Peer Progress and Regulation 2.0

Yesterday I spent the day at Princeton with Steve Schultze and the rest of the team at the Center for Information Technology Policy. The topic of my talk was “Peer Progress and Regulation 2.0” — something I’ve been thinking and talking about over the past several months, but haven’t yet written a ton about.  That will change soon. In a nutshell: we are seeing an explosion of “peer networks” — networks of people, powered by the web, collaborating and consuming in new ways (think: Etsy, Airbnb, Skillshare, Kickstarter, etc.)  As these network-oriented communities touch more and more real-world sectors (housing, transportation, health, education) they are running into regulatory trouble, as many of them don’t fit into traditional categories (is Airbnb a Hotel? a phone book?  a real estate broker?  Is Skillshare a university?), often operate in legal gray areas, and often disrupt incumbents. I’ve been working with many of these companies, and with folks in academia and in the public sector, to get a better understanding of what this means (for our economies, our neighborhoods, etc) and how we might approach it.  There is tremendous opportunity here — as networks tend to produce solutions that are lower in cost and more scalable than traditional approaches — but there are also new kinds of risk, as the barriers to production and consumption decrease.  All of this presents really interesting public policy questions. Perhaps the most interesting idea that came out of the discussion is the notion scale.  When peer networks are just starting out — often in new sectors — they have relatively little overall impact on the economy or society.  But as they grow, their impact increases exponentially.  The idea of some sort of safe harbor for smaller, earlier networks, that would allow them the freedom to innovate and to explore new opportunities, is an interesting one. Here are my slides from the talk, and here is the video: (unfortunately there were some audio problems right in the beginning, but the rest is fine)


Internet Centrism

This morning I am heading down to the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy to talk about Peer Progress and Regulation 2.0.  The pitch goes like this:

“Peer Networks” are bringing new organizational and economic dynamics to every sector — unlocking tremendous opportunity and potential. At the same time, they threaten incumbents in the private and public sectors, and present new challenges for regulators working to protect the public interest. Please join us to discuss the dynamics of peer networks, the opportunities they present to our economies and societies, and the political and policy challenges facing their advancement.

So it’s fitting that my morning reading kicked off with this critique of the Peer Progressive worldview (as embodied in Steven Johnson’s recent book, Future Perfect) by Evgeny Morozov.  If you’ve read Future Perfect, or other books about how peer networks & open collaboration are changing our society & economy by folks such as Benkler, ZIttrain, Weinberger, Shirky, etc., go read the article as well as Steven’s rebuttal now. The gist of Morozov’s argument is that Future Perfect is Internet-Centrism / Cyber-utopianism in a box - conveniently omitting many tough questions and cherry-picking historical examples to fit a pre-determined viewpoint.  Johnson’s response is that Morozov’s critique misses many of the nuances of his argument. I don’t have time to write a proper response right now - but my starting point for thinking about this is pretty obvious.  I’m describe myself as a “student of cities and the internet”, this blog is named after one of the ideas in Steven’s previous book, I’ve written about Steven and his ideas many times before, he and I are working on a project together right now, and my interest in all of this stems from reading Jane Jacobs in college.  So I am hardly an impartial observer. That said, I welcome Morozov’s critique, and find it tremendously useful in shaping and sharpening my thinking.


Backing into your network

Today, we announced that USV is investing in Hailo.  I am psyched about this for a number of reasons, but primarily because it’s infrastructure that connects people to their city in new ways. What’s most fascinating is that we almost certainly don’t yet know what those ways are. I want to point out one quote from Fred’s interview in the Wall Street Journal.  He says:

“We think this is a kind of Trojan Horse to get people using a large network on their mobile phones to actually transact and get real stuff,” said Fred Wilson, managing partner at Union Square Ventures. “From there, I think lots of interesting things can happen. Alone in the taxi cab market, there’s a pretty big business to be built, and the fact that there’s potential beyond that gives us a lot of confidence.”

We talk a lot about backing into your network - in other words, starting with a thin edge of the wedge and ultimately finding a secondary purpose that may in fact be more profound than the first. For instance, we often say “twitter backed into identity” — when Twitter started out, it didn’t start by announcing itself as the de facto identity provider on the web. Instead, it became that after achieving ubiquity in public messaging. Relatedly: a few weeks ago at the election campaign tech / data postmortem event held at google, Oscar Salazar (co-founder of Uber, now founder of Citivox) had my favorite line of the day.  He said ”I hate the term ‘civic apps’.  All apps are civic.  For example, Waze has submitted more pothole reports than all of the other ‘civic apps’ combined.”  I love that. A few years ago I wrote about the idea of the Enterprise End-Run, which is related — the idea that we can cause big shifts in enterprise behavior by drawing the change out the back end, rather than pushing it through the front. I just love the idea that the direct approach is not always (or perhaps is hardly ever) the right one.  It’s so interesting to think of other areas where this is happening or could happen.


Still looking for a smarter inbox

I am bad at email.  Maybe everyone is.  But I feel like I’m worse than most; or at least worse than I want to be. I feel like my inbox should do a better job helping me find emails that are important.  I use Gmail and Priority Inbox, so I don’t mean “important” in that sense (emails from close contacts). By important, I mean things like:

  1. Conversations where “the ball is in my court” (hard to discern programmatically perfectly)

  2. Conversations that I initiated — then the person wrote back — but then I didn’t write back to (similar to #1 but easier to identify, and more important)

  3. Emails that I have not responded to yet at all

  4. Emails from important people, where important takes into account other data such as: twitter followers (total, in common), linkedin connection, etc.

  5. probably a few other smart ways I’m not thinking of right now.

I have been thinking about this a bit after reading somewhere (I think in Venture Deals) that Brad Feld and his partners read and respond to every inbound email every day.  That’s pretty impressive. I am not there yet.  But I like the idea a lot.  So today I did set up a little  gmail query to try and help with that: newer_than:1d and is:important This gives me a view of all the emails that I received in the last day.  It’s a start. But it’s not perfect. It doesn’t give me is a view of conversations I have not participated in yet.   I tried adding a filter such like: -from:me, to try and exclude any threads that I’ve participated in, but that doesn’t do the trick.  So I what I see is a list of all the emails that came in today, including every email I sent.  Which is not what I’m looking for. I complained about this to Fred the other day, suggesting that there’s still an opportunity to build a product (along the lines of SaneBox or Gmail Meter) that really solves the inbox problem.  It’s such an important problem for so many people, and it’s still so far from perfect.  His response was that there’s a fear of investing in things that are too close to the core of the email platforms. I am not sure I agree, but it does seem that there still isn’t a perfect solution, so maybe that’s the reason. In summary, I would love to see: a) a simple gmail query parameter that lets me find conversations in which I am not yet a participant (I feel like this must exist!) or b) a smarter view of my inbox — perhaps one that is another kind of visualization besides a list — that takes into account these other important factors.  I’d pay good money for that! Update: this query is pretty good: newer_than:7d is:important in:inbox


Superheroes in the Snowpocalypse

Yesterday Uber made me feel like a superhero.

It was about 10 degrees in Boston, and I was on the T on my way into Cambridge.  And as we pulled in to Kenmore station the conductor notified us that all Green Line trains would be going out of service.  So my train — and every train before us and after us — dumped all of its passengers out into the freezing cold to find another way to get wherever they were going.

There were a few shuttle buses, but they barely made a dent in moving the crowd.  Every single taxi was full.  After a few minutes, there were easily over a thousand people huddling outside in the freezing cold trying to figure out what to do.

I reached into my pocked and tried Hailo, but all taxis in the area were booked.  Uber gave the same response — but on my second try I was able to snag an Uber car.  So: five minutes later, I got a phone call and a black Lincoln pulled up next to me. I offered to share it w/ the group of people directly next to me, but no one was going my way.  So I hopped in and was whisked away from an overcrowded frozen nightmare in a warm, comfortable car.

Totally made me feel like a superhero.   

But not necessarily in a “save the world” way — more of a “wow I have a superpower” way.

When I got to the Media Lab and told the story to Nate his (correct) reaction was: “well, a black car swooping in to rescue a white man is kind of the definition of privilege.  Wouldn’t it be more amazing if there were a way for everyone to take advantage of the network of transportation options swirling around?”  

Of course this is correct — while I was able to snag a ride out of the ether, there was still a huge market mismatch: thousands of people standing around looking for transportation, and hundreds of cars driving by with empty seats.  Yet no way to connect them.

Ride sharing is not a new idea — there is no shortage of startups working on the idea — SideCar & Lyft for car rides, Weeelz for taxi rides, etc. — but it is something that is culturally and technically difficult to implement.  Lyft got its start (I think) on college campuses, where sharing rides to events is a much more natural phenomenon.   

In times of crisis we are more likely to stray from our normal behavior and try new things.  NYC famously mandated taxi sharing for all trips into Manhattan during the 2003 blackout and again after Superstorm Sandy.  Nate and I got to discussing if there wasn’t an opportunity to use yesterday’s class of crisis — a medium-sized but somewhat predictable one — as another “thin edge of the wedge" to make ride-sharing more of a mainstream networked activity.

For instance, I’d gladly sign up to be part of the “boston transportation crisis network” — as a driver or a passenger, and basically pre-volunteer to give rides to people when this kind of thing happens again.  I would like to know the number of times per year when the green line breaks down at Kenmore on very cold days — I bet it’s a lot.  So there would be a decent chance of predicting it and then giving folks in the network a little bit of advanced warning.

If you think about it, weird anomaly events are perfect for launching new, behavior-changing activities.  It was during the inauguration of 2009 that Airbnb got its start — by giving people a chance to “crash the inauguration" by participating in peer-to-peer apartment renting.  At the time, it was *way* outside the mainstream to do something like that.  But the craziness of the event made it fine, and now it’s a regular thing to do all over the world and Airbnb is a billion dollar business.

My other favorite behavior-changing anomaly is snow.  My favorite place in the world is NYC in a snowstorm.  Everything changes.  Instead of walking on the sidewalk and keeping to yourself, you walk in the middle of the street and talk to your neighbors as well as strangers.  During the Washington DC Snowpocalype of 2010, there was a lot of peer-to-peer shoveling happening.

I wasn’t in NYC after Sandy, but I have to assume that there were similar kinds of networked behavior that were positive but would have been hard to imagine under normal circumstances.

Maybe the idea is that people become more open to networked / peer-to-peer solutions when our infrastructure fails us — because they have to be.

If you think about it that way — it’s a pretty profound idea.  Not to be pessimistic, but in our current environment, many of our institutions are failing.  And we will have to become comfortable with other ways of solving our big problems.  Health, education, energy, transportation, etc.

So maybe there’s a launch lesson in here for folks building peer network businesses that rely on cultural change that’s difficult to achieve under normal circumstances.  Think about the traditional infrastructure you’re replacing — and think about the moments or events when they are most apt to fail, giving people the most natural incentive to change their behavior in ways they wouldn’t otherwise.   

And give people a chance to become superheroes.


Peer Networks and Health Innovation

Yesterday, I went down to DC to visit the US Dept of Health and Human Services - and presented to their Innovation Council (a cross functional working group on innovation) about opportunities to bring “networked thinking” into the health space. This is clearly such an important area, with huge opportunities for personal and societal benefit.  It’s also one that has been on my mind a lot lately (both Cescalouise and I suffer from chronic conditions: chrons, hashimoto’s / thyroid cancer, mysterious blood clots; my second puberty; two small kids, etc). In prepping my remarks, I ended up re-watching John Wilbanks’ awesome TED talk on the idea of a health data commons — a mechanism for becoming “data donors” for medical research.  The talk is great. I actually ended up using an idea from Johns talk to frame my presentation, which is this:

health = body + genome + choices + environment

My talk was about “peer networks” and health — and the framing I used was that peer networks (networks of people connected via the web) have dramatic impacts on power and  relationships.  So, what if we look at each of these dimensions of health through the lens of how individuals’ power and their relationships to one another might change given a networked approach:

(the image in the background is from this MIT study on the relationship between peer network structure and health-related behavior changes) The idea I came to is that these dimensions of health present a spectrum of relative challenge when it comes to applying network dynamics (largely due to the relative strength of gatekeepers and relative difficulty of using data):

  • Environment: Easiest.  There are tons of network-oriented environmental health activities (like this one, a crowd-funded distributed air quality monitoring tool).  And I include services like Eligible in the “environment” category, as they are collecting and making accessible “environmental” information that is already reasonably accessible.

  • Choices: Easier.  There are many many startups that are working to help us make better health choices.  Services like Lift, and like many of the Rock Health graduates.  The MIT study linked above is just one of many that point to the potential for structured social networks to have a real impact on our health choices.

  • Genome: Harder.  You can go to 23andMe and genotype your DNA for $99, but it’s not a choice everyone is comfortable making.

  • Body: Hardest.  The data associated with our bodies (lab results, etc) is locked up, fragmented, and siloed. Most of the apps which are approaching the “body” space are using hacks such as manually entering your data, or taking photos of paper records). There are no shortage of electronic EMR systems (like DrChrono) that are starting to digitize more of our health records, but there are not yet any laws or standards for accessing this data broadly.  Programs like the VA’s Blue Button (which HHS is working on adopting in some way) are an important start.

I also gave a brief overview of what conditions can help networks flourish.  Simple, lightweight data access standards, plus a system for establishing trust among apps that manage personal health data (as my colleague Albert has written about) are central. I’ve posted my slides to Speakerdeck here.  One question that came up in the conversation afterwards, which I don’t know the answer to, is: how has the financial sector able to achieve the level of interoperability that it has?  There are a lot of parallels between personal financial data and personal health data, including many common privacy concerns, and finance is way, way ahead in terms of digital access & interoperability. Another big takeaway for me was that I need to start using more of this stuff. I am a member of Patients like Me, but it hasn’t really been doing much for me.  There are lots of other tools out there and I’m going to start trying them.


Reflections on two days with no phone

Sunday night, Cescalouise's iPhone mysteriously went dark.  She had a lot going on Monday, so I gave her my phone to use, then I headed down to NYC for the day and following night. So I’ve been away from home for the last day and a half with no phone.  Not a huge deal, obviously, but also a pretty big departure from normal. What’s interesting is what I’ve missed and what I haven’t missed. Of course, I miss being able to communicate with people from wherever I am — but to be honest I don’t think that’s the thing I miss most.  The biggest thing I miss is the ability to jot down a thought on the fly.  I use Wunderlist and Fetchnotes on a pretty regular basis to capture the passing thought or to-do.  It’s an important part of how I keep my slow hunch going. What I don’t miss is constantly surfing the top of my inbox.  I use android desktop widgets and keep both of my main inboxes on one of my home screens.  Having them there is convenient, and helps me be responsive to email, but it’s bad for focus.  I will probably delete those when I get my phone back. Walking around NYC and riding the subway, my head has been up and I’ve noticed more things (but of course haven’t been able to capture / share them :-)  And of course I notice how many people have their faces in their phones all the time (probably 75% of those of us  waiting for the Amtrak in Boston). All in all, I’m glad to have taken two days off with no phone.   Feels a bit like a cleanse.  I’ll probably do it again.


Introducing OpenPlans, and the evolution of a brand

After many moons of plotting and scheming, yesterday we announced our organizational rebranding: The organization formerly known as The Open Planning Project (or TOPP) is now OpenPlans.  I am excited, and I think this is a welcome development.

For years, there has been mass confusion (chaos! pandemonium!) around our name.  Our emails were, our website was (until 2009), and our name was the Open Planning Project.  To top it off, for several years, we ran a separate web service called OpenPlans (now under new management as CoActivate).  As I've mentioned before, I've never been comfortable with these conflicting brands and identities, and I'm psyched that we've finally made the leap.

Here's a quick look into where we ended up, and how we got there.

First, we've updated our logo.  Designed by the spectacularly fabulous Andy Cochran, it's similar to our old logo, but with cleaner lines and more meaning.  It probably goes without saying, but we've got the "O" and the "P" in there, and the shape is a broken circle, evoking open processes:

For comparison, here's the logo that we'd been using for the past year or so.  In order to minimize confusion between OpenPlans (the service) and The Open Planning Project the organization, we spent most of 2009 using our organizational nickname, TOPP, more prominently in our identity.  While "TOPP" is easy to say and remember, as with most acronyms, it's pretty meaningless on its own.  I'm sure it will take us a while to erase TOPP from our vocabularies, but I think it's the right move.

To round out the logo history, here's the one that was in service through 2008.  I like it, however for the twenty- and thirty-somethings in the room, "OPP" means something a bit different (can you say "harm me with harmony"?).

Of course, to go along with the rebrand, we've updated the OpenPlans website, attempting to streamline our messaging along with our logo & brand. We've been struggling with a meaningful, succinct tagline for quite some time, and for now have settled on "We make cities work better."  A while back, I wrote about the idea of "making cities easier to use" -- since then, we've taken that idea and adapted it a bit.  Making cities work better is a better representation of our intentions, as it's multi-directional (i.e., we're not just "using" cities), and it hints at the digital infrastructure that we're building. Also, for the first time, I think we've successfully articulated how our software development, technology strategy and journalism activities are connected, as part of what we're calling "the new civic infrastructure." Lastly, a major goal of the redesign was to make it more clear what we do and how people can work with us.  I guess now we just sit back and wait for the contracts to roll in... Here's what the website looks like today:

And for another trip on the Wayback Machine, here's a look at 2009:


and 2007:

That's it.  Hello, OpenPlans.  Nice to meet you.


jPlayer sprites SVG

For a little side project, I'm using jPlayer, a nice jQuery-based audio player.   I wanted to skin the buttons a to suit my project, and while jPlayer does support jQuery ThemeRoller skins, I liked the basic look and feel of the standard jPlayer controls.  So, I just traced the default sprites in Illustrator in order to recolor them.  For other jPlayer developers, you can download the source SVG  here, and tweak away.


Melkjug Fluid Icon

If you use Melkjug as a Fluid app, like I do, then you'll love this:

(Melkjug fluid icon)