» Archive for August, 2011

Irene: High-Tech Hurricane or Old Media Triumph?

Sunday, August 28th, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

As Hurricane Irene started to bear down on the New York metropolitan area, like many others, I started to think about preparing for a variety of eventualities including storm damage and power failure.

The View from the Eighth Floor

Though the storm packed a good punch, with strong winds and heavy rain, it never reached the potential that meteorologists had forecast. Indeed, wind speeds reached 80 mph (128 km/h) at times but, in general, sustained winds were(according to news reports) at most in the 60 mph (96 km/h) range and generally far lower.

Some storm-related preparatory tasks were relatively easy, such as removing all of the outdoor furniture from my terrace (and hoped that neighbors, especially those living on higher floors, had done the same). After reading that the FBI told its employees to make sure to place papers and files inside desk drawers so that they wouldn’t fly out if office windows broke, I moved all papers (what happened to the Paperless Society?) away to safety. I thought about taping the windows but, apparently, prevailing wisdom has shifted away from this so I decided that the shades and blinds would have to protect against possible broken glass.

Experts on television and radio were telling apartment dwellers to stay away from windows if they lived on the 10th floor or higher since the higher you go, the stronger the wind gusts get. One of my criteria for living on the eighth floor of my high-rise condo was that the fire department ladders didn’t go much higher. Now I had another reason.

Then there was water. In the event of a power failure, the pumps that supply water in taller buildings won’t work. I filled five larger pots just to be safe. I already had plenty of bottled water to drink so that part was covered.

Now came the hard part, namely news and information. If the power went out, my main Internet connection (Verizon FiOS) would also go down (although the FiOS connection does have battery backup, it is intended to keep voice services up and running for up to eight hours, but not data). I made the switch to Internet radio years ago and migrated my last battery-operated radio (a shower radio) to Wi-Fi last year. There’s got to be a battery operated radio here somewhere…

It turns out I actually had two. One is a battery-operated Radio Shack weather radio, the other a small battery-operated clock radio. Of course the clock-radio hadn’t been touched in years, the batteries had been left in way too long and had corroded but, after a quick cleaning, it worked reasonably well with new batteries.

Now onto ensuring a modicum of Internet connectivity. My new HTC Sensation phone has a built-in 4G hotspot and I also have a Clear 4G hotspot. I charged both and also made sure any other mobile phones I had lying around well charged as well. My Apple iPad was already fully charged and I would need its ten-hour battery life if the power went out (I made sure that the most recent issues of the Economist and other newspapers and magazines had been downloaded, to minimize the need for Internet connectivity. Finally, I also charged my Nikon D90 DSLR in case a photo opportunity presented itself (it didn’t but one never knows).

It turns out that television news about hurricanes is highly addicting when you are in the path of the storm. Based on the dearth of my friends’ Facebook posts, I would say that most of them were watching the news as well. Unlike what I heard right after the earthquake (which shook Washington and New York and was centered in Virginia) where there were reports that there had been 5,000 Twitter posts per second, I heard no such stats being bandied about during Irene. In fact, the news media seemed downright serious about the coverage and reportage was in many respects at its best, demonstrating the power and often-overlooked value of old media.

Indeed, during severe storms and power failures, when cell sites and towers go down and wireless data becomes unreliable, AM radio, which first came into existence in 1906, and broadcast television, which came into widespread use in the 1940s, are still the media to which almost everyone turns

More than 1.3 million people are without power in the tri-state area as I write this. At one point, the Long Island Power Authority was reporting that 25% of its customers were impacted by a blackout. As I write this, the skies are brightening although cloudy with occasional sprinkles. The flood warnings continue for the tri-state area as rivers and lakes continue to rise and it will take days to restore power to millions of people along the eastern seaboard so we are not quite out of the woods yet, but the forecast for radio and television news is for clear skies.

Poor craftsmen blame their tools

Thursday, August 25th, 2011 by Cody Burke

Search 101?

Blaming search tools for failures in search is common, and more often than not without merit.  It often seems as if Google has failed us when we search for content that we know exists, yet the search results taunt us by refusing to reveal what we are looking for.

The truth however, is that we are simply incredibly bad at using search tools.  Two items came to my attention this week that demonstrates our ineptitude at finding what we are looking for.  The first was a statistic derived from research by Dan Russell, a search anthropologist at Google, who was interviewed by Alexis Madrigal for the Atlantic.  Russell studies how computer users perform searches, and found that 90% of computer users do not know how to use CTRL + F (PC) or Command + F (Mac) to search through a document or Web page.

The time that is surely wasted by not using this simple technique is staggering.  (Just to make sure we all are out of the 90%, this shortcut to the Find function allows you to search locally for keywords in a text document, PDF, e-mail, or Web page.  Try it out and join the 10%.)

The second piece of the puzzle comes from reports on the findings of the Erial (Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries) project.  The project was conducted over two years and employed both anthropologists and library staff members to examine student research habits and attitudes towards libraries and librarians.

The findings from the study will begin to be published this fall, but Steve Kolowich, writing for Inside Higher Education, notes that the researchers found that students were even worse at search than they had anticipated.  In his article, What Students Don’t Know, Kolowich discusses some of the findings, including the following;

- Only 7 out of 30 students observed at Illinois Wesleyan conducted what a librarian would consider a reasonably well-executed search.  (Presumably this encompasses such criteria as the use of appropriate search engines, Boolean logic, and authoritative sources.)

- Students mentioned Google more than twice as many times as other available databases in interviews, yet had no understanding of Google’s search logic and were not capable of formulating searches that would return good results.

- Of the students who did turn to non-Google scholarly databases for research, 50% ended up using a database that would not have been recommended by a librarian for their search needs.

- Only 3 of 30 students that were observed formulating search queries used additional keywords to narrow search queries.

- The researchers observed that students would end up with either too many or too few search results, and would often simply change their research topic to one that was easier to find information on.

It is staggeringly clear that there is a need to teach basic search techniques to students, who, without instruction, will likely go on to become part of the 90% of computer users not using simple page search.  We have created powerful search tools and technology (compared to what previous generations had available) that are capable of so much, yet we are clearly neglecting to teach proper usage and even basic understanding of search mechanics.  Even much needed advancements in search technology will not help if we are not even capable of using the tools we have now to their full potential.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.  He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

Plugging In While Plugging Out

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011 by Cody Burke

If there is a fork in the road, take it.

A recent holiday left me in a quandary.  The concept of my trip was simple: fly to Stuttgart, take European Delivery of a Mercedes-Benz E350 BlueTec diesel-powered sedan, and drive it in a northerly direction to the Nordsee (North Sea).

But should I unplug?  Or should I spend a week of my time in Germany and the Netherlands plugged in to the hilt?  Or, perhaps this trip was a chance to attempt to actually strike a balance and not veer toward either extreme.  As much as possible, I wanted to explore places I had never visited before without technology-enabled distractions.

Since a good part of my workday is spent in front of a computer of some kind, should I not completely unplug from all that?  After careful consideration, I decided that this would be akin to throwing away the eBaby with the bathwater.  After all, travelers of an earlier age would have taken countless books, guides, maps, and brochures with them.  I, on the other hand, was traveling light.  I had my iPad tablet and even brought along a portable Wi-Fi hotspot to ensure coverage wherever I may be.  The challenge would be to not let that connectivity pull me into excessive working or mindless information consumption.

In the past several years, as I became more and more cognizant of the effects of Information Overload, I have found myself better able to separate work from the rest of my life and not fret, for example, about how much e-mail might be accumulating while I am doing something else.

As a result, I had little concern about checking e-mail or conferring with colleagues.  Instead, I decided to use the ubiquitous online access to enhance the trip experience, and prove to myself that it was possible to consume information in moderation and not let it distract me from the sights and sounds of my journey.

The first leg of the drive, from Stuttgartto Maastricht, took us past Karlsruhe, Speyer, Mannheim, Koblenz, and Aachen, among other cities, and it was fun to look up information about the places we were passing.  Checking the weather was another activity best done online because the weather was constantly changing (to say the least) and, in the end we were very lucky with far less rain than had been forecast.

There were countless decisions, such as where to eat and what to see and do in various towns along the way.  Having the Internet at hand made it far easier to plan the day and make well-informed itinerary changes on the fly.

While I am a recovering news junkie, there were several major events unfolding in the world during the trip (riots in London, downgrading of the U.S. debt rating, just to name two) and I wanted to at least have a semblance of reassurance that the world-at-large was still out there.  A combination of a quick glance at the Wall Street Journal and New York Times iPad apps plus the “Tagesschau in 100 Sekunden” (a 100-second recap of top news by Germany’s leading television news program) gave me all the news I needed.

In addition, while I didn’t want to overload anyone with too many details of my trip, I did want to share a few choice photos with friends and family and I used a combination of e-mail and Facebook to do so.

Admittedly, there were a few work-related phone calls and e-mail messages that I did have to attend to but those were few and far between and didn’t leave me craving for more of the same.  I was able to do what I had to and then return to ignoring work, e-mail, and the Web – and focus on my primary objective, namely discovering new places and things to do and see.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

More Trouble For Search…

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011 by Cody Burke

Wrong haystack?

Searching for content on the Internet is hard enough, but according to researchers at the ICSI (International Computer Science Institute) at Berkeley, there are complications beyond out of date information and an overwhelming number of search results, things we today consider to be typical manifestation of search failures.

According to research papers published separately by the ICSI and Usenix, the Advanced Computing Systems Association, search queries made with major search Web engines that include Bing, Yahoo, and Google are sometimes rerouted through third party proxies controlled by Paxfire, an advertising company whose involvement was uncovered by the ICSI researchers via analysis of patent applications. The rerouting occurred for users of 10 U.S. ISPs, and has now been halted according to the New Scientist, which broke the story last week. Paxfire and RCN (one of the ISPs) are now the subject of a class action lawsuit alleging violation of privacy safeguards covered in the 1968 Wiretap Act.

The practice appears to have been intended to monetize search results for the ISPs by directing traffic to specific sites. The ICSI researchers have identified 165 search terms that include “apple”, “dell”, “bloomingdales”, and “safeway” that, when entered into a search tool, would be passed to an online marketing company by the ISP, which would redirect the user straight to the respective company’s online retail site. The search was essentially hijacked and never actually went through the search engine.

The online marketing companies are paid by site owners (in this case the retail companies, although there is no indication the companies had knowledge of the redirecting of searches to their sites) to supply traffic to Web sites. In exchange for leading search users directly to the retail sites the online marketing companies then pass on a cut of their fee to the ISPs and Paxfire. The process bypasses the search engine entirely because use of the targeted terms result in the user being taken straight to the retailer’s site, instead of a search results page.

The ISPs involved in the practice stopped redirecting Google traffic after the company complained to them last year, but up until this week were still carrying out the practice for searches made with Bing and Yahoo.

Peter Eckersley of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet advocacy group, told the New Scientist that “This interception and alteration of search traffic is not just your average privacy problem…This is deep violation of users’ trust and expectations about how the internet is supposed to function.”

I would go even further than that. It is indeed a massive privacy and trust violation, but for the knowledge worker, this is yet one more wake up call that search continues to be a flawed tool that one must use with a critical eye. The practice of search redirection demonstrates (as if there was much doubt) that search is not a neutral and agnostic process; there are competing interests and financial motivations behind every Internet search and the knowledge worker must be aware of these biases. It is not enough to simply worry about how authoritative a piece of content is, it is imperative to be critical about the entire process, starting with the selection of a search tool, to the entering of a search query, and to the examination and analysis of the results.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex. He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

Can You Hear Me Now Part II

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011 by Cody Burke

"Are you still there? Oh well, lets wait while he dials back in...."

A few weeks ago, we ran a piece entitled Can You Hear Me Now, looking at the impact of audio problems on knowledge worker productivity.  This is Part II of that story.

Audio problems impact knowledge workers to some extent nearly every day, on nearly every phone interaction.  Typically, this results in two Information Overload-related challenges: interruptions and missed information.

In practice, interruptions in the course of a phone or conference call can take various forms, ranging from dropped calls to participants dialing in late on a conference bridge and disrupting an ongoing exchange.  Anything that causes participants to have to ask for a point to be repeated – or a technical issue to be resolved – constitutes an interruption, and each carries with it a time penalty.  This includes seemingly minor disruptions such as echo, delay, GSM static, and overtalk, because the flow of information stops when someone asks the speaker to repeat himself.  In many of these situations, callers who are experiencing problems will leave a call, switch phones, and dial in again, causing even further delays.  If the caller with the problem was the one speaking, all other callers have to wait until he or she rejoins.

Since interruptions occur numerous times each day, even when they are short (and not all are), the lost time begins to add up and becomes a significant drain on the knowledge worker’s productivity.  The impact of an interruption extends past the initial event; interviews, surveys, and first-hand observation of hundreds of knowledge workers reveal the existence of “recovery time”. Recovery time refers to the amount of time it takes a worker to get back to where he was in his work or thought process prior to an interruption.  This typically takes somewhere between 10 to 20 times the duration of the interruption itself.

On a call, the same principle holds true, except it may be amplified geometrically by the number of people impacted.  In a call, if one knowledge worker is having audio issues such as echo or delay, all participants are subjected to a time penalty.  Likely there will be a minute or two of waiting for the caller to try fix the issue, followed by some small talk, and then some brief complaining about the conferencing system.  All in all, each caller may have lost as much as five minutes, which when scaled across a conference call with many participants, can translate into significant financial losses.

A lack of clarity on a call can result in not only a time penalty as knowledge workers ask for a speaker to repeat key points, but also in missed or incorrect information.  This introduces errors into work and can lead to costly problems down the line that range from time-consuming corrections in the best case to sub-standard work product being produced in the worst case.

In a voice-only communication environment, missed or incorrect information may be due to a number of factors that range from poor quality connections that garble voices, the use of mobile phones, background noise, ambient noise picked up by a speakerphone, audio clipping due to over talking, volume inconsistency, or even simply neglecting to use the mute button when appropriate.  Some of these issues are behavioral in nature, but many are not.

The time and productivity penalty for missed information is huge.  A knowledge worker may have to go back and listen to the recording of a call (assuming it was even recorded) a second time to catch or clarify valuable information, or even engage in lengthy follow up e-mail exchanges with other participants to confirm key data.  More likely, the knowledge worker will not even be aware that information was missed, and will move forward with an action item using incomplete information.  As the project moves forward, correcting an initial error will increasingly become more costly and disruptive.

Audio quality issues can have a significant impact on knowledge worker productivity; the importance of clear communications is often overlooked, but improving audio quality will not only have a dramatic impact on productivity but may have a surprising impact on an organization’s bottom line as well.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.  He can be reached at cburke@basex.com