Mr. Bachhuber goes to mumbai

On 5 February, less than a month from today, I will be heading back to the great land of India for nearly ninety days. If I manage to survive the aggressive monkeys and crazy elephants, it will be the longest trip I have ever been on. Why are you going to India for such a lengthy time, one might ask? Well, Curious George, there are a couple key answers to this question.

One is that, thanks to some voodoo magic and an absurd number of classes last fall, I have enough credits for junior status. Although people are quick to point out that such a situation won’t necessarily make me graduate any faster, something or other about my major, I think it’s justification enough to take the winter and spring terms off. Worst case scenario is that I have to take summer school.

Secondly is that, and this is the primary reason mind you, using frequent flier miles doesn’t guarantee you specific travel dates. In fact, the airlines don’t even really let you pick your vacation when you’re using a free ticket to get to a foreign country. Upon the surprise of learning the earliest day I could return to the States was May 3rd, I thought, “err… I’ll take it?”

My parents aren’t exactly ecstatic about that decision, but you’ve got to take the opportunities as they come!

The itinerary for this trip, at this point, is a rough draft. I know for sure I will be working in some capacity on Whitman Direct Action’s Sadhana Clean Water Project for the first month and a half. The conference will put me in Mumbai on and around 19 March 2008. Other than that, I have two specific goals. My first hope is to parallel the WDA project with a one of my own. Involving photography. And a critical eye. Ideas in my mind I have, but I need to get them together pretty soon so I can get spec letters out. My second wish is to see Northern India, the entire half I missed during my first trip. Potential stops include Rajahstan, the Taj, and Dharmasala.

My itinerary as it unfolds (which may be not the best choice of words) will be published for everyone to see. And most important, I’ll be blogging every step of the way!

Some logical, if not brilliant, advice I’ve gotten so far:

  • Keep your camera in sight at all times
  • Baby shampoo can be used as toothpaste and shampoo
  • Put dental floss in your sewing kit, it’s the most indestructible thread out there
  • Keep a copy of your passport in your webmail

From the way it looks so far, India 2008 is going to be one epic journey.

Update: You can now keep updated on these adventures (or lack there of) by using my subscribe page or joining the Facebook Group.

An abandoned lighthouse?

At the ad:tech conference this year in New York City, the most widely anticipated news came from a company less than three years old. This is hardly a surprise to those who follow the tech industry; Facebook, currently valued at over 15 billion dollars, is the hottest thing since Google or MySpace. It has been on the radar along with Apple’s iPhone as one of the biggest stories of the year. Accordingly, the first announcement of how the social network is going to monetize its service, a problem plaguing every Web 2.0 startup, set the blogosphere aflame. Facebook’s name for its new ad marketing platform: Beacon.

The origin

Targeted advertising isn’t anything new. It’s only natural a business would want to pitch its product to the audience most likely to buy it. Time spent on a consumer who isn’t going to be a buyer is simply a wasted effort. Selling the merits of a men’s cologne to pre-teen girls isn’t effective just like pitching hearing aids to twenty-somethings with perfect hearing is a waste.  It pays to focus advertising as directly as possible; in financial terms, it minimizes the dollars spent selling to each consumer while maximizing the company’s overall profits.

In 1932, Young and Rubicam became the first firm to advertise based on statistics. Twenty years later, the A.C. Nielsen Market Research Company, realizing the extraordinary potential of television to reach a mass audience, began tracking which prime-time shows were being watched in what types of households. As technology progressed, so did the sophistication of the ability to track viewers and their habits; by the 1970’s, tracking services could report many more details about audiences including race, gender, age, and educational background. Personalized advertising started crawling on its hands and feet.

Jump forward another twenty years to the commercial advent of the Internet. Its digital nature allows for inherently easier tracking. While transferring data back and forth, the web requires unique electronic addresses to ensure the bits requested make it to the correct recipient. This characteristic also means a digital “paper trail” is left in every transaction. Capitalizing on this technology, web metrics have advanced to a point where a nearly infinite amount of consumer information can be aggregated and analyzed. The current difficulty, if it can be summarized, lies in determining which information is most important and how it should be interpreted.

Problems to some are opportunities to others. One burgeoning market is online advertising, with has had over 150% growth in revenues since 2000. Success in this arena is defined by the businesses who achieve the highest conversion rates; it’s what has made Google the 5th largest company in the United States in less than a decade.

There are now a few common ways of using consumer metrics to target advertisements online.  One method, borrowed from the print media, is selling advertising space based on the perceived reader demographics of a website. Grist, an environmental news nonprofit, and The Economist, a business and political analysis publication, both do this for placements on their websites. Making the deals in-house, albeit a significant amount of work, does have some added benefits. The most significant include being able to target to a specific demographic and using richer media (e.g. images and video) in advertisements. Google’s AdSense, on the other hand, is an example of a newer, content-based approach to delivering advertisements.  Known abstractly as “contextual advertising,” it optimizes ad placement by analyzing the content of the website and listing the only most relevant promotions. Doing this by looking at topics, keywords, and phrases pretty well guarantees that the text-based advertisement will be on line with the focus of the site. Yet, at the same time, those ads lose efficacy when readers learn how to ignore them.

So begins the cat and mouse game.

Facebook, by capitalizing on the social graph between its users, is making advertising “social.” Originally exclusive to college students, this social network hasn’t been without its controversial business decisions. One such event, the launch of a tool called the “News Feed” which is designed to aggregate friends’ activities on the site, caused users to go up in virtual arms about privacy concerns. A mass exodus was only averted after the founder, Mark Zuckerberg, published an open letter promising to alleviate those worries. He might have to do this again.

Unlike Google’s AdSense, which advertises based off contextual data, Facebook now has two advertising platforms which exploits the social data its users provide: Social Ads and Beacon. Social Ads places advertisements for sponsored businesses and products in the sidebar and previously controversial News Feed. These placements are targeted based on information from a user’s profile; for instance, having “photography” listed as interest in the personal section will incur a higher than normal number of ads for photo contests or camera equipment. The other system, Beacon, works by through a hybridization of “viral marketing.” When a user buys a product on an affiliated site, the information gets sent back to Facebook and is placed in the News Feed of another user. The idea, or at least in theory, is that the advertisers gain traction through a “forced word-of-mouth.” Facebook hopes to make this possible with their platform, although users haven’t been so happy about it.

Personalization is in the future of advertising. AdSense, Beacon and others are only the forerunners in a continual evolution of marketing directly to a consumer. Take, for instance, a product such as Google Maps. In the past year, Google has introduced sponsored, location-based results when a user types in a query like, “pizza portland oregon.” With the launch of Google’s Android Mobile OS in the next year, Google Maps will be available on a number more handheld devices. Add a GPS-enabled wireless device into the mix and the user will no longer have to type in the “portland oregon.” Google will know, thanks to technology. Thanks to technology, advertising too will become more targeted in every way; based on location through GPS, based on past purchases with online retailers, and based the personal interests listed on social profiles.

Or at least that’s the current trend of thinking.

Some implications

Privacy. A world where information about an individual’s actions flow freely to businesses leave little maneuvering room for a personal life. Transparency should be a two-way street. Consumers need to critically assess how much privacy they are willing to give up, and to whom they want to give it to. In the case of Beacon, the platform has become so disputed that is has attracted the attention of MoveOn.org, a civic action organization normally focused on politics. As part of a multi-pronged approach, the nonprofit created a Facebook Group titled, “Petition: Facebook, stop invading my privacy!” and draws upon members to be activists. Their intent is to call upon the company for a public response to an issue which has created headlines such as, “Does Facebook Hate Christmas?,” “Is Facebook a Privacy Nightmare?” and “Are Facebook’s Social Ads Illegal?” With enough voices, and media publicity, the tactic is sure to be successful; Facebook, unless interested in committing financial suicide, has no interest in causing the entire core of its business model to migrate to another social network. What the long-term loss, or gain, to user privacy is, however, has yet to be decided.

Integrity. The effect advertising has on content is also a very important question. In a world where it is becoming the easier choice to monetize a business with paid advertising, one must ask what sort of effect such as decision has on independence. Take journalism, for instance. Although this model is not yet entirely true of major papers, many blogs write journalistically, are supported by advertisers, and have become primary sources for niche news. Without an established and transparent code of ethics, it is impossible to guess at the editorial integrity of a website. Some naive audiences assume their authority, but every reader must be a critical reader and look at the policies behind their business practices. Grist and The Economist, for instance, have advertising policy links on top of clearly defined ads. Some sites running Google AdSense, conversely, embed their advertisements in the content of the page or in faux navigation bars. An uneducated visitor, subsequently, does not know the different between what is real and what is advertisement. For the integrity of journalism, and of all media, there needs to be a clear line between independent content and advertising.

In an economy increasingly dependent on universal participation, it doesn’t pay to exploit user data. Using those same crowds to deduce such a decision, however, is a smart choice to make.

Written for the final paper in J 201 Mass Media and Society. Also available to download in PDF

New pages: Blogroll and For Sale

I’ve launched two new pages today:

  • Blogroll follows along the definition of a traditional, well, blogroll and links to some of my favorite media. I’ve listed the podcasts I hear on a regular basis along with the RSS feeds I absorb with Google Reader. The actual links to both sites and feeds of each source will be updated when I feel like doing it. I thought it might be cool to have all of that together in one place; currently no meta service I know of will allow someone to see what I’m subscribed to.
  • For Sale is a compilation of all the stuff I’m trying to sell on Craigslist and in the Facebook Marketplace. Have a look! It’s all priced to sell.

Brilliant feature o’ the day: Skype’s Call-Forwarding

Why? Because now someone anywhere in the world can call my cellphone for trés cheap. If I don’t pick up, they’re forwarded to my cellphone’s voicemail.

This, my friend, is feature of sheer brilliance. I love you Skype!

To enable this functionality, you’ve got to have the absurdly cheap Skype Out. Once you’ve signed up:

  1. Open Skype
  2. Go to “File -> Preferences”
  3. Click on the “Calls” tab
  4. Activate the “Call Forwarding” box and enter your phone number with country code

It’s that simple! As an added bonus, when you’re not around a computer, it looks like you’re online anyway; you don’t have to be signed into Skype for someone half the way around the world to talk to you!

Components of an open-source organization: Part one

This is the first in what I hope to be a series of articles on applying the concept of “open-source” to a non-profit organization.

A month or so ago, I was hit with the notion that the open-source movement might be applicable to systems beyond software. What I quickly realised, much like when I “invented” the word guesstimate, is that someone had probably already thought of this idea. Undaunted, I began to brainstorm on how I might apply it to an organization I’m working with called Whitman Direct Action, primarily because I feel the concept behind the organization itself is revolutionary and could prove to be a useful model for other colleges and universities to build upon.

For those who are not well-versed in open-source’s history, the philosophy could be argued to have gone pop culture with Linux, a free-to-use and distribute operating system licensed under the GNU Public License. The idea of free software had existed long before Linus Torvald started working on his operating system but, from my uneducated viewpoint, that’s when it began to go mainstream. At present, Linux has become the dominant operating system for many of the internet’s web servers, and a popular distro called Ubuntu is rapidly gaining popularity as a free and open alternative to Microsoft’s proprietary Windows operating system. Unless the trend changes, and again from my viewpoint, open-source architecture will continue moving broadening its marketshare because of the speed at which intellectual property now moves across the internet, as well as the apparent mutual advantages to people who collaborate on open-source projects.

This change in scenery is also apparent with the rapid rise of Wikipedia, a system that encourages adapting and building upon intellectual material. Wikipedia, for those who have been living under a rock for the past few years, is “the free dictionary” where anyone can edit and improve upon its articles. It relies on the collective intelligence of the masses, something normally believed to be inferior to a professional editor. However, a recent study found the Encyclopaedia Britannica had just a small percentage less errors per article than the seven year-old Wikipedia. Considering Wikipedia now has 8.29 million articles in 253 languages compared to the Britannica’s 29 print volumes, it’s no stretch to say the writing is on the wall.

Open-source is a tricky concept to explain to people who have little to no experience with programming. For those beginners, the term “source” refers to the structure of commands which lie behind any digitally created object and “open” implies that the code is free to use and distribute. Take, for instance, the construction of an automobile. Most cars and trucks have, among other things, an engine, a drivetrain, and a way to control the vehicle, sometimes called the wheel, gas pedal, and brake. Those systems are parallel conceptually to code in the digital world because they are the means to an end. They determine the overall output of the product. When you apply open-source to a car or truck, this means that the parts, or information to create the parts, is to be freely used and distributed. If person B wants to improve upon person A’s automobile, they would be free to copy and adapt person A’s orginal designs. Of course, persons C and A could then have access to the adaptations as well. In fact, a system like the one illustrated is beginning to take place in China. Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams’ Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything documents how businessmen in China have opted to open-source the designs of their motorcycles to cut down on the costs associated with developing intellectual property. Working together is now becoming a very smart business decision.

In another example, this piece of writing is being published by the open-source blogging software WordPress, and some of its research has been done on Wikipedia. The list goes on.

Jumping the fence from open-sourcing intellectual property such as code and blueprints to the functional structure of an organization has only recently become possible; thanks for the ability to do this goes to the spreading ubiquity of the internet, and the brilliant tools some companies are building on top of it. An open-source organization is one which seeks to become completely transparent to the public, meaning that any or all of its processes are easily visible and adaptable.

With Whitman Direct Action, or at least initially, we hope to:

  • Podcast all and any of our staff meetings or phone calls
  • Transform the departamental update emails into blog posts, and encourage interstaff discussion in the form of comments
  • Make our financial strategies and budget freely available online
  • License applicable content through Creative Commons
  • Actively seek feedback from the community on any aspect of our organization, and make that conversation open to anyone

The driving philosophy, of course, is to make our organization “open-source” in the same sense of any software code: free to use, distribute, or modify.

Mint: Great idea, but obviously not a finished product

I received an email earlier today from my friend DJ Strouse regarding what I felt about Mint, a newly launched personal finance organizer, and I thought: why not blog it?

Overall, it’s a wonderful idea for a niche whose surface has yet to be even scratched. Personal finance is an area I feel I’m extremely disorganized in and Mint does an excellent job of presenting, in web 2.0 fashion, my income and spending trends. I especially like the ability to receive alerts if I’m spending too much, or one of my accounts gets too low. Set-up correctly, this has the potential to be a very valuable tool in itself and could possibly make personal finance a brain-dead task.

The ability to track purposes with both categories and tags follows along with the web 2.0 vein, and shows that the company is forward thinking in its organizational philosophies. The user-interface for changing categories, however, could be drastically improved. If a purchase from a company is miscategorized, the user has to select all of the purchases on the list one by one in order to do a batch update. The smarter way to do this would be along the lines of gMail’s “filter” feature. I want the ability to apply my setting to previous purchases, not just future ones!

Presenting ways to save with sponsored companies is a brilliant, and often under-utilized, business model. It is smart and sustainable primarily because, ideally, both the consumer and the company win. Although I’m somewhat wary of switching credit cards when I don’t want to, I’m pretty sure Citigroup’s claim that they can save me $560 is a valid one.

Furthermore, the web-app appears to be (or at least according to my uneducated audit) very secure. From their security policy:

  • We require only a valid email address for login registration for the service. Notice that our signup page never asks for your name, address, or SSN.
  • Your personal information is never sold to third parties. You will not end up on someone else’s email list.
  • You can delete your account at any time.

and:

  • All data storage is encrypted. Not only are our hard-drives encrypted, our servers are in a secure facility protected by biometrics palm scanners and 24/7 security guards.
  • We hack our own site. Mint runs thousands of tests on its own software to ensure security. We scan our ports, test for SQL injection, and protect against cross-site scripting. We also update and patch our software all the time.

With all of that being said though, it doesn’t work at all with my financial information. I got the service to recognize my credit card account, but the account shows up twice and I can’t figure out how to stop it from doing that. Duplicate charges are no fun weeding out. On top of that, Mint isn’t even able to access my bank account and presents all sorts of crazy errors.

Mint, the recently-public personal finance manager, is a wonderful idea conceptually, but it will probably be a couple of months before I can recommend anyone dedicating the time to making it actually work.

AppDelete = Better than AppZapper (and it’s free!)

I love how there is almost always a free version of the software you’re expected to pay for.

A few days back, after I formatted my harddrive, I made the mistake of installing all the default software the Apple includes (whoops!). AppZapper came to my mind as a good piece of software to remove all of the files associated with iDVD and GarageBand, but five uses was a couple too short to do all of the removing I had wanted to do. Oh the frustration! I really didn’t want to pay 15 dollars in order to delete applications; that doesn’t make any sense, does it?

Google and a Lifehacker article saved the day by introducing me to AppDelete, a completely free application that does the exact same thing as AppZapper (minus the sound-effects). After 10 seconds of downloading, I was back on track deleting away.

WDA revision 1 is now live

A site that I coded by hand last Saturday is now up and running at www.whitmandirectaction.org; check it out and let me know what you think!

It was a pain and a half to create, undergoing at least 3 complete re-writes, because I went at it not knowing what I wanted to create (nor did I have a color scheme). Every site I looked at for inspiration added more ideas to the mix, the CSS would then break, and I would have to do it all over again. Note to self: have a sketched understanding of what you want to build before you go about building it.

The idea for a broad blue banner came from the startpage for Google Analytics and I modeled the concept of a clean FAQ off of Parakey’s splashpage. Those FAQs, at least at this point, are in need of a complete re-write because I was completely bombed out at the end of the Saturday. If you have any questions about wDA, or want to learn more about my idea of an open-source organization, feel free to contact me.