Tech’s inequality paradox

Travelers leaving from the San Francisco airport on morning flights know the drill: you stay over the night before at a motel on El Camino Real in San Bruno. Last week I booked the Super 8 which turns out to be perfectly serviceable. As a bonus, it’s right next door to Don Pico’s Mexican Bistro and Cevicheria which is unlike anything else you’ll find on motel row:

The back bar in the new dining room is a 1925 mahogany Brunswick from the Cliff House in San Francisco; the large bullfight mural is an original painting by Roberto Leroy Smith; large mirrors came from Harry Denton’s; the chandeliers are of Austrian crystal, from the World Trade Center at the San Francisco Ferry Building; the trophy fish are from Bing Crosby’s private collection; the large elephant, floral, and deer paintings are from the movie Citizen Kane with Orson Welles; the sombreros are 1920s antiques from a Mexican hat collection acquired from Universal Studios; and the stylized modern art paintings are by California painter Rudy Hess. – http://www.donpicosbistro.com/history/

It was too late for dinner but I sat at the mahogany bar, had a drink and a snack, and talked with Angel, the bartender. He’s a veteran of San Francisco’s culture war. Born and raised in the Mission District, he was driven out seven years ago. At most he could afford a studio apartment and that was no place to raise a young child.

Angel didn’t express the anger that you can now see bubbling to the surface when you walk the streets of San Francisco. Just the sadness of the dispossessed. We talked about many things. At one point he answered a text on his iPhone and it suddenly hit me. That’s the same iPhone that San Francisco’s tech elite carry.

For most things you can buy, there’s almost no limit to what you can spend. A tech billionaire in San Francisco can own a home or a car that costs hundreds of times what Angel can pay for a home or a car. But while it’s possible to buy a gold-plated and diamond-encrusted iPhone, I’ve never seen one. The tech that’s at the heart of San Francisco’s crisis of inequality is a commodity, not a luxury good. It’s a great equalizer. Everybody has a smartphone, everybody has access to the services it provides. But if you’re Angel, you can’t use that phone in the neighborhood you grew up in.

Business registration as a framework for local data

In Crowdsourcing local data the right way I envisioned a different way for businesses to register with state governments. In this model, state governments invite and encourage businesses to be the authoritative sources for their own data, and to announce URLs at which that data is published in standard formats. Instead of plugging data into the state’s website, a business would transmit an URL. The state would sync the data at that URL, assign it a version number, and verify its copy (tethered to the URL) as an approved version. The state would also certify the URL as a source of additional data not required by the state but available from the business at that URL.

For businesses with calendars of public events, one kind of additional data would be those calendars. A while back I met with Steve Cook, deputy commissioner of Vermont’s department of tourism and marketing, to show him the Elm City “web of events” model. We discussed the central challenge: awakening event promoters to the possibility of using their own calendars as feeds that would flow directly into the statewide calendar. How do you light up those feeds? Steve got it. He pointed to another section of the building. “Those guys run the business registration site,” he said. “On the registration form, we already ask for the URL of a business’s home page. How hard would it be to also ask for a calendar URL if they have one?”

Exactly. And by asking for that URL, the state awakens the business to a possibility — authoritative self-publishing of data — that wouldn’t otherwise have occurred to it. This hasn’t yet happened in Vermont. But if Carl Malamud ever becomes Secretary of State in California I’ll bet it will happen there!

Crowdsourcing local data the right way

In How Google Map Hackers Can Destroy a Business at Will, Wired’s Kevin Poulsen sympathizes with local businesses trying to represent themselves online.

Maps are dotted with thousands of spam business listings for nonexistent locksmiths and plumbers. Legitimate businesses sometimes see their listings hijacked by competitors or cloned into a duplicate with a different phone number or website.

These attacks happen because Google Maps is, at its heart, a massive crowdsourcing project, a shared conception of the world that skilled practitioners can bend and reshape in small ways using tools like Google’s Mapmaker or Google Places for Business.

No, these attacks happen because Google Maps isn’t based on the right kind of crowdsourcing. The Wired story continues:

Google seeds its business listings from generally reliable commercial mailing list databases, including infoUSA and Axciom.

Let’s back up a step. Where does infoUSA get its data? From sources like new business filings and company websites, and follow-up calls to verify the data.

Those calls shouldn’t be necessary. The source of truth should be an individual business owner who signs a state registration form and publishes a website. Instead, intermediaries govern what the web knows about that business. If that data were crowdsourced in the right way, it would flow directly from the business owner.

Here’s how that could happen. A state’s process for business registration asks for a URL. If data available at that URL conforms to an agreed-upon format, it populates the registration form. If the registration is approved, the state endorses that URL as the source of truth for basic facts about the business.

Of course the business might provide more information than the state can verify. That’s OK. The state’s website might only record and assure the name and address of the business, plus the URL at which additional facts — not verifiable by the state — are provided by the business owner. Those facts would include the hours of operation. The business owner is the source of truth for those facts. Changes made at the source ripple through the system.

The problem isn’t that information about local businesses is crowdsourced. We’re just doing it wrong.

Things in the era of dematerialization

As we clear out the house in order to move west, we’re processing a vast accumulation of things. This morning I hauled another dozen boxes of books from the attic, nearly all of which we’ll donate to the library. Why did I haul them up there in the first place? We brought them from our previous house, fourteen years ago. I could have spared myself a bunch of trips up and down the stairs by taking them directly to the library back then. But in 2000 we were only in the dawn of the era of dematerialization. You couldn’t count on being able to find a book online, search inside it, have a used copy shipped to you in a couple of days for a couple of dollars.

Now I am both shocked and liberated to realize how few things matter to me. I joke that all I really need is my laptop, my bicycle, and my guitar, but in truth there isn’t much more. For Luann, though, it’s very different. Her cabinets of wonders are essential to who she is and what she does. So they will have to be a logistical priority.

In the age of dematerialization, some things will matter more than ever. Things that aren’t data. Things that are unique. Things made by hand. Things that were touched by other people, in other places, at other times. RadioLab’s podcast about things is a beautiful collection of stories that will help you think about what matters and why, or what doesn’t and why not.

Trails near me

I stayed this week at the Embassy Suites in Bellevue, Washington [1, 2]. Normally when visiting Microsoft I’m closer to campus, but the usual places were booked so I landed here. I don’t recommend the place, by the way, and not because of the door fiasco, that could have happened in any modern hotel. It’s the Hyatt-esque atrium filled with fake boulders and plastic plants that creeps me out. Also the location near the junction of 156th and route 90. Places like this are made for cars, and I want to be able hike and run away from traffic.

A web search turned up no evidence of running trails nearby. So I went down to the gym only to find people waiting in line for the treadmills. Really? It’s depressing enough to run on a treadmill, I’m not going to queue for the privilege. So I headed out, figuring that a run along busy streets is better than no run at all.

Not far from the hotel, on 160th, I found myself in a Boeing industrial park alongside a line of arriving cars. As I jogged past the guard booth a guy leaped out at me and asked for my badge. “I’m just out for a run,” I said. “This is private property,” he said, and pointed to a nearby field. “But I think there’s a trail over there.” I crossed the field and entered part of the Bellevue trail network. The section I ran was paved with gravel, with signs identifying landmarks, destinations, and distances. I ran for 45 minutes, exited into the parking lot of a Subaru dealership near my hotel, and congratulated myself on a nice discovery.

Later I went back to the web to learn more about the trails I’d run. And found nothing that would have enabled a person waiting in line for a treadmill at the Embassy Suites to know that, within a stone’s throw, there were several points of access to a magnificent trail system. The City of Bellevue lists trails alphabetically, but the name of the nearby Robinswood Park Trail had meant nothing to me until I found it myself. Nor did I find anything at the various trails and exercise sites that I checked — laboriously, one by one, because each is its own silo.

I knew exactly what I wanted: running trails near me. That the web didn’t help me find them is, admittedly, a first world problem. What’s more, I like exploring new places on foot and discovering things for myself. But still, the web ought to have enabled that discovery. Why didn’t it, and how could it?

The trails I found have, of course, been walked and hiked and cycled countless times by people who carry devices in their pockets that can record and publish GPS breadcrumbs. Some will have actually done that, but usually by way of an app, like Runtastic, that pumps the data into a siloed social network. You can get the data back and publish it yourself, but that’s not the path of least resistance. And where would you publish to?

Here’s a Thali thought experiment. I tell my phone that I want to capture GPS breadcrumbs whenever it detects that I’m moving at a walking or running pace along a path that doesn’t correspond to a mapped road and isn’t a path it’s seen before. The data lands in my phone’s local Thali database. When I’m done, the data just sits there. If there was nothing notable about this new excursion my retention policy deletes the data after a couple of days.

But maybe I want to contribute it to the commons, so that somebody else stuck waiting in line for a treadmill can know about it. In that case I tell my phone to share the data. Which doesn’t mean publish it to this or that social network silo. As Gary McGraw once memorably said: “I’m already a member of a social network. It’s called the Internet.”

Instead I publish the data to my personal cloud, using coordinates, tags, and a description so that search engines will index it, and aggregators will include it in their heat maps of active trails. Or maybe, because I don’t want my identity bound to those trails, I publish to an anonymizing service. Either way, I might also share with friends. I can do that via my personal cloud, of course, but with Thali I can also sync with them directly.

For now I have no interest in joining sites like Runtastic. Running for me is quiet meditation, I don’t want to be cheered on by virtual onlookers, or track my times and distances, or earn badges. But maybe I’ll change my mind someday. In that case I might join Runtastic and sync my data into it. Later I might switch to another service and sync there. The point is that it’s never not my data. I never have to download it from one place in order to upload it to another. The trails data lives primarily on my phone. Anyone else who interacts with it gets it from me, where “me” means the mesh of devices and personal cloud services that my phone syncs with. I can share it with my real friends without forcing them to meet me in a social network silo. And I can share it with the real social network that we call the web.

Turning it off and on again


In The Internet of Things That Used To Work Better I whined about rebooting my stove. This morning I was stuck outside a hotel room waiting for “engineering” to come and reboot the door. It eventually required a pair of technicians, Luis and Kumar, who jiggled and then replaced batteries (yes, it’s a battery-operated door), then attached two different diagnostic consoles. When they got it working I asked what the problem had been. They had no idea. “Hello, IT, have you tried turning it off and on again?” is the tagline for a civilization whose front-line technicians have no theory of operation. Will the door open when I return tonight? I have no idea. But at least now I know how to turn it off and on again.