TechTrotter: Innovation Happens Everywhere

TechTrotter started as a global investigation into innovation hubs often overlooked by the mainstream press.

After two months in Brazil I relocated to India and my observations now cover technology in daily use, Web trends and weird and wonderful aspects of life in the world's largest democracy

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Seeking innovation: A new medium for news recovery

Picture 1Today  The Atlantic announced the full release of The Atlantic Wire, a slick compedium of political news and opinion from around the Web. It’s actually rather brilliant.
One of the first stories that caught my attention was the impending release of a tell-all from a former speech writer to President George W. Bush, Matt Latimer, who said that while in office his boss slammed other politicians such as Sarah Palin and Sen. John McCain. Watching the political fracasse over health care reform from afar, I was surprised by how captivating I found the new opinion aggregator site. While I find it frustrating that The Atlantic Wire doesn’t have an easily accessible search function, I could easily imagine myself coming back for a second and third helping of beltway gossip.

Herein lies a problem, however. While I just found a new content site that combines a beautiful interface with a stimulating blend of opinion, I have to access articles from on their site which is a huge problem. This morning I read an article in The Globe and Mail  called ‘Information-Rich, Attention-Poor,’ that sums up the situation very succinctly. The quantity of information I have readily available is almost infinite, however, my attention is scarce. All the multitasking and browser tabs in the world isn’t going to make me more thoughtful or well read when I can only devote a minute or two to any particular news item.

The Atlantic just made this problem even worse by creating a site I want to visit, but probably won’t because I don’t have time. Adding a new content source to my daily routine has zero transaction costs, but takes effort and some repetition to become a habit. What’s needed is a new delivery system that takes any work out of the process.

picture-44Earlier this week I had an article published in VentureBeat about Busk, a startup I encountered while I was in São Paulo this July. Busk uses real-time search technology to deliver news content based on tagged keywords and topics. Any mention of the word cricket, for instance, would search a database of 15,000 manually-added news sources and 100,000,000 articles to bring back every mention of the word cricket. Not too bad.

While this solves one problem, it doesn’t fully address the addition of a single source to my daily reading diet. One solution would be to change my home page,  but in doing so, I lose the page that I used to have there. Similarly, with an RSS reader, such as Google Reader or Feedly, I have to check them whenever I want to know about the latest articles posted. As it turns out, Twitter and Facebook Fan Pages are becoming my preferred method of receiving news. I filter most of what I know about the world through these two sites. Anything worth knowing finds its way to me. To put it another way, I’ve become accustomed to the news seeking me out, instead of going to it.

While Facebook and Twitter are good at presenting information in a ‘river of news’ format, it’s far from perfect. For instance, I have to be logged in to either site and separate hard news from social fact. While I don’t have much of a problem with it now, this is due to the scarcity of news sources I receive on Facebook and the sheer volume of duplicated news on Twitter. If I was more serious about it, I would need a more robust solution and so far I’m not aware of one that does the job. I’m sure there is a product out there that stays on top of interesting news sources–preserving the user interface without commodifying the information–and adds new sources without pain. If you’re out there somewhere, I hope we meet soon!

Brazil: Breezy megalopolis; my first impressions of Sao Paulo

img_0345If Brazil is the Texas of South America, then Delta Airlines is an RV with wings. All I have to say about Delta flight 121 to Sao Paulo is that I arrived in Sao Paulo in one piece. Their one “unit” of alcohol on a nine-hour, transcon flight, along with the fact they played “Hotel For Dogs” earned them a big black “X” in my travel future travel plans, However, Upon arrival I learned that an Air France plane with 228 passengers disappeared en route from Rio to Paris. The sobering news put any gripes I had about cramped quarters to rest.

Guarulhos International Airport was relatively restrained for Brazil’s busiest air hub. The excitement was provided by a clutch of teenie-boppers camped outside the international arrivals hall waiting for reggaeton singer called Rebelje. You can see him in the blue hat.

A flood of teenie-boppers greets Chikodi's arrival in Sao Paulo with glee

After snapping some pictures of the hubub, I asked a porter who the guy was and he wrote down the name on a business card. Subsequent Internet searches haven’t turned up any info, and the group of kids who came to see him was small, but vigorous.

Out of arrogance alone, I neglected to write down the cell phone number or taxi confirmation code  I needed to connect with Debby and Jose, my gracious hosts. My assumption was threefold:

  1. I would be able to connect my laptop to a wifi network
  2. Once online I could retrieve the necessary information
  3. Buying a phone card to announce my arrival would be a cinch

Although I was able to complete all of the aforementioned tasks, I should have saved myself the hassle with a little planning ahead. After 90 or so minutes lolligagging in the airport, I was in a cab and on my way to the center of town.

Airports are  almost the same as hotel rooms. Their purpose is the same and beyond the language being spoken inside, they are hard to separate. (When I get to Nigeria, I will demonstrate how this is not always the case, but just bare with me, aight?) To know a city, you have to see it from the street level and Sao Paulo’s streets have a grizzly reputation. There is more than one car for every four people, in this city of over 20 million people and while there is a subway system, surface transportation is the dominant means of getting around.

The interminable gridlock has given rise to innovation of its own. According to the Guardian, Sao Paulo has a fleet of over 469 helicopters, to help those with the means avoid “Traffic jams [that] often stretch to more than 130 miles in greater Sao Paulo.” There are  [Click here for more audio] A hotel with a helipad on the rood is just around the corner from where I now sit. However, traffic is just one part of the equation. Crime is also a major factor. In addition to the boom in helicopter sales, The New York Times recently reported how crime in Sao Paulo is leading to an explosion in armored car sales. Chances are very good I will be taking a ride in one tomorrow.

While street crime seems to have a lot of folks on edge, I haven’t seen anything yet. What should have people worrying is the way people drive here. Motorcyclists zip between lanes of stalled cars with suicidal disregard, and drivers are fond of fishing their front ends before oncoming traffic as a way of merging lanes.

Beyond the traffic, I haven’t formed much of an opinion about Sao Paulo yet. The vehicle culture has dominated my 14 hours in town.  The city is enormous, and garish concrete reach into the sky as far as one can imagine. After a lunch of eggplant parmesan, beef cutlets and salad, I went for a walk up to Paulista, and watched as the sun set just after 5:45. Although summer was getting under way in New York, winter in Sao Paulo starts in two weeks. It was somewhat chilly today, with a slight breeze.

I don’t know whether I like Sao Paulo yet, but once I start meeting more people, I’m sure it will grow on me. Thanks to Debby’s networking prowess and a little social media, I’m starting to get the ball rolling from a business perspective. Tomorrow night I will be meeting the Sao Paulo CouchSurfing group at a bar called Genuino nearby and from here, I am confident that interviewing will really get underway.

Mobile: Katrin Verclas on Twitter and swine flu in Mexico City

If you believe everything you read on Twitter, the swine flu outbreak has already decimated the Mexican population and the U.S. is directly in the path of an angry, destructive wave of misery. A state of emergency has been declared for all 50 states and the National Guard is patrolling Times Square to prevent further spread of the infection. Fortunately, just because someone tweets a rumor doesn’t make it true.

“Any medium can be used to spread rumors, it’s not new to Twitter,” said Katrin Verclas, founder and director of  MobileActive, a global network of non-profits and practicioners that use mobile phones for social impact.

Verclas was in Mexico City meeting with the country’s health ministry when the swine flu outbreak became an international health emergency. We met in Union Square in New York on Sunday and Verclas told me a lot of the hype is overblown even though more than 100 people have already died in Mexico. “People still have to weed out good information from false information,” said Verclas.

In Mexico, Verclas monitored people’s reactions to the flu outbreak on Twitter. She said in the beginning, people were using the site to circulate links to reliable news sources such as the Associated Press and articles that had appeared in the mainstream press. People were also using the site to make the best of a bad situation, suggesting that before the Mexican parliament got itself vaccinated on Monday (though no proven vaccine exists), citizens had the weekend to cough germs onto their elected officials.

In the U.S. is likely to be much worse, largely due to Twitter, Verclas said. On his net.effect blog, Evgeny Mozorov wrote about Twitter’s remarkable power to misinform. According to Mozorov,

In the context of a global pandemic – where media networks are doing their best to spice up an already serious threat – having millions of people wrap up all their fears into 140 characters and blurt them out in the public might have some dangerous consequences, networked panic being one of them.

Verclas said that Americans are used to stability and anything that upsets the status quo is bound to cause a stir, especially when misinformation spreads at the speed of Twitter. Verclas pointed out that Twitter users in Mexico represent a very elite contingent of total Internet users, however, she argued that social media should still has in important role to play in public health notification and disaster response.

While the mainstream media is the best method for conveying detailed information, such as tsunami evacuation routes, SMS, and peer-to-peer digital communication is a vital component of a robust public response system.  Verclas said, people may not read the newspaper or watch television on a daily basis, but they almost always check text messages and keep their phone in their pocket, or nearby at the very least.