REDMOND, Wash. — April 17, 2008 — How do you deliver a “whiz-bang” application that “creates desire for knowledge and involvement in issues, communities, events, political parties or news”? That was the task of the regional winners from a field of more than 30 leading Web design and development firms who participated in the Microsoft PhizzPop Design Challenge. With the goal of inspiring creativity in design using Microsoft Silverlight technology, contest participants were asked to use their Web design and development expertise to stimulate participation in the democratic process.
Bringing their own perspective and competitive spirit to the challenge, the five finalists demonstrated their creations last month in front of 500 attendees at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. A panel of judges, including design and development experts from companies such as Netflix and Adaptive Path evaluated the applications, and the audience was also invited to submit their “People’s Choice” vote. “The contest brought together some of the best design and development firms in the country,” says Will Tschumy, Senior User Experience Evangelist at Microsoft. “It was interesting to see the creative intensity that was put into creating these applications, and the different approaches each firm brought to creating solutions.”
The winner was Washington, D.C.-based Cynergy Systems, whose solution, “ben,” is a series of interconnected, cross-platform applications based on Microsoft Silverlight, Windows Presentation Foundation, Live Services, Twitter and voice-over-IP (VoIP) technologies. Cynergy won the People’s Choice award as well.
Ben delivers a comprehensive news service that allows for content aggregation and visualization of trends and perspectives, and then links users to events with scheduling and calendars, and even enables them to contact local representatives directly about a given issue.
The application’s name was a nod to Ben Franklin, as well as a play on words, reflecting the idea of “be informed, be involved.”
“That’s what ben was all about,” says Dave Wolf, vice president of sales and marketing for Cynergy. “Could we write software that would increase citizen engagement?”
The first thing on which Cynergy focused was helping ben find the right news for each user — considering relevance, location, other articles the user had read, popularity and other factors. The developers also found ways to balance the sources of the news.
“One big problem with news today is there’s just too much of it,” says Wolf. “Feeds become streams and streams become rivers and pretty soon there’s more content and more news than you could possibly consume. This is a real problem when you look at a system that selects the news for you.”
According to Wolf, ben is also able to visualize trends about the news, plotting stories visually as they are consumed, and helping users answer a multitude of questions. Where did the stories come from? What are the “most read” publications and articles, by the user and others? Which publications are considered by the system and by votes to be the most balanced? Other visualizations have to do with where the story falls on the political spectrum from left to right.
“Part of the value of rich Internet applications is the ability to visualize information in different ways,” says Wolf. “You can’t read a newspaper and visualize where a story falls on the political spectrum, but with technologies like Silverlight, we can do exactly that.”
Once ben delivered the news, and new ways to understand it, the team turned to how ben could motivate users to get involved. To that end, the application allows users to find events through Windows Live services, put them on a personal schedule, see the events on a map, and even virtually attend.
That level of functionality may have been enough for a competitive entry, but the team wanted to take the level of engagement even further. The ben application consisted of three main parts – the information gathering and visualization service, which was called “ben online” or “big ben,” and the scheduling function that helps people find events and get involved, called “little ben.” The third part, called “tiny ben,” was the element that really sizzled at PhizzPop.
“When our grandparents, listening to Walter Cronkite, heard a story that excited them or upset them, they picked up the phone and called their representative,” Wolf says. “That level of engagement is gone these days, and to a large degree, technology and the Internet have pushed it away. So we asked ourselves, can we bring it back? How? And that’s where the mobile device and VoIP work came in.”
Using either a mobile device or VoIP functionality on the Internet, tiny ben can integrate a news article with location information and, through a variety of online feeds made available by the government, locate a user’s representative and directly make a call.
A screen shot of Tiny ben, which lets users respond immediately to news or information. Tiny ben is part of an application called ben by Cynergy Systems; the application won the Microsoft PhizzPop Design Challenge. April 17, 2008
“Tiny ben is about being able to read this personalized news and immediately reach out and touch your representative and truly have citizen engagement,” Wolf says.
To demonstrate the functionality at PhizzPop, the team used ben to browse for news in Facebook, and then placed a call through the site directly to Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign. With audience participation, 500 attendees shouted “hello from South by Southwest” to Obama’s campaign voicemail.
“As far as I know, nobody had ever made a phone call from Facebook before, so that part was pretty slick,” Wolf says.
So how did Wolf’s design team go from getting the challenge to demonstrating such a rich application in just 30 days? Silverlight and Microsoft’s Web technology stack, he says, have several advantages that enable unheard-of productivity.
“With the rich applications we’re developing today, we’ve introduced a new person, the designer, into the process, and culturally and procedurally that’s a challenge,” he says. “What’s compelling about the Microsoft platform is that this designer-to-developer workflow is baked into their tools, and that makes it fundamentally easier for us to write these solutions.”
According to Wolf, Cynergy’s designers and developers, using Microsoft Expression Studio and Visual Studio, were able to master the tools and seamlessly integrate their work, enabling them to create a useful and innovative application in a very short time.
“We were able to quickly ‘retool’ our people and make them productive and successful, so much so that they could win this contest,” Wolf says. “The tools were designed to do business the way we do things today, and that fixes a lot of challenges that we’ve had to fix through our own processes for years now. We don’t have to force the tool to work the way we do, or worse, change the way we work to match the tool.”
Another advantage of Silverlight, according to Wolf, is the reuse of the front end user experience code with the code used in the back end — both built on .NET.
“The fact we have .NET running the browser the same way we have it running in the operating system is a huge advantage,” Wolf says. “Any time we have optimized tools it’s going to mean less time. We’re not fighting the tool and creating processes and procedures for people to follow, because the tools fundamentally make that easier for us, which means being able to do these things fast.”
According to Wolf, the PhizzPop challenge was a proving ground, providing a forum where Cynergy could not only showcase a team that was built from the ground up to develop rich Internet applications, but also what’s possible with Silverlight 2.0 in terms of being able to quickly build sophisticated applications.
“People look at Silverlight and think Web sites and widgets, but we see serious opportunities for software that runs across a mixture of the desktop and the Web,” Wolf says. “Silverlight represents the next generation of software.”
Visit the PhizzPop Design Challenge Web site for more information and to view a streaming video demonstration of ben.