Designing the Mobile App

This is the second of several articles about the journey of developing a mobile application for the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope mission.  Part one was entitled My First Mobile App.

The idea for the application came about due to a request we had from a couple of scientists at the American Astronomical Society meeting in January 2011.  They asked if we had a mobile application that would allow easy access to some of the public data that we were already releasing on the mission website but which would be nice to be able to quickly access on their phones.

At the time we didn’t have such an app or plans to create one so the answer we had to give was no.  However, the requests started us thinking about what it would take to create such an application.

While at the meeting I sat down with one of the mission scientists and she and I went over what such an application should provide, both in terms of functionality and data.  Over the course of a couple hours we worked out the initial design of the app.   This was by no means a continuous process as we both were on duty staffing the mission booth and answering questions about the mission to those who stopped by and so were continuously being distracted from the design process to talk with others about the Fermi mission.

However, out of that process came a fairly straightforward design of what the application should do.  In all, the final design was barely over one page of hand written (by me) notes that included the basic functionality of the the app, the various user interactions it should support, and basic sketched out screens for the various parts of the app.

The initial design we came up with in those few hours at the AAS meeting has served remarkably well to guide the development of the application through its initial release.  Although I should say that the application is fairly simple.  It is serving up basic plotting data and then a lot of textual data and as such didn’t need a complicated design.  Even so, having the design provided good guidance throughout the later development process and kept me on track of what to do and what to leave out.

One of the best things you can do when designing any software, is sit down with potential users and find out how they expect the app to function.  While I knew this already, the process of designing this application reminded me of that truth.  Working with the scientist on the design was very helpful.  While I have a Ph.D. in Astronomy myself, we were working with data that I didn’t use and had no experience with.  She was someone who would actually be using the application and the data it provided and so was invaluable in providing insight into how the app should behave and how the data should be presented.

This post originally appeared on my old Programming Space blog.

My First Mobile App

For the past few months I’ve been working on a mobile application for work.  While it’s nothing fancy, considering the fact that I had no experience with mobile development when I started, I think this first version of the app turned out pretty well.  Although the real test will come as the number of users increases.

The journey from concept to initial version has been fun,  interesting, and educational as well as filled with frustrations and roadblocks along long the way.  This post is only an introduction to a  series of posts  that I’m planning on writing to document a bit of the journey.  For now I just want to tell you a little about the app.

The app is geared towards scientists who use the data from the NASA mission I work on, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, although there is nothing that prevents others from using the app to see what is going on.  As part of the mission, we provide a variety of “high level” data on various sources as well as publish alerts and news about sources and events in the gamma-ray sky.  The goal of the app was to aggregate some of this information onto the computer you’re always carrying with you and make it available even when you are off-line for some reason.

Currently the application provides access for four bits of data:

  • Light curves of monitored gamma-ray sources – These are sources that we’ve either been monitoring since the beginning of the mission or which have flared up to be very bright since launch and we’ve been monitoring since they first crossed a predefined luminosity threshold.
  • Gamma-ray Coordinate Network (GCN) notices produced by Fermi – When there is a gamma-ray burst or other very bright transient event (e.g. solar flares among other things) the satellite sends down a real time alert about the event and its location on the sky.  We aggregate these alerts to provide a summary of the best possible data for each event.
  • Fermi related Astronomer’s Telegrams – These are notices sent out by astronomers about objects of interest that have been detected and analyzed using the Fermi data.  While there are dozens of telegrams each week, the app filters and collects the Fermi related ones.
  • Access to the Fermi Sky Blog – This is a weekly summary of events and objects of interest in the gamma-ray sky.

If you’re interested in checking the application out, it is called the Fermi Data Portal and is available on both the Google Play Store and the Apple AppStore and works on both phones and tablets.  Check back for more about the development process and lessons learned from building the app.

This post originally appeared on my old Programming Space blog.