Sorry, Silicon Valley, but ‘disruption’ isn’t a cure-all

[Note: This item comes from friend Bob Frankston. DLH]

Sorry, Silicon Valley, but ‘disruption’ isn’t a cure-all
By Caroline Buckee
Jan 22 2017

When it comes to addressing epidemics — and a lot of other global challenges — the Silicon Valley startup mentality doesn’t work.

I study how infectious diseases spread. Late last year, a colleague and I found ourselves pitching our science to an organization that spends millions of tech-industry dollars to accelerate and disrupt the kind of research we do. Their representative was just out of college, and he carried himself with the aggressively relaxed manner of a new Silicon Valley convert. Despite his confidence, it soon became clear that he knew virtually nothing about epidemiology, biostatistics, health systems, or health policy. He was nevertheless convinced that cash and some programmers should be able to fix global health.

Some things are amenable to the kind of disruption that tech companies love. Having instant access to my files whenever I am online has changed the way I work. Taxicab owners don’t like Uber, but using location-based apps to connect drivers with customers does improve service.

Unfortunately, it has become fashionable to assume that any problem can be solved in the same way — by throwing money, smart young people, and a disruption mentality at it. There has been a recent surge of funding for this approach in medicine and public health.

But the next global pandemic will not be prevented by the perfectly designed app. “Innovation labs” and “hackathons” have popped up around the world, trying to make inroads into global health using technology, often funded via a startup model of pilot grants favoring short-term innovation. They almost always fail. The emerging field of mobile health, or mHealth for short, is a wasteland of marginally promising pilot studies, unused smartphone apps, and interesting but impractical gadgets that are neither scalable nor sustainable.

Meanwhile, the important but time-consuming effort required to evaluate whether interventions actually work is largely ignored. Maybe funders are relying on the convenient but complacent notion that bad ideas will disappear naturally — and good ideas, like Facebook or Dropbox, will take off on their own.

The problem is that a public health program is not the same as a company, which becomes self-sustaining once it’s profitable; public health requires continuous investment and evaluation.


Not Just A Crock: The Viral Word-Of-Mouth Success Of Instant Pot

[Note: This item comes from friend Jock Gill. DLH]

Not Just A Crock: The Viral Word-Of-Mouth Success Of Instant Pot
Jan 18 2017

Chances are you or somebody you know has recently become the owner of an Instant Pot, the multifunction electric pressure cooker that can produce fork-tender pot roasts in less than an hour, as well as brown meat, cook beans without soaking, and even do the job of a rice cooker or crockpot. The Instant Pot­­ isn’t advertised on TV or in the newspapers, and yet it’s become a viral marketing success story, with owners often describing themselves as “addicts” or “cult members.” That’s the kind of word-of-mouth publicity Instant Pot founders dreamed of when they first began designing the countertop appliances.

The Instant Pot electric pressure cooker has been around since 2010, but really became the buzz during the last six months of 2016. While the company’s electric pressure cookers are sold at Wal-Mart, Target and Kohl’s, the bulk of its sales come from Amazon, driven by social media. Deep discounts on Amazon Prime Day and again on Black Friday, along with the viral online sharing of these sales, turned Instant Pot into a household name. With 215,000 units sold on Prime Day alone, the Instant Pot Duo is Amazon’s top-selling item in the U.S. market. Not bad for a company that does no TV or print advertising and only recently began the process of hiring a marketing agency.

The 25-employee Ottawa, Canada-based Instant Pot Company was founded by a group of engineers, not chefs, in 2008. The team focused on designing the appliance’s microprocessor and thermal and pressure sensors, which improve safety over earlier stovetop and electric pressure cookers, hoping that the product would speak for itself.

“Cooking is very much a social behavior. If people make good food, they will be raving about it, including the tools used,” says CEO Robert Wang. In order to attract cooks from different cultures, the Instant Pot has preset buttons for making foods such as porridge, beans and yogurt.

Instant Pot is savvy enough to know that social media is now part of word-of-mouth advertising. While the company does not sponsor paid content or promotions, it has provided free Instant Pots to 200 bloggers and cookbook authors who represent many styles of cooking, including Chinese, Italian, sous-vide and vegan. The company’s website and the booklets that come with the appliance prominently feature blogger recipes.

Harvard Business School professor Sunil Gupta calls this “sleeper” marketing, which gets a product in front of a small, influential group of people, instead of targeting the masses. This type of marketing is a method that may work for companies that don’t have a big budget to do an advertising blitz when a product first rolls out.

“The company has to have a little bit of patience,” Gupta says. “Sometimes it catches on really quickly but sometimes it doesn’t. There are a lot of failures that happen with this kind of mechanism. If you are a small player, it’s a good strategy to try.”

He notes a similar strategy used by the Blendtec company, which posted a YouTube video showing the company’s CEO using the blender to grind up an iPhone. “As you can imagine, the video got shared,” says Gupta. “But, it was consistent with the key value proposition of the product,” meaning that the hype reinforced what the appliance says it will do.


Listening to bots

Listening to bots
After spending much of 2016 knee deep in the world of bots and conversational interfaces I thought it would be interesting to post what I have learnt and what I’m thinking about in 2017.
By John Borthwick
Jan 20 2017

We backed or built thirteen companies at betaworks in the bot, or conversational tools space last year. This was an area of focus for us, which will continue in 2017 as we further develop these thirteen companies, look at new companies, and extend our expertise into voicebots and verbal computing. This post is based on our experience, most of the companies mentioned are ones we are involved with.

A few things I learnt listening to bots in 2016

A new medium requires new technology and new design. Each time we encounter a new medium, we do what humans do, we retrofit our assumptions and needs from prior experiences. Bots are frontier technology — starting to deliver on a promise that computing has been making for decades — that we will be able to speak to computers, in our language, be it text or spoken word. There are technical and design challenges involved in this promise. The technology; AI, NLP, NLU, the language training data sets, the design nuance of bots, how you write for a bots, how you engender personality in bots — are all new areas of expertise. While it’s trivial to spin up a bot today, making a good one isn’t simple. Bots, when well executed, are a new mode of interaction, natively mobile, different to apps, they are a new medium.

Bots aren’t apps. Just as apps are different to web pages, and web pages are different to pages, bots are different to apps. Bots can complement an app, they are both native mobile software, but they aren’t a direct substitute. Bots — like other new native software experiences — are taking time to emerge. It took 18–24 months for apps to start to emerge as distinct experiences from web sites. Looking at the app store, six months after launch and pretty much every app was an iteration of a web page. One year into its life and you can start to see native experiences emerge, mostly games. It was only after that, in the coming years that you started to see native app experiences. We are seeing a similar path and time scale of development with bots.

Channels for distribution in the bot world have yet to be defined. In 2008, the app store became the channel of distribution and discovery for apps. The app store was then, and is today, equivalent to the directory structure we had in the early days of the web. Over 2016 a set of bot stores opened as platforms assumed bot distribution should be via a store directory. This approach to distribution and discovery — these bot stores or directories — have not worked. The approach didn’t scale for the web and it hasn’t worked for bots. I realized in 2016 that so much of the power and the potential of bots lies in the specificity of the content or service and mapping that to social context seems to be an emerging solution to distribution.

In 2016 Slack became one of the most successful environments for organic distribution of bots. If someone on a team — in a company — installs a bot and finds it useful, they tell others in the team, via Slack. Statsbot leads the list of “brilliant bots” in Slack’s store, however, most users have found out about the service through connections on Slack. As a result, Statsbot has become one of the most popular bots for analytics today with over 20,000 installs. The real driver of installs is that people who are using it are doing so because someone in their Slack group installed it. Moving forward, I want to know the bots you like, then install and try them fast.

Discovery of bots should be in context (ie: part of the messaging flow), relevant (filtered by relevancy in time, conversation, location or social graph), social (easy to share), fast and simple to trial. There is evidence social distribution approach works — from Slack in the US and now with the launch of Mini-programs, WeChat in China is following the social path. One of the reasons the Xiaoice bot (see below) was so popular was that it initially launched as a ‘real person’ that anyone could invite into a conversation. Platforms need to build around this approach — the interface might be search or it might be message specific, that’s unclear, but I think it needs to happen inside of the messaging experience. I’m hoping that in 2017 we will see one or more of the messaging platforms in this US figure this out.


Silicon Valley Has an Empathy Vacuum

[Note: This item comes from friend Steve Schear. DLH]

Silicon Valley Has an Empathy Vacuum
By Om Malik
Nov 28 2016

Silicon Valley seems to have lost a bit of its verve since the Presidential election. The streets of San Francisco—spiritually part of the Valley—feel less crowded. Coffee-shop conversations are hushed. Everything feels a little muted, an eerie quiet broken by chants of protesters. It even seems as if there are more parking spots. Technology leaders, their employees, and those who make up the entire technology ecosystem seem to have been shaken up and shocked by the election of Donald Trump.

One conversation has centered on a rather simplistic narrative of Trump as an enemy of Silicon Valley; this goes along with a self-flagellating regret that the technology industry didn’t do enough to get Hillary Clinton into the White House. Others have decided that the real villains are Silicon Valley giants, especially Twitter, Facebook, and Google, for spreading fake news stories that vilified Clinton and helped elect an unpopular President.

These charges don’t come as a surprise to me. Silicon Valley’s biggest failing is not poor marketing of its products, or follow-through on promises, but, rather, the distinct lack of empathy for those whose lives are disturbed by its technological wizardry. Two years ago, on my blog, I wrote, “It is important for us to talk about the societal impact of what Google is doing or what Facebook can do with all the data. If it can influence emotions (for increased engagements), can it compromise the political process?”

Perhaps it is time for those of us who populate the technology sphere to ask ourselves some really hard questions. Let’s start with this: Why did so many people vote for Donald Trump? Glenn Greenwald, the firebrand investigative journalist writing for The Intercept, and the documentary filmmaker Michael Moore have listed many reasons Clinton lost. Like Brexit, the election of Donald Trump has focussed attention on the sense that globalization has eroded the real prospects and hopes of the working class in this country. Globalization is a proxy for technology-powered capitalism, which tends to reward fewer and fewer members of society.

My hope is that we in the technology industry will look up from our smartphones and try to understand the impact of whiplashing change on a generation of our fellow-citizens who feel hopeless and left behind. Instead, I read the comments of Balaji Srinivasan, the C.E.O. of the San Francisco-based Bitcoin startup 21 Inc., telling the Wall Street Journal columnist Christopher Mims that he feels more connected to people in his “Stanford network” around the globe than to those in California’s Central Valley: “There will be a recognition that if we don’t have control of the nation state, we should reduce the nation state’s power over us.”

It’s hard to think about the human consequences of technology as a founder of a startup racing to prove itself or as a chief executive who is worried about achieving the incessant growth that keeps investors happy. Against the immediate numerical pressures of increasing users and sales, and the corporate pressures of hiring the right (but not too expensive) employees to execute your vision, the displacement of people you don’t know can get lost.

However, when you are a data-driven oligarchy like Facebook, Google, Amazon, or Uber, you can’t really wash your hands of the impact of your algorithms and your ability to shape popular sentiment in our society. We are not just talking about the ability to influence voters with fake news. If you are Amazon, you have to acknowledge that you are slowly corroding the retail sector, which employs many people in this country. If you are Airbnb, no matter how well-meaning your focus on delighting travellers, you are also going to affect hotel-industry employment.


Re: Beware the Man With the Flying Car

[Note: This comment comes from friend Steve Schear. DLH]

From: Steven Schear <>
Subject: Re: [Dewayne-Net] Beware the Man With the Flying Car
Date: January 21, 2017 at 12:11:16 AM EST

The Volocopter looks most viable because in Germany, where its produced, it qualifies as an ultra-light with minimal pilot certification. Hopefully the others don’t become another Moeller-like pipe dream:

Beware the Man With the Flying Car
By Henry Grabar
Jan 18 2017

How mass media missed the march that social media turned into a phenomenon.

How mass media missed the march that social media turned into a phenomenon.
By Paul Farhi
Jan 21 2017

From its inception, it was a social-media phenomenon, not a mainstream-media one.

The organizers of the many women’s marches that filled the streets of cities across the world on Saturday got the word out about their projects primarily via Facebook. From there, news spread from one feed to another, and from one mouth to another, feeding a vast river of humanity.

By contrast, mainstream news outlets — focused primarily on the inauguration of a president, against whom many of the marchers were protesting — gave the run-up to the event relatively scant coverage.

Taken collectively, the Women’s March on Washington and its many affiliated “sister” marches were perhaps the largest single demonstration of the power of social media to create a mobilization.

The march has precedent in the annals of online activism: The Arab Spring demonstrations of 2011 and the tea party, Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements, for example, were all driven by social media. But perhaps no such effort has turned out so many in a single day. The crush of bodies was so heavy that organizers and public safety officials in several cities, including Chicago, suspended plans for actually marching anywhere. That turned some of the gatherings into rallies.

As with those other grass-roots causes, traditional news media outlets were late in catching up to the story. “NBC Nightly News” did its first story about the march on Thursday, two days before hundreds of thousands took to the streets, according to a search of the Nexis database. ABC’s “World News Tonight” aired an 18-word sound bite from one of the march’s co-organizers on Wednesday. And although the New York Times mentioned the event numerous times in the weeks preceding the march, the newspaper featured it just once on its front page through Tuesday. (Its story concerned racial divisions among organizers and marchers.)

“The women’s marches were pretty much under the radar in most mainstream-media coverage over the last few weeks,” says Marcus Messner, an associate professor of journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he studies social media. The number of demonstrators and events, he says, “caught the media and public off guard,” even as the social-media buzz began growing into a “huge groundswell.”

According to Messner, the event demonstrated that “organizers don’t need media coverage anymore to reach large audiences and turn out large crowds for protests when people are passionate about issues and connect via social media.”

TV reporters spent much of Saturday afternoon marveling at the massive crowds gathered in Washington, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, London and other cities. “The Metro system is completely overwhelmed. The cellphone system is overwhelmed. The satellite trucks are overwhelmed,” MSNBC correspondent Cal Perry reported from the Mall in Washington, adding, “We’re looking at a city that’s overwhelmed.”

A few minutes later on CNN, reporter Jessica Schneider also invoked the o-word: “The turnout here in New York City, frankly, is overwhelming,” she said, as thousands could be seen behind her, shuffling down a city street.


The two questions that determine your scientific literacy

The two questions that determine your scientific literacy
If you think you can just take a test and demonstrate your scientific literacy, think again.
By Ethan Siegel
Jan 18 2017

“Through basic science literacy, people can understand the policy choices we need to be making. Scientists are not necessarily the greatest communicators, but science and communication is one of the fundamentals we need to address. People are interested.” -James Murdoch

There are a lot of claims going around the news lately that make one question whether, as a nation and a world, humanity is a scientifically literate species. Prominent politicians and lawmakers, among many other citizens of Earth, are debating and publicly questioning, among other topics:

• the safety and efficacy of vaccines in preventing disease,
• the truth of whether the Earth’s climate is changing and whether humans are playing a role,
• whether adding fluoride to drinking water is safe for humans to drink and effective at cavity reduction,
• whether there was a natural origin to life on Earth or whether there is evidence of divine intervention,
• and whether the Earth is billions of years old or thousands of years old.

Most attempts to measure scientific literacy focus on how well people can answer a series of questions that measure one’s knowledge of scientific facts, but as it turns out, that’s not a good measure of scientific literacy at all. Being scientifically literate isn’t about having the ability to measure the curvature or circumference of the Earth, how you can discern whether the Earth is round or flat, or even whether you know that the Earth itself is round. The more we know about the world and the Universe as it actually is, the better off we all are, of course, as more information is always a good thing to have. But being a scientifically literate society isn’t dependent on knowing whether any particular set of scientific facts, laws or conclusions are true or not; rather, it’s about your answer to the following two questions:

• Are you aware of what the enterprise of science is?
• Do you have an appreciation for how scientific knowledge, understanding and its applications benefit humanity?

If the answer to both of these questions is “yes,” then you are scientifically literate, and you have every intention of making the world a more scientifically literate place while simultaneously understanding that the more we include factual, robust science in our policymaking, the better off humanity as a whole becomes.