The End of Billboards

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Augmented reality, the process of overlaying digital information atop real life vision, seems inevitable to me given the recent direction and pace of technology – the proliferation of smartphones, location-based services, 3D TVs, etc.

Actually, it’s already here. Layar (fig. 1) is a crazy augmented reality browser, available on Android and iPhone, that uses a phone’s camera and superimposes dynamic, sortable content in real time.  Another example comes from the Museum of London, which launched a free iPhone app (fig. 2) that blankets its historical art and photography library atop your view.

[fig. 1: Layar, via Mobile Crunch]

[fig. 2: Museum of London app, via LikeCool]

I recently started to think about how this would play out for driving. I don’t think it’s that far off before GPS augmentation becomes a feature in cars, with special touchscreen windshields capable of displaying semi-transparent turn-by-turn directions on top of the road as you drive.

It’s not hard to imagine what comes next: superimposed ads, like a McDonald’s logo that grows progressively larger as you approach the store. One might even be able to tap out an order a mile in advance to speed up the drive-thru process.

It may sound scary, but I tend to be one to look for the upside of these things. In this case, I feel this could at long last mark the death of the billboard. With ads streaming directly into cars, there would presumably no longer be a need to have those clunky eyesores blocking the view across cities and along interstates. We could at last tear those suckers down.

But at the end of the day we’ll just be trading a physical eyesore for a virtual one. My jury is still deliberating over whether or not that is any better.  What do you think? Is it worth it to rid skylines of physical billboards, or will it make no difference once the ads are permanently beamed into our line of sight?

Artist Keiichi Matsuda provides an awesome, but dreary picture of what this future might look like, taken to its logical extreme:

[Augmented (hyper)Reality: Domestic Robocop from Keiichi Matsuda on Vimeo]

Cool or scary?

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Posted on June 2nd 2010 in ideas, news, OrgWatch

Are you a better judge than a college student?

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Given Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s lack of a paper trail, political analysts have been digging deep into her past for any indication of what her views might be.  The search has inevitably led to her college and graduate school writings.

Two historians reviewed her undergraduate thesis and concluded she displayed “remarkable intellectual maturity” and “wrote quite evenhandedly” and “without evident bias.”  In addition, the Wall Street Journal dug up her masters thesis and noted that she criticized the Warren court and “wrote that Supreme Court justices should rest their rulings squarely on a firm legal foundation, such as statutes and court precedents.”

Call me crazy, but it seems pretty ridiculous to judge someone’s views on the basis of something they wrote 30 years ago at the age of 21.  One would hope that as people gain more experience, are exposed to more people and viewpoints, and generally grow wiser, their views on things would evolve.  I, for one, am mortified at the thought of having my nascent intellectual thoughts torn apart by today’s punditry.

So I’ll do it myself.  Soon I will embark on a new series of posts I am entitling “Benevolution.”  I plan to revisit nearly all of the papers I wrote in college and post them along side some self-reflection on how my views have evolved on the subjects.  I’ll be able to reassess the state and the development sector in the context of my current business education. I’ll be able to revisit my thoughts on global government in the aftermath of Bush and the global financial crisis.  I’ll be able to review my past thoughts on the city now that I have actually lived in one for six years.

Bottom line: it will help me to reflect on how I have evolved into the Benevolent Baron.

This is mainly for me, but it’s also an excuse to do something with my old papers.  It has always bothered me that students put all that research and effort into writing papers that are only seen by one professor (or perhaps just one teaching assistant).  It seems that someone with an interest in these topics might find it useful to see someone else’s research, or at least take a peak at a relevant works cited list.  I consider this a service to to some future Google-crazed college student that may want to write a paper about poverty concentration, pan-Africanism, South Africa’s informal settlements, or the effects of narcotics trafficking on the state.

What you’ll get is the papers in their original form, complete with misguided thoughts, typos and all.  This was college, so please be lenient judges of my writing and naivety.

If you care to share your own evolution, shoot me an email.

Posted on May 28th 2010 in Benevolution, news

Budgeting for school lunches

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Financial illiteracy in this country is a travesty and it has to be correlated with poor economic outcomes at both the individual and macro levels.  In the absence of a real understanding of debt, savings, budgeting and how the economy works, it is inevitable that we constantly end up in debt-driven crises.

In my opinion, financial literacy should be a mandated part of high school curriculum.  So many individuals get in credit problems during college, where uninformed teenagers are preyed upon by credit card companies that know that, when they fail to pay, mommy and daddy will bail them out.

Studies back it up.  Stephen J. Dubner at the Freakonomics blog passed along this study that shows that financial literacy among young adults is woefully low:

Fewer than one-third of young adults possess basic knowledge of interest rates, inflation, and risk diversification. Financial literacy is strongly related to sociodemographic characteristics and family financial sophistication. Specifically, a college-educated male whose parents had stocks and retirement savings is about 50 percentage points more likely to know about risk diversification than a female with less than a high school education whose parents were not wealthy.

Another study in 2008 had high school seniors scoring just above 48% on a quiz about personal finance and economics, their lowest scoring ever.  As such, even Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has tried to push for mandated financial literacy education for students, noting that only eight U.S. states have initiated any such curriculum.

But there is hope.  A Freakonomics blog reader submitted the quiz below, which was given to a 3rd grade public school class in Fairfax County, Virginia (my school district growing up!).  I am amazed at the depth of concepts being taught at such an early age, though I wish there was more on credit – maybe next quiz.  Nonetheless, this is exactly the kind of expectations we should be setting for our children.

Click on the link to zoom in on the test.  If you rock Grace’s quiz, try the Federal Reserve’s quiz.  It’s a bit harder (I missed three).

Posted on February 7th 2010 in news

Dude, where’s my client?

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One of the worst things you have to endure in graduate school is crappy IT services.  In order to be a functioning student – pay my tuition, register for classes, read syllabi, email – I have to log in to nearly a dozen different platforms.  Printers are a nightmare to configure.  Necessary software is often incompatible.  I’m not even sure how to get on the internet in some places.

Animosity towards the technical backbone of the school is practically universal.  Considering that students put forth a lot of time and effort to get something out of these degrees, not to mention a ton of money, you would think there would be more effort to keep us happy.  I began to think about how universities can get away with such poor client relations and concluded that the IT problem has to do with the unique model of higher education:

In.  Up.  Out.

With the possible exception of the umbrella-salesperson who seems to materialize out of thin air as soon as it starts raining, almost all businesses require repeat customers in order to survive.  The failure of a customer to repurchase a good or service is an indication it was provided inadequately.  This implicit feedback mechanism is one that keeps businesses on their toes, relentlessly focused on improving their product and keeping their customer satisfied.

Universities, on the other hand, have an in-up-out model that precludes this critical feedback mechanism.  Their core customers are the students, who enter the university, soak up whatever knowledge possible and then leap back out into the world.  Poof.  They are gone, they almost never come back, and the school no longer need concern itself with the pesky grievances those students had with wireless printer configuration.  Problem not solved.

(Some will say alumni donations can play the feedback role, though I don’t think this argument holds water.  First, when alumni make donations, they are not repurchasing the university’s services.  Instead, they are often actually donating to improve those services.  Second, they often do so under the misguided assumption that the university provided them with a service that helped them to succeed, when in fact it was either the simple act of getting that degree checkbox marked off or the illusory prestige that the top-tier universities have managed to preserve.  Either that, or they just want to support their football team)

The bottom line is that IT remains crappy because, with no expectation that a customer will return, there is no incentive fix it.

But worry not, because my experience led to a profound realization about non-profit management: the basic model does not inherently promote self-improvement because it follows the same in-up-out model.

Most non-profit organizations do not want return clients.  Some even define success by the rate at which their clients leave.  Think about homeless services: perfect execution would bring clients in, let them soak up whatever services they can (transitional housing, rehab, job-training, etc.), and have them leap back out into the world, never to return again.

But if you do not expect your client to return, how can you truly know whether or not you adequately provided the service?  Failure to return may mean that your client is off the streets and working, but it may also mean they have relapsed and are back living on the streets, having determined that your organization is useless.  You will never know for sure and you will never improve.

Hell, you may even use your useless non-return metric to raise money, claiming that all of your clients moved on to bigger and better things.  And this, in my opinion, is how donors got all crazy, paternalistic and problematic.  After years of funding in-up-out organizations with little or no tangible improvement in outcomes, they felt compelled to come up with their own metrics.

This is a welcome step, but the absence of standards makes it unsustainable.  Non-profits today are forced by donors to jump through hoops and maintain metrics that are often irrelevant to the organization and the context in which it operates, further straining their resources.

I am not sure what the answer is, but I am certain that it involves the client.  We must know where they go when they walk out our doors and we must find ways to get their feedback.

Thoughts?

Posted on January 24th 2010 in ideas
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