Monthly Archives: October 2013

Rant 2.0

The other day, I did a bit of rambling about a certain class that has been frustrating me all semester. Interestingly, It was my best read blog so far….. by  factor of 10x. So maybe I struck a nerve, and maybe I didn’t.

In reality, I think it was a bit of both. A number of you responded (thanks for that!) and the feedback was clearly mixed. For the record here’s what I got.

Everyone thought that Problem Set 2 was way too long and more importantly, the process around gathering the data was just plain awful. Lots of bugs, lots of crashing of the site, etc.

Not everyone shared my view that the Problem Sets did not engender learning. A number of you thought that while the work load was challenging, that the exercise was key to your learning of the concepts. A number of you, mainly those with economic/finance backgrounds felt similarly to me.

Everyone believes that the class material is interesting and additive to their knowledge base. Not surprisingly, our classmates from developing nations see the most value.

Moral of the story… In a large room of 100+ people, don’t assume that you speak for the group. You likely speak for some of them but not all.


I Think I Get it Now????

Don’t you just love it when it all comes together!!!! All semester I have felt somewhat overwhelmed by so many things here. The ideas, the people, the drinking, the workload. Now in the past week or two it all seems to be coming together. There are themes across my classes that seem to be interweaving. That is the case in most of my classes. A certain class that I blogged about last week is an entity unto itself and is likely to remain that way.

The big takeaways are not something I ever expected when I signed up for the Kennedy School. I assumed that we’d cover big thematic things like how to start a war, how to overthrow your government, or how to be a leader even if you aren’t one (not that any of that stuff remotely interests me!). What is actually happening is about data, process, and how you use it to influence people. The connections come from Power and Politics in the Digital Age, Strategic Management of NGO’s, and Behavioral Science.

This week we have been delving into to the political arena by looking at 4 political campaigns; Howard Dean in 2004, Harry Reid in 2010, and the transformative campaigns Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. There are many takeaways but simply put, technology has forever changed the way that political campaigns are run.

Lets start by the way that politicians raise money. Howard Dean’s campaign thought it was amazing when they raised $5 million in a month. Then four years later Barack Obama raised so much money online ($500million) that he was able to forgo federal campaign funding. Interestingly, like all candidates in the half-century preceding him, Obama spent this money on television to woo the electorate. More interestingly, were the methods that the Obama campaign used to raise that money. While email was and is the most effective means, the Obama campaign pioneered testing of messages in email, testing of messages and style on their website, and the many features of Web 2.0 by democratizing campaign messages and allowing people the ability to create groups. The 2008 campaign was notable in the sense that while the candidate has a message, many other messages were created and disseminated by others. Furthermore, the campaign used technology to identify people who could be leaders in the field effort. They did this by using “Foot In the Door” a behavioral science concept in which someone seeks ever increasing levels of commitment. This campaign has become a textbook case for NGO’s looking to build brand and fundraising capability. It also presages the advances that were about to come.

The Harry Reid Senatorial campaign took the use of technology to new heights. Now instead of just raising money on the Internet, Reid’s campaign had sophisticated targeting tools to identify voter preferences send targeted messages to voters. This sophisticated approach used multiple voter-targeted messages at just the right time. Once identified these voters were sent the same message again and again. Similar to the Obama campaign, the approach was founded on the Web 2.0 idea that user generated data was king.

This was just a warm up for the reelection campaign for Obama in 2012. This campaign built on everything learned to date but added lots of new twists. These twists were primarily driven by big data. The Obama campaign had developed the ability to know how every voter was likely to vote and therefore was able to target the voters that they wanted to reach with the message that was best suited to achieve the desired result. The campaign had such good data that it was able to use targeted television advertising, something that had never been done before. The campaign used many methods to get this information from surveys, tracking emails, and in some cases working with cable TV companies to get user level information on viewing habits. Set top boxes were full of this information. The campaign also became proficient in using behavioral science to conduct randomized experiments, test different messages for the same issue, and perhaps most importantly use concepts such as goal planning and accountability to drive the get out the vote effort.

While this was great for the Obama campaign, it and the Reid campaign raised serious privacy issues. One can argue that the Obama campaign’s work around to obtain data from set top boxes was a clear violation of privacy. To me it seems like it is. Now instead of just telling my daughters to be careful online, I need to tell them to be careful of what they watch!!

As for the get out the vote effort, while any effort to get out the vote is laudable, I wonder (at the risk of reprising a previous blog) if we should take all of the lessons of the Obama campaign, especially those that originate in the behavioral science space and have a non-partisan get out the vote effort. Making potential voters feel that they are being held accountable and having them make a plan to vote have clear and statistically significant impact on increasing voter turnout. Maybe that could help mitigate the effects of all of the special interest money and help to level the playing field.

So while Ive got more things running around my head than at anytime in many a year, I am beginning to see themes and paths. Right now they are still many but as the year goes along, I am hopeful that Ill be able to make sense of it, choose a path, and have an impact.

Cheaper to rent in Barcelona and commute to London…

A debate between my 2 favorite places on earth. Of course he massively underestimates the cost of London

Best Burger in North West London

(NB: this was very hastily written, so I hope the logic flows – I just wanted to get it out…)

I think many people thought I was joking when I boldly declared it would be cheaper for me to rent a two bed flat in Barcelona and commute to London every day than get a one bed flat here. Turns out I was – I could in fact get a three bed flat.

I thought at least it would require some poetic licence or awkwardness or dodgy sums, but no. The only assumption I’m making here is my working a four-day week in London, with a day at home (i.e. in Barcelona). Here’s how it pans out:

So, zoopla informs me the average asking price for a one-bed flat in West Hampstead (chosen because I know and like the area, and seems not a stretch to suggest that a young…

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Excuse the Rant

Its a cold Friday Morning and I am sitting in a classroom with my fellow somnambulists. This is essentially the Kennedy School equivalent of a mandatory therapy session for substance abusers. Fortunately, this session actually makes you feel a bit better.

What the heck am I talking about?? 

We are in JP Chauvain’s review session for PED-130 Why are Some Countries Poor, Volatile, and Unequal (or Why are some MCMPA’s Tired, Frustrated, and Confused). Let me begin by saying that JP is awesome. He’s smart, a clear and concise lecturer, and he always has time to explain anything to anyone. He is the saving grace of this course.

This is a course that is part of a requirement and is very highly rated. I believe that is why so many of us are here. To be fair the topic is interesting and Professor Hausmann presents a very compelling theory of the Why.

The real issue is that the work load in this class is abusive. Last week we had a problem set that was worth 20% of our grade and I handed in 3700 words plus exhibits. This week we have another one and it will be 2500 words and worth 10%! of the grade.  In total there are 5 Problem Sets, a mid term and a Final Project. Now if this seems to be a bit aggressive, you can’t even begin to understand.

In order to successfully write these missives one must spend time with the data. Some of this data is in Beta. So not only are you negotiating long assignments, you need to get through data and technology in Beta form. Never has my Apple spent so much time with the little rainbow wheel spinning. I cant imagine what my Windows friends went through!!!! I estimate that for each hour writing, I spent 1.5-2 hours hacking around with the data.

The worst part about this is that I find that the actual learning from doing the work is minimal. To be fair this may be my pedagogical profile but Im sure that I am not alone. I have no issue staying up all night or not seeing my family to learn something. I do have issue with work for the sake of work.

Anyway, bottom line is that I didn’t come here to have one class dominate my semester to the detraction of others. This is what has happened. So when you give your reviews, think long and hard what your successors may see and how it will influence them.

New Media Didn’t Kill the Press, Corporates Did!!

I can clearly recall sitting in a lecture center at the University at Albany. It was the fall of 1989, my 11th and final year as an undergraduate (for those of you who are interested in that story, I’m available for a drink at any time). We had a guest lecturer in our Political Science class and while most students wanted to talk about the revolutionary events that were unfolding in Europe, Lee Mirngoff was trying to tell the 200 students in the room that there was something else happening that deserved their attention.

What Professor Miringoff was trying to tell us was that the ongoing and acceleration of media mergers and takeovers especially of newspapers and television networks would have far reaching implications about how we got our information. More importantly he cautioned that the incentives of non-media companies owning news outlets would create not only a focus on profit over quality of reporting but that these large corporations just might have incentives for suppressing or ignoring certain stories.

This was the era when Westinghouse was buying CBS, General Electric was buying NBC, and Disney was buying ABC. It was almost 10 years before Internet access was common. Heck, cable cost about $15 per month! The rational behind these mergers and the consolidation of the print news industry was that there were limited ways to distribute information and the means of production were expensive. No one saw any anti-trust issues as it appeared that options for citizens to receive news were increasing rather than decreasing.

Of course some 25 years later, here we are. We live in a nation that lurches from crisis to crisis and many Americans seem to wonder why we have more information on Lindsay Lohan than on Lindsay Graham. While many argue that Web 2.0 and the new methods of publishing have destroyed the business model for news, I argue that the traditional news media sewed the seeds of their own destruction well in advance.

Certainly new technology went a long way to destroying existing business models. But lets not forget that the reaction to the Internet of many news companies was a combination of disbelief and/or lets just charge for our service on the web. Of course, most corporate entities did what they typically do best. Lets try to do more with more. The Wall Street Journal, owned by the great journalist, Rupert Murdoch, in a ten year period doubled the amount of stories published while reducing staff.

What suffered? The very thing that made news special in the first place, investigative reporting. In a free society, the Fourth Estate (the press to those of you under 40) has an essential duty to keep government and other institutions honest. Doing this well takes time and effort. As reporters were required to write more and more stories, the time they had to investigate diminished. Whether they were reporting on a drug bust, a cat in a tree, or the 2008 financial crisis, reporters became more dependent on official sources and less dependent on sources that may have shed light on why the official sources were not exactly forthcoming. If you don’t believe me, open up any news paper not named the New York Times and tell me what percentage of stories are filed by that newspapers own reporters and how much says “from wire services”. As for television news, try to watch 30 minutes and then tell me how much time is not devoted to commercials and human interest stories.

While I am sure that this is somewhat reflective of filling audience wants, I can not help but wonder how much real investigative reporting goes undone because of resource issues or because the story would not fit the owners corporatist agenda.

So while it is clear that new media has disrupted the old models of journalism, it is also clear that the seeds of destruction were sewn well in advance.

What is the Future of News? First, do Americans care about the crusading reporter? I know that I do and I believe that many of my friends do as well.

Perhaps those of us who care need to take a multi pronged approach, much like Jay Rosen discusses in the Columbia Journalism Review article, Confidence Game.  Anyone and everyone can be a reporter. All you need to do is the work. Publishing is free. So if you get the story, it will be heard. Also, we need to find a way to secure the sites that do produce quality reporting. So whether it’s the New York Times, the Guardian, or the local guy who reports on your town’s mayor, pay for the service. Heck, pay someone that you don’t agree with for his or her service too.

Lastly, read and listen to as much news as you can and remember, always be aware of the dreaded Filter Bubble!!!