Striking the Right Balance

It's hard to find the right balance when bringing technology into our lives.  I do think lots of us suffer from some form of internet / social media addiction, and it's getting easier and easier every day to bring all of that with us everywhere we go. This will only continue to accelerate (and I don't even have Google Glass yet).

A few weeks ago, I went to a discussion at the New York Public Library for Steven Johnson's new book -- for the event, Steven's "debate" opponent was Sherry Turkle, author of "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other". The thesis of Sherry's book is essentially that we are all addicted to our phones, and that we're trading away our real-world connections for distant digital connections.  She has spent countless hours interviewing teenagers, observing moms and dads in the playground (with their faces stuffed into their iphones, of course), etc.  And basically came away with some troubling, if unsurprising, results.

I am not terrified by all this, but I do think we're at a moment now where we are still forming our cultural norms around all of this, and it will take a while.

For instance, Frannie and I have a rule of no screens in bed (that includes TV) -- it just seems like the bedroom should be a place to unplug, slow down, and relax.  But over the past few days while she's been away, I've been breaking the rule.  On Sunday night, I blew through my email backlog on my laptop (woo!), and on Monday night I followed #Sandy via Twitter on my phone.

Of course, this sparked an argument discussion last night when I continued to break our rule by bringing my laptop to bed to write "one last email".  To make matters worse (better?) I posted a snap poll to twitter to see what people thought about this particular nuance of digital culture. The results were mixed:

Some great gems in there.

I do think that thinking about this in terms of addiction seems about right -- we have this thing with really powerful social pulls drawing us in, and we need to make sure we understand how to live in moderation. I might even argue that the addictive strength of the internet and social media is stronger than that of alcohol or other drugs; at least the social aspect of that addiction. i.e., I may feel some social pressure to drink more than I should, but it's not coming at me 24x7 from hundreds of friends, thousands of acquaintances, and millions of others.

So, this is something we'll have to keep figuring out.


The Taxi Business & Working for Sellers & Buyers

I am writing this from 30,000 feet on my way to San Francisco. I have a great car service which I use every week when I travel.  This morning, I ended up having a long conversation with Reda, one of my regular drivers, about Uber and how it's shaking up the taxi and car service business. For some reason, I've always loved talking to taxi drivers about how the business operates.  It's a fascinating and often surprising lanscape, consisting of regulators (the city), fleet operators, vendors (for example VeriFone, CMT, and now new entrants like Square and to some extent, Uber), drivers -- who are sometimes employees of fleets and sometimes independent entrepreneurs, customers of various stripes, etc. I think the reason I'm fascinated by taxis is two-fold: 1) it's a hugely important part of the fabric of cities.  Ubiquitous, reliable cars for hire are a big part of what make dense, urban living possible.  While some urbanists and environmentalists may dislike taxis in favor of other forms of public transit, I have always been a huge fan of taxis as a part of the public transit (i.e., non-private car) ecosystem, for how usable they make the city.  Taxis use can also show us a lot about how our cities work. And 2) taxis have always been a big part of the american dream.  For some reason (and I'm not exactly sure what that is), driving a taxi provides a certain path to employment, and often times to entrepreneurship -- maybe in reality this is on par with other careers, and perhaps it's just a more visible one, I'm not sure. My dad drove a NYC taxi in the 1970s, and I've always been proud of that. My wife's grandfather represented cab companies in Boston through his whole career as a lawyer and has endless tales of drama from that experience. So anyway, I think taxis are fascinating, and the industry has seen a lot of change in recent years.  When NYC introduced (mandatory) pay-by-credit-card a few years ago, along w/ GPS tracking I had lots of conversations about how drivers felt about that (initial displeasure w/ both the cards and GPS - but ultimately appreciation for pay-by-card as tips skyrocketed).  When NYC introduced new medallions for hybrid cars, I asked a lot of questions about that. All of these changes have raised questions about power, control, and opportunity in the industry.  For example, in Boston, the payment processors in taxis take 6% of every transaction -- there is some speculation that this fee is artificially high due to coordination among the operators, city and the vendors. By contrast, Square takes 2.7% (plus some flat fees, I think), and many of the livery services use that.  Uber takes a 20% cut, which includes a tip for the driver. Uber has shaken things up the most, as it blurs the line between "street hails"  &  metered rides (typically the purview of medallioned taxis) and dispatched pickups / fixed-price rides (typically the purview of car services / limos).  Uber also shakes up the role of car service dispatchers, which has traditionally been very local.  If you haven't been following, the entrance of Uber into American cities has caused a major stir, triggering legislative battles and lawsuits in DC, Boston, NYC, and most recently, in Chicago.  In nearly every case so far, Uber has prevailed -- often times enlisting their passionate userbase to come to their defense.  But it's still the case that Uber operates in a legal gray area, that tests our assumptions and beliefs about the value and necessity of regulation. Not surprisingly, the tech community is solidly behind Uber in this effort.  When the DC City Council introduces an amendment specifically targeting Uber, TechCrunch (in what seems to be an unusual act of advocacy) prompted readers (worldwide) to contact DC council members. Epic internet investor Paul Graham recently tweeted (with 850 retweets and 250 favorites): [tweet] David Alpert, proprietor of Greater Greater Washington, former Googler, and urban & transportation policy wonk, wrote up a great piece  outlining the clash of philosophies at work here, calling it a tension between the "permission model" (regulation and permission to operate in a certain way up front) and the "innovation model" (freedom to operate up front until you cause harm).  His post, in my opinion, totally nails it: if companies like Uber can offer a service that customers and drivers want, and that uses competition to improve the industry overall, then we should encourage that.  Though he points out an important wrinkle:

taxis are a regulated industry today. An innovation model might be better, but most taxis don't operate on one. It is indeed unfair to put a lot of regulations on one group of businesses in a space (the traditional taxis) and none on others (Uber).

That is a fascinating and somewhat hard problem, at least in the short term. So anyway, all that is to say: it's clear that Uber (and similar innovations) are better for customers (more reliable, more convenient service), and that they are threatening to regulators (loss of control / medallion revenue) and to incumbent dispatchers (routing around them).  My big question is still how drivers feel about it. So this morning, I asked Reda how he felt about Uber -- and in particular, how he thinks drivers like it.  His response was that he doesn't personally use it (he has plenty of business as it is), but his brother (also a driver with his company) uses it and likes it a lot.  And that, in general, he feels like the regulators, fleet owners, and monopoly payment providers are generally involved in a coordinated scam to pad their pockets.  If this is the case (and it's been supported by other drivers) My feeling, on the whole, is that we should support solutions that benefit two primary groups: producers and consumers, and get out of the business of protecting the intermediaries of the past.  In the case of Uber, if it works for drivers and it works for riders, great.  Of course, I -- like other folks working in tech -- are on the side of the intermediaries of the future (internet companies).  But I would of course support a future that was even more disintermediated, open and efficient (for more on this, see Eben Moglen's great talk on Innovation Under Austerity). But to make this approach, it's critical that networks -- the intermediaries of the future -- take steps to distribute the value they create throughout the community (not just at the center), in order to create long-term, sustainable ecosystems (for instance, the way Etsy has established itself as a B Corporation).  That's why I'm particularly interested in how the producers -- in this case taxi drivers themselves -- see the emergence of these new platforms, and why I'll keep on asking them.


Tennis, Psychadelics, and Entrepreneurship

I've always thought of tennis as perhaps the most difficult of sports.  It's like hitting a baseball, but while you're running, and with 90% of the addressable target area out of bounds (in the net, outside the lines, etc).  To top that off, you're a team of one, battling yourself, inside your head.  So it's really easy to get frustrated and implode when things start heading south. I played a lot of tennis as a kid, but basically haven't played at all for the past 15 years or so, until recently.  Over the past few weeks, I've picked it back up and gotten really into it, and it's been really fun and also a challenge.  My playing style has always been aggressive and error-prone.  I have (IM*H*O) beautiful strokes, but go for a lot of winners and tend to make a lot of unforced errors.  Historically, I often lose to players who can simply get the ball back and put me in a position to beat myself.  On serve: it's aces or double faults.  You get the idea. Clearly, this is a frustrating way to play, and to be.  And it puts me into a position to love and hate tennis at the same time, and to get really down on myself for not living up to what I see as my potential. Recently though, I've been working on a way to address this.  I've been going into playing tennis expecting it to be frustrating, and knowing that overcoming that frustration is part of the challenge, and part of the fun.  Seems like a subtle difference, but it's really been game-changing for me. If I go in expecting to have a mental challenge -- and knowing that I'll get through it -- rather than being surprised when it happens, it's somehow way easier to deal with.  It becomes part of improving my game, just like working on my strokes, and it generally helps me relax and get loose, rather than get frustrated and tight. This may seem like a stretch, but it reminds me of what a good friend once said about eating magic mushrooms: that it's a challenge and an adventure;  that he fully expected to get freaked out and scared, but working his way through that, and getting over it, is part of what he liked about it.  Seems crazy in some ways, but I get it.  So, I guess I'm saying playing tennis is kind of like tripping on mushrooms. And of course, it's the same with being an entrepreneur.  Apparently Reid Hoffman characterized entrepreneurship as "throwing yourself off a cliff and building a plane on the way down", which feels right.  And my friend Nick has described the roller-coaster ride of entrepreneurship -- one day you feel like you're killing it and you've got the whole world figured out, and (literally) the next day, you can feel like you're 100% wrong and totally screwed.  That's for real -- in the past, I've felt it on something like 8-hour cycles -- and it's part of the reason why co-founder chemistry is so important; to help you weather that storm. In all of these cases, I think the trick is not letting yourself feel like all is lost -- expecting there to be (sizable) bumps, but understanding that of course there are, and that's part of the challenge and part of the fun.  Somehow, thinking about it that way really changes things for me.  


Reinventing the Home Row

I have been intrigued recently by apps that give a new spin on what have previously been stock features of the phone.  Apps that a) improve upon in minor ways or b) really try and re-invent some of the basic things we do every day. Above is a snapshot of my new "home row".  Sort of -- I say sort of because this isn't actually working for me, yet, and I'll explain why in a sec. Brewster is an app that I think of as a "launcher for people" -- their goal is to be the fastest, most intuitive, way to initiate contact with anyone, regardless of mode.  It takes your contacts, twitter followers, facebook friends, etc, and makes it easy to find who you want to find and then contact them how you want to contact them (via SMS, phone, twitter, etc).  I really like the idea of flipping the paradigm to "people first, mode second", vs how it is now: mode first (twitter, sms, etc), then person. I love the potential of Brewster, but it hasn't made it into my routine yet, for a few reasons: 1) speed.  It simply takes too long to fire up -- the whole appeal of this app, to me, is that it's the fastest, easiest way to find someone.  For that to work, it actually needs to be the fastest and easiest.  I would love it if they optimized the app startup process so that I see faces (ideally the best faces) super quickly.  2) intelligence.  Part of the promise of Brewster is to cut through the hundreds of people I'm connected to and surface the ones I'm most likely to want to contact.  Since I've authed them into my gmail, twitter and facebook, and they can see what's in my phone, I would expect them to do a better job of this, but it's not quite there yet.  3) A few bits of clunky UI -- the Brewster UI is all hand-rolled, so it doesn't feel native to iOS, and there have been a few times where that's lead me to make some mistakes (for instance, canceling edits on a contact when I thought I was saving them). I assume this is to make cross-platform development easier, and I expect it to improve over time.  But as it is now, it's not quite as easy to use as I would like or expect. Sparrow is a really nice email client for mac and iOS.  The've made a lot of subtle improvements over iOS Mail, which I won't go into detail on since it's been widely blogged about.  The feature that made me switch was search -- Sparrow's search is so much better than iOS Mail search, and searching email is something I do a lot.  Sparrow has been my daily mail client for a while now.  They were just acquired by Google, so there's some concern in the user community about what will happen to the app. For my part I'm not worried; it's great how it is now. Cue is the one I'm most excited about.  It's the next generation of what was Greplin, a search appliance across all of your web accounts.  They've pivoted and the idea now is to "cue up your day" with a super-charged daily agenda that draws from your calendar(s), mail, twitter, facebook, etc.  This is a radical, socially-powered, reinvention of the calendar, and I really really like the idea.  And the job they've done executing so far is really nice.  There is so much potential here, really (think: surfacing important to-dos, linking to bios of people I am meeting with today, giving me travel information a la TripIt, etc.). However, there is one simple problem which is stopping me from using the app completely: by default (and this is unchangeable), it draws appointments from every google calendar that has been shared with you.  For me, that's about 50 calendars.  So my cue is full of seemingly random events from calendars that aren't part of my real day.  I tweeted this feedback their way and got a response that they're working on this, and I hope they prioritize it, because it's a make or break feature for me (and I must assume it's the same for many others). Last, but not least is Chrome for iOS.  I'm a big fan of Chrome for mac, and my Chrome is totally tricked out with extensions and customizations that make it really work for me.   In starting to use Chrome for iOS, the one feature that's come in most handy is google login and shared history -- makes it really easy for me to access sites from my computer's browsing history when I'm on my phone.  This is a super nice feature, especially on mobile where typing is annoying.  Of course, the big problem here is that  you can't make Chrome your default iOS browser, so whenever you launch a link from another app, or from a home screen shortcut (I use several), you end up back in Safari.  Boo, Apple, for not making this configurable.  The solution here is to jailbreak my phone, which I just haven't gotten around to doing yet. So, that's about it -- lots of potential here, but some hurdles as well.  The screenshot above is what I want my home screen to look like.  Here's what it actually looks like now:

I hope that will change soon.


Stuck on the Bus, or, Civic Engagement in a Networked World

Amazing things happen when people are stuck on a bus together. More on that in a bit. I spent yesterday afternoon with Chiefs of Staff and Chief Information Officers from about 10 US cities, at an event convened by the Harvard Kennedy School and Living Cities (a collaborative of large funders who focus on issues affecting low-income city residents). The focus of yesterday's event was on "civic technology", and specifically, how Living Cities, as a network of major funders, and the Urban Policy Advisory Group (Harvard's network of city leaders) can best take advantage of their scale to do something powerful with it.  There was a lot of energy in the room, and I think there's potential for good things to develop around this group. I'll note a few of the ideas that stood out to me: We talk a lot about "civic tech" (this was the title of the event), and a lot of effort goes into developing the right technical strategy. This is, of course, very important, as lots of money is spent, often poorly, on big tech projects, and cities are almost universally mired down with legacy systems that limit their flexibility.  But in the closing of the event, I made the point that the really big idea isn't about civic technology, per se, as it is about being networked, and what that means for cities, civic engagement, and how governments work.  This is the fundamental shift -- and it affects everything: how city governments work internally, how they relate to their technology vendors, how they treat the relationships between themselves and their constituents. This has been alternately described as "moving from being a problem solver to being a matchmaker", "stepping back and let other people lead", "moving from being a bureaucrat to being a concierge", moving from talker to listener (this applies to things like online conversations as well as data analytics), and  moving from a paradigm of control to a paradigm of empowerment. I agree with all of that. I also made the point (and this relates to the first) that "using civic technology well" doesn't necessarily mean building anything new from scratch.  Often, it means identifying where activity is already happening in the real world, and applying tech-enabled effort to amplify that activity. Good examples from our past work are the Uncivil Servants project, which used some technology (which Greg Whalin and I built, adapted from his site MyBikeLane) to empower citizens and activists who were already deeply engaged in this issue.  When Uncivil went live, there were individuals in neighborhoods across NYC who were chomping at the bit to upload photos & issues to it, and it immediately took off (and ultimately led to major reform).  Another great example is when we helped organize NYC transit developers to lobby the MTA to open up its transit data.  In that case, the foaming energy of the transit developer community translated into a really successful launch of the MTA open data program and app center, once the agency finally came around to the idea.  In both cases, there was a lot of existing demand, which helped make relatively simple tech interventions successful. Lastly, I'll include an idea presented by Frank Hebbert of OpenPlans, who helped coordinate the event.  He put up a photo like this:

...and told a story about a group of people who ended up stuck on a bus, in some city, in the middle of the night in a blizzard.  Stranded, and far enough away from anything that they couldn't leave, the group got to talking.  And apparently, the connections stuck and people remained friends afterwards (they may have done something awesome together too, but I don't remember, and it doesn't really matter).  I think it's cool that a simple disruption like that can really change the way people connect with one another. I know from living in NYC that the best times were when something bizarre or messed up happens on the subway.  It transforms a group of strangers into a group of kindred spirits; sharing a laugh, wink or smile (or perhaps something more severe like protecting someone -- though I've never been in a position like that -- with a group of strangers is really amazingly cool.  And it happens in places like the NYC -- and particularly the subway -- all the time (which I've written about before). Anyway, so the link here is: I wonder what we can do to create more "virtual blizzards" -- little disruptions that create moments where we feel comfortable connecting with our neighbors and city-mates in unexpected, cool, and potentially powerful ways (ideally without threat of an exploding bus). // photo:


The Kickstarter Protocol

It's no secret that Kickstarter is radically changing the way people think about launching new products.  They are on a such tear helping projects get funded by the crowd (the latest being OUYA, an open gaming platform, which has raised $5mm so far, 5x its goal), that it's no surprise that the model is spreading. Kickstarter didn't invent the "tipping point" model of organizing group action (my first recollection of it was from a site called ThePoint, which ultimately became Groupon -- here's an archived shot from 2008), but they've definitely taken it mainstream.  Now you see the basic model being replicated everywhere (for example, Rally for causes and Thunderclap for massive group tweets), and I'm sure VCs can't stop the phrase "it's Kickstarter for ____" from ringing in their ears. What's interesting to me is that in addition to these new Kickstarter-like platform, we're also seeing the Kickstarter model being attempted in the wild -- independently by projects looking for launch funding.  I'm calling this approach the "Kickstarter Protocol" model. For instance, here is's Kickstarter-like page:

And here is the launch page for the Internet Defense League, which launches this week (we're hosting the NYC launch party on Thursday, complete with Cat Signal)

Both of these read closely from the Kickstarter playbook, including tiered support levels tied to creative rewards. It will be interesting to see how this plays out -- I suspect that both projects have a good chance of reaching their goals (particularly IDL w/ it's more modest number), in part because the organizations behind them have big networks already. If this approach starts to work, I suspect we'll see more of these, for a few reasons:  1) control of identity -- the IDL launch site is in situ, which helps bind it more tightly to the campaign; 2) for cost savings -- as expensive & time consuming as it is to build a website like this yourself, if you're hunting big game, saving the 5% that Kickstarter takes is meaningful; and 3) for routing around restrictions that some funding sites impose on which projects are allowed to use the platform. I don't see this kind of thing having a meaningful negative impact on Kicksktarter's business, but it does raise some interesting questions about the value that the Kickstarter platform and audience network bring to the table.  For smaller projects, where project leaders don't have the skill or resources to go independent, it's clear.  But for larger projects, where success is more about internet-wide buzz building off of existing networks, you could make the argument that Kickstarter the platform & network provides less value. Relatedly, here's a nice infographic diving into Kickstarter's data on fundraising and product delivery (as opposed to fundraising).


digg: Sold for parts, in a good way

I haven't been following the story of the Digg acquisition too closely, and have no perspective on the economics of it, but it does seem kind of awesome in a way.  In that, the acquirers of the various parts of digg seem to have each gotten something uniquely valuable (to them) and likely have the potential to do something cool with it.  From the TechCrunch story:

According to a familiar source, the Washington Post ended up paying $12 million for the Digg team. Around the same time, career social network LinkedIn paid between $3.75 million and $4 million for around 15 different Digg patents including the patent on “click a button to vote up a story”. Betaworks picked up all the remaining assets today, including the domain, code, data and all the traffic for between $500k and $725k

And from the Betaworks blog post:

betaworks has acquired the core assets of Digg. Digg is one of the great internet brands, and it has meant a great deal to millions of users over the years. It was a pioneer in community-driven news. We are turning Digg back into a startup. Low budget, small team, fast cycles. How?  We have spent the last 18 months building as a mobile-first social news experience. The team will take Digg back to its essence: the best place to find, read and share the stories the internet is talking about. Right now. We are going to build Digg for 2012.  More to come…

From an outsider's perspective and without really knowing anything about this deal, it seems kind of perfect.  The Washington Post acquires a team who really knows something about being creative with news -- if that works right, then they'll have a shot a solving the Innovator's Dilemma and building something new and disruptive inside their world.  LinkedIn, now a for real Big Boy Company, gets to bolster its patent portfolio like all the big boys do.  And Betaworks gets to reinvigorate a classic, once-awesome brand, while at the same time, handing their new product,, a big bootstrap.  This last part reminds me of when Delicious' co-founders bought the company back and gave it new life -- which has been awesome for the product so far. So, who knows if this is a good thing, or was a good deal for any of the parties involved.  But it does feel like a win on a number of levels.


Automating your way out of bad behavior

As I write this, I'm sitting on the platform at the Back Bay Amtrak station in Boston, waiting for the train to New York. At 9am (6 minutes ago), I got a text message prompting me to write a blog post today. It said "Get your blog on!  It's a good thing".  The text message, of course, was sent to my by myself.  I've got a little robot in the cloud whose job it is to help me be a better person.  In this case, it's helping me be more consistent and less stressed about writing here, on this blog. The service I'm using is called IFTTT (If this, then that), and it's a very simple way of wiring together events from across various web services ("channels" in their parlance).  In this case, I have the SMS channel triggered to send me a text every day at 9am.  I also have a 10pm text which prompts me to write to my journal (that one says: "Take a 5 min break and post to brain [the name of my journal blog].  You'll thank me later."  Last night when I got that text, I said to myself: "Self, you're right -- I will thank you later".  And I wrote the post.  And here I am this morning. I've been thinking a lot recently about the difference between being organized vs. being disciplined, and I've been putting a lot of energy into increasing my discipline factor.  Who knows if this will end up sticking, but I hope it will.  At this point, it surely sounds like another exercise in yak-shaving, and knowing myself I'll let that stand as a possibility. But I really do like the idea that it's possible to get more effective by doing less yourself and recruiting more help from others (in this case, from robots).  And in this particular case, there's something particularly nice about being able to make up the wording yourself, knowing exactly what will push your own buttons and get you motivated. I really like IFTTT and will surely find more ways to use it.  There are other services out there too, like Happiness Engines and I'm sure many more.  At this point, I prefer the flexibility and straightforwardness over IFTTT to the slickness of Happiness Engines, but I'm looking forward to seeing where both go, and to experimenting w/ other ways to recruit robots to the cause.


Investing vs. getting in debt

I've been thinking a lot about what it means to invest lately.  I'm not just talking about investing money, in savings or stocks or whatever; I mean investing in a broader sense, in yourself and in everything you do. I am without question an urgency addict -- as a general rule, I procrastinate, let things build up, and then power through with a burst of adrenaline when it gets down to the wire.  This also means, generally, that I'm bad at medium-term planning.  I often rely on my ability to "just figure things out" when I need to, and most of the time it works out.  Lucky for me, I haven't yet had a total blow up disaster, but I definitely flirt with it. More and more, I've been thinking about this approach as a kind of personal debt.  Every time I do something at the last minute, whether it's a presentation, a document, or plans for a trip, I'm burning reserves (cash, time, sleep, social capital) and often going into the red.  While it may work most or all of the time, it's not sustainable and it's not a good way of using resources. Credit cards bail you out when you're over extended and need to get by at the last minute.  Personal and planning debt is the same way. Conversely, investing in yourself, your plans, your friends & relationships, and your health is a longer-term proposition. It takes planning and discipline, and it doesn't pay off right away.  But investing is about building a strong base.  And it's about dedicating resources (time, thought, money) in things that are important, matter in the long run, and will grow into something even more valuable -- to yourself, to your friends, business associates and family. There are all kinds of good reasons for going into debt -- financial or personal -- whether its borrowing against a house or an education, using loans & credit cards to get through a tough time, or getting way backlogged on your work, your email, your exercise, or your family time. What I'm talking about is a general mindset of: "what am I spending my time doing -- am I making an investment right now, or am I burning capital right now -- and if I'm burning capital, am I beyond my reserves?" With that in mind, my new mantra is  "Always Be Investing" (imagining Alec Baldwin coaching me at it).


Hacking Patents

Last week at the Media Lab, we had the pleasure of hosting USPTO Director Dave Kappos and several members of the PTO's senior staff, to brainstorm ways that we might use technology in creative ways to help the patent office work better, and to help the patent system work better in general.  The meeting was organized by Beth Noveck, who is just beginning her stint as a visiting professor at Lab -- among other things, Beth and her former student Chris Wong are the ones behind the Peer to Patent project, which crowdsources aspects of the patent review process.  The goal of the day was to come away from the meeting with a handful of concrete projects that we (at the Media Lab, and at other institutions) could start to hack on. As most people know, there are a lot of issues with the patent system, especially with software patents.  Too many meaningless software patents get issued, and too much needless litigation ensues.  It's a drag on the industry, and it's particularly tough on new companies.  Just this week, EFF launched a campaign to address exactly these issues. While EFF is pursuing legislative means to address the problem, the focus of this workshop was to look at what could be done in the current context, using tech as a lever.  There are a whole lot of opportunities to bring more and better information into the process, to reduce the burden on patent examiners, to increase the quality of approved patents, and to make better use of the patent corpus as a teaching & learning tool.  And in general, I'm a fan of finding hacks to hard problems (like Twitter's recent "patent hack") First: in prepping for the meeting, I reached out to Mike Masnick of Techdirt for his suggestion on what could be built.  I'll just paste his reply directly here, since there are good ideas in there:

  • Much better search tools (USPTO website's bad, Google's patent search is just so-so).

  • A "prior art" tool, which basically takes the patent database, and lets people annotate it with examples of prior art

  • A system that indicates how often a patent has been used in litigation (i.e., a warning system of a patent that is often been used for trolling).

  • A "dashboard" of sorts that details claims that are rejected on re-exam (something like 80% of patents that get re-examined have claims rejected -- which is scary when you think about it).  Such a dashboard should highlight patents that were changed, how frequently such re-exams lead to changes, and perhaps even "scores" patent examiners for how often claims they approved get rejected on re-exam.

  • A better and more public version of the PAIR system, including one that shows just how many "final rejections" a patent received before it was approved (you'd be amazed)

  • An "expert" database of techies willing to testify during patent trials on the obviousness of a patent or on prior art -- making it easier for defendants to bolster their case with evidence of invalidity of patents.

  • I don't know if there's any "technology" here, but something that tries to unwind the shell companies that make up most patent trolls to find out who's really behind many patent trolls (seriously, a bunch of them are so hidden you have no clue who actually owns the patent).

Coming into the meeting the PTO identified the following three areas of interest:

  • Quality of Information: how can applicants and examiners access more and better data sources, and have data more interlinked throughout the lifecycle.

  • Better analysis of applications: cross-referencing, crowd-sourcing, automated analysis.

  • Customer interaction: the patent application process involves a tremendous amount of back-and-forth

Without going through the whole list of ideas from the workshop, here are the ideas/topics/opportunities that felt most promising to me:

  • Reframing patents as building blocks -- a primary purpose of patents is to bring understanding of inventions into the public realm.  However, in practice this doesn't work too well.  Making the patent database more linkable and searchable would be a first step.  Requiring diagrams to be submitted in an open digital format, and/or requiring photos to be photographed from pre-defined angles would help.  Another idea was map products in the marketplace back to the underlying patents, as sort of a "view source" for products -- I love the idea of that.  In general, there was a consensus that there's a need and an opportunity to reframe the patent corpus as a basis for innovation, not just as a means of protecting individual rights.

  • Improving the pre-submission process -- a "turbotax for patents", i.e., a web app (or an ecosystem of apps built on top of a PTO API) that would walk filers through the process; machine-learning tools that could analyse applications based on the patent database.

  • Incentives -- we spent a fair amount of time talking about incentives -- in particular, how to encourage participation in finding prior art (perhaps by recruiting filers to find prior art on other patents, offering, say, speedier review of their application as a reward) , and also opportunities to encourage filers to leverage peer-review more effectively (say, by offering speedier review if they agree to do so).  Things like building a reputation system which more clearly identifies "awesome" patents (those that have been cited many times), and lame ones (those that have been repeatedly and successfully challenged) and "rogues" -- trolls and others who are abusing the system.

  • Peer review and engaging existing communities of expertise.  There was talk about how the PTO might engage with communities like the ones around StackExchange, which are already bringing tremendous community resources to bear towards answering technical questions.  A sticky point in the application process is *when* peer review can happen (currently only after the point of public disclosure -- 18 months after initial application) -- so one challenge is thinking about systems might open up opportunities for more peer review and/or crowdsourced assistance of some kind earlier int he process.  Also, Sandy Pentland from the Media Lab stressed that we should avoid thinking about how to "bring more experts into the process" and instead focus on bringing more *information* to the process -- and implement peer reviewing and network-oriented systems to assess quality.

Here's what ended up on the whiteboard (which of course misses most of the color from the conversation but gets some of the ideas across):

I'll post an update once more concrete plans emerge and things start to happen. The plan is for several groups at the lab to peel off and start working on pieces of this.  In the meantime, if you have any suggestions or thoughts, post them in the comments here, or tweet at: Beth Noveck, Chris WongMargot Kaminski, Jason Schultz, Joi Ito, or me.