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January 24 2012

"The President of the United States is on the phone. Would you like to Hangout on Google+?"

We're suddenly very close to science fiction becoming reality television, live streamed to large and small screens around the world. On Monday, January 30th, 2012, the fireside chats that FDR hosted on citizens' radios in the 20th century will have a digital analogue in the new millennium: President Barack Obama will host a Google+ Hangout from the West Wing, only a few weeks after the White House joined Google+.

Screenshot of President Obama sending a tweet through the @whitehouse account
A screenshot from July 6, 2011, of President Obama sending his first tweet through the @whitehouse account. On January 30, he'll host the first president Hangout on Google+.

If you have a question for the president, you can ask it by submitting a video to the White House's video channel, where you can also vote upon other questions. The president will be answering "several of the most popular questions that have been submitted through YouTube, and some of the people who submitted questions will even be invited to join the president in the Hangout and take part in the live conversation," explained Kori Schulman, deputy director of digital content at the White House, at the White House blog.

The real-time presidency

This upcoming "President Hangout" offers a fascinating window into what bids to be a disruptive scenario to citizen-to-government (or citizen-to-citizen) communications in our near future. Mobile Hangouts on smartphones running the world's biggest mobile operating system, Android, could enable citizens to connect to important conversations from wherever a call finds them.

Such town halls could be live streamed and shared through Facebook, Google+ or the White House's iOS app, reaching hundreds of millions of people connected through mobile broadband connections. In the future, we might even see iOS cameras enable citizens to "get some FaceTime with the president" through his iPad. The quality of the video on the iPad 2 is poor now, as owners know, but what if Apple adds a camera to the iPad 3 as good as the one it added to the iPhone4S? That would enable instant video chat through 100m+ connected iOS devices, along with millions of MacBooks and iMacs that have webcams.

In that future, I can't help but think of video phones from the "Jetsons." Or "Blade Runner," "Minority Report," "The Fifth Element" or "Total Recall.' Or, better yet, "Star Trek," since Gene Roddenberry's vision of a peaceful future is a lot better than the dystopian epics Philip K. Dick tended to write.

Style or open government substance?

The technology we have in our hands right now, of course, is pretty exciting. The prospect of a presidential Hangout has naturally been getting plenty of attention in the media, from CNET to Mashable to the L.A. Times to NextGov, where Joseph Marks has one of the smartest takes to date. In his post, Marks, a close observer of how the White House is using technology in support of open government, goes right to the heart of what analysts and the media should be asking: What does this mean and how will it work?

The administration is touting the Google Plus event as 'the first completely-virtual interview from the White House.' It's not entirely clear what that means. It could signal merely that the president will respond directly to questioners' YouTube videos rather than having them keyed up by a moderator. In past social media Town Halls conducted through Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, Obama has typically shared the stage with a moderator who introduced and sometimes picked questions. If questioners are able to ask their questions directly, including follow-up questions through the Hangout feature, that would be a more significant innovation.

To put it another way, will the first presidential Google+ Hangout be about substance, or is this about burnishing the president 's tech-savvy image and credentials in an election year?

When I asked that question openly on Twitter, Gadi Ben Yehuda, who analyzes and teaches about the government's use of social media for IBM, replied: "Both, I bet. Message is medium, after all. Style, in this case, is part of substance."

As it happens, Macon Phillips, director of digital strategy at the White House, was also listening. "What criteria would you use to answer that question?" he asked. Noah Chestnut, director of digital media at Hamilton Place Strategies in D.C., suggested the following criteria: "Q's asked, length + content of A's, follow-up Q's vs. cursory, who writes the process stories."

As I analyze this new experiment in digital democracy, I will look at A) whether the questions answered were based upon the ones most citizens wanted asked and B) whether the answers were rehashed talking points or specific to the intent of the questions asked. That latter point was one fair critique I've seen levied by the writers at techPresident after the first "Twitter Townhall" last July.

In reply, Phillips tweeted: "Well, if the past 2 post-SOTU [State of the Union] events are any indication, you should be optimistic! One the exciting things about the Hangout format is that conversational aspect." As evidence for this assertion, Phillips linked to videos of YouTube interviews with President Obama after the 2010 and 2011 State of the Union addresses. The president answered questions sourced from the Google Moderator tool on the CitizenTube channel.

There are process questions that matter as well. Will Steve Grove, head of community partnerships at Google+, be asking the questions? Or will  the president himself respond directly to the questions of citizens?

Phillips replied that there will be a "little bit of both to involve both the voting prior and the participants during." He also told the Associated Press that the White House would have no role in choosing the questions or participants in the Hangout. "For online engagement to be interesting, it has to be honest," Phillips said. "We want to give Americans more control over this conversation and the chance to ask questions they care about."

In other words, citizens will be able to ask the president questions directly via YouTube and, if chosen, may have the opportunity to join him in the Hangout. When I asked Phillips my own follow-up question, he suggested that "for specifics on format, better to connect w/@GROVE but we are planning for ?'s that are voted on & others asked live."

I was unable to reach Grove. However, he told the Associated Press that the Hangout "will make for a really personal conversation with the president that's never really happened before."

Will there be #realtalk in real time?

Direct interactivity through a Hangout could also introduce that rare element that's missing at many presidential appearances: unscripted moments. That's what the editors of techPresident will be watching for in this new experiment. "Our prevailing hypothesis around here is that one great promise of the Internet in politics is to create unscripted moments, opportunities to yank politicians off of their talking points and into a confrontation with the real and complex problems America faces today," wrote Nick Judd. "We saw this in July at the very end of the Twitter event with Obama. Reid Epstein saw a similar occurrence when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's presidential aspirations took him to a New Hampshire diner, where he met a gay veteran who asked him about same-sex marriage. We're hungrily looking for examples of this in the integrations of the Internet and of social media in presidential debates, and not finding many so far."

What will be particularly interesting will be the opportunities that citizens have to ask follow-up questions on the Hangout if they're not satisfied with an answer. That feedback loop is what tends to be missing from these online forums. Many citizens haven't had the opportunity to ask informed, aggressive follow-up questions like, say, at a presidential press conference at the White House. The evolution of these platforms will occur when organizations stop "adopting" them and start actually using them. In this case, using the killer app of the Google+ platform to connect directly with the American people.

As of this morning, 30,594 people have submitted 16,047 questions and cast 208,431 votes. Currently, the most popular video questions are about stopping the PROTECT IP Act and Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which would establish international standards for intellectual property. The top question comes from "Anonymous," and asks "Mr. President, it's all good and well that SOPA and PIPA are slowed down in Congress, but what are you doing about ACTA? This is an international agreement which could prove much more devastating."

To date, President Obama, has not commented extensively on ACTA or either of these bills. If any of those questions are answered, it will indeed be evidence that the White House is listening and the president's commitment "to creating a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration" using social media and technology is genuine.

A version of this post originally appeared on Google+.


January 20 2012

Four short links: 20 January 2012

  1. On the Problem of Money, Politics, and SOPA (John Battelle) -- My first step will be to read this new book from Larry Lessig, an intellectual warrior who many (including myself) lament as bailing on our core issue of IP law to tilt at the supposed windmill of political corruption. But I think, upon deeper reflection, that Larry is simply playing chess a few moves ahead of us all. It’s time to catch up, and move forward together. THIS.
  2. Google+ Scraper (GitHub) -- Instead of scraping the HTML code itself, this script fights its way through OZ_initData, a big, mean and ugly inline JavaScript array containing the profile information. (via Pete Warden)
  3. Student Study Techniques -- How to focus in the age of distraction. cf Clay Johnson's Information Diet.
  4. Code Racer -- interesting addition to the "teach me to program" world: a competitive game to drill your HTML/CSS recall. You race to add HTML and CSS in response to prompts like "add a level 1 heading with the words: Racing Car". Requires Facebook login. It's how kids learn to type these days, so it just might work for web design too. (In my day it was with a typewriter and a bib)

November 08 2011

Radar is now on Google+ (officially this time)

O'Reilly Radar on Google Plus
Screenshot of Radar's Google+ page.

If you're a Google+ user and a Radar reader — I'm guessing there's a lot of overlap in that Venn diagram — you might be interested in following Radar's new Google+ page.

We're working out a gameplan for our Google+ coverage that extends and enhances what we do here on the Radar website. In addition to +-specific content, we'll also be surfacing relevant material from our YouTube archive and passing along intriguing content we encounter in our web travels.

The thing I find most interesting about Google+ is its friction-free engagement. The sharing and commenting functions are dead simple, so I anticipate mining those tools to make Radar's Google+ presence a strong two-way channel.

As you can gather, we'll be experimenting with our Google+ offerings quite a bit. If you have things you'd like to see, please chime in through the comments on this post or visit Radar's Google+ page and chat with us there.

(FYI — we've also set up Google+ pages for O'Reilly Media, O'Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing, and Ignite. More to come ...)


September 16 2011

Four short links: 16 September 2011

  1. A Quick Buck by Copy and Paste -- scorching review of O'Reilly's Gamification by Design title. tl;dr: reviewer, he does not love. Tim responded on Google Plus. Also on the gamification wtfront, Mozilla Open Badges. It talks about establishing a part of online identity, but to me it feels a little like a Mozilla Open Gradients project would: cargocult-confusing the surface for the substance.
  2. Google + API Launched -- first piece of a Google + API is released. It provides read-only programmatic access to people, posts, checkins, and shares. Activities are retrieved as triples of (subject, verb, object), which is semweb cute and ticks the social object box, but is unlikely in present form to reverse Declining numbers of users.
  3. Cube -- open source time-series visualization software from Square, built on MongoDB, Node, and Redis. As Artur Bergman noted, the bigger news might be that Square is using MongoDB (known meh).
  4. Tenzing -- an SQL implementation on top of Map/Reduce. Tenzing supports a mostly complete SQL implementation (with several extensions) combined with several key characteristics such as heterogeneity, high performance, scalability, reliability, metadata awareness, low latency, support for columnar storage and structured data, and easy extensibility. Tenzing is currently used internally at Google by 1000+ employees and serves 10000+ queries per day over 1.5 petabytes of compressed data. In this paper, we describe the architecture and implementation of Tenzing, and present benchmarks of typical analytical queries. (via Raphaël Valyi)

August 26 2011

Top Stories: August 22-26, 2011

Here's a look at the top stories published across O'Reilly sites this week.

Ruminations on the legacy of Steve Jobs
Apple, under Steve Jobs, has always had an unrelenting zeal to bring humanity to the center of the ring. Mark Sigal argues that it's this pursuit of humanity that may be Jobs' greatest innovation.
The nexus of data, art and science is where the interesting stuff happens
Jer Thorp, data artist in residence at the New York Times, discusses his work at the Times and how aesthetics shape our understanding of data.
Inside Google+: The virtuous circle of data and doing right by users
Data liberation and user experience emerged as core themes during a recent discussion between Tim O'Reilly and Google+ VP of Product Bradley Horowitz.
Five things Android needs to address on the enterprise side
Android has the foundation to support enterprise use, but there's a handful of missing pieces that need to be addressed if it's going to fully catch on in the corporate world.
The Daily Dot wants to tell the web's story with social data journalism
The newly launched Daily Dot is trying an experiment in community journalism, where the community is the Internet. To support their goal, they're applying the lens of data journalism to the social web.

Strata Conference New York 2011, being held Sept. 22-23, covers the latest and best tools and technologies for data science — from gathering, cleaning, analyzing, and storing data to communicating data intelligence effectively. Save 30% on registration with the code STN11RAD.

August 24 2011

Inside Google+: The virtuous circle of data and doing right by users

Inside Google+ free webcastTim O'Reilly and Google+ VP of Product Bradley Horowitz took a deep dive into Google+ and a host of adjacent topics during a webcast yesterday. A full recording of their conversation is embedded at the end of this post — and it's well worth watching — but I thought it would be useful to extract and amplify a couple of key points that were made. Horowitz will expand on some of these ideas during his session at next month's Strata Summit.

Data lock-in and the virtuous circle

Data has supplanted source code as the key to lock-in. This shift was the focus of an interesting exchange between O'Reilly and Horowitz (it begins at the 13:37 mark).

"Clearly, developers and users are betting on Google with the integrity of their data," Horowitz said. "We're trying to do right by that opportunity." Horowitz pointed to the Data Liberation Front as an important part of Google's approach to data. "We have to allow people with the pull of a handle to up and leave and take that data."

O'Reilly noted that a "virtuous circle" forms when data runs through certain stacks — Apple devices tend to work better with Apple services, Google services operate well with other Google services, and these positive experiences keep users contained within an ecosystem. "The question of consolidation is there," O'Reilly said. "In that world of consolidated stacks, user freedom may not be about having your own software source code. It's about being able to get your data somewhere else. That's the shift we're in the middle of, with people starting to understand that lock-in really comes from your data more than your source code."

"That's the huge leap of faith that we take with the Data Liberation effort," Horowitz responded. "This is exactly contrary to services that are trying to build roach motels and ant farms. We're trying to give users choice. They can leave and come back. We want people to use this because we're offering the best service in the market at any given instant, and not because they're trapped at Google."

Strata Summit New York 2011, being held Sept. 20-21, is for executives, entrepreneurs, and decision-makers looking to harness data. Hear from the pioneers who are succeeding with data-driven strategies, and discover the data opportunities that lie ahead.

Save 30% on registration with the code SS11RAD

Getting it right

The importance of building Google+ correctly popped up throughout the discussion, with Horowitz applying it to the controversy around Google+ pseudonyms (26:27 mark), the need to expand Google+ to enterprise users and other audiences (22:13 mark), and the eventual — but unannounced — release of Google+ APIs (18:34 mark). This same hyper-focus on creating thoughtful and well-constructed user experiences was also evident during Alex Howard's recent interview with Google+ team member Joseph Smarr.

Google+ and the competition

Facebook announced a number of changes to its sharing tools yesterday — some of which resemble functionality available on Google+ — so the topic naturally came up during the discussion (at the 39:55 mark).

"I think what they did was familiar and good for users," Horowitz said when asked about Facebook's changes. "That's another impact that Google+ can have on the world: raising the bar of what the expectations and standards around something like privacy should be."

Other subjects

A host of additional topics were addressed during the webcast, including:

  • The deep thinking behind the speed of Google+ (5:35)
  • The "noisy stream" problem (8:56)
  • Will aspects of Google+ be open sourced? (12:06)
  • Horowitz (aka "elatable") on his own experiences with pseudonyms (22:13)
  • "Listen to what people say and watch what they do." (29:14)
  • What Google hopes to get out of the Google+ "limited field trial" (33:35)
  • The possibility of auto-generated "implicit" Circles (51:00)

Check out the full conversation in the following video:


August 19 2011

Go inside Google+ with Tim O'Reilly and Bradley Horowitz

Inside Google+ free webcastGoogle's past data efforts were largely tied to the discovery and categorization of information, but Google+ adds a new component to that mix: people.

This shift raises a host of important questions:

  • How will the social data from Google+ be put to use?
  • Is social data critical to Google's mission of organizing the world's information, or is it more aligned with the company's advertising model?
  • What long-term value does this data bring to users and Google itself?

Tim O'Reilly and Google VP of Product Management Bradley Horowitz will explore these questions and others during a free webcast on Tuesday, August 23 at 10 am PDT / 1 pm EDT.

Register to attend this free online event.

The webcast offers an extended preview of another conversation taking place at O'Reilly's Strata Summit, Sept. 20-21, in New York City. Part of a week-long series devoted to data, Strata Summit offers two days of high-level strategies for thriving in "the harsh light of data," delivered by the business and technology pioneers currently leading the way.

Strata Summit New York 2011, being held Sept. 20-21, is for executives, entrepreneurs, and decision-makers looking to harness data. Hear from the pioneers who are succeeding with data-driven strategies, and discover the data opportunities that lie ahead.

Save 35% on registration with the code STRATA
(Offer expires 8/22)


August 05 2011

Top Stories: August 1-5, 2011

Here's a look at the top stories published across O'Reilly sites this week.

Missing maps and the fragility of digital information
During a long drive through sparse terrain, Tim O'Reilly had a remarkable demonstration of the fragility of the "always on" connected mindset.
Google Plus defines an era of disruption at a moment's notice
When an entrant quickly yields considerable power in an existing market, and elicits potential for rapid innovation, this is what Jonathan Reichental calls the "G+ effect."
Science hacks chip away at the old barriers to entry
How can opening access to scientific data, equipment and lab space spur innovation? BioCurious' Eri Gentry and Ariel Waldman from share a few ideas.
How online bookstores should get social
What if you could take the social aspects of brick-and-mortar bookstores and blend them with the convenience of online sales? Joe Wikert explains how an online social layer would benefit everyone involved in the publishing chain.
Data and the human-machine connection
Managing data and extracting meaning require new approaches, new education, and even a new language. Opera Solutions CEO Arnab Gupta discusses each of these areas.

Android Open, being held October 9-11 in San Francisco, is a big-tent meeting ground for app and game developers, carriers, chip manufacturers, content creators, OEMs, researchers, entrepreneurs, VCs, and business leaders. Save 20% on registration with the code AN11RAD.

August 02 2011

Scaling Google+

Last week at OSCON, Google social web engineer Joseph Smarr sat down for an interview with me about Google+, the long-awaited social network that the search engine giant launched earlier this summer.

We covered a lot of ground during the interview. Smarr connected what he and others learned from Plaxo Pulse, where he was the CTO, to how the Circles tool in Google+ builds granular control into public and private sharing. He also said scalability comes in different flavors — it's not just about infrastructure, but rapidly scaling the user interface with feedback. Finally, we talked about the future of the Google+ platform and the possibilities of an API (more on that below).

When asked about what surprised him the most, Smarr pointed to the high rate of public sharing on Google+, versus how the social network had been used internally at Google before launch. "People are getting these incredibly high engagement discussions," he said.

The Google+ API

Smarr said the Google+ team is spending a lot of time thinking about an API, drawing from what they learned from Google Buzz and the experiences of other Internet companies building platforms.

"On the one hand, clearly the goal is to not just have another social network, to really help not only Google's products but to make the web in general more social, more open, more connected, and APIs are a crucial piece of that," said Smarr. "We actually got a far way along the road with the Buzz APIs, and not only having a lot of access to the activities and the graph and so forth, but with a lot of these modern standards, like pubsubhubbub and Webfinger and so forth. That's the style of thing we'd like to bring. "

The challenge for the Google+ team working on the API, as Smarr explained, is that the devil is in the details.

"One of things people seem to really like about Google+ right now is it's 100% authentic," Smarr said. "Every piece of content was created by a real person sitting in front of Google+ and deciding who to share with. Balancing the obvious need to get more content in and out from more sources while maintaining that authenticity is something that we're spending a lot of time playing and iterating and coming up with. I think you'll see things trickle out over time as we get bits and pieces we're happy with."

Web 2.0 Summit, being held October 17-19 in San Francisco, will examine "The Data Frame" — focusing on the impact of data in today's networked economy.

Save $300 on registration with the code RADAR

Google+ and the identity issue

Smarr also talked about the nature of identity on Google+. Those following the launch of the service know that Google+ and pseudonymity is a hot-button issue. As the Electronic Fronter Foundation's Jillian C. York noted in an essay making a case for pseudonyms, Google+ has changed some of its processes, moving from immediate account deactivation to warning users about the issue and giving them an opportunity to align their Google+ username with its "real name" policy. This week, Kaliya "@IdentityWoman" Hamlin became the most recent person to have her Google+ account suspended. (Given her work and role in the digital identity space, Hamlin's use case is likely to be an interesting one.)

"There's cases where that authenticity and knowing that this is a real person with whatever name they tend to be called in the real world is really a feature," Smarr said during our discussion. "It changes the tone of discussions, it helps you find people you know in the real world. And so, wanting to make sure that there's a space that is preserved and promoted is really important. On any of these social networks, it's not enough to write the code, you have to make the right community. Lots of networks choose different approaches to how they do that, and they all have different consequences. It's not that one is inherently better or or more valid than the others, it's just that if you don't do anything about it, it will kind of take its own course."

There are clearly some gray areas here, particularly given Google's global reach into parts of the world were using your real identity to share content could literally be life-threatening. "Obviously there are a lot of cases where being able to share things not under your real identity is valuable and necessary, and Google has a lot of products like this today, like YouTube," said Smarr. "If you're posting videos of authoritarian governments during a revolution, you may not want to use your real name, and that seems pretty valid. Whether or not that type of use case will be supported in the Google+ as you know it today is something that we're all thinking through and figuring out, but it's not meant to stop you from doing that in other products."

Smarr had one other comment on identity that goes to the difficultly of creating social networks in domains that may be hostile to free expression: "It's not just enough to offer the ability to post under a pseudonymous identifier. If you're going to make the commitment that we're not going to out your real identity, that actually takes a lot of work, especially if you're using your real account to log in and then posting under a pseudonym. We feel a real responsibility that if we're going to make the claim to people 'it's safe, you're not going to get outed,' then we really need to think through the architecture and make sure there aren't any loopholes where all of a sudden you get outed. That's actually a hard thing to do in software … we don't want to do it wrong, and so we'd rather wait until we get it right."

As I said at the end of the interview, if anyone is going to solve the challenge of enabling its users to securely and anonymously connect to its social network, Google would have to be near the top of the list. One potential direction might be further integrating the Tor Project and the Android operating system in the context of a Google+ API. What's clear now, however, is that if Google+ looks like a social backbone for the Internet, there's still a lot of growth ahead.


August 01 2011

Google Plus defines an era of disruption at a moment's notice

Google PlusWhether or not you like Google+ or have yet to try it, its introduction continues the important role that a battle of ideas has in shaking-up and bringing new value to the marketplace. In the best outcome, robust competition in any business domain should have at least one benefactor: you, the consumer.

Google+ raises the stakes in the social computing space. With so many people and organizations already invested in other social platforms, Google+ is a manageable gamble with the potential for considerable consequence. Yet for the leading social media incumbents the risk may be existential. Fending off this kind of threat will likely require drastic and prompt measures.

When the entrant yields this much power in an existing market and elicits as a response the potential for rapid innovation, this is what I am calling the "G+ effect."

The G+ effect is best defined by the introduction of Google+, but it's not unique to Google; it is unique to our times.

What is the G+ effect?

The disruptive impact of introducing a new product or service is obviously nothing novel. What is new and profound is that the viral and light-speed distribution of digital information and capability across our connected planet can threaten existing businesses at a moment's notice. The entrant doesn't even have to be game-changing, but the outcome can be. The influence and reach of the provider can result in disproportional results from just incremental innovation (even whether or not the product succeeds). It is the innovator's dilemma in overdrive.

The torrent of punditry that accompanies these introductions is notable alone. We are also seeing a significant intensification in rampant speculation prior to a release that can unsettle a market.

Of course, being incremental initially doesn't rule out disruptive later. For example, in the case of Google+, what it becomes in the months ahead and what it may enable could certainly be game-changing. It's far too soon to tell.

It would be easy to conclude that the G+ effect is a destructive phenomenon. Sure, there is something to be said for the uncertainty it can sow, and honestly it is impossible to know quite where it will take us. There is no doubt that existing business players will be challenged in unprecedented ways and some customers may be riled by the constant volatility. I also have to believe that at some point every one of us has a capped quotient for fickleness. But I argue that, at least in the short-term, a dynamic battle of ideas will remain a positive force.

At its core, the G+ effect is an economic phenomenon. Clearly there is an important technical component, but introducing a new product or service that can have rapid and far reaching impact, first and foremost shifts existing market behavior — even if temporary in nature. In some instances, for publicly listed companies, the business introducing the technology may experience a bump in stock value (as we have seen with Google+) and its competitors may see theirs experience downward pressure.

Web 2.0 Summit, being held October 17-19 in San Francisco, will examine "The Data Frame" — focusing on the impact of data in today's networked economy.

Save $300 on registration with the code RADAR

The G+ effect and Google+

Despite only a limited early release, in just a few weeks Google+ has garnered over 20 million participants from across the world. If every one of them had only written the words "Hello World" in the status box, that itself would have been a notable event. Instead, billions of words were added with their attendant photos and videos. Pundits are already claiming the imminent demise of its competition; products that worked hard over several years to earn each subscriber, friend, and follower. (In my view, any notion of the competition's obsolescence is far too premature).

With Facebook taking a significant lead in social networking, it has emerged to occupy a monopolistic position. A sudden injection of viable competition is a great catalyst for innovation. It is one thing for customers to complain about the limits of Facebook Groups and privacy and quite another for Facebook to respond to the potential competitive advantage that Circles in Google+ create.

Let me be clear, this isn't a battle just between Google and Facebook — although it could be argued that it will be the early nexus of the action — no, the impact may be felt across the communication, collaboration, and sharing space.

The only good monopoly is the board game

In a topical and recent case study, for much of its young history commissions have sought to stop Microsoft from garnering a monopoly position. Microsoft's huge footprint in the operating system market enabled it to exploit that position. Look at the innovation of Internet browsers and you have the tell-tale signs of stifled innovation as a result of market domination (remember the first browser war?). It was only when there was a viable alternative, mostly in the form of Firefox and most recently with Chrome and Safari, that we have seen an uptick in browser innovation. (Credit also goes to the various communities that work hard for standards ratification).

Had competition been more rigorous in the early days of the browser, would we be further along with web-based capabilities today?

Currently we see dynamic and healthy competition in the domain of smartphones. But it is also a fragile battle. Now largely dominated by Android and iPhone — solutions created by organizations with extremely healthy balance sheets — innovation is alive and kicking. But should one stumble, a dominant player could emerge and we could see innovation atrophy. Sure, it is speculative and there are plenty of participants trying their darnedest to play catch-up. In fact, with the average American replacing his cellphone every 21 months (source: Recon Analytics), this industry is a prime candidate for the G+ effect.

The G+ effect and the future

What the G+ effect might mean for businesses and consumers over the long-term has yet to be determined. Fortunately we can rely on the marketplace to help sort out what happens next.

At least in the short-term, as an IT leader I encourage rigorous innovation and competition as it helps to keep product and service costs low and accelerates the introduction of desired functions. I also want this innovation to restrict the ability for large corporations to create a closed web or to reduce the very freedoms that make it so empowering.

But with this level of innovation, I'm also concerned by the change costs both in dollars and those that manifest in user fatigue. It could also exacerbate the problems associated with playing catch-up.

For sure, the G+ effect has the capacity to elicit considerable change in the way many organizations operate and compete. Getting a head start on figuring it out might enable many to pursue the emerging opportunities.


July 22 2011

Top stories: July 18-22, 2011

Here's a look at the top stories published across O'Reilly sites this week.

Google+ is the social backbone
Google+ is the rapidly growing seed of a web-wide social backbone, and the catalyst for the ultimate uniting of the social graph.
Intellectual property gone mad
Patent trolling could undermine app ecosystems, but who can mount a legitimate challenge? Here's four potential solutions.
Software engineering is a team sport: How programmers can deal with colleagues and non-programmers
Ben Collins-Sussman, tech lead and manager at Google, and Brian Fitzpatrick, engineering manager at Google, explain the "art of mass organizational manipulation."
FOSS isn't always the answer
James Turner says the notion that proprietary software is somehow dirty or a corruption of principles ignores the realities of competition, economics, and context.

Emerging languages show off programming's experimental side
Alex Payne, organizer of OSCON's Emerging Languages track, discusses language experimentation and whether these efforts are evolutionary or revolutionary.

Rugby photo: Scrum by MontyPython, on Flickr; Open sign photo: open by tinou bao, on Flickr

OSCON Java 2011, being held July 25-27 in Portland, Ore., is focused on open source technologies that make up the Java ecosystem. Save 20% on registration with the code OS11RAD

July 19 2011

Google+ is the social backbone

Google plusThe launch of Google+ is the beginning of a fundamental change on the web. A change that will tear down silos, empower users and create opportunities to take software and collaboration to new levels.

Social features will become pervasive, and fundamental to our interaction with networked services. Collaboration from within applications will be as natural to us as searching for answers on the web is today.

It's not just about Google vs Facebook

Much attention has focused on Google+ as a Facebook competitor, but to view the system solely within that context is short-sighted. The consequences of the launch of Google+ are wider-reaching, more exciting and undoubtedly more controversial.

Google+ is the rapidly growing seed of a web-wide social backbone, and the catalyst for the ultimate uniting of the social graph. All it will take on Google's part is a step of openness to bring about such a commoditization of the social layer. This would not only be egalitarian, but would also be the most effective competitive measure against Facebook.

As web search connects people to documents across the web, the social backbone connects people to each other directly, across the full span of web-wide activity. (For the avoidance of doubt, I take "web" to include networked phone and tablet applications, even if the web use is invisible to the user.)

Search removed the need to remember domain names and URLs. It's a superior way to locate content. The social backbone will relieve our need to manage email addresses and save us laborious "friending" and permission-granting activity — in addition to providing other common services such as notification and sharing.

Though Google+ is the work of one company, there are good reasons to herald it as the start of a commodity social layer for the Internet. Google decided to make Google+ be part of the web and not a walled garden. There is good reason to think that represents an inclination to openness and interoperation, as I explain below.

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It's time for the social layer to become a commodity

We're now several years into the era of social networks. Companies have come and gone, trying to capture the social graph and exploit it. Well intentioned but doomed grass-roots initiatives have waxed and waned. Facebook has won the platform game, being the dominant owner of our social attention, albeit mostly limited to non-workplace application.

What does this activity in social software mean? Clearly, social features are important to us as users of computers. We like to identify our friends, share with them, and meet with them. And it's not just friends. We want to identify co-workers, family, sales prospects, interesting celebrities.

Currently, we have all these groups siloed. Because we have many different contexts and levels of intimacy with people in these groups, we're inclined to use different systems to interact with them. Facebook for gaming, friends and family. LinkedIn for customers, recruiters, sales prospects. Twitter for friends and celebrities. And so on into specialist communities: Instagram and Flickr, Yammer or Salesforce Chatter for co-workers.

The situation is reminiscent of electronic mail before it became standardized. Differing semi-interoperable systems, many as walled gardens. Business plans predicated on somehow "owning" the social graph. The social software scene is filled with systems that assume a closed world, making them more easily managed as businesses, but ultimately providing for an uncomfortable interface with the reality of user need.

An interoperable email system created widespread benefit, and permitted many ecosystems to emerge on top of it, both formal and ad-hoc. Email reduced distance and time between people, enabling rapid iteration of ideas, collaboration and community formation. For example, it's hard to imagine the open source revolution without email.

When the social layer becomes a standard facility, available to any application, we'll release ourselves into a world of enhanced diversity, productivity and creative opportunity. Though we don't labor as much under the constraints of distance or time as we did before email, we are confined by boundaries of data silos. Our information is owned by others, we cannot readily share what is ours, and collaboration is still mostly boxed by the confines of an application's ability.

A social backbone would also be a boost for diversity. Communities of interest would be enabled by the ready availability of social networking, without having the heavy lifting in creating the community, or run the risk of disapproval or censorship from a controlling enterprise.

The effect of email interoperability didn't just stop at enabling communication: it was a catalyst for standards in document formats and richer collaboration. The social backbone won't just make it easier to handle permissions, identity and sharing, but will naturally exert pressure for further interoperation between applications. Once their identity is united across applications, users will expect their data to travel as well.

We see already a leaning toward this interoperability: the use of Twitter, Facebook and Google as sign-on mechanisms across websites and games, attempts to federate and intermingle social software, cloud-based identity and wallet services.

What a social backbone would do

As users, what can we expect a social backbone to do for us? The point is to help computers serve us better. We naturally work in contexts that involve not only documents and information, but groups of people. When working with others, the faster and higher bandwidth the communication, the better.

To give some examples, consider workplace collaboration. Today's groupware solutions are closed worlds. It's impractical for them to encompass either a particularly flexible social model, or a rich enough variety of applications and content, so they support a restricted set of processes. A social backbone could make groupware out of every application. For the future Photoshop, iMovie and Excel, it adds the equivalent power of calling someone over and saying "Hey, what about this?"

Or think about people you interact with. When you're with someone, everything you're currently doing with them is important. Let's say you're working with your friend Jane on the school's PTA fundraiser, and her and your kids play together. Drag Jane into your PTA and Playdates circles. Drop a letter to parents into the PTA circle, and your calendar's free/busy info into Playdates.

Now you're sharing information both of you need. Next Thursday you see Jane at school. While you're chatting, naturally the topic of playdates and the PTA come up. You bring up Jane on your phone, and there are links right there to the letter you're writing, and some suggested dates for mutually free time.

Teaching computer systems about who we know lets them make better guesses as to what we need to know, and when. My examples are merely simple increases in convenience. The history of computing frequently shows that once a platform is opened up, the creative achievements of others far exceed those dreamed of by the platform's progenitors.

The social backbone democratizes social software: developers are freed from the limitations of walled gardens, and the power to control what you do with your friends and colleagues is returned to you, the user.

Social backbone services

Which services will the social backbone provide? We can extract these from those provided by today's web and social software applications:

  • Identity — authenticating you as a user, and storing information about you
  • Sharing — access rights over content
  • Notification — informing users of changes to content or contacts' content
  • Annotation — commenting on content
  • Communication — direct interaction among members of the system

These facilities are not new requirements. Each of them have been met in differing ways by existing services. Google and Amazon serve as identity brokers with a reasonable degree of assurance, as do Twitter and Facebook, albeit with a lesser degree of trust.

A host of web services address sharing of content, though mostly focused on sharing the read permission, rather than the edit permission. Notification originated with email, graduated through RSS, and is now a major part of Twitter's significance, as well as a fundamental feature of Facebook. Annotation is as old as the web, embodied by the hyperlink, but has been most usefully realized through blogging, Disqus, Twitter and Facebook commenting. Communication between users has been around as long as multi-user operating systems, but is most usefully implemented today in Facebook chat and instant messaging, where ad-hoc groups can easily be formed.

Why not Facebook?

Unfortunately, each of today's answers to providing these social facilities are limited by their implementation. Facebook provides the most rounded complement of social features, so it's a reasonable question to ask why Facebook itself can't provide the social backbone for the Internet.

Facebook's chief flaw is that is a closed platform. Facebook does not want to be the web. It would like to draw web citizens into itself, so it plays on the web, but in terms that leave no room for doubt where the power lies. Content items in Facebook do not have a URI, so by definition can never be part of the broader web. If you want to use Facebook's social layer, you must be part of and subject to the Facebook platform.

Additionally, there are issues with the symmetry of Facebook's friending model: it just doesn't model real life situations. Even the term "friend" doesn't allow for the nuance that a capable web-wide social backbone needs.

This is not to set up a Facebook vs Google+ discussion, but to highlight that Facebook doesn't meet the needs of a global social backbone.

Why Google+?

Why is Google+ is the genesis of a social backbone? The simple answer is that it's the first system to combine a flexible enough social model with a widespread user base, and a company for whom exclusive ownership of the social graph isn't essential to their business.

Google also has the power to bootstrap Google+ as a social backbone: the integration of Google+ into Google's own web applications would be a powerful proving ground and advertisement for the concept.

Yet one company alone should not have the power to manage identity for everyone. A workable and safe social backbone must support competition and choice, while still retaining the benefits of the network. Email interoperability was created not by the domination of one system, but by standards for communication.

To achieve a web-wide effect, Google+ needs more openness and interoperability, which it does not yet have. The features offered by the upcoming Google+ API will give us a strong indication of Google's attitude towards control and interoperability.

There is some substantial evidence that Google would support an open and interoperable social backbone:

  • Google's prominence as a supporter of the open web, which is crucial to its business.
  • The early inclination to interoperation of Google+: public content items have a URI, fallback to email is supported for contacts who are not Google+ members.
  • Google is loudly trumpeting their Data Liberation Front, committed to giving users full access to their own data.
  • Google has been involved in the creation of, or has supported, early stage technologies that address portions of the social backbone, including OAuth, OpenID, OpenSocial, PubSubHubbub.
  • Google displays an openness to federation with interoperating systems, evinced most keenly by Joseph Smarr, the engineer behind the Google+ Circles model. The ill-fated Google Wave incorporated federation.
  • The most open system possible would best benefit Google's mission in organizing the world's information, and their business in targeting relevant advertising.

Toward the social backbone

Computers ought to serve us and provide us with means of expression.

A common, expressive and interoperable social backbone will help users and software developers alike. Liberated from information silos and repeat labor of curating friends and acquaintances, we will be free to collaborate more freely. Applications will be better able to serve us as individuals, not as an abstract class of "users".

The road to the social backbone must be carefully trodden, with privacy a major issue. There is a tough trade-off between providing usable systems and those with enough nuance to sufficiently meet our models of collaboration and sharing.

Obstacles notwithstanding, Google+ represents the promise of a next generation of social software. Incorporating learnings from previous failures, a smattering of innovation, and a close attention to user need, it is already a success.

It requires only one further step of openness to take the Google+ product into the beginnings of a social backbone. By taking that step, Google will contribute as much to humanity as it has with search.

Edd Dumbill is the chair of O'Reilly's Strata and OSCON conferences. Find him here on Google+.

(Google's Joseph Smarr, a member of the Google+ team, will discuss the future of the social web at OSCON. Save 20% on registration with the code OS11RAD.)


Reposted byRK RK

July 14 2011

Strata Week: There's money in data sifting

Here are a few of the data stories that caught my attention this week.

Big bucks for DataSift and for data from Twitter's firehose

DataSiftThe social media data mining platform DataSift — one of the two companies that has the rights to re-syndicate the data from Twitter's firehose — announced this week that it has raised $6 million in a Series A round. (The other company with those rights is Gnip, whose handling of the firehose we recently covered.) DataSift aggregates data from other social media streams as well as Twitter, including Facebook, WordPress, and Digg. While providing the tools to "sift" this content and layering it with other metadata makes DataSift compelling, it's the company's connection to Twitter that may have piqued the most interest.

DataSift grew out of the company MediaSift, the same business that created Tweetmeme, a tool that fell into disfavor when Twitter launched its own sharing button. That move on the part of Twitter to take over functions that third-party developers once provided has had some negative implications on those in the Twitter ecosystem. At this stage, it seems like Twitter is willing to leave some of the big data processing to other companies.

Investor Mark Suster of GRP Partners, whose firm was one of the leaders in this round of DataSift's investment, made the announcement that he was "doubling down on the Twitter ecosystem." For its part, DataSift "has a product that will turn the stream into a lake," says Suster. In other words, "The Twitter stream like most others is ephemeral. If you don't bottle it as it passes by you it's gone. DataSift has a product that builds a permanent database for you of just the information you want to capture."

But Suster's announcement also reiterates the importance of Twitter, something that seems particularly relevant in light of the new Google Plus. Suster describes Twitter as real-time, open, asymmetric, social, viral, location-aware, a referral network, explicit, and implicit. But as the buzz over Google Plus continues, it's not clear that Twitter really holds the corner on all of these characteristics any longer.

OSCON Data 2011, being held July 25-27 in Portland, Ore., is a gathering for developers who are hands-on, doing the systems work and evolving architectures and tools to manage data. (This event is co-located with OSCON.)

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What's under the Google Plus hood?

Google PlusSpeaking of Google Plus, there's been lots of commentary and speculation about how successful the launch of the new social network has been, gauged in part on how quickly that network is growing. According to founder Paul Allen, Google Plus was set to break the 10 million user mark on July 12, just two weeks after its launch. Ubermedia's Bill Goss went so far as to predict that Google Plus would become the fastest growing social network in history.

So how does Google do it (in terms of the technology)? According to the project's technical lead — and OSCON speakerJoseph Smarr:

Our stack is pretty standard fare for Google apps these days: we use Java servlets for our server code and JavaScript for the browser-side of the UI, largely built with the (open-source) Closure framework, including Closure's JavaScript compiler and template system. A couple nifty tricks we do: we use the HTML5 History API to maintain pretty-looking URLs even though it's an AJAX app (falling back on hash-fragments for older browsers); and we often render our Closure templates server-side so the page renders before any JavaScript is loaded, then the JavaScript finds the right DOM nodes and hooks up event handlers, etc. to make it responsive (as a result, if you're on a slow connection and you click on stuff really fast, you may notice a lag before it does anything, but luckily most people don't run into this in practice). Our backends are built mostly on top of BigTable and Colossus/GFS, and we use a lot of other common Google technologies such as MapReduce (again, like many other Google apps do).

(Google's Joseph Smarr, a member of the Google+ team, will discuss the future of the social web at OSCON. Save 20% on registration with the code OS11RAD.)

Data products for education

DonorsChooseThe charitable giving site DonorsChoose has been running a contest called Hacking Education, and the contest's finalists have just been announced. DonorsChoose lets people make charitable contributions to public schools, supporting teachers' projects with a Kickstarter-like site for education. DonorsChoose opened up its data to developers — this data encompassed more than 300,000 classroom projects that have inspired some $80 million in charitable giving.

The finalists were chosen from over 50 apps and analyses and included a visualization of the kinds of projects teachers proposed and the kinds donors supported, a .NET Factbook, and an automatic press release system so that local journalists could be notified about projects. The grand prize winner has yet to be chosen, but that project will receive a trophy — and a big thumbs up — from Stephen Colbert.

Got data news?

Feel free to email me.


July 12 2011

Four short links: 12 July 2011

  1. Slopegraphs -- a nifty Tufte visualization which conveys rank, value, and delta over time. Includes pointers to how to make them, and guidelines for when and how they work. (via Avi Bryant)
  2. Ask Me Anything: A Technical Lead on the Google+ Team -- lots of juicy details about technology and dev process. A couple nifty tricks we do: we use the HTML5 History API to maintain pretty-looking URLs even though it's an AJAX app (falling back on hash-fragments for older browsers); and we often render our Closure templates server-side so the page renders before any JavaScript is loaded, then the JavaScript finds the right DOM nodes and hooks up event handlers, etc. to make it responsive (as a result, if you're on a slow connection and you click on stuff really fast, you may notice a lag before it does anything, but luckily most people don't run into this in practice). (via Nahum Wild)
  3. scalang (github) -- a Scala wrapper that makes it easy to interface with Erlang, so you can use two hipster-compliant built-to-scale technologies in the same project. (via Justin Sheehy)
  4. Madlib -- an open-source library for scalable in-database analytics. It provides data-parallel implementations of mathematical, statistical and machine learning methods for structured and unstructured data. (via Mike Loukides)

July 05 2011

Search Notes: Why Google's Social Analytics tools matter

The big search news over the past week has been the launch of Google Plus, but lots of other stuff has been going on as well. Read on for the run dow.

Google social analytics

Plus isn't the only social launch Google had recently. The company also pushed out social analytics features in both Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools.

If you use the new version of Google Analytics, you'll now see a social engagement report. Use the social plugin to configure your site for different social media platforms to monitor the behavior of visitors coming from those platforms. Do those coming from Twitter convert better than those coming from Facebook? Do those who "+1" a page spend more time on it? Those are the sorts of questions the new social reports aim to answer.

You can also use Google Webmaster Tools to see how +1 activity is impacting how searchers interact with your pages in search results. In particular, you can see if the click-through rate of a result improves when it includes +1 annotations.

This is just one example of how the silos of the web are integrating. You shouldn't think of "social" users and "search" users when you are doing audience analysis for your site. You instead have one audience who many be coming to your site any number of ways. Engaging in social media can help your site be more visible in search, as results become more personalized and pages that our friends have shared, liked, and "plussed" show up more often for us.

Some may wonder if integrations like this mean that Google is weighting social signals more strongly in search. But those kinds of questions miss the point. The specific signals will continue to change, but the important thing is to engage your audiences wherever they are. The lines will continue to blur.

Google Realtime Search goes offline "temporarily"

A few day ago, Google's realtime search mysteriously disappeared. The reason: Google's agreement with Twitter expired and Google is now working on a new system to display realtime information. While this has temporarily impacted a number of results pages (such as top shared links and top tweets on Google News), it has not impacted Google's social results, which show results that your friends have shared.

Google social results

New Google UI

Google launched the first of many user interface updates last week, with the promise of many more changes to follow throughout the summer.

Google, Twitter and the FTC

But the Google world is not just about launches. The FTC formally notified Google that they are reviewing the business. Google says that they are "unclear exactly what the FTC's concerns are" but that they "focus on the user [and] all else will follow."

The Wall Street Journal reports that the investigation focuses on Google's core search advertising business, including "whether Google searches unfairly steer users to the company's own growing network of services at the expense of rival providers."

The FTC may also being investigating Twitter, due to how Twitter may be acquiring applications.

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Google Plus (or is it +?)

Google PlusAnd of course we have to dig into that well-chronicled launch. As you're no doubt aware, Google launched their latest social effort last week: Google+. Or Google Plus. Or Plus. Or +. I don't know. But it's different from Plus One (+1?). Also it's not Wave, Buzz, Social Circles. Or Facebook.

I've just started using it, so I don't have a verdict on it yet, although I don't know that I buy intoGoogle's premise that "online sharing is awkward. Even broken." And that Google Plus will fix that. It doesn't mean I won't like the product, either. Google is of course under more scrutiny than usual since earlier social launches haven't gone over as well as they'd have liked. What do you all think of it?

Lots of sites have done comprehensive run downs, including:

(Google's Joseph Smarr, a member of the Google+ team, will discuss the future of the social web at OSCON. Save 20% on registration with the code OS11RAD.)

Yahoo search BOSS updates

Yahoo launched updates to their BOSS (Build your own search service) program. If you're a developer who uses Yahoo BOSS, you might be interested in the changes. and rel=author

A few weeks ago, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo launched the alliance, which provides joint support for 100+ microdata formats. At the same time, Google announced support for rel=author, which enables site owners to provide structured markup on a page that specifies the author of the content.

The announcement seems to be a foundational announcement to encourage platform providers, such as content management system creators, to build in support of microdata formats for future use by the search engines.

On the other hand, Google has already launched integration of rel=author with search results. You can see examples of how this looks with results for the initial set of authors Google is working with.


June 30 2011

Strata Week: Google Plus focuses on data control

Here are a few of the data stories that caught my attention this week.

Your data and Google+

Google PlusIt's hard to ignore the big story of the week: the launch of Google+, Google's latest stab at social. Google+ is comprised of several pieces, namely Circles, Sparks, Hangouts, Mobile, and Huddle — content and photo sharing, video chat, and mobile messaging. It's an ambitious project to be sure, particularly — as most pundits are quick to point out — with Google's less-than-stellar track record in the social space. The reviews a few days in seem mostly positive, with the observation all around that what Google needs to be successful here isn't simply a good user experience, but, well, users.

The approach that Google has taken with Google+ purposefully differentiates it from other social networks, and the emphasis is on users' control of their own personal information. Google describes those other networks as "sloppy," "scary" and "insensitive." Rather than utilizing the blunt instrument of "friend" or "follower" to describe all relationships, Google Circles allows users to classify them on a more granular level: not simply "friend" or "family" or "acquaintance," but also self-created labels.

Google says this is part of its larger effort to give users better control of their own data (see video below). What remains to be seen is if that's something most people are interested in, particularly if it means reassembling relationships and designing Circles on yet another social network.

(Google's Joseph Smarr, a member of the Google+ team, will discuss the future of the social web at OSCON. Save 20% on registration with the code OS11RAD.)

Yahoo spins off its Hadoop division

Rumors have been circulating for some time that Yahoo was planning on spinning its Hadoop division into its own separate company, and this week Yahoo and Benchmark Capital announced the formation of Hortonworks to do just that. The news, first reported by GigaOm's Derrick Harris, means that a small team of engineers from Yahoo will create a separate company to provide support and services for Hadoop users.

Harris writes:

By incorporating next-generation features and capabilities, Hortonworks hopes to make Hadoop easier to consume and better suited for running production workloads. Its products, which likely will include higher-level management tools on top of the core MapReduce and file system layers, will be open source and Hortonworks will try to maintain a close working relationship with Apache. The goal is to make HortonWorks the go-to vendor for a production-ready Hadoop distribution and support, but also to advance Yahoo's repeated mission of making the official Apache Hadoop distribution the place to go for core software. Earlier this year, Yahoo discontinued its own Hadoop distribution, recommitting all that code and all its development efforts to Apache.

Hortonworks, which takes its name from the elephant in Dr. Seuss's "Horton Hears a Who!", will compete with others in the commercial Hadoop space, including Cloudera.

Strata Conference New York 2011, being held Sept. 22-23, covers the latest and best tools and technologies for data science — from gathering, cleaning, analyzing, and storing data to communicating data intelligence effectively.

Save 20% on registration with the code STN11RAD

iPhone tracking: The book

iPhone trackThe buzz has died down substantially from the iOS location news that Pete Warden and Alasdair Allan broke here on Radar earlier this year. But it's not gone altogether. Such are the hopes of author James Bridle who has self-published his own personal mapping history in "Where the F**k Was I?"

The hardcover book costs $160, so I'm not too sure it's destined to be a bestseller. But the idea is brilliant nonetheless. The book is 202 pages long, with a separate page for each day between June 2010 and April 2011. Each page is a map, with more than 35,000 of Bridle's locations mapped via OpenStreetMap, along with a note about what he did that day.

As Nate Hoffelder from The Digital Reader points out:

He's taken digital data that was created by spying on him and he's converted it to an analog form. He's also selling the data that Apple took for free — data that was recorded surreptitiously by one party, and now anyone can have it.

Got data news?

Feel free to email me.


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