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Data Obesity: The Latest Threat To Your Digital Fitness

Thu, 07/24/2014 - 3:33pm

So many of our modern health problems stem from issues of abundance: fast food, car-friendly suburbs, and endless couch-borne entertainment.

The cure for these, according to the quantified-self cult of Silicon Valley, is more data! Just collect information about every step we take, every beat of our heart, every toss we take in our sleep, everything we eat and every drop we drink, and all will be revealed.

But what if the abundance of data, too, is part of the problem?

Networked weight scales at MyFitnessPal headquarters.Your Data's So Big ...

Mike Abbott, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a venture-capital firm, casually dropped the term "data obesity" in a talk he gave at a digital-health event hosted by MyFitnessPal in its San Francisco headquarters Wednesday. He used it to describe startups' habit of gathering as much data as possible without clear forethought of how they were going to use it. Like ever-widening stadium seats or the extra stretch in our jeans, cheap cloud storage and computing accommodate this overindulgence in bits.

The problem with data gluttony is that noise can overwhelm signal. We don't yet understand the complex interplay between nutrition, exercise, sleep, and stress. And many of the data types we capture are a poor approximation of what we're actually trying to measure. (Take, for example, the fixation most wearable makers have with measuring steps as a proxy for activity.)

There are ethical problems, too, in this broad data capture. Abe Gong, a data scientist at Jawbone, the maker of the Up fitness band, also spoke at the MyFitnessPal event about the conundrum of all the data we're gathering about the state of our bodies. He cited the stethoscope, a tool which has become metonymous with the medical profession: It allowed a doctor to hear things happening in a patient's body that she couldn't hear herself.

Jawbone's Abe Gong suggests technological tools like the stethoscope introduce a power imbalance between doctors and patients.

That information asymmetry is happening on a far larger scale: While we are notionally in control of the data we track about ourselves with devices like the Jawbone Up and Fitbit, the truth is most of us are ill-equipped to process the scale of data we generate. Yes, we tap buttons to grant permission, but we don't have much choice about it if we want to use an app. Some developers give you the option of downloading raw data files, but what would we do with them? In a practical sense, we don't really control this so-called "self-reported data."

The New Data Diet

Chris Tacy, a developer and entrepreneur, recently called for technologists to adhere to a new code: the "minimal actionable dataset." In other words, only gather the data about your users that you really know you need.

It's a radical intervention against data gluttony. Call it the informational equivalent of the paleo diet. When data storage was expensive and computational power likewise dear, software only gathered the bare minimum data required to get the job done.

It's easy to make the argument for data abundance. If you don't capture all possible data, how will you know what proves useful? But the ultimate restriction on data processing isn't computation or storage. It's our human bandwidth to analyze data and translate it into concrete action.

Everything In Moderation

For an example of a startup that practices lean data, I didn't have to look farther than the host of Wednesday's event, MyFitnessPal. MyFitnessPal is far from imperial in its approach to data collection. It lets you track the calories you eat and the calories you burn. (It only recently added step tracking as another data type.)

This simplicity is a big reason why I've stuck with MyFitnessPal for five years, accumulating a vast store of simple, easy-to-understand data. Correlation may not be causation, but I can see a pretty clear relationship between the rigor of my diet and my weight. MyFitnessPal also doesn't have to struggle to explain what it does and how it benefits users the way startups with ambitions of tracking every last bit of health data do.

So is it time to put your apps and gadgets on a data diet? Perhaps. At the very least, we should be thoughtful about the data they ingest and the analytical exercises we perform. It's just healthier that way.

Lead photo via Shutterstock; other photos by Owen Thomas for ReadWrite

Categories: Technology

Google Maps New Explore Feature Takes On Foursquare

Thu, 07/24/2014 - 1:52pm

Google wants to help you make decisions using the tool you already use to get directions.

On Thursday, the company launched an Explore feature for Google Maps that lets people discover places like restaurants and local hot spots with a tap of an icon located in the far right corner of Maps.

Like Foursquare’s new flagship application which eliminates the check-in, Google’s Explore feature is designed to help you find out information about places near you, and learns your behavior when you confirm places you visit to provide better suggestions.

Exploring in Google Maps will also take into account factors like weather and time of day, so you won’t get suggestions for a dinner restaurant at 9 a.m. or suggestions for a park if it’s pouring rain. You’ll be able to get more information from a place once you’ve arrive and you can bookmark places for later—a handy feature for saving your favorite burrito spot.

Tapping the Explore icon also shows you top-rated restaurants from Zagat and categories like popular attractions, local favorites and weekend brunch spots.

Explore is available in Google Maps on iOS and Android. Google suggests signing in with your Google account to use the new feature, and turn on location reporting and history—though I tested it this morning without signing in, and it provided some great suggestions. 

Lead image by Pedro Ribeiro Simões on Flickr. Explore images courtesy of Google. 

Categories: Technology

Maybe Asia-Pacific Developers Will Deliver The Internet Of Things

Thu, 07/24/2014 - 1:16pm

Demand, meet supply. The world is in dire need of millions of Internet of Things developers within the next few years. The good news? According to a new Evans Data survey, 17% the world's software developers are already working on IoT applications; those in the Asia-Pacific region are particularly active.

See also: The Internet Of Things Will Need Millions Of Developers By 2020

The bad news? This developer population doesn't have a strong history of software and cloud services innovation.

Asia-Pacific: A Hotbed Of Activity

To reprise: Evans Data's recent global survey of over 1,400 software developers found that 17% are working on applications for connected devices for IoT, while an additional 23% expect to begin work on them in the next 6 months. Given that so much of the world's electronics are produced in Asia-Pacific, it's perhaps not surprising that it's the region with the most aggressive IoT developers. 

In fact, nearly 23% of APAC developers are currently developing software for Internet of Things. Only 20% of APAC developers say that they have no such plans, compared to 36% in North America and 49% in EMEA. 

But the real question for APAC developers is whether they'll repeat their errors of the past few decades: building great hardware and neglecting to connect that hardware with software and services. Sensors, it turns out, are somewhat pointless.

More Devices, More Connected

The number of 'things'—30 billion devices connected to the Internet by 2020, according to Gartner, compared to 7.3 billion personal devices—is impressive but not the real story. Soon enough, as Gartner suggests, these devices "will ... be able to procure services such as maintenance, cleaning, repair, and even replacement on their own." They will be able to interact without human intervention, creating all sorts of possibilities, not to mention security vulnerabilities.

Developers are making this happen, developers that believe in and are helping to shape a connected future:

Due to the convergence of cloud, embedded systems, real-time event processing and even cognitive computing, developers are blessed with a perfect storm of low-cost devices and the ability to intelligently connect them. That in turn will yield revenue-generating services, which is where the real IoT money is.

Opening Up The Internet Of Things In APAC

While 31% of developers associate the Internet of Things with cloud computing, according to the Evans Data survey, the connections that bring device data to the cloud are much more important. As Intel Internet of Things business leader Ton Steenman complains, companies currently spend 90% of their IoT budgets "stitching things together," when that number should be closer to 10%.

APAC hasn't traditionally been good at such "stitching."

That stitching is hard both because developers haven't trusted third-party networks to carry their device data, but also because connectivity hasn't been built into devices and sensors at the pace needed, as data from Berg Insight suggests:

• Wireless connectivity has been incorporated into just 1/3 of point-of-sales terminals sold in 2013

• 27% of ATMs in North America are connected to cellular networks while only 5% to 10% are connected in Europe

• The number of "oil and gas" devices with cellular connectivity hovered at 93,000 in 2013 but will jump to 263,000 new units by 2018

There are signs that this is changing, particularly in APAC, which was an early pioneer in mobile communications. Just looking at the prevalence of connected smart electricity meters, APAC has the lead, despite lagging considerably in 2011.

Companies in APAC have struggled to build compelling software (e.g., Sony smartphone interfaces) or cloud services (e.g., Samsung cloud sync and back-up services). While this is changing, it's an open question whether APAC will be able to take the lead in developing connected experiences across devices.

One place to start is by opening up APIs.

As Rob Wyatt argues, "It is the open, local API that is missing from the Internet of Things." To make the it work anywhere, and particularly in Asia-Pacific, it's not enough for "vendors ... to provide dumb 'smart' devices with a select handful of 'strategic' integrations within their pay-walled garden."

For Internet of Things applications to work, device vendors need to provide open APIs so that other developers can hack services around and into them. 

If APAC developers do this, they'll win the war. Again, the battle won't be won by building nice devices. It will be won by creating compelling developer cloud-services experiences that span a wide array of devices—all of which can start with open APIs on those devices so that developers, both within APAC and outside it, can hack the future.

Lead image by Flickr user Ed Coyle, CC 2.0

Categories: Technology

President Obama To Kick Off Drone Privacy Guidelines

Thu, 07/24/2014 - 11:39am

The Federal Aviation Administration will no longer be able to stall on privacy guidelines for private drone operation in the United States.

President Barack Obama is set to issue an executive order to create privacy guidelines for private drones operating in U.S. airspace, according to Politico. If executed, this order would put the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an arm of the Commerce Department, in charge of developing these guidelines.

Until now, privacy guidelines for drones were considered to be under the domain of the FAA, which is currently embroiled in the lengthy process of crafting regulations for operating commercial drones in U.S. airspace. However, the FAA has yet to address photos and other personal information potentially collected by private drones, a move that's been criticized by both lawmakers and consumer groups.

See also: Why Commercial Drones Are Stuck In Regulatory Limbo

Brendan Schulman, a lawyer who specializes in litigation involving unmanned aircraft systems, told ReadWrite the measure lines up with the FAA’s earlier testimony.

“The FAA has never had a mandate concerning privacy, and in Congressional hearings has indicated that it would look to other agencies to develop any necessary privacy policies for commercial drones,” he said.

“There is no obvious agency to take this on, so it seems the President made a decision to specifically designate NTIA as the lead agency to study the issue. My understanding is that the result will be privacy best practices, not necessarily regulations.”

Congress has set a 2015 deadline for the FAA to develop its regulations. Internationally, drones are used for delivery purposes, crop surveying and maintenance, search and rescue, and more.

White House officials have not made it clear when the President will be issuing his order.

Categories: Technology

Why Javascript Developers Should Get Excited About Object.observe()

Thu, 07/24/2014 - 10:00am

Nobody is more excited about the most recent version of Google's Chrome browser than JavaScript developers.

The latest version, Chrome 36, now includes a long awaited potential update to the JavaScript language. Called Object.observe(), it’s a low-level API (see our API explainer) that might solve one of the biggest problems in modern JavaScript development.

That problem: JavaScript developers have yet to find a satisfactory way to ensure that changes in a Web app's underlying data—say, as the result of user input—are reflected properly in the browser display. (This basically reflects the fact that JavaScript developers usually separate an app's data structures and its user interface into distinct program components. That keeps the coding simpler and cleaner, but also raises issues when the two components need to communicate.)

Various JavaScript frameworks offer workarounds that developers can use to get a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) display based on exactly what their app is doing. But these workarounds add more code that can slow the app down, alter the flow of its execution and potentially introduce new bugs.

Object.observe() would simplify the problem by creating a direct pipeline between an app's data structures and its display. It can do this more easily because it's an actual change baked into the structure of the JavaScript language itself, and not just a collection of bolted-on code.

Object.observe() is still unofficial; it's so far only incorporated into Chrome, which means developers who use it can't count on it working their apps working in others browsers such as Firefox or Apple's Safari. And it's not clear when—or even whether—other browser makers will jump on the Object.observe() bandwagon.

Still, the promise of Object.observe() is such that if it clears these hurdles, it could change the way JavaScript is coded forever.

What Is Object.observe()?

I asked Rafael Weinstein, a software engineer at Google who played a big role in Object.observe() and Chrome integration, to explain what it is and what it does.

While some developers have guessed that Object.observe() will replace or remove the need to use JavaScript development frameworks, Weinstein says that isn’t the case.

“Object.observe() is a low-level primitive,” he said. “It is an enabling technology which should make some existing JavaScript libraries and frameworks faster, more robust or both.”

In other words, Object.observe() is an additional function that will one day be built into JavaScript. Developers won’t work with it directly; instead, frameworks like Backbone, Angular, and Ember will add new libraries that rely on Object.observe() to keep app data and the app display in sync.

In an introduction to Object.observe at <a href="">JSConf EU</a>, Google developer Addy Osmani demonstrated how you can use Object.observe to view and edit code.&nbsp;

The main advance Object.observe() offers is a feature called two-way data binding. Translated from codespeak, that means it ensures that changes in a program's underlying data are reflected in the browser display.

In order to view both the program's data state and its display at the same time, JavaScript developers usually work inside a framework that includes a Model View Controller (MVC), in which the raw code appears in one window and the user display appears in another. However, current solutions for displaying both at once tend to bulk up a program with extra code devoted to data binding. The very act of observing the display changes how it is coded.

Amjad Masad, a developer at Facebook, has called two-way data binding the “holy grail of JavaScript MVC frameworks” because it sidesteps such workarounds.

“In the [Model View Controller] pattern, you have the model [i.e., underlying app data] that describes the problem you want to solve and then you have this view that renders it," Masad told me. "It turns out that translating the model logic [i.e., the app's data structures] to the user interface is a really hard problem to solve as well as the place in the code where most of the bugs occur.”

“When you have true data binding, it reflects automatically in the user interface without you putting in any ‘glue’ code in the middle," Masad continued. "You simply describe your view and every time the model changes it reflects the view. This is why it’s desirable.”

It's 2014. Where's My Object.observe()?

Of course, nothing is an end-all be-all solution, not even an API that supposedly makes “the holy grail of JavaScript” possible. With Object.observe(), the hurdle that remains is that it's still not an official part of JavaScript. 

The Object.observe() proposal needs to be approved by TC39, the organization that oversees the development and maintenance of ECMAscript, a general scripting-language standard that encompasses JavaScript and several related languages. Currently, TC39 has approved Object.observe() as a draft, the second stage of the lengthy approval process.

See also: How To Build A WinJS App In 10 Easy Steps

TC39 members include developers from Google, Mozilla, Microsoft, and Apple. Weinstein, who submitted the Object.observe() proposal, said that since developers from these companies approved of adding it to ECMAscript, he’s optimistic that they’ll also want to add Object.observe functionality to their companies’ own browsers.

If Object.observe() becomes a standard feature across all major browsers, it's more likely to be adopted as an official JavaScript component. Still, the longer Object.observe() development drags on, the greater the possibility that developers will cotton to some other solution to the data-binding problem.

For example, Weinstein is also at the head of a project called Polymer or observe-js, a library that uses Object.observe() if it's available, and alternate methods if it isn't. That way, developers can harness Object.observe() whenever possible, although they still have to be prepared in case their program runs somewhere it's not supported.

Meanwhile. Facebook has come up with an alternative to Object.observe() called React, which developers can use now. React, however, isn't an addition to the JavaScript language itself—just a framework adjustment that performs a similar function. (Object.observe() proponents argue that React is actually solving a related, but distinctly separate problem.)

Developers can try a number of solutions for fixing the data binding problem. But since the absence of data binding is itself a general problem for Javascript, you can see the attraction of adding something like Object.observe() to the language in order to resolve the issue in a relatively clean and universal fashion.

This Is Your Code On Object.observe()

JavaScript developers don't usually code every part of their programs by hand. Instead, they use frameworks like Backbone, Angular, and Ember that incorporate libraries—chunks of code that handle frequently encountered programming hurdles.

For example, if you are a developer who builds a lot of contact forms for websites, you might have a library of software functions that shortcut the process of inserting a contact form in a website. So when the Object.observe() API is released, libraries will be built to make two-way data binding something developers can do as easily as inserting a library in their code.

See also: Angular, Ember, And Backbone: Which JavaScript Framework Is Right For You?

In the absence of Object.observe(), JavaScript frameworks have each come up with a different ways of implementing two-way data binding.

The Angular framework uses something called “dirty checking.” Every time you add to your code, Angular checks to see what changed. It checks even if the view hasn’t changed at all. This continues once the app is deployed; every time the user inputs a change into the app while using it, the dirty checking code checks if it needs to refresh the display in response. This adds load time to every screen of your app.

The Ember framework uses something called “wrapper objects.” Basically, the developer adds a class to the object that serves as a “listener.” When the object changes, the “listener” triggers an event so the developer knows something changed. Since these classes are not native to JavaScript, they add loading time as well. Wrapper objects also increase developer labor, which inevitably leads to more possibility for bugs and errors.

Goodbye, Cruel Wrappers And Dirty Checking

Object.observe() make both of these workarounds obsolete. It allows plain JavaScript objects without wrappers to listen for changes. And only when the listener object notices a change does the view model itself alter, instead of indiscriminate dirty checking.

Igor Minar, lead developer on the AngularJS framework, said developers who use Angular won’t have to work with Object.observe directly.

“Object.observe() is a low level API, which is kind of awkward or inconvenient to use directly," he told me." That's good because by providing such low level API the platform enables us to built on top the API and create higher layers with more opinions.” Object.observe() is already slated for addition as a feature in AngularJS 2.0

Early versions of Object.observe() have already given Angular a performance boost. In a test, dirty checking took 40 milliseconds compared to Object.observe()’s 1 to 2 milliseconds. In other words, Angular became 20 to 40 times faster while using Object.observe.

Object.observe() has the potential to change the way JavaScript operates. But developers themselves won’t notice much of a difference in their workflow.

“Object.observe() is a low level feature that framework authors will use,” said Masad. “Developers using those frameworks won’t notice a different except for higher performance programs.”

Screenshot of Google engineer Addy Osmani introducing Object.observe() at JSConf EU

Categories: Technology

Kim Kardashian And Her In-App Purchases Must Be Stopped!

Thu, 07/24/2014 - 7:55am

When it comes to cracking down on the predatory practices of in-app purchases found in “free to play” mobile app games, the European Union is looking out for the kids. “In particular, children must be better protected when playing online,” reads the European Commission press statement announcing its latest enforcement action.

But won’t somebody please think of the grown-ups?

Kim Kardashian: Hollywood

Opportunities to lighten your digital wallet in exchange for in-game tchotchkes have grown ever-more insidious even for the supposedly mature set. Remember Farmville? Candy Crush? Now it's possible to level-up your way into debt with the "free" game of conspicuous consumption, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood.

Adults, too, are vulnerable to the in-app purchases offered within “free” games—the simpler the game, the better. As numerous studies find, tiny accomplishments—such as leveling up—release spikes of dopamine in the brain. That's the neurochemical tied to pleasure and reinforced behavior.

Mobile game developers are well aware of what makes games engrossing enough to inspire impulse purchases. They just don't share that information—or even a price list—with players. 

If you haven't personally experienced how engrossing such games can be, just take a look around. Take, for instance, whoever was in charge of the Twitter account for the EPA Office of Water. This person was apparently so entranced with the Kardashian game earlier this week that he or she let slip a tweet from the wrong account:


Hilarity across the Twitterverse, and then the network morning shows, ensued. Everybody loves a good twit slip. And EPA recovered with good grace:

Buckraking The Mobile Way

But what’s less funny is the fact that Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is projected to rake in $200 million this year, most of it likely not earned from kids who don’t know better. (Kim's take is estimated at just $85 million.)

How do “free” mobile apps such as the Kardashian game earn money? Not in any transparent way, and that’s one of the EU's complaints.

When reviewing the text that accompanies Kim Kardashian: Hollywood or Candy Crush or any similar game, you won't find any disclosures—no price list breaking down what kind point-of-purchase surprises you’ll be offered to enhance your game play or when these premiums will appear. Like that magazine with intriguing gossip, or that glasses repair kit, astrology guide or candy bar you suddenly realize you need at the check-out counter, you’ll see it when you see it.

The Kardashian game offers a new twist by giving players a shortcut to Kim’s “level” of fame. Instead of “working” one’s way up the Hollywood food chain via Kim’s kindly mentoring ("dating famous people will get you more fans," she notes), players can skip ahead by dropping $99 of real-world fiat cash on virtual K-Stars, thus paying their way to the red carpet.

Parental Controls Don't Protect Parents—Or Anyone Else

Tales such as the 8-year-old girl who blew $1,400 on smurfberries in Smurfs Village iPad game—just one of many complaints that led to an FCC investigation and Apple's $32.5 million in payouts to parents—mean more protection of Mom and Dad's wallet. But parental controls that prevent kids from accessing app store wallets mean little to grownups. Ask any Candy Crush addict whose dropped hundreds, even thousands of dollars to level up, thus contributing to the nearly $100,000 Candy Crush is estimated to bring in daily.

This lack of transparency is one of several in-app purchase problems the EU urges Google and Apple, as well as developers, to address. “Games advertised as 'free' should not mislead consumers about the true costs involved,” reads one of the EU’s demands. “Consumers should be adequately informed about the payment arrangements for purchases and should not be debited through default settings without consumers’ explicit consent,” is another.

In the traditional gambling industry, the U.K. government is pressing mandatory rules to prevent predatory practices against habitual gamblers. In the world of mobile games, transparent practices, including a detailed price list alerting players to potential costs, is a reasonable request. 

It’s no coincidence the supermarket checkout line is full of potential purchases—such random selections are the results of years of psych research from advertising agencies. All the better to appeal to your impulse control (or lack thereof)! One difference between “free” mobile apps with opaque in-app purchase prices is this: Most people aren’t constantly going through the supermarket checkout line.

Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock; game image courtesy of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood

Categories: Technology

Yammer Cofounder Leaving Microsoft

Thu, 07/24/2014 - 7:51am

Yammer co-founder David Sacks announced he’s leaving Microsoft on Wednesday, tweeting a thank you and goodbye to his former charges, whom he referred to as his “YamFamily.”

Microsoft acquired the maker of the enterprise social networking and chat tool two years ago for $1.2 billion, and when it did, Sacks was seen as a potentially transformative figure for the legacy technology company. He was even mentioned by outsiders as a candidate to replace Microsoft's outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer last year, though it’s not clear if he was ever seriously considered.

Yammer will be moving under Office 365 and Outlook as Microsoft looks to further integrate Yammer technologies throughout its Office productivity suite. Kristian Andaker, an Office team lead, will be heading up Yammer engineering, ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley reports. It's not clear what that means for Yammer cofounder and CTO Adam Pisoni, who thanked Sacks for the "wild ride" the two had together:

Prior to joining Microsoft, Sacks cofounded Geni, a genealogy website, from which he spun Yammer out, and was chief operating officer at PayPal. 

Lead image by TechCrunch on Flickr

Categories: Technology

Why Pinterest's Workforce Is The Future Of Tech

Thu, 07/24/2014 - 5:25am

Pinterest’s tech department is twice as female as Twitter’s, and more so than the departments at Facebook and Yahoo, the numbers show.

On Thursday, Pinterest released its diversity numbers indicating the company’s gender and ethnicity makeup. The release is a followup to Pinterest tech lead Tracy Chou’s Medium post, Where are the numbers?, urging tech companies to reveal their diversity statistics.

See also: The People Who Make Twitter Don't Look Like The People Who Use Twitter

In the release, Chou notes, “We’re not close to where we want to be,” but Pinterest is still doing scores better than fellow technology companies when it comes to gender. The overall company is 40% women and 50% Caucasian.

With a tech team that's  21% female, Pinterest has twice as many women in its tech department as Twitter, percentage-wise. Meanwhile, both Yahoo's and Facebook’s tech teams are a little better at 15% women.

Along with a 50% Caucasian workforce, 42% of Pinterest's employees are Asian, with a smattering of other ethnicities making up the remaining 8%.

Headed by CEO Ben Silbermann, who is biracial, Pinterest has a good track record of promoting non-white employees to management positions. Chou is Asian and Justin Edmund, a highly visible product designer is among the non-white Pinterest employees.  

Pinterest's 19% female leadership ratio remains as dismal as other top tech companies, lower than Facebook's 23% female management. 

Pinterest is making the most obvious strides is the intern department. This year, 32% of the tech team interns the company has hired this year are women, compared to last year's 29%.

Out of all the major technology companies, Pinterest has the largest female audience. 

The report noted that Pinterest contributes toward tech organizations for women and girls, including Girls Who Code. As resources for women increase, we suspect more tech teams will begin to look like Pinterest's. 

Photo by Pinterest HQ

Categories: Technology