Avoid creepiness


A couple weeks ago, the New York Times had a pretty decent article about the internet of things (IoT), The Internet Gets Physical. The focus was on the more industrial side of things as opposed to Arduinos and the maker culture.

And in between a number of pretty awesome-looking projects like the UN’s Global Pulse, I noticed this (highlights are mine):

Researchers at General Electric, the nation’s largest industrial company, are working on such applications and others. One is a smart hospital room, equipped with three small cameras, mounted inconspicuously on the ceiling. With software for analysis, the room can monitor movements by doctors and nurses in and out of the room, alerting them if they have forgotten to wash their hands before and after touching patients — lapses that contribute significantly to hospital-acquired infections. Computer vision software can analyze facial expressions for signs of severe pain, the onset of delirium or other hints of distress, and send an electronic alert to a nearby nurse.

So now there we have an interesting case. A scenario that both makes rational sense and is at the same time absolutely unthinkable. Yes, in this scenario we would use technology to reduce risk for patients. But it would come at the cost of the most severe privacy violations, particularly in a situation as vulnerable as a hospital stay.

The fact that the cameras are mounted inconspicuously on the ceiling only reaffirms the impression that they shouldn’t be there in the first place. (I also doubt that facial expression would even work reliably when, for example, you’re attached to a respirator, but that isn’t even the point.)

For IoT applications to get more widely accepted, they should be more human, humane, and human-friendly. The Nest thermostat is a good example. It’s helpful, looks good and is decidedly non-creepy.

Being non-creepy is good.

Could Crowdsourcing Help Save the New York Times?


New York TimesThe New York Times is in trouble, big-time. That’s about all everybody can agree on. (The opinions on consequences and options differ widely. Check out The Atlantic’s judgement and Jeff Jarvis’ comments, for example.) To get an idea of how bad the newspaper is hit, here’s the figures quoted in The Atlantic:

Earnings reports released by the New York Times Company in October indicate that drastic measures will have to be taken over the next five months or the paper will default on some $400million in debt. With more than $1billion in debt already on the books, only $46million in cash reserves as of October, and no clear way to tap into the capital markets (the company’s debt was recently reduced to junk status), the paper’s future doesn’t look good.

Now that’s the NYTimes. For other papers the future looks even more bleak. After all, the NYTimes has some advantages over their competitors: A long-standing tradition and strong brand, national (rather: world-wide) distribution, and extremely high journalistic standards. Also, being the respected news organization the NYTimes is, they have a strong supporter community. (I’ll come back to the community at the end of this post.) That said, continuing business as usual surely isn’t an option. So what is?

Cutting costs has been proposed a great many times (and sadly led to mass layoffs). Micropayments have been discussed. Ditching print for online has been proposed and done. (The Christian Science Monitor will switch from print to online-only this April.)

A completely different way, and probably a much better one, is the one proposed by Janet L. Robinson, the president and chief executive of The New York Times Company. Instead of cutting down, Robinson proposes to aim at keeping up the major asset the NYTimes has over it’s competitors – high-quality journalism:

“As other newspapers cut back on international and national coverage, or cease operations, we believe there will be opportunities for The Times to fill that void,” she said, for both readers and advertisers.

This sounds like a plausible way to go. More importantly, though, it also just like a generally good idea, eh? The New York Times has proven over and over again, that they know how to work the web, and have experimented a good deal over the years. Just now, they launched a prototype of an experimental user interface, the Article Skimmer. (More prototypes.) Certainly not the next big thing, but a solid experiment in other ways of displaying news.

NYTimes Article Skimmer New York Times Article Skimmer Prototype (Screenshot)

But back to the community. The NYTimes clearly has a strong, and large, community of supporters. (And that’s both private readers and instituions of all sorts.) Couldn’t the paper go the way of many a web projects and give their community the chance to support them directly? We’re talking community support of all sorts: Fundraising, marketing, but also content. Why not adapt a citizen reporter segment of sorts, a strong online community site, all that kind of stuff? Surely there must be a way to crowdsource for effort and cash when one of the flagships of old-school quality journalism is at stake?

I would give a few bucks to rescue the NYTimes. And I’m not even based in the U.S.