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Understanding the Connected Home: Factory Reset

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Understanding the Connected Home is an ongoing series that explores the questions, challenges and opportunities around increasingly connected homes. (Show all posts on this blog.). Update: As of Sept 2015, we turned it into a larger research project and book at theconnectedhome.org.

Let’s consider for a moment that an apartment full of sensors and network infrastructure is basically a computer we live in. That means we need to consider implications of security and control (like Cory Doctorow does in that last link). It also means we need to think about failure states and personal data.

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Thoughts on the smart city

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Over the last few months, I once more had the chance to work on smart city-related topics. (I say once more because it’s been a while since I did a deep dive into the field back with Cognitive Cities Conference in 2011. Ever since I’ve been following the field closely, but not actively contributed much.)

So recently I’ve had several occasions to work on smart city-related things. It’s been exciting to me that these engagements came through different vectors – in one case it was related to prior work in and around politics & e-governance and has a policy angle, in one case the approach was from an #iot angle and focused on connectivity in a wider sense. There might be more, and with a stronger overlap, as the circles in this particular Venn diagram increasingly move closer together.

I hope (and think) that large chunks of these recent projects will be made accessible publicly at some point. For now, it’ll have to stay a bit on the vague end I’m afraid. Once things get published, you’ll find out through the usual channels.

Long story short: I’ve been thinking about smart cities a fair bit. And two major questions have been popping up over and over again.

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A smart city and responsive governance report for the German government

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I’m super excited to be commissioned to co-auther a chapter for a report for WBGU, the German government’s Advisory Council on Global Change, with Dr. Christoph Bieber.

We’ll be taking a close look at “smart cities” and their implications for governance and citizen empowerment. Christoph is professor for ethics in political management and governance at University of Duisburg-Essen’s School of Governance and a dear old friend, so we’ll focus on empowerment, responsive governance and sustainability.

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Google/Skybox could offer a searchable DIFF of the world

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Since Google announced to buy satellite company Skybox recently, there’s been quite a bit of speculation about the reasons and potential implications of the acquisition. Some wondered about the emerging picture of a Google that owns military robots and drones and has access to information about both outside and inside our homes; others looked at how regularly updated satellite images could improve maps, or how a real-time map of, say, available parking spots might be possible with this technology. Or predictions about the market and economics developments. Wired speculates about Really Big Data and geopolitical forecasting.

Writes The Atlantic:

Right now, the raw imagery created by satellite cameras can be hard to decode and process for non-experts. Therefore, many companies like Skybox hope to sell “information, not imagery.” Instead of pixels, they’ll give customers algorithmically-harvested assessments of what’s in the pixels. For example, using regular satellite-collected data, an algorithm could theoretically look for leaks in an Arctic pipeline and alert the pipeline’s owners when one appeared.

This at least is one of the visions Skybox promotes in their videos:

 

 

It’s hard to tell how much of this is possible yet; I’d assume it’s nowhere near as complete now as it might seem. But it is a near-real time video feed of a large part of the surface of the world that – at some point – could be analyzed and converted into actionable data.

A searchable DIFF

And that’s where it gets really interesting: With this kind of technology, once it’s ready for prime time, Google could offer a complete over-time picture, a searchable visual and data representation – a DIFF of the world.

Imagine a cargo container, sitting in a dock, loaded onto a ship, the ship moving (and recognized by the image processing algorithms as such), the container being unloaded and put on a train, then a truck, then opened up and emptied. At any given time, you can trace (and trace back, if in hindsight it becomes interesting) how the tracked object has moved over time.

Live analysis combining a variety of data sources

Fast forward a few years and into version two of the toolkit (maybe) being built here. Then we’re looking at a much bigger picture. Assume a lot more processing power is now available to process, analyze, categorize and save the data available from the satellite images. Maybe enriched by other data sources, too. Now you can offer to pull together unforeseen searches on the real world as a service, similar to the way Wolfram Alpha lets you perform calculations by pulling together data from various sources – weather and traffic data; processed video feeds from drones; market and stock info; communications and network data, etc. – and combining them into one powerful analysis tool.

I find it hard to come up with good examples for this off the top of my head; let’s try anyway. Say you want to know how many trucks vs cars pass over a certain bridge. Or where to find the highest density of SUVs globally. Or the ratio of swimming pools per capita in LA compared to New Delhi compared to London. Or correlate the length of lines at bus stops to the local weather. Or want to know where your car ended up after it got stolen, and where the person went who stole it.

These examples are pretty weak, admittedly. But suffice to say that the range of applications – in commercial, military & security, social contexts – are enormous – ludicrously enormous – for good and evil alike.

Pre-Social Networks

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The New York Times on the New Art of Flickr

The New Scientist touched on a fascinating concept: Pre-Social Networks that would foster serendipity by matching people based on their interests and their current (or even future) location.

Imagine heading to a café, and your phone recognizes where you are going and lets both you and someone at that café know that you have certain interests in common. It doesn’t matter if it’s a hobby, a former employer, a common friend, or even an ex girlfriend for that matter.

It’s the chance of massively increasing an element of serendipity that’s incredibly powerful.

There are huge potential implications here, with privacy only being a small chunk. We’re talking changing social dynamics, ways of meeting peers with less friction, less awkwardness. Mapping where people of certain interests hang out. Etc, etc, etc.

Thinking about it like that, maybe privacy isn’t just a small chunk of this after all.

And yet. All this by basically matching the data we already codified online: Facebook social graph, Twitter social graph, interests based on links we share, location by phone GPS and Foursquare checkins. Maybe throw a few extras for more richness, more flavor, like Last.fm music preferences and pull from Tripit which places you like to travel to, both being strong social connectors.

Not sure which of these data sets we’d actually want to match, and who we’d want to match them. It’s a strong, powerful notion, though, and one we’d better think about sooner than later.

Image by Thomas Hawk, some rights reserved (CC by-nc)

In Social Media, ROI = Return on Interaction + Return on Influence

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How to measure the success of Social Media has been a huge problem in this industry for quite a while. There is a consensus that the number of fans/likes on Facebook or of followers on Twitter is too weak an indicator, but the alternative metrics are still rare: No golden standard has emerged yet.

This presentation by 22squared on Return on Investment (ROI) in Social Media is the best I’ve seen in a long time. One of the few really good ones, really, as it backs up the main claims with data. Since you read this blog, the core finding won’t really be a surprise to you: Social Media engages customers and stakeholders, leads to interactions and eventually even to increased sales. (The latter part being the least important here.) It’s certainly good to have a decent study to back this up.

The key idea is to factor in non-financial benefits of Social Media engagement, too: Return on Investment = Return on interaction + Return on influence.

(via WeAreSocial)

Guardian: We need to become a platform!

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Now here’s a bold move by a major newspaper: The Guardian is becoming a platform.

And boy, is that a smart move compared to many other newspapers that try to lock up their content and try charging readers directly, be it by subscription model or pay-per-view.

Quoting GigaOM:

While some newspapers like the Times of London and the New York Times have either implemented or are expected to launch paywalls for their content, The Guardian in Britain has taken the exact opposite approach: Not only does it give its content away for free to readers, but through its “open platform” and API, it allows developers and companies to take its content as well, and do whatever they want with it — including building it into commercial applications.

It’s interesting to see so much movement in the newspaper market. Just earlier today I’ve discussed with a friend how it comes that so many people don’t read newspapers anymore in paper. (Including myself: The days when I had a newspaper subscription are long gone. These days I occasionally buy a newspaper for certain articles – usually when journalist friends recommend it – or read all my stuff online, usually for free. I do buy print magazines and subscribe, for example, to Wired UK. Of course, that’s a purchase more as a fetish than for its actual use, plus I want to support some magazines because they rock. Not sure how a tablet device might change my behavior there. I also subscribe to a wearable magazine.) Long story short, a theory bubbled up: That maybe we (our group of freelancers in the discussion) don’t read newspapers anymore since we stopped commuting. Asking Twitter about this theory, the response was clear: Some pointed out that there are more reasons than just the commute. One was even harsher. One mentioned that other media like podcasts suffered the same problem. But no one defended newspapers. Ouch.

German newspaper taz announced to experiment with donations through Flattr. Traditionally left-leaning, taz had been ad-free online until 2006, for both better or worse: of course there’s not much money to be had without ads in a strong ad market, but there’s much less to lose in a bad ad market like we’ve seen recently. For taz with their strongly committed reader base, donations might turn out well – the rational certainly makes sense. The question will be: Is Flattr the right platform? It’s still tough to provide readers an easy, hassle-free way to send money your way on a non-subscription basis, particularly in Germany where credit cards just aren’t ubiquitous.

But back to the Guardian. Where German publishers have been complaining about Google News “stealing” their content and making money off of it (both parts of this statement not necessarily true as Google only quotes teasers and doesn’t run ads on Google News), the Guardian not only gives away their content, but encourages commercial use:

“We not only say that you can use the content in a commercial application, we encourage it,” Thorpe said. “It gets our content to places where it wouldn’t be otherwise, and then we can build relationships with content partners around that.” The platform, which is still in the experimental stage, has attracted about 2,000 developers who have signed up for the API and created over 200 apps and web services. Platform developer Matt McAlister has called it an attempt to “weave The Guardian into the fabric of the Internet.”

The Guardian’s “developer advocate” Chris Thorpe summarizes the move:

Update (31 May 2010): On a related note, the BBC plans to increase the number of outbound clicks from its site by 2013. That right: They aim to double the number of readers they send away. Someone got it right!