Why calculus matters when it comes to data-driven stories

A quick refresher from my data visualization professor here at Columbia a couple of weeks ago reminded me why I was forced to spend all those grueling hours calculating standard deviation back in high school.

See, when you’re using a data set to tell a story, the first step is to understand what that data says. And to do that, you’ve got to have a good idea of the range and variation of the values at hand. Not only can figuring that information out help you determine whether there’s any statistical significance to your data set, but it can also pinpoint outliers and possible errors that may exist within the data before you begin the work of visualizing it.

Thanks to powerful processing programs like Excel, we can figure out the variability of data sets pretty easily using the program’s built-in standard deviation function (remember this intimidating-looking equation from calculus class?). Still, it always helps to know how to calculate the information out by hand, if only to get a conceptual idea of why numbers such as the standard deviation (the variability of a data-set) and the z-value (the number of standard deviations a given value is away from the mean) even matter in the first place when it comes to data visualization.

So, to brush up on my formulas and also better understand the numbers behind an actual story assignment for one of my classes, I recently hand-calculated the standard deviation and z-values for a set of data on state-by-state obesity rates. From my calculations, I was able to use the standard deviation (3.24) to determine that, on average, most states fell within the middle of the bell-curve for the average national obesity rate (27.1 percent) . In addition, the z-values helped me understand which states stood out from the pack as possible outliers (Mississippi is by far the most obese with a 2.13 z-value, Colorado the least obese with a -1.9 z-value). To get an idea of how those formulas look hand-calculated in Excel, check out my spreadsheet here. And keep these formulas in mind while working on your next data story. They can potentially save you time and effort by helping you figure out what your data set says before you have to go through the often-lengthy process of visualizing it.

What makes BostonGlobe.com “the world’s best designed website”

With the Pulitzer Price announcements coming up later this afternoon, you’d think I’d be writing about whose up for the “Best Deadline Reporting” or “Best Public Service Journalism” prizes. But instead I want to talk about a different media award doled out during the past week: BostonGlobe.com’s designation as the “world’s best designed website” by the Society for News Design. Put simply, I can’t say I disagree. Continue reading

Critique: “Agreement Groups in the United States Senate”

Take a look at this fascinating visualization of U.S. senate agreement groups made by Ph.D. student Adrian Friggeri. Using a complex agreement algorithim based upon data from GovTrack.us, the visualization displays how much all 100 senators of each U.S. Congress during the last 15 years have crossed the aisle –– or stuck to party lines –– on senate-floor votes.

From a design standpoint, the visualization is nearly flawless. The thin red and blue lines help the user form an instant party association, and the light gray bars in the background distinguish each Congress from the next without leading to visual clutter. What’s perhaps most impressive is that, despite the fact that the visualization contains far more than 100 different data points, the information is still fairly easy to access and the interface is stil simplistic in feel. Because each Senator’s entire individual trajectory is highlighted on mouseover, users can get a glimpse at how willing their respective Senator has been to negotiate a compromise across party lines over the years.

Most of all, the visualization does what all good visualizations should do: tells a story without text. As we can see, the number of Democrats who have crossed the aisle is notably larger than that of their GOP counterparts. This becomes ever more clear when we drill down to look at each party’s trajectory individually, where the connections can be seen more clearly. Perhaps what I would’ve liked to have seen in addition, however, is some sort of summary or average value of the disparity between the two parties on agreement rates, even if just a number at the bottom of the visualization. As it stands, the user has to dissect the visualization a good bit to tell that Democrats have a higher “agreement rate” than Republicans.

The networked line structure reminds me a lot of the Wall Street Journal’s “What They Know” visualization, except that this visualization has a good bit less clutter and complexity, and much better styling choices.

Response to Norman, “Emotional Design”

Good aesthetics are more than just fluff when it comes to design. They are a core part of a product’s functionality. Such is the argument Donald A. Norman makes in his insightful 2005 book Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things. For Norman, attractive things work better by boosting the mood of the user and therefore allowing him or her to think more clearly and operate it more efficiently.

Undergirding Norman’s thesis that aesthetics directly influence operability is his distinction between the three basic levels of human cognition: the visceral (jumping at a sudden sound in a quiet room), the behavioral (relaxing in the solitude of a quiet room) and the reflective (thinking to oneself about why a quiet room is more enjoyable). As Norman asserts, these three levels of thought processing “interact with one another, each modulating the others” (7). You cannot escape the effect that one level of thought processing has on the other. As such, a visceral reaction to an external stimuli influences the subsequent behavioral reactions we have, which in turn influence our reflective conclusions about the stimuli itself. If we have a negative visceral reaction to a poorly design website, our mood is negatively affected in such a way that hinders our ability to navigate and use the site, even if there’s nothing wrong with the navigation or user interface from a technical standpoint. All our brain can focus on is the poor design. This reaction is similar to the way humans form first impressions of others; if an individual makes a poor first impression (a visceral reaction), we are less likely to act on his or her future actions or speech (a behavioral reaction), which in turn affects the entire way we think about that person (a reflective reaction).

Respons to Saffer, “Designing for Interaction”

Interactive designer Don Saffer artfully captures both the practical and the theoretical aspects of his profession in his 2006 book Designing for Interaction: Creating Smart Applications for Clever Devices. From its title, Saffer’s book may sound like a simple “how-to” guide to creating web apps with interactivity. Yet while it is certainly that to an extent, the book is more broadly a treatise and exploration of the ideology and terminology behind interactive design.

Saffer sets out to answer seemingly simple questions such as “What is interaction design?” and “What is the value of interaction design?” with thoughtful, reflective analyses. The principle purpose of interaction design, he argues, is “its application to real problems” and its ability to “solve specific problems under a specific set of circumstances” (5). As such, interaction design is inherently attached to the physical world, and is “by its nature contextual,” changing and evolving in its definition over the course of time and space (4). Paradoxically, however, Saffer argues that the core principles of good interaction design are “technologically agnostic,” and don’t change along with ebbs and flows of technological innovation: “Since technology frequently changes, good interaction design doesn’t align itself to any one technology or medium in particular” (7). How can Saffer simultaneoulsy assert that interaction design is tethered to its particular context in time, while in the same breath arguing that it remains unchanging in its core values? Don’t the two statements on some level contradict one another? Saffer would likely respond by saying that only the “principles” behind interaction design – helping people communicate with one another and, to a lesser degree, with computers – remain constant amid technological upheaval. But this view verges on downplaying the power of future technological change to fundamentally alter every known aspect of the way we communicate. What if, in ten years, a technology comes along that automates communication in such a way that leads to a paradigmatic shift in the role of the interaction designer? Although Saffer is correct in his assertion that even the rise of the Internet has not so far altered the core principles of interaction design, that doesn’t mean that such constancy will always be the case.

On Richard Boarman’s “Bubble Trees: The Visualization of Hierarchical Structure”

In his brief two-page paper “Bubble Trees: The Visualization of Hierarchical Structure,” Richard Boardman proposes a new type of interactive presentation of hierarchical data that he calls the bubble tree. To bolster his argument, Boardman points out the difficulties inherent in the traditional “tree” structure, which suffers from the “breadth versus depth” problem by leading to information overload and taking up too much screen real estate. As a solution, he proposes a clickable bubble tree that leads to child and grandchild bubbles. Because of its interactive nature and nested structure, Boardman’s bubble tree would “naturally allow the user to explore and work out relationships for themselves,” he says.

Since the publication of Boardman’s paper, this style of bubbletree has become somewhat ad nouveau in the information design community, with popular JavaScript libraries such as Bubbletree.js putting the creation of complex, hierarchical bubble trees into the hands of the general web development public. As its popular use has demonstrated, Bubbletree.js can be particularly handy when it comes to displaying Open Spending data.

Why does YouTube have a longer lifespan than other platforms?

Chart provided by bitly.

When trying to reach a mass audience, what’s the best platform to share your content? Well, the obvious answer is as many places as you can. But according to a post by bitly analyzing traffic patterns, links shared on YouTube have a lifespan of 7.3 hours, compared to 2.8 hours on Twitter and 3.4 hours on Facebook. Why such the disparity? Why does YouTube have such a longer lifespan?

Is it because video has a longer lifespan than all other forms of content? Or is it because YouTube has a different user-experience than other social media platforms? While YouTube content is slower to peak, it lasts far longer in the online ecosystem than content posted on other social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. The most obvious answer for the cause of this phenomenon would be that video is a medium that inherently captures our attention for a longer, and slower, period of time. We tend to go back, rewatch and share video more than we do text-based content, causing video to have a longer lifespan.

But there’s also another possible explanation for YouTube’s lengthier half-life. It could just be the nature of YouTube’s network structure. Facebook and Twitter are more of aggregators than YouTube, which is a platform for user-generated content rather than just a portal. So, because of their vast user base and high rate of captivity, Facebook and Twitter by their nature attract attention quicker. But that attention is often only surface attention, which is possibly a reason those networks have a shorter half-life than YouTube. People go to YouTube videos more frequently as a destination, whereas other social media platforms only act as a portal.

Critique: “Salubrious Nation: a game-y look at U.S. health”

In keeping with our recent weekly reading about the growing ‘gamification‘ of data, I wanted to focus my critique this week on a map-styled data-driven game made my a group of researchers at Rutgers University called Salubrious Nation. The game attempts to engage users more deeply with public health data by luring them in with an addictive system of points and rewards.

In terms of functionality, the game play operates fairly simply. A map presents demographic data about every county in the 48 states of the continental U.S. The game then chooses one county at random and asks the player to guess a public health statistic about it, like binge drinking, teenage pregnancies, diabetes, obesity rates, etc. The game features two types of interaction: the user can mouse over any county to see demographic data about it (population, poverty rate, life expectancy, etc.), and a slider at the top to enter the player’s guess for the county up for play. As you moved the slider up and down, you can get hints about how close you are by looking at whether the surrounding counties are above or below the value you’ve chosen. Based upon how close the player’s guess is to the actual statistic, the player earns a corresponding amount of points. After eight rounds of the play, the game ends, and the player is told how his or her performance matches up to others who’ve played the game before. Apparently, I scored higher than 62 percent of other players. Woohoo! Just enough of a dopamine rush to get me to play again.

What’s cool about this game is that it makes data something to get immersed in for the fun of it, and you learn along the way. Over time, you begin to notice patterns emerging as you learn the tricks and strategies of the game. You figure out that the Western half of the country tends to have a higher rate of binge drinking. You learn that diabetes and obesity is the worse in the South. As one of the game’s creator, Nick Diakopoulous, explains, the gamification of health data provides a good opporunity for users to focus on data they might otherwise ignore: “Considering the selective attention issue, where people are more likely to pay attention to things that they already agree with, this result suggests an opportunity to get players to look at aspects of the data that they might not otherwise be inclined to look at.”

I can only find a few possible qualms with the game. One is that it operates off of flash, meaning that it can’t be run on most smartphones or tablets. Another is that the yellow-to-orange color scheme seems to be a bit disorienting on the eyes. Perhaps the developers would’ve been wiser to choose softer colors – possibly even a red-to-green graduated scale with a neutral middle value. Another thing that irked me, although I see little simple solution, is that county-level guessing seems almost so geographically-specific that it’s hard for most people (including myself) to have much knowledge of which specific counties in Oklahoma or Kansas have the highest obesity rates.

Critique: Curbwise.com

Lately I’ve been trying to get my feet wet with Django, an open-source Python web framework that’s well-suited to producing complex news apps under  tight deadlines. I haven’t had enough free time yet to get into the nitty gritty of it, but I’m getting there slowly. What first piqued my interest in Django was a brilliant news app I ran across a couple of months ago called Curbwise, which was built with Django by the news developer team at the Omaha World Herald/Omaha.com.

Curbwise advertises itself as “your one-stop shop for the latest on real-estate in Douglas County.” But Curbwise is much more than your standard, run-of-the-mill real-estate section of most local news websites. It allows the user to fine-tune what neighborhoods he or she wants to view, and compare demographic data and housing prices side-by-side. Using a complex, clickable system of Google maps with a clean design and corresponding tables, you can drill-down to see all sorts of individual data charted out in an appealing red color-scheme, along with a listing of houses that are currently on the market in the neighborhood. You can even click on individual properties to see the historical and current valuations not only of the property in question,but of all the properties nearby. The warm yellow used to display the property tracts on the map invites the user to mouse over all the houses to see highly stylized infoWindows with more information. It’s really hard to find anything about the navigation, interface and design to complain about. The only thing that might possibly make the app better is adding interactivity to the static charts on the neighborhood and property pages.

Obviously, all of this data is of immense value to users on an evergreen basis, not just a transitory news cycle. What’s also impressive is that it’s useful for both interested home buyers looking to browse the marketplace and for current home-owners who want to see the valuations of their home compared to nearby homes. For a small fee, the app even lets you download a custom report with all of that information contained within it upon entering your address. And, just in case a homeowner suspect his or her home may be overvalued, the interface includes a handy guide to protesting your valuation with local government agencies.

On a whole, Curbwise is the epitome of a solid, innovative app built by a news organization that works to protect consumers and inform the public. Even better, the money made off custom report sales provides the paper with an additional revenue stream that likely helps offset the loss in print advertising in recent years.

On the importance of localism

A decade before the rise of the Internet set in motion the disruption of legacy news business models, Kaniss foresaw the growing need for local and regional news to unite increasingly fragmented, suburbanized communities.

Critique, “French wine map shows the best vintage, from 1978 to 2011”

It’s nearing the end of the week, so what better way to relax than with a good bottle of wine and some leisure reading? Problem is, I’m not very skilled at buying wine that tastes any good. I always end up paying more for the bitter, expensive stuff. Fortunately,  there’s a pretty cool news app for that. The Telegraph UK’s recent interactive app on French wine ratings allows users to browse through the years to see which regions of the country produced the best-tasting wines in each year. With a handy HTML5 slider on the bottom, the user can locate the year of the bottle while in the store, then match that up with the region the bottle was harvested in. Then by mousing over the corresponding region labels, users can get an idea of that year and region’s quality as rated by conniseaurs.

The only thing that concerns me is this app’s use of mapping when mapping was not required. Granted, the geographical component to this topic is very important and likely justifies a map. But at the same time, the map feels bare with only the wine regions colored and the rest of France empty. What stands out more than anything, however, is the app’s use of color. The deep red and pink colors combined with the light green shading not only represents white and red wine visually, but it also gives the app an aesthetically appealing and bright color scheme against the canvas-colored backdrop.

Critique, “Why is Her Paycheck Smaller?”

For my final critique, I decided to look at a more straightforward and well-known visualization on gender wage gaps created by The New York Times back in 2010. The “Why is Her Paycheck Smaller” visualization shows how simple, mostly static scatter plots can sometimes be the most efficient and informative way to tell a story.

Functionality-wise, the visualization is not terribly impressive. Not only does it run on clunky, often-inoperable Flash, but it has little in terms of interactivity. All you basically do is click on each of the occupations to see where the dots for that occupation fall, and then mouse over the dots to see more specific information. The clean, crisp design, on the other hand, makes the colored dots stand out, basking in the surrounding minimalism. The notations help explain possible outliers without cluttering the graph, and the charts on the bottom right put the data into a larger context neatly and concisely.

For its time, this visualization probably was cutting-edge. But despite its less sophisticated technologies looking back now, it communicates just as powerfully as any of the best visualizations do in 2012. The “Why is her Paycheck Smaller” visualization shows that, no matter what technology, good charting, design and editing makes for a strong story. It’s easy to get caught up in the technologies, but sometimes less is more.

Should data viz be a specialty or a commodity skill in the newsroom?

An interesting question came up at last Wednesday’s Doing Data Journalism (#doingdataj) panel hosted by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism here at Columbia’s J-School: Should there be data specialists in the newsroom, or can everyone be a data journalist? For New York Times interactive editor Aron Pilholfer, who participated in the panel, the question is not so much should everyone do data as will everyone do data. And for Pilholfer, the answer to that question clearly seems to be no:

I kind of naively thought that at one time you could train everybody to be at least a base level of competency with something like Excel, but I’m not of that belief anymore. I think you do need specialists.

I’ve always hated the idea of having technology or innovation ‘specialists’ in a work environment that should ideally be collaborative. So, at first I tended to disagree with Pilholfer’s argument. But what won me over was the reasoning behind his claim. For Pilholfer, it’s not that the technology, human talent or open source tools aren’t there for everyone to scrape, analyze and process data –– in fact, it’s now easier than ever to organize messy data with simple and often free desktop applications like Excel and Google Refine. The problem is that there’s a cultural lack of interest within newsrooms, often from an editorial level, to produce data-driven stories. As Pilholfer says in what appears to be an indictment of upper-level editors for disregarding the value of data,

The problem is that we continue to reward crap journalism that’s based on anecdotal evidence alone . . . But truly if it’s not a priority at the top to reward good data-driven journalism, it’s going to be impossible to get people into data because they just don’t think it’s worth it.

I totally agree, but with one lurking suspicion. As with the top-level editors, many traditional users –– or ‘readers,’ as one might call them –– still at least think they like to read pretty, anecdotal narratives, and tend not to care as much whether the hard data backs them up. In other words, it’s an audience problem just as much as it is a managerial or institutional one. Some legacy news consumers just still aren’t data literate. Because they’re not accustomed to even having such data freely available to them, they don’t even value having it. As the old saying goes, “You can’t miss what you never had.” Yet as traffic and engagement statistics continually confirm, as soon users have open data readily available to them through news apps and data visualizations, they spend more time accessing the data than they do reading the print narrative.

Aron Pilholfer at #doingdataj

Totally agree, but harbor the lurking suspicion that many traditional readers still like to read pretty narratives and don’t care as much if the facts back them up. In other words, it’s an audience problem just as much as it is an editorial one.

Apple App Store’s “Walled Garden” Overrun With Weeds

By CARL V. LEWIS

In 1894, advertisers claimed snake oil could cure “all aches and pains.” But by the time you realized it didn’t, it was too late. Your money was gone.

 

It’s a predicament similar to the one facing thousands of customers at Apple’s iTunes App Store, where unscrupulous app developers often lure unsuspecting consumers into buying misleading, knockoff and even downright scam apps for their iPhones and iPads. To make matters worse, Apple offers no guaranteed refund policy for app-store purchases, often leaving the consumer stuck with a flawed or bogus product and with only the bill to pay for it.

For just $12.99, you can get an app that magically heals warts!

Despite the fact that Apple bans apps that contain foul language, the company has approved dozens of dubious and often blatant scam apps in the four years since it opened. Many of these apps have made unrealistic, if not impossible, claims to health, beauty and emotional wellbeing. Take the $1.99 ‘AcneApp,’  for example, which – before the Federal Trade Commission ordered that Apple remove it from the marketplace in 2010 – sold 11,600 downloads with the promise to remove zits by projecting blue and red light onto the face. Or there’s the ‘Wart Healer‘ app, which, at a price tag of $12.99, claimed  “to provide wart removal via mental healing,” according to its description in the iTunes store. It was removed in early 2011 after the blog Gizmodo posted about it.

Other apps Apple has approved for sale and subsequently pulled from market after pubshback include the 99-cent app called Baby Shaker, which simulated the violent shaking of an infant, as well as the app ‘Less Cigarette!,‘ which claimed to help smokers ditch their tobacco habit by changing the taste of cigarettes using different colored lights.

To be fair, Apple has removed most of these bogus applications in a swift manner after coming under fire from the blogosphere. But in some cases, the worst scamming took place before the apps were removed, costing not only the consumer, but tarnishing the integrity of the entire App Store.

On Feb. 20, 2012, the fake Pokemon Yellow app was the second-highest grossing paid app in the entire App Store.

Take the case of the Pokemon Yellow app released in the App Store in mid-February. Upon its launch, the app ignited widespread fervor among fans of the popular Nintendo-owned Pokemon franchise. Within three days, the app skyrocketed to the top of the charts, selling more than 2,000 copies at 99 cents a pop and earning its developers more than $10,000 in profits. At its peak, Pokemon Yellow ranked as the second most popular paid-app in the entire 750,000-strong iTunes app marketplace, just behind the iconic ‘Grand Theft Auto’ game and four spots ahead of ‘Angry Birds.’

But it didn’t take long for users to figure out that something wasn’t quite right about Pokemon Yellow. Despite the vast array of glowing five-start reviews suggesting otherwise, more than 1,500 users complained that the app  would only load one picture, then crash.

As it turns out, the app was a fake – an unusable knock-off of the real thing which duped thousands of loyal Pokeman fans into buying what they were led to believe was the genuine brand-name game. The app wasn’t even made by Pokemon’s copyright holder, Nintendo, but instead by a shady development company called House of Anime, which blatantly misrepresented its product and infringed on copyright laws.

Yet it was only after the popular gaming blog ArsTechnica blew the whistle on the fake Pokemon Yelllow app on February 19 –– causing the story to go viral –– that Apple took any action to remove the app from the store.

When Apple first launched the App Store in 2008, CEO Steve Jobs promised consumers the store would uphold a “walled-garden policy” in which Apple would screen all third-party apps before they made their way into the marketplace. No profanity, no pornography and no copyright infringements would be allowed to be distributed through the hallowed App Store gates, and no app would be given the green light without rigorous review and inspection by Apple developers and product testers.

But what began as a walled garden has now become overrun with weeds, with hundreds of flimsy, fraudulent and full-blown scam apps sprouting up in the iTunes store in 2011 and early 2012.

“Recently there’s been a dramatic rise in the number of fraudulent apps getting attention – even top sales positions – in the iPhone and iPad store,” wrote iMore Editor-in-Chief Rene Ritchie in February. “For consumers, it’s just one more hurdle face when trying to find the good apps.”

While outcry from the FTC, consumer advocacy groups and an army of indignant bloggers like Ritchie has led Apple to ban many fraudulent applications, scam-like apps continue to exist in various, but less obvious, forms today.

Dozens of apps in the App Store claim to do one thing, yet deliver another. Despite repeated efforts by Apple to purge the store of ripoff apps, dozens still exist today, with app developers continuously figuring out ways to game the system by artificially boosting product ratings.

Here are five of the most egregious apps we found that are currently in the App Store:

1. Microsoft Word 2010 – Mastering in 24h (view)

As you can see here, the reference guide apps from FutureMedia look like the actual applications on an iPhone screen.

Looking to download a copy of Microsoft Word on your device so you can edit on-the-go? If so, don’t be fooled into shelling out $11.99 for this app that appears at first glance to be a functional copy of Word 2010, bearing the Office 2010 and Microsoft Word logos in its iconography. We downloaded this app to give it a whirl, only to find out that it’s merely a 20-page guidebook of free tips and instructions on how to use Microsoft Word, not an actual installation of the popular word-processing software.

The developers may try to claim that this app falls under appropriate App Store guidelines, as it includes the phrase “Mastering in 24h” at the end of its title in an apparent, albeit feeble, attempt to indicate that it’s a reference app only. But on an iPhone 4S screen, that part of the title gets chopped off, and can only be seen after the jump. Seeing the familiar Word logo and the title ‘Microsoft Word 2010’ would likely be enough for many users to click ‘Buy Now’ on the item without even bothering to click through to see the product specifications on the next page. And judging by the product reviews, at least 231 customers have fallen for the trick, and then giving the product the lowest-possible rating of one star to warn others (that number only counts the customers who actually took the time to write a review, not the total number). One reviewer, Pdubz23457, framed the app’s tactics fairly eloquently: “No one would buy this unless they thought it was Word. This company is taking advantage of how fast paced people are today.”

FutureMedia sells similarly deceptive “reference” guides to other popular software.

According to information from the iTunes store, the company that sells the Microsoft Word 2010 app, FutureMedia Studio, offers similar reference apps for programs including Microsoft Excel 2010 ($11.99), Adobe Photoshop CS5 ($14.99) and Microsoft Office 2010 ($22.99). All three of these apps, too, use the same deceptive tactics and product logos to give off the appearance that they are actual copies of the software at hand. One customer, Jewiz B., bought both the Word and Excel apps at the same time, and was incensed to find out they were only guidebooks: “I just wasted $26 because I thought this was Word AND I bought Excel.”

Scott Ruben, an app developer who hosts a daily webcast called “App-a-Day,” said that Apple’s “one-click” purchasing system makes consumers particularly vulnerable to scams such as this, which aren’t technically lying but present themselves in a misleading context.

“Because it’s only one click away, it’s so easy for someone to say, you know what, I’m going to try it,” Ruben said.

But if apps such as these from FutureMedia are so obviously worthless, then why do all four of them have such a large amount of five star ratings? And how do they end up so high in search rankings? The answer is simple: The company selling the apps sets aside a large amount of money to buy separate copies of their own app, so that they can then leave five-star reviews that bump the app up in the rankings. This allows the apps to go relatively undetected by Apple. According to Apple’s guidelines for developers, this tactic is a clear violation of App Store rules: ““If you attempt to cheat the system (for example, by trying to trick the review process, steal data from users, copy another developer’s work, or manipulate the ratings) your apps will be removed from the store and you will be expelled from the developer program.”  However, Apple hasn’t bothered to remove any of FutureMedia’s apps, despite the barrage of one-star ratings from disgruntled customers that should tip Apple developers off.

After purchasing the bogus Word 2010 app, we placed a refund request with Apple (we’ll explain how you can do that, too, later in this post) to see if we could recoup our losses. It’s been five business days now, and so far we’ve yet to hear back from Apple. We also visited FutureMedia’s website, which makes no mention of any of the apps in question and provided no contact information except for a form. Using the contact form, we made the following request for a refund using the company’s contact form:

 

Dear FutureMedia,

I recently purchased your product “Microsoft Word 2010 – Mastering in 24h,” thinking it was a copy of the actual MS Word processing program. It was not made clear in Apple’s App Store description that this product was only a reference guide, and the marketing was misleading. As such, I’d like to request a refund. If you could, please get in touch with me as soon as possible.

-Carl V. Lewis

 

That message was sent on Thursday, April 31. We’ve yet to hear anything back from the company.

2.  LockScreen (see)

At just $1.99, the Lock Screen app promises, well, to lock your screen. There’s just one little problem with it, however: it doesn’t actually lock anything. In its description, the app promises an array of impressive security features such as “voice recognition,” “fingerprint scan” and “Android-like ‘connect-the-dots’ security” to “keep your data private and secure.”  But upon purchasing the app, you find out that it’s actually a collection of poorly-designed background wallpapers with designs that only pretend to lock your screen. “They’re just ripping you off. It’s a picture, not a lock. It does nothing at all to lock your iPhone,” posted one reviewer, Greg, from California.

The huge disparity between five-star and one-star ratings reflects the developer’s gaming of the system with purchased reviews.

The app has received 41 customer ratings –– 22 of those ratings give the app glowing five-star reviews, while the remaining 19 of them call the scam out with the lowest possible one star-rating.  Another scorned reviewer, Mikeywhatsgood, said: “I can’t believe the App Store would even allow this app to be available to buy.” But because the app has been artificially boosted by so many scam five-star ratings, it has an average rating of three stars, once again allowing it to go largely undetected by Apple and remain available for purchase by unsuspecting consumers.

The company that sells the app, Fox Mobile, did not appear in Google search results, and had no traces online of its existence. According to the iTunes store, the company sells two other apps –– one called ‘Lockitizer’ that is an exact duplicate of LockScreen except under a different name, and another called ‘Live Themes’ that promises to jazz up your phone with custom wallpapers.

An earlier version of the LockScreen app was released in March under the title “LockYourScreen” and for a short period sat among the top 10 paid-apps list. But the app was pulled from the store in late April after receiving more than 1,000 abysmal one-star ratings from angered customers. It didn’t take the makers of the app long, however, to sneak the scam app back into the store under a different titlel Just eight days later, on May 3, ‘LockScreen’ was released in the store, where it remains today.

3. Anger Birds (see)

Yet another in a line of Angry Birds copycats

Sounds familiar, right? Well, that’s because it’s one of the multitude of copycat apps of the most popular iPhone game to date, Angry Birds. Most of the past copycat apps (Angry Ninja Birds, Cut the Birds, etc.) have already been banned at the request of Rovio Mobile, the creators of Angry Birds. For the same 99 cents as Angry Birds, this app has an almost identical-looking icon and color-scheme,, but is nowhere nearly as high a quality of a game. We tested it out to see how similar the game play was to its name-brand counterpart. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as fun as Angry Birds, with a low-resolution user-interface and an unclear game mission. In fact, Anger Birds is so bad that even its copycatting efforts haven’t helped it gain much steam. So far, it’s only received six reviews, with four of them giving one-star ratings. But at least one consumer has fallen for Anger Birds’ tricks.  Don, a reviewer who gave the app a one-star rating, said: “I think the developer has deceptively named their app to trick people into purchasing it. Well, it worked on my son. He purchased this when he really wanted Angry Birds. Shame on you.”

4. iGrow Male Enhancement (see)

The first two lines of this app’s description says perhaps all that need to be said: “ACHIEVE AN INCREASE IN SIZE IN 2 WEEKS!! NO BLUE PILLS…….NO COMMERCIALS.” For just $4.99, male consumers can get “REAL RESULTS”  that will “vastly enhance your male performance,” and are “as good as taking a Viagra.” What’s more, the image attached to the app’s description claims the app will “Add 1-4 inches to your PENIS” with a 100 percent guaranteed stamp.

To evaluate iGrow’s rather bold marketing claims, we downloaded the app to see how it operated. Not surprisingly, all the app contained was a few lines of text that spouted off common-sense tips that anyone could easily find on Google. Nothing within the app itself provided any actual mechanism to increase male stamina.

5. WartRemoval (see)

Another wart removal app has cropped up in the iTunes App Store, although this time with slightly more legitimacy as it doesn’t explicitly claim to remove warts, only to give tips “to helping you get rid of that ugly stubborn wart that just won’t go away.” Once again, though, the actual content of the app is nothing unique that couldn’t be found through a simple Google search. And at $2.99, this app carries a hefty price to pay for a simple list of do-it-yourself tips.

What’s particularly troubling is that both the iGrow and War Removal apps are listen in the “Medical” category on the iTunes store. Unless the app is providing actual medical services, such as measuring heart rate or allowing you to communicate to a real doctor, these apps are technically not ‘medically’ valid.

“As far as these spps claiming to help your health, the technology is just not there yet.” says Dr. Matthew Keefer, a physician and app developer at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. “Bottom line: We cannot remove warts by our phones. We cannot increase penis size from an iPhone. So, if you’re hoping to get these things, see a doctor. Don’t spend your money thinking an app will do this for you, it won’t.”

But despite the lack of science behind such apps, some naive consumers are still willing to fork over money for them, whether they know they’re being ripped off or not.

“If people are willing to buy these apps, app developers will create them,” Ruben said.  “Just as there are people scamming you in the real world, there are people scamming you in the app world. The difference is, as an app user, you really can’t go back into the store and yell at the manager.” In the app world, developers can hide behind their laptops.

“My advice is to know what you’re getting into, beforehand. Read the reviews, read the comments, every single time that’s the key right now.” Ruben said.

Getting back your money (or at least trying)

Now what? Apple seemingly does its best to make the App Store refund procedure a bit of a mystery. Here is a find a step-by-step guide on how to request a refund for an app that wasn’t quite what you expected. But even if you take the proper steps, there’s no guarantee you’ll get your money back. In fact, we tried submitting a refund request with Apple for the $11.99 purchase of the fake ‘Microsoft Word 2010’ app one week ago, and we’ve yet to hear back, let alone receive a refund.

  1. Open the iTunes Application on your computer.
  2. Open the iTunes tab, located in the left-hand column of iTunes.
  3. Next click the arrow next to your username (email address) on the top right and select ‘Account’.
     
  4. Scroll down to ‘Purchase History’ and click ‘See All’.
     
  5. Find the iTunes invoice with the application you would like a refund for. Click Report a problem.
     
  6. Fill out the form that follows and be sure to be as detailed as possible. Click Next when finished.
  7. That’s it. Once your request is submitted, you’ll have to wait for Apple to get back to you.

What about Androids?

It used to be that you had 24-hours in the Android App store to evaluate an App and request a refund if you weren’t satisfied. In December of 2010, Google changed the policy – you better act quickly. Now, you only have 15 minute from the time the App is downloaded to request a full refund.

But, the good news is, if you’re using a DROID phone, your chances of getting a refund for unsatisfactory App might be a little higher. If you request a refund in that 15-minute window, Google says it will return your money in a 48-hour window.

If you downloaded an App within the past few minutes, hurry up and:

  1. Launch the Android Market app on your phone.
  2. Press your phone’s Menu button.
  3. Touch the My apps option.
  4. Touch the app you want to “return.”
  5. Touch the Uninstall & Refund button. This is important. If you only have an Uninstall button and don’t see the & Refund part, either this was a free app or your 15 minutes has already expired.

Confirm that you want a refund, your app will be uninstalled, and you’ll receive your refund. If you’ve missed the 15 minute window, Google suggests that you contact the vendor directly. Just know that the vendor isn’t under any obligation to give you a refund.

UPDATE, Fri., May 18, 2012: It’s been more than three weeks since we submitted a refund request from Apple. We’ve still heard nothing.