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From deskilling to reskilling: mobile apps to upskill yourself

Whether it’s self-improvement, self-amusement or saving the world, mobile devices are upskilling their users by taking specialist expertise and putting it in almost everyone’s hands.


Mapping the unknown

Mapswipe helps you take part in the process of producing maps from satellite imagery, without needing to be a professional mapper. It’s part of the Missing Maps project, a volunteer operation that focuses on mapping remote areas of the world that may not have up-to-date conventional maps available, and especially on areas that are at risk from disasters, whether natural or man-made.

Available for Android and Apple, the free app gives you the mission of looking for features such as houses and roads in squares of satellite imagery. You swipe through these map squares or tiles and tap each one that contains what you are seeking. A double-tap is maybe, a triple-tap reports poor image quality. We found that a fourth tap cleared the previous input, in case you made a mistake. The data is then uploaded for evaluation.

Detail can be hard to see, and will depend on your screen, but you can zoom in by long-pressing on a tile. Areas of habitation are fairly obvious, but other signs can be harder to spot, such as the round thatched huts used in many parts of Africa, or a track through fields.

Fortunately you’re not the only one working on each mission, because several Mapswipe users will validate each map square. And in any event, you are not actually creating the finished map; you are an initial filter to tell the mappers which map sectors they can ignore and which to concentrate on.

Those mappers – also volunteers working for Missing Maps – use the satellite imagery to build detailed, useful and free maps. Without the extra filter provided by Mapswipe users, they must spend days scrolling through thousands of images of uninhabited forest or scrubland looking for communities that need mapping.

The reason for ignoring areas without signs of habitation is that the project is a humanitarian one aimed at helping the vulnerable. Organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières and the Red Cross can’t help the people if they can’t find them.

Based on openly-licensed OpenStreetMap technology and data, it uses the OSM tools that you can download and use to start building maps as a ‘remote mapper’, plus its own task manager that allocates each mapper squares of satellite imagery on which to place buildings and roads.

Missing Maps also has a gamification element for those who like to be recognised that way, with a leaderboard listing the top mappers according to how many edits they have made, buildings placed and so on, while Mapswipe users are awarded levels as they progress.


Free on Android, Apple

Lots of us want to express our arty side, yet lack the skills with paint or pencils; hence the popularity of filters among keen photo-sharers on social networks such as Instagram. Most are pretty simple though – a specific image adjustment, such as a tint, a change of contrast or a fade, say. Prisma is different: it is an image enhancement app reputedly based on artificial intelligence that can transform the very style and look of an image. More specifically, it transforms your photos to look like paintings or hand-drawn pictures.

You can choose from a range of artists’ signature styles, such as Picasso or Mondrian, or pick a style drawn from a famous pattern or ornament. You can also vary how heavily the filter is applied, then share the result directly with another app, for example to post it to a social network. You do need to do a bit of experimentation, but the results can be amazing.

There are caveats. As is increasingly common with such things, the heavyweight image processing is carried out remotely on Prisma’s servers. That means the app won’t work without an Internet connection, plus some potential users will undoubtedly have privacy concerns about Prisma claiming a licence to use their uploaded photos in order to “help provide, understand and improve the service”.

Most users seem unconcerned though, and the app has been a big hit. This is presumably why it sometimes reported that the Prisma servers were overloaded and unable to process our job. Obviously, you get what you pay for, so while Prisma will undoubtedly be looking to scale up its processing capability, perhaps it could also consider offering a paid-for version with service guarantees.


Free on Android

Few people are skilled proofreaders, so it can take a fair while to spot a keyword or reference in a printed document. If the document is online, the task is much easier – you pull down the edit menu and choose Find, or quicker still, use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl-F. Now, thanks to smartphone cameras and the magic of optical character recognition (OCR), an app can search a paper document as if it were online, even in multiple languages.

Appropriately named Ctrl-F, all the app requires is good lighting and a clear view of the document. You choose the area to scan and OCR, and as long as the photo is reasonably closely aligned to the text it will make the remaining adjustment and convert it. Then it is just a matter of clicking the search icon and typing in the string you want to find. It works in multiple languages and can also export the scanned image as a searchable PDF document.

It is especially useful for dense text, if you can get a good enough photo. There are occasional snags, for example it doesn’t properly recognise words that are hyphenated across two lines, but many of the dense documents that you might want to search – legal contracts, say – are unlikely to use that kind of formatting.

Speech Master

Free with ads or £0.89 on Android

Many people find it hard to make presentations or speeches, or simply to do telephone interviews, and even those who have overcome their fear of public speaking will remember how difficult it was the first time. That’s where coaching apps such as Speech Master for Android come in (a broadly similar app for Apple devices is Ummo). It can measure your speaking pace and volume and help you optimise them, plus it transcribes your speech to text and evaluates the clarity of each word. All this is saved so you can practise and then look at how your performance changes over time.

It also detects those awful filler words, such as ‘um-er’, ‘you know’, ‘basically’ and ‘like’, and alerts you when you use them. If you have filler words of your own in any of the languages it supports – US English, UK English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese and Arabic – you can add those to the list too.

Install the app, select a topic, and you can either just speak if you have a script to test, or let the app give you a prompt or question to speak on. Click the start button when you are ready and it begins transcribing. Filler words will be highlighted, along with less distinct ones – the speech recognition is generally very good, although you will probably also spot one or two other unclear words that it has misrecognised. Of course, the transcription quality also relies on your device having a decent microphone, and on you speaking directly into it.

There are several ways to use a tool such as this. You can record your rehearsals of a presentation, say, to get the pace and duration right and hopefully finish speaking bang on time. Alternatively you could repeatedly practise different topics to get a feel for your natural pace and rhythm. The typical speaking speed varies from region to region and in different settings, and while your normal pace (whether slow, average or fast) will probably be fine in your normal environment, there will be times when speaking at a different pace will be an advantage.


Free on Android

If you regularly use YouTube on your mobile, you will know the problem – navigate away from the app, for example to check your email or the state of the traffic ahead, and it stops playback. If that playback was music to keep the kids amused in the back seat of the car, they immediately become unamused.

Reports suggest that Android 7.0 will be codenamed Nougat and will add, among other things, the ability to have multiple windows open on your screen at the same time. That should fix this particular YouTube problem, but what if you can’t wait until then, or if you don’t trust your phone supplier to provide an update to Nougat? The answer is Flytube, a video player that puts YouTube in a small floating window, while still adhering to Youtube’s terms of service which prohibit playback being hidden.

The little floating window will sit on top of pretty much any other app, and it can be moved around or paused at any time. A £0.99 in-app upgrade allows you to change the window’s size and border colour, and also gets rid of Flytube’s own adverts (though sadly not YouTube’s). The app’s introduction also provides quick instructions on how to set your phone so that all links to a YouTube video will open in Flytube by default.

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