Category Archives: Communications

Public Transit Adds Data Points

Here in DC, WMATA (Washington Metro Area Transit Authority) has started putting up signs at all its bus stops that have a unique stop number on them.

wmataWhat this number symbolizes is a unique ID that riders and WMATA operators can use to point to an exact location and stop.

As you can see from the sign, it’s not exactly intuitive what this number is for, but you can call that number and tell the system the unique stop ID and it would tell you when the next bus is coming.

More useful is that WMATA has put up a mobile version of the same functionality at http://www.wmata.com/mobile/ which allows you to go on your iPhone or whatever and type in the stop # to find out when the next bus is coming.

This app also lets you check when the next trains are coming on the Metro, once you’ve entered the station.

But I think there are some interesting applications more on the bus side, what with WMATA having to add the pictured signs to ALL of its bus stops.  This is no small number; according to Wikipedia, that number is 12,301 total bus stops.

It will take some time for WMATA to get signs on some of the lesser-traveled stops, but I’ve noticed that a lot of the work’s already been done as I travel around town.

That means there are now 12,301 new data points (maybe not new to WMATA’s internal logs, but certainly new to us) that could be used.  Right now, people can’t interact actively with those data points.

But I could imagine that if the data points were all mapped onto Google Maps or OpenStreetMap, then interesting things would begin to emerge, e.g. emergency responders could be told that there’s an injured person at that location.

This might be done by turning the bus stops into communication posts:  the sign itself could be connected to a WiMAX network and thus displays the next-bus time without you having to look it up.  But it could also allow for emergency requests, or you could touch your phone or an RFID-enabled device to it to get more information on whatever was needed; this information would be primarily localized, like where the nearest convenience or grocery store was, etc.  This would make up for a lot of the shortcomings that still exist in being able to use the GPS/triangulation on your phone but still not having any context on your map that’s meaningful beyond what cross-streets you’re at.

New York supposedly is about to try out its own version of having next-bus displays at bus stops, according to the NY Times.  It’s not entirely clear to me what their technology is although they claim it is some sort of “mesh network technology” which to me sounds like it’d be fraught with errors and lost coverage.

The new data points could be used in different applications:  you could check in to FourSquare from them as you travel around town, playing its social game.  If WMATA played ball and opened up the data, you could calculate total hits on a station by a bus over a year.  Even more interesting would be if you could see how many people were on each bus, to see how congested things are over time (I can already see privacy zealots complaining about that).  How about figuring out overall transit times for Metro users?

What else could we do with this stuff?

Leave a comment

Filed under Communications, Computers, Design, Government, Internet, Openness, Policy, Tech, Web

My Tech Policy Memo to President-Elect Obama

For my excellent “What’s Shaping the Internet?” class with Professor Michael Nelson, we had to write a 6-page memorandum to either President-Elect Obama, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, or some other organization head, using three main policy points.

I chose to advocate for an innovation commons, a push for open-source government interfaces, and a national identity system.

I posted the memo online at Scribd, which hosts my other academic papers as well.  Scribd is awesome — it embeds papers within Flash so you can see the original format, and also export to PDF or crowdshare it. I would embed it here but WordPress.com doesn’t let you embed most content. =(

Again, READ THE MEMO HERE.

I know that my memo does not have a conclusion. =)  I opted to leave the explanation to the executive summary, so it’s not a proper structure…  Memorandums are sometimes the hardest papers to write, because they need to be very brief, concise, and appealing.  That’s why our program stresses it so much.  But I strayed from it here.  Hopefully the content carries the weak structure.

What the Memo Said

My logic in the memo was that the government should create an innovation- and business- enabling environment by ensuring universal broadband access, net neutrality, a hybrid public commons/privately auctioned spectrum, and increased R&D with clustering through universities and companies.

After we get more people online and collaborating, we can call upon them to help build and inspect open-source applications to allow everyone to interface with the government more efficiently as befitting a digital 21st century.

And finally I called for a national ID system to help unify all the databases, ensure personal privacy and access controls, and allow us to fix our own information and use it better within the government.

The national ID system would use a social reputation system, part of which I’m hoping to create through my start-up, Galapag.us — see the research blog if you haven’t already.

Leave a comment

Filed under Business, Communications, Government, Internet, Openness, Policy, Politics, Privacy, Reputation, Tech, Web

The Digital Africa Surprise

For my African Development class, I was required to write a 15-page paper on some aspect of African economic development. I chose to write about converging factors, such as the east coast Africa backbone coming online, the cloud, and cheap online tools, contributing to a surprising boom in African digital connectedness to occur in the next decade. Will people be paying attention?

Read my INAF-450 Paper 1:  “The Digital Africa Surprise”.

[I’ve also converted the paper to Google Docs if you’d like to read it. (and here’s the .doc format).]

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, Communications, Computers, Economics, Education, Globalization, Government, International Affairs, Internet, Mobile, Policy, Tech, Web

Webheads for Africa

This is an aside but today’s market rally (Dow +936) was astounding. I barely made any money though (sadface) because most of the move was on a gap up and I think you would’ve had to be suicidal to buy on Friday to hold over the weekend. To be honest I don’t know what the market will do next. I’m not sure the US has taken any moves to make the system more structurally sound. They’re just trying to recapitalize it.

So recently some web experts (inspired by Tim O’Reilly’s keynote at Web 2.0 New York) have been talking about how the community needs to start designing applications that matter; that is, not beer-drinking or sheep-slinging apps for the iPhone but apps for poor people in Africa.

Any time you hear this kind of stuff, watch out. It’s just either guilt or self-righteousness talking. The idea that some developer in San Francisco is going to make some app that Africans (the poorest of whom have slow data connections, no security, unstable food supplies, little defense against disease, et al will want more AJAX is absurd.

In fact this “help the dark-skinned people” is the same philosophy that’s been pushed in international development for the last few decades. It led to technocrats enforcing strict, paternal structural adjustment programs on countries that just don’t seem to get this whole free market thing. It led to flooding money to leaders who realized they just had to say they were trying to reform while in truth they used the money to keep themselves in power. It led to thinking that persists today that Africa is a backwards place that will never sort itself out.

The truth is that the American web folks should keep doing exactly what they’re doing: working on open standards and protocols and authentication systems that allow us to share data without compromising passwords so that we can ensure data control and privacy. That seems to be the big thing we need to work on, along with moving the tools into business and government. And you know what? That stuff will migrate immediately to African platforms and sites when they need it. What? Do webheads know the first thing about HIV prevention programs and deployment, agricultural productivity, or conflict management?

Right now I’m reading a lot more Africa blogs and it sounds like they’re developing their own culturally relevant tools. Could they use technical help? Sure, we all could. But they’re not sitting around waiting for the web experts to swoop in and bless them with tools that will lift them out of poverty.

So can we drop that canard now? It seems like the World Bank, IMF, and other international agencies have, and look! Things have quickly improved in developing nations worldwide.

[addendum: Tim Berners-Lee recently sensibly announced the World Wide Web Foundation, which I think has a more realistic approach for getting everyone wired and collaborating.]

2 Comments

Filed under Communications, Development, International Affairs, Internet, Policy, Web

Optimism

So the G7 is meeting up with Dubya this weekend and so far nothing substantial has been announced. These people are useless. Dubya gets wheeled out to give a clueless speech that inspires no confidence. If anything, it encourages fear. Fear that we have no leadership to help us fix these problems. McCain for his part offers this fucking stupid platitude that Americans are the hardest-working people in the world, EVER. How banal.

Last week’s stock market action was unlike anything I’ve ever seen — relentless selling every day for the last few months. This made 2001 look like a cakewalk.

This in turn caused the web crowd to froth itself into a tizzy talking about the coming Silicon Valley slowdown. Led by Sequoia Capital, the clarion call is for cutting costs, firing employees, reducing burn rate, and trying to extend runway.

I guess my question is: if you’re a start-up, you’re already concerned about bootstrapping every nickel. Why wouldn’t you be relentlessly cutting costs before this crisis even started? Doesn’t this suggest there’s some bloat in the web space right now, a lot of people who are just dragging down companies with salary, ideas that don’t add value to the value chain, etc.?

So isn’t this a good thing?

I tend to be optimistic about this downturn, personally. Then again, I’m a wannabe entrepreneur who is still safe within the confines of grad school. I have less than a year now before I’ll be looking for a job so this will directly impact me.

There’s reason to be optimistic. Check out what Gary Vaynerchuk says about advertising, for example, in this totally awesome video:

“ROI. I am talking about Return on the Investment of your advertising dollar. Traditional media advertising is incredibly expensive and doesn’t provide nearly the rate of return you can derive from intelligent web-based marketing campaigns in 2008 and beyond.”

His point is that those who will be truly hurt by the downturn will be newspaper, magazine, and TV advertisers. Smart advertisers will move more and more towards Google Adsense and online marketing. It’s a lot cheaper and you’ll get a lot more bang for your buck.

The underlying point is that there’s still a lot going on on the internet. There’s projects created by love and collaboration that will continue to grow while the economy reorients itself towards the internet model. The shakeup in the workforce will reorient workers towards better ideas, letting bad ideas die. I still think good ideas will be funded by angels since the startup costs are so low.

Even if the good ideas aren’t profitable, they’ll still thrive through word of mouth and love online. At least in this way, the downturn will resemble 2001’s bubble burst: the internet will continue to evolve.

The good news for me I think is that layoffs might make it easier for me to find coders who want to help me build a reputation management platform for persistent identities. So far I haven’t had much luck.

The only thing I’m really looking for in terms of something negative looking forward is policy or legislative change. In the same way that we need structural changes worldwide to fix the financial system, Congress or the EU or the incoming president (doubtful if it’s Obama since he has a great tech policy lined up) could pass laws that fuck things up for the internet.

Leave a comment

Filed under Business, Communications, Economics, Internet, Policy, Stock Market, Tech, Web

My Paper on American and Japanese 3G Networks

I wanted to post the paper I wrote for my “political economy of international communications policy” class last semester (Spring, ’08).  The topic of my research was how the build-outs of the networks in the US and Japan along with cultural differences led to the uses of cell phones and bandwidth that we can currently observe.  I then looked forward into the future to see which country might provide a better operating environment for my web service, Galapag.us.

Here is the link (Microsoft Word .doc, no viruses):  http://benturner.com/other/3GComparison.doc

Leave a comment

Filed under Business, Communications, Economics, Internet, Mobile, Policy, Web

Stereotyping Grad Programs

In my “What’s Shaping the Internet?” class last week, we were talking about universal communication access briefly when the only MBA student in the class commented that he thought it was all a waste of money and that he believed “the free market should handle it”.

I am so freaking tired of hearing that phrase.  It’s a red flag phrase that is hammered into the heads of MBA students everywhere.  They parrot it constantly.

Really?  The free market will just do everything?  Ask an MBA you know to explain the rumored Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac back-stopping this weekend.  I bet his head will spin trying to rationalize keeping the financial system afloat while at the same time advocating free-market creative destruction.

It’s offensive that MBAs and free-market advocates are taught singularly this way of thinking, even though they paid tens of thousands of dollars to go to schools which should be teaching that the lines are not so clear, that government policies, free-market finance and trade, societal and cultural norms, and a multitude of other factors all work together to promote success.

Most of my classes deal with policy at some level and that’s a lot of what differentiates my program (foreign service/international affairs) from other programs at our university, even those within the Georgetown School of Foreign Service.  The closest program to ours is the public policy program.

Let me explain that.

The MBA students are taught that business is the way the world really works, and this has been reinforced by the latter half of the 20th century in their minds.  They are not so wise on policy issues or how business climates are developed in the first place.  Apparently, a market emerges out of a vacuum.  And as far as marketing goes, you can sell something to anyone regardless of whether he wants it or not.  And debt financing and business operations are hindered by government oversight, which is without exception always corrupt.

Business people tend to blank out whenever the conversation doesn’t involve “i-banking”, structured finance, bond rates, “adding value”, or case studies.  They’re akin to the daytraders I used to listen to on IRC — vague business knowledge but no real insight into what actually works and what doesn’t.  No ideas.

Then we have our security studies students, most males of whom are total tools.  Few actually served in the military but happily suckle from the teat of the government through the DoD, DHS, or…as they love to say during their personal introductions in class…as a consultant for a large government agency.  Give me a fucking break.  Wow, you have a clearance and you peddle bullshit intelligence analysis that none of your politically-appointed bosses will ever read.  That’s so cool.  Better keep that on the downlow lest Osama be sitting behind you in class.

You can spot security studies guys usually because they exude some degree of shallowness and insecurity in their starched blue shirts, red ties, and cheesy jackets.  Sometimes with a lanyard tied to an ID card in their breast pocket for cool-guy effect.  The girls are usually pretty cool — I think you’d have to be in such a male-dominated world.  The guys who are worth talking to are usually pretty humble and down-to-earth and don’t identify with the rest.

If you see an Arab, chances are he’s in the Arab Studies program or my program.  Security studies is notoriously conservative and more than a few people I’ve met are vaguely racist towards Arabs.

As for my program, we’re networkers and generalists and are interested in a lot of subjects.  It’s the broadest of the programs.  People hype up a rivalry between us and Johns Hopkins SAIS but it doesn’t really exist — many people share friends across schools, including up the road at Harvard and Fletcher.  At our house party last night, I heard a couple people say people had told them our program is a bit elitist…  But I’ve never heard that around town — usually there’s a healthy respect across campuses and within employers.

So get back to this guy in my class…  I had to make sure I spoke up and commented on his free-market bs.  He’s literally saying this in a class taught by a policy advisor who helped Al Gore to bankroll a nexus between government, academia, and business for a climate that gave birth to the internet.  That’s either really firm on a position, or plainly ignorant.  I’m voting on the latter.

That stuff really sets me off.  How is it that in today’s day and age, we still have to argue that companies, NGOs, government, universities, and individuals have to all work together pretty tightly in order to progress?  How is that happening in discussions at a grad student level?

To be fair, most people in our programs are incredibly open-minded and always seeking to find or refine questions for today’s problems.  But it can be very worrying to see guaranteed future leaders of this country proposing junk ideas.

Leave a comment

Filed under Business, Communications, Education, Policy, Security