Automation, Generation

Automation image

Although many talk about the power and potential of automation to aid us, sometimes we need to step back and ask ourselves what this means and where the limits lay.


In a recent episode of Loose Learners, John Johnston and Marianna Funes discussed web generators. These are applications designed to automate a part of the creative process. As I listened I realised how many of these generators I myself either use or have used in the past:

iMovie Movie Trailor – I have used these templates myself and with my students. What is useful about them is they provide a clear structure to riff off.

Lumen5 – I have made a few videos with Lumen5 to summarise longer posts. It reminds me a bit of Haiku Deck.

Adobe Spark – Made up of a suite of apps, Adobe Spark makes it easy to generate quick and easy images, posts and sites. In regards to video, I like that you record the audio for each slide, rather than one file across the whole video.

Each of these application works within a particular set of constraints, that make it simple to just make. In part, this reminds me of Tom Barrett’s point about knowing what is possible to work at the edges:

Not to be confused with restraint which is much more about self-control, constraint is about finding the edges of the page before you begin, it is about knowing what limits you have in terms of resources.

The challenge with all of this is being thoughtful about how these generators are used.

Johnston touches on this in regards to Micro.blog and using his site to syndicate to various social media siloes. He shares how although some tasks take a little bit longer, however he feels that he has inadvertently approached things with more care. I too have taken this approach recently. I have taken to using SNAP to send out links and have them syndicated on my site. This all involves a semi-autonomous setup.

I sometimes wonder if the best generator at times is in fact ourselves? Fine, we might use various tools to offload the physical labour, however they are associated with dynamic choices and actions. This is what I do with the creation of my images. I could probably automate this, especially with the addition of add-ons to Google Slides. This would then involve populating a spreadsheet or even a Google Form and applying this to a template. However, I feel that I have the process downpat that there is something in the generation that I actually like. Therefore, the automation in this situation comes in the form of process.

In a recent article, Antone Martinho-Truswell discusses automation and the way in which it seperates us from other animals. What stood out from his piece though was that automation has two parts: mental and technical.

There are two kinds of automation: those that are energetically independent, requiring human guidance but not much human muscle power (eg, driving a car), and those that are also independent of human mental input (eg, the self-driving car). Both are examples of offloading our labour, physical or mental, and both are far older than one might first suppose.

Too often the focus of automation is on the tool, yet there are infact other components that are overlooked. To me this is the ‘human’ side of things that people like Douglas Rushkoff and Kin Lane touch upon.

Take for example, reading online. There are some who advocate for the Chrome App TLDR as a way of improving comprehension. The problem with this is that it has its limits. Firstly, the tool does not teach you how to summarise, nor does it address every piece of text on the web. Instead, there comes a time when you have to draw on your own questions and protocols to help make sense of things.

Generators are good, but they have their limit. What is important though is that we never let go of the ability to think through things from scratch. This is the key to embrace both sides of automation, the physical and the mental. For sometimes all elements are needed to find the edge of the page and work from there.


So what about you? What are your experiences with automation or online generators? As always, comments welcome and webmentions too.


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When Automation Goes Awry

Off-shoring leads to automation

The future may well involve automation, but the path to getting there is not so clear.


In Rise of the Robots, Martin Ford suggests that:

As technology advances, we can expect that more and more of the routine tasks now performed by offshore workers will eventually be handled entirely by machines

His point is that offshoring is often a precursor to automation. It can be easy to see such conclusions as linear, straight lines with an inevitable end. However, I have had an experience over the last few weeks which highlights where we are at and where we still have to go.

The scenario in question involved changing to a SIM only contract as my plan with a handset had finished. My first step was to go into the telecommunication’s store. This is what I have always done. So I waited for near on half an hour in their newly designed space, with couches and screens everywhere, only to discover that they just sell products. If I wanted to change my plan then I would have to go online.

So I went online to my provider and looked around my account information. I could find how to add a range of useless services that would incur an additional.monthly fee, but was unclear how to adjust my plan.

Confused, I called the helpline. I followed the automated triage process. Got through to someone who said that they could not help me, explaining that they would put me through to someone who could. After waiting for thirty minutes, I hung up, fearing that I had been forgotten, and called the number again. This time i got someone who asked a few more questions to ascertain my situation, only to inform me that I had to go online if I wanted to change my plan.

So with fresh eyes I returned to the website. The more I clicked around, the more I bumped into the option to chat with somebody. I have had mixed results with this in the past. I was once told by a chat operator that global roaming had been added to my account only to discover once overseas that I had no connectivity. I clicked the button.

It opened a new screen and indicated that somebody would be with me soon. So I went back to searching the web and checking back every few seconds. I must have missed the notification and noticed that the operator had said hello, asking how they could help. I quickly punched in a “hello” back and then typed a second message outlining my situation. The messages were pushed through to the chat stream. I waited a minute only for an automated message to appear saying that the session would be ending due to my failure to respond.

I therefore opened a new chat window and went through the whole process again. This time I was more vigilant. A name finally appeared. I explained my situation. They verified my existence. We went around in circles, seemingly asking the same question over and over. Eventually it was ascertained that I wanted to change my plan. The operator shared a link to the plans. Once I identified which plan I was interested in, I was informed that I would be put through to someone from marketing. Ironically, while I waited the operator asked me who I was with for my internet. As if they did not already know from the 30+ cookies associated with their site. I politely explained that, with the quality of service provided, I would not be moving my internet to them. I received another token apology for more experience.

I was finally forwarded to a new operator. We spent another five minutes with civilities and again verifying who I was. After again clarifying what I was after, the operator explained that I needed to follow the steps on the page with the plan. I began clicking through. Even though the main page indicated that the plans were for those currently with Optus or coming from elsewhere, all the questions implied that it was designed for new users, especially the delivery of a new SIM. I asked Operator No.2 a few questions. They had no idea what I was talking about. This confused me, surely they would have a page for them to use in order to walk me through the process? Frustrated with the time I was taking, obviously throwing out the statistics, I was passed onto a third operator.

By this stage i had spent an hour trying to work things out, having spent an hour before that putting my children to bed. I explained that the situation was ridiculous. I questioned the fact that they continue rolling over phone plan which include a monthly handset charge even after the handset has been paid off (I know, buy the handset outright). All I got was the usual canned response. I ended up deciding to fill the form associated with the change of plan in to the best of my ability. It all seemed to be complete and my friendly operator clarified a few random questions until I gave up assuming everything was done.

I received an email indicating that the contract had been processed. I was unsure what was going to happen next as there was a mention of a shipping time for the new SIM card, even though I already had a SIM card. I decided to wait and see, unable to get a clear answer from the chat operator. However, I was surprised when I received an email and text message (just to make sure) requesting that I ring them.

I called back. After waiting 30 minutes, I hung up as i had work to do. I then called back at another time. I waited an 1:15 to speak with an operator. Only to find out that they were having trouble loading my file as the computer crashed or something. After waiting for another five minutes I was asked for my information to verify who I was and I was done. Even though I had provided this online, apparently they could not process the application until I had given this information verbally.


I recognise that the future will be automated. However, I am sceptical that it will be seamless transition. I wonder if what is lost in this rush to get everyone to go online is why automate in the first place? So often it is taughted as an improvement in efficiencies, but in the case of the telecommunications company, it seemed to be focused on profit. Surely this is why they allow plans to keep on rolling over once they have finished (I know someone who forgot to reassess for five years). I can imagine a number of ways that automation could be good for customer service, the same way bots and other forms of artificial intelligence are used in platforms like Slack. This could include letting you know when your plan is coming to an end, converting you to a different plan or reminding you when your bill is due. To be fair, I could probably create sone of these myself and maybe that is where the future lies.

So what about you? Have you had any interesting experiences with automation? As always, comments welcome.


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Automating the Summary of Data

The power of query in sorting out data in Sheets

My first iteration using Query and Sheets to automate a solution for turning a collection of data into a regular newsletter.

This year I decided to create a monthly newsletter collecting together the updates and resources that I came upon during the previous month. As I have reflected elsewhere, I realised that there was an opportunity to automate some of this process. Although some spoke about Pinboard or generating a post via email, I was interested in sticking to GSuite. I therefore began with the aim of generating a solution within Sheets. So here is my first iteration of an automated solution for turning a collection of links into a summary.

Organising the Data

I remember being in a session with Jay Atwood a few years ago talk about the importance of considering the way you collect your data before anything else. As I looked at my databases, one for updates and the other for resources, I realised that the first thing that I needed to do was reorganise the way that I was storing information. This included restricting the options associated with type and application, as well as separating the link and title and then smashing them together using the HYPERLINK formula. Inspired by Ben Collins’ post on working with text, I also created a column summarising the information in each row into Markdown summary.


Reorganised Data w/ Formulas by mrkrndvs is licensed under CC BY-SA

From Lookups to Queries

Once I had my data organised, I then started explored sorting and shaping the data. I began with a VLOOKUP with a dynamic selector. This allowed me to filter it in different ways. However, I quickly realised that this was limited. I turned to QUERY.

I remember David Krevitt talking about QUERY, describing it as the, ” big kahuna of Sheets functions.” I think this initially put me off. This time I opened up a number of guides from Krevitt, Collins and Anand Varma and dived in. This lead me to rewrite my VLOOKUP as a QUERY.

Bit by bit I stretched the solution. I began with a dynamic selector to represent variables and explored the ability to define queries by date. I then created a prototype with a query for each application across the sheet.


1st Iteration by mrkrndvs is licensed under CC BY-SA

Once I had that working, I create a vertical set of queries. To allow for the variable of the unknown number of posts each month, I left 30 blank rows between each formula.

Filtering Results

To get rid of the spaces and the data headings, I used a FILTER formula and removed the spaces and column headings produced by the QUERY formulas. This left me with a choice, copy the MarkDown data and paste it without formatting, therefore removing the table/sheet that it was in, or using the add-on Sheets to Docs to copy the text to a Google Doc.


So that is the first step in my solution using Sheets to generate the text for a newsletter. My next challenge is transferring this to a Google Script. If you have any thoughts and advice about this, I would greatly appreciate it. Otherwise, as always feel free to leave a comment.


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Scripting an Automated Solution

Spreadsheets

A plan for an automated monthly newsletter produced from Google Sheets. The intention is to develop data in a way that it can be used in a number of ways.


I recently wrote a post reflecting on the Digital Technologies curriculum. One of things that I realised through the process is that I often wait to the end to discuss my projects. Although this can be useful in providing an overview of learning and achievements, it does not necessarily allow others a means to provide feedback early on. I usually ask questions online, but this often lacks context. So this post is an attempt to plan out a new project, with the hope that others might be able to provide advice and guidance.

This year I started a monthly newsletter associated with Google. With GSuite the chosen learning and teaching platform in my organisation, I thought it would be useful to summarise the various resources for others. I started with a Google Doc, organising the various links under headings associated with the featured application, as well as a section documenting the overall updates.

This has ebbed and evolved as the year has gone on, with a clear order of applications to correspond with a range of modules. However, the question that has arisen is whether there is a better way of recording the various links and updates so that they are easily searchable.

Currently, you can go back through the various posts and look for resources, but this is both cumbersome and tedious. It therefore had me think about storing the links in a Google Sheet and possibly generating the monthly summary/newsletter from that.

I know that I could probably do this with a social bookmarking platform or even a blog, but I feel that putting the information into a spreadsheet provides more operability. It would mean that the data would be in a format with which I could present it a number of ways. It also means the links could be recorded using something as simple as Google Forms.

I am therefore thinking of creating a script in Sheets that collates all the links for the month in a Google Doc. To be honest, Google Apps Script is all still new to me, but I am wondering about the possibility of creating a template with merge fields. I remember Autocrat doing something similar. I could then use this to post in WordPress.

I am left with a number of questions, such as how should I action the script? Would it need some sort of selector or could it be done automatically? How customisable are templates? Could I generate a markdown version for the purpose of posting?

Maybe you have an idea or a post that you would recommend checking out before beginning or just a tip of where to start. As always, comments welcome.


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