Book Review of “More Awesome Than Money”

The rapid rise and ubiquity of Facebook during the last ten years has been a remarkable phenomenon. The figure currently used to express the company’s breadth is that they have more than 1.3 billion user accounts. They have successfully monetized their social platform using a variety of means including, among others, advertizing, networking, communications, and harvesting vast amounts of user data, on their site and elsewhere online, to make the users’ experience more “personal”.

Nonetheless, while most users have become highly dependent on their regular use of Facebook, there are many others who still feel somewhat uncomfortable with its privacy policies and intensive data gathering and analytics.

In 2010, four NYU students heard a presentation by Eben Moglen, a law professor at Columbia University, about the lack of online privacy and overall invasiveness of all of the data relentlessly vacuumed up across the web and used for a multitude of largely invisible purposes. This was the inspiration point for them to join together and try to create a privacy aware and fully decentralized social networked called Diaspora. Most importantly, users would own their individual data and be able to take it with them if they chose to leave. They established it as a non-profit entity that operated on an open source basis for its dedicated global corps of  developers.

The compelling story of the founders and Diaspora has been now been deeply and dramatically told by author Jim Dwyer (the About New York columnist for The New York Times and the author five other books), in his latest book entitled More Awesome Than Money (Viking, October 2014). With their full access and cooperation, he followed these four young men during every phase of Diaspora’s founding, funding and construction and implementation. They were driven by their desire to make a difference to like-minded social network users who wanted true ownership of their own data, rather than many of today’s other typical startups who are looking to strike it rich.

Their noble quest, with its many high and low points, has been very poignantly captured and told here. This not just another geeked out tome about a tech startup that struggles and then hits the jackpot. Rather, this text operates on multiple levels to very skillfully present and weave together, with much pathos and insight, the lives and motivations of the founding four, their rapid relocation and education in the startup culture of Silicon Valley*, and the complexity of achieving their objectives.

Despite their goal to assemble a true technological and philosophical alternative to Facebook and the support they received in their Kickstarter funding campaign, open source coding support, and the goodwill of many potential users seeking something utterly new like Diaspora, there were many obstacles along the way. These included differences that emerged among the core four, overly ambitious release dates and correspondingly high user expectations, funding challenges, and a tragic personal issue of one founder.

Dwyer recounts, with great internal consistency and engaging prose throughout the text, the complex trajectory of Diaspora. Readers will very quickly be drawn into the narrative and the multiple challenges encountered by the young company. As well, for anyone currently involved in a startup or considering taking the leap to launch one, More Awesome Than Money should be considered required reading. Its cover price alone, consider it a form of nominal seed capital if you will, is certain to yield valuable insights into the unique world of the startup.

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*  For another very high quality piece of journalism about a completely different startup in Silicon Valley, see  One Startup’s Struggle to Survive the Silicon Valley Gold Rush, by Gideon Lewis-Kraus in the April 2014 issue of WIRED.

Digital.NYC Site Launches as a Comprehensive Resource for New York City Tech and Startups

Being a very proud native of New York City, I was thrilled to see an article on TechCrunch.com posted on October 1, 2014, whose title just about said it all with Digital.nyc Launches To Be The Hub For New York Tech by Jonathan Shieber. This announced the launch of a brand new site called Digital.NYC, a hub destination concerning nearly anything and everything about the thriving tech and startup markets here in The Big Apple. For anyone interested in startups, workspaces, incubators, jobs, investing, training, news and access to a gazillion other relevant resources, this is meant to be an essential must-click  resource.The site is the product of a cooperative venture by the City of New York, IBM and the venture capital firm Gust. For additional reporting, see also IBM Starts Online Hub for NYC Tech Firms posted the same day on usatoday.com, by Mike Snider.

I highly recommend a click-through and thorough perusal of this site for the remarkable depth and richness of its offerings, timeliness, and sense of excitement and vitality that threads throughout all of it pages. While the term “platform” is often overused to describe a program or site, I believe that Digital.NYC truly lives up to this term of art.

What also really slew me about this site was its elegant design and ease of navigation that belie its vastness. The site clearly evinces its designers’ and builders’ passion for the subject matter and incredible hard work they put into getting it all just right. What a daunting task they must have faced in trying to meld all of these content categories together in a layout that is so highly functional, navigable and engaging. Bravo! to everyone involved in making this happen.

Indeed, for me it passes the Man from Mars Test: If you just landed on Earth and started out knowing little or nothing about the tech market in NYC, some time spent with this site would handily start you on your way to assessing its massive dimensions, operations and opportunities. Alternatively, very savvy and veteran entrepreneurs, investors, programmers, web designers, students, venture capitalists, urban planners and others will likewise find much to learn and use here.

I Googled around a bit to see whether other cities had similar hub sites. My initial research shows that there is nothing else per se like Digital.NYC currently online. Please post a comment here or send me an email if you do know of any others out there and I will post them. However, In my online travels I did find a site called Entrepreneurial Insights that has compiled on a page entitled Startup Hubs a series of recently posted in-depth reports global startup hubs. These cities include Paris, Toronto, Boston, Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, Bangkok, Istanbul, Singapore, Beijing, Tel Aviv, Barcelona, Berlin and New York.

New Visualization Service for US Patent and Trademark Data

A new startup call Trea has just launched a new visualization tool that establishes a dynamic user interface to all of the patent data available on the US Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) massive public database. The full details of this appeared in a July 30, 2014 report on Gigaom.com entitled Powerful New Patent Service Shows Every US Invention, and a New View of R&D Relationships.

Trea’s UI not only illustrates whom is patenting what, but also types of fields (for example, data processing, telecom, chips, and so on). It is expected to be useful to inventors, corporate competitors, investors, journalists, academics, and I would also venture to say lawyers specializing in intellectual property practice.

The features described in this article along with accompanying screen captures include:

  • A “unified knowledge graph”, a networking representation of relationships between and among inventors.
  • A means to further zoom in on a single inventor and his or her collaborators.
  • A “notary feature” that permits inventors to encrypt and submit “diagrams and ideas” and receive a time-stamped receipt.

I suggest a full read of this story for the details of Trea’s business plans and the sampling of three highly informative graphics their product generates.

The visualization of government data sets continues to draw the interest of such entrepreneurs. Just to provide an initial sense of the breadth of governmental data available for these efforts, have a look at the categories and the data sets made publicly available by the US government can be viewed and downloaded at Data.gov. Similar data sets are available elsewhere online on the state and local levels across the U.S.

Furthermore, I once again recommend reading Smart Cities by Anthony Townsend as I wrote about in my April 9, 2014 post about the developers involved in transforming the availability and analytics of civic data.