Marketplace Tech®

with Ben Johnson

About the Program

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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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)

Ferguson story highlights Twitter's role as source

The protests that have erupted in Ferguson, Missouri in the wake of Michael’s Brown’s shooting by the police have opened another conversation about the role of social media during fast breaking news events.

David Carr, media and culture columnist for the New York Times, sees a similarity to the coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, when police made it difficult for the media to cover the events by pushing cameras out of the area. In that instance, social media became a large part of the eyes and ears of the media. Ferguson is being covered in much the same way, with images of militarized police responding to protesters going viral.

With the evolution of smartphone technology, Carr points to how the delivery of video and pictures has become more discreet than ever:

“Walking around with a camera is like walking around with an 800 pound pencil: you can be a target for either the police or the protesters.” Meanwhile, with a smartphone, one can blend into the crowd and simply record events.

Newsrooms have also been leaning heavily towards Twitter as opposed to other social networks, especially during fast moving events.

A major reason why, Carr argues, is that Twitter is a light piece of infrastructure that can carry info from other platforms, such as embedded photos and short videos, quickly and easily.

(08/19/2014)

The first smartphone turns 20

20 years ago this past Saturday, IBM's Simon Personal Communicator went on sale. It had a screen, calendar, and could send email, making it by some measures the world's first smartphone. The phone was not exceptionally well received when it was released. BBC Tech Reporter Claire Brennan joined us to explain exactly what it was.

“It looked and felt very different from the modern iPhones and Androids we are used to,” Brennan said.

It got its name from the game Simon says, a marketing attempt to emphasize the apparent usefulness of the device.

The phone was rather large and heavy, weighing half a kilogram, and was priced at the extreme high end of the market, costing $899 at launch.

The model, which was only sold in the US, was not commercially successful, a victim of its size, expense, and a lack of the digital infrastructure taken for granted today, such as wi-fi hotspots and cellular data.

(08/18/2014)

49ers new stadium is a high-tech showcase

When the San Francisco 49ers take the field on Sunday for a pre-season game against Denver, it will be in their brand new stadium in Santa Clara, in the heart of Silicon Valley. For a football team named in honor of San Francisco’s first big economic boom, it’s only fitting that their new home is pure tech.

First of all, there’s the mobile app. It can pull up your tickets and direct you to your seat. You can use it to order food and beer, and have it delivered to your seat. And if you’re so glued to your phone that you miss a game-changing interception, the app has instant replay.

 

Levi’s Stadium app

A screenshot of the Levi’s Stadium app. It can even direct you to your parking spot.

Molly Samuel

 

“It enables an enhanced fan experience that more closely simulates what you can get on your couch,” says Paul Kapustka, editor-in-chief of Mobile Sports Report, which tracks technology in stadiums.

The $1.3 billion venue has wi-fi, cell service and room to grow, technologically.

“This may be the sort of new standard that new stadiums are aiming for,” says Kapustka.

The team is also making a big deal about how green its new home is.    

I went to check out Levi’s Stadium when it was still under construction, at the end of last year. Jack Hill, who oversees all the construction, showed me around.

“You see the purple pipe? That’s all recycled water,” Hill said, pointing up at the ceiling on field level. The water for the field comes from a nearby water treatment plant.

And up on the roof, he pointed out the solar panels, mounted on top of a tower of suites the length of, well, of a football field. Solar panels also cover pedestrian bridges between the parking lot and the stadium. Those panels will collect enough energy to offset game-day electricity use.

 

Solar panel

Niners fans on one of the solar-panel covered pedestrian bridges, coming to tour the stadium before the season starts.

Molly Samuel

 

“The Niners have said this: they are absolutely using this as a showcase,” says Andy Dallin, one of the principals of ADC Partners, a sports marketing agency in the Bay Area. “It’s their goal to make sure the stadium manifests everything that Silicon Valley represents.”

Dallin says sure, the 49ers have the tech side down.

“I think the much harder thing to do is the human side of this,” he says.

On a sort of test-run, at a soccer game earlier this month, traffic was a mess. So the Niners are working out some real life kinks at this high-tech stadium.

(08/15/2014)

Silicon Tally: 1 fish, 2 fish, red fish, cannon fish

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

This week, we're joined by Mike Pesca, host of the Slate podcast "The Gist."

(08/15/2014)

Web cookies to track apps

Google is busy rolling out a new kind of web tracking cookie to give the company an even deeper insight into individual online browsing habits. So what's so special about how this cookie crumbles?

“Google is introducing a way to track you on your mobile apps,” says Will Oremus of Slate.

The company is already adept at tracking users on the open web, but more and more web browsing is done through apps on their phone, which are not subject to Google’s web tracking cookies. This makes it harder for it to deploy targeted advertisements.

With this new technology, Google is trying to is link the cookies on the web with the anonymous trackers that already log activity through apps.

(08/14/2014)

Gawker Media faced with anonymous trolls

On Monday, the staff at the Gawker Media site Jezebel wrote a group post criticizing their parent company for refusing to address issues with Kinja, the comment system for the company’s blog network.

In the post, the editors detailed the efforts of an anonymous commenter who was posting graphic .gifs depicting sexual violence in the comments section of many posts.

Click the media player above to hear Erin Ryan, News Editor at Jezebel, in conversation with Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson

The burner accounts -- a feature added when Gawker’s sites revamped their comment system -- in theory allow people to write about things happening in their companies without going on the record. But that’s not always what’s happening.

The fundamental problem with these images being posted, argues Ryan, is that once a reader has seen the image, they have seen the offending content in its entirety. This, she argues, is emblematic of a broader issue with the internet.

“People who want to make women feel bad for one reason or another have an anonymous forum with no consequences,” says Ryan.

As it stands, Gawker Media has banned image uploading in comments, and the company says it’s working on a longer term solution.

(08/13/2014)

Tracking Ebola through online data

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization held a briefing on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa endorsing the use of untested drugs. As information comes out about those affected by the virus, more is being learned about its origins and impact, partly thanks to an online tool called HealthMap.

The program uses algorithms to pull information off the web that could inform researchers about disease outbreaks. In fact, it identified the spread of a virus in Guinea nine days before the World Heath Organization announced the Ebola outbreak. 

“HeathMap is essentially a data aggregation tool, organizing content from hundreds of thousands of sources,” says John Brownstein of the Boston Children's Hospital and co-founder of HealthMap.

The project sources material from all over the internet; including news, social media, and health ministry data.

In this particular case, the first public hints of the Ebola outbreak came from local media in Guinea — news stories of mysterious illnesses.

The tool, which has been around since 2006, has evolved to integrate real-time social media based data.  

Of the project's strengths is the fact that the data collected provides a broader awareness of what’s happening at the population level.

 

(08/12/2014)

On bringing virtual reality to the movies

The history of film is full of efforts to enhance the narrative experience. In 1960, the film Scent of Mystery featured the first use of the infamous “Smell-ovision” technology. It also was the last.

At the time, the New York Times film reviewer wrote, “As theatrical exhibitionism, it is gaudy, sprawling and full of sound. But as an attempt at a considerable motion picture it has to be classified as bunk.”

The first wave of 3D films in the 1950s had a similarly short time in the sun before being dismissed as a gimmick, and today’s revival of the format has proven controversial among critics.

Now, Oculus Rift, the virtual reality company purchased by Facebook, is pitching its technology to studios. As the TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, Matt Zoller Seitz thinks a lot about entertainment and its potential to evolve.

Seitz argues that virtual reality is incongruous with what we see a film as today, and that simply inserting the capability into film would not be useful to the audience.

“I honestly can’t see how this can enhance narrative as we know it,” he says.

In his view, the value in virtual reality for films would be in exploring the environment without the tether of the narrative.

“The point of a story is that you surrender to it,” he says, pointing out that the point of a video game or virtual reality is the perception of uninhibited exploration of the virtual world. 

(08/11/2014)

Silicon Tally: #Scrabble

It's time for Silicon Tally. How well have you kept up with the week in tech news? This week, we're joined by Megan Garber, staff writer at The Atlantic.
(08/08/2014)

Password breach renews focus on authentication

In one of the largest cyber thefts in history, a Russian crime ring has stolen more than a billion internet usernames and passwords. While it’s still not clear which businesses and individuals are affected, it is clear that many businesses are threatened.

 We spoke to Cyrus Farivar, Senior Business Editor at Ars Technica, to talk keeping passwords secure. Here were his insights:

One potential solution to the problem of easy to remember/hard to hack passwords is a password manager, but even this requires remembering a master password to the manager.

Non-password based solutions such as eye scanners and fingerprint scanners are not yet in the consumer space (save the current iPhone), but they are in high security areas like banks and military installations.

Even so, the best advice going forward for consumers, according to Farivar, is the same it has always been: don’t use the same password for too many accounts, especially if one is substantially more important than others. 

(08/07/2014)

Google's email filtering in the spotlight

A technology called PhotoDNA -- developed by Microsoft and used by Google along with other online companies -- is being credited with leading to the arrest of a man accused of distributing child pornographic images through Gmail.

Google’s CEO has previously come out in favor of a more aggressive approach to the issue, as has the company’s chief legal officer

Google has argued that they were largely complying with the law in notifying police. According to Stephen Balkam, founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, the company's actions are consistent with the legal understanding.

“They are to report images of child sexual abuse, and they have done so,” he says.

What makes this particular case different from finding evidence of other criminal activity in an email, according to Balkam, is that Google does not scan for illegal content in such a way as to detect things like planned robberies.

But even with these efforts tackling email attachments, there are other methods of disseminating this material, so action by search engines isn’t the end of the story.

(08/06/2014)

Why are more people joining credit unions?

Remember the "Leave Your Bank" movement that had a moment a few years ago in the wake of the financial crisis? Well, there are some signs that more people have been turning to bank alternatives since then.

The Credit Union National Association has announced that credit unions have seen a spike in membership since 2011. As of June, more than 100 million people, or about one in three Americans, are now part of a credit union.

There are a few things that could account for the growth.

Until fairly recently, most credit unions were built around a particular employer. You needed to work for the ABC Company or the XYZ School District in order to belong to the ABC or the XYZ Credit Union, explains CUNA President Bill Hampel.

These days, many credit unions are open to anyone who lives in a certain geographic area.

But there's another reason likely driving credit union's growth since the financial crisis, according to Luigi Zingales, a professor of finance at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. 

Trust. 

“People have been scared by what happened in 2008 and they now mistrust  complex institutions they don't understand,” Zingales says.

Meanwhile, he says credit unions, which are non-profit and member-owned, have less incentive to invest in complicated financial products.

According to recent findings in the Financial Trust Index, a quarterly survey that Zingales co-authors, about 60 percent of American households think credit unions are trustworthy. Less than 30 percent say they trust big national banks.

(08/05/2014)

Comcast expands low-income internet program

Comcast is expanding its "Internet Essentials" program, which lets low-income Americans apply to receive broadband internet for ten dollars a month. The move to draw attention to the program has been part of a campaign to convince regulators to approve its merger with Time Warner Cable. Comcast says, if approved, the merger would extend Internet Essentials to millions more low-income people.

Comcast is also announcing is that they're changing their eligibility requirements so that former customers who still owe payments on their bills will be able to use the program.

“If your bill to Comcast is more than a year old, you will be able to apply for Internet Essentials,” says Brian Fung, technology reporter for the Washington Post.

While Comcast has touted the 1.4 million Americans currently enrolled in the program, critics counter that up to 2.6 million households would be eligible for the program, were it not for the current enrollment criteria -- A household is eligible for Internet Essentials if it has a child eligible for free or reduced school lunches.

What the program does make clear, according to Fung, is that there is now an understanding that internet access, especially for poorer families with children, is essential. 

(08/05/2014)

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