceptual confines of the Homebrew Computer Club - a group of amateur hackers and hobbyists whose meetings sparked the personal computer revolution - that the two Steves began to plan what would become Apple Computer. You can go even further back in time: it was the 18th century London coffee-house that provided Adam Smith the space to write most of The Wealth of Nations, giving him the opportunity to circulate his first drafts among his contemporaries. It’s funny to think of Adam Smith going through the “build, measure, learn” process of lean start ups: putting his ideas on the table and allowing them to fuse with those of others.
Yet consider the general, widely accepted discourse around intelligence and creativity. The image is one of the gifted entrepreneur - the Steve Jobss’, the Henry Fords, the Thomas Edisons - who, on their own, and as a result of their sheer individual virtues of genius, happened to simply generate better ideas faster than the rest of us. The real, perhaps less sexy story for each is actually one of collaboration. These three entrepreneurs (and all others) innovated within a context: they were heavily influenced by the ideas of others both in the past and in the present (Thomas Edison, for instance, had a strong network of brilliant engineers surrounding him, Steve Jobs had the other Steve, the true engineer of the two, and Henry Ford’s assembly line took inspiration from other industries, like meatpacking and railroads).
So when I read that tenet upon entering Sidekick - do the things you love with the people you love - I couldn't help but do what I had read inside of Johnson's books in times past: fuse it to the ideas already flowing around in my head. The statement did, in every sense, complete a hunch. I came in with the vague notion that yes, our potential for creativity depends on our connection to others, but I had yet to find an organization that so visibly embodied that creed.
Sidekick Studios has a clear mission: to help big organizations innovate like start ups and solve problems that matter. The way in which it fulfills that mission pays genuine heed to the credo of “hunches” innovation. If you seek to spur large players to act like small ones, what better way than to learn by doing, by building small players yourself? And so it has: Sidekick has built its own start ups that matter, and it is perpetually fusing ideas from the experiences of that process with its work within bigger organizations. It is a sort of modern 18th century coffee house: talented people working on cross disciplinary ventures, in constant conversation, influencing each other’s hunches.
So that simple truism that risks sounding like an overused trope - do something you love with the people you love - is rather a symbol for, at its core, the birthplace of true creativity.
Posted on 3rd April 2012 by Asi Sharabi -
Late last year, we've moved Sidekick HQ to a lovely and spacious yet quite bare studio just off Old Street roundabout. It had a lot of potential but not more than that.
We called our friend Julie of Eve&Eileen to help us. Julie is awesome. Look for yourself:
Yes, we even have a circus elephant stand. For real.
See more photos and other works by Julie Landau here
Posted on 13th March 2012 by Asi Sharabi -
At Sidekick we’ve got a thing for Startups that Matter. It’s what unite us all here but at the same time it’s quite a contentious idea that stirs some good internal debates.
Matters to who exactly?
What matters to me doesn’t necessarily matters to someone else of course. Yes, we may have a shared thing for purposeful innovation that solves societal problems, or our passion to find markets in places that that aren’t obvious but ‘what matters’ is a tricky concept.
All I can personally say is that if you’re passionate enough about something you should go and do it. If it matters to you, it matters.
I was thinking a lot lately about what makes a good, interesting startup (that matters) and looking at some new businesses that makes me tick I came to realise that what is common to all of these, is that in whichever market they operate, they have redefined the relationships between players in that market.
My real fascination with the web has started when it moved from being a platform for data/information to being a space for people or, put differently, when the web has evolved from being ‘just’ an information superhighway to the connective tissue of society.
The web today is the web of relationships. It’s about extending and strengthening relationships that already exist and allowing the creation of new ones. The web is enabling opportunities to create real value out of those relationships - to make them easier, more valuable and to extend them from the physical to the digital and back again.
If you manage to either strengthen, redefine and/or create new relationships to happen you are probably onto something good - socially, commercially, creatively and sometimes all of the above.
Remember the good old Threadless? The thing that was so cool about Threadless, is that it changed the relationship between a brand and consumers. The brand no longer dictates what it thinks you should wear. The shape of the brand and its products are decided in a three way negotiation between the brand, the designers and the customers. And they’ve done it in a way that makes the whole thing more fun than buying a normal t-shirt. How quickly we got used to that way of doing things? (I know, I could just simply said marketplace or platform but that wouldn’t make my point innit)
Of course any crowdsourced and peer-to-peer platform will have redefined relationships too. Zopa, the pioneer of peer-to-peer landing that redefined our relationship with money and people, or the brlliant Kickstarter which is fast becoming a real alternative to fund your project as it redefined the relationships between audiences, founders, funders and finance.
Airbnb redefines our relationship with our real-estates and with strangers.
Patients-like-me and CureTogether create new and redefine the relationships between people and their health - tens of thousands of patients around the world are already sharing information about symptoms and treatments for hundreds of medical conditions
Good karma clothing as well as various other swap clubs startups redefines our relationships with and sense of ownership to clothing and made sustainable consumption fun
Housebites makes any foodie and aspiring masterchef a local take away spot.
The list goes on...
And finally our very own The Amazings aims to redefine the relationship between society and older people. We want to give every retired individual an opportunity to become micro-entrepreneur by wrapping up their skills and selling them back to the community.
Posted on 1st March 2012 by Adil Abrar -
The usual thing for product demo films are explani-mations (explanation and animation - geddit). For one, we're kind of bored with those. But at the same time, we didn't think that would really captured the essence of Buddy, which is like a mini therapist that you walk around with you in your pocket, recording how you're feeling and what you're doing, wherever you are.
From a product strategy point of view, we designed Buddy to move away from the idea that therapy is something you do sitting at your computer, but instead can be something that can be integrated into your life. Which is important not just from an accessibility point of view, but because I believe we should try to normalise therapy, and not push it to the outer fringes of our lives.
As a result, when we came to make the film, we decided early on to focus on live action, real characters, real events - with the tool fitting around the action.
The other idea we were keen to communicate is that Buddy bridges the formal professional-led model of care, and the emergence of user-driven digital technologies, where people are managing their own health. From our time designing and building services in mental health, we feel the exciting point is where we can get these two worlds to come together. Where we bring digital innovation to the NHS to create new types of solutions, but also bring the NHS into digital technologies.
To elaborate, there are lots of mobile and web apps out there now, which are there to support people with health problems, particularly mental health. This is a good thing. However, our view is that there is no substitute for human intervention, particularly from clinicians with a wealth of experience. We're really interested in a model of public service delivery where we empower people with digital tools, but we also find light-touch ways for the innovation to plug back into formal services.
I'm getting really excited by this bridging of formal care and informal care (I would love to come up a term to describe it), and I suspect getting this right, will be the key to creating better, cheaper public services. It's not about doing it for them, nor is it about leaving people to fend for themselves. It's somewhere in the middle - and that's the space that we're keen to explore with Buddy. And the space that we tried to bring to life in this film.
Without further ado, here it is. Hope you enjoy it.