Interview: Dopplr Lead Developer, Matt Biddulph

Matt Biddulph is the Lead Developer on social network for travellers, Dopplr. I interviewed him recently for my Dopplr review on Web Worker Daily. I’m posting the full interview here so that you can read all the really interesting things Matt had to say. Once more into the breach!

I’m speaking with Matt Biddulph, lead developer at social computing and travel startup Dopplr. Matt, hi. Welcome to acidlabs!

Thanks Steve. Nice to be here.

So, let’s get started. Tell me a little about yourself and the other people behind Dopplr.

The Dopplr team is made up of five people: Matt Jones, Marko Ahtisaari, Dan Gillmor, Lisa Sounio and myself. We’re all frequent travellers based in London, Helsinki and California. I’m the lead developer and I’m particularly nomadic; in the last 18 months I’ve lived in the French alps, Amsterdam and San Francisco, and I’m currently spending a month in Montreal. Code for Dopplr has been written in the Virgin First Class lounge at SFO, in Economy seats on Air India, and in cafes in Paris.

Describe your architecture – hardware and software. As you grow and the site takes off (pardon the pun), this will obviously be a concern. Where are your contingencies?

We run with Ruby on Rails, my favourite web framework, on top of the usual Open Source stack: Linux, MySQL, memcached and so forth. I’m a huge fan of Rails and I’ve been using it since late Summer 2005 when I started work on the BBC Programme Catalogue project – http://open.bbc.co.uk/catalogue/infax. As we see from the success of popular Rails apps like Twitter, the Rails community is quickly maturing and growing, and learning how to scale. I’m confident that we’ll be able to use commodity services like those provided by Joyent and Amazon EC2 to scale our system when the time comes.

Dopplr’s an interesting concept – social computing and travel hasn’t been done in this way before. What was your motivation behind Dopplr?

All of us at Dopplr spend way too much time in airports and hotels, and we all appreciate the serendipity that travel can bring. Our social network is very important to us, and this is what brought us together to make Dopplr. It all started when Marko noticed he was spending significant time every week writing emails to people telling them where he was going to be, to see if there was a chance to meet up. He realised that social software could help here. If he recorded his travels in one place and all his friends did too, he would save time, and discover the missed coincidences and serendipity that happen constantly in a network of international friends. There are many services that focus on what you’re doing right now or what you have been doing – we focus on the future.

Your location and travel plans are a very personal thing, and so we knew that privacy was an important issue. We think of Dopplr as as ‘intimate’ social network, where trust is important. This is why we made it invite-only; everyone who joins Dopplr is taking their place in an existing network. We are very careful to only reveal information to people you have explicitly told us to.

Unlike other travel focussed Web 2.0 sites, Dopplr is about connecting the people involved. How do you plan to build out the functionality so that users can get more value from Dopplr?

The thing we value the most is what we call the Dopplr Moment – when you discover a coincidence with a friend in a far-flung town and have an unexpected beer, meeting or meal.

In our first three months, we’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s possible there. For example, imagine you are going to a Paris for the first time. It may be that, unknown to you, a friend-of-a-friend lives there and could show you around town. Dopplr could prompt your friend to make that introduction.

We also realise that Dopplr is only as useful as the data people put into it, so we’ll be concentrating on adding ways to automatically get your data in. We could be taking a feed from your travel agents, screen-scraping from your airline confirmation emails, or subscribing to your public Google calendar.

Tell us about some of the unique features of Dopplr and how they work.

One feature we’re very excited about and intend to build on in the future is text-messaging. Right now, you can register your mobile number with Dopplr and use SMS to record your trips, add notes or invite new people to join. We think you should be able to access Dopplr any way you want when you’re on the road, so we’ll be extending this to IM and email (particularly good for Blackberry users) before long. Of course, we already have iCal and Atom feeds as part of the product.

Also on the theme of access to information any way you want it is the API that’s currently in development. We’ve given preview access to some of our friends and they’ve already built interesting mashups like this Google Earth visualisation.

You’ve got a pretty well-defined target audience. How do you plan to leverage those people into a money-making model for Dopplr? Or are you planning a different approach to Dopplr? It obviously lends itself nicely to targeted advertising, for example.

We’re exploring the possibilities about making Dopplr into a money-making venture, but we’re focusing much more right now on making it a fun and vibrant community that will grow. We know we’ve got a great idea and we’re concentrating on proving that value.

Climate change caused by travel has been in the news recently. Where does Dopplr stand on the issue of global warming with such a jetsetting community?

It was very important to us right from the beginning that Dopplr shouldn’t be a place to show off how much travel you do. Instead, it should be a way to optimize your travel by discovering serendipity, and hopefully saving a trip from time to time. Smart travel, or perhaps even Travel 2.0.

We intend to add tools to measure the carbon impact of your travels and help you in offsetting them. For example, last year I travelled more than 40,000 miles by air. At the end of the year I added up all my plane tickets in order to offset it at terrapass.com. This took me an hour’s work, and is something that could be calculated in an instant using the data on Dopplr.

Matt, thanks for your time. Good luck to you and the Dopplr Team!

Thanks again, Steve. Don’t forget to tell your readers that they can follow our progress on the Dopplr blog. We’re also taking signups for the beta program.

I’ve been a member of Dopplr for a few months now, and I’m really enjoying watching the feature set grow almost weekly. Also, as an early adopter, I have invitations to give away. If you’re someone who knows me and wants an invitation, drop me an email. If you don’t know me, tell me a story that convinces me I should invite you. Leave your sorry entertaining tale in the comments and I just might shoot you an invitation!

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