August 27, 2013
As we in America head into the Labor Day weekend, let us pause to consider that these days when you refer to an army of workers, you could be talking about people managed by their smartphones. That’s pretty much how it works with an outfit called Gigwalk,which has found a way to build a big temp worker network strictly through a iPhone app–and now it’s become available on Android phones.
Gigwalk’s M.O. is to use its app to quickly mobilize temp workers for projects that cover a lot of territory. Say, for instance, a big company needs pictures of restaurants or current menus for an online guide. Gigwalk puts out the word on its app and people get a chance to make a little extra money, usually at $12 to $15 an hour.
Kudos to Gigwalk for creating a new type of labor market to deal with jobs that otherwise would probably be too complex logistically to get done. It’s been suggested that it could become the “eBay of work.”
So it’s all good, right? Well, mostly. But there’s another aspect of Gigwalk’s model that may give you pause. It scrupulously gathers performance data on it each of its temps, with the goal of being able to better match them with future gigs. It tracks how long it takes a person to respond to a job alert on their app–too slow and you ding your rating. It tracks the GPS on a temp’s phone see how long they spend on a job and takes that into account in measuring his or her productivity. It analyzes customer surveys, naturally, but it also evaluates how much complexity a person can handle on a project before they seek help.
All of this is wrapped into a “mathematical profile” that Gigwalk says makes it more likely that their temps will succeed because it’s easier to assign them to work for which they’re best suited. And the Gigwalk people are quite proud of that. As CEO Bob Bahramipour told Bloomberg BusinessWeek: “We know more about our workers than anyone has ever known about workers.”
Co-founder and CTO Matt Crampton had more to say in a recent interview on Salon:
“Behind the scenes we are watching everybody while they are going about doing their work. We are building these mathematical profiles on top of people, figuring out who is doing good jobs on a variety of gigs. We can figure out what kind of jobs you do well and start routing more complex, higher-paying jobs to you based on the skills we see inside our system. And then we can provide companies with workers with the specific kind of skill sets they need to get work done.”
It’s all perfectly logical, a deep bow to meritocracy, and as Crampton notes, if businesses–particularly retailers–find that this approach can consistently provide them with competent, geographically distributed temps, they’ll start to look for other ways to use them. And that could end up creating new kinds of jobs.
But there is the matter of Gigwalk’s worker profiles. Sure, they may be well-intentioned, but what to make of job performance grades largely driven by data and spawned by algorithms? How inviolable will they be? And who ultimately could have access to them?
Maybe I’m being paranoid–writing about algorithms as the engine of 21st century life will do that to you–but are we seeing the first hint of something like career credit ratings? Could you one day moan that your data points have done you wrong?
Matters of privacy
Here are other recent developments in the realm of digital privacy:
- Is it in your DNA to want to let people know what’s in your DNA?: A small start up in Minneapolis named Miinome wants to create what it calls the first “member-controlled human genetic marketplace.” It would electronically store the DNA data of anyone who has had their genome sequenced. Haven’t gone there yet? Well, Miinome would do this for you for free or at low cost. In return, you’d have the option of sharing select aspects of your DNA data–say, gluten intolerance or a genetic disposition to male pattern baldness–with marketers who could target offers to you based on what your genes say about you.
- It’s my life and you’re not welcome to it: According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, more than half of all U.S. teenagers who use mobile apps have avoided certain ones because they would have to share personal information. And just under half of the teenagers surveyed said they have turned off location-tracking features in apps they’ve downloaded. The researchers said they found that American teenagers tend to think about privacy in the sense of “social privacy” or whether an app is “creepy,” but don’t seem to worry much about personal data being captured through advertising or governmental surveillance, as adults do.
- Thanks for sharing: Medical and health mobile apps are a boom business–an estimated 97,000 different ones now are out in the marketplace. And plenty of people are sharing lots of very personal information through those apps, assuming that it will stay secure and private. Not quite. A recent study found that many health apps firms don’t encrypt the data they receive and that fewer that half of those analyzed didn’t post privacy policies. Others didn’t disclose that captured data could be made available to third parties.
- Not that I don’t trust you: A “Boyfriend Tracker” app was removed from the Google Play app store in Brazil last week in response to complaints about potential invasion of privacy abuses–but not before tens of thousands of Brazilians downloaded it. The app lets users obtain a call history, receive any incoming or outgoing text messages, identify a partner’s location on a map using GPS, and actually turn on the phone to listen in to the surrounding environment.
- Help us help you get pregnant: Earlier this month, an app called Glow was launched with the goal of helping women get pregnant. Technically, it’s a free fertility app, but one that goes way beyond just tracking a woman’s menstrual cycle. It asks users to enter very detailed information about their health and sex lives–including frequency of sex and sexual positions. The more detailed the info is, say Glow’s creators, the more precise the app can be in projecting a woman’s best chance for getting pregnant. Glow is unique in another way, too. Users who sign up for a service called Glow First can get help paying for fertility treatments.
Video bonus: Rick Smolan, author of “The Human Face of Big Data” weighs in on how much we don’t know about what happens to all the personal info we’re so happy to share.
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May 30, 2013
For all the misconceptions–both positive and negative–about what’s now known fondly and acridly as Obamacare, one thing that is clear is its focus on shifting the U.S. health care system from one in which doctors and hospitals are rewarded for ordering tests and procedures to one built more around preventive care and keeping people healthy.
As is often the case, technology is racing ahead of policy, finding ingenious ways to use little sensors or Big Data to devise early warning systems for health trouble. In fact, it’s fomenting medicine that’s not just preventive, it’s predictive.
Follow the behavior trail
One of the more innovative approaches is a mobile app called Ginger.io, from a company of the same name. It’s based on the idea that changes in a person’s behavior–perhaps something as seemingly mundane as a lull in making phone calls–may tip off the start of a spin into bad health or depression.
That may seem a bit of a leap, but research has found that people with chronic medical conditions, such as pain or diabetes or mental illness, tend to withdraw if their health deteriorates. They stop reaching out to friends and family, don’t go out as much, and lose interest in taking care of themselves. Often, that’s when they quit taking their meds.
So the app tracks how frequently someone uses his or her phone, how often they move and if they do go out, where they go. If it notices a change in patterns, particularly too much isolation and too little activity, it sends an alert to a designated person. It might be a doctor, it might be a family member.
Ginger.io has been described as a human “Check Engine” light in that it’s designed to flag potential trouble before a person breaks down. One of the app’s advantages is that it keeps a precise record of what a person has been doing or not doing, rather than depending on the often unreliable or skewed memories of patients.
A number of U.S. hospitals are now testing it with patients who have opted into the alert system, but it’s still not clear how effective it can be. There’s no way to tell, for instance, if a person’s been inactive because he’s depressed or just has a bad cold. Will doctors and nurses end up wasting time and money on waves of false alarms?
There’s also the question of whether patients, even though they’ve chosen to use the alerts, will start to feel they’ve given up too much privacy. For now, though, they seem to like the access the app provides to caregivers. They feel like doctors and nurses are actually keeping an eye on them.
The doctor will text you now
At the same time, patients are more in control of their personal health data than they’ve ever been. Increasingly, it’s in their smartphones, not locked away in a doctor’s office or a lab somewhere. And that, predicts Dr.Eric Topol, is going to forever change the role of doctors. They’ll still advise and treat patients, of course, but less as an authority figure and more as a collaborator, says Topol, the chief academic officer of Scripps Health and author of “The Creative Destruction of Medicine.”
As he told Forbes in an interview earlier this year:
“We are ending the era of medical information asymmetry, with most of the information in the doctor’s domain. The consumer is now center stage–he or she will drive this new medicine with a rebooted model of physician partnership. It is the consumer’s data, the consumer’s smartphone, and the consumer’s choice of who, when and how to share.”
Topol is equally evangelisitic about predictive medicine, although his focus is on early warning systems based on biology rather than behavior. He’s convinced that it won’t be long before scientists will be able to send tiny sensors into our bloodstreams that will be able to detect the first molecular signal of a heart attack or the development of the first cancer cell.
And yes, your smartphone will be the first to know.
Thoroughly modern medicine
Here are other recent health tech innovations:
- Tracking ticking brains: The Defense Department is doing a trial with a company named Cogito Health using software that tries to measure whether a soldier may be developing PTSD by identifying if he or she is withdrawing or becoming more manic.
- Stop making sense: Recently purchased by United Healthcare, a Boston firm called Humedica crunches the Big Data of patients’ electronic records so hospitals can get a much clearer idea of how often different treatments actually help people get better.
- So quit blaming the cat: An app named Asthmapolis uses a sensor attached to an inhaler that tracks where a person is and potentially what triggers are around when they have an asthma attack. And it saves that info on the smartphone.
Video bonus: Dr. Eric Topol went on “The Colbert Report” not long ago and actually managed to get in a few words about the future of medicine. He also examined Stephen Colbert’s inner ear. It’s not pretty.
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May 8, 2013
Cell phones are so many things now–computer, map, clock, calculator, camera, shopping device, concierge, and occasionally, a phone. But more than anything, that little device that never leaves your person is one amazingly prolific data engine.
Which is why last October, Verizon Wireless, the largest U.S, carrier with almost 100 million customers, launched a new division called Precision Market Insights. And why, at about the same time, Madrid-based Telefonica, one of the world’s largest mobile network providers, opened its own new business unit, Telefonica Dynamic Insights.
The point of these ventures is to mine, reconstitute and sell the enormous amount of data that phone companies gather about our behavior. Every time we make a mobile call or send a text message–which pings a cell tower–that info is recorded. So, with enough computer power, a company can draw pretty accurate conclusions about how and when people move through a city or a region. Or they can tell where people have come from to attend an event. As part of a recent case study, for example, Verizon was able to say that people with Baltimore area codes outnumbered those with San Francisco area codes by three to one inside the New Orleans Superdome for the Super Bowl in February.
In a world enamored of geolocation, this is digital gold. It’s one thing to know the demographic blend of a community, but to be able to find out how many people pass by a business and where they’re coming from, that adds a whole nother level of precision to target marketing.
Follow the crowd
But this data have value beyond companies zeroing in on potential customers. It’s being used for social science, even medical research. Recently IBM crunched numbers from 5 million phone users in the Ivory Coast in Africa and, by tracking movements of people through which cell towers they connected to, it was able to recommend 65 improvements to bus service in the city of Abidjan.
And computer scientists at the University of Birmingham in England have used cell phone data to fine tune analysis of how epidemics spread. Again, it’s about analyzing how people move around. Heretofore, much of what scientists knew about the spread of contagious diseases was based largely on guesswork. But now, thanks to so many pings from so many phones, there’s no need to guess.
It’s important to point out that no actual identities are connected to cell phone data. It all gets anonymized, meaning there shouldn’t be a way to track the data back to real people.
There shouldn’t be.
Leaving a trail
But a study published in Scientific Reports in March found that even anonymized data may not be so anonymous after all. A team of researchers from Louvain University in Belgium, Harvard and M.I.T. found that by using data from 15 months of phone use by 1.5 million people, together with a similar dataset from Foursquare, they could identify about 95 percent of the cell phones users with just four data points and 50 percent of them with just two data points. A data point is an individual’s approximate whereabouts at the approximate time they’re using their cell phone.
The reason that only four locations were necessary to identify most people is that we tend to move in consistent patterns. Just as everyone has unique fingerprints, everyone has unique daily travels. While someone wouldn’t necessarily be able to match the path of a mobile phone–known as a mobility trace–to a specific person, we make it much easier through geolocated tweets or location “check-ins,” such as when we use Foursquare.
“In the 1930s, it was shown that you need 12 points to uniquely identify and characterize a fingerprint,” the study’s lead author, Yves-Alexandre de Montijoye, told the BBC in a recent interview. “What we did here is the exact same thing, but with mobility traces. The way we move and the behavior is so unique that four points are enough to identify 95 percent of the people.”
“We think this data is more available than people think. When you share information, you look around and you feel like there are lots of people around–in a shopping center or a tourist place–so you feel this isn’t sensitive information.”
In other words, you feel anonymous. But are you really? De Montijoye said the point of his team’s research wasn’t to conjure up visions of Big Brother. He thinks there’s much good that can come from mining cell phone data, for businesses, for city planners, for scientists, for doctors. But he thinks it’s important to recognize that today’s technology makes true privacy very hard to keep.
The title of the study? “Unique in the Crowd.”
Here are other recent developments related to mobile phones and their data:
- Every picture tells your story: Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human Computer Interaction Center say their research of 100 smartphone apps found that about half of them raised privacy concerns. For instance, a photo-sharing app like Instagram provided information that allowed them to easily discover the location of the person who took the photo.
- Cabbies with cameras: In the Mexican city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, taxi drivers have been provided with GPS-enabled cell phones and encouraged to send messages and photographs about accidents or potholes or broken streetlights.
- Follow that cell: Congress has started looking into the matter of how police use cell phone data to track down suspects. The key issue is whether they should be required to get a warrant first.
- Follow that cell II: Police in Italy have started using a data analysis tool called LogAnalysis that makes it especially easy to visualize the relationships among conspiring suspects based on their phone calls. In one particular case involving a series of robberies, the tool showed a flurry of phone activity among the suspects before and after the heists, but dead silence when the crimes were being committed.
Video bonus: If you’re at all paranoid about how much data can be gleaned from how you use your mobile phone, you may not want to watch this TED talk by Malte Spitz.
March 5, 2013
It’s amazing how putting a lower case “i” in front of the name of a gadget can make it righteous.
What that means, of course, is that Apple has deemed that particular piece of technology worthy of its attention. And with that comes both market credibility and geeky cool.
So when rumors started swirling a few weeks ago that Apple could unveil an “iWatch” later this year, tech writers around the Web were quick to ponder if 2013 will become “The Year of the Smartwatch.” Maybe. Maybe not. The iGod has not yet spoken on the subject. At least not officially.
The article that stirred the iWatch clamor was a recent piece by Nick Bilton in the New York Times’ Bits blog. It was high on speculation–Apple isn’t talking–and spiced with juicy questions: Will it come with Siri, the voice of the iPhone? What about Apple’s map software? Will an iWatch enable its wearers to track their steps taken? How about their heartbeats?
But the biggest tease was an allusion to glass. Specifically bendable glass. Imagine a watch face that could curve around your wrist. That sounds light, sleek and yes, geekily cool. That sounds so Apple.
The Wall Street Journal followed up, citing a source saying that Apple has been discussing the design of a smartwatch with its Chinese manufacturing partner. And then Bloomberg chimed in, reporting that Apple has a team of at least 100 people cranking away on a “wristwatch-like device.”
It also quoted Bruce Tognazzini, a tech consultant and former Apple employee: “The iWatch will fill a gaping hole in the Apple ecosystem.”
So game over, right? Whenever Apple rolls out its device, it will define what a smartwatch should be, right?
Not so fast. Believe it or not, it’s already a crowded field, with more than half a dozen smartwatches out in the market. Maybe the best known, at least among gadget geeks, is the Pebble, which made a big splash a year ago, even before it existed. Its inventors made a pitch for investors on Kickstarter, hoping to drum up $100,000. Instead they raised $10 million, and a crowd-funding legend was born. The first Pebbles shipped earlier this year, to generally positive reviews.
Sony came out with its own model last year, sometimes to less than enthusiastic reviews. Others in the game include the MetaWatch Strata, the strangely-named I’m Watch, the oddly-named Martian Passport, one called Buddy and another called Cookoo. Later this year, a model called The Pine is expected to hit the market.
But, aside from having names that you’d never imagined calling a wristwatch, what do all these products bring to modern life? Obviously, they tell time, but most also connect wirelessly to your smartphone so you can see who’s calling or texting or emailing or posting on your Facebook page without digging into your pocket for your phone. They can show you weather forecasts, sports scores or news headlines. Some have apps that let you control the music on your phone or track how far you’ve run or cycled.
And keep in mind, this is only the first wave. They probably can’t do enough yet to entice most people to shell out a few hundred bucks–they range from $130 for a Cookoo to more than $400 for an I’m Watch. But as more apps are added, they could be used to make mobile payments, navigate with GPS, take photos and shoot videos. A few already can handle phone calls, albeit clunkily. So, the day is fast coming when you’ll be able to talk into your wristwatch without making people nervous.
Some say we’re on the cusp of a wearable tech boom, and that the smartphone, as something we need to actually carry around, will become passe. Others are more dubious, positing that the smartwatch is just another gadget phase we’re going through.
But there’s that bendable glass…
It’s long been said that if you want to succeed, it helps to be smart. Now that applies to products, too.
- At last, a cure for expiration date anxiety: Researchers at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands say they’ve developed packaging with sensors that will be able to tell if the food inside is still edible.
- When bottles share: A Florida entrepreneur thinks the time has come for medicine bottles to get smart. His idea is to put QR codes on bottles that once scanned, will play a video on your smartphone telling you all you really need to know about the meds inside.
- Let sleeping babies lie: And for anxious young parents who check every 30 seconds to see if their baby is still breathing, students at Brigham Young University are developing something they call the Owlet Baby Monitor. Using a built-in pulse oximeter, the wireless smart sock can track both a sleeping child’s heart and breathing rates.
- Say goodbye to the “You’ll just feel a little pinch” lie: Scientists at Purdue University have created bandages that could make the needle stick obsolete. Powered by a person’s body heat, the adhesive patches would be able to deliver medication without the need for a shot.
- Which is so much cooler than wearing a smart sock: In Japan, Fujitsu has unveiled its “Next Generation Cane.” Yep, it’s a smart cane and it can monitor a person’s vitals. It also comes with GPS so you can always know where Grandma’s taking a stroll.
Video bonus: Want the lowdown on how the Pebble smartwatch works? The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg lays it out a video review.
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February 1, 2013
It’s the time of year when the National Football League gets a little bit smaller.
Sure, the Super Bowl on Sunday is its championship game and more than 100 million people will be watching, but if the outcome isn’t decided in the last two minutes, more people on Monday will be talking about the funniest TV commercials or how Beyonce sang–or didn’t–at halftime or the post-game homage to the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Lewis as he dances off into the sunset.
It’s been this way for a while now. As the spectacle of everything around it has become bigger, what actually happens on the field during the Super Bowl has gotten smaller. And that’s been okay with the league as long as it’s only happened once a year.
But now, with the rise of giant home video screens and the ability to see every scoring play of every game on the NFL’s RedZone network or watch games from different angles on a computer tablet, people running the league and its teams have realized that they need to pump up the stadium experience. What happens on the field, they fear, soon may no longer be enough to keep the customers satisfied.
Hitting the big, big screen
No question that the Dallas Cowboys ratcheted things up in 2009 when they opened, with much hoopla, the new Cowboys Stadium. Not only did it cost more than $1 billion, but hanging 90 feet above the field is an HDTV screen so large–it stretches from 20-yard-line to 20-yard line–that players who are quite massive in real life look like little Lego men moving around below.
Next fall, the Houston Texans will one-up the Cowboys when they unveil their own field-dwarfing video screen, almost 25 percent larger than the one in Dallas. And now even colleges are starting to join the monster screen club. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, hardly a football powerhouse, just released plans for a new stadium that will include a video screen 100 yards long.
That’s right, it will be as long as the playing field.
Stand up and cheer
Okay, so we can expect the screens to get bigger and bigger. But some think the stadiums may actually get smaller, or at least there will be fewer seats. Instead, more attention will be paid to where people can stand and what they can do while they’re there.
Here’s how Eric Grubman, the NFL’s executive vice president of business operations, described a football stadium of the future in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times:
“What if a new stadium we built wasn’t 70,000, but it was 40,000 seats with 20,000 standing room? But the standing room was in a bar-type environment with three sides of screens, and one side where you see the field. Completely connected. And in those three sides of screens, you not only got every piece of NFL content, including replays, RedZone and analysis, but you got every other piece of news and sports content that you would like to have if you were at home.
Now you have the game, the bar and social setting, and you have the content. What’s that ticket worth? What’s that environment feel like to a young person? Where do you want to be? Do you want to be in that seat, or do you want to be in that pavilion?”
Phoning it in
Other stadium innovations are heading in a different direction. Instead of having the game be only part of a multi-screen, sports bar party experience, they would entertain fans by allowing them to immerse themselves more deeply into the game itself. And they would do it all on smart phones and tablets.
Take the case of the New England Patriots. At the beginning of this past season, they became the first NFL team to deploy a free Wi-Fi network for streaming video in their home field, Gillette Stadium. Fans were able to use mobile apps to watch instant replays on their phones and get real time stats.
And next season, they’ll have more options, ones that take them into the games within the game. There will be apps that allow them to tune into cameras following star players around, apps that let them watch what goes on in their team’s locker room at halftime, apps that listen in on players wearing microphones and eavesdrop on conversations between the coaches and the quarterback (with a 15-second delay, of course).
And there will an app that, by the fourth quarter, could be the most valuable of all. It will tell them where to find the shortest bathroom lines.
Here are other recent advances in football tech:
- A red zone you don’t want to enter: Reebok has developed something it calls a Head Impact Indicator. It’s a thin skullcap lined with sensors that can detect dangerous hits to the head. If a yellow or red light goes on, it’s time for a player to head to the sidelines.
- Now if they could only do something about helmet hair: Meanwhile, engineers at Purdue University say they’ve developed the model for a football helmet that disperses the energy of a smack to the head instead of just protecting a player’s skull. They report that tests with a polymer-lined Army helmet they designed showed it could reduce the G-force a player’s brain absorbed by as much as 50 percent.
- Like we need another reason to boo the refs: You know that imaginary yellow line you see on TV games to show where the first down marker is? After this season, the NFL is going to take a look at technology that would project a laser line across the field so people in the stadium could see what everyone at home has been seeing for years.
- Hardbodies the easy way: When they run out on the field Sunday, four San Francisco 49ers players, including both of the team’s quarterbacks, will be wearing a form of customized body armor under their uniforms. It’s called EvoShield and it’s a gel that hardens to fit a player’s body when exposed to air.
Video bonus: Okay, here’s a sneak peek of two Super Bowl ads already being declared winners, a spot about how getting the keys to the family Audi jacks up the testosterone of a boy headed to his high school prom, and a Volkswagen ad using a Minnesotan-turned-Rastafarian to celebrate the power of German engineering.
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