Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Smartphone for all: Promoting independence with home video monitoring

I’ve rewritten my chapter on Nest Cam use: Special needs smartphone: draft sample sub-chapter on Google Nest Cam use. In the new version I go into more detail on how video monitoring can be used to support independence. Use may be transient…

For Explorers with life-threatening medical disorders home video monitoring may be a longterm aide. For this use the Nest Cam (or other) video-active light would be active. That is, the Explorer knows when they are on video. The Nest Cam may be setup in a kitchen or living room. This kind of use is very similar to using video monitoring for elderly parents.

For many other Explorers, however, video monitoring may be a temporary aide to independent living. An Explorer may become dependent on  having a Guide nearby, when left alone they may become anxious, particularly anxious about meeting expected behavior standards. Anxiety can translate into problem behaviors, such as harassing siblings or arguing with roommates. In this case a home video monitor can be a transitional aide, a step between having a Guide at hand and going solo.

In this case the Nest Cam video on light may be either enabled or disabled; Guide and Explorer can experiment with both methods. A Guide may leave a home and observe remotely, then decrease observations and increase time away as both Guide and Explorer gain confidence. After initial use the monitor may be used very infrequently and eventually removed.

In another situation there might be a concern about what time of day an Explorer living on their own leaves for work or school. A guide might use the techniques in the Tracking Location chapter to check in this, but either an on-demand, or more conveniently, a stored video record could help. Once the concern is managed the stored video feature an be discontinued or the camera can be removed. Stored video may also help with reviewing home visitors if there are concerns about exploitation of a vulnerable Explorer.

In many cases a Nest Cam or similar video monitor may be used for a limited time, you can remove your account information and another person can use it.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Smartphone for All: Working with a budget

I’m still working on a Smartphone for all chapter about how to manage smartphone costs within the typical $92/month SSI disability managed residence personal spending budgets and the rules around external support, but I do have first drafts for introduction and carrier selection…

In the United States the least expensive useable and reliable smartphone mobile plans cost about $30 a month. A reliable low cost smartphone, with typical tax and shipping, costs between $120 for Android and $285 for an iPhone. That means a cost of about $840 over the typical two year lifespan of a low end Android device, or $1,000 for a refurbished iPhone (but the iPhone will last longer).

This cost is high for an Explorer on a typical low fixed income, but without careful shopping the price can be much higher. With a deluxe iPhone and a premium mobile plan total costs could exceed $2,770 over two years! Mobile carriers are good at getting consumers to pay these very high prices, but this would be disastrous for most Explorers. Even a yearly average cost of $840 to $1000 is going to require careful budgeting and control of data use, it helps that a smartphone replaces a $250 landline.


It used to be quite hard to know what it really cost to buy a smartphone and buy carrier services. It’s easier than it used to be, but sorting out costs can still be confusing.

The best approach for a Guide to start by choosing a mobile service provider or “carrier” that works for your Explorer. All US carriers support both iPhone and Android, and once you choose a carrier you will have more options for choosing a device. More importantly the cost of mobile service over a two year interval will usually exceed the cost of an appropriate smartphone.

Unless an Explorer can be added to a “family plan” at an affordable rate, carriers like AT&T and Verizon are too expensive. Instead begin with a look at T-Mobile or small carriers that resell big carrier services. The latter includes Republic Wireless, Consumer Cellular and Ting Wireless. 

Ting Wireless is a good reference point. Their web site is a marvel of clarity. With Ting customers purchase base capacity and overage fees are relatively affordable. Ting allows alerts and usage caps to help users stay within their budget — those are big features for low income users.

A typical Explorer may use less than 60 minutes of “talk time” a month, less than 100 SMS messages (ex: Facebook Messenger is free), and 500 MB of data no video. At Ting Wireless those services will cost $24 a month plus “regulatory fees/taxes” (likely @ $30).

Ting, like many of these low cost no contract carriers, sells low cost devices including refurbished used smartphones. This is a cost-effective and relatively trouble-free way to purchase a smartphone. As of Feb 2016 a refurbished iPhone 5c sells for $237 and a new Samsung Galaxy sells for $110.

In some cases an Explorer will have a used device, possibly from a family member. Ting will confirm if the device works with their service.

Whichever option you choose watch for hidden fees. Some carriers have hidden “activation” fees and all carriers exclude “regulatory fees and taxes” from their list prices. T-Mobile often hides its best deals, Google will help find them. Even if you don’t end up using Ting Wireless, their prices make a good comparison.

In terms of supported smartphone use I wonder how often families “loan” a device…

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Smartphone for all: "Parental" controls and managing messaging abuse

It’s hard to get good information on managing smartphone use for a vulnerable person — aka “parental controls”. Especially for Smartphones.

Vendors sites often promise more than they can deliver and provide little information on how they work. Vendors are also understandably reluctant to discuss side-effects and problems. The tech resources I trust tend to dislike the whole idea of parental controls (writers are too young!), and Google search results are dominated by vendor sites, spam blogs, and under-resourced newspaper columns. Parents and “Guides” (supporters of vulnerable users, aka “Explorers”) are truly at sea.

Ok, so “At sea” is a bit polite. Screwed is probably more accurate. The next time your TV tells you that that it’s “easy to monitor your child’s smartphone use” you have my permission to put a brick through the screen.

It’s hard to get reliable information, but I need to cover this topic in my smartphone for all book. So in this post I’m going to share my current impressions — I’d love to get comments here or elsewhere. My impressions are certain to change as a I learn more. For insight on Android solutions I need to credit a review by Brian Hall [1]; just ignore anything he says about iOS and iPhones. For example, he is impressed by the ability of third party Android apps to track location or limit app installation — but those capabilities have long been part of every iPhone. I don’t blame Brian, it’s hard to know both Android and iOS [2] and content farm writing is hard work.

My impressions:

  • Brian’s article focuses on filtering and restricting rather than monitoring. For a vulnerable adult I think monitoring is just as important — but it’s harder to do.
  • iOS (iPhone) has far better built-in restriction options than Android, but it needs better texting/messaging controls and it needs time limits [3]. If you want to restrict or eliminate Text Messaging on a stock iPhone you need to both disable iMessage [4] and have a mobile carrier that allows restriction or monitoring of SMS texting (typically for a non-trivial monthly fee).  A parent or Guide may consider something like Facebook Messenger (https://www.messenger.com/) [5]. Messenger’s web client makes it easier to monitor than SMS or iMessage — assuming one has control of an Explorer’s credentials. It can be used separately from Facebook.
  • It’s easier to extend Android than iOS, so Android plus a separate app and service has some advantages over iOS. This may be particularly true for texting controls. I don’t know how these impact device reliability or usability, I read that some of them are difficult to install. From Hall’s review I’d say Norton Family Premier is the only solution worth looking at, but it has weak texting/messaging controls
  • This party solutions for iOS leverage the tools Apple built for corporate iPhones. These tools are limited but they are well tested. The main strength is web filtering and monitoring, but that’s less useful in the Facebook age when, for many “Explorers”, browsers can be disabled with little impact. (Disabling the browser is easy to do on iOS, but requires a third party product on Android.)
  • Social networks (Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, etc) can only be monitored by using a user’s credentials; that is, by assuming their identity. This probably violates the Terms of Service of these businesses and it’s too complex for many Guides or Parents to take on. I do discuss it in my book though.
My primary surprise is how hard it is to support safe use of old school SMS/Messaging. It seems to have never occurred to Apple that this would be a good option to provide, and, of course, Android defers all of those concerns to third party developers.
- fn -

[1] Published on a content-farm site with a name suspiciously reminiscent of Tom’s Hardware, a famous geek resource. Such is the state of the 2016 web. Once BYTE would have done a fabulous review, but it died long ago. I think we pay a price for that kind of absence.

[2] So have sympathy for me!

[3] Time limits are usually more important for children than for independent adults with cognitive disabilities. Lack of texting/messaging controls are annoying though.

[4] Log out of iMessage in Settings, then lock accounts in restrictions.

[5] Yes, Facebook, famed invader of privacy and exploiter of customers is now the “safer” option. For now!

Monday, February 01, 2016

Smartphone for All: Examples of using Apple Notes.app or Google Keep.app to extend memory and independence

A Smartphone for All: book excerpt, from a chapter on using Notes. 

This post has been updated with some excellent additions by Deb T. In addition to being a part of the book, it also illustrates how complex a special needs adults independent living really is.


Whether an Explorer is following the Apple Way or the Google Way their notes will look very similar. They’ll typically start with a handful of Notes created by a Guide, but the number will grow over time. Some Explorers will add their own Notes. 

Most Explorers will prefer to browse Notes rather than search for them. Typically Notes will be ordered by the date they were last changed with the most recently changed Notes at the top. The first line of a Note will typically show as the Note title, so make it descriptive.

If an Explorer is using the Search ability they are probably also creating and editing their own Notes. When using this function it’s helpful to put likely search terms in the note, perhaps as a list of words at the button of a Note.

Notes can be organized into named collections called “Folders” in Apple Notes.app or organized by “Labels” in Google Keep.app. This adds complexity however and should only be considered if an Explorer has more than 50 notes and really dislikes using Search.

There are many ways to use Notes to extend an Explorer’s memory. The following table gives a few examples taken from real world experience; this table also shows how complicated an Explorer’s routine can be.

Many of these Notes hold non-sensitive or public information, but some require that both the Explorer’s smartphone and Cloud information are truly secure. We reviewed this in Setting up an Explorer’s Smartphone including an encrypted smartphone, long letter-number smartphone unlock codes, fingerprint identification, a responsible Explorer, short timeout auto-lock, and a strong Cloud password.  Some low end Android phones may not be encrypted, don’t put confidential information into Google Keep on those devices. In the table below items that require a secure device are italicized.


Note Title

What’s in the Note

Banking information

Bank account information, how to make deposits or withdraw money or find balance, ATM PIN code if Explorer has difficulty remembering it, numbers to call for a lost or stolen credit card.


Bike maintenance advice, serial numbers, what to do if lost or stolen.


Notes about when bills are due, how to pay, wise limited on spending.

Church, Temple, etc

Names of religious leadership, times of services, people who are part of religious life, social events coming up.

Clothing sizes

Sizes for clothes, boots, shoes.

Combination locks, PINs and passcodes

We all have too many of these. A single Note is a good way to hold them all, but of course this requires a secure smartphone and a secure Cloud.


Important dates, such as birthdays and anniversaries. (Duplicates what’s on the Calendar, but often useful to have separately.)

Emergency Information

Who to contact in case of an emergency. This is not the Emergency information that’s part of Apple Health.

Family photos 

How to view family photo shares.

Financial worker

For many Explorers the Financial Worker (benefits admistration) is separate from the Social Worker and there are different procedures to follow. Some Explorers will want Notes combined, others will like separate notes.

Fun stuff

Notes to support local recreation, leisure and fun activities; a helpful resource for independent time scheduling. An Explorer or Guide may use this Note when working on the Calendar. For example: movie theater, pizza and sub delivery, church, etc. Gym information might go here instead of the Gym Note.

Gym information

Open hours, class schedule


Apartment/group home details including contact numbers (also in Contacts), look out procedure, how to request maintenance, how to work with the rental office.

Library information

Schedule, library card number, WiFi procedure.

Medical history, dental and health insurance numbers

To share with caregivers, particularly in an emergency. Includes major medical problems, current medication, providers, people to contact, insurance numbers.


Names and addresses of neighbors, particularly for Explorers who have difficulty remembering names or matching names to people. This may duplicate what’s in Contacts.app (address book) but is helpful to have separately.

Passwords and credentials

Username, passwords, web site address (URL), “Secret questions” with the answers used.

Relatives and special people

Names and birthdays of extended family and special family friends. May be combined with Neighbors.

Residential program manager/staff contacts

Some of these will also be in Contacts, but this is important information for many Explorers. It deserves a separate Note.

Smartphone tips and how to

Basic smartphone tips. If appropriate for Explorer a reminder of how to find the smartphone manual (example: iBooks).

Social worker

Name of social worker and how to work with them, particularly around bus and transit services. The Transit Note might refer here, and the Social worker information might also be in Contacts.

Social Security and Disability Information

Contacts and details, spending limits and reporting requirements.  Date of next follow-up (this would also go in the Calendar).

Sports teams and social group

For each sports teams and social group useful information such as link to team calendar, names and numbers of coaches and players.

Staff and aides

Names of support staff and contact information. This will also be in Contacts.app


Guides to transit including bus pass information if applicable. Reminder of how to use a transit app to get bus information. 

Travel and packing

Packing and travel advice for a short trip.

Web addresses

Generally web addresses will be part of other Notes or they’ll show up on the Credentials page, but in some cases it’s useful to have a short separate list.

WiFi locations and WiFi passwords

Explorers need WiFi to backup their smartphones or download new apps, but they may not have WiFi at home. In some cases it may be useful to list locations and passwords, such as Coffee shops or the Apple Store. Library WiFi information may go here or in the Library Note.

Work and work training program.

Supervisor and care manager and any work requirements or procedures including transportation arrangements.


This is a long list, but the the more independent an Explorer is the more their Notes collection will grow. A Guide should start with 4-5 Notes then work with an Explorer to build out the Notes collection.  Many Notes may begin as information sent in an Email; very few Explorers will search email for reference information.

Some Note content overlaps with Calendar and Contacts. A moderate amount of duplication is needed, but too much becomes a maintenance burden. The appropriate location will vary by Explorer, but the Calendar is particularly important.

Most Explorers will learn to update and manage their Notes; that is a great life skill to encourage. Managing Notes includes deleting obsolete Notes, a Guide will want to make Notes review, including deleting obsolete Notes, a part of their scheduled weekly Explorer support time.