February 10, 2009

Social network for voter education

Deborah Bowen tweeted the other day about the use of social media for voter education. Here's an idea. Thing is, people get voting recommendations through their social networks. I don't know about you, but when I'm looking at initiatives, downballot races, and other nonobvious choices, I look to maven friends who have some knowledge and perspective. The standard voters guides are somewhat useful, but they lack the perspective of a knowlegeable friend.

So, the opportunity is to have a social network application that enables mavens to fill out sample ballots (in full or in part). For each choice, the maven can add a comment and links to provide explanation and reference about their choice. Anyone can be a maven by filling out part of a ballot and explaining their choice.

Voters can choose to follow one or more "mavens". Mavens who are connected and well-respected will gain more followers. The maven's activities can be visible in an existing social network (e.g. Facebook, Twitter), so people can discover mavens in their social network. A maven can choose to have their profile and ballot be "public" (anyone can follow them), "private" - they need to approve new followers before followers can see their choices, or "networked" - your friends friends can see your ballot.

The system can display top "public" mavens, so followers can discover new sources of recommendations. Voters should be able to see the public and networked mavens followed by their friends.

This system would build on the existing social networks people use to make voter decisions, and would expose people to a wider range of information and opinion through the social network. Experts and influential people would rise to visibility. The ability to share comments and links will drive education around the ballot. And the roots of the system in the social network ought to encourage civil behavior, which could be severely problematic in a public opinion-oriented system.

What do you think? The comments on this blog are still broken (I'm planning to upgrade to fix the problem this coming weekend), so send email at alevin at alevin dot com with comments and I'll post).

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February 07, 2009

Transit and the digital divide - the best as the enemy of the good

Aaron Antrim wrote a sensible Facebook note downplaying the concept of the digital divide as it relates to giving digital access to transit information. In the world of public transit, there's a common argument that it is unfair and wrong to provide excellent digital access to transit information, since some elderly and low-income riders do not have access to digital information.

These days, a lot of people have internet access. Aaron points out recent statistics showing that overall, 75% of U.S. adults use the internet, and 56% of people who make less than $30,000/year use the internet. In the Bay Area, the overall numbers are higher, and the low-income numbers are similar: 79% had internet access in 2008, including 59% of households with income under $40,000.

It's fair to be concerned with the digital divide. But the everybody or nobody approach is poor business judgment. What company would reject a service that broadened their market, because only 60-80% of their customer base would use it?

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January 18, 2009

Games and politics 2.0

Had a lovely brainstorm yesterday with Nicole Lazzaro about the connection between game design and politics 2.0. Nicole is a game designer and theorist whose new games are coming out soon. Her games combine entertainment with sustainability themes, and her company is devoted to the triple bottom line.

The new forms of social network political engagement have attributes of games. Whether it's Beth Kanter's Birthday Cause to raise money to send Cambodian kids to college or the Courage Campaign's Please don't divorce us collaborative photo album, organizers are leveraging social incentive to affect actions and attitudes.

Nicole's focus is in the emotion of game design, which is particularly important for social action. When implementing game design for social change, do you stimulate empathy (the Please don't divorce us Campaign), catalyze peer pressure to contribute (Kanter's Cause), or trigger disgust at behavior you want to be socially unacceptable (like, say, throwing out recyclables).

Social movements take advantage of the technology of their time; the international anti-slavery and women's rights movements were facilitated by international mail service and ocean transport that was low-cost and safe enough for activists to occasional travel and meet.

Meanwhile, today's mainstream social action and political campaigns are still in the world of big fundraising, massmedia and bulk email, and haven't yet gotten the coordinated social network mojo of the Obama campaign, let alone the grass roots improvisatory spark of Join the Impact. This seems like a world of opportunity.

I'm not the target audience for Nicole's current games, though I think they are beautiful and cool. (Sorry Nicole). I'm not about to re-test my ability to play computer games while holding down a job and carrying other social obligations. And even Nicole's gentle social incentives aren't quite enough for me. I'm much more driven to play and create real-life, nomic games that affect the social and natural 3d world. And I see some pretty powerful ways of connecting Nicole's principles with that.

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The Invention of Air - Nostalgia for the Enlightenment

Steven Johnson's The Invention of Air is a short, entertaining intellectual history of Priestley, an enlightenment polymath and radical who left his mark in science, religion, and politics. Johnson's book is part of a genre, from Neal Stephenson to a spate Franklin biographies expressing nostalgia for good old fashioned enlightenment values in the age of the Bush adminisration's anti-scientific, paleo-religious, wannabe tyranny.

Interesting the connections that Johnson draws and implies. Johnson hails Priestly as the forebear of ecoscience, since he was the first to identify plants creating the essential substance for animals to live. Johnson also notes that Preistley was the financial ward of England's early industrialists who build the industrial age on the energy of burning fossil fuel and the labor of workers in the mines and factories. The seeds of the sustainability critique were planted at the same time industrial pollution began.

The book sympathizes with Priestley's enlightenment critique of religious orthodoxy & political tyranny and pursuit of science, and the way his rationalist enthusiasm connected them all. Rather than connecting with the left's critique of industrial waste, pollution, and oppression, Johnson emphasizes Priestley's irrepressable optimism. Even as a scapegoat in his country and a political exile, Priestley kept up his experiments, preaching and polemic.

Perhaps the lesson for us is that we can learn from enlightenment optimism, too. What's the right balance between skepticism toward an ideology of progress which blinds us to booms and hidden costs, and optimism that lets us create new solutions?

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January 11, 2009

Creative destruction in the car industry

The recession and extreme decline in car demand is a blessing in disguise for green innovation. Typically, better new cars are adopted slowly because of slow installed base turn. People in the US keep their cars an average of 6 years, and the cars last 8-10 years on average. Even if a great new car comes on the market, someone who just bought a new car isn't going to be looking for another six years. Now, people are holding onto their cars for longer, and new car sales were down 30-40% quarter over quarter in late 2008.

Meanwhile, there are some impressive, energy efficient new cars on display at the Auto Show in Detroit. Now on the edge of commercialization, these models have been shown in advancing stages of development over the last several years.

This car is Honda's new Insight, coming in 2010. Larger than the original Insight, but cheaper and a little smaller than a Prius, it gets 50-60 mpg.

What this means is that when demand for cars returns, more people will be ready to give up their clunkers. And the next generation of EVs and plug-in hybrids will be ready and waiting. When an economic revival will push demand for gas up past supply again, the technology will be there. This is good news for greenhouse gas emissions since lower carbon cars will be able to gain market share more quickly.

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January 05, 2009

Thomas Vander Wal - Tell me something I don't already know

Thomas Vander Wal wrote as a comment to How Buildings Learn, for social software

This idea of ease of finding people to talk to around popular books, but difficulty finding more niche books is something the dating tag site Consumating.com called quirkiness. Ben Brown explained they had a measure for quirkiness that surfaced quirky connections between people. It was just above outliers to a few 10s higher. With 300k people in Consumating the quirkiness factor ran from 7 to about 40.
Quirkiness was people who had relatively rare tags in common. This rare commonality was something that was really difficult to find in the wild. This is one of the benefits of using digital means to connect people. Consumating found the relationships that were lasting quite often were grounded in this quirkiness. This came up on a panel I was on w/ Ben Brown, which was moderated by Heath Row who met his wife on Consumating as they were both Manhattanites who were tagged "mountain climbers", hence quirky.

This is the drawback of popularity-based recommendation systems. Sometimes they tell us things that are new and hot that we haven't seen already. But often they tell us things we already knew. If you liked Harry Potter Book 5, you might like Book 6. Statistical improbability, social filters, and the combination of the two can lead to more interesting results than popularity alone.

Comments on this blog are broken, and will stay broken til I upgrade to the next version of MT or to WordPress.

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January 04, 2009

Social media hasn't crossed the chasm in California politics

I had a fascinating conversation at EqualityCamp about the status of social media in California politics. Apparently, despite the dramatic upset success of the McNerney campaign, fed by "netroots" small donor fundraising and upstart blog-driven citizen journalism, oppo research and organizing, the political mainstream in California is still fixated on mass media politics. Big-block fundraising is used to fund mass media advertising campaigns with highly controlled messaging created by campaign consultants based on focus group research.

The collossal failure of this model in the NoOn8 has driven those of us who live in a social media, grassroots world absolutely bonkers. But apparently, even the dramatic Obama victory fueled by small-donor fundraising and grass roots, neighbor to neighbor organizing, hasn't done much to change how the California political class thinks about campaigns.

The state of affairs smells like a classic early market, which in Geoff Moore's classic taxonomy, hasn't yet "crossed the chasm". There are classic barriers, and some classic tactics for overcoming the barriers.

Barrier: There is a well established process for funding and running campaigns.
Opportunity: Identify a niche where social media tactics provide an advantage. Marriage equality is clearly in this category, since personal outreach is the best known way to change hearts and minds on the topic. There are likely other niches where a social media strategy can gain a foothold and win success.

Barrier: Costly tools and data
Opportunity: Blogging and social networking is very low cost. But until now, the data and tools needed to facilitate neighbor to neighbor get out the vote has been very expensive and inaccessible. Innovative business models with California Voter Connect could conceivably make voter data more accessible to the niche markets that would take the risks to innovate with social media grass roots strategies.

Barrier: Mainstream folk lack role models.
Opportunity: Politicians seeking to run for office look to their peers for models of successful campaigns. There are politicians who are "early adopters" of social media, who can integrate social media into their campaigns. Then those politicians can influence others personally, and their examples can be used as case studies.

Barrier: Mainstream politicians lack a mental model of social media campaigns.
Opportunity: Over the last few years, the business and nonprofit worlds have started to evolve a rich set of useful practices for the use of social media. Analyst houses like Forrester Research and independents like Tara Hunt and Beth Kanter have built consulting practices and spread knowledge. There's a related opportunity to spread knowledge with writing and conferences The best time to build an reputation as an expert in an early market is before the space is crowded, when the topic is still unfamiliar to many people.

When a market is "in the chasm", it can feel rather grim for the early adopters looking up at the high walls. But early markets are times of amazing potential. There is a wide range of tactics, and the universe provides a variety of opportunities to take one or more of the early market plays and take innovation mainstream.

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January 01, 2009

Blog aggregation state of the art

I've been wanting to recreate the Austin Bloggers magic, and just found a tool to do it.

Back in the day, I was part of an Austin Bloggers group that set up the Austin Bloggers blog aggregator. The site is still going strong is a fun way to check in on Austin-related people and things. The cool thing about the site is that it aggregates only blog posts that people make about Austin. Your blog can be about a variety of topics, but only the posts about Austin will be aggregated. Blogs need to register to be automatically posted. Otherwise, posts are moderated. Registration and moderation is needed to prevent spam.

I really love this model. It pulls together an interesting site, out of the independent actions of decentralized bloggers. By linking to each of the bloggers, it gives credit and traffic to the individual blog. By aggregating posts in a category, it pulls together a coherent site, without forcing the participants to change their writing, and requires minimal editorial effort.

For various reasons, we built the site using TrackBack to aggregate the posts. Lead developer is Chip Rosenthal. The tool is open source, but wasn't really packaged to make it easier to use for other purposes. And if the site was put together today, RSS would be a reasonable choice.

Easy Automated Aggregation

I've been looking for tools that do similar aggregation, in a packaged and reusable way, since then. I've recently found it. FeedWordPress is a WordPress plugin that aggregates posts from multiple sites via RSS. It can be set up to pull posts by category/tag, and to link to the authors' blogs. It's easy to install and works as described. The bit that is missing is a tool for bloggers to register themselves. Currently, the editor needs to add the urls of the blogs manually.

Calendar Aggregation

Calendar aggregation is a piece of the puzzle that isn't quite there yet. It would be really cool to be able to aggregate calendar events from decentralized sites. Calendar aggregation today appears to be where blog aggregation was in 2003. Calagator is an open source ruby-based project. developed by and for the tech community in Portland to create a master calendar of tech events. To share an event stream, participants add a url that contains data in any of several popular formats: iCalendar, hCalendar, Upcoming, and MeetUp. The tool with then import new events as they are posted.

Like AustinBloggers, this tool is first being developed for a specific community, for a specific purpose. If the developers wanted, they could make a more re-usable tool. Or, the idea and the code are available for extension.

Why not FriendFeed

I love Friendfeed. Friendfeed is a wonderful tool for building a crowdsourced link blog, with links, posts, tweets, photos, and more. Items are posted to Friendfeed by participants. If nobody posts a link, it doesn't get aggregated. There a way to filter by topic. And fundamentally, Friendfeed is Friendfeed. You can set up a FriendFeed room about a topic, but you can't turn that into a destination site with a url and identity of its own.

Aggregation and community

In a world with decentralized organization and creativity, aggregation can be a powerful tool for building useful resources from decentralized contributions. I can see uses in political / civic organizing, local journalism, creative communities and more. With the WordPress plugin, an aggregator site is now a simple install.

Posted by alevin at 11:58 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

December 29, 2008

How Buildings Learn, for social software

LibraryThing, a site for booklovers who catalog and review the books on their bookshelves is the opposite of those FaceBook junkfood applications designed to get you to use them once or twice, annoy all your friends, and move onto the next big thing. LibraryThing is deep. The social features of LibraryThing aren't about popularity and making lots of friends, but the opposite -- they are designed to help people find a few "like minds" with the same obscure shared interests. From the LibraryThing blog: the fun of LibraryThing isn't just in the widely held books, it's in those that are shared by only 10 or 20 other members. It's easy to find someone who has read The Hobbit. Finding someone to discuss your more obscure books isn't quite so simple.

Recently I listened to Jon Udell's interview of Tim Spalding, founder and programmer at LibraryThing. Spalding designs LibraryThing for engagement and depth. It's best customers are booklovers who put in the time, not only to catalog, rate and review, but to disambiguate titles, variants, translation, and authors helping to build a coherent database out of a gnarly ontological problem, and making the tool more useful for all.

In the interview, Spalding has an interesting insight about why Amazon's customers don't tag. When you're browsing Amazon, your goal is to find books to buy, and to leave. You don't have an incentive to stick around, to make the site better for yourself and others. LibraryThing is for connoissieurs, not shoppers. LibraryThing's customers appreciate their collective bookshelp and want to keep organizing it and making it better.

Spalding approaches LibraryThing as a tinkerer, experimenting, remodeling and building wings and extensions. His recommendation tools are works in progress. He's been gradually adding social features: groups, discussions, recommendations of others with similar tastes. It's not a site designed to get big and get bought. It's designed to continually add engagement for members.

Several takeaways from the interview about the design of social software
* Social Software doesn't get "finished". It's more like a building, in Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn. Brand writes about how buildings are continually adapted, remodeled and refitted over time for new uses as its occupants' needs change.
* Social software rewards depth over time. The joy of Facebook, Friendfeed, and Twitter is about letting people know what their friends are doing moment by moment. LibraryThing enables you to make a friend because you have the same 15-year old book (tip: you can run LibraryThing through FriendFeed to get the immediacy, too)
* Social software rewards deep engagement. The reason to add features isn't because there's a checklist, it's because people can continue to do more valuable and enjoyable things in the environment over time

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December 28, 2008

Your Inner Fish

The evolutionary history of animal development is producing some thrilling science these days. Like Endless Forms Most Beautiful, by Sean Carroll, Your Inner Fish is written for a general audience by one of the pioneering scientists in the field.

Neil Shubin is a paleontologist and developmental biologist whose team discovered Tiktaalik, a Devonian fish that is evolving toward tetrapod. The stage of tetrapod evolution is intriguing on its own -- the creature jointed fins with ends that bend and splay, and a neck, allowing it to do "pushups" in shallow water to catch prey or watch for predators.
Picture 184.png
Carroll has more in-depth information than Shubin about the core of evo devo, the evolution of the developmental program that builds creatures with bodies. Where Shubin's book shines is exploring the deep evolutionary history of different parts of the body, such as teeth, eyes, ears, and the head. The developmental program for teeth, out of the interaction between layers of skin in the embryo, also generates hair, feathers, and breasts. The bones, cartilage, and nerves in the human jaw, ears, and throat, expanded from tissues that served as gills in fish; the straightforward nerve routes in fish became convoluted in mammals now that the location of the tissues has been rearranged.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book covered the evolution of the building materials of bodies: collagen, cartilage, bone, intercellular communication. One fascinating hypothesis in this section is that one of the key bodybuilding materials, collagen, requires a lot of oxygen to produce. Therefore, a key factor in the explosion of animals with bodies in the Cambrian era was a rapid rise in the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere.

To follow up on this idea, I'm now reading Oxygen, the Molecule that Made the World.


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