Why can’t I refill my plastic water bottle in my local supermarket?

Musing more on what else we can use plastic bottles for, I found myself wanting to refill my water bottle, not just while “communing” in a hostel, but while living in an apartment in Santiago. The tap water here is potable, but it tastes just awful. I spend money every day on plastic water bottles, and am starting to feel more than just a little guilty about it, especially since I’m pretty sure the generic garbage facility is not recycling them [update: I will soon be able to recycle them at a local Lider supermarket].

Why can’t I refill my bottle in my apartment building? Or better yet, at a local Lider supermarket? You can do almost everything else there – including pay your bills and use their lockers.


It seems like coin operated water dispensing machines like this one do actually clean the water, so they could be used in Mexico or Bolivia where they don’t just crave nicer tasting water #firstWorldProblems.

It also seems like they would be more environmentally friendly since they don’t waste any resources otherwise used to get plastic water bottles onto shelves, but I still need to investigate further.

coin operated soviet era automatic water dispenser-15
Here’s a coin operated water dispensers from Soviet Russia. Super cool.

If you are in the US, Whole Foods have a reverse osmosis water machine at $.35/gallon (about 3.7 litres). The only downside if you already have clean water in your apartment, is having to lug the reusable jugs home. In Canada there are cool 24 hour water refilling stations, like Rocky Ridge.

coin op web rock ridge
Rocky Ridge 24 Hour Water Refilling station

In Mexico, we had no choice. It was either that, or pay more to get it delivered.

Familiar sight in Mexico – collecting your water jug

But I don’t really need a 10-20 litre jug. At the moment I find myself buying 1.5 litre bottles as I need them, so if there were a coin operated water dispenser in my local Lider, I would just refill my bottle there instead.

I wonder does anyone have this in mind for Chile? It’s probably never going to happen – it costs so much to import equipment here that it would take forever to earn back the cost of the machine. It’s probably too niche a use case. But Mexico might be different.

Anyone know if this already happening there? If not, anyone want to start this as a side project with me? 😉  Importing coin operated water machines into Mexico? Lets do it!

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How to get FDA approval for mobile medical apps

If your parents house is anything like mine, there are random health machines all over the place, mobile monitors of all sizes and shapes for monitoring blood pressure, ECG electrocardiograms, and god knows what. But smartphone apps are a-coming.

AliveCor mobile ECG monitor

Today I covered the FDA approval of the first smartphone operated, continuous ECG mobile monitor, eMotion ECG Mobile, for inventorSpot. While I was researching the multitude of competitors, I saw a few smartphone operated ECG’s, mainly for use by clinicians in their clinics. It made me wonder how the FDA is dealing with this influx of smartphone medical device apps.

Having trained and worked as a Biomedical Engineer, I can tell you from personal experience that the FDA approval process is no fun – when people’s lives are at stake, things tend to get serious. But as an iPhone app developer, the Apple approval process has at times been too much to take. I can’t imagine having to do both!

So it turns out the FDA released guidelines just a few months ago about how they are going to regulate what they call mobile medical apps.

And they have been dealing with an influx:

The agency has cleared about 100 mobile medical applications over the past decade; about 40 of those were cleared in the past two years.”

They’ve decided to focus their oversight on mobile medical apps that:

  • are intended to be used as an accessory to a regulated medical device – for example, an application that allows a health care professional to make a specific diagnosis by viewing a medical image from a picture archiving and communication system (PACS) on a smartphone or a mobile tablet; or
  • transform a mobile platform into a regulated medical device – for example, an application that turns a smartphone into an electrocardiography (ECG) machine to detect abnormal heart rhythms or determine if a patient is experiencing a heart attack.

Mobile medical apps that undergo FDA review will be assessed using the same regulatory standards and risk-based approach that the agency applies to other medical devices.”

I guess that means it takes a long time to get mobile medical apps through the FDA, and will keep the barriers to entry high for the majority of aspiring mobile medical app inventors. Looks like my parents will be waiting a while before they can download mobile medical apps for everything they need right on their smartphone.

What medical devices are lying around your home? Do you have any cool ideas for medical device apps that you think should be built?

If you want to hear more about the latest in health and fitness technology inventions, you can find me writing over at inventorSpot

Update: Low cost safety device for solo travellers (male or female)

Wow. Guess what I just came across. The device of my dreams – on indiegogo. The BiiSafe buddy. This is like, super awesomely amazing. For 35 bucks (69 will be normal retail price) they’ve created what I wanted, but in a much niftier way – they’ve just used bluetooth in the device and let the phone do the tracking. Super cool.

BiiSafe buddy location tracking


How to get wifi passwords & free wifi when you are traveling

Inventing is so much fun. When you think you’ve invented something new, it’s an awesome feeling. Then when you realise that your invention would never work, instead of being depressed, you find yourself slap bang in the middle of another potential invention, and so the cycle begins again.

My first solution-vention was this solo travel safety location device, but when I tested out my theory, I discovered that it wouldn’t work because I didn’t actually buy a Sim card when I got to Peru.

As a result, I found myself in the middle of another problem – where can I find wifi passwords to access free wifi when I am traveling? All of a sudden, I became hyper aware of my desire to find wifi passwords everywhere I went.

On one occasion, I was in Ollantaytambo, Peru, with a few hours to kill before grabbing the train to Machu Picchu. I had sent a friend in town a Facebook message before arriving to arrange to grab dinner with her. But when I got there, my only option to get wifi was to pay and sit to get coffee. I didn’t want coffee. I didn’t want to sit. I just wanted to see if she had written back.

In the end we just bumped into each other by chance (Ollantaytambo is a pretty tiny town) so we didn’t need technology’s help, *gasp*; but I can often be found hovering outside coffee places just to send a quick message or check my email. I even snuck into Starbucks in Cusco recently, *only for their wifi*, and hid in a corner until I had done what I needed to do 🙂

I wondered why I couldn’t just have a crowdsourced list of wifi passwords to log into one of the many wifi hotspots in Ollantaytambo. [Having open wifi in cities will happen sooner or later, and perhaps that’s a bigger solution-vention for when I graduate from these smaller thought exercises… I need to build up to it 🙂 ]

I remembered foursquare tips contained passwords, and so my brain got to solution-venting.

Foursquare wifi password for Ollantaytambo

Why couldn’t I scrape all the passwords from foursquare, add in a community element so people could comment when they are or aren’t working, and make it available offline?

I was ready for my third solution-vention exercise! So next I went looking for competitors.


I found the usual iPhone wifi hacking apps  for proper hackers with jailbroken iPhones and a desire to crack passwords, or take advantage of hardware loopholes.

But then, after more searching and a useful Reddit thread, I found it – 4sqwifi.

Released 2 years ago.

Invention is so humbling.

4sqwifi to find wifi passwords when you are traveling

I downloaded it but lucky for me, I was disappointed. Why?

  1. I had to log in with Foursquare. Foursquare? That’s lame.I understand it makes it easier for users to add more tips of wifi passwords directly to foursquare, and you are always aggregating the latest tips… but no one uses Foursquare!
  2. It doesn’t work offline. So it’s basically the equivalent of what I already do whenever I remember to do it – which is go into foursquare, and do a search for wifi. Why not just use Foursquare then?

My design

So not to waste my weeks invention exercise, I set to work improving this already extremely well executed app.

Ideally I wanted a clean dataset, pulled from multiple sources including Foursquare, maintained by a community.

I wanted it to work at least for the situation in Ollantaytambo so it needed the following functionality:

– Be available offline

– Be able to search by name of town, or name of coffee shop

Some extras:

– Background tasks to check up to date-ness of wifi passwords

– Allow users to login to add a comment or help improve app

In a future version, I envisioned it being able to automatically log in to an available wifi network, but I tend to shy away from solutions that are off limits by Apple rules. I like to think of these rules as creative constraints, but perhaps that’s naive of me…  

There are rules and restrictions about scraping data from Foursquare, or caching/storing that data for later use. As this is just a thought experiment, I just ignored them for now to see if I could even get the data I need.

So I tried their explore API, searching for wifi near Ollantaytambo using this query: https://api.foursquare.com/v2/venues/explore?query=wifi&ll=-13.258369,-72.264268

Screen Shot 2013-11-20 at 19.59.41

And got what I wanted – a venue list with wifi tips attached:

Using Foursquare explore API to get Wifi Password Dataset for Venue

Using Foursquare explore API to get Wifi Password Dataset for Venue

Next step – put the relevant data in a database somewhere and clean it up… and do this for every city I am planning on attending in the next few weeks/months.

Unfortunately, this is where my time ran out for this week’s solution-vention experiment, but I will keep you updated on my progress! To hear more, subscribe for a weekly newsletter here

Some learnings: 

What’s useful about seeing someone else’s execution is becoming aware of the business opportunity – which in this case is ridiculously small. But luckily, that’s not the point of this experiment of mine. I keep having to remind myself that this is not about building a multimillion dollar company, but about training my invention muscles.

Have you ever used 4sqwifi when you’re travelling or otherwise? Any feedback?

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Update: testing iCloud hack to track location for solo female travel safety

Here’s my update from testing my solution-vention of a low cost female traveler safety hack – using iCloud to send and store my phone’s location so people know where I am… on my solo female trip to Peru.

On my way out of the airport in Santiago, I just did a quick check to see if it was grabbing my location.

Grabbing location using iCloud for female solo traveler safety

All good.

When I got to the airport at my destination, I was approached by one of the many taxi drivers. I asked him where the collectivo was (a small minibus which is really cheap into town), and he told me that on Sunday mornings there are none. I had a feeling he was lying, so I asked at information and she told me where to find it – of course there was a collectivo.

When I got in, I opened my phone, and in that moment, I really wanted to send my location to iCloud. I felt the desire to “check in” somehow – but not in a public, look how awesome I am, foursquare type of way. So I turned on roaming because I didn’t have a local Sim card yet.

The downside with my iCloud hack in this situation was I didn’t know how long it would take for my location to be stored. I wanted an app that would tell me my location was stored, so I could turn off roaming – which isn’t an ideal solution in case something happened en route, but I felt it was better than nothing.

When I arrived at my hostel in Peru, all seemed to be happy and accounted for:

 Screen Shot 2013-11-11 at 10.56.12

But I have a confession to make – I’ve been here for a few days now, and I haven’t bought a Sim card yet… I guess this is why we user test an idea before we build anything.

I meant to, but then I read some forums that made me think that buying a prepaid Sim card in Peru was too difficult – something about needing to register in order for the number to work. Then I heard it was $49 usd for the month- bit pricey. Another slight problem is I don’t know how long I will be in Peru for – I might leave tomorrow for all I know. Sure – when I first arrived, I was convinced from the boredom and ickiness of 24 hour bus/plane travel that I would stay for infinity… but 24 hours later, I found myself researching what other long, boring bus journeys I can take to countries nearby.

To add to the disadvantages of an app solution, I met a fellow solo female traveler yesterday who was stood up by her airport pick up taxi driver. She agreed to let another driver phone her hostel, on his phone, to get the address, and, without actually confirming that he was actually talking to anyone, she took him up on his offer of a lift. Nothing happened, obviously, but she told me that her battery was almost dead on her smartphone anyway, so an app wouldn’t have tracked her in this case, and she didn’t have a local Sim.

Doesn’t look good for my solution so far…

However, there is one more thing I noticed – when I was planning to take a trek off the beaten path, the idea of getting a Sim card really appealed to me, not only in case I disappeared but because I was motivated by the fear that I would twist an ankle along the way, and need to call for help.


To sum up:

Four factors have slowed down my optimism on using iCloud and a Sim-

  1. the effort to buy a Sim card
  2. the high price of Prepaid Sim card when you only need it for this one purpose
  3. not knowing how long you will stay in any one country – desire to keep options open
  4. battery life

And two factors have given me hope that we need a better version of just an iCloud hack for this –

  1. when I know I’m going to be in a random, off the beaten track location, I want to be tracked, properly
  2. I have some inner desire to “check in” when I get somewhere

I will keep watching my behavior and see what else I discover. But for now, the idea of a custom built app for female solo travelers is officially on the shelf.

Want to see what solution I invented this week as part of my experiment? Check out my unrelated, rather ridiculous, but fun to make, underwear solution-vention here

Inventions everywhere

Since I’ve started this, I’ve noticed so many inventions coming up in my facebook feed – first there was the invisible bike helmet, then this electronic tattoo that acts as a microphone, the urine sensor for wet diapers, and now an invention to allow assistance dogs to better communicate with their handlers.

doggie dialogue invention for assistance

It’s interesting how you notice things more when you are in a different frame of mind. People are inventing things every single second. At least it makes my experiment a lot easier.

Now you can find me blogging about health and fitness gadgets, and medical device apps over at InventorSpot