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Building Opal’s Screen Time Framework

April 7, 2022

At Opal we are building the best app to protect your time and your focus. Opal allows you to better schedule your days, block distracting apps and focus fully, on any device. Our app is available on iOS (iPhone) and Chrome today.

Today, we’re interviewing Matt Davenport, head of Engineering at Opal, about one of the core technical challenges we face at Opal, to help us understand our journey as we build Opal’s Screen Time Framework, and along with it the most reliable way to protect your time and focus.

First, can you explain how Opal works on iOS?

Opal uses a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to help you stay focused. A VPN acts like a layer that sits between your phone and the rest of the internet and is useful for all kinds of reasons.

Opal differs from the majority of VPNs in that it sits completely locally on your device and is able to help you stay distraction-free without any data ever leaving your device.

How does Opal’s VPN differ from more traditional VPNs?

Opal works completely locally on your phone, information is never sent to a remote server - this allows us to be privacy first.

A VPN is usually used for privacy hiding your browsing information from your Internet Service Provider or pretending your location is in another country. This often means sending your browsing data to a remote location, then letting the VPN provider handle the data. This comes with its own set of privacy challenges, such as - do you trust the VPN provider's handling of your private browsing data?

Opal is different in that it works completely locally on your phone, information is never sent to a remote server - this allows us to be privacy first.

Opal’s VPN serves a different purpose to the above use cases, it allows us to block your distracting apps from connecting to the internet during a session. We can turn off the connection to those apps dynamically while keeping the rest of your phone working as expected.

While not blocking apps, Opal can help to give you insights about your focus and phone usage by looking at internet traffic coming through the VPN. The basis of this is what we call Opal’s Screen Time Framework.

What is Opal’s Screen Time Framework?

Today, iOS Screen Time is not available as a public API. We decided to build our own.

In order to power Opal, we have had to build a way to measure internet use and intervene to block specific apps and websites you choose. Apple has built its own system, iOS Screen Time, which gives you high-level stats on apps you use and the time you spend.

Today, the iOS system is not available as a public API. We decided to build our own.

Measuring time spent on apps with Opal's Screen Time Framework

We can use this Screen Time data to help you to manage the time spent on apps. We can do this by dynamically blocking or offering assistance at the right times during the day.

Blocked connection attempts from apps you choose

What are the biggest challenges of this project?

No one has attempted this previously

There are a few big challenges with what we’re trying to accomplish with the Screen Time Framework.

The first (and probably largest) challenge is that we’re treading new ground here, no one has attempted this previously and because of that, we’re creating new algorithms and tools to help us continuously improve our predictions and insights.

The second is that privacy is at the core of everything we do, this in itself is a challenge - calculating Screentime on device dynamically and at speed is something we’re continuously optimizing.

The third biggest challenge we’re facing is accuracy, trying to reliably detect when an app is connecting to the internet in the background while your phone is in your pocket vs when you’re intentionally scrolling is much trickier than it sounds.

This is made more difficult by the changing landscape - developers are constantly updating their apps and sometimes apps work differently depending on the country, this can make predicting Screen Time extremely difficult.

What is the blue sky vision for Opal’s Screen Time Framework?

Our blue sky vision for Opal’s Screen Time Framework is for it to be even more reliable than Apple’s.

We are aiming to make the Screen Time Framework the most reliable way to protect your time and focus by providing timely feedback and dynamic blocking based on your usage.

Our goal is to build the most reliable way to protect your time and focus, more reliable than Apple’s own Screen Time.

(Apple doesn’t break out things like time spent watching Youtube or Facebook while browsing on Safari).

We’re also using this information to create incredible in-app statistics and insights.

For instance we’re currently working on a single score called the Focus Score that is the most accurate way of tracking your focus each day, how it changes over time and how Opal can help you to improve it - Screen time is a core part of this calculation.

How can people get involved? Are you looking for help?

We love to hear from our gems - especially if you have a technical background - to help us improve Screen Time framework.

Please send us your feature requests here and reach out via the Opal app (settings => support). We have a private beta to test latest versions and would be happy to get you involved.

Thank you!

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