Idealog: Opening interfaces to websites and software

20 Mar

Imagine the following scenario: You go to, and are offered a choice between a variety of interfaces, not just skins or font adjustments, built for a variety of purposes by whoever wants to put in the effort. You get to pick the interface that is right for you – carries the stories you like, presented in the fashion you prefer. Wouldn’t that be something?

Currently, we are made to choose between using weak customization options or build some ad hoc interface using RSS readers. What is missing is open-sourced or internally produced a selection of interfaces that cater to diverse needs, and wants of the public.

We need to separate data from the interface. Applying it to the example at hand – NY Times is in the data business, not the interface business. So like Google Maps, it can make data available, with some stipulations, including monetization requirements, and let others take charge of creatively thinking of ways that data can be presented. If this seems too revolutionary, more middle of the road options exist. NY Times can allow people to build interfaces which are then made available on the New York Times site. For monetization, NY Times can reserve areas of real estate, or charge users for using some ad-free interfaces.

This trick can be replicated across websites, and easily extended to software. For example, MS-Excel can have a variety of interfaces, all easily searchable, downloadable, and deployable, that cater to specific needs of say, Chemical Engineers, or Microbiologists, or programmers. The logic remains the same – MS needn’t be in the interface business, or more limitedly, doesn’t need to control it completely or inefficiently (for it does allow tedious customization), but can be a platform on which people can build, and share, innovative ways to exploit the underlying engine.

An adjacent broader and more useful idea is to come up with a rich interface development toolkit that provides access to processed open data.

Idealog: Internet Panel + Media Monitoring

4 Jan

Media scholars have for long complained about the lack of good measures of media use. Survey self-reports have been shown to be notoriously unreliable, especially for news, where there is significant over-reporting, and without good measures, research lags. The same is true for most research in marketing.

Until recently, the state of the art aggregate media use measures were Nielsen ratings, which put a `meter’ in a few households, or asked people to keep a diary of what they saw. In short, the aggregate measures were pretty bad as well. Digital media, which allows for effortless tracking, and the rise of Internet polling however for the first time provides an opportunity to create `panels’ of respondents for whom we have near perfect measures of media use. The proposal is quite simple: create a hybrid of Nielsen on steroids and YouGov/Polimetrix or Knowledge Network kind of recruiting of individuals.

Logistics: Give people free cable and Internet (~ 80/month) in return for 2 hours of their time per month and monitoring of media consumption. Pay people who already have cable (~100/month) for installing a device and software. Recording channel information is enough for TV, but Internet equivalent of a channel—domain—clearly isn’t, as people can self-select within websites. So we only need to monitor the channel for TV but more for the Internet.

While the number of devices on which people browse the Internet, and watch TV has multiplied, there generally remains only one `pipe’ per house. We can install a monitoring device at the central hub for cable, and automatically install software for anyone who connects to the Internet router or do passive monitoring on the router. Monitoring can also be done through applications on mobile devices.

Monetizability: Consumer companies (say Kellog’s, Ford), Communication researchers, Political hacks (e.g. how many watched campaign ads) will all pay for it. The crucial innovation (modest) is the addition of the possibility to survey people on a broad range of topics, in addition to getting great media use measures.

Addressing privacy concerns:

  1. Limit recording information to certain channels/websites, ones on which customers advertise, etc. This changing list can be made subject to approval by the individual.
  2. Provide for a web-interface where people can look/suppress the data before it is sent out. Of course, reconfirm that all data is anonymous to deter such censoring.

Ensuring privacy may lead to some data censoring and we can try to prorate the data we get it a couple of ways –

  • Survey people on media use
  • Use Television Rating Points (TRP) by sociodemographics to weight data.

Proposal for a small NGO: Fomenting Cross-Class Interaction

14 Jan

Bubble is often used to describe the shielded seclusion in which students live their lives on the Stanford campus. The words seem appropriate. After all, Stanford has a three-quarter of a mile long boundary that separates it from civilization. And even that ends in a yuppy favored downtown lined with preppy shops. What’s more? Even that sits next to multi million dollar homes. For reaching the seething humanity, one has to go further. To the nether regions of Palo Alto and cross into East Palo Alto. It is a task so mythically treacherous that no one volunteers, except when it is time to buy the necessities from IKEA.

But even in the famously elitist bubble, there are poor. Stanford spends about $3.2 billion to educate its roughly 15,000 students. The figure amounts to roughly $213,000 per person. About half of this money is spent on salary and benefits. The employees range from $10 hr/cafeteria workers with no benefits to administrators who earn hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Either way you look at it, we have a substantial breadth of employees with whom students can interact and form partnerships to help some, and learn from others.

The shrinking conversational space

Most transactions involving cross-class interaction are economic interactions. For instance, when you buy something, or pay for service. For instance, gardening, or pizza delivery. Most of these interactions have been bureaucratized, with greeting protocols and thank you protocols. They leave little space for real human to human interaction and exchange of stories. In India, the middle class often still knows about the lives of their maids and the neighborhood grocer. And that sometimes allows them to form genuine bonds of empathy which helps them look at policy and their own lives differently. It is only through knowing lives of people in other classes that one can build genuine empathy. The damning fact of modern life is that even empathy has been implicated in superficial identity issues. And empathy lies within the contingencies imposed upon the selling and buying, largely absent of information or care.


The idea is to connect students, faculty and professional staff with workers from lower economic strata. For example, cashiers, janitors, construction workers, drivers, and other people whose services they rely upon every day. To do that, create an umbrella program that helps people form hyper-local chapters that extend to one building. For example, computer science students may start a program to help teach computers to janitors. Social scientist may work with people to improve their literacy skills.

Detailed Proposal:

There are three parts to the proposed program:

  • Create a website that has the following capabilities
    1. Matching students with Employees. The website will allow students and employees to enter detailed profiles. And it will allow them to search for possible “matches”, based on their skill set, issues they want to work on, and availability (and time).
    2. The website will allow for both short and long term matching. It wil allow students to sign for say helping an employee with his resume’ or a government form. And it will allow for longer term mentoring or symbiotic matching arrangements.
    3. The website would feature a blog and wiki to advertise successful ventures and collaborative opportunities.
  • Since creating excitement around the program is essential, the program launch will be followed by an advertisement blitz including posters, presentations, and get-to-know sessions.
  • The other crucial part of this venture is ‘hardware’— be it computers/supplies or other things that are needed to make some of this possible. So there would be two parts to the same. One would be a craigslist kind of central clearing house list that will post want and available ads. And the other would be a central fund which students or employees can draw on to make of this happen.

From Satellites to Streets

11 Jul

There has been a tremendous growth in Satellite guided navigation systems and secondary applications relying on these GIS systems like finding shops near the place you are etc. However, it remains opaque to me as to why we are using satellites to beam in this information when we can easily embed RFID/or similar chips on road signs for pennies. The road signage needs to move from the ‘dumb’ painted visual boards era to electronic tag era, where signs beam out information on a set frequency to which a variety of devices may be tuned in.

Indeed it would be wonderful to have “rich” devices, connected to the Internet, where we can leave our comments, just like message boards, or blogs. This will remove the need for expensive satellite signal reception boxes or the cost of maintaining satellites. The concept is not limited to road signage and can include any and everything from shops to homes to chips informing the car where the curbs are so that it stays in the lane.

Possibilities are endless. And we must start now.