Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Local Technology: IMOK

Note: Westport is an amazing place. There's a huge amount of creativity in our town. This is the first of a series of columns that highlights what Westport residents are doing in technology. If you're involved in technology — whether it be a startup or a large corporation — contact me about a possible story.

Apple changed the landscape of what a phone is when it released the original iPhone. Although there were other phones that did other things, most notably the BlackBerry, the iPhone brought a whole world of applications (called simply "apps"), functions and a decent Web browser to a portable phone. These new phones are typically called "smartphones."

While smartphones typically started with adults, they are becoming more popular with children. And, with parents' eternal desire to keep their children safe, both parents and children benefit when a smartphone addresses the desires of both constituents.

One iPhone app created by Westport resident Matt Bromberg called IMOK attempts to address the needs of both parents and children.

In essence, IMOK encourages children to check in on their phone to let their parents know where they are and who they're with. IMOK allows this checking-in without the painfully embarrassing phone call home.

"By sharing their location, taking pictures, tagging friends, and telling you what's up, your kids earn points that can be exchanged for things you've agreed to, like spending money or special privileges," Bromberg said. "Getting a text from your kids is fine. But all parents would like to know more about where their children are, who they're with, and what they're doing. By incentivizing kids to share more, the app turns something that was difficult and contentious into a game."

When asked about how he got into this business, Bromberg said: "When I got out of law school, I knew I didn't want to be a lawyer, so I took a sales job at an online business. Later, I spent a bunch of years at AOL in its heyday, and that excitement kind of sealed it for me."

The team Bromberg put together for this project consists of people he's worked with over the years. He credits his wife and supportive family as being instrumental in making IMOK happen.

The project has been funded by investors, including some of his own money.

The app is still in beta (pre-release), but Bromberg encourages everyone to visit www.imok.com to follow the development and release of the software. Maybe it will even help open the lines of communication between parents and children.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 29 June 2011.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Internet Access a Human Right

On May 16, the United Nations declared Internet access to be a human right. The report to the 17th session of the United Nation's Human Rights Council by UN Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue has declared that Internet access is a tool to protect people. The full 22-page report can be seen at: http://bit.ly/kNHvvm.

It's clear that the Internet has changed the world. In the United States, it has typically opened up commerce (how we buy stuff) and entertainment (how we have fun).

However, in many parts of the world, the Internet has a more profound effect on people's basic needs and has recently been credited with contributing to the overthrow of undesirable government regimes, among other benefits.

As I heard about the UN's declaration, I wondered what are some of the other human rights? The report by Mr. La Rue includes the following statement: "The right to freedom of opinion and expression is as much a fundamental right on its own accord as it is an `enabler' of other rights, including economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to education and the right to take part in cultural life and to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications, as well as civil and political rights, such as the rights to freedom of association and assembly."

Pretty heady stuff.

Further reading of the report indicated some of the key aspects of this human right include freedom of expression and access to unfiltered information. In other words, not having only a single view of information, say from the government. The report is in effect saying that multiple — even dissenting — views are valuable.

For some people, their only source of information are newspapers, television and radio stations which are controlled by the government. The government even controls telecommunications, which includes the Internet in their country, so websites may be blocked if deemed necessary by the people who control the access.

The report also did acknowledge the legitimacy of blocking access to some information, most notably child pornography.

Note that the report did not say that people need to have high-speed Internet connections into their businesses, homes or schools.

I also found an interesting story in the New York Times on June 12 about how the United States government is helping people with "repressive governments" bypass the same sorts of limitations that the United Nations has said should not exist. The article can be read at: http://nyti.ms/jNEFsO.

Right now, I don't see the UN having any power to control or correct any country who decides not to participate in its pronouncement, although now that the UN has declared Internet access as a human right, countries that don't comply may be deemed to violate people's human rights.

While the personal effect of the Internet on our community is far different than the people who will be affected by this declaration, I hope that having this declaration by the UN will continue to improve the lives of people around the world. If that's the case, then the Internet will again continue to amaze me as to the value it brings to the world.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 15 June 2011.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Social Media Run Amok

We've all heard about social media. In particular Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and more. We're all aware that people post things online and others comment on them.

Facebook now has the ability to "Like" something to tell others you agree with it in some manner. LinkedIn has for years had the ability to provide recommendations to someone else.

Most Facebook comments are pretty innocuous, saying things like: "I like this" or "Way cool!" or "Can you believe that?"

Occasionally, you'll see something like: "Boy, was that dumb" or "Oooh, that makes me angry."

And then there are the times that people get downright ugly, publicly criticizing someone for something superficial: "Sally really shouldn't wear tight pants with a figure like that" or something more egregious like: "Bobby Smith is the ugliest person in the world."

Chalk some of these up to youthful indiscretion, anger or immaturity.

I recently came across a Web site called Mixtent who's tag line is "Rate and discover the most talented people in your network."

This came to me because one of my colleagues had apparently voted for me based on my finance skills. Since I don't usually think of myself as a financial whiz, I thought I should investigate further.

As with many sites, when you create an account, it asks you for the login credentials for other sites, which I provided only one since I never quite know what these sites will do with my information.

What I was presented with was a list of people I know and I was asked to compare person A to person B and tell Mixtent who I thought was better in their profession.

To date, I have declined to rate any of my colleagues because it's really impossible to say who's better at a particular job than someone else — at least in my book.

While two people may have the same position, each brings their own strengths and weaknesses to the table. To say that one person is definitively better than another is beyond my ability to judge and certainly beyond my desire to assign such a comparison.

To me, that's like trying to compare two men and say who's the better father or two women to say who's the better mother.

I understand the desire to compare two people based on a third party's interpretation, but without any sort of objective and consistent criteria, the whole idea is fraught with nothing but trouble.

I don't know how successful Mixtent has been. So far, I know that I haven't been rated very much and most of my technology colleagues had expressed a high "ick" factor regarding the site, but I believe we will see more of this in the future.

In particular, I believe we will see software emerging that, much like Google's ground-breaking "Pagerank" where a Web page's relevance was increased as more people linked to it, I believe we will see people be ranked by the number and "quality" of the people in their Facebook or LinkedIn network.

As people continue to have a controlled profile on the Web, sites like Mixtent will provide more and more information about you over which you may have no control.

In order to know what people are saying about you, I suggest that people regularly Google themselves by simply typing in your name into Google and see what pops up. It's really amazing what you may find out about yourself — or quite frequently someone else with whom you share your name.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 1 June 2011.