Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Canada's Cyber Celebs - 2010

In honour of Canada Day, I'm updating my list of Canadians who contributed to the Internet, cyberculture, or enabling technology. These are Canadian inventors, researchers, developers, business leaders, academics, and writers who either contributed to the development of the Internet and our understanding of it.
  • Chris Albinson, venture capitalist, co-founder of C100, expat Canadian tech network
  • Jim Balsillie, CEO of Research In Motion
  • Michel Beaudet, creator of online humour videos Têtes à claques
  • Alexander Graham Bell - without him all those on dial-up would be out of luck
  • Tim Bray, father of XML & co-founder of Open Text (early search engine)
  • Rhiannon Bury, academic, studies women and online fandom
  • Stewart Butterfield, co-founder of Flickr, pioneer in use of tagging
  • Bill Buxton, Microsoft's principal researcher, pioneer in human computer interaction
  • Garrett Camp, co-founder and CEO of StumbleUpon
  • Ann Cavoukian, privacy czar, effective in promoting greater privacy controls in social network sites, particularly Facebook
  • Vincent Cheung, creator of Shape Collage
  • William Craig, founder of iCraveTV, the first company to stream television over the Net
  • Douglas Coupland, author of Generation X, Microserfs, JPod, etc.
  • Ronald Deibert, researcher and campaigner against Internet censorship and cyber-espionage
  • Peter Deutsch, leader of the team that invented Archie, the first Internet search engine
  • John Demco, creator and first registrar of the .ca domain
  • Hossein Derakhshan - influential Iranian blogger
  • Cory Doctorow, activist, blogger & co-editor of Boing Boing
  • Michael Geist, academic, leader in field of Internet law
  • William Gibson, author and visionary of cyberculture, coined term "cyberspace"
  • James Gosling, inventor of Java programming language
  • Kevin Ham, the world's leading domainer
  • Caroline Haythornthwaite, researcher on social networking, e-learning, online collaboration & communities
  • Graham Hill, founder of environmental blog site, TreeHugger
  • Donna Jodhan, campaigner for web accessibility, launching the first federal court case demanding greater accessibility of government websites
  • Brian Kernighan, computer scientist, creator of "Hello, world" program, popular for training novice programmers (it was the first code I ever wrote)
  • Deidre LaCarte, creator of Hampster Dance, believed to be the first Internet meme
  • Lake Minnewanka Squirrel - Internet meme of scene-stealing rodent
  • Mike Lazaridis, founder of Research in Motion
  • Rasmus Lerdorf, creator of PHP and open source advocate
  • Pierre Lévy, academic, developed notions of collective intelligence
  • mafiaboy, prominent website hacker
  • Marc MacKenzie, winner of most beautiful Twitter message
  • Lane Merrifield, co-founder of Club Penguin and developer of children's virtual worlds
  • Michael Mulley, DIY developer of government transparency website,
  • Ryan North, writer and creator of online comic Dinosaur Comics
  • Emma Payne, author and founder of Wired Women
  • Rob Pike, co-creator of UTF-8, a unicode standard
  • Mark Rivkin and Andrew Rivkin, founders of online gambling tech company, Cryptologic
  • Mark Rzepka, pioneer of online pharmacies
  • Gerri Sinclair, founder of Canada's first multimedia research centre at Simon Fraser, founded NCompass Labs (CMS)
  • Jay Steele, founder of Viigo, a news aggregator app for Blackberry
  • Jeffrey Skoll, co-founder of eBay
  • Star Wars Kid, another Internet meme star
  • Don Tapscott, author of Wikinomics
  • Clive Thompson, journalist has written for Shift and Wired
  • Jutta Treviranus, advocate and researcher on web accessibility, lead author of authoring tool accessibility guidelines
  • Barry Wellman, academic, pioneer in studies of online communities & social networking
  • Bob Young, founder of micropublisher, Lulu and former CEO of Red Hat
This update has are a lot of additions, but only one cut. Please let me know of anyone who should be added to this list (or cut).

Happy Canada Day!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Privacy Myths and Concerns with Foursquare

Since starting my Foursquare research project, I found a few people using it but a lot of people with an opinion of it. People are either avid users, or avoiding it altogether.

The privacy concerns appear to center on the check-in functionality. A check-in is when users indicate via their mobile device that they are currently at a specific location/venue. Users can elect to have these check-in automatically streamed to their Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Here are some of the privacy concerns I heard from friends:

"I used to use foursquare/gowalla but stopped. The main reason is because I didn't want people to know when I wasn't home and where I was most times. I may be overreacting but I have a little girl and must think of her first."


on why she won't use it as she's "too paranoid! The Man is already tracking my every move, and I barely leave the house"

Others suggested that my Foursquare posts made me an ideal candidate for robbers (missing that if robbers removed most of our cheap Ikea furniture, semi-broken electronics, mountains of toys, Zellers-clothes, they'd be doing us a favour). There was a website set up (now closed) that gathered user data to show how easy it was for people to see who was away from their host. This discussion has already played out on the blogosphere.

There were good points against this belief, as robbers are much more likely to stake out a house to see if anyone is there or telephone the house then they are apt to constantly monitor an online feed to see when houses are vacant. There was also an assumption with a lot of this debate that people lived alone, as just because one person is out doesn't mean all of a house's occupants are.

There were also false assumptions about how much data Foursquare makes public. Unless one has been friended by another Foursquare user, they cannot ever see their check-in history. There isn't even an option to make this public. If one does a search for someone on Foursquare's website, you see their profile picture (users are encouraged to upload a picture, but a real photograph is not required), first name and last initial, city, their friends, badges, tips they wrote, usage stats, and their "to dos" (i.e. items from others users that they want to do at a speficic venue).

Foursquare let's users decide whether or not to: "Let friends see my phone number and email address; Let people see the links to my Facebook / Twitter profiles; Show my name in the 'Who's here' list when I'm checked in; Let local businesses see that I've checked-in at their venue". Many users don't change the privacy settings, but in that case I blame the users not the applications.

If one links their Twitter or Facebook accounts, then there are options to have Foursquare automatically post one's check-ins or earned badges and mayorships. I did link my Twitter and Facebook accounts. My Facebook account is closed (only friends can see anything) but my Twitter account is open. I therefore decided to not allow Foursquare to automatically tweet, but I was fine with updates going to Facebook. I realize not everyone has set up their Facebook or Twitter privacy settings, but they should!

In addition, with each individual check-in a user does, the user is given the choice of whether or not to announce their check-in to either their friends, Twitter, or Facebook. If one decides to check in but not tell their friends (called "off-the-grid") still allow the check-in to count toward mayorships and badges. I like off-the-grid check-ins when I'm checking in a lot and don't want to constantly bug my friends (people can elect to receive a pop-up on their mobile device announcing a friends' check in).

I was concerned about mayorships - as they are essentially announcing that one is frequently at that location (or else they wouldn't have been able to become mayor). If one searches for a location, they can see the name of the mayor or who authored the associated tips. I emailed Foursquare about this concern - AND THEY REPLIED. Mayorships can be declined on one's profile page of their website, by clicking the X next to the location. I understand that the value of Foursquare lies in having mayorships be publicly available so that vendors can identify frequent customers and users can identify whom they have to work against to steal the mayorship.

Foursquare does, however, need to do more to allow users to specifically target what information they want to be public. There should be settings to control what one wants to display in one's public profile, such as friends list and location. Users should also have the choice of their profile not being public but still being able to use the system.

Foursquare indicated they are revamping some of the features to improve privacy. Still, from the discussions I had with non-users it wasn't the actual privacy options of Foursquare that were that concerns, it was a misconeption of how much information was made public. I remember similar concerns that kept some people from joining LinkedIn or Facebook, so perhaps this will dissipate as people learn more about Foursquare and more will join as they'll beceome increasingly pressured to join once it (presumably) hits critical mass.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Making a Technology Inventory

I'm consulting a client who is in the early stages of launching a new online project. They have covered a lot of the ground that I mentioned in my post on What to Consider Before Starting a Technology Project. I felt it is useful to know what resources they already have access to before proposing options. Making use of existing technology is obviously beneficial for reducing costs and the time to learn new systems, but it shouldn't lock a project into a preset path.

Below are some general areas that are helpful to document. One may not use all of them, but it does provide a baseline of resources commonly used in online projects. This list is geared to beginners, but it is helpful to know this about every client to avoid potentially-problematic assumptions or oversight.

  1. Are you able to post directly to your website?
  2. How do you post? (For example, do you use FTP software, a content management system, or something else?)
  3. Are you restricted in the types of files you can post? (For example, can you post audio, video, PowerPoint, PDFs, etc.?)
  4. Do you have your own dedicated web space?
  5. If so, are there size restrictions?
  6. Do you have web security? (For example, certification, encryption for secure transactions).
  7. Do you have access to your website usage data?
  8. Is there a contact person for website management?
  1. Can you send broadcast emails?
  2. If so, how do you do this? (For example, using MS Outlook, listserv software, etc.?)
  3. Do you currently have a system to maintain your email list(s)?
  4. If so, what software do you use for this (For example, Outlook, web-based service, spreadsheet, etc.)
Online Services and Tools
  1. Do you have, or have access to, and online event/course registration system? Describe.
  2. Do you have, or have access to, an e-commerce system (i.e. a shopping cart, method to process online payments)? Describe.
  3. Do you have, or have access, to a database linked to your website? Describe.
  4. Do you, or have access to, a system for allowing users to log-in (e.g. authenticating users, assigning passwords and usernames, allowing users to update this, etc.). Describe.
  5. Do you have access to any online tech? For example, chat rooms, virtual spaces, discussion boards/forums), polls, surveys, games, etc. Describe.
Third Parties
  1. Do you have any current partnerships or contracts with third parties? (For example, a commitment to using all Microsoft products.)
  2. Have you used any third-party websites for special projects? For example, YouTube, iTunes, Facebook, MySpace, wikis, Blogger, SlideShare, Flickr.
  3. Is using third-parties allowed at your organization, even if their advertising may be delivered on your project?
  1. List any internal support people available for online projects. For example, programmers, webmasters, multimedia or graphic designers, etc.
  2. List any external support available. For example, design agencies, consultants, freelancers, etc.
This list is not exhaustive, but I think it captures the essentials. I'd love to hear suggestions for additions or corrections.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Foursquare - Familiarity, Frustration, Fun, & Future

This is a continuing entry in my series of user diaries as I begin using Foursquare for a research project.

It day was the first day since installing Foursquare that I was about town and could really check in at a few locations.

The day started off fine using Foursquare, but got increasingly problematic. I checked in at bus (what's the point, I don't know). I had to create a record for one of the venues I don't mind but it does take up some time. I was able to check in seamlessly at my next couple stops. I then went to a street festival there and again thought it would be fun to check into that event specifically, but I included the event details in my "shout".

I finally, figured out the difference between a shout and tip - it took me embarrassingly long to to get that. Shouts are attached just to your check-ins so only one's existing friends can see it, whereas tips are public and permanently attached to a venue.

I tried to check in at park and this is where I started a string of problems. First, a very similar venue came up on the list, but not the actual venue. So checked in the default venue. But the check in didn't work the app said. But when I checked my history, it had checked me in twice. I wanted to delete the duplicate entry but this functionality doesn't exist on the mobile app (it does on their website).

I decided to try the proper name for the venue and found out it did have an existing entry on Foursquare. But then why didn't it come up when I called up the venues in my vicinity? Only a couple venues were returned my first time, so there was space to show more. This has happened a few times. I subsequently learned there was yet another entry for that location. If these venues don't appear on users' screens, it not only makes it more difficult to use but also increases the likelihood of inaccurate check-ins.

I tried to check in to a restaurant and while it would appear in the list of nearby venues, I was not able to actually able to check into it. I don't think it was a network coverage issue, as I was able to call up other live data on the application. In the end, I had to check into the location after I was gone - and then it checked in as a generic location. Not sure the point of checking into this generic-type entries as they don't really seem to exist on the site beyond that individual check-in.

These check-ins did help me earn two new badges today. Rather exciting. And I got two new friends.

I noticed a friend was travelling abroad and checking in. I thought that would be fun and great way to share vacation highlights with friends in real-time. But I did wonder how pricing for such connectivity would go (guess if you connected to a free Internet wireless signal it would be fine, but roaming cell network would be expensive.)

The next day, I was also around town at a conference.

As usual I checked into the bus, but this feels pretty pointless. I keep such mundane check-ins private so as not to bug my friends with such useless information, but then my status is constantly listed as "off the grid". Wish there was a way to not broadcast one's check-ins, but also not be listed as off the grid.

As I was trying to check into the bus, I experienced another problem. I got a pop-up that said there were issues checking me in. Same problem as yesterday. I checked and sure enough not only had I indeed checked in but there were duplicate entries.

The bus check-in did earn me another badge - "Local" - for checking in over 3 times in a week at the same locale. Yeah tell me about it - my life is spent on these god-forsaken buses!

The conference was a dull, so was I dying for a diversion. I was seriously wishing I could check in somewhere so I could check out! I checked it every hour or so hoping for something. Did notice some friends posting their brunch destinations and got a new friend. But not significantly more exciting than the droning presenters.

During a break in the conference, I went outside for a walk to get fresh air. I turned on Foursquare and to my surprise it was filled with useful hyperlocal tips from strangers. Not sure how that came up, I must have accidentally hit the "tips" button. I'd hit tips before but never got anything. Checked out the tips and they were really useful. Seriously impressed!

On my way home, my en route check ins earn my another badge (will I eventually cap out on getting badges?). This did not offsets problems I had.

Somehow I got logged out (okay, maybe it is my klutzy fingers but I don't remember this). This wouldn't have been a big deal, except that it took a long time to check back in again. (This may due to my dubious Bell network coverage - but still, damn annoying.)

I then took the subway miles away from my past locales, yet Foursquare was still showing old venues. Even hitting "refresh" doesn't help nor does hitting the check-in button again as the same old locations would reload.

To make my bad worst, I check in at a location and see the specials nearby button. I almost never click it anymore as they inevitably are for Starbucks and only for their mayors. Even though I do frequent Starbucks I will never be there enough to be mayor, so I don't want to see these offer as they will forever be useless to me.

Miraculously Starbucks didn't appear, but it was from my local Business Improvement Area association (BIA). Their offer is a free newsletter to anyone that stops in. I'm glad to see the BIA trying to use new media, but this is no doubt the same newsletter they just delivered to the entire neighborhood. Leaving aside the newsletter's dubious quality, this is an abuse of the feature and my attention. Not only do such useless offers devalue the feature for all current and future advertisers, they devalue the entire service for all app users.

If I wasn't working on a project for this application, these problems would probably make me give up and and not open the app again for awhile or perhaps ever again. Still, the application is quite new and these issues might eventually be addressed so that future usage was more fun than frustrating.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Discovering Foursquares' Perimeters

This is the second of my Foursquare user diary entries chronicling my initial usage of it for my research project.

I've been using Foursquare application for a few days now. I've gotten quite familiar with how to use the mobile application.

Adding a venue
Eager to check-in at more than one location as most of my days consist of working at home and picking my kid up from school, so I decide to see if my kid's school is there. I'm worried that using the mobile app will use all my data plan limits so I decide to do this on the website. It's not there, so I decide to add it.

Adding a venue was simple, they asked for the name, address, major cross streets, address, and phone (most of which are optional). I see they have a private venue option - "This is a private venue that should only be viewable to me and my friends. (coming soon! but feel free to mark as "private" until we go live with this)". This is a good idea as already some dorky neighbours have added their own house as a venue (what kind of "Specials nearby" will they ever offer? I don't want to know.)

Yearning to be 'your worship'
Wonder if creating a venue automatically will make one the mayor? Mayorship is supposedly meant to encourage vendors to offer these frequent visitors special deals (as Starbucks does) and earns a higher profile on this site. Not that I care about these things, but dammit I want a mayorship. I was corresponding with a professor friend on his earning the mayorship of his university - it sure is easier to attain than dean or chancellor and certainly less political!

No tips on tips
After a check-in at the school I decide to add my first tip. I wrote something banal about the enclosed playground being great for toddlers. I really wanted to say a spectrum of things that I greatly dislike about this school. It's not that I don't want to go on record with my criticism of this school, Foursquare just doesn't seem the venue for it. So already I'm censoring myself.

After writing the tip, I see a "To Dos" tab. I can't figure out the difference, as when one goes to add a "To Do" the resulting webpage is "Add a Tip".

I continued to check-in at my kid's school and after a few of them, I finally got my first mayorship!

Badge of honour
I also got my first two badges. Everyone gets an initial "Newbie" badge, which reminds me of getting Tom as a friend on MySpace. So omnipresent that it's meaningless. (Gee, I haven't heard from Tom lately, hope he's not mad.)

My other badge was earned on a day when I actually was about town (well, I went to class). My public transit commute and coffee pitstop allowed me to unlock my first real badge: "Crunked". It is an image of drunken person and is earned for having checked in at four or more locations in one evening.

This reminded me of a posting of a friend on Facebook that he had earned a "School Night" badge for checking in somewhere after 3am on a school night. It was 5:55am and he was en route to work. The crunked one also reveals that this application is targeted to a younger crowd. I noticed another friend earned a "Player Please!" badge for multiple check-ins with the opposite sex (not sure how one checks in with a person?). Clearly this is a special accomplishment for a certain type of person (player). All this makes me certain I'm way beyond their target audience.

I've also been earning some points with every check-in and when adding a venue. Getting the points seemed impressive, I figured it was for some sort of leaderboard (which they have but I haven't figured it out completely yet). Turns out the points are pointless (see FAQ item).

How long can novelty appeal last?
After using Foursquare for a few days, I can see that there is definitely a novelty factor driving my desire to try out new features, get more check-ins, etc.

But as I was trying to check into Blockbuster as I was returning videos, it struck me that the fun of this would quickly wear out. The location seemed to be their only one not listed and after only using Foursquare for few days I already did not feel inspired enough to add an entry for mundane Blockbuster. I felt similarly uninspired when checking into Shoppers on my way home to get groceries. Though it did feel good the other night to have a way to get back at Shoppers for repeatedly selling rancid bagels - as there really was no other way to do this before.

Feeling lonesome
One reason, why my interest is already waning is that critical mass is necessary. I need friends on it. I sent out over ten friend requests and only heard back from two :(

I have only one local friend (and one in Alberta). The application is set up to get updates on check-ins from locals. Even though my one local friend doesn't check in that much, she does post them to her network, so I get a pop-up on my mobile for her every check-ins. Might turn this feature off soon. Can't imagine how annoying it would be with 20 or more friends!

Finding the limits
I have been trying to figure out if there is a way to check in to events. For the upcoming Hypertext conference I'm going to, I thought it would be a great way to see who else is at the conference (but I guess Twitter will have to do). Foursquare appears to be structured around permanent physical locations.

Disambiguation has already emerged as a problem in my usage - in that Foursquare doesn't do it. I first found this out when I checked into my school, "iSchool". There was an entry already, so I wondered why I was the first person to actually check in there. I figured out that others were calling it "UofT - Faculty of Information". There are no prompts or checks to try to avoid users entering new venues for existing locations. And when a user checks in the order that Foursquare presents venues does not necessarily group venues with the exact same address together (as you'd think would be logical as the sort order seems to be based on the distance from your mobile device).

I am also thinking how uncomfortable I am publicly announcing my physical presence at a location - and leaving a written record of this. Seems like this application is a psycho stalker's playground!

Overall, however the application works quite well and reliably. It seems like it would be more fun if I was younger and had more of a life.

Your help needed
I need some help with my research. Please share any things you love or hate about Foursquare, problems you encountered, what you think it's strengths or future potential is, any thoughts or experiences.

I would also love to interview users via email (5-7 questions) or observe usage at a cafe (just for about 40 minutes in total - maybe a Starbucks so I can work towards getting the mayoral discount). Let me know if you'd like to know more about my research or my credentials. Here's my profile on my Faculty website.

Earning My Newbie Badge on Foursquare

For my research project on Foursquare, I decided to keep a user diary. I was determined to do the project on Foursquare for a few weeks, but resisted starting until I could coincide my own usage with the start of the overall research project.

I am not a digital native, so some of this is rather embarrassing to report.

How I checked in to Foursquare
I learned about Foursquare early in May 2010 after posting a request on my Facebook network for any mobile applications or sites that facilitated people participating and adding their own content. I also asked that it be an indigenous app and not one transferred largely from a website (so that ruled out FB and Twitter). My reasoning for the latter is that I wanted to be able to examine activity that was happening via mobile devices and the hybrid apps make distinguishing the source of user postings difficult or impossible.

Upon learning of Foursquare, I reviewed their website and googled it. I didn't want to learn too much about it in case it biased me, but I did see enough that it seemed like a suitable candidate for this project. I also liked how it supported both iPhones and Blackberry's as I didn't want this project to be about the device rather the behaviour. Also, it needed to support BlackBerry as that's all I have access to.

In the weeks following this, I did not make an effort to learn more about Foursquare but it kept appearing in tech news and it was discussed a few times at Mesh conference. I also started noticing friends' Facebook updates would indicate that they had "checked in" at a location via Foursquare.

Download application downers
I was sitting at my computer previously surfing the Internet, so perhaps that is why I went to Foursquare's website to begin the app download. There is a prominent link for BlackBerry, but turns out that I can't download from here straight to my device. To be honest, I can't remember how I downloaded any mobile apps although I have, such as WeatherEye, CBCs News Alert, Viigo, etc. Went to BlackBerry App World instead. Scanned their reviews and like the descriptions of it: "Think of Foursquare as an 'urban mix tape'" and "Think beyond your standard review - we're looking less for 'The food here is top notch' and more for 'Go to Dumont Burger and try the most amazing Mac and Cheese ever'."

Cool - I love this stuff, having already been an avid participant of similar websites such as OurFaves and Yahoo City Guides. Excited but also anxious as I probably don't know enough people to make it work. I only know of one person using this in Toronto. Just got sense that this app can make you seem like a loser, but that could also be the said of any social network service. Still, with social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter I made an effort to recruit friends as I knew they had the access to join if they wanted to. I don't know any other friends with smartphones. More feeling like a lonely loser.

Decided to click on the reviews: seems vague, non-English or unhelpful so click back. No more putting this off - will download this.

BlackBerry App World makes downloading the app easy as it will email the download link to my device. Already, I hear the moan of the vibrations of my BlackBerry.

Clicked on link. Download took about 3 minutes. Once it downloaded though nothing happened (ie. app didn't auto load as it might on PC). Tried to open the app but I couldn't recognize its icon as so subtle.

First roadblock
"The application Foursquare requested access to your GPS location information. Do you wish to grant access." Okay, little creeped out at privacy implications of this and very concerned that I didn't pay for GPS services in my smartphone plan. Don't want to rack up huge charges. No way to get answer to this, so must call Bell. Bell affirms the application can't start racking up charges without my permission.

Creeped out feeling heightened by a message that now appears: "The application Foursquare is attempting to access radio information that may identify your location".

Second roadblock
I click allow and nothing happens - repeat 4 times. There is a link for "Vendor modules" whatever that means. Decide to click on it but nothing happens. Attempt to leave application through device buttons but while it closes the app the pop-op still appears and won't close now. What a crappy experience this is so far - no help but lots of questions.

Click "Deny" now for fist time and get error pop-up "Uncaught exception: app Foursquare (1822) is not responding: process terminated". Click ok; it closes.

Finally checking in
Now click on Foursquare icon again on my device homepage and it opens fine.

Get welcome message. Must register to create account. Nothing special here. Gives me the option of either checking in or finding friends. Will quick check in, so click the button for "check in nearby". Okay it somehow knows where I am (even though I thought that didn't work) as it displays locations very close to me, including where my daughter plays (Wondering if I'm I sure I want to do this when out with my kid = extra creepy?).

I click to check into Shoppers as I am there almost every day and was just there a couple hours ago to return rancid bagels and buy stuff. It let's me check in - so it obviously relies on honour system. I decide to leave a message (I feel bad it's negative but I'm really sick of their bad bagels): "Watch out for the Bagel World poppyseed bagels here as 4 times in last few weeks the seeds on the bagels were rancid". Tried to unclick the option to "tell my friends" and wasn't able to. Seems to be updating.

A pop-up appears congratulating me. I get a badge (a picture of a trophy cup) for being a "newbie". I find out that Ryan W. is the mayor of this location.

Click close. I see a map with Shoppers' location, which seems pointless at this point after having already checked-in. I also see a button for "Specials nearby" and excitedly click that. It's a deal for Starbucks' mayors - cool, but I don't go there often enough to ever qualify.

Locating friends
Go back to add friends. Try finding friends by address book = zero. Trying now by my Twitter account. It finds some people I know including some I had no idea were using Foursquare. It also finds Ashton Kutcher. Only gives me first name and last initial and can't figure out many of these. So I'm going to Twitter to figure out who these people are. Twitter doesn't help much as gives account names not real names. So back to Foursquare where I click on "info"; it gives their Foursquare profile not their real name.

Wondering now if the people I add will be alerted that I've added them, as this happens with most social network services. Decide to add people I know even slightly, as having friends here seems essential. Better to do it now when I don't know if they're notified. As if I were to find out they were notified, I'd be too mortified to do it. Decide to add Ashton Kutcher too.

Decide to change my notifications settings so that I am notified any time any of my friends check in (which so far is only Ashton as he went directly to my "Following" list). This seems like it would be annoying if one had lots of friends (hypothetically), but it says that one can turn it off based on person or day.

Decide to log in to their website as it's seems like it'll be easier to set up my profile there. I upload my standard photo (the self-portrait where I look mysteriously pondering or pondering mysteries). It won't accept it though as the image is over 200k; it must be under. So I resize it and upload again.

Definitely want to set up my privacy options. I agree to:
  • Let friends see my phone number and email address" (but I'm not providing my phone #)
  • Let people see the links to my Facebook / Twitter profiles
  • Show my name in the 'Who's here' list when
  • Let local businesses see that I've checked-in at their venue (maybe it'll lead to deals)
It just occurred to me that for Foursquare to have value:
  1. you really have to be out physically going places (ie. have a life)
  2. network effects - to be any fun you really have to have a bunch of friends using it
  3. these friends have to be near you as the service seems hyperlocal focused
Looking forward to this app, but already I'm having social network site fatigue. Wish that I didn't have to rebuild my networks over and over again with each new site or application. Also, I have done some reviews I really like for OurFaves - wish they could be imported here.

Switched over to Facebook to post a request for Foursquare friends. Within moments I got a message from a friend in Alberta that he just signed up today. Back to Foursquare mobile app. to see if I can find him. Before I can find him, I get a notice that I have a friend request from him. How did he figure that out so quickly?

I accepted and now I officially have a friend on Foursquare!

... If you're interested in helping out with my Foursquare study, please let me know below.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Foursquare - Need Help Researching

I'm conducting a study that I hope to publish and that will inform my dissertation research on foursquare.

Why foursquare? Although in its infancy, I am curious if foursquare will emerge as a leading platform for citizens to annotate their city and connect with like-mined individuals. Such online participation has larger implications, as it can foster similar participation in political, cultural, and economic realms. It is possible, however, that foursquare is popular for gaming and novelty, and it is not a new source of citizen civic participation.

Launched March 2009, foursquare is as a combination of social networking application, user-generated city guide, and entertainment/diversion. Users post their physical location, write reviews, view other users’ postings, and compete for honours (e.g. badges).

I therefore wish to explore: 1) what motivates users to participate, 2) how they use the application 3) what types of information are users seeking.

I propose to study users first by online observation of their publicly-available behaviour and then conduct email interviews. I'm also conducting autoethnography of my own usage, which I'll be posting here.

But I need help?
Please share below any things you love or hate about foursquare, problems you encountered, what you think its strengths or future potential is, any thoughts or experiences.

I also need people who would consent to be interviewed via email on their usage (5-7 questions). Finally, if there is a Toronto-area person who I could meet at a cafe and observe for about 30 minutes as they do a few check-ins that would be great. All research would be confidential.

But even if you just know of a good article or have some insight to share here, that would be greatly appreciated!

Here's my profile on my Faculty website.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Studying Information

Since starting my PhD program in Information at the University of Toronto (iSchool), I keep getting asked what this exactly is. Or they comment that I'm really studying "Information management", "Information technology", or "Library studies" which isn't my case (although it does apply to others). I answer by talking about my research interests (online interface design, usability, user experience, online participatory culture). But I didn't have a good sense of the overall field to share.

Having completed most of my first year of my PhD in Information at I now feel I have a good understanding of the field. Prior to coming to iSchool I researched particular faculty members and found that there were a few that were pursuing the type of reserach I wanted to, but I didn't have a sense of the field. To add to the (my) confusion, the program is interdisciplinary so there are overlaps (at times bewildering) with other departments, such as computer science, sociology, education, communication, and political science.

First, I don't like the term "Information Science" as there are a lot of problematic assumptions that go along with the term science, such as a belief in the supremacy of the scientific method, a bias towards quantative research, a philosohical outlook on the nature of knowledge (postivist). I'm fine with the term "Information Studies", but my faculty is moving just to "Information" as I presume the studies is extraneous for a university program.

The next challenge is defining information. There doesn't appear to be a strong consensus on this and some definitions complicate the concept more than necessary. I believe information is a simple as data communicated and understood. Data may take the form of letters, symbols, numbers, and images. It can be communicated via verbal messages, printed words, visual signals, body language, live music, radio waves, binary code, etc. It becomes information when it has been transmitted from a soruce or sender to a human or animal receiver who perceives the data and understands the significance.

If it isn't understood it remains data or is misinformation. If I don't speak the language of others and they are talking to me, their intent might be to give me information but I receive gibberish. Similarly, if a book collects dust in the recesses of a collection forever unread, the potential for it to offer information is lost. I don't think computers can pass information to each other as they can't yet really understand it, they just follow existing rules and commands. I also don't like definitions that focus on its human role as animals clearly communicate information to each other and to humans.

We are surrounded by information throughout our daily life. Often we are unaware that we are perceiving information, it's just part of our routines and environment:

Alarm clocks. Hungry, pawing cats. Whistling kettles. Hollering children. Traffic signals. Talk radio. Elevator buttons. Overloaded email. Conference calls. Monotonous meetings. Revealing yawns. Secret texting. Watercooler gossip. Trade magazines. Intranet news. Abysmal filing systems. Clock watching. Transit delay messages. Omnipresent advertising. Microwave beeps. Intrusive telemarketers. Escapist entertainment. Facebook updates. Snoring spouses.

The components of information may not always be evident, as we tend to focus on the content of messages and not the message structure or its supporting infrastructure. It is the task of those studying information to examine the components that affect the transmission, storage, and comprehension of information.

To uncover these components information scholars examine the physical environment, social conditions, cognitive patterns, and design implications of the information ecosystem. From this study, we can then better understand how information is produced, recorded, organized, shared, retrieved, and stored. We thus learn how to improve information practices and behaviours or how to design better information technology or systems.

This is my take on the field. I'm still a newbie, so I'm sure I still need a lot more information about information.

Tips to Help Get a SSHRC Doctoral Grant

I recently found out that I won a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) doctoral grant. The immediate reaction from my academic colleagues is "How did you get it?". Sometimes a colleague stresses the "you" too much for my liking, but the comment does belie a degree of mystery over how exactly winning applications are determined. Part of this mystery arises from the fact that SSHRC does not return accepted or rejected applications with comments. Mystery also arises from the difficulty of evaluating anything with subjective components.

There's not much info on the Web to make things more clear. I googled for information on this and couldn't find anything, so hopefully a few tips will be helpful. I also won a SSHRC for my master's (which some say is the best way to ensure it at the doctoral level) so I have been through this process twice.

Before beginning, visit SSHRC website and find out some eligibility basics, such as does your research fall under the domain of SSHRC (social sciences and humanities), NSERC (science and engineering), or CIHR (health). Unofficially, I heard that NSERC grants are easier to get than SSHRC grants (but I'm not sure if there are less applicants or more money to give out) so if your research can apply within their mandate you may want to consider applying there.

SSHRC hands out two types of doctoral grants: scholarships and fellowships. The terms appear to be used interchangeable for the various grants SSHRC offers. Luckily, only one application is needed to be considered for them all (and in some cases, it's as easy as checking a box on the application form).

SSHRC publishes some application tips, which are good, but rather general. The first and most important tip I have is don't consider any instructions or tips from SSHRC as optional; they are commandments. Don't deviate from their instructions - no matter what. If you think you have a compelling exception, change it so it follows SSHRC rules.

SSHRC also states, rather vaguely, how they evaluate applicants:

* past academic results, as demonstrated by transcripts, awards and distinctions;
* the program of study and its potential contribution to the advancement of knowledge;
* relevant professional and academic experience, including research training, as demonstrated by conference presentations and scholarly publications;
* two written evaluations from referees; and
* the departmental appraisal (for those registered at Canadian universities)."
They don't give specifics or offer a weighting for doctoral applicants. They do offer the weighting for master's students . Academic excellence is weighted at 60%, research potential is 30%, and communication skills is 10%.

I've heard speculation from various sources that there is a SSHRC bias for certain regions, universities, faculties, etc. SSHRC releases their applicant data and I went over it. There does appear to be some carefully balancing to ensure that the awards to match Canada's regional population distribution and by university. There does not appear to be a significant bias by the year of doctoral study, as I had heard. Considerably less people apply in year four of doctoral students, yet the award rate is still roughly the same as other years - so one's odds are definitely better in this year.

Below are my tips for grades, application form, publications, program of study, and references.

Everyone I have ever heard speak of SSHRC tends to agree with the prime importance of good grades. If your grades suck, then there is no use applying - anything lower than an A- average in your master's degree would probably be too low. I don't know how far back they look though - my first couple years of my bachelor's degree I didn't do that well, but managed to pull my grades up for the final couple years (even then they weren't that great - it was only once I became an old student that I really started to care about my grades). There's not much you can do to improve your grades - but I included my transcripts from two college certificate programs I did. I got great grades in that - so perhaps that outweighed my bachelor's.

My suspicion is that since all candidates that get forwarded by their university (most major Canadian universities have a quota of how many applications they are allowed to submit) will represent the best and brightest, I am not convinced that one's grades and academic awards alone are that influential. It opens the door, but your program of study, publication record, and letters of reference are what closes the deal.

Application form
The application itself is rather onerous. The application is filled out online - you can save and edit it right up to submission. The application asks general, expected questions and questions about your research and background. My thought was I don't like to leave sections blank or almost blank. I don't advocate square pegging anything into inappropriate holes, but think outside the box. For example, I included professional awards in the awards section and a volunteer position in my work experience.

They ask for your publications twice - in the application form and as an attachment. I think that doctoral applicants really need to have at least one peer-reviewed article. I also included my writings from non-academic sources. I'm not so sure that self-published sources (e.g. your own blog) is necessarily great - but if you blog is picked up by another source or syndicated (as mine is) then that would help. I also think the articles one mentions should be relevant to the program of study or at least academic. Still, I think some publications regardless of the topic are better than nothing.

Program of study
I think this is often underestimated by applicants. I think applicants need a kickass, flawless, unique proposal to stand out from the crowd. Also be clear on what you plan to do, how exactly, and why. Obvious rules for any proper academic work apply. Avoid jargon or concepts only understandable by one's own field as the reviewers are from a broad range of departments. Be sure to define key terms.

I frequently hear that "telling a story" is vital with grant proposals. I think it is true as reviewers do have a stack of papers to go through so a lively, concrete, compelling narrative can convince the reviewer of the interest and importance of your work. Also, include how you (your interests, academic and professional background) fit into this story - it's not an autobiography, however. I also think the last paragraph should end the work on a strong note, reestablishing the "so what" of the work.

Considering the current political climate in Canada and budgetary concerns of government agencies, I have a hunch that SSHRC is also looking for research that has contemporary social value - not esoteric academic navel gazing. I've seen a few proposals that had the Miss America syndrome, in that they promised their research would save the world.

You should also demonstrate that you have experience and ability to execute your study, so explain relevant coursework, access issues, necessary skills and how you have or will attain them. Your method section should have the specific steps of your plan, but you don't need to go overboard and specify minute details such as your transcription strategy. Also if you plan to study humans (or animals), be sure to briefly mention your ethical review process.

Make sure you have ample, but not wanton citations. Initially, I only included works I referenced, but I believe there may be a limit of up to 5 pages of bibliography. Someone advised me to show my knowledge of the relevant literature in this space, so I did. I still only used 2.5 pages as I really doubt any reviewer will ever read 5 pages of bibliography. I believe it is better to have 2-3 pages of great references than 5 (or more) pages of filler - at that point it seems like shameless padding.

As with any time you need a reference, make sure they will give you a great one. After that, choose your references wisely - not just who likes you and who you like, but also consider your referee's position and credentials. For example, I was told that letters from adjunct faculty (ie. non-tenure track) don't count very highly. Can one infer that a letter from a dean would then be more impressive? I was told that at least one reference should come from the university that you'll be studying at and one reference should be your current advisor. It makes sense that you should get an internal reference as in most cases applications must be vetted by one's department, so if you don't have someone there officially vouching for you it certainly doesn't help. Your references should definitely be familiar with your program of study - ideally even incorporating it into their reference letter.

I heard a good tip to help get referee's to return their letters quickly is to open a courier account so they can easily express deliver it without having to worry about the cost.

General tips
The reviewers have huge stacks of applications to review, so they are looking for ways to weed out so be very careful in following all the rules. Have someone proof every word in your entire application. Actually, have two or three people proof it.

The best thing that helped me get the grant was listen to the advice of professors, university staff, and colleagues. Most universities, I suspect, hold seminars on how to apply for grants - don't miss them. Just the process of following all the steps is daunting, so it's best to get help. It also helps to get to know the contact person at one's university (e.g. an awards officer, registrar, etc.) as they are an invaluable source of information on the process. Another source of help and comfort in numbers is It has a forum thread where grad students get advice, fret, and lament with fellow stressed-out applicants.

In the end, the odds of winning a SSHRC are not great. Only a handful of candidates get selected by a given university to be forwarded to SSHRC and of those less than half this year got an award. One can do all the "right" things, have a great academic record and still not get it. So it does almost seem like winning a lottery.

If you do get it is definitely worthwhile to apply again, particularly if you improved your grades, added peer-reviewed publications, or wrote a better program of study.

It is painful to even apply for these things, but it does represent a decent amount of money for a grad student. But lest I be tempted to get a swelled head, I have other colleagues not in academia and when I told them I got a SSHRC grant, it means nothing to them and they are still puzzled at why I walked away from a truly decent professional salary.