Category Archives: Technology

ORD Camp is over. Now what?

ORD Camp is quite simply my favorite event of the year. I mean that not only across tech and media events, but everything I do personally and professionally all year. At least 9 out of 10 attendees will tell you the same thing.

Squids. Cephalopods, actually. Protostomes, really. We're on a different evolutionary branch.

Squids. Cephalopods, actually. Protostomes, really. We’re on a different evolutionary branch.

ORD Camp is a Foo-inspired unconference, where the participants make the agenda. It is invite-only, FrieNDA, which leads to an incredible amount of intimacy and that makes the event so special.

Since our time together is so short, sleep basically doesn’t happen. The super-achieving attendees include inventors, scientists, artists, chefs, teachers, civil servants, and technologists. To quote the hosts, you were invited because you’re either: “amazing, or crazy, or both.” We don’t all come from the same industry, and that’s a great thing because we all came to be exposed to new ideas and to each other. We’re all fascinated about being fascinated.

Here’s a few things I did this past weekend:

  • picked locks
  • learned the evolution of print from calligraphy through the Gutenberg press
  • learned about bitters, which was a natural segue to…
  • tasting many types of gin 
  • tasted the perfect brew of coffee
  • observed a zombie makeup demonstration
  • led a session on map and compass navigation
  • played an electronic jousting game, Cards Against Humanity, and…
  • was a murderous werewolf more often than not
  • heard stories only Chicago map makers know
  • watched ORD Campers tell their personal stories after some expert coaching
  • discussed raising digital natives
  • talked about data visualizations and what they mean to us
  • watched others make belts, buttons, 3D printed objects, and wooden wine goblets
  • got a primer on mastering tricks with everyday objects
  • drank several mixed drinks that a robot prepared for me
  • saw Ignite talks on life, realizing childhood dreams, why automated trading isn’t evil, and how to fly a British airship.
  • saw same Ignite slide decks abused, for our amusement, as part of Ignite Karaoke.
  • learned I was a squid, came to be ok with that, and befriended eight other like-minded squids.

For every amazing session I attended, I missed seven more.

I also met a lot of incredible people. At least 5 of the best conversations I’ve had in the last year happened this weekend. I told one camper with whom I spoke last year that his words had stayed with me and influenced every big idea I chased at NPR in 2012. Another amazing individual — who is far smarter, more accomplished, and a better all-around person than I’ll ever be — said that he didn’t know what he’d do without ORD Camp: it made him realize he wasn’t alone and that energized him throughout the year. He’s not alone in that idea, most of us leave inspired to go big:

I met incredible new people and also some folks that I’d corresponded with online.  We talked about our work, our passions, and our families. I had a terrific hallway conversation with a few Googlers as we took turns escaping from handcuffs.

It sounds like a lot of fun doesn’t it? ORD Camp founders Brian Fitzpatrick and Zach Kaplan hold the event to “create more value than they capture”, using Tim O’Reilly’s shorthand for creating good for the sake of doing so and paying it forward. ORD Camp is an incredible gift.

While the post-ORD Camp glow was ever-present on campers’ Twitter feeds yesterday, today the reality is setting in that it’s over. It’s special because the guest list changes every year, because there’s more than you can possibly absorb, and because of the uncertainty of your next meeting with these amazing folks. Fear not! I’ve learned this year that ORD Camp is not an event: it’s a community that just happens to culminate in the best event of the year.

The ORD Camp community is trying to make the world more awesome, and Chicago is arguably the biggest beneficiary. Every city should be so lucky to have an ORD Camp, where city government, educators, entrepreneurs, non-profits, small business owners, technologists, and artists show up to talk about how to make their city more livable and prosperous. ORD Camp has spawned startups. This weekend there were sessions on city data, transit improvements, talks on history, and reviving Chicago manufacturing. I grew up in Chicago and despite not living there since 1996, I feel more connected than ever. Last summer’s hardware hackathon was only possible because of the ORD Camp community.  While a move isn’t on the horizon, I am finding reasons to come back to Chicago throughout the year and interact with the community.

Thanks so much to Groupon for hosting. Fitz and Zach, thanks for blowing my mind even more than you did last year.

So what’s next? Keep in touch ORD Campers, and remember that if you pass through D.C., it’s a standing rule that I have to drop everything and meet you for a coffee/drink.

How News Foo changed me

This past weekend I was lucky enough to return to News Foo 2012. Elise, Derek*, Molly, Adriano, and Greg have all given excellent recaps, so I won’t try to duplicate those. Instead, I’ll talk about how I changed after attending News Foo 2011 and what I’ve learned since then.

First, News Foo is an event unlike any other I’ve ever attended. There have been a few experiences in my life that stand out for altering my outlook on what is achievable or for teaching me courage or grace. Bike racing, parenting, and marriage have each yielded a few of these and triggered irreversible personal growth. News Foo was the only thing remotely related to my media career that’s yielded that kind of perspective.

News Foo is a sort of intellectual Burning Man for those who are passionate about news and technology. It’s an intense experience lived over a very short period of time, where you will be exposed to more ideas and more incredible people than you can possibly absorb in a few years, let alone two days. It’s a hand-picked, curated crowd chosen to send each other sky-high in the hopes that we’ll return home to tackle big problems with renewed vigor, new perspective, and with each other’s help.

While I typically attend public unconferences, the private invite-only setting and FrieNDA ethic of News Foo offers a level of intimacy and openness I’ve never seen anywhere else. Campers range from up-and-comers to outright luminaries in fields that include media, technology, science, art, business, and academia. They’re also precisely the kind of individuals who want to approach old intractable problems with new optimism and creativity. John Bracken only half-jokingly quipped: “If this room exploded the Internet would be set back 10 years.” For most attendees, it is impossible to leave Phoenix uninspired. **

My first News Foo was an amazing blur. I did not heed the organizers’ advice and arrived at News Foo 2011 poorly rested. I was both overwhelmed and star-struck to be among so many people I’d admired from afar for so long. I gave an Ignite talk on reinventing audio. I participated in sessions ranging from remaking newsrooms to “Let’s invent the worst startup imaginable.” (One of the finalists was “Chew’d”, a food-truck franchise that serves — wait for it — pre-chewed food.) We got off campus for a hike and a trip to the botanical garden. I played an obscene amount of Werewolf that culminated in a total mind-screw.

I came to News Foo 2012 much more relaxed. I actually slept the week prior and did not commit to an Ignite this year (i.e. I was able to drink beers and relax). Sean Bonner, Nadav Aharony, John Keefe, Alex Howard, and I led a Saturday morning panel on sensors. A Saturday session on “Engineering Serendipity” got meta when session leader Ethan Zuckerman remarked that the News Foo attendee list was itself curated in favor of serendipity. Brian Fitzpatrick added that some individuals would never choose to attend such an event, further curating the experience. I took Sara’s advice and went to more panels that sounded offbeat and interesting. I commiserated with other fellow type-A’s trying to unplug and take a vacation and also shared “FAIL” stories with some incredible folks. We took a walk around Phoenix. A brief conversation with Jenny Lee and David Cohn turned into my personal self-help session. Even at News Foo, the best conversations often happen outside of sessions, and yes – at Werewolf. So of course, I played an obscene amount of Werewolf that culminated in a total mind-screw.

And what about the time in-between my first and second News Foos? One of my takeaways from News Foo 2011 was that I needed to share more. I did that this year both person-to-person and at events. While I survived my first Ignite talk, I found it to be such a valuable exercise that I decided to do more. I gave a talk on sensors for news at the TechRaking conference at Google and another humorous one on fashion, news and cognitive bias. It takes me upwards of 30 hours to prepare a five minute Ignite-style talk (generically a “lightning talk”), but the time and format constraints force you to be concise and clear while delivering a strong narrative arc. It’s something that’s greatly helped me communicate complicated ideas to diverse audiences. Those are skills I need to perfect to create the kind of impact I expect.

The inspiration is certainly powerful, but the most enduring gift of News Foo is the network. I’m not exactly a shrinking violet, and I have no shortage of people in my personal network. But this year, I chose to make Foo friends my primary network, and that has had a terrific impact on every action taken and every decision I’ve made since.

This year I’ve introduced campers to friends and professional acquaintances, helped them seal a few business deals, and called on them for advice. If you were in town for a few hours, I figured out how to get away from the office and grab coffee. Just yesterday I had lunch with Dan Oshinsky before he moves to NYC to join Buzz Feed. The Chicago Air Quality Egg Hackshop wouldn’t have happened last summer if I hadn’t met Fitz at News Foo, become friends, attended his ORDcamp, and then introduced his incredible Chicago community to Joe and Ed, the NYC-based leaders of the Egg project. Networks matter. If I met you at a camp, I immediately advanced you to “old friend” status. And why wouldn’t I, since we just endured a marathon of bliss together and we’re all so passionate about solving the same difficult problems? Whatever I put into this community, I get so much more in return.

News media is in the business of solving big societal information problems. We’re strapped in every way imaginable, and to be able to tap the opinions of exceptional friends has changed the way I plan long-term and the way I work day-to-day.

Was it hyperbole last year when I called News Foo “life-changing?” No, I think I just explained how I have indeed changed and why I’m better for it. There are so many wonderful people I’ve shared and interacted with this year, but I want to specifically thank Sara Winge, Richard Gingras, John Bracken, Tim O’Reilly, and Jenny 8 Lee for organizing the event.

It’s been a few days since I returned from News Foo 2012. I’m recovering and still supercharged, though I realize that the inevitable post-Foo withdrawal will soon arrive. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend two years in a row, which likely means it won’t be my turn again for some time. I’ll still be chasing crazy ideas and still be on the network ready to motivate and assist. Look for me, and don’t be shy about reaching out.

* Derek’s piece was excellent, and my only potential point of disagreement is that this perceived lack of ideological diversity has in it’s roots some very partisan stances that have no place at any open event that looks to promote understanding and tolerance. News Foo is not an inherently partisan event, and the majority of journalist attendees exemplify the non-partisan stances of their profession. The majority of non-journalism attendees show the same disdain for politics that most of the country does. That said, News Foo and its attendees embrace ethnic diversity, advancement of science, gender equality, and sexual orientation equality. These are non-partisan values that unfortunately have been politicized and rejected by one of the major political parties. The only esteemed News Foo value where both parties share an equally abysmal record is the Open Internet. I look forward to a time when the agreed upon starting point is that diversity, science, and equality are good things, and then we disagree on how to get there most quickly.

** Both in 2011 and 2012 I met a few campers who don’t see a path forward and were probably invited because they are in a position of responsibility and everyone hopes their internal switches will flip. It’s the job of everyone else to inspire them and convince them to shake things up. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work.

Transparency Camp 2012: Sensors and Civic Dialog

TCamp is one of the events I look forward to all year. It was really special this year because my friend Gregor Hackmack of Germany’s Parliament Watch was in town from Hamburg.

Gregor and I have spent much of the last two years trying to bring his citizen/legislator Q&A platform to the U.S., and he’s in the process of open sourcing it. Parliament Watch has been an astounding success in Germany and has also seen success in Ireland, Austria, and Luxembourg. We held a session together and came seeking a modest U.S. pilot and may have a few interested takers. Here’s our session notes: How to bring Parliament Watch to your area.

I’ve always wanted to do a session with my friend Alex Howard. Alex has also written a ton about sensors and “citizens as sensors” in the context of civic media. We moderated an open conversation on open data opportunities for sensors and discussed projects as varied as Safecast, Trash Track, the Copenhagen Wheel, the Speeding Camera Lottery, and Asthmapolis. It was a ton of fun, we’ll do it again.

Session notes: What do sensors mean for open data?

Photo by Eric Gundersen

NPR Launches API to Open Up its Content

This morning, the NPR online team launched the NPR API, or Application Programming Interface, to make NPR content freely and publicly available.

So what is an API and why should you care? From a technology perspective, an API is a channel that allows one application (such as a website) to share information and procedures with another website or application. A perfect example is a Google Map mashup. Any website or blog can embed a Google Map and plot their own data on top of it; for example, Trulia plots homes for sale in DC on a Google Map.

From the larger perspective of freedom of information, an API is a much bigger idea. It means that our content can appear anywhere, in almost any format. Anyone with an idea and some basic web skills can select, repurpose, and embed our content on the web, on a desktop computer, or even on a handheld device. Fans of David Sedaris, NPR Election coverage, or Ketzel Levine’s Talking Plants no longer have to search all over our website to find their favorite content. Audio, text, and photos can now come to them now as an embeddable blog widget, a Facebook application, or any other format they can imagine. I should mention that only a few of these widgets exist so far, but the API is out there, so it’s only a matter of time before people start building them.

The UK Guardian and BBC have experimented with very limited APIs. The BBC makes available feeds of short program descriptions and its program schedule, but it does not make its full content available. Back in May, the New York Times announced that it would be making all of its content publicly available via an API. As far as I know, NPR is the first major media organization to launch an API to make all of its content available.

NPR’s Zach Brand and Daniel Jacobson were the leaders of the project, and here are the full credits :

There were a ton of contributors to this new API with the primary technical architect being Harold Neal. Other major contributors include Joanne Garlow, Jason Grosman, Tony Yan, Ivan Lazarte, Stephanie Oura, Ben Hands, Shain Miley, Lindsay Mangum, Sugirtha Solai, Todd Welstein and Vida Logan, and others.

Facebook’s Silent Revolution with Sponsored Ads

Amid all the outcry over Beacon’s privacy concerns, (like having Facebook tell your wife what she’s getting for Christmas) the simple brilliance of Facebook’s on-site advertising is going unnoticed. Here’s a personal account of how Facebook’s relatively straightforward “sponsored messages” are finally making personalized word-of-mouth a reality.

In addition to banner ads, Facebook now features sponsored advertiser messages in their homepage feed. I rarely look at them, but like all ads you unconsciously take them in with a glance. I decided to click on one that was a new Apple video ad lampooning Vista. Funny and so true. As an XP user who purposely avoided Vista, the message was relevant. It wasn’t going to make me rush out to a Mac store, but I did click the integrated link to post it to my Facebook profile because surely someone else would think it was funny. What followed was a debate with three Facebook friends who were silent Mac advocates. My conversations with them also spurred 2 offline conversations (which I alluded to in a comment posting on that Facebook thread.)

Word-of-mouth on product review sites and bulletin boards is nothing new. Likewise, I could always get a word of mouth reco on any product when I ask someone in my offline (or online network). But this was different because I didn’t intend to start a conversation. I wasn’t seeking an opinion. In this case, the advertiser (Apple) planted the seed and what ensued was an awakening of mac advocates who were people in my closed personal/professional network; these are people I trust far more than any expert on CNET and more than the aggregated opinions of hundreds of reviewers on Amazon. I could also have received this video by email, but it wouldn’t have spurred the same interaction that a small Facebook Thread captured (and preserved) for all of my network to see. Not to mention the analytics that Facebook or Apple could get from this episode.

Here are some guesses at what an advertiser might be allowed to see in the analytics, in order of increasing value.

  • Impressions: number of people who might have seen the ad blurb because it was on their feed page
  • Video Views: Number of started/completed views of the mac commercial
  • Number of forwards to friends
  • Number of adds to profiles
  • Number of viral views (forwarded link views plus views after posting to profile)
  • Number of discussion comments
  • View actual discussion comments (tone/subject of the discussion)

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Getting ready for eMetrics

Washington D.C.’s web community has an amazing breadth and depth of talent. The eMetrics Online Marketing Summit rolls into town next Monday, and I’ll have the honor of moderating one of the speaker panels alongside some very remarkable members of the D.C. community, including Phil Kemelor, Julie Perlmutter, and Ann Poritzky. Should be an exciting week…

In the near future, I’ll also be working with both the public sector and social media sections of the Web Analytics Association.

IBM to Make its Office Software Free

IBM’s Lotus Office suite hasn’t been a huge challenger to Microsoft Office for over a decade. Nonetheless, IBM is going to open source the package in a similar way that Sun Microsystems open-sourced its StarOffice suite. Further, IBM is going to put money and as many as 35 full-time developers behind the endeavor.

This is as much a strategic move by IBM to undercut Microsoft’s dominance as much as it is an admittance that the IBM suite (acquired when IBM purchased Lotus, the company that invented the spreadsheet) probably isn’t selling anyway. Honestly, the only individuals I’ve met in the last 10 years who use Lotus work for either IBM or Lotus.

Still, this is great news for the OpenOffice standard and it means that there will soon be another reliable, robust, and FREE alternative for word processing, spreadsheeting, and slideshow presentations.

Google’s future

The future of Google is the cover story on this week’s economist. Here’s the leader (no subscription required.)

The article discusses how quickly the company has grown and the growing pains they may soon face, such as anti-trust prosecution or increased public concerns over privacy.

In my previous post, I referred to their search algorithm as their “secret sauce.” From a search marketer’s perspective, this is certainly true. The Economist uses the term secret sauce to refer to Google’s method of networking hundreds of thousands of cheap (yes, very cheap) computers to form the world’s largest supercomputer. From a high-level, this really is their best kept secret.