Category Archives: innovation

Help me realize a dream!

For the first time in my life I am entering this kind of competition and I am really excited about it!

Microsoft and Lenovo have launched “Name Your Dream Assignment” competition.  They are going to give $50K to one of the top 20 photography projects that will win the popular vote on their website.

I just submitted mine and you can find it here (there is also a badge on the main page that is linked to my project).  Since there are space limitations for project descriptions, I also created a page here, on ThinkMacro, that has more details.  Please feel free to explore.

If you are reading this, I would really appreciate if you take a few minutes and vote for my project!

Please PIC IT!

Economic peace?

The phrase “economic peace” may not be the most popular phrase in the Middle East, since it was utilized for the election campaign of Likud.  However, economics seems to be a powerful element and things happen in spite of politics.

I am writing this because I just learned from the Good Neighbors blog about a new initiative by Wharton (I assume MBA) students, called LendforPeace.org. The initiatives seems to be a close replica of the Kiva, which I think one of the most innovative projects combining micro-finance with possibilities opened up by technological progress.  The main difference between Kiva and LendforPeace is the geographical focus.  In their own words:

LendforPeace.org is a not-for-profit Internet platform that allows individuals like you to make small loans to specific micro-entrepreneurs in the Palestinian Territories.

Our mission is to use micro-lending to promote economic opportunity and political stability in the Middle East.

The website was officially launced at the beginning of this month with a grant from Clinton Foundation after a pilot set of loans ($5000) was successfully returned in about half a year (you can learn more about it on their blog).

One of the “selling points” of the project is that it is established by two Jewish and two Palestinian students.  I presonally think that it would be even cooler if it these were two Israelis and two Palestinians in the team. Nevertheless I find these kinds of joint ventures encouraging.

The real change in change.gov

Not so long ago, i draw a short comparison between change.gov and kremlin.ru.  I think my main observation was that both websites are more of propaganda machines that allow no feedback mechanisms.  It looks like I was wrong and I am happy to admit that.

As i noticed in the last digest, change.gov is now offering a mechanism for interaction and is trying to build an active community on their website.  First there was a discussion about health care and now there is a discussion about economy.  They keep those discussions limited in time, which is understandable, and it will be interesting to see how these discussions will be implemented in actual policy making.

In a number of face to face conversations I had with people following my post criticizing change.gov for lack of a feedback mechanism, was the trickiness of having an open platform when it comes to an official website.  While it is natural and expected that on an election website there would be heated, and not always politically correct debates, it is not necessarily appropriate for an official government website.  Moreover, while it can be understandable if messages viewed as inappropriate by the campaign are removed from the website, it is again much more complicated when it comes to an official government website.  What does it say about free speech, when the government website starts making decision about appropriate and inappropriate content produced by it users.  Where is the line between censorship, or even more so, appearance of censorship?

Back then, I argued that clear and up-front community rules, may be a solution for this sensitive situation.  Interestingly, this is was the strategy taken by change.gov.  They just published a guide to comments, which is also linked to the comments policy.  They implement a set of community principles and technical tools to foster a community.  For example, while you can comment each time by a different name, they encourage you to register and maintain an online identity as a means for community-building.  They also have a rating system for comments, which seems like a useful tool.  The comment policy is also very simple, yet it leaves an ample room for the website managers to remove content and block users.

All in all, the first steps look very promising and the snippets of discussion that I saw seem rather thoughtful and constructive.  It will be interesting to see how the website managers will deal with removing content and blocking users, something that will have eventually happen.

A couple of side thoughts, though…

First, I wonder if what allows such an open policy is the fact that change.gov is not really a government website.  I remember reading that the website is run by an NGO registered to support the transition team (even though I could not find a reference to that on the website now).  So, formally, even though the website carries a .gov domain, it is not a government website, thus there are less strings attached to what can be done there.  I wonder, whether after the inauguration, they will maintain a similar approach.

Second, I think that if this approach of using online tools for an open public discussion will take off, we will probably witness a renewed debate about the digital divide.  The kind of discussion hosted at change.gov is absolutely unprecedented in its scope and it is open to many more people than any other government discussion so far.  However, it clearly leaves out those who do not have the technology, or who are not technologically savvy enough to engage in an online discussion.

The MICT-related innovation of Obama administration is definitely impressive and I feel I am really lucky to being in the US to witness this.

Do social networks have a business model?

As the economic sky is getting covered with clouds of financial crisis and deepening recession, people start questioning the web 2.0 oriented business models, or more so the lack of thereof.

Recently I read about Mark Zuckerberg making statements suggesting that growth is the primary goal of Facebook at this point, and not revenue.  They do a pretty good job with the former (even though it is becoming harder), but at the end of the day it is the latter that matters.  Basically what he said in an interview to (German newspaper/site) NAZ.com is that Facebook has yet developed a business model, which is really mind boiling provided the amount of investments the receive.

In this light, I started thinking about the different approaches the US and the Russian social networking enterprises are taking.  And I wonder if at some point, Facebook and others will try to adopt some of the methods they Russian counterparts are using.  I think that Russian enterprises are not as “spoiled” in terms of investments and in terms of their investors’ patience.  Yet, there are social networking websites in Runet and they are rather blunt and creative in the way they are making money.  I have some degree of familiarity with two of them – Vkontakte.ru and Odnoklasniki.ru.

Vkontakte“, which is a blunt rip off Facebook, is rather mysterious.  It does not have any ads (but does have a lot of spam) and it is not clear at all how it is funded (to a degree that some conspiracy theories suggest that it is a government project aimed at spying on Russian citizens).  Yet, it seems to be the most popular social networking website in Russia these days.  Some suggest that it has cloned FB’s business model, but I could not see the exact parallel.  They do allow you to buy virtual gifts in Vkontakte, but I have not seen a single add.  The last fact actually attracted some English-speaking people who miss the old FB or cannot access it from work.

I find “Odnoklasniki” more interesting in the sense of monetizing on social sentiments of their users, even though it is not as popular as Vkontakte (and it probably appeals to a different demographic, but that is for another post).  To start with, they have a pretty horrible interface design.  FB (and as a derivation, Vkontakte) have done a significantly better job in making a useful and interesting website (or should I say “platform”?).  Odnoklasniki is very simple and not very intuitive, but apparently it works.  In addition to (supposedly contextualized) ads, Odnoklasniki is experimenting with making money off the very basic human needs that bring people to use their website in the first place.

For example, Odnoklasniki has a very different view of privacy and unlike FB, it always shows you who and when viewed your profile.  Yet, they understand that as much as we want to know who is looking at us, we don’t want others to know that we are looking at them.  So, if you would like to remain invisible as you visit other people’s profiles, they can offer you this service for just a little bit over US $4 a month.  Apparently it works!  You know that because even when an “invisible” user visits your profile, you still see that there was a visit, you just don’t know from whom.

Another example is the picture rating system they use on the website.  Odnoklasniki allows its users to rate other users’ pictures on a 1-5 scale.  This is of course another socially sensitive issue.  On the one hand, you would probably like to complement people you like by giving them the highest rating possible.  On the other hand, it is a social networking website, so it has a little bit of a beauty contest component to it.  In other words, you want your pictures to have high ratings, as this probably signifies popularity.

Odnoklasniki are using (or shall i say exploiting) both sentiments.  On the one hand, for a little bit over US $4 a month, you can get an ability to give out a 5+ mark to other people’s pictures (5+ vs. 5 is like A+ vs. A).  On the other hand, you can insure one picture at a time in your collection from getting low ratings.  When you apply this service, the system will automatically add 1 point to any rating below 5.  Surprisingly, this service is free, but it is “sponsored” by an insurance agency, which proudly advertises itself when you are trying to insure your pictures and I assume once you apply this insurance.

These are just a couple of examples and some of the serveices are rather new.  I don’t know how viable the business model of Odnoklasniki is, but I do find it fascinating that they are trying to monetize on the social aspects of these networks, which is why people people are using these domains in the first place.  What do you think?  Can/should FB think about other aspects of the platform they’ve developed?  Should they view it not just as an advertising platform?  Can/should they try making money out of it?

Affordible technology

Recently i blogged about some number of mobile penetration in Africa.  Now i came across this rather old article (HE) about an Israeli company that develops under $25 mobile phones.  The great part of this story is that these seem to be not just simpler (and thus cheaper) phones, but handhelds that have internet and multimedia capabilities.  Neat…

Serious games

I saw a Washington Post article about an emerging trend of serious games.  It mentions a very interesting initiative called “Games for change“, which describes itself in the following way:

Games for Change (G4C) provides support, visibility and shared resources to individuals and organizations using digital games for social change. We provide special assistance to foundations and non-profits entering the field. Today, G4C acts as a national hub to help organizations network and develop videogame projects beyond their traditional expertise. Our members represent hundreds of organizations and include partners in the games industry, academia, nonprofits, local and state governments, foundations, the UN and artists.

They have a rather interesting website with many examples of serious games and it also seems that there is quite a vibrant community surrounding these issues.  They have a section of youth produced games, which currently has only one game and i could not really see how it was youth produced (but maybe i am missing something).  Nevertheless, the concept is interesting.

It also reminded that it’s been a while since wanted to post a note about (already not so) new project by Impact Games (creators of Peace Maker).  It’s called “Play the news” and it is kind of a dream league, but for news.  I’ve been following this project since its beta and i find it as an interesting approach to keep people interested in the world’s matters.  My only “worry” is that it seems (based on the discussions on the site) that at least the current pool of participants consists primarily of people who are already curious and knowledgeable about the world affairs.  It would be interesting to see how this idea flies among the youths, who are being blamed to become more disengaged, apathetic, and more.

Things you can do Wii with

A while ago i wrote about things you can do with Wii. Now i learned about a group of young Israelis, Veronica’s former colleagues, who created a software that allows you to make Wii using a regular webcam. The product is called CamSpace and they have already registered a company that is promoting it. Check out their video and feel free to sign up for beta-testing. I think it is very impressive!

Technologies that help

It’s been a while since i read this article (HE) about two young Israeli entrepreneurs who participated in developing GPS software that would be friendly for the visually impaired people. If you ever used a GPS, you would know that many (most?) of them are capable of providing voice directions. However, it is not good enough if you cannot see properly. The program that they developed makes more use of voice. For example when you select destinations or want to find out where you are at the moment and what is there in your surroundings. One interesting feature of the program is its adjustment for the use of public transportation – it will tell you what bus stop you are at and when you should get off. The main downside of the program at the moment is its price.

Recently I also read this news update about a free email service, RoboBraille, that translates text into audio or Braille. According to this article, it takes the program “can return a simple text in Braille in under a minute while taking as long as 10 hours to provide an audio recording of a book”, which i think is still very impressive (provided that the final quality of the output is good). They report to work on about 500 documents a day and have translated a quarter million texts so far. My only unanswered question here is how a visually impaired, probably blind person is supposed to send that email. That would probably require some more expansive hardware and software, which still maintains a barrier.

Even though I still have some questions, I am really excited when the information technology is used to solve real, substantial problems. If you have more examples, please share!

Innovation and confusion

XO-2 Laptop AI read some exciting news today. OLPC project revealed its plans for the next generation of the “$100 laptop.” It looks really neat and i think has a number of really innovative ideas. For example, the double touch screen one part of which can also be used as a keyboard, sound really fascinating. Reading about it makes me really wanting one.

Then, as i continued reading, i got confused, particularly by looking at the feedback provided by people who own the current version of XO (read the comments here for example). It seems like while concentrating on technical innovation, the OLPC crew neglected mundane things such as production, service, and implementation. Although XO-1has been deployed, it seems too soon to conclude this phase as successful. Particularly with the recent changes iXO-2 Laptop Bn the project’s leadership and the ongoing debate about the identity of OLPC as a technological vs. educational project, there are still a lot of question marks. One of the more obvious ones is whether or not it will be relevant by the target date of 2010 with the recent exposure of low-cost laptops.

So, at the end of the day, i think the ideas in XO team are rather brilliant (looks like they can also design in an Apple style!) and i truly hope they will be also capable of translating this innovation into substantive change.

Innovating for conformity?

OLPCJust read a blog post about the new CEO of the OLPC project, who seem to envision the project in more technological and less educational terms. Then i read a response to that post written by Gaurav Chachra, who presents himself as “founder member of OLPC India Student Chapter“.

Gaurav is actually making a very good point about the (unrealized) potential of the OLPC project to impact the power balance between people and technology as a primarily commercially-driven institution. He asks a simple question about why would we want OLPC to run Windows XP in first place? I can think of potential answers such as Windows being the most commonly used platform and thus it is necessary to work with it in order to compete in the modern economy. At the same time, I wonder where does it put those, who are joining this competition race at this stage, in the technological hierarchy. It looks like if those who are joining now will have to catch up, while on the other hand there is knowledge in the system that could potentially allow them to leap-frog the catching up or just approach the entire situation from a different angle.

The latter point brings an even larger question about the “digital culture” and this is where the question of power relations. Naturally, Microsoft has an invested interest in making Windows XP the primary operating system for any vast technology-literacy project/movement in the developing world. If we learn that the world is flat, we will be hesitant to go and explore the ages. Similarly, if we learn that computers are Microsoft, we will be hesitant to explore the alternatives (even if there would be people who explain to us that the alternatives are better). The question of the OLPC’s ability to run Windows XP is a clear outcome of this path dependency and us being used to a specific kind of computer mediated experience. However, the point Faurav is making is that the vast populations of children in developing world have never been socialized in the ways we are using technology in the more privileged parts of the world. So, what not using this opportunity to re-examine the values underlying our efforts in the technology and development realm?

I wonder if taking the OLPC to the Windows-dominated reality would not constitute something that looks like innovation for conformity?