Marketplace Tech®

with Ben Johnson

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Hosted by Ben Johnson, this daily "journal of the Digital Age" airs during broadcasts of Minnesota Public Radio's Morning Edition.

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Silicon Tally - Mo Money, Mo Facebook

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code For America. Pahlka also recently served as the Deputy Chief Technology Officer for the United States Government.

(09/19/2014)

HBO 'seriously considering' selling online access

HBO, with its hit shows like "True Detective" and "Game of Thrones," made $1.8 billion in operating profits in 2013. But it made that money from cable subscribers — not Internet viewers.

There is no stand-alone Internet subscription to watch new episodes of HBO's shows. CEO Jeff Bewkes of Time Warner, which owns HBO, recently said directly selling online streaming access, and competing more directly with Netflix and Amazon, was "becoming more viable, more interesting."

HBO might seem to have a lot of negotiating clout in this battle, because its content is very desirable and, as the cliché goes on the Internet, content is king.

"That's the gambit, right," says Dan Porter, head of digital at William Morris Endeavor. "The gambit is that content is king and while you might alienate the cable people you have the leverage. You could certainly say that that is true for professional sports."

Porter believes the NFL can afford to sell access to its games online, because the cable industry can't survive without it.

"I don't know if HBO is there," he says. HBO also isn't an independent company. "It's part of Time Warner," says IDC analyst Greg Ireland. "Time Warner has other pay TV channel properties."

Those channels may be harder to sell when they don't come with an exclusive pass to the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.

Some numbers behind HBO:

6.8 million

Average number of same-night viewers of Game of Thrones' last season.

13

Consecutive years in which HBO has won more primetime Emmys than any other network.

1.8 billion

Operating profits for HBO in 2013.

4%

HBO revenue growth in 2013.

21%

Netflix revenue growth in 2013.

15%

HBO subscriber growth over the last year.

16%

Netflix subscriber growth over the last year.

(09/15/2014)

Silicon Tally: Get on the Google bus

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by Marketplace reporter Queena Kim in the heart of Silicon Valley.

(09/12/2014)

Questions raised over bullying in the gaming community

There's a fight underway that's tearing apart the community of people who play, write about, enthuse and obsess over video games. Earlier this month, the ex-boyfriend of game designer Zoe Quinn took to the Internet to publicly accuse her of infidelity. He said she'd cheated on him with a gaming journalist. Some gamers seized on the allegation and said a reporter and a gamer, whose work he might review, shouldn't have a relationship.

It seemed like an allegation of journalistic misconduct, but what followed was a flood of threats aimed at Zoe Quinn online.

To help us understand what led to all this, we reached out to Jennifer Hale. She's a member of the gaming community, an actress who does voice-over work for many video games.

There seems to be, in this response, some real misogyny — possibly even dangerous misogyny — in this community of people who play and write about video games. What have you experienced?

I had several friends advise me against even coming in here and doing this interview, because there's a segment of the game community — it's small, but it's vicious — that is bullying. It's giving the gaming community a bad name.

Some of the threats that were made against Zoe Quinn: People threatened to kneecap her, people threatened to give her brain damage if they could find her in person. Does the gaming community deserve to have a bad name?

The community does not. These people within the community do. We need to police ourselves. I don't know how to do that, because the members of our community that have called out to these people to stop doing what they're doing are being then themselves threatened.

At the same time that Zoe Quinn is facing this torrent of abuse, a feminist media critic named Anita Sarkeesian releases a video criticizing the way that women are treated or portrayed in video games. She calls them background decoration, victims, prostitutes, then she gets pilloried for what she said. You've worked in the video game industry. You've done the voices for some popular characters. Does Anita Sarkeesian have a point? 

I myself would love to see more equal representation of women in games, more empowered roles. Let's remove gender from casting everywhere we can and play around with it. Let's do the same with race. Let's go on and create the next level. We can't do that right now. I'm nervous about what this piece of the community is going to do to me for speaking up about anything, and that's not OK. We can't do anything until we deal with that.

Given the attention this back-and-forth has received, do you think we've reached a kind of tipping point moment where this conversation is bound to happen?

I hope so, because games are an incredible art form. I've used a couple of games to learn another language or recover from breaking my foot, things that would have stymied me. I think it is time for this part of the industry to fully step into [the idea that] we're not fringe anymore. We can, without losing the awesome, kid parts of ourselves, grow up and become leaders in a really cool way. And this is hopefully creating a crisis that will help us do that.

(09/10/2014)

Salsa helps drive Latin music higher

The Latin Grammys are coming: Nominations will be out September 24, and the 15th annual broadcast will be held in Las Vegas on November 20.

The popularity of the show is a sign that the Latin music market is strong, and getting stronger. One category within Latin music — salsa, or “tropical” as it is designated in the awards — is gaining more fans among non-Latinos in the U.S., and abroad as well.

All one has to do is to Google the phrase "I want to go salsa dancing tonight" in any major American city, and multiple venues for social dancing will pop up. They often feature live, multipiece bands, and are packed several nights per week with dancers spinning, dipping and flipping their partners across the floor.

Learning to do this flashy, athletic and intimate dance form takes time and money.

Sarah Riddle owns The Viscount studio in Portland, Oregon. She’s done good business teaching salsa to Latinos and others — even through the recession. “People are struggling and they want to spend money on things that feel good,” says Riddle, “and so there’s an increase in that market.”

Here's Sarah Riddle demonstrating various styles of salsa. In order: ballroom, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and L..A. styles. (Video cred: Mitchell Hartman)

The Latin market — not just salsa from the Caribbean (which also includes salsa variants bachata, timba and kizomba), but also Mexican regional and pop music — is one of the bright spots for the industry. Latin digital-music sales were up twice as much as the rest of the music market last year (14 percent vs. 7.6 percent), according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

Music marketing consultant Peggy Dold of Navigation Partners has penned the “Latin Corner” blog for the Association of Independent Music Producers. She points out that this a promising market for a struggling music industry. The U.S. Latino population skews young; Hispanics listen to radio, use online streaming services such as Pandora and watch music and dance videos, more than other demographic groups.

Salsa is now expanding across the U.S. and overseas, with flashy competitions hosted in several hundred cities now. According to Albert Torres, a Los Angeles–based salsa promoter, interest and participation is growing, from North America and South America to Europe, Asia and North Africa. He regularly travels to Japan, Germany, Morocco, Turkey and other countries to host Salsa Congresses.

“I don’t care why people walk in the door — whether it’s to watch, to dance or to perform in a show themselves, it just gets into your core,” says Torres. “All these African beats that came over from 1533 until now — sooner or later you have to put your seat belt on because you’re hooked.”

At the annual Salsa & Bachata Congress in Portland, Oregon, in June, partner teams from as far away as Idaho and British Columbia spent hundreds of dollars each on travel and sequined costumes to compete. Latinos and non-Latinos were represented among the top competitors. The winners — including Erika Lachen Meier and Malik Delgado — will go on to compete at Torres’s World Latin Dance Cup in Miami in December.

“I go out there onstage, and when I come back and remember nothing, that’s when I know it went well,” said Lachen Meier after the competition. Delgado added: “It’s great just to feel the energy, and next thing I know her foot’s up in the air and she’s in a dip and I’m asking, ‘Are we done?’”

Latin rap artist Carsello was in town from New York, showcasing his "urban salsa" — a crossover genre — at the Portland event. “Now we’re taking salsa to a pop-culture level, by English-rapping, but with traditional salsa music,” he said. “Salsa is here to stay, and it’s just going to get bigger.”

Click the video player at the top of the article to see Sarah Riddle giving reporter Mitchell Hartman a dance lesson at The Viscount studio in Portland, Oregon. (Video cred: Cliff Rees)

(09/08/2014)

Beyond magnifying glasses: High-tech options for the vision-impaired

This week, Marketplace Tech has been talking technology and reading. We've heard about how new gadgets are changing reading in school and how they're changing reading education at home. We've talked about the impact of e-readers on the brain

But what happens if your vision makes it tough to read at all?

Today, we profiled Spotlight Text, one digital option for people with vision loss. However, there are many more tools for low-vision readers out there:

There’s an e-reader app for that.

Some e-reader apps are made specifically for those with reduced vision. Apps like Spotlight Text and Read2Go allow readers to increase or decrease font size as much as they need to.

E-readers like the Kindle or iPad already allow low-vision readers to adjust font sizes and contrast settings on the device. Many also have text-to-speech functionality.

The BARD Mobile app from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped offers readers almost 50,000 Braille and talking books. And it’s free.

Phone it in.

There are countless magnification apps that use a smartphone’s camera and flashlight to enlarge and illuminate text. Some are free, like iRead or Magnificent, while VisionAssist is $5.99 and EyeSight is $29.99.

EyeNote is a free app that identifies the denominations of U.S. paper currency for those with low vision.

The iPhone — and other smartphones — remains a powerful tool for low-vision readers. As Paul Otterness, who suffers from glaucoma, wrote on the Glaucoma Research Foundation's blog: “The big news for people with low vision is that high tech, big print, voice control and screen reading are brought together in a single handheld device: the Apple iPhone — a fully functioning computer with high-resolution screen and multiple magnification capabilities, small enough to carry in my pocket.”

Spoken words.

Text-to-speech apps like Speak it!, $1.99, and Voice Dream Reader, $4.99, allow low-vision readers to listen to texts read aloud.

Not out of sight.

Different high-tech glasses are being made to help those with low vision read more easily. These glasses from Low Vision Readers are equipped with LED lights and rechargeable batteries.

Some companies have also been trying to make Google Glass accessible for the deaf. They are working on live subtitle technology.

These high-tech devices can be expensive and insurance companies don’t always cover the costs. So support groups have been cropping up around the country to loan out devices or provide them for free to people with low vision.

If you have low vision, we want to know: Which technologies or devices have been helpful to you? Let us know in the comments below!

(09/05/2014)

Silicon Tally: Taxi for two

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by Stephanie Humphrey, who writes about tech for Ebony.com.

(09/05/2014)

How reading on screens is rewiring our brains

Dr. Maryanne Wolf says that reading isn't something we're born to do — it's something we train our brain to do.

Wolf is the director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, and the author of "Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain." She says we rewire parts of our brain and build new circuits as we learn to read.

But something interesting is happening as we use new technology for the process of reading: The circuits we're building in our brain are different than those we build when we read books. And some of the implications are worrisome for our ability for deep thought.

Following other discussions for this week's series on technology and reading education, Wolf joins us to talk about reading, new tech and their impact on the brain.

Click the media player above to hear Dr. Maryanne Wolf in conversation with Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson.

(09/04/2014)

State governments experiment with cloud computing

From the outside, Cheyenne, Wyoming’s Green House Data center looks fairly nondescript, just another boring building in a corporate office park.

But get past security and it feels like something out of "The Matrix" — a long white hallway leads to row after row of blinking servers. They’re extremely well protected, says staff engineer Courtney Thompson:

"Laser grid-based systems on penetrations on the outside of our walls. Kevlar bullet-proofing anywhere there is a window. We like to show people we go to the nth degree to make sure our clients' data is secure.”

The clients that use Green House Data’s cloud hosting services include New Belgium Brewing Company, the National Outdoor Leadership School, and now, the state of Wyoming.

“We are getting higher quality servers, higher quality data protection,” says Wyoming Chief Information Officer Flint Waters. “So it’s more economical for us, but it’s also far more bang for the buck.”

Waters is leading the transition of most of the state’s data from state-owned servers to the cloud — space on the Internet rented from big data companies, like a giant version of Dropbox or Google Drive. Pennsylvania is also moving government data to the cloud.

Waters says there are lots of benefits: He gets access to the very best IT professionals, and the state only has to pay for the storage it needs. He says there’s no way Wyoming can compete with companies that manage data for a living.

“When it comes time to put together a bunch of new trucks for our fleet, we don’t say, ‘Let’s put together a factory and assemble trucks.’ We look at GM, Ford, Chrysler. And this is a very similar paradigm,” Waters says.

While many states are looking into the cloud, a nationwide survey last year found that most are worried it could violate privacy laws. Waters says he understands the concern, but it is silly to think that government-owned servers are any safer.

“Folks say, 'It’s more secure because I control the server.' Well, yeah, but I can pick it up and walk out to my car with it. And that citizen data isn’t secure anymore.”

Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Lee Tien isn’t convinced. “If you are controlling your own data center, you have the control that matches your responsibility,” he says. “When you move into the cloud, something could go wrong.”

Tien points to an example out of California as a reason to worry. School kids in that state use a cloud service called Google Apps for Education. But last spring, it came out that Google had been clandestinely mining their emails for ad research.

Tien says governments need to be good stewards of their citizens’ data. "There is a tendency for there not to be whole lot of public oversight over these kinds of decisions, even when they can be quite fateful for everyone involved.”

For small governments, navigating the world of cloud computing can be confusing. Thankfully, there is Australia.

“Australia has always been a country where the citizens have valued their privacy," says John Sheridan, Australia’s information minister.

The Australian government is moving a lot of information onto the cloud, too, and last year it came out with one of the most extensive guides to data privacy out there.

Sheridan says government cloud computing contracts need to be able to hold private companies accountable. “We need to look at their security. So we don’t want someone hacking our websites or doing those sorts of things.”

And, Sheridan says, if there is a hack, governments need to be sure they know about it, and know how it’ll be fixed.

In Cheyenne, Courtney Thompson would be one of those fixers if something went wrong. Pointing at the banks of humming servers, he says Wyoming is just the beginning for states heading to the cloud.

“Massive data centers like this, they’re the future of computing."

(09/03/2014)

How tech is changing reading at libraries

As part of our week-long series about tech and reading, we've already heard about how new gadgets are changing reading in school and how they're changing reading education at home.

Today we hear from Courtney Young, president of the American Library Association, on how they're changing libraries. From services libraries offer to the actual layout and contents of some brick and mortar library buildings, new tech has had an impact.

Young says that it's important for libraries to change with the times, but that one challenge for librarians is making sure patrons are aware of new services. Also, keeping up with high costs. 

Click the media player above to hear Courtney Young in conversation with Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson.

(09/03/2014)

Using tablets to teach reading

More and more often, kids have access to tablet computers--They share their parents' devices, have their own, or their school hands them out.  

Sure, some parents use iPads as little more than distraction devices to keep kids quiet during a dinner out.  

But for many educators and parents, the hope is that tablets could be a tool to help kids learn to read. Right now, only about a third of 4th graders have reading skills that are considered proficient.

Could iPads and other tablets help? There's reason to be hopeful.  

Michael Levine from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop says strong literacy and reading apps can be an improvement on boring learning devices--like flashcards.  

But, he says, tablets are still only a tool. Teaching kids literacy skills will always require caring and responsive adults.

 

 

(09/01/2014)

Silicon Tally: Charlotte's Web...in your Suzuki

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

Our guest this week is Marketplace senior reporter Stacey Vanek Smith. Smith stops by for one last game before heading off to join our colleagues at NPR's Planet Money. 

(08/29/2014)

Twitter bot helps Chicago find dirty restaurants

For an increasing number of Chicagoans who get food poisoning, a very unpleasant experience has been followed with a pleasant surprise.

After getting sick from eating at a restaurant and complaining about it on Twitter, they get a message from the Chicago Department of Public Health. And, for an increasing number of those tweets, the department has followed up with investigations and fines. 

Earlier in August, Chicago health officials published a report touting the success of their campaign, which employs a self-learning algorithm to mine Twitter for messages that may indicate that someone got sick from eating at a Chicago-area restaurant. 

In 2013, the algorithm, and subsequent inspections, resulted in 21 restaurants being closed down and 33 others receiving citations for serious violations, Chicago officials say. 

“We know a majority of food-borne illnesses never end up getting reported to public health, whether locally or nationally,” says Bechara Choucair, the Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health. 

Considering food-borne illnesses can cost $2 to $4 billion annually, and can affect 55 to 105 million people every year in the U.S., finding out about what’s causing them is an important public health issue. 

“We knew that we needed to figure out a more effective way of listening to residents and really act on their complaints. And when we realized that the majority of people are not picking up the phone and letting us know that they’re getting a food-borne illness, but still going and talking to Twitter, we tried to figure out how can we leverage that,” Choucair says. 

Choucair employed volunteer coders to create a Twitter bot that looks for messages geocoded to Chicago, which include the term “food poisoning.” Health officials then gave the algorithm feedback on the messages it was finding, and it learned to more correctly identify potential cases for investigation. 

The algorithm alerts officials when it finds a potentially relevant tweet. A health worker then writes back to the tweeter and asks the to fill out an online complaint form to launch an investigation. 

The program started in March of 2013, and by now, the number of investigations sparked from Twitter (while still about 10 percent of the total number of cases each year) is growing. 

“What’s equally important is the feedback we’re getting from those residents. And they’re really excited to know that their local government is listening to them, but not only just listening, but also acting on their complaints and trying to prevent, and really making sure that they do have healthier lives in Chicago,” Choucair says. 

Other health departments have also had similar ideas for mining online social networks for potentially troublesome restaurants. 

In New York, health officials are keeping track of Yelp reviews, while Boston is trying its own experiment with mining Twitter. 

Chicago health officials have been consulting with their counterparts in those two cities, so there may soon be Twitter bots for Boston and New York, as well. 

(08/28/2014)

Matching roommates before sparks fly

As the university move-in season gets into full swing, many freshmen will be meeting their roommates for the first time. At the University of Massachusetts Lowell, the housing department is using a service called Room Sync to streamline the process.

Click the media player above to hear Matt Austin, Associate Director for Resident Life at UMass Lowell, in conversation with Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson.

The software asks prospective roommates a series of lifestyle questions, allowing them to filter others by majors and other lifestyle preferences. They can then view other freshmen and choose among a list of possible roommates.  

Students can communicate through Facebook accounts, and send roommate requests similar to “friend requests.”

According to Austin, students that don’t use the site request a new roommate 8% of the time, while those who use it and find a match are only 1% likely to change roommates.

“Students that continue with the same roommate throughout the freshman year are more likely to return to housing in their sophomore year, which keeps them more engaged on campus,” says Austin, also citing statistics showing on-campus students receive higher grades.

While Austin admitted that the software may reduce the chances of students living with a roommate markedly different from themselves, he argued that the makeup of the floors and residences as a whole would still provide the opportunity for that cross-pollination of experiences. 

(08/28/2014)

To prevent crime, predict it

The potential that data provides for government is, in many cases, still only just becoming apparent. For the police, data can help them respond to crime before it happens. The technology has promise, but also a dark side.   

“Predictive policing is the application of statistics and big data to the challenge of figuring out where or how to deploy police assets in advance of crime trends,” says Patrick Tucker, technology editor at Defense One.

He cites both New York and Memphis as examples of how the system has been used.

In Memphis, a researcher partnered with the police to pre-deploy resources to neighborhoods where they expected crime, and in their efforts discovered that being in public housing increased the chances of crime victimization, but not likelihood of committing crime, which to a change in strategy.

In New York, one component of predictive policing was the” stop and frisk” program, which, according to Tucker, was not a good use of the statistics because it did not substantially reduce the crime rate and was later found to be illegal. 

(08/27/2014)

Bringing accountability to police through data

Following events in Ferguson, Missouri, there has been a lot of talk of putting policing on tape. There has also been talk of how big data can help reduce abuses of power and bring more truth and reconciliation to fraught police-citizen interactions. PC Magazine columnist Ibrahim Abdul-Matin says part of the issue is putting the power of data into the hands of the public.

One of the central problems, he says, is that no one seems to be looking at hard data on this issue.

“If there are bad apple cops, how come we don’t know the data about them until they've done something deadly?" Abdul-Matin asked. 

In terms of implementing this system, Abdul-Matin advises implementation with departments that are already using body cameras to record interactions with citizens, and collecting that data for internal use before bringing in crowd sourced information from the public at large.

While this itself won’t fix police-citizen interactions, it would bring a level of confidence in communities that accountability can actually happen, Abdul-Matin said. 

(08/26/2014)

Pandora near parity on gender stats

Pandora, the music streaming company, has entered the continuing debate over demographic diversity in the tech industry with a release of its own numbers. While the company has a similar racial profile to its tech peers, it has a remarkably high representation of women.

The statistics, just under 51% for men and 49% for women, are a marked departure from the breakdowns of other companies. Even so, the technical and leadership roles are still overwhelmingly male.

It is not clear what Pandora is doing differently -- It, along with other companies, has been reluctant to talk in closer detail on the issue because diversity is considered such a sensitive subject.

Adrienne LaFrance, technology reporter at The Atlantic, adds that even if companies address issues with hiring, retention rates pose another major challenge; from support groups to the possibility of flexible working hours. 

Click the media player above to hear Adrienne LaFrance in conversation with Marketplace Tech guest host Noel King.

(08/25/2014)

Silicon Tally: Pizza pushers

It's time for Silicon Tally. How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by Cyrus Summerlin, co-founder of the latest in food technology: "Push for Pizza"

(08/22/2014)

Building a better news feed

Twitter recently announced that it was changing its policy related to violent images and videos within its platform. 

The move comes as the loved ones of kidnapped American photojournalist James Foley have been asking people not to share images or video of his beheading at the hands of extremists. Last week, Zelda Williams quit Twitter after people harassed her with offensive images of her father Robin Williams following his death.

YouTube, Facebook and Twitter and many more of the places we live online have dealt with similar challenges. But there's an interesting layer to this.

Even if we don't share images of violence, we sometimes still promote them in the view of the algorithms that measure our engagement.

Karen North, professor of social media and psychology at USC Annenberg, thinks a lot about how content spreads on the web.

Click the media player above to hear Karen North in conversation with Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson.

(08/21/2014)

Can Barnes & Noble find success with Samsung?

Samsung has unveiled a partnership with bookseller Barnes and Noble to create a new version of the Nook tablet, in a bid to compete with Amazon and their Kindle device. To get a read on whether such a device would work, we spoke to New York Times tech columnist Molly Wood.

Wood described the prospects for the partnership as uncertain at best.

“I would say that moderate non-failure is the best we can hope for right now,” Wood said.

However, she also noted that Samsung can make media and publisher deals that would bring more attention to the Nook, as competition in the tablet market is no longer is about the hardware.

Samsung and Barnes & Noble could even take advantage of the tension between Amazon and other publishers to negotiate deals, but this would likely lead to higher prices for consumers. 

(08/20/2014)

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