< Back

The FindMyShadow Story

I have in the last week (Jan 2019) released a significant update to the capabilities of the FindMyShadow iOS app - now at version 4.0 - with iCloud integration, more shapes, mapping integration with auto-scaling, PDF report generation and more. It is shaping up to be an app I'm more proud of than ever.

It is a good time to reflect on the history of the project and I decided to share the story of why I created first the website, then the iOS app in my (limited) spare time. This project is not making much of an income, but it is an interesting technical and learning challenge.

In the beginning...

It all started when I lived in a little end of terrace house with a cold, damp, dark north-facing garden and was looking to buy a new house with my new wife (I say new, as if there was an old one - I mean we were recently married) and looking to the future of building a family together - which wasn't going to be very easy in the tiny one-bedroom place we had!

So, we went searching for larger properties. We really wanted an improved level of light in the garden and therefore hunted down south-facing garden properties, as is the cliche. We were in the midst of negotiations for the purchase and then it all fell through. We were disappointed, but an opportunity suddenly arose for a matching property on the same estate, but with a WEST-facing garden. Would this meet our needs??? How could I find out quickly?

I went looking for a way to identify the shadows cast over the new garden. It was possible to get hold of tables of solar positions for a given location at a given date, and I applied these angles and a bit of basic trigonometry to a few technical drawings of the garden and surrounding buildings, trees and fences to show how much overshadowing the neighbouring houses would produce in the summer months. The garden got good sun in the summer - in fact the patio area was a nice little sun trap! We successfully competed the deal and 10 years later are still very happy in our home with our two children and dog who all love playing in the garden, year-round!

So, why bother with creating a tool for others? Well, I thought of it as an interesting intellectual challenge, and thought with a little advertising on the side bar I might make a little passive income - the IT professional's dream, right?!? Turns out it takes time and effort and doesn't do it all by itself.

A Web Tool

In March 2009 I started with a Javascript web-based tool with a PHP caluculating engine and rendering back end. The interface was clunky and limited, but it worked and I started to see some regular hits on the site. In fact, the position of the site in Google rankings rose relatively quickly - I guess this was a niche and I had hit the mark. But I didn't recognise and leverage this fully at the time as the aforementioned young family came along and like many new parents my side projects stuttered and stalled in favour of the more important things!

Over the next few years I just dabbled. The interface improved and site hit volumes rose a bit. Then the site started erroring. I was hitting the CPU capping of my hosting provider every time the shadow rendering routine was fired off. I needed to change the architecture a bit. The children were a bit older and we were getting a bit (!) more sleep so I started moving to a client-side tool, written in Javascript and making better use of the "new" HTML5 canvas object to create a much more slick drag-and-drop interface. Browsers had moved on and the support of the canvas was better. The new tool was a huge improvement and released in December 2015.

You can see the iterations and improvements in the website's history page, including later changes to make it mobile-friendly with responsive design.

iOS App

I have been a long-time iPhone user and I had always wanted to create an iPhone app. However, to do so required use of a (pricey) Mac. I had a Windows laptop. Problem. I did however have a product idea and an idea as to whether it could be "successful" based on the website usage statistics. I looked into how to learn - reading books, blogs, online courses and so on - and wondered if I could get away with renting time on one of the hosted Mac services to develop my first attempts. It seemed this would be a low-risk if somewhat inconvenient compromise to buying a costly machine initially.

Then came an opportunity: Jury Duty. My wife had recently performed (is that the right word?) Jury duty herself and found that some people did not get allocated to many trials and spent a lot of time sitting, waiting, reading in the jurors waiting room for the allotted 2 weeks of service. If my experience was similar, with a low number of trials, I figured this would be a good time to spend a sustained amount of time learning about iOS development - time that I would never normally get whilst going about my day job. I bought a couple of books on my Kindle and learned the basics following a structured, if somewhat dry approach. I decided I could do this and wanted a Mac to give it a go. Seeing is one thing, doing is another.

So I bought a second-hand MacBook Air 11" on eBay for £350 - somewhat of a bargain, really! And the development effort began.

Much like the website, the first version of an App was a fairly simple affair, with a compass and sundial, date picker and tableview showing the angle and azimuth of the sun over time. It hooked into the GPS to get your current location too. I learned a lot about the whole process of developing an app, Apple's APIs, testing it, releasing to the Apple AppStore through iTunes Connect. The app launched in August 2015. I created a Facebook page for the app and have a couple hundred followers who have encouraged me with feedback and ideas. To them, my thanks. The historical posts serve as a record of the development of the features of the app and I sometimes look back with a mixture of amusement and sometimes horror (!) at the way things once were.

Over time I learned more skills and added the scene drawing functionality similar to that on the website. I tried to maintain parity of features between the web tool and the iOS app, partly because there are non-Apple users out there benefiting from the website, and conversely because the revenue from the app is more direct and I feel I "owe" the purchasers of the app at least the same or better features than the "free" (ad sponsored) web tool. It remained however that it was easier and faster to develop enhancements to the website and I felt I might be losing people's confidence in the app.

Recently I managed to find the time to invest in overhauling the app. The new Files integration in iOS allowed for long-since needed iCloud integration to allow the sharing of files across devices and I improved the scene editor and output options, map integration and scale detection. I have replaced the little MacBook Air with a much nicer-to-use MacBook Pro (just because XCode on an 11-inch non-retina screen is a scroll-fest!) and am trying to make the app what I always hoped it could become.

The future

It's still not a big revenue-creator. It's paid for the required computers and Developer licenses and the web hosting, but I wasn't really in it so I could retire on the passive income. I guess it's a pet project, a labour of love perhaps? I just enjoy creating things and this scratches that itch just enough, along with my home DIY projects. I intend to continue to add features, and hey, if a big online estate agent wanted to buy it off me for meeeeellions of dollars... I would probably say yes! ;-)

Please do get in tough if there are features you'd like to see or if you have a story of how this site has helped you find your perfect home, successfully fight planning consent, achieve planning consent, install solar panels, grow great home produce or whatever else you've found use of the site helpful for.

All the best,

< Back