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Journey: an astoundingly smart solution for building data-gathering mobile apps

In 2009, four guys based out of a dorm room in Stellenbosch started working on something quite extraordinary. It’s called Journey and it’s a bold new approach to building data-gathering mobile apps.

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Blasting off today, Journey straddles a line somewhere between a low-level mobile platform and traditional “form builder”. It hopes to resonate with businesses and NGOs that are looking to digitise or improve data capturing elements in their workflows, especially paper-based ones. Philip Joubert, co-founder of the company behind Journey, Embark Mobile, believes the best way for businesses to capture data for their internally facing processes, is through mobile apps. As developing these apps can be time-consuming however, Journey aims to make it easier and faster — up to “10x faster” it claims — for app developers to build them.

Imagine a health insurance company seeking to launch a new product that will require its clientele to complete a fitness assessment. With Journey, the insurer can build an app that will allow its field agents to retrieve information about existing clients, take pictures if necessary and submit the completed assessments — all from a mobile phone. Thanks to Journey’s RESTful API, the app can integrate with the insurer’s internal database. This is done by tailoring the app’s data model to match that of the insurer’s database — from the field names right up to the data types. Journey stores the captured data online and can export / import data through the API as well as CSV.

Creating an app is straightforward. First, set up the data model, which describes the data you will be collecting — for example a person’s name, surname and age. Then create the views, which provide the layout of the app — they might include things like text boxes, lists, buttons and standard HTML, for presentation flexibility. High-level XML and JavaScript is used to build the data model and views, and the “flow” of an app is visualised so that it’s clear how the parts fit together.

Your app runs inside a core Journey host app that is downloaded from Google’s Play Store. When you make changes to your app, the customisations are automatically pushed to the host app in real-time. Your app is presented inside the host with a fully native Android user interface and runs courtesy of a JavaScript interpreter.

Deploying the app on additional mobile devices can be done through accepting an enrollment link via SMS or scanning a barcode. Clever.

It’s good to know that the app can be used offline too, as a copy of the collected data is not only stored in the Journey cloud, but also on the device.

Conrad Hofmeyr, co-founder of Embark Mobile tells us that Journey’s cloud infrastructure will scale with apps as their capacity requirements increase and that there is no limit on storage capacity. “Before we ‘productised’ Journey, we delivered a large number of mobile projects (using essentially the same core technology platform) that are actively running in the field each day, some with in excess of a 1000 users. We have projects running in production with hundreds of thousands of data objects in a single app instance,” he says.

If you were wondering how securely your app’s data is stored in Journey’s cloud, Hofmeyr assures us that all communication is encrypted using industry-standard certificate-based SSL/TLS. “The mobile app itself utilises a secure one-use enrollment token to link itself to the Journey back-end and authenticates with the back-end on each communication session. We also utilise Android’s built-in security model which is sandboxed per application,” he added.

In the financial sector for example, some organisations might have more stringent requirements and policies regarding their own data. “We have deployed instances of the Journey back-end behind a firewall, inside a DMZ. We are willing to do this in cases where it is absolutely necessary,” says Hofmeyr.

In terms of backups, data collected from apps is “encrypted and stored off-site” on a daily basis.

Journey will produce revenue by allowing entire apps to be built for free, but will charge a monthly fee for each device running a production version of the app.

The idea is to position Journey somewhere between existing mobile application frameworks aimed primarily at professional software developers and simple form-builders — a middle ground which allows for advanced solutions, without the complexity. Let’s take a look at what’s currently out there.

On the face of it, Journey appears to be similar to local competitor DeviceMagic, who Ventureburn reported on last year. Joubert acknowledges the similarities. “Journey is primarily designed to build apps that are currently done on paper and in this way we’re similar to Device Magic”, he says.

Delving a bit deeper, Journey appears to deliver more complex user interface, data modeling and API control. It’s also pursuing a different market. “We are not going after the online form market. Instead of merely replacing paper forms we enable processes to be mobile that were previously not possible (e.g. opening a bank account or signing up for insurance). It’s true that Journey is designed for forms, but unlike online form builders (e.g. DeviceMagic) the apps that Journey is suited for would typically be built using a lower level tool such as Appcelerator. A financial institution isn’t going to rely on a simple form builder to capture their clients’ details. Journey is focused on more complex use cases than DeviceMagic. Journey can handle very complex business logic whereas DeviceMagic and similar services are primarily aimed at linear processes,” he says.

Joubert mentions Appcelerator, the platform which allows web developers to apply their existing skills to create native applications for smartphones. In the same way, Journey allows that type of fine-grained development for data gathering apps. Other international solutions that play in the same space as Journey include Oomnitza, IBM Worklight, Tiggzi, Sencha Touch and Sybase Mobility.

Although there are plenty of helpful tutorials and templates available to help developers get started, building a Journey app is not entirely point-and-click and presents somewhat of a learning curve.

“Journey indeed has a bit of a learning curve right now, and introduces some new concepts that non-developers are not necessarily familiar with,” admits Hofmeyr.

Edit XML mode

Visualize mode

“There are two important parts of our vision of streamlining the app building experience. It should be as visual possible — graphical drag-and-drop editing of the UI layout will play an important role — and the feedback cycle should be as short as possible. If the developer changes something in the app design, they should be able to see the results take effect immediately in the the app. We will achieve this by pushing app updates to the device in real-time and also eventually by embedding the HTML5 version of the app in the App Editor, which will update itself dynamically,” he says.

Hofmeyr also envisions adding a visual editor, which could allow developers to build a linear list of screens visually, by dragging-and-dropping UI elements onto a canvas — like a form builder — and have the data model be inferred from that automatically.

Journey currently only runs on the Android platform, but an iOS implementation is in the roadmap. “Our decision to start out with Android reflects the fact that some of the major industries where Journey is currently deployed, require a wide variety of available devices. For example, in mobile health there is often a requirement to deploy low-cost devices on a very large-scale rather than high-end devices to a smaller number of users (as might be the case in field service),” says Hofmeyr.

Joubert tells us that so far, Journey has received the most attention from network operators and banks, but it’s easy to imagine it being applied in a bunch of different scenarios ranging from humble surveys to opening bank accounts, and even perhaps one day, “during the national census,” Joubert says. He also hopes Journey can find traction in the NGO space, an area in which Embark Mobile has experience in.

Embark Mobile is self-funded and was founded in a dorm room in Stellenbosch where the founders studied engineering together. Its founders, in partnership with the World of Avatar group also started Pondering Panda in 2011, a marketing research company focused in the mobile space. Joubert and Hofmeyr are joined by Malan Joubert, who also co-founded mobile security company, FireID and electrical engineering prodigy Ralf Kistner.

Journey has seen international sign ups during its beta phase and plans pursuing expansion next year, with a focus on the US, UK and other African countries, more specifically, Kenya.

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