Pushing the Envelopes: New US Postal Service Report Assesses Possible Blockchain Applications

"Vibrant US Air Mail Stamp", Image by Nicolas Raymond

“Vibrant US Air Mail Stamp”, Image by Nicolas Raymond

Way before the advent of email, when people exclusively wrote letters on paper and mailed them to each other (yes, this really did happen once upon a time), there was a long-running scam known as the “chain letter“. Recipients who received such a letter were asked, often through manipulative language, to copy it and send it on to as many other people as possible. In effect, these were structured as fraudulent pyramid schemes that ultimately would collapse in on themselves.

Sometimes chain letters involved illegal financial dealings and other hoaxes, also producing unwanted emotional effects on who mistakenly fell for them. Variations of the chain letter still survive today online and operate using email, texting and social media.

However, an emerging new form of virtual chain, in conjunction with the mail service, might soon appear – – namely using the blockchain – – within the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). However, this combination could potentially produce four very positive improvements in services. These exciting prospects were the subject of a most interesting new post on Quartz.com on May 24, 2016 entitled Even the US Postal Service Wants to Start Using Blockchain Tech, by Ian Kar. I recommend reading this article in its entirety. I will summarize and annotate it, and pose some questions of my own (but without any additional postage due).

While blockchain technology has been getting a great deal of press coverage recently involving innovative new development initiatives in, among other fields, finance, law, government and the arts, this story illustrates how it also might affect something as routine and mundane as mail service with possibly dramatic results. Such changes could produce significant economic and logistical advances that would affect just about anyone who checks their real world mailbox every day.

(These six Subway Fold posts cover just a small sampling of blochchain projects.)

Better Letters

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

Traditionally, the USPS has never really distinguished itself as a leader in innovation. Rather, it has a long reputation for its inefficient operations. This could possibly be significantly changed by this series of a series of blockchain proposals. Because this technology is decentralized, widely accessible, and secured by encryption, it is highly resistant to tampering.

On May 23, 2016, the USPS Office of the Inspector General and a consulting firm called Swiss Economics, published a new report entitled Blockchain Technology: Possibilities for the U.S. Postal Service. It analyzed the following four possible future implementations:

1.  Financial Services:  US post offices currently offers a limited number of financial services such as international money transfers. The IOG report speculated that the USPS “could benefit from developing its own bitcoin-like digital currency”.  Perhaps it could be called “Postcoin”. This would permit the expansion into other financial services such as a “global payment service” for people without traditional bank accounts.

2.  Identity:  An individual’s identity could be verified for the USPS using a blockchain. Essentially, they already do this when they deliver your mail to you each day. By using a blockchain for this, the USPS could provide you with assistance to help you manage both your online and offline identities “by storing it on an immutable ledger”.

3.  Logistics Support:  Applying the blochchain to support the Internet of Things (IoT) could enhance the USPS logistics management operations. The IGO report imagine a system where “vehicles and sorting equipment could manage their own tracking, monitoring, and maintenance”. This could include items such as autonomously, efficiently and economically monitoring brake pad performance including:

  • Assessing when one will need to be replaced
  • Determining whether its warranty is still in effect
  • Creating a smart contract with a vendor to replace it
  • Paying for the part and its installation

4.  Mail Tracking:  On a daily basis, the USPS delivers 509 million pieces of mail. As stated in the OIG report, the blockchain can be deployed to uniquely identify each piece of it. This could be done with “a small sensor” on each piece in order to use the blockchain to “manage the chain of custody between different USPS partners, like UPS and Fedex”. As well, the blockchain could be put to the additional uses of:

  • Expediting customs clearance
  • Integrating payments
  • Shipping upon one unified platform

[All of these components form the very convenient anagram FILM, thus making it easier to, well, picture.]

For now, the USPS intends to keep studying blockchain technology. The OIG report states that the agency “could benefit from experimenting” with it on new financial products and then eventually progress on toward “more complex uses”.

"Stamped Mail to be Posted", Image by Steven Depolo

“Stamped Mail to be Posted”, Image by Steven Depolo

My Questions

  • Would these blochchain apps have a negative impact on USPS revenues as this massive government agency has been running at a budget deficit for many years? If so, would this have unintended negative consequences for consumers and/or the USPS?
  • Conversely, can the USPS use blockchain innovations to create new sources of revenue and employment? What new sorts of job descriptions and titles might emerge?
  • Would the blockchain do away with the traditional services of certified, registered, priority and insured mail? If so, what forms of proof of delivery or non-delivery could be provided to consumers?
  • Would any of these proposed new apps possibly create new privacy issues for consumers and policy concerns for the US government?
  • What type of opportunities might arise for entrepreneurs to create new mail apps built on the blockchain?

Ethical Issues and Considerations Arising in Big Data Research

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

In 48 of 50 states in the US, new attorneys are required to pass a 60 multiple-choice question exam on legal ethics in addition to passing their state’s bar exam. This is known as the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE). I well recall taking this test myself.

The subject matter of this test is the professional ethical roles and responsibilities a lawyer must abide by as an advocate and counselor to clients, courts and the legal profession. It is founded upon a series of ethical considerations and disciplinary rules that are strictly enforced by the bars of each state. Violations can potentially lead to a series of professional sanctions and, in severe cases depending upon the facts, disbarment from practice for a term of years or even permanently.

In other professions including, among others, medicine and accounting, similar codes of ethics exist and are expected to be scrupulously followed. They are defined efforts to ensure honesty, quality, transparency and integrity in their industries’ dealings with the public, and to address certain defined breaches. Many professional trade organizations also have formal codes of ethics but often do not have much, if any, sanction authority.

Should some comparable forms of guidelines and boards likewise be put into place to oversee the work of big data researchers? This was the subject of a very compelling article posted on Wired.com on May 20, 2016, entitled Scientists Are Just as Confused About the Ethics of Big-Data Research as You by Sharon Zhang. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety. I will summarize, annotate and add some further context to this, as well as pose a few questions of my own.

Two Recent Data Research Incidents

Last month. an independent researcher released, without permission, the profiles with very personal information of 70,000 users of the online dating site OKCupid. These users were quite angered by this. OKCupid is pursuing a legal claim to remove this data.

Earlier in 2014, researchers at Facebook manipulated items in users’ News Feeds for a study on “mood contagion“.¹ Many users were likewise upset when they found out. The journal that published this study released an “expression of concern”.

Users’ reactions over such incidents can have an effect upon subsequent “ethical boundaries”.

Nonetheless, the researchers involved in both of these cases had “never anticipated” the significant negative responses to their work. The OKCupid study was not scrutinized by any “ethical review process”, while a review board at Cornell had concluded that the Facebook study did not require a full review because the Cornell researchers only had a limited role in it.

Both of these incidents illustrate how “untested the ethics” are of these big data research. Only now are the review boards that oversee the work of these researchers starting to pay attention to emerging ethical concerns. This is in high contrast to the controls and guidelines upon medical research in clinical trials.

The Applicability of The Common Rule and Institutional Research Boards

In the US, under the The Common Rule, which governs ethics for federally funded biomedical and behavioral research where humans are involved, studies are required to undergo an ethical review.  However, such review does not apply a “unified system”, but rather, each university maintains its own institutional review board (IRB). These are composed of other (mostly medical) researchers at each university. Only a few of them “are professional ethicists“.

To a lesser extent, do they have experience in computer technology. This deficit may be affecting the protection of subjects who participate in data science research projects. In the US, there are hundreds of IRBs but they are each dealing with “research efforts in the digital age” in their own ways.

Both the Common Rule and the IRB system came into being following the revelation in the 1970s that the U.S. Public Health Service had, between 1932 and 1972, engaged in a terrible and shameful secret program that came to be known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. This involved leaving African Americans living in rural Alabama with untreated syphilis in order to study the disease. As a result of this outrage, the US Department of Health and Human Services created new regulations concerning any research on human subjects they conducted. All other federal agencies likewise adopted such regulations. Currently, “any institution that gets federal funding has to set up an IRB to oversee research involving humans”.

However, many social scientists today believe these regulations are not accurate or appropriate for their types of research involving areas where the risks involved “are usually more subtle than life or death”. For example, if you are seeking volunteers to take a survey on test-taking behaviors, the IRB language requirements on physical risks does not fit the needs of the participants in such a study.

Social scientist organizations have expressed their concern about this situation. As a result, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has recommended:

  • Adding more social scientists to IRBs, or
  • Creating new and separate review boards to assess social science research

In 2013, AAUP issued a report entitled Regulation of Research on Human Subjects: Academic Freedom and the Institutional Review Board, recommending that the researchers themselves should decide if “their minimal risk work needs IRB approval or not”. In turn, this would make more time available to IRBs for “biomedical research with life-or-death stakes”.

This does not, however, imply that all social science research, including big data studies, are entirely risk-free.

Ethical Issues and Risk Analyses When Data Sources Are Comingled

Dr. Elizabeth A. Buchanan who works as an ethicist at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, believes that the Internet is now entering its “third phase” where researchers can, for example, purchase several years’ worth of Twitter data and then integrate it “with other publicly available data”.² This mixture results in issues involving “ethics and privacy”.

Recently, while serving on an IRB, she took part in evaluated a project proposal involving merging mentions of a drug by its street name appearing on social media with public crime data. As a result, people involved in crimes could potentially become identified. The IRB still gave its approval. According to Dr. Buchanan, the social value of this undertaking must be weighed against its risk. As well, the risk should be minimized by removing any possible “idenifiers” in any public release of this information.

As technology continues to advance, such risk evaluation can become more challenging. For instance, in 2013, MIT researchers found out that they were able to match up “publicly available DNA sequences” by using data about the participants that the “original researchers” had uploaded online.³ Consequently, in such cases, Dr. Buchanan believes it is crucial for IRBs “to have either a data scientist, computer scientist or IT security individual” involved.

Likewise, other types of research organizations such as, among others, open science repositories, could perhaps “pick up the slack” and handle more of these ethical questions. According to Michelle Meyer, a bioethicist at Mount Sinai, oversight must be assumed by someone but the best means is not likely to be an IRB because they do not have the necessary “expertise in de-identification and re-identification techniques”.

Different Perspectives on Big Data Research

A technology researcher at the University of Maryland 4 named Dr. Katie Shilton recently conducted interviews of “20 online data researchers”. She discovered “significant disagreement” among them on matters such as the “ethics of ignoring Terms of Service and obtaining informed consent“. The group also reported that the ethical review boards they dealt with never questioned the ethics of the researchers, while peer reviewers and their professional colleagues had done so.

Professional groups such as the Association of Internet Researchers (AOIR) and the Center for Applied Internet Data Analysis (CAIDA) have created and posted their own guidelines:

However, IRBs who “actually have power” are only now “catching up”.

Beyond universities, tech companies such as Microsoft have begun to establish in-house “ethical review processes”. As well, in December 2015, the Future of Privacy Forum held a gathering called Beyond IRBs to evaluate “processes for ethical review outside of federally funded research”.

In conclusion., companies continually “experiment on us” with data studies. Just to name to name two, among numerous others, they focus on A/B testing 5 of news headings and supermarket checkout lines. As they hire increasing numbers of data scientists from universities’ Ph.D. programs, these schools are sensing an opportunity to close the gap in terms of using “data to contribute to public knowledge”.

My Questions

  • Would the companies, universities and professional organizations who issue and administer ethical guidelines for big data studies be taken more seriously if they had the power to assess and issue public notices for violations? How could this be made binding and what sort of appeals processes might be necessary?
  • At what point should the legal system become involved? When do these matters begin to involve civil and/or criminal investigations and allegations? How would big data research experts be certified for hearings and trials?
  • Should teaching ethics become a mandatory part of curriculum in data science programs at universities? If so, should the instructors only be selected from the technology industry or would it be helpful to invite them from other industries?
  • How should researchers and their employers ideally handle unintended security and privacy breaches as a result of their work? Should they make timely disclosures and treat all inquiries with a high level of transparency?
  • Should researchers experiment with open source methods online to conduct certain IRB functions for more immediate feedback?

 


1.  For a detailed report on this story, see Facebook Tinkers With Users’ Emotions in News Feed Experiment, Stirring Outcry, by Vindu Goel, in the June 29, 2014 edition of The New York Times.

2These ten Subway Fold posts cover a variety of applications in analyzing Twitter usage data.

3.  For coverage on this story see an article published in The New York Times on January 17, 2013, entitled Web Hunt for DNA Sequences Leaves Privacy Compromised, by Gina Kolata.

4.  For another highly interesting but unrelated research initiative at the University of Maryland, see the December 27, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Virtual Reality Universe-ity: The Immersive “Augmentarium” Lab at the U. of Maryland.

5.  For a detailed report on this methodology, see the September 30, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Google’s A/B Testing Method is Being Applied to Improve Government Operations.

Mary Meeker’s 2016 Internet Trends Presentation

"Blue Marble - 2002", Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

“Blue Marble – 2002”, Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

On June 1, 2016, at the 2016 Code Conference held this week in California, Mary Meeker, a world-renowned Internet expert and partner in the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, presented her fifteenth annual in-depth and highly analytical presentation on current Internet trends. It is an absolutely remarkable accomplishment that is highly respected throughout the global technology industry and economy. The video of her speech is available here on Recode.com

Her 2016 Internet Trends presentation file is divided into a series of eight main sections covering, among many other things: Internet user and financial growth rates, online advertising, generational market segments and technological preferences, new products and vendors, mobile screens for nearly everything, e-commerce, big data, privacy issues, video growth on social media platforms, messaging systems , smartphone growth,  voice interfaces, consumer spending, online security, connectivity, Facebook’s v. Google’s growth rates, and massive consumer markets in China and India. That is just the tip of the tip of the iceberg in this 213-slide file.

Ms. Meeker’s assessments and predictions here form an extraordinarily comprehensive and insightful piece of work. There is much here for anyone and everyone to learn and consider in the current and trending states nearly anything and everything online. Moreover, there are likely many potential opportunities for new and established businesses, as well as other institutions, within this file.

I very highly recommend that you set aside some time to thoroughly read through Ms. Meeker’s full presentation. You will be richly rewarded with knowledge and insight that can potentially yield a world of informative and practical dividends.

Digital Smarts Everywhere: The Emergence of Ambient Intelligence

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

The Troggs were a legendary rock and roll band who were part of the British Invasion in the late 1960’s. They have always been best known for their iconic rocker Wild Thing. This was also the only Top 10 hit that ever had an ocarina solo. How cool is that! The band went on to have two other major hits, With a Girl Like You and Love is All Around.¹

The third of the band’s classic singles can be stretched a bit to be used as a helpful metaphor to describe an emerging form pervasive “all around”-edness, this time in a more technological context. Upon reading a fascinating recent article on TechCrunch.com entitled The Next Stop on the Road to Revolution is Ambient Intelligence, by Gary Grossman, on May 7, 2016, you will find a compelling (but not too rocking) analysis about how the rapidly expanding universe of digital intelligent systems wired into our daily routines is becoming more ubiquitous, unavoidable and ambient each day.

All around indeed. Just as romance can dramatically affect our actions and perspectives, studies now likewise indicate that the relentless global spread of smarter – – and soon thereafter still smarter – – technologies is comparably affecting people’s lives at many different levels.² 

We have followed just a sampling of developments and trends in the related technologies of artificial intelligence, machine learning, expert systems and swarm intelligence in these 15 Subway Fold posts. I believe this new article, adding “ambient intelligence” to the mix, provides a timely opportunity to bring these related domains closer together in terms of their common goals, implementations and benefits. I highly recommend reading Mr. Grossman’s piece it in its entirety.

I will summarize and annotate it, add some additional context, and then pose some of my own Trogg-inspired questions.

Internet of Experiences

Digital this, that and everything is everywhere in today’s world. There is a surging confluence of connected personal and business devices, the Internet, and the Internet of Things (I0T) ³. Woven closely together on a global scale, we have essentially built “a digital intelligence network that transcends all that has gone before”. In some cases, this quantum of advanced technologies gains the “ability to sense, predict and respond to our needs”, and is becoming part of everyone’s “natural behaviors”.

A forth industrial revolution might even manifest itself in the form of machine intelligence whereby we will interact with the “always-on, interconnected world of things”. As a result, the Internet may become characterized more by experiences where users will converse with ambient intelligent systems everywhere. The supporting planks of this new paradigm include:

A prediction of what more fully realized ambient intelligence might look like using travel as an example appeared in an article entitled Gearing Up for Ambient Intelligence, by Lisa Morgan, on InformationWeek.com on March 14, 2016. Upon leaving his or her plane, the traveler will receive a welcoming message and a request to proceed to the curb to retrieve their luggage. Upon reaching curbside, a self-driving car6 will be waiting with information about the hotel booked for the stay.

Listening

Another article about ambient intelligence entitled Towards a World of Ambient Computing, by Simon Bisson, posted on ZDNet.com on February 14, 2014, is briefly quoted for the line “We will talk, and the world will answer”, to illustrate the point that current technology will be morphing into something in the future that would be nearly unrecognizable today. Grossman’s article proceeds to survey a series of commercial technologies recently brought to market as components of a fuller ambient intelligence that will “understand what we are asking” and provide responsive information.

Starting with Amazon’s Echo, this new device can, among other things:

  • Answer certain types of questions
  • Track shopping lists
  • Place orders on Amazon.com
  • Schedule a ride with Uber
  • Operate a thermostat
  • Provide transit schedules
  • Commence short workouts
  • Review recipes
  • Perform math
  • Request a plumber
  • Provide medical advice

Will it be long before we begin to see similar smart devices everywhere in homes and businesses?

Kevin Kelly, the founding Executive Editor of WIRED and a renowned futurist7, believes that in the near future, digital intelligence will become available in the form of a utility8 and, as he puts it “IQ as a service”. This is already being done by Google, Amazon, IBM and Microsoft who are providing open access to sections of their AI coding.9 He believes that success for the next round of startups will go to those who enhance and transforms something already in existence with the addition of AI. The best example of this is once again self-driving cars.

As well, in a chapter on Ambient Computing from a report by Deloitte UK entitled Tech Trends 2015, it was noted that some products were engineering ambient intelligence into their products as a means to remain competitive.

Recommending

A great deal of AI is founded upon the collection of big data from online searching, the use of apps and the IoT. This universe of information supports neural networks learn from repeated behaviors including people’s responses and interests. In turn, it provides a basis for “deep learning-derived personalized information and services” that can, in turn, derive “increasingly educated guesses with any given content”.

An alternative perspective, that “AI is simply the outsourcing of cognition by machines”, has been expressed by Jason Silva, a technologist, philosopher and video blogger on Shots of Awe. He believes that this process is the “most powerful force in the universe”, that is, of intelligence. Nonetheless, he sees this as an evolutionary process which should not be feared. (See also the December 27, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled  Three New Perspectives on Whether Artificial Intelligence Threatens or Benefits the World.)

Bots are another contemporary manifestation of ambient intelligence. These are a form of software agent, driven by algorithms, that can independently perform a range of sophisticated tasks. Two examples include:

Speaking

Optimally, bots should also be able to listen and “speak” back in return much like a 2-way phone conversation. This would also add much-needed context, more natural interactions and “help to refine understanding” to these human/machine exchanges. Such conversations would “become an intelligent and ambient part” of daily life.

An example of this development path is evident in Google Now. This service combines voice search with predictive analytics to present users with information prior to searching. It is an attempt to create an “omniscient assistant” that can reply to any request for information “including those you haven’t thought of yet”.

Recently, the company created a Bluetooth-enable prototype of lapel pin based on this technology that operates just by tapping it much like the communicators on Star Trek. (For more details, see Google Made a Secret Prototype That Works Like the Star Trek Communicator, by Victor Luckerson, on Time.com, posted on November 22, 2015.)

The configurations and specs of AI-powered devices, be it lapel pins, some form of augmented reality10 headsets or something else altogether, supporting such pervasive and ambient intelligence are not exactly clear yet. Their development and introduction will take time but remain inevitable.

Will ambient intelligence make our lives any better? It remains to be seen, but it is probably a viable means to handle some of more our ordinary daily tasks. It will likely “fade into the fabric of daily life” and be readily accessible everywhere.

Quite possibly then, the world will truly become a better place to live upon the arrival of ambient intelligence-enabled ocarina solos.

My Questions

  • Does the emergence of ambient intelligence, in fact, signal the arrival of a genuine fourth industrial revolution or is this all just a semantic tool to characterize a broader spectrum of smarter technologies?
  • How might this trend affect overall employment in terms of increasing or decreasing jobs on an industry by industry basis and/or the entire workforce? (See also this June 4, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled How Robots and Computer Algorithms Are Challenging Jobs and the Economy.)
  • How might this trend also effect non-commercial spheres such as public interest causes and political movements?
  • As ambient intelligence insinuates itself deeper into our online worlds, will this become a principal driver of new entrepreneurial opportunities for startups? Will ambient intelligence itself provide new tools for startups to launch and thrive?

 


1.   Thanks to Little Steven (@StevieVanZandt) for keeping the band’s music in occasional rotation on The Underground Garage  (#UndergroundGarage.) Also, for an appreciation of this radio show see this August 14, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled The Spirit of Rock and Roll Lives on Little Steven’s Underground Garage.

2.  For a remarkably comprehensive report on the pervasiveness of this phenomenon, see the Pew Research Center report entitled U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015, by Aaron Smith, posted on April 1, 2015.

3These 10 Subway Fold posts touch upon the IoT.

4.  The Subway Fold category Big Data and Analytics contains 50 posts cover this topic in whole or in part.

5.  The Subway Fold category Telecommunications contains 12 posts cover this topic in whole or in part.

6These 5 Subway Fold posts contain references to self-driving cars.

7.   Mr. Kelly is also the author of a forthcoming book entitled The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, to be published on June 7, 2016 by Viking.

8.  This September 1, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Possible Futures for Artificial Intelligence in Law Practice, in part summarized an article by Steven Levy in the September 2014 issue of WIRED entitled Siri’s Inventors Are Building a Radical New AI That Does Anything You Ask. This covered a startup called Viv Labs whose objective was to transform AI into a form of utility. Fast forward to the Disrupt NY 2016 conference going on in New York last week. On May 9, 2016, the founder of Viv, Dag Kittlaus, gave his presentation about the Viv platform. This was reported in an article posted on TechCrunch.com entitled Siri-creator Shows Off First Public Demo of Viv, ‘the Intelligent Interface for Everything’, by Romain Dillet, on May 9, 2016. The video of this 28-minute presentation is embedded in this story.

9.  For the full details on this story see a recent article entitled The Race Is On to Control Artificial Intelligence, and Tech’s Future by John Markoff and Steve Lohr, published in the March 25, 2016 edition of The New York Times.

10These 10 Subway Fold posts cover some recent trends and development in augmented reality.

Book Review of “Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World”

"Toolbox_LRG", Image by Limor

“Toolbox_LRG”, Image by Limor.

My father loved to tell this story: One of his classmates while he attended the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine was named Robert Schattner. Several years after they graduated, he went on to invent the over-the-counter sore throat lozenge and spray called Chloraseptic. This remedy has been on the market for decades ever since then.

Schattner first devised this product entirely on his own after someone who had just had some teeth pulled asked him for an antiseptic to relieve the pain. He later sold the formula and the rights to a pharmaceutical company for $4M. (Given the rate of inflation since then, this sum today would have been magnitudes more and certainly nothing to sneeze or cough at.)

Thereafter he left the practice of dentistry and went on became a successful businessman and philanthropist. He also contributed for the construction of a new building for the U Penn dental school named the Robert Schattner Center. A brief summary of his invention and contributions can be found in an article entitled Capital Buzz: Chloraseptic Inventor Offers Remedy for School, by Thomas Heath, which appeared in The Washington Post on October 23, 2011.

Mapping the Inventive Process

This is a classic example of how inventors find their ideas and inspiration. There are many other circumstances, methodologies, environments, personality traits, events, technologies and chances occurrences that can also precipitate new inventions. All of them are expertly explained and explored in Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), by Pagan Kennedy.

The book’s five sections distinctly map out the steps in the inception and realization of things so entirely new. In doing so, the author transports the reader to center of this creative process. She deftly uses highly engaging stories, exposition and analyses to illuminate the resourcefulness and persistence of inventors leading to their breakthroughs.

Some of these tales may be familiar but they are skillfully recounted and placed into new contexts. For example, in 1968, an engineer and inventor named Douglas Englebart demonstrated a working computer for the first time with a heretofore unseen “mouse” and “graphical user interface”. (This story has gone on to become a tech legend known as The Mother of All Demos.) Others are presented who are less well-known but brought to life in highly compelling narratives. Together they provide valuable new lessons on the incubation of inventions along a wide spectrum ranging from sippy cups and water toys to mobile phones and medical devices.

The author has seemingly devised a meta-invention of her own: A refreshingly new perspective on reporting the who, what, where and why of inventors, their creations and their wills to succeed. It is a richly detailed schematic of how a creative mind can conceive and execute an original idea for a new widget and, moreover, articulate the need for it and the problem it solves.

Among other methods, Ms. Pagan covers the practice of conducting thought experiments on new concepts that may or may not lend themselves to actual experimentation in the real world. This process was made well-known by Einstein’s efforts to visualize certain problems in physics that led him to his monumental achievements. I suggest trying a thought experiment here to imagine the range of the potential areas of applications for Inventology to evaluate, in an age of countless startups and rapid scientific and technological advancements, all of the populations, challenges and companies it might benefit. Indeed, this book could readily inspire nearly anyone so inclined to pick up a pencil or soldering iron in order to launch the realization of their own proverbial better mousetrap.

Resources for Inventors

Within all of the lively content packed into this book, the struggles and legacy of a previously little known and tragically persecuted figure who learned to harness and teach the inventive process, springs right off the pages. He was a fascinating figure named  Genrich Altshuller who worked as an engineer, writer and inventor in Russia. His most important contribution to the science of invention was the development of the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (better known by its Russian acronym of “TRIZ”). This is a comprehensive system for analyzing and implementing inventive solutions to problems of nearly every imaginable type and scale. Altschuller was willing to share this and instruct anyone who was willing to participate in studying TRIZ. It is still widely used across the modern world. The author masterfully breaks down and clearly explains its essential components.

The true gem in the entire book is how Altshuller, while imprisoned in a brutal jail in Stalinist Russia, used only his mind to devise an ingenious solution to outwit his relentless interrogators. No spoilers here, but it is an emotional triumph that captures the heart and spirit of this remarkable man. Altshuller’s life and influence in generating thousands of inventions reads as though it might make for a dramatic biopic.

Also threaded and detailed throughout the book are the current bounty of easily accessible technological tools available to inventors. First, the web holds a virtual quantum of nearly limitless data that can be researched, processed, shared, crowdsourced (on sites such as InnoCentive) and crowdfunded (on sites such as Kickstarter and Indigogo), in search of medical advances, among many other fields.¹ Second, 3D printing² can be used to quickly and inexpensively fabricate and work on enhancing prototypes of inventions. As a result of this surfeit of resources, the lengthy timelines and prohibitive cost curves that previously discouraged and delayed inventors have now been significantly reduced.

Impossibility is Only Temporary

I live in a neighborhood where it is nearly impossible to park a car. An open parking space has a half-life on the street of about .000001 nano-seconds before it is taken. This situation often reminds me of a suggestion my father also made to me when I was very young. He told me that if I really wanted to solve an important problem when I grew up, I should try to invent a car that, at the press of a button, would fold up into the size and shape of a briefcase that could be easily carried away. At the time, I thought it was impossible and immediately put the, well, brakes on this idea.

Nonetheless, as Inventology expressly and persuasively makes its own brief case, true inventors see impossibility as merely a temporary condition that, with enough imagination and determination, can be overcome. For budding Edisons and creative problem solvers everywhere, this book adds a whole new meaning to the imperative that nothing is truly impossible if you try hard enough and long enough to solve it. This indefatigable spirit permeates all 223 pages of this wonderfully enjoyable, inspirational and informative book.

Inventing your own reason to read it should be easy.


For a dozen very timely examples of inventors and their inventions further typifying much of the content and spirit of Inventology, I highly recommend reading a new feature and viewing its accompanying video posted on Quartz.com on April 26, 2016, entitled These Top Twelve Inventions Could One Day Change the World, by Mike Murphy. It covers the finalists in the 2016 European Inventors Award competition currently being run by the European Patent Office.


1.  For example, last week’s Only Human podcast on NPR included a report on how a woman with Type 1 (T1) diabetes, along with the assistance of her husband, had hacked together an artificial pancreas (called a “closed loop” system), and then shared the technical specs online with other T1s in the Seattle area. I highly recommend listening to this podcast entitled The Robot Vacuum Ate My Pancreas in its entirety.

2.  See also these six Subway Fold posts for a sampling of other trends and developments in 3D printing.

“Technographics” – A New Approach for B2B Marketers to Profile Their Customers’ Tech Systems

"Gold Rings - Sphere 1" Image by Linda K

“Gold Rings – Sphere 1” Image by Linda K

Today’s marketing and business development professionals use a wide array of big data collection and analytical tools to create and refine sophisticated profiles of market segments and their customer bases. These are deployed in order to systematically and scientifically target and sell their goods and services in steadily changing marketplaces.

These processes can include, among a multitude of other vast data sets and methodologies, demographics, web user metrics and econometrics. Businesses are always looking for a data-driven edge in highly competitive sectors and such profiling, when done correctly, can be very helpful in detecting and interpreting market trends, and consistently keeping ahead of their rivals. (The Subway Fold category of Big Data and Analytics now contains 50 posts about a variety of trends and applications in this field.)

I will briefly to this add my own long-term yet totally unscientific study of office-mess-ographics. Here I have been looking for any correlation between the relative states of organization – – or entropy – – in people’s offices and their work’s quality and output.  The results still remain inconclusive after years of study.

One of the most brilliant and accomplished people I have ever known had an office that resembled a cave deep in the earth with piles of paper resembling stalagmites all over it. Even more remarkably, he could reach into any one of those piles and pull out exactly the documents he wanted. His work space was so chaotic that there was a long-standing joke that Jimmy Hoffa’s and Judge Crater’s long-lost remains would be found whenever ever he retired and his office was cleaned out.

Speaking of office-focused analytics, an article posted on VentureBeat.com on March 5, 2016, entitled CMOs: ‘Technographics’ is the New Demographics, by Sean Zinsmeister, brought news of a most interesting new trend. I highly recommend reading this in its entirety. I will summarize and add some context to it, and then pose a few question-ographics of my own.

New Analytical Tool for B2B Marketers

Marketers are now using a new methodology call technography to analyze their customers’ “tech stack“, a term of art for the composition of their supporting systems and platforms. The objective of this approach is to deeply understand what this says about them as a company and, moreover, how can this be used in business-to-business (B2B) marketing campaigns. Thus applied, technography can identify “pain points” in products and alleviate them for current and prospective customers.

Using established consumer marketing methods, there is much to be learned and leveraged on how technology is being used by very granular segments of users bases.  For example:

By virtue of this type of technographic data, retailers can target their ads in anticipation of “which customers are most likely to shop in store, online, or via mobile”.

Next, by transposing this form of well-established marketing approach next upon B2B commerce, the objective is to carefully examine the tech stacks of current and future customers in order to gain a marketing advantage. That is, to “inform” a business’s strategy and identify potential new roles and needs to be met. These corporate tech stacks can include systems for:

  • Office productivity
  • Project management
  • Customer relationship management (CRM)
  • Marketing

Gathering and Interpreting Technographic Signals and Nuances

Technographics can provide unique and valuable insights into assessing, for example, whether a customer values scalability or ease-of-use more, and then act upon this.

As well, some of these technographic signals can be indicative of other factors not, per se, directly related to technology. This was the case at Eloqua, a financial technology concern. They noticed their marketing systems have predictive value in determining the company’s best prospects. Furthermore, they determined that companies running their software were inclined “to have a certain level of technological sophistication”, and were often large enough to have the capacity to purchase higher-end systems.

As business systems continually grow in their numbers and complexity, interpreting technographic nuances has also become more of a challenge. Hence, the application of artificial intelligence (AI) can be helpful in detecting additional useful patterns and trends. In a July 2011 TED Talk by Ted Slavin, directly on point here, entitled How Algorithms Shape Our World, he discussed how algorithms and machine learning are needed today to help make sense out of the massive and constantly growing amounts of data. (The Subway Fold category of Smart Systems contains 15 posts covering recent development and applications involving AI and machine learning.)

Technographic Resources and Use Cases

Currently, technographic signals are readily available from various data providers including:

They parse data using such factors as “web hosting, analytics, e-commerce, advertising, or content management platforms”. Another firm called Ghostery has a Chrome browser extension illuminating the technologies upon which any company’s website is built.

The next key considerations are to “define technographic profiles and determine next-best actions” for specific potential customers. For instance, an analytics company called Looker creates “highly targeted campaigns” aimed at businesses who use Amazon Web Services (AWS). The greater the number of marketers who undertake similar pursuits, the more they raise the value of their marketing programs.

Technographics can likewise be applied for competitive leverage in the following use cases:

  • Sales reps prospecting for new leads can be supported with more focused messages for potential new customers. These are shaped by understanding their particular motivations and business challenges.
  • Locating opportunities in new markets can be achieved by assessing the tech stacks of prospective customers. Such analytics can further be used for expanding business development and product development. An example is the online training platform by Mindflash. They detected a potential “demand for a Salesforce training program”. Once it became available, they employed technographic signals to pinpoint customers to whom they could present it.
  • Enterprise wide decision-making benefits can be achieved by adding “value in areas like cultural alignment”. Familiarity with such data for current employees and job seekers can aid businesses with understanding the “technology disposition” of their workers. Thereafter, its alignment with the “customers or partners” can be pursued.  Furthermore, identifying areas where additional training might be needed can help to alleviate productivity issues resulting from “technology disconnects between employees”.

Many businesses are not yet using technographic signals to their full advantage. By increasing such initiatives, businesses can acquire a much deeper understanding of their inherent values. In turn, the resulting insights can have a significant effect on the experiences of their customers and, in turn, elevate their resulting levels of loyalty, retention and revenue, as well as the magnitude of deals done.

My Questions

  • Would professional service industries such as law, medicine and accounting, and the vendors selling within these industries, benefit from integrating technographics into their own business development and marketing efforts?
  • Could there be, now or in the future, an emerging role for dedicated technographics specialists, trainers and consultants? Alternatively, should these new analytics just be treated as another new tool to be learned and implemented by marketers in their existing roles?
  • If a company identifies some of their own employees who might benefit from additional training, how can they be incentivized to participate in it? Could gamification techniques also be applied in creating these training programs?
  • What, if any, privacy concerns might surface in using technographics on potential customer leads and/or a company’s own internal staff?

LinkNYC Rollout Brings Speedy Free WiFi and New Opportunities for Marketers to New York

Link.NYC WiFi Kiosk 5, Image by Alan Rothman

Link.NYC WiFi Kiosk 5, Image by Alan Rothman

Back in the halcyon days of yore before the advent of smartphones and WiFi, there were payphones and phone booths all over of the streets in New York. Most have disappeared, but a few scattered survivors have still managed to hang on. An article entitled And Then There Were Four: Phone Booths Saved on Upper West Side Sidewalks, by Corey Kilgannon, posted on NYTimes.com on February 10, 2016, recounts the stories of some of the last lonely public phones.

Taking their place comes a highly innovative new program called LinkNYC (also @LinkNYC and #LinkNYC). This initiative has just begun to roll out across all five boroughs with a network of what will become thousands of WiFi kiosks providing free and way fast free web access and phone calling, plus a host of other online NYC support services. The kiosks occupy the same physical spaces as the previous payphones.

The first batch of them has started to appear along Third Avenue in Manhattan. I took the photos accompanying this post of one kiosk at the corner of 14th Street and Third Avenue. While standing there, I was able to connect to the web on my phone and try out some of the LinkNYC functions. My reaction: This is very cool beans!

LinkNYC also presents some potentially great new opportunities for marketers. The launch of the program and the companies getting into it on the ground floor were covered in a terrific new article on AdWeek.com on February 15, 2015 entitled What It Means for Consumers and Brands That New York Is Becoming a ‘Smart City’, by Janet Stilson. I recommend reading it in its entirety. I will summarize and annotate it to add some additional context, and pose some of my own ad-free questions.

LinkNYC Set to Proliferate Across NYC

Link.NYC WiFi Kiosk 2, Image by Alan Rothman

Link.NYC WiFi Kiosk 2, Image by Alan Rothman

When completed, LinkNYC will give New York a highly advanced mobile network spanning the entire city. Moreover, it will help to transform it into a very well-wired “smart city“.¹ That is, an urban area comprehensively collecting, analyzing and optimizing vast quantities of data generated by a wide array of sensors and other technologies. It is a network and a host of network effects where a city learns about itself and leverages this knowledge for multiple benefits for it citizenry.²

Beyond mobile devices and advertising, smart cities can potentially facilitate many other services. The consulting firm Frost & Sullivan predicts that there will be 26 smart cities across the globe during by 2025. Currently, everyone is looking to NYC to see how the implementation of LinkNYC works out.

According to Mike Gamaroff, the head of innovation in the New York office of Kinetic Active a global media and marketing firm, LinkNYC is primarily a “utility” for New Yorkers as well as “an advertising network”. Its throughput rates are at gigabit speeds thereby making it the fastest web access available when compared to large commercial ISP’s average rates of merely 20 to 30 megabits.

Nick Cardillicchio, a strategic account manager at Civiq Smartscapes, the designer and manufacturer of the LinkNYC kiosks, said that LinkNYC is the only place where consumers can access the Net at such speeds. For the AdWeek.com article, he took the writer, Janet Stilson, on a tour of the kiosks include the one at Third Avenue and 14th Street, where one of the first ones is in place. (Coincidentally, this is the same kiosk I photographed for this post.)

There are a total of 16 currently operational for the initial testing. The WiFi web access is accessible with 150 feet of the kiosk and can range up to 400 feet. Perhaps those New Yorkers actually living within this range will soon no longer need their commercial ISPs.

Link.NYC WiFi Kiosk 4, Image by Alan Rothman

Link.NYC WiFi Kiosk 4, Image by Alan Rothman

The initial advertisers appearing in rotation on the large digital screen include Poland Spring (see the photo at the right), MillerCoors, Pager and Citibank. Eventually “smaller tablet screens” will be added to enable users to make free domestic voice or video calls. As well, they will present maps, local activities and emergency information in and about NYC. Users will also be able to charge up their mobile devices.

However, it is still too soon to assess and quantify the actual impact on such providers. According to David Krupp, CEO, North America, for Kinetic, neither Poland Spring nor MillerCoors has produced an adequate amount of data to yet analyze their respective LinkNYC ad campaigns. (Kinetic is involved in supporting marketing activities.)

Commercializing the Kiosks

The organization managing LinkNYC, the CityBridge consortium (consisting of Qualcomm, Intersection, and Civiq Smartscapes) , is not yet indicating when the new network will progress into a more “commercial stage”. However, once the network is fully implemented with the next few years, the number of kiosks might end up being somewhere between 75,000 and 10,000. That would make it the largest such network in the world.

CityBridge is also in charge of all the network’s advertising sales. These revenues will be split with the city. Under the 12-year contract now in place, this arrangement is predicted to produce $500M for NYC, with positive cash flow anticipated within 5 years. Brad Gleeson, the chief commercial officer at Civiq, said this project depends upon the degree to which LinkNYC is “embraced by Madison Avenue” and the time need for the network to reach “critical mass”.

Because of the breadth and complexity of this project, achieving this inflection point will be quite challenging according to David Etherington, the chief strategy officer at Intersection. He expressed his firm’s “dreams and aspirations” for LinkNYC, including providing advertisers with “greater strategic and creative flexibility”, offering such capabilities as:

  • Dayparting  – dividing a day’s advertising into several segments dependent on a range of factors about the intended audience, and
  • Hypertargeting – delivering advertising to very highly defined segments of an audience

Barry Frey, the president and CEO of the Digital Place-based Advertising Association, was also along for the tour of the new kiosks on Third Avenue. He was “impressed” by the capability it will offer advertisers to “co-locate their signs and fund services to the public” for such services as free WiFi and long-distance calling.

As to the brand marketers:

  • MillerCoors is using information at each kiosk location from Shazam, for the company’s “Sounds of the Street” ad campaign which presents “lists of the most-Shazammed tunes in the area”. (For more about Shazam, see the December 10, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Is Big Data Calling and Calculating the Tune in Today’s Global Music Market?)
  • Poland Spring is now running a 5-week campaign featuring a digital ad (as seen in the third photo above). It relies upon “the brand’s popularity in New York”.

Capturing and Interpreting the Network’s Data

Link.NYC WiFi Kiosk 1, Image by Alan Rothman

Link.NYC WiFi Kiosk 1, Image by Alan Rothman

Thus far, LinkNYC has been “a little vague” about its methods for capturing the network’s data, but has said that it will maintain the privacy of all consumers’ information. One source has indicated that LinkNYC will collect, among other points “age, gender and behavioral data”. As well, the kiosks can track mobile devices within its variably 150 to 400 WiFi foot radius to ascertain the length of time a user stops by.  Third-party data is also being added to “round out the information”.³

Some industry experts’ expectations of the value and applications of this data include:

  • Helma Larkin, the CEO of Posterscope, a New York based firm specializing in “out-of- home communications (OOH)“, believes that LinkNYC is an entirely “new out-of-home medium”. This is because the data it will generate “will enhance the media itself”. The LinkNYC initiative presents an opportunity to build this network “from the ground up”. It will also create an opportunity to develop data about its own audience.
  • David Krupp of Kinetic thinks that data that will be generated will be quite meaningful insofar as producing a “more hypertargeted connection to consumers”.

Other US and International Smart City Initiatives

Currently in the US, there is nothing else yet approaching the scale of LinkNYC. Nonetheless, Kansas City is now developing a “smaller advertiser-supported  network of kiosks” with wireless support from Sprint. Other cities are also working on smart city projects. Civiq is now in discussions with about 20 of them.

Internationally, Rio de Janeiro is working on a smart city program in conjunction with the 2016 Olympics. This project is being supported by Renato Lucio de Castro, a consultant on smart city projects. (Here is a brief video of him describing this undertaking.)

A key challenge facing all smart city projects is finding officials in local governments who likewise have the enthusiasm for efforts like LinkNYC. Michael Lake, the CEO of Leading Cities, a firm that help cities with smart city projects, believes that programs such as LinkNYC will “continue to catch on” because of the additional security benefits they provide and the revenues they can generate.

My Questions

  • Should domestic and international smart cities to cooperate to share their resources, know-how and experience for each other’s mutual benefit? Might this in some small way help to promote urban growth and development on a more cooperative global scale?
  • Should LinkNYC also consider offering civic support services such as voter registration or transportation scheduling apps as well as charitable functions where pedestrians can donate to local causes?
  • Should LinkNYC add some augmented reality capabilities to enhance the data capabilities and displays of the kiosks? (See these 10 Subway Fold posts covering a range of news and trends on this technology.)

February 19, 2017 Update:  For the latest status report on LinkNYC nearly a year after this post was first uploaded, please see After Controversy, LinkNYC Finds Its Niche, by Gerald Schifman, on CrainsNewYork.com, dated February 15, 2017.


1.   While Googling “smart cities” might nearly cause the Earth to shift off its axis with its resulting 70 million hits, I suggest reading a very informative and timely feature from the December 11, 2015 edition of The Wall Street Journal entitled As World Crowds In, Cities Become Digital Laboratories, by Robert Lee Hotz.

2.   Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia (W. W. Norton & Company, 2013), by Anthony M. Townsend, is a deep and wide book-length exploration of how big data and analytics are being deployed in large urban areas by local governments and independent citizens. I very highly recommend reading this fascinating exploration of the nearly limitless possibilities for smart cities.

3.   See, for example, How Publishers Utilize Big Data for Audience Segmentation, by Arvid Tchivzhel, posted on Datasciencecentral.com on November 17, 2015


These items just in from the Pop Culture Department: It would seem nearly impossible to film an entire movie thriller about a series of events centered around a public phone, but a movie called – – not so surprisingly – – Phone Booth managed to do this quite effectively in 2002. It stared Colin Farrell, Kiefer Sutherland and Forest Whitaker. Imho, it is still worth seeing.

Furthermore, speaking of Kiefer Sutherland, Fox announced on January 15, 2016 that it will be making 24: Legacy, a complete reboot of the 24 franchise, this time without him playing Jack Bauer. Rather, they have cast Corey Hawkins in the lead role. Hawkins can now be seen doing an excellent job playing Heath on season 6 of The Walking Dead. Watch out Grimes Gang, here comes Negan!!