“Time of our lives”

No, I will not talk about that famous soap opera. I will talk, however, about a project we have been trying to push forward for some time now and in which I am starting focus now (leaving behind other tasks). This will be the core of my ICT Ph.D. thesis: a social timeline application for the elderly and their close loved ones.

You may ask: why don’t we just teach them how to use Facebook? Or any other widely used Social Network featuring a timeline?. And the answer is: “Well, we could do so, but don’t you find it extremely complex? Do they really want to share everything they do, or rather just share the big picture of their lives and connect with old and new friends alike?“. From that basic idea, with the help of my advisor, we are working on the design and implementation of a Timeline Social Application that will help eldelry tell their stories with the minimum effort requirement and that will be semi-automatically enriched with related content and people.

The idea is to build a social application for elderly that will help them collect, enrich (also automatically) and share their life experiences, find potentially old friends and other people with similar experiences, and, ultimately, increase their social interactions and foster exploration of their lives. The metaphor we have chosen to implement the application is that of a timeline, where experiences are arranged along two dimensions: time and place.

Building such application is challenging, and hence suitable for a Ph.D. on ICT (according to my advisor 😉 ). On one hand, it is challenging from an HCI/sociological point of view because we need to thoroughly understand what elderly want to share and how to lower the barriers for doing so via a dedicated application. And it is also challenging from a social network analysis point of view, because we need to understand how to collect relevant information from the Web to automatically enrich timelines with a context (timeline-based querying and ranking of information) and how to discover communities of people around shared or near experiences (timeline similarity algorithms).

We will also need to evaluate the usability of the application (e.g., ease of use and acceptance) by doing users studies, and the viability of the underlying algorithms by mapping our problem to data that we can source from twitter, facebook, or other social networks with built-in timelines.

To do this, I have first spent some months interacting with elders and sharing activities with them to understand their interests and social networking patterns. And there is no clear answer here. Is such a diverse world… and yet so particular. One thing is clear: beyond limitations, many are even more active than most of the people we dare to consider young.  But there are also those for whom engaging socially is heavily hindered by the natural limitations of ageing. And ICT, in general, is not well designed for them, nor it provides support for their pattern of interactions and interests.

From these experiences, we have learnt that one of the most important things we treasured as we grow old are our memories. The recount of our life experiences are one of the most recurrent topics for sharing. For this reason, we are working to define a conceptual model for life experiences and events, something simpler that the full fledged “Life Events” model that underlies Facebook’s timeline, but at the same time with the a good expression capability, to layout people’s lives in the most accurate and fun way.

And memories serve also to connect. To find friends or to motivate social interactions, our memories can be the mean to an end. It is for this that we want to build a social application around their memories, using these as the mean to explore and connect with their families and even more so, rediscover old friends that shared some of these experiences.

The next step is to identify interaction design patterns and algorithms for semi-automatically populating people’s (e.g., from scanned photos owned by the user, or from web sources, etc). This is to progressively enriching life experiences with relevant information and media, following the stated goal of minimal skills, minimal effort, and maximum “fun” requirement, so that the sharing and bonding experience starts even from the life event construction phase.

We will need also some algorithms to find potential friends and people that shared some of the same life experiences. A sort of frienship recommender based on timelines. The goal here are both helping the population of life memories and of finding people to whom a person might want to connect and interact with.

The final step is to design interactions metaphors that make it easy for elders to share memories and experiences with co-located friends or family members, as well as virtually.

So, as it usually happens while doing a Ph.D., we never followed the planned sequence, and instead of working fully on the underlying model and algorithms, we have started now to explore the UI. A first prototype of how it might look like is available here (please, bare with me, I am not a designer 😉 ). The idea would be that of providing the means for elder to easily share their life stories, while at the same time enriching the experience of exploring the timeline by providing contextual information in each point of it.

From that prototype on, I have now started to implement a semi-functional prototype that will provide real interactions an initial automatic context creation. So, stay tune for more.

It might look like this, powered by this great JavaScript timeline library that I am testing right now along other possibilities.

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