Your location could save the world

Cross-posted from Digital Mobilisation Lab at Greenpeace.

If you need a shock-therapy reminder of the accelerated pace of change around us these days, attending a conference on mobile, mapping, and location-based technologies would be a great place to start. Here’s what I see coming for campaigners after a few days at the O’Reilly Where Conference.

1. Death of the “check-in” gives way to constant location sensing

Imagine heading out for a run or ride with your mobile phone. You’ve already been using the built-in GPS to map your run, track your speed, or (my favorite) compete with others who have taken the same path. But something different happens when you pass that familiar gas or petrol station on the way out of town.

This time, a notification pops up telling you that the company who owns that station is trying to drill for oil in the Arctic, and that you could make a difference by stopping in and telling the manager that you won’t buy from them anymore if they continue trying to drill the North Pole. But you don’t want to stop your run, so you press a button to be reminded to send a note when you get home.

Finding out what’s around us is nothing new — apps from Yelp, Google Maps, Living Social, and the like have allowed us to proactively surface geo-located information for years. But now we’re seeing a rise in “pervasive sensing” technologies and apps that continually run in the background and send us information that we’ve asked for. It’s a whole new world of possibility for campaigning organisations (and, of course, marketers).

For more evidence that we’re moving away from the “check-in” moments (i’m at X bar, so tell me which friends are nearby or what deals i can get, neither of which have taken off), watch Josh Williams, who runs the Location and Events services at Facebook, talk about how Facebook has intentionally deprecated the “check-in” in favor of location-enhanced status updates, photos, etc. (video)

2. Controlling our physical environments with our phones

The Gap clothing store in San Francisco now invites shoppers to choose the music playing in the store via their smartphone. Other shoppers can discover the song being played and download the track immediately. Where conference speakers also envision a rapidly approaching day when we’ll walk into a friend’s house and take over their TV or sound system with our mobile phones.

This fundamentally changes our perception and expectations of what the devices in our pocket should be able to do. These crowd-powered soundscapes, message boards (stadiums, airports, etc), and the like open up a world of opportunity for activists who will soon have myriad new ways to influence public spaces from their mobiles.

So what happens for advocacy and change-making when we further link up our digital signals to the physical world?

Thanks to new technologies like Foursquare’s realtime API (presented by Akshay Patil), we already live in a world where dogfood billboards can magically dispense dogfood to our four-legged friends seconds after a Foursquare checkin. Or at least that’s how this one works in Germany.

Better yet, we could use check-ins or other forms of digital clicks or votes to literally shut a polluting discharge pipe underwater, as Greenpeace Actions Head Thijs Notenboom envisions here — engaging more people in the change-making process (and ideally future asks). In addition to projecting campaign messages onto a building or international meeting venue, we may soon be adding realtime messages texted or tweeted in from shareholders or voters around the world.

This is significant for at least two reasons:

  1. Creative new opportunities for supporters to participate in campaigns leads to more engaged supporters and, therefore, bigger/faster wins and more money. (e.g. Two thirds of volunteers in USA also donate according to VolunteerMatch / Fidelity study (PDF))
  2. As more everyday social tools and services make their data accessible and inter-operable, organisations like Greenpeace increasingly won’t need to build their own apps to facilitate change-making, as the billboard example illustrates.

All of this new location data opens the door to an exciting new campaigning landscape with seemingly endless possibilities. Just one example: Asif Khan showed the audience a futuristic video of a bus with digital billboards on its side pulling up to intersection and displaying the most relevant advertising based on aggregated data of all location based checkins and demographic information.

3. Revolution in payment systems on the way (and already happening)

Technology has already disrupted almost every major system and institution in our lives from media to government, but the banking and payments industry has somehow escaped transformation.

Some of the Where speakers foreshadowed the shifts that we can expect to see — and the new tools and approaches that we may not be using immediately but that are likely to make us start questioning the function and value of our current financial institutions.

I’m already charging certain taxi rides and coffee via my smartphone today, without opening my wallet, thanks to apps from TaxiMagic and Starbucks, but those seem antiquated in the face of new payment networks which integrate loyalty systems with convenience and even more security than we currently enjoy.

Listen to Dwolla CEO Ben Milne blow your mind for a few minutes about why our current payments system is complicated and broken:

Then check out DwollaLevelUp, and some of the new ways that PayPal is letting us pay for items in stores like Home Depot with nothing more than a phone number and pin code.

As Ben Milne points out, mobile (smartphones in particular, but any Internet-connected device) opens up tremendous new opportunities by establishing new behaviors and providing us with benefits we didn’t previously have. For many, it is about convenience (the ability to frictionlessly pay by having a phone in my pocket or browse hundreds of restaurant reviews from the sidewalk). For some, it is about security (checking on the house, the kids, the bank account, the current location). And for others, it’s about awareness (the ability to provide and receive information relevant to one’s location and current context).

How does that saying go — with great technology comes great responsibility?

Campaigners and marketers will need to be judicious about how they leverage these powerful new tools, as with any technological advance. I remain optimistic, however, that great opportunities await us to help inform and enable people as well as weave stronger networks in our collective efforts to solve some of the planet’s greatest challenges. Let the development, testing and learning begin.

Most widespread day of political action in history

This past weekend I had the honor of volunteering with the team during the final 48 hours of their global day of action on October 24, in more than 180 countries and every single time zone. It was filled with the same intensity and emotion as Election Day — complete with lots of under-slept bodies and a dank campaign office. I was thoroughly impressed, learned a good deal, and had a blast. I’m preparing a more in-depth write-up on lessons learned, but in the meantime I wanted to pull together my status updates from the day (start reading from the bottom!) as well as some of the videos i shot.  

ok, has basically turned into a porn site for online organizers. (and my coworkers have caught me sneaking peeks) #350ppm 11:49 PM Oct 26th

v cool: 200 Kayakers form giant floating 350 4 Day of Action. video: @amaser #350ppm #PDX via @350 @blakehschmidt 4:48 PM Oct 26th

RT @philaroneanu: Just about to enter the UN bldg in NYC. Going to deliver your @350 photos to Ban Ki Moon’s climate team @secgen #350ppm 1:40 PM Oct 26th

Grandiose q’s for a Sun, exploring future of citizen organizing + leaderless orgs in social change w/ @heif after ystrday’s @350 events 2:08 PM Oct 25th  

There’re few thing more beautiful to me than what @350 crew + thousands of vol organizers achieved today. all deserve much sleep. #350ppm 1:33 PM Oct 24th

RT @350 on ABC News: Boston to Beijing, Sydney to Delhi #350ppm (via @350buzz) 1:21 AM Oct 24th

video walkthrough of massive 350 Times Sq event: + smiles frm organizers after: #350ppm 6:40 PM Oct 24th cheers erupting from #350ppm HQ as global day of action photos hit homepage of NYT, IHT, Le Monde 6:05 PM Oct 24th

Photo: rallying in times sq under photos from #350ppm global day of climate action 4:19 PM Oct 24th

Photo: From times sq, proud organizers, mvmt builders #350ppm global day of climate action 4:16 PM Oct 24th

Big rally in times sq right now, showing pics of millions ppl taking action in almost every cntry to change our climate future #350ppm 4:07 PM Oct 24th

350 global day of climate action takes over TIMES SQ right now, photos frm around world. Unreal! VID: #350ppm 3:59 PM Oct 24th

this is what new organizing looks like. what’s happening behind largest distributed global action; VID: #350ppm 2:11 PM Oct 24th

athletes organizing events around the world for #350ppm global day of climate action; behind scenes video: 1:16 PM Oct 24th

McKibben re digital organizing: this is beta test of whether we can take this new arch. + make it serve some useful end 1:12 PM Oct 24th

RT @350: #CNN is SO our fav network right now: RT @Agent350: #350ppm on CNN this morning! Josh gets the story exactly: 1:07 PM Oct 24th

caught up w/ @billmckibben for realtime update on #350ppm day of action as it unfolds around the world: #350ppm 1:05 PM Oct 24th

incred photos coming in fast and furious frm #350ppm actions around the world: several of us tagging/sorting furiously 12:15 PM Oct 24th

Top three reasons to travel with an iphone

I try not to be a product evangelist but this was the first international trip i’ve taken with my iphone, and man has it performed in ways that I didn’t anticipate.

1. WIFI — enough said; ATT’s international roaming plans will cover you for some emergency email checks, tweeting, or mapping, but beyond that, tapping into hotel or conference wifi has proven invaluable for uploading photos, downloading messages, checking flight information, and most importantly, making phone calls (see 1B)

1B. SKYPE — in Turkey, ATT’s best roaming plan (at $6 for the month) brought the voice rate down to $1.99/min (from $2.99/min); nice to have for emergency use, but otherwise Skype has saved me; at point-zero-something-per-min to landlines, i’ve talked as long as i’ve wanted on clear connections and barely made a dent in my skype credit (just lookout for unstable wifi networks that drop your calls); pair this with free incoming on an inexpensive local SIM chip (cost me less than $20 for a number + some minutes) and I probably didn’t even need to tell my clients i had left the country; although the 7 hr time difference on email may have tipped them off.

2. VIDEO — i recently upgraded to the 3GS, but the video was incidental for me; not anymore; having video has been a cool way to capture unique stories or experiences as they happen; i’d never travel around with a camcorder (i eventually abandoned my Flip after a several-month honeymoon was over), but when there’s one on your cell phone, you’d be amazed at what starts to be come video-worthy all of a sudden.

3. MAPS — English is not so prevalent here, even in Istanbul, as most people had me believe. As in, I have yet to find a cab driver who knows where my hotel is. But everyone can read a map of their own city, so shoving a screen in a driver’s face has proven to be remarkably effective. (Or if you’re suspicious of the results of your exchange, follow along on GPS to see if you’re heading in the right direction.)

A few must reads

Was able to catch up on some reading over the long weekend… A few articles (plus one book) that i was really glad to read, and which I’d highly reccomend:

(1) China Invades Africa, by Richard Behar in June’s Fast Company :: This won’t look very significant from the web page, but the amount of ink dedicated to this article in print is incredible — it’s one of the longest features that Fast has ever run (or so Jake says).  And rightfully so — it may be the most illuminating article i’ve read all year, and I think everyone should read it.  Summary: it’s a well-writen but harrowing account of how China is rolling half the African continent to get at the majority of the world’s extractable, non-renewable natural resources in record time — with lots of good first-person reporting and adventure laced in. Most developed countries have little standing to ask that we don’t repeat development mistakes of decades ago, as African rulers / heads of state sell their countries down the river for personal gain.

(2) The New Organizers, Part 1: What’s really behind Obama’s ground game, by Zack Exley in HuffPo (Oct 8) :: Another great read, outlining how team Obama and the Dems have (a) returned to real field organizing but revolutionized and magnified its impact by (b) integrating web thinking — enabling and empowering volunteers to do the work that would have traditionally been done by staff.  It’s a much-refined and evolved version of the Dean campaign, where meetup meets traditional field organizing in a dramatic new way.  Zack does a nice job covering the ‘neighborhood teams’ program that the campaign has artfully rolled out across the country.  Hats off to friend and collegue Jeremy Bird who gets some well-deserved credit in this piece for all he’s doing to make the program work; he’s been in the field running states for Obama since the early early primaries and we’ll owe him a parade and a bed once Obama wins. Ready for Part 2, Zack.

(3) How the Web Was Won: An Oral History of the Internet — Vanity Fair special, July 08 :: This is the most enjoyable and complete history of the internet that i’ve seen. It’s like walking in on a private cocktail party with all the geeky greats, telling old stories about how it all came together.  But they’re not talking about little things like widgets or the BCC line — this is about how the real stuff came to be, like ethernet and the web browser.

(4) The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni — Hang on. Hear me out. I’ve had this book for two years now but it sounded so horribly and painfully boring that I could never bring myself to pick it up, despite the personal reccomendations.  Then I saw the small print on the cover: “a leadership fable”. Props to Pat for going the extra mile to write this businessy/leadership/management book as if it were fiction. Not sure why no one ever told me it was actually an enjoyable and quick read, because it is. Anyone who works with people or serves in a leadership role would benefit from this I’d imagine. Did I mention that it’s a quick read?

Cream, sugar, or social capital?

Reading the special report in last week’s Economist on mobility (Nomads at last) and dug this:

James Katz at Rutgers fears that cyber-nomads are “hollowing them out”. It is becoming commonplace for a café to be full of people with headphones on, speaking on their mobile phones or laptops and hacking away at their keyboards, more engaged with their e-mail inbox than with the people touching their elbows. These places are “physically inhabited but psychologically evacuated”, says Mr Katz, which leaves people feeling “more isolated than they would be if the café were merely empty”. That is because the “physical presence of other human beings is psychologically and neurologically arousing” but now produces no reward. Quite simply, he says, we have not evolved biologically to be happy in these situations.

Ode to Friends Who Can Write BOOKS. Check these out.

All of a sudden, 83% of the people I know and respect in the world decided to sit down and write a book this year.


Having tried my own hand at this writing craft, I’m in awe. At the urging of former Dean campaign colleague Zephyr Teachout, I penned a chapter for the recently published Mousepads, Shoe Leather, and Hope: Lessons from the Howard Dean Campaign for the Future of Internet Politics. This was among the more grueling and painful experiences of my professional career (albeit ultimately rewarding), and I hope never to have to write anything as long as this ever again (i.e. a book).So all of you real writer-people are deserving of a huge nod (or at least a link) —


First on the list: former Dean campaign colleague, friend, and fellow EchoDitto co-founder Garrett Graff released last month what seems to be quickly becoming the authoritative modern history of internet politics (i think there are some visions for the future too, but i haven’t read the second part yet): The First Campaign: Globalization, the Web, and the Race for the White House. Check out this slick review he scored in the NYT just the other week — congrats! Likely the first of many books to be expected from “the astonishingly young Mr. Graff.”


Another friend and internet mogul (where mogul = smart internet-consultant colleague and middle school classmate) Brian Reich released almost simultaneously with Garrett a book that guides business leaders and social enterprises through their use of new media. I can attest that a ton of research went into this book in the form of in-depth interviews with more than 35 business leaders who are exploring and pioneering on this landscape; not to mention a great deal of well qualified personal experience: Media Rules!: Mastering Today’s Technology to Connect with and Keep Your Audience


Bill McKibben has been a friend, mentor, and fellow campaigner for many years now. He’s actually a professional writer, so he’s the last person on this list to potentially benefit from any additional blogospheric mentions. But I want to recommend the book here anyway because Bill is an incredible story-teller (i.e. easy to read) and writes more eloquently in this book about the virtues of Local than anyone else I’ve encountered on the subject: Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. From local food systems to energy systems to social capital, Bill ties it all together. I’m also thinking that this book had something to do with “locavore” making Oxford’s Word of The Year. It’s a great read — esp the acknowledgments page, because that’s where I get an unexpected shout-out.


On a related note, I’ve become a huge fan of the work of the Step it Up gang — an impressive band of recent Middlebury College grads who decided that waiting around for the political winds to change in Washington wasn’t a good way to invest their bottled up energy. So they rented a house in Burlington, VT (not far from former Dean campaign HQ) and got to work tapping the web to organize thousands of local grassroots volunteers all over the country. The outcome was hundreds upon hundreds of political rallies in towns across the country in April and again in November. Both days of action had a tremendous impact both on Congress and on the climate movement at large. And then, because they somehow weren’t tired after a year of 15-hour days, they worked with McKibben to write down all that they learned and heard and published it as a simple guide for local organizers: Fight Global Warming Now: The Handbook for Taking Action in Your Community. Keep an eye on these guys as well — they’re helping to change the way we think about organizations and political advocacy (here’s a short interview that I did on this), and it’s been a privilege to work alongside of this incredible team.


If you couldn’t tell from the previous two books, there’s plenty coming out of my alma matter these days. One of my former professors and fellow climate campaigner Jon Isham just completed a wonderful and long-overdue modern handbook for climate activists and leaders everywhere: Ignition: What You Can Do to Fight Global Warming and Spark a Movement. It has essays from some of the best, including McKibben, Gus Speth, and Jared Duval. Given the great deal of thought and legwork that went into making this book come together, I hope it’s ready by anyone doing any work at all to fight climate change. To crib from Island Press: “Combining incisive essays with success stories and web resources, the book helps readers answer the most important question we all face: “What can I do?”


Finally, I’m in the middle of reading Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s new book, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. It’s their first book since their controversial but excellent essay of several years ago, “Death of Environmentalism.” Of all the books I just listed, this one is easily the most dense with new thinking and most likely to make me rethink our entire approach to social change. It’s positioned as the new What’s the Matter with Kansas or Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant, and I can see why, given Michael and Ted’s backgrounds not only as wicked-smart academics and pollsters but also as “environmentalists.” They do a pretty solid Q and A with Amazon page that’s worth checking out. And it seems to be selling like hotcakes, which is great news. Congrats, guys.

my first yahoo answer, and not poisoning myself on lithium ions

I just finished some impressive handiwork replacing my 3G ipod battery (so far, so good — it’s charging) and found myself with an old lithium ion battery which, the packaging said, i absolutely could not discard in the trash. (Side note regarding my skillz: If you compare my hackery with the likes of tom’s breadboarding and sottering, based solely on appearances, i think I measure up quite well.)Of course, Newer Technology made no effort whatsoever to tell me what i, or anyone with a conscience, was supposed to do with said battery that could not be tossed. After all, why should my kids be forced to swim with terrorists in lithium-coated waters just so that i can have the pleasure of listening to a couple more hours of emo?So I asked The Internet and the internet delivered, as usual. After a few false trails on google, i was bopped over to Yahoo! Answers, where i found, “Discarding a battery?” Perfect! Well, almost. Everyone confirmed that I shouldn’t jettison it, but the majority told me to go the local recycling depot, which is a ridiculously impractical idea, since I have no idea where such a depot would be found along my commute to work.I did, however, find through some pages linked from the answer page that you can take your battery to almost any electronics or phone store and they’ll take the weapon off your hands at no charge, which was exactly what I wanted to hear. So i logged in and added my very first Yahoo! Answer to the Yahoo! Question and hopefully someone will Yahoo! benefit soon from my goodwill. I was impressed at how easy it was and rewarding to post an answer.Then, logically, i was smartly asked to take the next action (since I was presumably on a roll after answering my very first Q) and answer another question. Top of the suggestions list: Teen party dillema. Thanks, Yahoo. I help you save the planet and now you want to turn me into a child predator. I’ll pass.

holy modern mexican birthday

only seconds from summer, and we’re already deep in the thick of birthday season. mine kicked off labor day weekend; chris‘ was yesterday, and harish has his on an undisclosed day between today and Thursday. my friend scarlet has hers on friday, followed by colin on the 14th, exoditto Jess on the 17th, and jimmy j in two weeks. i’m not big on birthdays, so i was expecting some solid but standard fare — the always nice-to-receive card or greeting, combined with a relaxing holiday weekend with friends and/or family. being a summer birthday, i didn’t grow up with a classroom celebration, so i’m not trained to seek any group-based fanfare.

this year was entirely different and unexpected on several fronts, however. first, cristen was kind enough to organize a surprise piñata ceremony outside the office for Chris and me (“within view of the white house,” Tom instantly observed via twitter during the events). i can’t adequately communicate how fully satisfying it is to let out post-vacation-why-am-i-back-at-work-rage by using a giant bat to beat down a stuffed-with-candy motorcycle cardboard thing. (for the record, in case i travel to a country where the pinata is actually a living pig stuffed with bonbons, as prescribed by some ancient tradition, i don’t think that would be fun at all.) we washed the candy down with some incredible cupcakes from heller’s famous bakery in mt. pleasant (thanks, cristen!)second: facebook, damnit, has redefined birthday. i’m pretty sure i’m grateful for the tsunami of birthday wishes that were posted on my wall. i mean, of course i am, because i don’t think any of the friends whom facebook reminded of my birthday would have bothered to wish me a good one had they not cared. but what are you supposed to say to all these well-wishers? “thanks for the card”? not exactly.i think i’m just cranky about how overwhelming facebook has become lately. i was most appreciative of the calls, text messages, and cards, all of which i received on or before my birthday, no problem. the emails to both my work and personal email accounts were great, too, and i unearthed those along with hundreds of far less exciting emails when i returned from the weekend. and finally, who wouldn’t enjoy reading the public thread of facebook messages posted to your wall? but today i find yet another digital stone unturned where birthday greetings were waiting — the private facebook messages in that pseudo email inbox facebook created. just one stream too many. no, it’s not that i’m so popular that i’m receiving so many greetings — it’s that facebook told everyone who i’ve ever met (they’re all on facebook, yes) that it was my birthday and half of them chose their own adventure to reach me in any one of ten different ways or mediums. overall, i think that’s pretty great. 10 points for technology. but right now, i’m just wondering if there’s an inbox somewhere that i’ve forgotten to check.(photo credit and more from today: perks)

Goodbye, friendster. It was you, not me.

does anyone still use friendster? i just logged in to delete my account, primarily to stop receiving those stupid update emails. and also because i figured it would feel good to feign at least some element of control over my online identity sprawl. sure enough, i feel great. master of my destiny. king of the castle.before hitting the big cancel button, i did a final victory lap just to make sure there wasn’t a whole mess of great new functionality (or friends) that had secretly come to light in the past few months. nope, definitely not — just a ghost town showing the remains of a raucous 2002, 2003, and 2004. (plus a handful of stragglers still living the dream… let’s not spoil it for them. MyFace, what?)Most satisfying part of canceling my account was telling them why i was going away. i don’t even feel bad for the guy who has to sift through all of the nasty “ever heard of facebook?” messages. i couldn’t help myself either: