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The Future is Littered With Mashup Bombs

February 14, 2011 1 comment

Mashup Bomb

As we hurtle into the future, we’re leaving a larger digital wake behind us.  International Data Corporation estimates humans will produce 1,800,000,000 terabytes of data this year alone.

Simultaneously, the power to sift through these vast stores of information is getting keener.  In 2009, the team BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos won the Netflix prize by crafting an algorithm for recommending movies with ten percent better accuracy than the movie company’s own engine.

“Mashup Bombs” are what await us as these two phenomena converge.  Our ability to compare the increasing amounts of data will improve and previously undetectable patterns will emerge.  Not only that, but the ability to produce revelations won’t be confined to future data – we’ll have the power to look back through all of the petabytes of data already cached on server farms around the world.

  • What if the GPS records of mobile phones were matched with employee payroll records to spot when people are fudging their hours?
  • What if anonymous publishers could be outed through algorithms that compare writing samples?
  • What if aggregate market data and networks of personal connections could be filtered to show when bidders were given preferential treatment for government contracts?

Things are well underway:

  • Wikipedia + IP Address Location Database= in 2007, a CalTech student named Virgil Griffith created a tool called Wikipedia Scanner that tracked the IP addresses of Wikipedia editors back to their sources and outed institutions from Diebold to the CIA as having edited their own Wikipedia entries.
  • Twitter + Maps = The Centers for Disease Control are monitoring Twitter, watching for keywords related to illness in order to spot pandemics before they get going.
  • Sex Offender Databases + Real Estate Listings + Google Maps = As local governments have begun to publish sex offender photos and profiles on their websites, this information has been cached and combined with real estate listings and Google’s open API for its versatile maps tool.  The result is the ability to see if the location of a house you’re interested in looks like it has chicken pox.
  • IRS Records + Google Maps + Facebook =Fundrace is a site that allows users to map out what political campaigns their neighbors are contributing to, as well as compare those same databases to find out who your friends on Facebook are donating to.

Just because an indiscretion has gone unnoticed is no guarantee that it will go unnoticed in the future.  As a PR pro, I don’t look forward to responding to the indiscretions of predecessors, but that may be something we have to prepare for.

We are the Next Killer App

January 5, 2011 1 comment

Given the telescoping nature of evolution, it’s damn hard to make any predictions about the future.  There is, however, one prescription we can follow: creativity is essential.

We’re entering an era where it’s less important to have the technical skills to do the back-end coding that creates compelling storytelling, and much more important to be able to innovate and be able to think creatively in the use of those technologies.

Daniel Pink and other thinkers have written extensively about our transition from a society where the left brain dominates to one where the right brain takes over.  The industrial age mindset that pulled us away from our agrarian, tribal roots is giving way to a right-brained world where we are loosed from the need to have intimate expertise in the technologies we are using in order to communicate with them.

Take, for example, Xtranormal.com.  It’s a site that allows you to create short movies using computer-generated characters.  You can choose from a variety of characters, scenes, background noise, facial expressions, gestures, etc. and the script you type out is .  It was recently used to create a pretty hilarious snark-filled portrayal of journalism students that was circulated by a variety of social media aggregators.

This is just the beginning.

If you haven’t seen it yet, you need to check out Sir Ken Robinson’s fantastic TED lecture “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”  He illustrated this phenomenon (and how it’s challenging the traditional model of education to respond):

If you’re looking for opportunities, look for creative people. Look for the right-brained, D&D-playing, insect-watching, action figure-collecting, “I-think-better-with-my-socks-off” kind of people.

In Praise of the Skunkworks

July 27, 2010 Leave a comment

Wherever I’ve worked, the most innovative work gets done outside the official hierarchy and processes.  It’s unfortunate but true.  For good reason, the leadership of most organizations is risk-averse.  That makes it important to allow the freedom for employees to collaborate across various departments and to give them some leeway in their work duties to pursue the things they believe are important (a principle 3M thrives on).

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Some great examples of the value of the skunkworks at Grand Rapids Community College:

  • Social Media Engagement:  Though it was never part of my job description, I’ve been following and experimenting with social media on behalf of my organization for years, and it’s now turning into a valuable tool for outreach and information gathering.
  • Online Reputation Management: Watching the conversations about things I’m interested in has long been a practice of mine, and I brought it with me to GRCC.  It’s now a core part of my workday and the college relies on the insights we glean from conversations in social media.
  • iPhone App:  This project was rejected by the leadership of the college’s IT department, so my friend/colleague (and brilliant programmer) Szymon Machajewski worked on it in his free time.
  • Social Media Policy:  No one asked for it, but I felt there was a need for the college to engage employees on the topic of social media, so I drafted guidelines that are currently making their way through the approval process.
  • SMS Txt Crisis Messages:  Undertaken by the Distance Learning staff with the exceedingly generous contributions of Doug Kaufman of Cleartxt (the crisis portion of which was later acquired by Rave Wireless), GRCC became the first college in the region (and possibly the state) to offer crisis text messaging waaay back in 2005 – long before the shootings at Virginia Tech that popularized the service among higher education institutions.
  • Collaboration With Google Docs: Early adopters at the college like Eric Mullen began using Google Docs and they now serve as the basis for the work GRCC’s Communications Dept. does (using forms/templates to collect data about projects, and shared folders to hold project-related data that can be shared seamlessly).

So to my colleagues Szymon Machajewski, Klaas Kwant, Eric Kunnen, Eric Mullen,  Garrett Brand and Patrick LaPenna – thanks for making work a fulfilling, engaging, challenging experience.  All hail the Skunkworks!

Interpersonal is the new Mass Media

February 26, 2010 2 comments

Many to Many

We’re losing our camouflage.  It used to be that if you weren’t good at intelligently engaging one-on-one with people, you could conceal that fact.  The distance of geography, the speed of the printed word, and the cover of exclusive groups allowed us to compensate for poor interpersonal communication skills.   It took time for ramifications to unfold, your thoughts could be carefully composed, and you didn’t have to deal with people that weren’t like you.

No longer.

Deirdre Breakenridge just wrote a great post calling this new reality “PR 2.0 Raw” (following up on an interview with Tatyana Gann) – it’s a great metaphor.  My favoite line:  “Media training doesn’t work in the blogosphere.” The blogosphere doesn’t agree on a list of questions beforehand, nor wait patiently in the green room, nor is it tempered by the quids pro quo that exist between the traditional newsmedia and the influencers they cover.

I’m serious as a heart attack when I say that discovering the chatrooms and messageboards of the Internet in the 90s (and karaoke) really helped me grow as a person; they were the training wheels that helped purge me of a lot of my insecurities.  I found that I was actually a likable person and that I had something valuable to contribute.    It also sharpened my ability to think on my feet (and to type at a blistering pace).  As a result, I’m really optimistic about the future because I’m very comfortable with the “PR 2.o Raw” reality.  I never liked impersonally blasting media outlets with template press releases anyway.

PR Flak

Seriously - get over yourself.

I have a sense of humor, I loathe taking myself too seriously and I try to infuse that spirit in everything I do.  That’s why my employee ID says “PR Flak” (it’s the sort of thing that happens when you let student workers run the ID printing machines).   In this new environment, I think it’s more important to study the timing of stand-up comics than the AP Style Guide.  Teaching an Interpersonal Communication class has really reinforced that for me.  Reading nonverbal behavior, understanding how to mediate conflicts, and adopting an other-oriented approach in an increasingly diverse world are what it’s all about.

So if you’re great with people, good news – the world is now your oyster.  If not – you better roll up your sleeves and invest in some personal growth.

* If you’re looking for some light reading, I recommend “Don’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life‘” by Bryan Raftery (and not just because it mirrors my own biography).

Accreditation as Protectionism in the New Economy

August 3, 2009 Leave a comment

[Update: Am I prescient or what?  Inside Higher Ed just published an article about the battle going on at the federal level over which accrediting agencies are deserving of recognition.]

In his book (which I highly recommend) “What Would Google Do?,” Jeff Jarvis introduces a theme that runs throughout his discussion of how the Internet is fundamentally reshaping the world: “Protection is not a strategy for the future.” The most au courant example of this unwise strategy (which we can watch failing in real-time) is the newspaper industry, but there are plenty of others littering the info superhighway:

“How many companies and industries fail to heed the warnings they know are there but refuse to see?  The music industry is, of course, the best example of digital dead meat.  Detroit waited far too long to make smaller cars and pursue electricity as a fuel.  Many retail chains opened stores online but stopped there, not seeing opportunities to forge new relationships with customers as Amazon had.  Telecom companies were blindsided by the emergence of open networks that undercut their business – even as those networks operated on the telecom companies’ own wires.  Ad agencies kept trying to forestall the reinvention of their industry, still buying mass media evn as more targeted and efficient opportunities grew on the internet.  News executives thought they could avoid change and even believed they should be immune from it because they were the holders of a holy flame: Journalism with a capital J.  […] They lost their destinies because they wanted to save their pasts.”

As I read this section, it occurred to me that even the non-profit sector is not immune from the threat of an inclination toward protectionism.  For colleges and universities, protectionism takes the form of accreditation.

Read more…

On Crediblity and Higher Education

June 5, 2009 Leave a comment

I’m of the opinion that too few higher education institutions are making strides toward ensuring their relevance as human communication continues its Internet-enabled seismic shift. This is increasingly clearer as I read two seemingly-unconnected reports (posts? accounts? who knows what to call them anymore).

First, Seth Godin blogged about an intriguing venture he’s been working on (“Learning From the MBA Program”) – an unaccredited, invitation-only MBA program. One can already hear traditional academics sniffing with upturned noses . The program is almost entirely hands-on practical learning and involves only 5-20 hours of lecturing per week. It’s also heavy on field trips and superb guest speakers.

Godin recalls his own graduate school experience: Read more…