Uber and Safer Cities

For some reason I have always liked talking to taxi drivers about their business.  Maybe it’s because my dad was a NYC taxi driver back in the 70s, or maybe it’s because driving a taxi is such a classic immigrant path to building a life here.  And it’s certainly because of the amount of tech and business model innovation in the transportation space.  

Last night I took an Uber home from the airport, and was talking to the driver about his experience with it.  He loves Uber — in the past 2 years, he switched from being a Boston city cab driver to being an Uber driver — and in the process traded $4000 / month in cab lease fees (what you pay a garage as a base rate to drive the cab — regardless of how much you earn) for a $700 / month car payment and $400 / month in insurance.  And he gets to have a vastly improved quality of work (managing his own business & time, driving in a nicer car, etc).

Of course there are tradeoffs — if the Uber business slows down, he’s still on the hook for that car payment.  And it’s possible that the number of Uber drivers will continue to increase (unconstrained by medallion restrictions, which in NYC cap taxis at 13,000), increasing competition and bringing down his margins.

But overall, he said that Uber changed his life (for the better).  Not everyone feels this way, but it’s one story.

Anyway, the most interesting thing he said was not about the business, but the impact on neighborhoods.  He said that Uber has radically increased the taxi / car service business in the city’s tough neighborhoods.  This comes across as sounding counter-intuitive since most tech-driven transportation platforms (like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar — but especially Uber) are derided as “For Yuppies By Yuppies”.  But the reason makes perfect sense: with Uber, you know your passenger.

So whereas a traditional taxi would hesitate to pick up fares in tough parts of town, because you never know who’s going to get in, Uber drivers can do this with much more confidence, since there is personal identity (and therefore accountability) built into the system.

This makes perfect sense in theory, and I’d be really interested to explore data that could test this out.  Especially as NYC gears up to offer mobile payments in traditional taxis.

This is a perfect example of Regulation 2.0 — using real-time / mobile accessible data to build trust and safety into a networked system.  And it points out the limitations of “1.0” regulation schemes (in this case taxi licensing), that don’t have access to such data and can hence only solve for part of the problem (in this case, protecting passengers from bad drivers).  And it’s a really great example of some of the unexpected benefits of allowing new, networked models to emerge.


Chromecast, Net Neutrality and the Rise of New Gatekeepers

For the past few weeks, I’ve been enjoying starting to use my new Chromecast.  For those who don’t know, Chromecast is Google’s new internet-video-to-tv device — plug it in, then stream web content from any device to your TV.

The Chromecast experience has been eye opening, and it perfectly illustrates the opportunity and challenges we’re facing in terms of broadband and content policy.

First: the experience — we’ve been watching Netflix and Google Play videos over Chromecast and the experience has been great. It has been a breath of fresh air to be able to push web content from any of my devices (phone, ipad, nexus7, computer) to the TV.  Especially with small kids, portable video content is super important.  And nothing drives me more nuts than buying a video (say, Wreck-it-Ralph) on one platform (Verizon FIOS at home) and then buying it again on another (Google Play). So being able to collect content online and push it to the TV wherever I am has been so so so nice.  

It also really helps that Chromecasts are priced at $35.  That way, I can buy as many as I need, and put them wherever I want — like at  my in-laws’ house, which I plan to do.

For me, this is perhaps the first experience that’s really proven the model of “over-the-top” video on TV.  Even with Boxee and Roku, I never got into a steady pattern of using them.  The fact that the Chromecast devices are cheap, and controlling them happens from any mobile device or computer really broadens the surface area of the experience.

So, this raises the question of competition.  Of course, Chromecast is a (welcome!) direct threat to video services offered by cable providers.  Already this is bearing true — I’m way less likely to buy an on-demand video from Verizon now.  So it’s perfect test case to think about Net Neutrality, which has been in the news this week, as Verizon and the FCC battle it out in court.

In a nutshell, the argument for net neutrality is that ISPs (like Verizon and Comcast), which currently have near monopoly positions in broadband service, are in a position to favor their own services in the face of this competitive threat.  So, for example, instituting data caps that apply to Netflix but not to video-on-demand; or by throttling web video.  To avoid this, providers like Netflix and Youtube could strike a special deal with the ISPs for “fast lane” service.  The net result of this would be a big blow to small innovators (“the next netflix|youtube”), who naturally wouldn’t be able to afford such fees.

The argument against net neutrality is that broadband providers have never been classified as “common carriers” (the classification that allowed similar rules to be placed on phone-based ISPs in the dial-up era), and aren’t subject to such rules.  Further, net neutrality assumes a monopoly environment that doesn’t exist (with the growth of mobile internet, mesh networks, etc.).  Instead, we should stay hands-off and let marketplace competition do the trick here.

Freedom is such a slippery issue.  One way of looking at the argument around net neutrality is about the freedom of ISPs to manage their services as they please, vs. the freedom to watch & participate (as consumers of media) and the freedom to publish (as producers of media).  Thinking about it through that lens, and taking the history of the internet thus far into account, my position is to favor creators and consumers.  The best thing about the internet is that everyone can become a creator — the smallest blog can become a news powerhouse, and the smallest side project can become the world’s biggest personal video platform.  This potential to start from nothing and reach millions of people is the heart of what makes the internet great and empowering.

With this issue heating up again, we’re starting to see more public discourse around it.  If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s a pro-net-neutrality video, The Internet Must Go, that just launched last week:

And for some counter-arguments, here is TechFreedom’s commentary of the Verizon / FCC case.

Back to Chromecast for a sec: on top of all this, Chromecast introduces a new layer: for now at least, Chromecast appears to only work with “approved content partners” (so far, Netflix, Pandora), and Chromecast may be actively blocking some apps.  So this puts Google in a new type of gatekeeper position, though a less defensible one, since anyone can connect anything to their TV.  This is particularly interesting given how Google has begun to close up the Android ecosystem, but that’s a subject for another post.

Why It’s Expensive to be Poor (And Why It Shouldn’t Be)

I spent the day yesterday at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in DC, at an event discussing mobile payments and related innovations and regulatory issues. Naturally, this is a big issue, with the huge rush to mobile everything, the continued expansion of software-powered web businesses, and the emergence of new payment technologies (from far-out tech like bitcoin to new practical applications of existing tech like paying for a cab with your phone). The session that most grabbed my attention was one on “Opportunities for the Underserved Community” — how payments tech and mobile payments might or might not help those will less financial and societal resources. Dan Schulman from American Express evoked James Baldwin’s famous line:

“anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor”.   

The gist being that the closer your balances are to zero, the more difficult and more expensive everything gets.  As per normal, Louis CK explains it best:

“you ever get so broke that the banks start charging you money… for not having enough money?”  “So they charged me; they charged me $15.  That’s how much it costs to only have $20.”

And it’s not just “the poor” as you might imagine it: a recent FINRA study suggests that 41% of americans spend all of or more than their monthly income. That means that 41% of Americans are managing their cash flow in a hard core way, and are living at, close to, or beyond zero on a regular basis.  This is shitty (and I know from personal experience). So what does that mean for mobile payments, banking and the internet?  Well, it helps to look at the business model of traditional deposit banking, which looks something like this:

This is an oversimplification, but essentially consumer banks make money on deposit accounts in two ways: by investing the money of wealthy customers, and by charging fees to folks hovering around zero.   You’ll notice the big dip in the middle — the low-balance accounts that neither earn fees nor have investable balances.  Schulman noted that these accounts are unprofitable for banks, and make up nearly 40% of all deposit accounts. What this says to me is that the banking business model is misaligned with lower and middle income consumers.  If the banks’ cost structure  means that 40% of consumers are unprofitable, and we make up the difference by levying fees on the poorest customers, we have a problem. What’s interesting is that not only is this bad for society, but it’s also a big business opportunity. Part of the reason banks can’t serve these customers profitably, and have to resort to fees on low-end customers, is that their overhead and transaction costs are so high.  That made sense in a brick-and mortar era, with layers upon layers of analog financial middlemen, but it doesn’t make sense in the age of software and the internet. Just consider what USV portfolio company Dwolla’s mission is: “Allow anyone [or anything] connected to the internet to move money quickly, safely & at the lowest cost possible.”  Or, put another way: to enable the system to actually work the way most people assume it does (i “transfer” money to you and — poof! — you have it). The internet and software-based businesses bring distribution and transaction costs down, practically to zero.  They also tend to put a high premium on design and user experience. If you put those two things together, you have the ingredients for building a better banking and payments system — one that helps people when they need it (e.g., when making financial choices and transactions), has a business model that’s aligned with users and not opposed to them, and that scales to the size of the population at extremely low cost. So, when I think about what the opportunity is for new regulators like CFPB (not to mention startups in the space), it’s to imagine a future where radically new opportunities are opened up for all consumers, building on the potential of ultra low transaction costs, great user experience, and high transparency (and to think about how to allow for the experimentation and barrier-to-entry breaking it’s going to take to help us get there). These are the fundamental principles behind every web and mobile application, and I think they have the potential to solve some of the thorniest and most deeply embedded problems facing our society.

Happiness = meaningful social connections

I’m writing this from the DC metro, which I love.  Getting from the airport to downtown dc is one of the great joys of traveling.  I can’t think of a single airport that is as conveniently connected to a major city by mass transit.

But the point of this post is not to talk about subways — but rather to mention something I heard the other day.

Cescalouise and I were watching a documentary called Life After Porn, which was great.  It followed porn stars from the 70s 80s and 90s to see where they ended up and how.

One of the patterns was the social shunning that happens once you enter the porn industry.  Not surprising, but ironic, as one person said: you bring everyone pleasure and then they want to pretend that you don’t exist.

And one of the results of that was that people can become very isolated and/or trapped within the industry community.

A historian covering the topic put it this way: happiness is the result of meaningful social connections.  (And when those are systematically cut off, and people further isolate themselves, negative situations compound themselves).

This is not necessarily a huge revelation, but still, it stood out to me.

As I wrote about last week, social connections are now earned as much as they’re inherited.  They are a garden that you get to tend and grow.  And a great joy comes from the result of that growth.

I personally get a ton of pleasure from getting to know the people around me (at my sandwich shop, my barber, the bank, etc).  But I wasn’t always good at it (I was a really shy kid growing up in a big city), and its also so easy to get swept up in the business of your day to day to take your relationships for granted.  Luckily I married someone for whom it comes super naturally, and who I’ve learned a lot from in this regard.

Social Connections: from Something You Inherit to Something You Earn

(I’m writing this on the amtrak to NY as my computer quickly runs out of battery, and I have no charger, so this’ll be short…)

Somehow, earlier this week, I came across Zenep Tufekci’s piece from last spring in the Atlantic on Social Media’s Small, Positive Role in Human Relationships.  I liked it, but I guess of course I would.

The article responds to the commonly-held idea that social media is removing human contact, and her point is that it’s actually just shifting it, and is likely net increasing it.

But the idea here that really stood out to me is that social connections are moving from “something to inherit” to “something to earn”:

In sum, social media is propelling transitions and disruptions in the composition of social networks. Increasingly, what used to be a given (social ties you inherited by the virtue of where you lived or your familial ties) is now a task (social ties based on shared interests and mutual interest). Surely, there will be new winners and losers.

That is a pretty profound and inspiring statement.

Of course, the social connections you inherit will always be powerful (for better or worse).  But the fact that we now have a vastly enhanced ability to earn and build our own social connections is a big deal, and a nice way of thinking about things.

My Top 5 Personal Productivity Hacks

I can’t claim to be the most disciplined or organized person, but I’m working on both.

I have, however, done a lot to smooth out my moment-to-moment work process, to help me do things more quickly & easily, and to help me avoid distractions where I can.  I can only hope that I win more time using this stuff than I spent setting it up.

So if you’ll indulge this lifehacking moment, here’s my top 5 list of personal productivity tools / hacks:

1) Quicksilver — Quicksilver is a launcher for mac, which gives you a quick keyboard shortcut for jumping to any app.  For example, if I press control-space (to open quicksilver), and then press “p”, it prompts me to open photoshop.  It’s also awesome at remembering your choices and learning from them, so it always presents the thing you want as the first option.  It can do way more than I use it for, but even for what I do (just opening apps), I use it hundreds of times a day and feel lost on a mac without it.

2) Jumpcut — Jumpcut is a clipboard buffer for mac.  In other words, a history for things you’ve copied.  In practice that means I can copy multiple things in a row, without without about which one I need to paste first.  Copy as much as you want, then press command-shift-option-V to cycle through the things you’ve copied and choose what to paste:

3) Quick Compose — this is something I’ve written about before — what I found was that often when I wanted to write an email, I would get distracted as I passed through my inbox on the way.  What I wanted was a way to skip straight to the compose window.  Luckily, this is possible using Quicksilver — I have a “Custom Trigger” set up, so that wherever I am, Command-Shift-M will pop open a new browser window with the gmail compose screen on it.  I use this all day long.

4) Chrome search shortcuts — One of the lesser known features of Chrome (and I believe firefox, and maybe safari too) is the ability to customize your search engines.  Of course, this means setting a default for regular web searches (I use DuckDuckGo), but you can also set up more specialized keyword-based searches.   For example, if I go to the chrome bar, and type in “t nickgrossman”, it will take me to http://twitter.com/nickgrossman — because I’ve set up a custom twitter shortcut with the letter t.  I also have one for Crunchbase, which I use all the time — so I type “c tumblr” to get a quick link to the Tumblr Crunchbase page.  And the one I use the most is the Gmail Search extension, which lets me go directly to searching my email by entering “gs ” in my address bar.  Similar to Quick-Compose, this keeps me out of my inbox when I don’t need to be there. To customize your search queries in chrome, control-click (or right-click on PC) the address bar, and choose “Edit Search Engines…” 5) Jing — I use Jing all day long to take and share screenshots.  I hit command-shift-J and the Jing screenshot grabber pops up. You can then draw on the screenshots if you want, and also post them to share — either to Flickr, email, or FTP (which is what I use, posting them to my own web server) Bonus!) Bookmarklets and Chrome extensions.  Everyone who works with me knows I love these.  So much.  I use them for everything, and have even recently learned how to make my own.  My favorites are:  post to tumblr, post to delicious, add to pocket, add to feedly, send with gmail (maybe my all-time favorite), and many many more (even a few top-secret ones). As I look through these, the obvious theme is “shortcuts”.  Keyboard, chrome button, etc.  I guess really like things that let me go straight to the thing I want to do. And maybe it drives me nuts when I can’t.  I like the fact that the computers I use are hackable / open enough to make this stuff possible, though of course, that is changing.


Chromecast: First Impressions

When we got home from vacation last night, my new Chromecast was sitting waiting for me.  I’ve been really psyched to try it out.

The out-of-the-box experience was clear and simple.  My favorite thing about Chromecast is how small it is — it’s barely there; just a tiny little add-on to web-enable your TV.

The installation and setup were smooth, with one major exception: the first time through, my setup failed, citing a mysterious UPnP error, and a vaguely worded message to “check my router settings”.  Being a geeky person, I (a) knew that that meant going to to get to the router config, (b) was able to remember / figure out the username and password for my router and (c) hunted around for the Universal Plug and Play settings until I found what looked like the right one.  My guess is that all of the above would be a deal breaker for 99.5% of consumers.

Once I got through that, I played around a bit with mirroring my computer screen to the TV (just like you can do with Airplay), and playing some web videos on the TV (including this video from the awesome Smarter Every Day series, showing an AK-47 firing underwater at 27,000 frames per second, to illustrate the physics of it — the explanation of the pressure forces about 2 minutes in is stellar).

I’m excited about this — I’m pretty sure this is not **the** answer to bringing the internet to TVs, but it’s a nice step on the road.  A few things come to mind as tough problems:

 * getting past having to switch “inputs” on the TV. This is another super clunky step that I’m sure loses a ton of people (and certainly just makes this content feel “farther away” and just out of reach of my regular routine.  It would be awesome if TVs provided an API to let apps / devices control the input.  I have no idea how that works but I’m almost certain it’s not possible now.

 * being able to queue content I see on the web to my TV for viewing later.  That was my favorite feature of the old Boxee.

 * the config steps (as mentioned above).  Also: in my case, relying on my broadband / TV provider, Verizon, actually allowing me to access and change those settings.  This kind of thing is disruptive to traditional TV and I could easily imagine combo broadband / tv providers clamping down to protect the legacy TV business.

Relatedly: I hung out with a friend last week who is a writer / producer at The Onion, and asked him how many of their video views came from people watching on TVs (vs computers or mobile devices).  He had no idea and it sounds like it’s not something they track, or even think about very much.  I guess it makes sense, given how early this all is, and given the relative clunkiness of the web / tv integrations thus far.  But man, it seems clear to me that this is where we’re headed, and I think & hope it’ll be good for independent content outlets like the Onion and others.


PDF NYC: Powered By Us: Architecting Policy for a Connected World

Yesterday I gave a talk at this year’s Personal Democracy Forum.  For those who don’t know it, PDF is a great event, and is now in its 10th year of bringing together the community of folks working at the intersection of tech, politics, and civics.  You can see all the talks from yesterday (and today’s videos will be posted tomorrow) on PDF’s youtube channel. I was paired up with Robin Chase (co-founder of Zipcar and Buzzcar) to talk about the opportunity and challenges presented by the “peer economy”.  Robin introduced the opportunity and I followed up with the challenges (and some ideas for addressing them). This is a topic I’ve been spending a lot of time on — with the team at USV, companies in the USV portfolio, and many other companies in the peer-to-peer sector. As is apparent to everyone following tech news, there has been a ton of activity, both positive and negative, in this space.  It’s new, and it challenges many fundamental notions of professionalism, person-to-person relationships, and regulation.  We’ve got a lot to figure out. Here is the video of my talk: And here are the slides. Kudos: many thanks to the folks at the Berkman Center who helped me find examples of our historical responses to new user-empowering technologies, to Arun Sundararajan for his consistently insightful work on these issues, and to the folks from Sidecar, RelayRides, Etsy and Airbnb for giving their input to the talk. Enjoy!

History's Best Innovation Death-Knell Quotes

I am working on my presentation for this week’s Personal Democracy Forum, which is looking to be a great event.

My talk is entitled: “Powered by Us: Architecting Policy for a Connected World”, and I’m going to be talking about the policy implications of peer networks on the web.  We can think of “the peer economy" or ”the indie web” or ”powered by us" platforms as a subset of the internet at large.  It’s a sector that’s growing fast and running into all kinds of trouble along the way.

Part of what I will talk about is the historical phenomenon of incumbent industries (incorrectly) predicting doomsday as new technologies and business models emerge.  One of the most famous examples here is when Jack Valenti, former head of the MPAA (movie industry lobby) declared in 1982 that the VCR would be the end of the movie industry.  He said (seriously):

"I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone."

Of course, this turned out not to be the case. Home videos instead turned into a major new revenue stream for the movie business.  But that didn’t stop the the issue from going all the way to the Supreme Court, which declared video copying for personal use legal.  This decision, known as “the betamax case” laid a critical foundation for user-empowering technologies that followed.

I’m looking for a few more examples like this: times when a new technology — in particular one that grants individuals new and awesome powers — was greeted with (ultimately) false claims of impending doom.  Here’s one list of now-silly tech predictions (not necessarily doomsday-related), and a few years ago Mike Masnick at techdirt wrote up this great list of historical overreactions to copyright issues.  

I’d like to find more like this, but beyond copyright as a subject area.  If anyone’s out there: what are your favorites?

Open Data

Open data is a huge driver of innovation.  Traveling around NYC is better because the MTA opens up route, schedule and real-time data for people to build apps with.  Responding to natural disasters is easier when data is open and interoperable.  As we continue to collect more data about ourselves and our environments, from how we learn to how we sleep, to how much energy we use, the possibilities for building on top of it are literally endless.

Most of the work I’ve done in open data has had to do with the government — getting the government to “think like a platform” and open up data.  There is always resistance — opening data means relinquishing control and handing over power.  But, generally speaking, “government” has become more and more open to these ideas (for example, see the US recently issued a new open data executive order [PDF]).

But of course, there is a whole other side of open data.  The data that we produce, and companies collect, as we traverse the web and the world.  The times ran an article this weekend on the paradox of personal data: companies collect data about you, use it internally and re-sell it to marketers, but most times they won’t give it back to you:

“OUR mobile carriers know our locations: where our phones travel during working hours and leisure time, where they reside overnight when we sleep. Verizon Wireless even sells demographic profiles of customer groups — including ZIP codes for where they “live, work, shop and more” — to marketers. But when I called my wireless providers, Verizon and T-Mobile, last week in search of data on my comings and goings, call-center agents told me that their companies didn’t share customers’ own location logs with them without a subpoena.”

I fully expect old, stodgy companies like Verizon and National Grid not to get this.  And it makes sense that big internet companies like Google and Facebook are afraid of giving users access to “what they have on them”  

It’s a fair question who “owns” data that users create (directly and indirectly) as they use web and mobile services.  On the one hand, there would be no data if the users didn’t do the things that produce it!  On the other hand, platforms and companies invest huge sums to architect the experiences that make these activities (and by extension, the act of collecting the data) possible.  That’s true whether you’re Verizon, Google or Foursquare — there would similarly be no data if the platforms didn’t exist and didn’t build systems to collect it.  So there is a shared interest here.

But it seems like a huge, huge opportunity for emerging companies that are gathering user data and haven’t yet built sketchy complex business models monetizing that data.  Giving users open access to that data — in the form of APIs — would not only benefit users by letting them do more with their data, it would also build trust.  I am way more likely to entrust my data with a company when I know they are going to share it back with me openly.

Of course, opening up this data carries risks — security (privacy breaches, identity theft) and the potential for users to leave your service more easily among them.  But my gut is that the benefits will outweigh the risks and platforms that embrace user access to data become more valuable and more beloved for it.