Friending non-humans: A lazy foodie’s hack for the Android address book

Probably not one my best characteristics but I do tend to order in a lot of food from a variety of places near my apartment. There are also enough places around where I live that I end up trying a bunch of different places and then when a familiar menu comes up again I am often left wondering “what did I eat there the last time, and how good was it?”.

I was half tempted to create a food journal app specifically for delivery food. Think of it as a Foodspotting / Foursquare app but more like a personal diary than a social app. Neat idea I guess, except I have almost no time these days. But then I got thinking: the People app on Android exposes a bunch of new social apis that I felt I could maybe use in some manner. Could I use the Android People app be used to “friend” my favorite delivery places?

One of the things Android has going for it for something like this is the Intents system and inter-app communication that are very core to the OS. This means quite a few applications are open to external data or expose their own data to external apps. My end “hack” basically involved creating a contact to represent each of my more regular delivery places and wiring it to different apps via URL patterns registered by some apps that I could find online. Since you can add many web links to each contact, I added a couple:

  1. A link to the mobile foursquare URL for the location. Since the Foursquare app registers itself as a handler to those links, clicking on the link on the contacts app launches the foursquare app for that location.
  2. A Google Docs file url where I can write about the dishes I ate at that place. Once again, since the Google Docs (now Drive) app registers itself as a handler for those urls, using that on the phone works well enough.

Check out the video below to see it in action:



My original goal was to tie it to my Foodspotting profile but that app does is completely closed and does not respond to any local intents or URLs.

For the most part this does let me do what I wanted to do. Look up the latest reviews/tips about a place, put down my thoughts about different dishes I tried there and then call them if I feel like it. In a more complete app that leveraged the people app social apis even more, the photos representing the places could also change, maybe representing a special dish or something.

But it does make me think the idea of contacts really does need to expand beyond the people in my life. I mean by definition, isn’t anything you can call or contact for more information a contact? Why can’t I  save a particular restaurant from Foursquare directly as a contact to my address-book since I usually call the place and not really a person there? Extend this thinking and you realize there are a bunch of “things” you often call: the taxi service, the hospital, the utility company, etc.

A lot of these thoughts are also probably a result of my reading reading a particular thesis by  John Kestner, an MIT student on creating “A Social Network for Lonely Objects“. Its a fascinating read and I definitely recommend it.

All of this also involves a rethinking of fundamental parts of the data that define a contact. VCards are a very human concept but we need to morph that construct into a more unstructured form, so that a contact of a particular type can create data fields relevant to it. The internet is already evolving to embrace unstructured data with NoSQL databases and such.

Kinda ironic that Android recently renamed the Contacts app to the People app in ICS 😉

Author: Arpit Mathur

Arpit Mathur is a Principal Engineer at Comcast Labs where he is currently working on a variety of topics including Machine Learning, Affective Computing, and Blockchain applications. Arpit has also worked extensively on Android and iOS applications, Virtual Reality apps as well as with web technologies like JavaScript, HTML and Ruby on Rails. He also spent a couple of years in the User Experience team as a Creative Technologist.

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